Monday, December 31, 2012

#406: Martha Graham: Dance on Film

(Nathan Kroll, 1957-1961)

Watching Martha Graham's works filmed here, Appalachian Spring and Night Journey, before I watched the documentary made first, A Dancer's Life, might have made me dismiss them as something I wasn't very interested in. Even watching these TV shows in chronological order (though the plays themselves are actually from the 40s), I was most taken by the behind-the-scenes look. But having been introduced to the process these dancers went through, their performances were really something very special. Although - similar to my feelings about other stage work - I'm not much of a dance enthusiast, there is a hypnotic rhythm to watching a dancer perform that is unlike any other artform - even singing. It might be the freest form of expression there is - which makes watching someone perform it at times almost as exhilarating.

What most struck me about these films was the time period they came out of. This was the 1950s, the supposed land of conformism. These are our grandparents now, the ones who led an artist's life when being an artist wasn't just another form of commodification, but an active rebellion against the social norms. Sure, being a modern dancer today requires a certain level of sacrifice - mainly because of how many people want to do it and how difficult it is to succeed. But in the 1950s, there wasn't a stepping stone to mainstream acceptance for these dancers. Yes, Graham danced at the White House and the company toured all over the world. But this was a pioneering accomplishment, one that led to the eventual embracing of modern dance within the mainstream art world. I'm not saying that there aren't artists today that challenge our assumptions or work against the mainstream. Rather, I think the very nature of becoming an artist was once social rebellion, but no longer.

Graham's two pieces here are quite impressive. The movement and stark, minimal stage design is immediately modernist, but the pure emotion of both the performances and the music prevent it from feeling dated. Though modern dance has obviously moved even further away from ballet than what is seen here (something Criterion is making more apparent by releasing Pina), this work still feels hyper-relevant and revelatory. Of the two pieces, I definitely liked Appalachian Spring more, both because of Copeland's now-classic score and the lighter (relatively) touch of the story and dancing.

The disc in general is impeccably put-together. Along with the three collaborations Graham did with Kroll, there are a host of extras, most impressively a documentary on Martha Graham made for American Masters and modern-day interviews with many of the dancers who are featured in the films. These people have excellent insights and are a joy to listen to, but they are primarily a reminder of how happy you can be when you follow your bliss. Their demeanors and general nature make it totally apparent. I'm not the audience for this set, so if I can get wrapped up in what's happening, I feel pretty confident that anyone with a passing interest in dance would be enthralled by this underrated and forgotten spine number.

#649: Ministry of Fear

(Fritz Lang, 1944)

Hot damn, what a fun piece of top-notch pop art this movie is! I had actually never heard of this film before Criterion announced it, and had always assumed The Big Heat was Lang's best film after coming to America. But this is some Nazi-fighting, spy-loving goodness. Lang does his best Hitchcock impersonation as an average guy gets mistaken for a Nazi spy, throwing his life into disarray. There are some really beautiful touches here - not just the obvious ones like the cake and the trademark Lang lighting, but great stuff like dialing the phone with the scissors (a prop that's used in three amazing ways within a matter of minutes) and the artfully designed seance scene.

Though I wouldn't go so far as to say this approaches the near perfection of The Lady Vanishes, I actually liked it quite a bit more than Night Train to Munich, a much better-known film. As I pointed out in my comments on the latter film, the entire idea of an adventure movie being made during World War II about the war is simply not something that would happen now. (There was obviously a little bit of it in the Cold War, but these battles were entirely fabricated, often coming not from the Soviet leadership but from rogue villains, making the appeal less immediate.) This is partially because we have moved beyond conventional propaganda being an effective tool, but it's also a product of the grey wars that have been fought over the last sixty years, making a cut and dry villain much less believable. But there's something simplistically pleasurable about the concept, even if we know it's reductionist, and as Tarantino showed with Inglorious Basterds, there's nothing that can get a crowd going like mowing down some Nazis.

I've strayed from the film a bit here, which relies much more on human-level intrigue and suspense than political machinations or war-time stakes. Lang's success with Ministry of Fear is to wrap you up in his protagonist's journey (an achievement made even more impressive by the fact that his lead is Ray Milland, one of the more mediocre stars of the 40s) and keep you constantly excited about where it will go next. Do not let this one pass you by when it's released.

#652: Monsieur Verdoux

(Charles Chaplin, 1947)

This late-era Chaplin is a bit of an odd beast. The star/director plays a typical anti-hero, the refined and principled murderer, making it a much darker film than he is best known for (of course, The Great Dictator is fairly bleak). It's also simply not as funny, entertaining, or biting as the similar serial killer movie from across the pond made a few years later, Kind Hearts and Coronets. But the movie manages to hold together, mainly thanks to Chaplin's performance, which the film was destined to live or die on anyway seeing as he takes up the vast majority of the film.

I've never been a huge Chaplin fan, but the recent spate of his films in Collection is still welcomed. Monsieur Verdoux is the least well-known of the four films - with good reason, since it's also easily the most forgettable and least impressive. That being said, late-era Chaplin is often forgotten, and the director's importance in history means giving these films a higher profile is worthwhile.

In truth, I'm probably underselling the movie - it really is a lot of fun. But if you are expecting another Chaplin classic, you might be disappointed. And if dark humor is your thing, I'd urge you to pick up Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Friday, December 21, 2012

#481: Made in U.S.A.

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Some thoughts on Godard upon my viewing of Made in U.S.A., the last of his films in the Collection that I had yet to see:

-- Has anyone ever cared about the story in a Godard film? I mean, sure, you can get wrapped up in the human dynamics of Contempt or the love story in Breathless. But the movies seem so far separated from reality that I have a hard time believing anyone could take enough time inside of the world of the film to forget you are watching a movie and get wrapped up in what is happening. I don't know that I've ever really cared much for his characters, either. This might make his movies hollow - and they certainly would be in the hands of any other director. But Godard has a way of turning this weakness into a strength, and even a genre film like Made in U.S.A. feels constantly fresh rather than confusing and dull.

--Is it impossible to appreciate Godard's films outside of their cultural context? This is especially aimed at his work from the 60s and 70s, particularly his work where things like Vietnam and the student protests in France began to seep into his work. But Godard's early career wasn't just about politics, and his modernist twists on film were as much comments, perhaps love letters, to earlier work. WIthout knowing that work - which would have been much harder for people seeing the films in their initial release - the movies would certainly seem even more strange than they already are. Does this make Godard and weaker or a stronger director? The answer seems to depend on how deeply you value standalone work and how open you are to criticism and cultural reappropriation in your movies. There is no definite answer as to its value, but I do think appreciating his films without any context would not only be difficult, but missing the point.

-- At one point in Made in U.S.A., Godard's semi-ode to the jumbled American noir he loved so much, his muse Anna Karina tells someone, "You can fool the movie audience, but you can't fool me." How tired this line would be today, yet how invigorating it is to see it in 1966! Jokes like this are everywhere in Godard's work throughout the 60s, and it's hard to tell how seriously he took a joke like this (and by extension how seriously he took his films). Much of this comes down to intention, something difficult to pin down with the elusive Godard. I don't think anyone would argue that Godard wasn't an ambitious filmmaker, but his tour through genres and consistent self-commentary makes him look a lot more like an intellectual explorer than a self-serious filmmaker. A referential line like that serves as a cultural in-joke, which takes you out of the movie somewhat, just as its structure and sentiment echo countless lines from the genre pics with which the film claims to belong.

-- Sometimes it can be funny how highly regarded Godard is when his films are so impish and slight in tone. Compared to similarly towering figures like Tarkovsky or Kurosawa, the director seems like a teenager lashing out at mom and dad - albeit an extremely talented teenager. Of course, it could certainly be argued that despite his sly side Godard was more sophisticated and complex than either one of those two filmmakers. In fact, the way he chooses to present his movies often seems designed to challenge the way we watch movies - he's more Brakhage than Hawks, even when going brightly noir. It's what makes his movies so significant, both technically and philosophically.

-- I read a great piece recently about the Godard paradox - the idea that his movies are inherently of their time, infused with references to the past, but constantly looking towards the future. But interestingly enough, what it immediately reminded me of was commercials. It's a format that is constantly addressing the future (i.e. when you finally get the product), which roots it in the present. This comparison becomes even more relevant when considering Godard's use of typography and graphics. I'm not sure where this leads - it's just a thought I had about his work.

-- Having seen 15 or 20 of Godard's films at this point, it's hard to think of another filmmaker that has generated such different reactions depending on the film (I'm excepting hacks like Rob Reiner and Barry Sonnenfeld, who have stumbled into classics but mostly make garbage). Rather than lower my opinion of the director, it makes me like him even more. I doubt Godard, ever the provocateur, would have it any other way.

#184: By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One

(Stan Brakhage, 1954-2001)

By Brakhage is, depending on your definition of "experimental," the highest profile experimental release in the Collection. Putting aside the dissection of definition, the set's broad range of styles and subjects makes it one of the most interesting and different spine numbers in the Collection. This wouldn't mean much if the films themselves weren't fascinating, but they are truly unique and invigorating. This is not a collection for everyone, to be sure, but for those who are open to it, there are few better discoveries in all of Criteriondom.

To be sure, there is a lot here I couldn't wrap my head around. The long piece is Dog Star Man, which I found somewhat boring and oblique. And some of the earlier films like Desistfilm and Cat's Cradle seemed more like interesting, um, experiments, than fully formed artistic statements. But Brakhage's later, intensely abstract work is beautiful, hypnotic, and hugely influential - The Dante Quartet and Black Ice in particular are stunners.

The film here that really blew me away though was Window Water Baby Moving, about the birth of his first child. Interestingly, the film was heavily criticized by feminists and other avant filmmakers at the time for coopting a uniquely feminine process. Without knowing this background going in, I had a completely different experience, and can say without a doubt that this film is the closest I've ever seen to my experience of being present when my son was born. After having read a little bit about the background of the film, I have some objections with how it was made, but the finished product is so moving and realistic that I think every dad should see it.

by Brakhage is an invaluable entry in the Criterion Collection because it shines a light on a thriving and hugely influential galaxy in the film universe that is often overlooked. Unlike animation, the only major arm of the medium that is totally absent from the Collection, avant garde film does not have a higher profile elsewhere in home video, where the work can be preserved and receive a high profile. That makes a release like this so important - there are probably thousands and thousands of people who have watched a Brakhage film for the first time simply because of Criterion, including myself. I'm grateful to have been exposed to this kind of a visionary, even if - or more likely especially if - his work is so far removed from the film I typically value.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

#646: The Kid With a Bike

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, 2011)

I wouldn't necessarily say that The Kid With a Bike, the latest film from the Dardennes brothers, is better than Rosetta, certainly the most highly praised of their three movies in the collection. But this one is my favorite nevertheless, mainly because it moved me more than any movie I've watched recently.

I think a big part of the reason the film affected me so much is my personal situation. Fortunately, I have never had anywhere near the problems Cyril has had, and my son will hopefully grow up comfortable in the knowledge that his father will always be there for him. But because I have a young son, I identified so strongly with Cyril that I saw my son in him - even if he is 10 years older than him and half a world away. On its surface, The Kid With a Bike is about the need for the love of a father, and seeing a boy come to grips with his rejection was no different than watching a young boy being hurt or even killed - its impact was this visceral.

The Kid With a Bike is in a deeper sense a guide through Raising Cain, an exploration of the process of a boy discovering his emotions and struggling to express them in a broken society. It's not just Cyril that struggles with it here - there's also the criminal who befriends him, Samantha's boyfriend who must stick up for his honor to a young boy, and finally the son of the newspaper man that Cyril attacked. The men in The Kid With a Bike paint a dim portrait of masculinity and self-esteem. It might be said that Samantha saves Cyril from this cycle of violence and neglect, but I prefer to think Cyril saves himself. One of the most striking moments in the film comes after Cyril has attempted to give the money to his father, who has - perhaps reluctantly - rejected it. As he bikes home in silence, the camera tracks alongside him and we begin to understand his turning point has come - he's ready to accept Samantha's love over the chance to prove himself as a man.

One thing I really love about the Dardennes's films is how accessible they are. These are heavy, deeply textured films that require emotional strength and challenge assumptions about humanity. But they are also tightly constructed, economical in both plotting and direction, and thematically focused. It makes them a pleasure to watch even though they are intense and occasionally exhausting. A non-Criterion title, The Son, is often cited as their best film - I've almost watched it for years now, but after seeing the films in the collection, I'm really looking forward to grabbing the three films they made in the 00s and getting wrapped up in the lives of the vivid characters they create.

Update: I just realized how much this movie reminded me of an article that came out a few months ago on the DC Sniper. Obviously no comparison in terms of what Cyril is asked to do - and it's only one of the many dynamics in the movie - but it's a fascinating read and speaks to the male psyche at a young age.

Monday, December 17, 2012

#456: The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

(Roberto Rossellini, 1966)

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV was originally made for television, which would make a lot of sense today, but seems less logical in 1966. Indeed, this is the kind of nuanced, detailed drama that has begun to thrive on television in America post-Sopranos - it might be better than The Tudors or The Borgias, but it's not far off in intention or execution.

This might be seen as condemnation of the film, and it certainly prevents it from rising to the level of Rossellini's earlier masterpieces. But TV is so good these days (or at least good TV is) that it's hardly the mediocre dying grounds it used to be, and that this film would fit in with the best is a testament to its intelligence and entertainment value. It's also a pretty interesting history lesson and philosophical exploration of power and its virtues and vices. This is slight work, to be sure, but it happens to be really really well made slight work that has a deeper message that shouldn't be overlooked.

#577: Cul-de-sac

(Roman Polanski, 1966)

I've been thinking a lot about Cul-de-sac ever since I saw it, which was a few weeks ago (I'm a bit behind on posts). It's certainly a remarkable piece of filmmaking from a young director who would go on to make a handful of great movies and one masterpiece (Chinatown). The problem is I don't really like what the movie is saying. I hesitate to make the comparison, both because it is obvious and too damning-by-association by a longshot, but the film's closest relative is Straw Dogs both in story and general approach to the human condition. It's not as purely despicable as that film, but in some ways it's more misguided.

The most obvious difference between the two films is that the couple here has their intruders forced upon them, but the two crucial dynamics are the same. The two men here represent masculinity and intellectualism, while the woman is the jealous, manipulative bitch all directors apparently believe them to be. Thankfully, Polanski avoids the sexual violence of Straw Dogs - she ain't this criminal's type, after all - but he still manages to inject plenty of pseudo-psycho homophobia and sexism into the proceedings. The film lacks the complex and elemental appeal of Polanski's vaguely similar Knife on the Water in this regard, and this is what makes it lean more towards the brusque garishness of Straw Dogs. As a harmless bit of filmmaking, Cul-de-sac is rather energetic and lyrical, but if it's to have any greatness in it, this human-nature statement is demanded - and that's where the film falls short.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

#544: Head

(Bob Rafelson, 1968)

Head is either the least funny, most disastrous comedy ever made or the weirdest, biggest "fuck you" to the mainstream ever released. I like to think it's the latter, but ultimately it doesn't make a difference because the film is such non-stop fun. It belongs next to House and Zazie dans le metro in the "what the fuck did I just watch?" Criterion hall of fame, even if it doesn't reach the clear-eyed genius of those two films.

Certainly what's most shocking about Head isn't that it was made  by a Hollywood studio, but that it was made about the Monkees. Imagine this movie being made today by the cast of Glee and you get a pretty good idea how crazy this is. In the 60s, this was simply much easier to do because the gulf between the powerful men with the checkbooks had to rely on producers and directors to tell them what was going to work with the youth market they desperately wanted to reach but had no idea how to understand. Today, the people running development and marketing are far more likely to have a foot in both worlds - The Conquest of Cool model in action.

Head isn't as accomplished or perfect as its direct inspiration A Hard Day's Night, but it's still a hugely entertaining movie that is chockfull of ideas and jokes. I'd probably put it up against any other movie in the collection for pure crowd-pleasing cinematic fun, and my suspicion is that its rewatch value ain't too shabby either.

Friday, December 14, 2012

#548: A Safe Place

(Henry Jaglom, 1971)

A Safe Place is one of the worst movies in the Criterion Collection - not in the sense of a movie like Armageddon which was probably doomed to awfulness from the start, but just an experiment by a bunch of talented people that didn't work in pretty much every way. At every stage of the production and post-production, there were probably moments where the movie seemed like it was going pretty well, and taken on their own most scenes here could be the weakest scene in a much better but still mostly improvised, abstractly constructed film. But when they are all combined, it's a practically insufferable mess. Of course, I'd rather have ten of these than one Armageddon, just because one of those ten is probably going to be both great and potentially revolutionary - which is pretty much what happened with BBS, only they had a much more impressive track record. (Of course, the counter-argument is that one Armageddon would ideally pay for ten of those movies - a better argument ten years ago when Hollywood still wanted to make interesting movies alongside their shitty blockbusters, and an even better one when considering why BBS wasn't able to continue the ride.)

Having watched all the films in the BBS set now (the set as a whole didn't get a spine number for some reason, so I won't be posting on it), this really is a great set. With the exception of the two movies included on this disc, every other film is worth multiple viewings. The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, while Head, Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens represent one of the most underrated beginnings to a directing career I can think of in Hollywood. (Sadly, both Rafelson and Bogdanovich failed to live up to their promise in their later careers.) Though the set doesn't touch on all of the things that made New Hollywood great (and obviously some of the major movies in the movement aren't here), the framing of BBS allows Criterion to grab at least a handful of the most significant ones, and wrap them up in a nice neat bow.

By the way, as annoying as I found her in this movie, someone really ought to put Tuesday Weld in a movie. She's only 69 and I'm pretty sure she hasn't forgotten how to act, which she does pretty well. In fact, she was damn near great in the now little-seen Didion adaptation Play It as It Lays. I realize she was never that huge of a star like Jack or anything, but it's just another prime example of how easily women are forgotten in Hollywood that she hasn't made a movie in nearly ten years and a relevant movie in nearly twenty.

I don't have much else to say beyond: really, Orson Welles?

#621: Rosetta

(Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, 1999)

Rosetta is a devastatingly simple film. We begin and end on the titular character, and rarely stray from her. She is in fact in every scene - even a couple where it seems like she's dragged into them so the movie can keep the streak alive - and nearly all of the action happens because of things she does. This would be difficult enough to construct a film around, but Rosetta also happens to be a character who is not especially likable, even if you do sympathize with her and root for her. This is the most obvious difference between this film and the previous movie by the Dardennes brothers, La Promesse, but really Rosetta is just an intense crystallization of the ethos behind that movie. It's hard to think of a more empathetic movie that still manages to feel so brutally realistic. For fans of socially conscious film, Rosetta might be the perfect example of the style - for this reason, I'm not surprised some people consider it one of the greatest movies of the past few decades.

I think what struck me most about the film, though, was its pure simplicity. The story lacks any major catharsis, the film ends abruptly, and Rosetta is never really afforded anything but the basic thing she most desires (or is it?): a low paying, unstable job. The film is almost distracting in its dogged determination to avoid straying from its purpose as a document of this lonely, desperate girl's life. The movie it most reminded me of, actually, was not La Promesse, but Bresson's Mouchette. However surprising it is to say about a Bresson film, though, Rosetta is actually the simpler of the two movies, and feels less episodic. Certainly his work was more lyrical than the Dardennes', but both took a humanist approach to their film, and ultimately Rosetta is the more satisfying of the two because its protagonist is more active and authentic - less a sacrificial lamb in the Cabiria tradition.

It's the simplicity of the film, however, that made me hesitant to fall head over heels for it. When combined with a protagonist that is very difficult to like it becomes much harder to find a way in. I think multiple viewings would improve my opinion of the movie, and unlike some other films I have felt that way about, Rosetta was impressive enough the first time that I am certainly willing to put in the time, even if the emotional toll the film takes can be exhausting.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

#266: The King of Kings

(Cecil B. DeMille, 1927)

I mean, look. You aren't coming here to hear about Jesus, and this movie was all a little much for me. If you ask me to pull out a Jesus movie to watch, like any good athiest I'm going to pick The Last Temptation of Christ 99 out of 100 times. The other time I'll watch the South Park where Jesus and Santa team up in an action spectacular. The King of Kings had no better chance of being my kind of movie than The Magic Flute did - it's not the quality of the film but the very reason for its existence that eliminates my interest.

That said, The King of Kings is really quite the spectacle. I think there might be more people in this movie than there are in Heaven's Gate, which I actually thought was impossible. Watching a movie like this reminds you what a joke big crowd scenes are in movies today, where they take one dude and replicate him 500,000 times so people think they got a bunch of people to be in the movie. Yeah, I get it, it's not supposed to be about the scope of the production, it's about the scope of the story. But still, when you are paying upwards of 10 cents for your ticket, you want to know they shelled out the stops and pulled out all the big bucks.

There's definitely some cool stuff here, and I hate to imply that the movie is worthless, because it's not. I do wonder, however, how different this movie really is from something like, say, Armageddon, other than that it came first. Other than the Jesus stuff (which really isn't that different from the America stuff) it's mostly just big spectacle and special effects, right? The Jesus stuff isn't that big of a deal, is it?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#550: The King of Marvin Gardens

(Bob Rafelson, 1972)

The King of Marvin Gardens defies reviewing. It's not a significant enough work to demand evaluation, but it's so carefully constructed and lovingly finished that it contains intricate details that might otherwise go unnoticed. It simply has to be seen to be understood, which isn't true of even many movies far greater than it. It's a crushingly sad movie about lost people that never really feels worth it. I loved it nevertheless.

The film opens with Jack Nicholson in a darkened room without context telling the story of how he and his brother allowed his grandfather to choke to death on a fishbone. Only when he is finished with the story do we discover that he is on the radio, telling his story to his listeners. Only when he gets home do we realize he lives with his grandfather.

The scene is significant for two reasons. First, Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest living actors, and it's apparent right from the beginning here. The scene is a great reminder of his talent, something that might be forgotten as he, like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, turns into a parody of himself in his twilight years. Nicholson's face and voice are enough to captivate you alone, something proved by this cold open. Second, the film's key relationship - between Nicholson and his brother, played just as impressively by the underrated Bruce Dern - hinges upon the true-life dynamic between the two and the ever-present push and pull between reality and fantasy, truth and lies.

One interesting choice Rafelson and his screenwriter made was to make Nicholson's character the younger brother. Typically, you would expect to see him as the older brother, constantly needing to save Dern from his fantasies. By making him the younger brother, the film sets Nicholson up as willingly playing along with his brother's games, desperate for his stories to be true in order to confirm the reverence he has for his older brother. It's a beautifully sad dynamic, and it makes the film much richer.

There are some real flaws here, though, and a lot of how one feels about the movie will depend on how forced the quirkiness seems. Moments like the fake beauty pageant and the horses on the beach could seem overly precious, like a prototype for another movie set in New Jersey, the far more conventional and forced Garden State. And there is a legitimate case to be made that the climactic moment is not earned - even if it is it remains surprising. The movie is messier than its predecessor, the much-better-known Five Easy Pieces, but I liked it more because it manages to take that film's tone and give it a further surreal edge.

Rafelson's career stalled after this film, and though he continued to direct, it was at a much slower clip with very little success. His rhythms were certainly of a particular moment, but it's a shame he didn't get more work as he matured. Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens represent some of the strongest personal dramas of the early New Hollywood period, and their inclusion in the BBS boxset makes them welcome additions to the Collection.

#623: Lonesome

(Paul Fejos, 1928)

Lonesome is a film stuck between two worlds in more ways than one. Most obviously, the movie balances on the most significant pivot in film history, the move from silent cinema to talkies. By including three scenes in which the characters talk (rather stiltedly, I might add), Fejos nodded to the fad of the time without having to reconstruct the entire film. I had forgotten about this aspect of the film while watching it, so when the sound clicked on, the music stopped, and the characters began to speak, it was truly jarring - really, this must have been what it was like in the 1920s to hear sound synced up with images - although the limitless possibility of the time has turned into actual impressive accomplishments over the ensuing 80 years.

The use of color in the Coney Island sequence is similarly forward-looking, but less jarring than it is impressive and perfectly incorporated into the film. Color had been around for decades already by the time of Lonesome - some studios would hand paint each frame in the first years of the 20th century - so this was less novelty than a conscious artistic decision to deliver the maximum impact of the impressive sight of this beach retreat which at the time would have been just as exotic to most Americans as Paris or London.

But what's more interesting about Lonesome is the balance between avant flourishes and a wholly conventional plot. Fejos manages to incorporate enough artistic style into the film that this seems miles away from the typical romance of the time, despite the fact that the film's story is little more than a simple boy-meets-girl set-up with a twist that is less satisfying than it is acceptable. His use of superimposition, panning, cross cutting, and the above-mentioned color and sound makes the film seemed packed with forward-thinking ideas that are much more impressive than anything in comparable modern cinema. This makes Lonesome either a uniquely impressive balancing act that stands out from the crowd or an exciting representation of the kind of experimentation still acceptable in mainstream film's nascent period. I can't say I've watched quite enough silent film to be able to distinguish, but either way Lonesome is a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the potential of narrative cinema to speak through form just as clearly as content.

#388: The Two of Us

(Claude Berri, 1967)

The Two of Us not only would not be made in Hollywood today, it would be laughed out of development offices everywhere. "Where's the third act?" they would say, adding that "it's like having a gun in the first act and not using it in the third," or some other misguidedly rendered cliche about what makes a proper movie. Indeed, the film does lack its crucial turn, the sole reason for its existence within a conventional narrative framework. The fundamental question is this: how can a boy who is Jewish go to live with a man who hates Jews under the pretense that he is not Jewish and have that lie stand beyond the final credits? Without this reveal, the movie loses its confrontational moment, the one that would elucidate its themes and lead to the inevitable conclusion of its characters arcs. Yet by ignoring this imperative, the movie becomes all the more revolutionary, a movie about average people who are never called on to rise above their place or sink to new depths. Its finally a movie about racism and its unavoidable complexity and compartmentalization.

The center of the film is Michel Simon, an actor that was by the time he took the role one of the great actors in French cinema, with a career that stretched back to the legendary L'Atalante. His character is an early prototype Archie Bunker, a man with a firmly entrenched world view that is quickly and loudly dying out around him. He's a conservative without power outside his "castle," just as Archie is. And like Archie, once you get past his antiquated, potentially dangerous worldview, he's a gentle and warm person, a decent person. It's the gap that is most profound here, mainly because the strain of racism Simon's character represents, anti-semitism in particular, was one of the most destructive in history. Despite his distance from the actual tragedy, his acceptance of the culture makes him a difficult character for French audiences in 1967, still struggling with the history of the Vichy government. Berri was apparently so concerned with this that he put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film essentially saying "oh, the silly innocence of a child." It's an unnecessary addition today, but indicates how unique the film was at the time. Today, it's unique for a different reason, that absence of shattered perceptions mentioned above. The addition of this realization - and what Simon's Grandpa would have done with it - might have made the film more conventionally satisfying, maybe even more emotionally powerful. But without, the film is much more realistic, which ultimately makes it more valuable and moving.

Friday, December 7, 2012

#463: Il Generale Della Rovere

(Roberto Rossellini, 1959)

Il Generale Della Rovere belongs to the mini-genre of films about flawed, nihilistic characters who come to see the light and stick their necks out for the greater good. A disproportionate number of these movies are set during World War II, the war still often held up as the shining and untouchable example of a necessary and just fight. As far as those films go, this is one of the better ones, mainly because of two people: Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Just that these two towering figures would collaborate makes the film relevant, but they are both close to the top of their game. De Sica's performance is pitch perfect, making his character's arc extremely believable and earned, while Rossellini balances between docudrama-style preciseness and poetic beauty. The end of Il Generale Della Rovere comes abruptly, but it is well-earned and moving. This is a beautiful movie about the soul of Italy at one of its darkest moments, just 15 years after the fact.

Monday, December 3, 2012

#547: Drive, He Said

(Jack Nicholson, 1970)

Drive, He Said is the third (fourth - I've also seen the dated Easy Rider) film in the BBS box set Criterion released a few years ago that I have seen - I've watched The Last Picture Show, the most famous film in the set, five or six times over the years, and I saw Five Easy Pieces years ago. The former is one of my favorite movies and one of the great films of the 70s - both are certainly deserving of a standalone release, but they probably won't get one because of licensing issues.

The Last Picture Show is also notable in this set as the only film Jack Nicholson didn't have a direct hand in. The only other film he doesn't perform in is this one - which he directed. In fact, the movie is the first film directed by the actor, one of just three that he made. It was filmed between two of Nicholson's greatest roles, his work in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge. Both of those movies are much more worthwhile than this one, an occasionally interesting but entirely forgettable piece of quirky film history that never really stops being an experiment.

Nicholson, of course, is well known now as the highest profile Lakers fan, and Drive, He Said confirms his interest in the sport is not a recent development. More importantly, the parallel between the sport of the protagonist and the political struggle of his roommate feels especially insightful as a metaphor for the generational gap that was readily apparent as the 60s bled into the 70s. But I don't know that the insights of the film delve any deeper than this initial observation. Furthermore, the story drags and feels half-baked, like they created the screenplay as they were going. The camera work and acting is similarly amateurish, making the film seem even more tossed together on the side, but without any of the crackling energy of the best projects of this nature.

I don't expect any other film in this set to be so slight (though there's probably a reason why it shares a disc with A Safe Place, while the other movies all get their own). Obviously Nicholson looms large in these films, so including Drive, He Said seems logical and worthwhile. But the film itself is a handful of interesting ideas strung together into a feature that doesn't amount to very much.