Sunday, September 30, 2012

#369: Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist

(Various, 1925-1942)

OK, here's a quandary. This boxset contains individually numbered films - but only half of the set is numbered. Criterion is uneven when it comes to numbering boxsets. Most sets are like The Adventures of Antoine Doinel or the Rossellini War Trilogy set, where each film is numbered, along with a number for the overall set. However, this is not always the case; the great Rebel Samurai boxset has individually numbered movies but no overall boxset number; the Golden Age of Television set has an overall spine number but no individual numbers for the films inside. But no boxset is more strangely numbered than this Robeson set. Each disc contains two films, but only the first of each gets a spine number. The set is arranged based on a connection between the two films rather than by any consistent order, and the choice to give a spine number to one of the films and not the other seems rather arbitrary - really, the whole set should just be one overall number.

So the question is what constitues having seen this set? There have been plenty of spines that I've checked off without watching all of the supplements, even feature length ones. And on a film like The Leopard, which has a full English version, or The Complete Mr. Arkadin, which has multiple versions of a "finished" product, some might say that unless you've seen all versions of the film, you haven't really seen the full release.

I think there's an argument to be made for both sides - and really is there anything more insider and nit-picky than this dilemma? But for now I'm going with the idea that once you've seen each spine number in a boxset, you've seen the overall boxset. That said, there are still three films in this set I haven't seen, and I plan on circling back around and watching them when I can, even if I didn't particularly enjoy the films I saw (though the Robeson documentary is excellent, and should be the starting point for anyone interested in the set). On the whole, I thought The Emperor Jones was the best film in the set, and I enjoyed watching Body and Soul. But again, this set is mainly relevant for its historical importance within the context of film history. No medium is more tied to the 20th century than film, and within Robeson's catalog many of the most important fights and themes of that century are both intentionally and inadvertently explored. This is a set for historians perhaps more than film lovers, though of course they are often one and the same.

Links to individual reviews:

The Emperor Jones
Body and Soul
Sanders of the River
The Proud Valley

#371: Body and Soul

(Oscar Micheaux, 1925)

Body and Soul is not a very good movie. Like the other spine-numbered films in the Robeson boxset, it makes for a much more interesting historical artifact than movie. Apart from the subpar filmmaking and ham-fisted plot twists, the movie's attitude towards race (despite the fact that it was created by black people for black people) is often hard to stomach. Watching black people in black face is not my favorite thing to do.

What sets Body and Soul apart from the other films from this set that I've watched is the superb modern jazz score that was created a few years ago. It's great, and got me much more into this movie that I ever otherwise would have been. Nothing here is especially intriguing in terms of race politics. But as the only "race film" in the collection, its inclusion is welcomed, even necessary, and Robeson - in his debut - was already a powerful presence. I watched this online, so I didn't have access to Borderline, but I'm definitely much more interested in seeing that film, so I'll have to track it down.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

#113: Big Deal on Madonna Street

(Mario Monicelli, 1958)

Big Deal on Madonna Street sits in an early, rare string of comedies in the Collection, bookended by Tati's great Hulot films and the sparkling screwball classic My Man Godfrey. The film is also the first Italian comedy in the collection (unless you count Nights of Cabiria, which anyone who has seen the final sequence should not), and it has not been joined by much company along the way. This shouldn't be much of a surprise: most Italian comedy is pretty brutal. I don't want to pile onto the Roberto Benigni-trashing bandwagon, but broad physical humor that emphasizes exaggerated caricatures in ludicrous situations gets old pretty fast.

Big Deal on Madonna Street walks the tightrope, though, and even with a few real close calls manages to make it to the other side. This is mostly because the performances are believable and mindful of keeping the characters grounded in the reality of their environment. Monicelli, who would later make the worthwhile recent Criterion addition The Organizer, certainly has a bit of that social consciousness in mind here, even if it's being used in the service of comedy. Not that this would ever be mistaken for a message picture - the film serves only to make the viewer laugh, and it got me enough times that I enjoyed watching it.

Where Big Deal on Madonna Street came up short for me was its reputation as a noir satire. The movie clearly had ancillary noir products like Rififi in mind, but that film straddled the heist and noir worlds very effectively. Big Deal on Madonna Street lacks any of the noir elements that might make it a more compelling parody of the genre. Without this edge, the film is simply a bumbling thieves farce - albeit one of the first. Many of the movies that have come after it were influenced by this, but I happened to like them better. The film ends up being a pretty brilliant, almost archetypal premise for a movie done fairly well, which makes for a worthwhile Criterion entry but not necessarily classic status.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#592: Design for Living

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

Design for Living probably couldn't help but disappoint me. The concept of Lubitsch adapting a Noel Coward play for pre-code Hollywood was simply too amazing for expectations to be realistic going in. The actual film certainly has its moments, but doesn't rise to the level of either man's best work. I might go so far as to say it probably shouldn't be in the Collection - it's a good but far from great movie that's mostly noteworthy for the two names attached.

Still, there are some classic Lubitsch moments here, and much of the dialogue is really snappy. Then there's a young Gary Cooper looking dashingly handsome (in impeccably tailored suits, I might add), while Miriam Hopkins remains a strong Lubitsch lead - though she's not nearly as clever and charming as she is in the far superior Trouble In Paradise. The film is also interesting just an artifact of a time when Hollywood had a lot more leeway when it came to sexual subject matter - this film would have been very different if it was made just a few years later.

Coward, for his part, isn't really to blame since Lubitch and his writing partner almost entirely rewrote the play (according to Wikipedia the only lines Coward claimed to have remained included such vital dialogue as  "Please pass the mustard"). That makes a lot of sense: anyone who knows the styles of the two men well can see that this bears every mark of a Lubitsch movie, while Coward's handiwork is difficult to recognize.

It's not that Design for Living is a bad movie, and I'd happily watch it again. But I don't see any real merit in immortalizing it the way films like Trouble in Paradise and even Heaven Can Wait deserve it. Is it nice to see a film like this get a home video release? Yes, but I don't think the occasional pleasurable screening on TCM would have been the worst thing ever, and at the dawn of the age of streaming (when the film could have easily been tossed onto Criterion's Hulu page) there is starting to be even less of a case for physical releases of the completist variety.

Monday, September 17, 2012

#594: Godzilla

(Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Godzilla might be the most famous movie that most people who have heard of it have never seen. This is because the character of Godzilla has become ubiquitous, and is undoubtedly one of the most successful movie creatures in history. There have been countless sequels and relaunches of the franchise both in Japan and here, while Godzilla itself ranks alongside icons like Dracula and King Kong as characters that transcend their medium and have long ago seeped into the culture. In fact, another Godzilla film is going into production in Hollywood as I write this, and Godzilla will continue to be remade and sequelized as long as movies are being made.

This all made the announcement that Godzilla was coming to the Criterion Collection a pretty big deal, despite the fact that the movie itself is only so so. In most regards, the film would sit very comfortably next to the films in the Monsters and Madmen boxset - though the scale of the effects here leaves that of those much lower budget films in the dust. The human-level story is typical melodrama for the era with a half-baked love story and some various professional quandaries made a bit more compelling by the presence of Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. Meanwhile, the music is pretty damn cool, and it's always a pleasure to watch effects that required a lot more ingenuity than a simple point and click.

But the real thing that sets Godzilla apart from similar monster movies is the clear and inescapable nuclear metaphor of the film. This is tightly woven into the main plot of the movie (most obviously by Godzilla's origin and the technique that destroys him) but it is most interesting in two smaller moments. The first happens in the early acts of the film, as a group of people ride into the city on a train. One woman declares that she barely survived the bombing in Nagasaki, and now there's this... The second is even more intense, and comes during the core rampage of the monster. As Godzilla stomps on buildings and sets Tokyo aflame, a woman cowers with her children and tells them they are all going where Daddy is. This latter scene is a real "holy shit, this country is only nine years on from the most significant and indescribable series of destructive attacks the world has ever seen" moment (don't forget, along with the military deaths from the war, bombings on Japanese cities were not limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki - traditional weapons were used on more than 50 other population centers). It makes the rest of the film take on a much greater significance than the typical monster or disaster movie ever could.

Godzilla, then, is more than anything a movie about loss - crippling loss that sets back humanity in both intellectual and moral ways. Perhaps the film ignores for a moment Japan's own role in its fate, but I would argue that the film is an emotional metaphor for the country that doesn't shy away from its own potential for destruction, even as it attempts to come to grips with its own victimhood. All of this feels like an intellectual exercise from the comfort of 21st century America, so it's hard to imagine what it must have felt like to see this movie in theaters in Japan in the mid 50s. Its wild success speaks to cinema's - and horror/thriller films' in particular - ability to transfer complex dark feelings into symbols of a cultural sickness and exorcise them collectively. That such a powerful representation of a global tragedy has long since been divorced from its true meaning is a reminder of both film's superhuman reach and the limitations of that reach, the moment when fact becomes legend.

Friday, September 14, 2012

#124: Carl Theodor Dreyer Box Set

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943-1964)

I was about to write that this is a love-it-or-hate-it boxset, but I wrote this instead because if you hate these Dreyer films, but love cinema, you really need to watch them again. And again. And again until you get them right. Even if Ordet is not especially my type of film thematically speaking, all three of these masterpieces are stunning cinematic accomplishments. They should be required viewing for anyone interested in film.

Of the three (and I'm not counting the documentary about Dreyer that comes with this set), my favorite was undoubtedly Gertrud. This is true not just because it was the most interesting to me from a plot perspective (and dwelled the least on overtly religious elements), but because the films seemed progressively more technically accomplished - an impressive, almost unimaginable feat considering how well-executed Day of Wrath is. Although there are a great many filmmakers who are easily identifiable by their signature style, Dreyer's appears to me to be the least easily replicated. There are probably only a handful of films in history that could not have been made by any other director. Gertrud is quite simply impossible to imagine without Dreyer's hand, not because it would be different in tone, less pronounced in its visual style, or thematically altered, but because it would very clearly cease to be the film that it is in any regard. Gertrud is practically about Dreyer as a director, yet he never overshadows what's on screen. It's a brilliant, brilliant movie.

Still, they are all brilliant, and while this isn't my favorite boxset in the collection, it's probably the first one I'd give to someone who told me they wanted to become a serious cinephile. Dreyer doesn't quite reach the apex of film as an artform for me, but he just might be the purest representation of the auteur and film's ability to manifest its creator's inexplicable spirituality.

Links to the individual reviews:

Day of Wrath
My Metier

#128: Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier

(Torben Skjødt Jensen, 1995)

My Metier is a mostly straightforward profile on one of the most important filmmakers in history. His life and work are profiled in chronological order, with voiceover of his own writing and various talking heads serving up anecdotes and personal reflections on working with Dreyer. In this regard, it's not much of a film, and entirely forgettable on a technical level.

That said, this is a very well-done version of the respectable television profile. The insights and stories from people who worked with him are funny and engaging, and the story told is informative and useful for understanding Dreyer's relatively small output. Despite the fact that Dreyer's final four films were spread out over more than 20 years, very little of his life outside of these movies is covered, yet the second half of the film is almost entirely dedicated to the three films that accompany this one in Criterion's boxset. This is partially because many of the people who worked with Dreyer on the films were still alive in 1995, whereas his earlier collaborators were long gone, but it's also an indication of just how significant these later works were (and still are) for film to come. In many ways - and despite its clear influences on later movies - silent film as an artform is completed, and can be viewed as a dead and preserved medium. It would be silly to argue that Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr do not continue to influence film to this day, but their overall style and impact are impossible to capture today (Vampyr of course does have some talking, but is mostly silent).

Now, do we see films like Gertrud and Day of Wrath in today's modern American marketplace? No, of course not. But their influence in things like personalized camera technique, heightened reality which veers towards the abstract, and deliberate pacing are evident in arthouse and commercial films alike. Dreyer to this day seems less commercial than even a filmmaker like Bresson, but his films seem both more and less singular in different regards - more in that it is impossible to replicate Dreyer's style, less in that virtually every spiritually minded director seems to have tried. My Metier doesn't break any ground as a film, but it's a vital piece of the puzzle for understanding Dreyer's more earthly achievements, even if the ineffable quality of his work remains a mystery.

#322: The Complete Mr. Arkadin

(Orson Welles, 1955)

Excepting people like Jean Vigo and James Dean who died young, there is perhaps no career in film history more tragic than that of Orson Welles. Director of the greatest second greatest film ever made, Welles followed up his debut with another masterpiece in The Magnificent Ambersons. Yet this film was massacred by the studio, who eliminated nearly half of the running time and butchered what was left, leaving a husk of Welles's intended work. Tragically, this was a harbinger of how his career would continue, and the rest of his oeuvre is filled with  severely altered works, half-made epics, and a long trail of never-made screenplays and treatments.

Although The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil often get more attention for their checkered post-production history, Mr. Arkadin is certainly the greatest mystery in Welles's career. Made in 1955, the film went through multiple iterations in its initial release across Europe and the US. The famously contrarian Cahiers writers declared it better than Citizen Kane upon its release, despite the fact that the cut they saw was not finished or approved by Welles. Viewing that version now, along with the Criterion version that attempts to most closely approximate Welles's original intentions, it seems almost laughable that anyone would compare this film to even Welles's secondary classics like the two mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, let alone to his greatest masterpiece.

The biggest problem with Mr. Arkadin is Robert Arden, the lead. He's simply terrible, stammering and hamming his way through what might have been a moderately enjoyable role had it been tackled by anyone competent. The addition of his narration in Confidential Report makes it even worse, since it becomes even more his picture (though the awkward cuts in this version are its real downfall). Welles is equally hammy in his fake beard and on-again off-again accent, but he was always able to carry off even the cheesiest performance with a knowing wink and childlike enthusiasm.

The story of the film has some real appeal, and it's easy to see why Welles would have been interested in making it - there's a sort of Citizen Kane-through-the-looking-glass thing going on that I dig. Still, this probably wouldn't warrant a release if it wasn't for the various elements and different cuts that make this a worthwhile boxset. Then again, if it wasn't for all these disparate versions, we might have a singular, far better film - something said all too frequently about Welles's output.

By the way, I wonder why Criterion would upload the inferior Confidential Report to their Hulu page, rather than their own "definitive" edit, which they must certainly have the rights to. It's rather annoying, I think.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

#576: Secret Sunshine

(Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

Secret Sunshine is a great movie for a large number of reasons. The most obvious is the performance at the center of the film: Jeon Do-yeon is in almost every scene, and the range of emotion she must cover is so vast - and her character's reactions so (understandably) extreme - that the viewer might not even noticed how technically complex and subtle her performance is. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call this one of the best performances in the Criterion Collection.

The next thing the viewer might notice about Secret Sunshine is Lee Chang-dong's naturalistic cinematic style. The film's aesthetic is almost ugly in its realism, but Lee's restraint prevents the film from veering into a stylistic representation of "realism." His style isn't about shaky cameras, gritty exposures, or bad lighting. It's a very conscious choice to create a look that carries the viewer into the story without effort, leaving as little as possible between the characters and the viewer.

But what's most impressive about Secret Sunshine is how visceral the experience of watching it is. Even though big things happen in the film (murder, attempted suicide) this is at its core a philosophical drama about loss and emotional rebirth - a small character piece, not a thriller. Despite this, I was on edge for every minute of the film because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Jeon's path from despair to an ending that ostensibly signals that she is ready to move on is constantly surprising. It both engages the viewer and challenges expectations. Yet standing back and looking at the story as a whole doesn't make me see tricks or winding curves in the plot like so many mysteries or thriller one might typically find unpredictable. Instead, the film feels entirely natural and cohesive. It's a remarkable accomplishment for a movie that, while watching it for the first time, seems almost purposefully divergent.

This is where all of these elements finally come together to create an impressive whole. Secret Sunshine is an immersive look at the reality of one woman, and all this technique and craft seem to fall away without any fingerprints left behind. Much has been made of movements like Cinema Verite and Dogma 95, but works produced by these movements have often seemed overly conscious of their style. Much more often, the work that hides its creator's hand is the one that has the most technique, skill, and most of all work behind it. Secret Sunshine is that kind of movie, and it's a great representation of the talent coming out of South Korea, something that will hopefully be better represented in the collection in years to come.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

#603: David Lean Directs Noël Coward

(David Lean, 1942-1945)

This recent box set deserves to be heralded more than it has. Although I wasn't especially keen on In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, the four films in this set represent a collaboration between two British icons that demonstrates many of the strengths of Anglo cinema in the middle of the 20th century. The collection ranges widely from screwball comedy to romance to war to epic drama - only the historical epic and the literary adaptation are missing (Lean would correct this later in his career).

Brief Encounter is unquestionably the crown jewel in the set. I've watched the film five or six times, and it's one of my favorite romance dramas. It's also one of a handful of films I would point to as emblematic of the potential for beauty in black and white cinema. I think it's kind of a travesty that Criterion didn't release the film as a standalone blu-ray, as I imagine there are a lot of people out there who would want to own this movie in high def who don't want to buy the whole set (e.g. me).

Still, for those amassing a more complete home video collection, this box set is a great addition. Blithe Spirit is a real pleasure that makes for light and easy viewing, while the other two films are strong examples of filmmaking worthy of multiple looks. It's also great to see a box that takes a collaboration as the framing device and delivers a broad range of compelling films within a narrow window of time.

Links to individual reviews:
Brief Encounter (no review)
In Which We Serve
This Happy Breed
Blithe Spirit

Monday, September 3, 2012

#604: In Which We Serve

(Noël Coward and David Lean, 1942)

In Which We Serve is a respectable version of the propaganda churned out on both sides of the Atlantic during WWII. As such, it's a valuable historical artifact, particularly when combined with the Coward/Lean pedigree. But these kinds of films are a real difficult sell for me. All movies attempt to manipulate, but propaganda films are so obvious about it that it can be pretty hard to watch them with an open mind. The Soviet film program produced a couple of flat-out masterpieces about WWII in Ballad of a Solider and The Cranes Are Flying, but these were made years after the war and were intended as nationalistic unifiers rather than a call to arms. Movies made during the heat of battle are usually much less appealingly complex (I'm ignoring for a moment the elephant in the room that is Casablanca, since that film wasn't purely intended as propaganda, and isn't about war per se).

The American counterpart that immediately springs to mind here is The Sullivans, the film which told the true story of five brothers who were killed serving together and would go on to influence Spielberg's flawed but technically brilliant Saving Private Ryan. Like In Which We Serve, the people in The Sullivans are notably average, caught up in a fight bigger than them but dedicated to serving their country. I'm a pretty patriotic guy, but this sort of stuff makes me annoyed rather than inspired (note: I cried like a little baby at the end of The Sullivans - you will, too). There's something about war that brings out the simplicity in everyone - and that something is that the complex take on war is sure to lead any thinking person down the path of resistance. In Which We Serve has occasional moments that are enjoyable, but you aren't going to learn anything real about humanity, war, or cinema from the film. You'll just learn how the British chose to indoctrinate their civilians during their last great war. Spoiler alert: stiff upper lip, everyone.