Monday, August 27, 2012

#605: This Happy Breed

(David Lean, 1944)

This Happy Breed is a class act (puns!), and that's probably going to mean you'll either love it or find it a colossal bore. I kind of see both sides. I did become engaged with the story by the end, but there isn't much here you haven't seen a thousand times in other stories of an average family over a period of many years.

What really saves the movie is Lean's direction, which at times shows flashes of brilliance that compare to his later classics. The best example of this is when the father is being told that Reg has died. Rather than follow Vi into the garden where she will tell him, the camera stays in the kitchen and slowly pans across the room, keeping the open door in the same position on the screen as it moves. It's a subtle but perfectly executed shot, a classic example of the power of the camera in isolation.

Still, This Happy Breed is melodramatic boiler-plate chicken soup for the masses. There isn't anything here you can't find in a thousand other movies - it just happens to be executed exceptionally (though not spectacularly) well. It might give in to all the stereotypes about British people, but they happen to be pretty good at this sort of thing, and it's hard to think of two more-British artists from the last century than Noel Coward and David Lean. So Anglophiles, have at it, while everyone else would have their time better spent with Brief Encounter.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#622: Weekend

(Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Weekend is one of the most unassuming revolutionary films you are likely to see. In a perfect world, this wouldn't be that far off from, say, Once or Before Sunrise. In our world, though, a small movie about two people in love who happen to be men means a lot more than that. Its characters know it, too - not in a meta, we're-in-a-love-story-about-gay-people way, but in a much more moving what-does-it-mean-to-be-gay-and-falling-in-love-way. This isn't what makes Weekend a great movie; politically "brave" or socially conscious movies rarely attain this timeless status. Think of the hopelessly simplistic Gentleman's Agreement or the guilt-wracked Philadelphia. But it does make it an important one, which is something different from an evaluation of its art, even if the two things are inextricably entwined.

The plot of Weekend is extremely simple: two men have a casual one-night stand but begin to feel a connection and turn something casual into an intimate few days spent getting to know each other. The movie is really about one of them, Russell, played spectacularly by Tom Cullen, as the film never strays from his perspective. This choice seems both political and necessary for the narrative: Russell is the more emotionally uncomfortable with his sexuality of the two, and seeing his growth as a confident lover and loved one over the course of the film is the beating heart at the center of the story. The film contrasts his arguably more conservative romantic views, a belief in love and marriage and sexual propriety, with those of his counterpart Glen, who sees strength only in being unashamed of his homosexuality, often defined by his own "queerness" (which is to say a rejection of the mainstream). This contrast is not only used to create interesting conversations about gay politics, though. Haigh has deftly balanced the two characters and their histories to create two sides of a whole, making their budding relationship seem extremely natural and believable; these characters really do seem to complete each other.

The challenge of gay cinema over the last twenty years in particular has been to create authentically gay stories without depending on the novelty or political relevance of featuring gay characters. Movies about gay people shouldn't be limited to message pictures like Boys Don't Cry or empty gestures like My Best Friend's Wedding - where's the murder mystery being solved by the gay police detective, or the action movie starring a gay James Bond? Perhaps the biggest success in this regard, ironically, was the supremely mediocre Will and Grace. (Though it was largely inauthentic, I'd argue it was no less realistic than the equally mediocre Friends - after all, don't gay people deserve their own shitty sitcom?) Creating these stories is an admirable task in many regards, but it shouldn't be the end goal. Just as striving for equality means thriving on diversity rather than ignoring it, the most important reason gay stories should be incorporated into the mainstream are the insights and collective experiences these new perspectives have to offer. When we learn more about the world and other people, we learn more about ourselves and our place in that world.

What's really impressive about Weekend is that it manages to succeed in both these regards. Not only is the film a rather conventionally moving love story, it's one that could only be told about two men. The two most significant and satisfying climactic moments - (spoiler alert) Russell finally shedding his self-consciousness about being gay and kissing Glen at the train station and the final moment in which it is revealed that Glen returned the tape to Russell - could really only have the emotional impact they do within their contexts. This is particularly true of the tape, since the power dynamic around sex would be so different with a man and a woman that this simple gesture would not nearly have been as powerful as it is here. After everything Russell and Glen have experienced and discussed, this returning of an intimate moment says more than it ever could have in a straight context.

Weekend is also a beautifully shot and wonderfully acted movie, and Haigh clearly has the potential for a very bright career ahead of him. But just as the film doesn't rely on the political statement it makes to carry it, neither does it allow its cinematic elements to overwhelm its narrative ones. Weekend is a great movie not because of the experience of watching it, but because its simple and profound portrait of a relationship has stayed with me for days after seeing it, and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

#606: Blithe Spirit

(David Lean, 1945)

Blithe Spirit is based on the play by Noël Coward and is only available in the recent boxset David Lean Directs Noël Coward, but it's also on Netflix streaming. It's also a complete joy from start to finish.

I'm a huge fan of both Lean and Coward, and Brief Encounter is one of my favorite movies in the Collection. But seeing Lean take on comedy is a bit of a surprise. What makes it work here is the fact that this film is so appealingly dry. The characters play their ridiculous scenario out with such unbelievingly straight-faced enthusiasm that the film is able to pull off such a ludicrous premise.

In this way, the film reminded me of one of my favorite cult classics from the 90s, Bob Balaban's My Boyfriend's Back. Though it's not close to touching Blithe Spirit's sly sophistication, that later film nevertheless walked the campy line with a smart take on the zombie/high school romance that treated a kid coming back from the dead as something perfectly normal. That's along the lines of what happens here, where a ghost appearing quickly turns into just another complication in a drawing room comedy. Blithe Spirit is also clearly reminiscent of the screwball comedies of the time, but I'm thankful Coward chose to keep this adaptation in England where its style of humor belongs, making it less like like the broad farce of Arsenic and Old Lace and closer in wit to another great Criterion title, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Blithe Spirit doesn't quite reach the highs of either of those classic comedies - the resolution is a bit of a letdown and while the final moment is clever, it lacks the true satisfaction that might have come from the play's more cynical ending. But this is still a total pleasure and highly recommended to anyone who loves screwball comedy.

#635: Weekend

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Weekend is the capstone on Godard's first mini-career as a director, and the last masterpiece of his New Wave era. Following Weekend, Godard's films no longer had the same giddy sheen that radiated from his work (Truffaut had it, too, though he never really gave it up). Part of what grabbed people about the New Wave (and the concurrent British Invasion) was the sense of love and discovery shared by artist and fan alike. You'd have to be almost impossibly oblivious not to see the playful joy in Godard's early films - okay, maybe not Contempt, but it's everywhere in Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, A Band of Outsiders, and certainly A Woman Is a Woman. Even Pierrot le fou, made a few years before Weekend and clearly pointing the way towards the heavy political slant of Godard's next decade (and arguably the rest of his career), is deeply infused with this love for cinema, and it comes off like a sly inside joke with the audience, forgiving Godard all his greater eccentricities. (This is, by the way, why I find some of his later work insufferable.)

Weekend is one of the purest manifestations of this love. It's most obvious in moments where the wall is completely broken, like when one of Godard's characters says "What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people," but it's still evident throughout the movie in more subtle (or at least seamless) ways. The best example of this latter circumstance is the famous tracking shot that follows the central couple skirting around an epic traffic jam. The scene plays out like a Where's Waldo cartoon - with little mini joke/scenes along the way - punctuated by a ludicrously over-the-top gory accident at the end. It's the accidents that make Weekend such a bitingly funny movie, and they reminded me immediately of Cronenberg's Crash, a car-crash movie that utilizes the symbolism of this everyday disaster in quite a different - but equally effective - way.

There are certainly the same frustrations in Weekend that there are in any Godard movie when approaching the film from a mainstream perspective. But I would probably pull Weekend out of Godard's catalog to show to a newcomer who wanted to know what the director was all about. A Woman is a Woman is probably more accessible, and Contempt more conventional (though that still sounds weird even writing it), but Weekend clearly and amusingly gets to the heart of so many of Godard's themes and hints at his more complex experiments with form and style without the historical weight of Breathless. I certainly have a love/hate relationship with his work, but the power of his best films is undeniable, and Weekend belongs in that rarefied air.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

#372: Sanders of the River

(Zoltan Korda, 1935)

Hooboy, this movie is R-A-C-I-S-T. I'm trying to imagine how Paul Robeson felt when he sat down to watch the cut of this movie and that first card came on the screen talking about the courageous British men who tamed the Africans. I would imagine he didn't feel too good.

Criterion calls this an embarrassment right in their description of the movie on their website. Technically speaking, it's far from the worst movie to sport a spine number in the Collection. But in terms of pure dated nationalistic and racial attitudes, it's pretty hard to beat - at least until Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms enter the Collection. (Okay, it's probably not THAT racist, but still, this is a pretty awkward watch.)

As you might have guessed from my posts so far, I'm really not enjoying this Robeson boxset. It's not that I don't like Robeson, it's just that the movies aren't very good and the general collection seems more interesting as a historical document than as a collection of works of art. That's certainly OK - there's a real and meaningful place for this kind of collection in a line like Criterion. But as a film lover, historical curiosity does not trump what's actually on the screen. Anyway, one more to go.

Monday, August 13, 2012

#159: Red Beard

(Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard is a hulking beast of a film dressed up as a small, almost old-fashioned-British style clash of the generations. At over three hours long, the movie's reputation might imply an epic samurai tale of war and empires. Instead, it's a moving socially minded presentation of an exceptional doctor up against the timeless challenges of poverty and disease - it's kind of like Doctors Without Borders set in feudal Japan.

But don't let that fool you - this might be Kurosawa's most massive production, certainly up to this point in his career. The director built an entire city, spent years developing the props and various costumes, and destroyed many of them for momentary glimpses of an earthquake that is only tangentially related to the main plot of the film.

But does this movie need to be three hours long? Red Beard - perhaps more than any other Kurosawa epic - inadvertently delivers persuasive arguments for either side. Certainly the emotional journey of the protagonist of the film can only be as satisfying when we have seen his entire journey, and there aren't many places in which the film lags - in fact, Red Beard was a massive success when it was released in Japan. And yet, the serial nature of so much of the story (particularly before the girl shows up after the intermission) and the limitation of any truly transformative plot developments means that the movie could easily be cut by 30 or 60 minutes and not many people would notice. At two hours, I would certainly be more likely to want to dive back into the film and revisit these extremely likable characters. Roger Ebert once said that no good film is too long, while no bad film is too short. While I often agree with the sentiment here, I do think there is something to be said for creative constraint, and just as my writing has often needed a trim or two to improve the overall impact of the message, so too would many movies benefit from a tightening. I'm not necessarily saying Red Beard is that movie - I couldn't know without having seen a shorter cut - but I do think it's a point worth considering, especially in the current director-centered climate where The Dark Knight Rises runs a full 8 hours and 23 minutes.

#278: L'eclisse

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

L'Eclisse seems to begin where L'Avventura ended, as an empty and dissolving relationship becomes clearer in the emerging light of the early morning. The film is often an extension of that earlier masterpiece's themes - no surprise since they are the bookends of an informal trilogy at the core of Antonioni's career (the middle film, La Notte, is suspiciously missing from the Collection, despite a lone terrible, now out-of-print DVD release in the US). L'Eclisse stands on its own mainly because of Antonioni's growing confidence in his newfound aesthetic and grammatical structure. Where the mystery of L'Avvenura enhanced the perception of aimlessness at the center of the film by contrasting it with a more conventional premise for a movie, the story of L'Eclisse desires no such counterpart.

The end effect of Antonioni's sure hand is to move away from prose-styled statement into a more flowing poetic structure. This is both appealing in its dreamlike quality (think the more obvious and even more obtuse Last Year at Marienbad from the previous year) and frustrating in the absence of ambition (not in a thematic sense - this is just as ambitious a film as L'Avventura in this regard - but in a meta-cinematic sense). This is not the towering statement about film the earlier picture was, but instead a personal and interpersonal commentary on human interaction. This means people who didn't like L'Avventura are going to really hate L'Eclisse, while those of us who loved that film will have a more unpredictable reaction here. Personally, I enjoyed L'Eclisse a great deal, but I'd put it in the second tier of Antonioni's films, despite another memorable performance from Monica Vitti.

Interestingly, one of the essays here mentions that Bergman considered Antonioni an amateur filmmaker. I assume this was intended as a dismissal of his work, but I think it's an insightful comment that says a great deal about not just Antonioni's output, but Bergman's as well. Like Kurosawa, Fellini, or Hitchcock, Bergman was also an entertainer first - which is not to say he was an artist second, but rather his art had a primary goal of affecting a viewer on an emotional but actively concrete level. Antonioni would never be mistaken for a craftsman, and that's exactly as it should be when it comes to iconoclasts. L'Eclisse might not hit you in the conventional sense a narrative film would, but it has a better chance of getting under your skin and refusing to leave.

Friday, August 3, 2012

#373: The Proud Valley

(Pen Tennyson, 1940)

Like The Emperor Jones, The Proud Valley is hopelessly melodramatic, a relic of an earlier time both in terms of plotting and of acting technique. A great many movies from the 30s and 40s transcend their era and manage to remain both relevant and accessible to a modern audience, but The Proud Valley was never able to let me forget that this was a movie - and a clunky, old-fashioned one at that.

Robeson is still magnetic in the film, but what I'm starting to realize with this set is that despite his star power and natural gifts he remained locked into a certain level of quality in what were essentially B movies. Although no one would argue that women had it easy in that era, the fundamental difference in terms of how far you could rise in the film industry was that women were a necessity in almost all storytelling, while black people could quite easily continue to be relegated to the also-ran category. Although as of The Proud Valley - which was made in the second phase of Robeson's film career, when he moved to Great Britain - he still hadn't really shed his theatrical style (something someone like Humphrey Bogart had figured out by then), I don't doubt that, provided with the right material and the right directors and actors surrounding him, Robeson could have become a major star on the level of Grant, Stewart, or Fonda. That's just how commanding he is on screen and how easy it is to immediately sympathize with his characters.

Unfortunately, however, even though it appears that Robeson was able to choose his own work by this point (at least to a certain degree), he was never able to make that jump into the great pictures of the time. It makes what by all accounts was a legendary and impressive career seem like a great disappointment in comparison to what could have been. For black Americans, sadly, it's not a story that belongs to any one person, but Robeson is perhaps film's best example of these missed opportunities.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

#610: The Organizer

(Mario Monicelli, 1963)

If you were to focus on one or two of the most defining movements of the 20th century, you could do worse than to cite film and unions, two things which unavoidably changed the course of history. And because film was so often driven by socially conscious left-wing ideology, the two movements often intersected; technically, I suppose, you could argue that the first film ever shot - Exiting the Factory - predicted this essential relationship. This tradition ran through the course of the century, from The Grapes of Wrath to Norma Rae and Harlan County, U.S.A. up through Bread and Roses in 2000.

But of all the films that focus on union organizing, The Organizer is perhaps the most interesting and compelling. This is partially because the film focuses on the earliest years of the worker's rights movement and because the film is able to so effortlessly cover many of the notable characters seen in other films - not just the organizer himself (played by a pitch-perfect Marcello Mastroianni), but the poor immigrant who can't afford to strike, the bumbling worker who stumbles into a position of power, the middle man who cunningly aligns himself with each side, and many more. But it's the ending of the film - where the workers don't just lose but see a child join their ranks, ensuring that the cycle continues - that makes the movie stand out. We know (as did audiences when the film was released) that this defeat will be, historically speaking, relatively short-lived, so the ending is not all tragedy. But the failure is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices necessary for any kind of shift in power. In many fields in the US, unions have gained so much power that people have become complacent about their rights, leading to a crisis of faith in the necessity of organizing. Monicelli's film - in which workers strive for a thirteen-hour work day - is a stark reminder of the importance of the fight.

In terms of entertainment value, The Organizer is an admirable dramedy. Monicelli manages to let his star have a bit of shine without letting him overwhelm the other characters, and the plotting is so well constructed that the balance of the film's two competing destinies - that the workers will never give up, just as the owners continue to exploit them wherever they can - remain in constant balance even in the final moments. Certainly the movie's most notable reason for remaining fresh over the years is drawn from its subject's consistent relevancy. But it's The Organizer's story that kept me interested, making its message all the more poignant.