Thursday, September 30, 2010

Goodbye, Tony

Film: Some Like it Hot
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop

Tony Curtis is dead. I heard the news today, and knew instinctively that I’d be watching Some Like it Hot, the best film Curtis was ever a part of. This is a film that no other comedies should be judged against. The reason for this is simple: if other comedies needed to be as good as Some Like it Hot to be worth seeing, no one would ever watch any other comedies. It’s been tagged as the greatest comedy ever made, and while that might be stretching a little, it’s not stretching by much.

We start with two down-and-out musicians named Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon). The pair are willing to take just about any job out there. This is because they’ve lost their job playing in a mob-run speakeasy, which was raided on payday. In the process of looking for work, they stumble onto the crime of the decade—the cinematic equivalent of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

The good news is that one of their agents has a job that requires a saxophone and a bass player for a three-week gig in Florida. The bad news is that the job is with an all-girl band. Desperate to get out of Chicago so that they won’t be identified to testify at the trial of the mob boss responsible for the slayings (also their former boss at the speakeasy) or identified by the mob and rubbed out, the pair dress themselves up in drag, take the gig, and head off to Florida as Josephine (Curtis) and Daphne (Lemmon).

The running joke here is that the pair are able to pull it off in close quarters with a large group of women without anyone managing to suspect. This is especially ridiculous because Daphne/Jerry is a complete horn dog chasing anything in a skirt and is suddenly around dozens of attractive ones who spend the evening in their underwear. They also run into the band’s singer, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe). Jerry is taken with her initially, but it’s Joe who eventually falls for her, particularly because she has a thing for tenor sax players.

On the trip down, Joe manages to discover what Sugar is really looking for in a man—young and rich. She’d prefer one wearing glasses because they’re “more sensitive” and if nothing would be better than if he had a yacht. Naturally, when the band gets down to Florida, Joe steals the band manager’s suitcase for the resort clothes and his glasses to complete the look. He manages to meet her on the beach, fakes a Cary Grant-esque accent, and claims to be the heir to the Shell Oil fortune.

In the meantime, Jerry has his own problems in the form of Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), a wolfish millionaire who evidently has a thing for guys in drag. He’s completely taken with “Daphne” and pursues her relentlessly, claiming to have a fascination with show business, or at least with show girls, having married at least seven of them in the past.

This sets up the middle of the film in which Jerry is pursued by Osgood and Joe pursues Sugar. Jerry leads Osgood on, allowing Joe to use the trappings of Osgood’s wealth, like his yacht, to further impress Sugar with the millions she thinks he has. It’s all in good fun until the gangsters, headed by lead mob boss Spats Colombo (George Raft) turn up at the same resort in a Shakespearean comedy twist. Now, the pair are forced to stay in character even though both desperately want out—Jerry to get away from Osgood and Joe so he can continue to woo Sugar as the pretend millionaire.

Naturally, the whole thing is played for laughs. This is not a film that attempts believability, and who cares that it doesn’t? The whole point of the film is to be madcap and silly—to put these two guys into this ridiculous situation and see what happens. And if there are a couple of Marilyn Monroe songs along the way (and there are, including the classic “I Wanna Be Loved By You”), so much the better.

Films don’t get better than this and only rarely get this good. It’s just as joyfully fun today as it was fifty years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day.

Vaya con Dios, Tony. Thanks for this one.

Why to watch Some Like it Hot: Billy Wilder’s best comedy, and that’s saying quite a lot.
Why not to watch: You’re a complete, blithering idiot.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sweet, Delicious Manna

Film: The Ten Commandments
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Not all epics are the same. When it comes to epics on film, there are two names that stand out above the rest: David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille. Perhaps no one is more famous when it comes to creating a true epic than the great DeMille, who seemed to film nothing else. Of his epics, none are so well known, acclaimed, or loved as The Ten Commandments.

Of course, the version that everyone knows, and the version spoken of here, is actually the remake. DeMille made an earlier, silent version of this story. While that version was undoubtedly epic, it pales in comparison to the color, talkie version DeMille made in 1956. A good (or great) epic should not only be epic in length, but be sweeping in terms of story. The freeing of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt fills the second bill, and the close-to-four-hour running time fills the first.

The film is the story of Moses (Charleton Heston), beginning with his birth and the basket in the reeds, and then fast-forwarding to about his 30th birthday or so and his life in the palace as a member of Pharaoh’s household. Here he battles with Rameses (Yul Brynner) to be the next in line for Sethi’s (Cedric Hardwicke) throne. The two also battle for the love of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), because she is destined to marry the next Pharaoh. Whosoever weds her gains the throne (or vice versa).

Moses is the more successful of the two, successfully conquering Ethiopia and making them allies as well as building a city where Rameses could not, and capturing the love and attention of Nefretiri. However, the palace slave Memnet (Judith Anderson) knows of his Hebraic birth, and threatens to expose him as a slave. In a fit of rage, Nefretiri kills her to protect Moses, but Moses discovers the truth of his birth nonetheless, and demotes himself to the rank of a slave because of the truth of his nature. Eventually, he is exposed to Rameses by Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), the Hebrew slavemaster, and is banished, forcing Nefretiri to marry Rameses.

In his exile, Moses learns of his destiny to lead his people out of Egypt. He returns to Egypt and through him, God brings the plagues against Egypt up to and including the death of the firstborn of Egypt when Rameses finally kicks the Hebrews out of Egypt. Rameses, of course, pursues, and then there’s that whole Red Sea thing and the wandering in the desert until the Hebrews finally walk out of the desert. Really, if you want to know the full story, consult your closest Bible. DeMille takes a few cinematic liberties, but the general story is all there.

Really, the movie is an excuse for tons of extras and spectacle and a few fun special effects like the turning of sticks into snakes. And that’s okay; that’s really what an epic should be.

The film, made as it was in the 1950s, is very Hollywood-y, which means it contains the sort of coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. When Moses takes over building the city, he saves the life of an old woman, who naturally turns out to be his real mother. We also see frequent visits by Joshua (John Derek) and his love Lilia (Debra Paget), who is eventually taken into the house of Dathan. It’s Joshua who causes Moses to kill the master builder Baka (Vincent Price). It’s Joshua who brings Moses back to Egypt. It’s Joshua who helps lead the people out of Egypt. It’s almost as if DeMille didn’t mind having tons of extras, but was limited in the number of characters he could actually name.

What strikes me as funniest is that when Moses demotes himself to slave, no one recognizes him. Lilia, who he rescued from terrible punishment, brings him water, but can’t place the guy who was in charge of the slaves for a few months. None of the Egyptians recognize him, either—including Baka, who worked directly under him. Okay, he’s a little (or a lot) dirtier, but it’s not like my kids come inside from playing and I don’t recognize them until they’ve taken a bath. It just seems so silly.

In short, this is not a movie that could be made today, at least not without significant changes. So much of it just seems so goofy that it simply wouldn’t work. The parting of the Red Sea is still pretty cool, even if the effect is fairly obvious to modern eyes, and it appears that the Red Sea is only about 50 feet deep.

Despite all of this, The Ten Commandments is still a great film and still worth watching. It’s undoubtedly easier to stomach for true believers, but even us heathens can enjoy some spectacle in our ordinary lives.

Why to watch The Ten Commandments: An epic the way an epic should be.
Why not to watch: It can’t help but be preachy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quid Pro Quo, Clarice

Film: The Silence of the Lambs
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

Certain movie scenes are iconic. Chief Brody telling Quint that they need a bigger boat. Nigel Tufnel saying that his amplifiers go to 11. Rhett Butler not giving a damn. Another of these iconic scenes is Hannibal Lecter telling Clarice Starling about what he ate with his fava beans and Chianti.

The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second film featuring Hannibal Lector, but Manhunter (reviewed a few months ago here) sadly flopped. In that film, the cannibalistic Lector (spelled “Lecktor”) was played by the great Brian Cox. Here, of course, is the Lector that everyone knows and loves—the Anthony Hopkins version.

Lector is the one who makes the film what it is, and anyone who has seen this film will agree. However, he is not the focus of the film. He is almost entirely tangential to the actual plot of the film. He shows up a few times and is more of a red herring than anything else, albeit an incredibly fascinating and disturbing red herring.

The plot centers around FBI academy student Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and a serial killer who has been dubbed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) by the press. She is sent by the head of the Behavioral Science unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to interview the noted serial killer and cannibal, psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lector (Hopkins). The goal of this interview, at least initially, is a simple personality profile of the doctor, but in reality, Crawford is looking for insight into Buffalo Bill, something Lector picks up on right away.

Clarice’s first visit to Lector is a startling one. He has significant insight into her as well as her reasons for being there. Additionally, Clarice encounters the doctor who runs the facility that houses Lector. This is Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), who is a careerist, smarmy, and rather unpleasant. Lector and Chilton despise each other, which becomes evident quite quickly.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill kidnaps the daughter of a U.S. Senator, planning on adding her to his collection of murder victims. We learn that he evidently keeps his victims for a couple of days before killing them, and, once they are dead, he partially skins them for a trophy (hence his nom de press). Lector keeps himself relevant here by claiming to know the identity of the killer, but actually sending the FBI on something of a wild goose chase that only hints at the truth. Instead, he gives his real clues to Clarice, demanding that for each piece of information and each hint he gives her that she give him something of herself back.

Lector forces Clarice to relate the most terrible moments of her childhood, specifically the death of her father and her subsequent move to a horse and sheep ranch in Montana. She ran away from the ranch when she discovered the fate of the spring lambs (a moment that also gives us the title of the film). Lector tells her that everything she needs to find Buffalo Bill is contained in the case file.

The Silence of the Lambs really trades on specific key scenes that are disturbing and horrifying. Each of the scenes with Buffalo Bill, for instance, are exceedingly creepy, as they were no doubt intended to be. Bill’s victims, relegated to a deep well in his basement, are forced to lotion themselves at his command to keep their skin soft for his later skinning. We also learn that Bill is not merely skinning his victims, but is using the pieces he takes to fashion a suit of clothing for himself—a woman suit made from the skins of his victims. Bill refers to his victims as “it,” refusing to recognize their humanity. This is the source of one of the film’s more famous quotes: “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”

Another of these shock sequences is the escape of Lector from his prison cell. Using a piece of a ballpoint pen he stole from Dr. Chilton, Lector picks the lock on his handcuffs and then brutally kills his two guards. One of these he disembowels and strings up. The other, we think initially, is horribly disfigured but left alive. We learn later that Lector—echoing the crimes of Buffalo Bill—has removed the man’s face and is masquerading as him in the ambulance, which he uses to complete his escape. Truly, the reveal as he pulls the “mask” off in the back of the ambulance is one of filmdom’s greatest and most terrifying reveals.

The ending is perhaps a little to Hollywood climax, but still effective. Clarice, naturally, is the one who stumbles upon the true location of Buffalo Bill, and plays cat-and-mouse with him in his darkened basement while he pursues her, armed with both a large pistol and night vision goggles.

The strength of this film rests on those shock scenes listed above as well as others—Buffalo Bill’s naked dance, for instance, cannot be unseen. But had the film merely had these shocking scenes, this film would not be noteworthy. The extreme natures of the crimes depicted as well as the extreme nature of the Lector character would have made any number of slasher film fans and gorehounds want to see it.

It’s the portrayals of these characters—Buffalo Bill, Clarice Starling, and Dr. Hannibal Lector in particular—that make this movie something to seek out by those interested in more than just shock and gore. There’s plenty of that, but with just that, it would be a good shock film. Instead, Clarice Starling is made incredibly human throughout. She is strong, tough, and tenacious, but also terribly vulnerable and disturbed by the events she sees unfolding in front of her. Lector is vicious, evil, and psychotic, but also strangely charming; he’s a character director Jonathan Demme described as being a good man trapped in the mind of psychotic, and that’s what Hopkins gives us. And Buffalo Bill is truly terrifying. In many ways, Ted Levine is the forgotten man in this film. So much attention (deservedly) went to Hopkins that it’s easy to forget the daring and in many ways brave performance of Levine.

Almost twenty years after being filmed, this film has not lost a step and has not aged.

Why to watch The Silence of the Lambs: It rises far above shock value and gore to be a real film that simply happens to be about horrifying topics.
Why not to watch: If you’re squeamish, you won’t make it halfway through.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Do Not Forsake Me

Films: Rio Bravo, High Noon
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library (Rio Bravo), DVD from DeKalb Public Library (High Noon) on laptop.

There is a real charm to a good western movie, particularly an old-school one from more than 40 years ago. There’s a simplicity to them that is refreshing. After watching films where the protagonist is evil, or insane, or conflicted, or more an anti-hero than a true hero, a classic western brings back that sense of comfort. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and the two never mix. Anyone who has fallen and wants to be redeemed can be, and the bad guys will eventually fall to their own wicked ways in the end.

Regardless, Rio Bravo is that simple, straightforward picture mentioned above. There’s a heroic sheriff named John T. Chance (John Wayne) who arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder after Chance witnesses a bar fight. Also in the bar is “Dude” (Dean Martin) ex-deputy of the sheriff who has since crawled into a bottle. In fact, it’s Dude who starts the fight. As the town drunk, he’s frequently made sport of. Burdette knows Dude is desperate for a drink, and tosses a dollar into the bar’s spittoon. A fight ensues, and when he’s prevented from striking Dude again by a bystander, Burdette shoots the interloper, only to be thrown into jail to await justice.

Unfortunately, things get complicated immediately. A wagon train pulls in led by Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), but is laid up for a day due to the situation. It seems that Joe Burdette is the no-good brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), who is the wealthiest man in the area. He’s hiring anyone he can get his hands on to help spring his brother from jail, with the fate of Sheriff Chance unimportant. Dead, alive, whatever.

Also showing up in town are two important players: Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Colorado is running guard on Wheeler’s wagon train. Feathers is the widow of a crooked gambler, and there’s a warrant out for her, making her a prime target for Chance’s attention. Wheeler wants to help out his old friend the sheriff, who refuses the assistance. Colorado refuses to help, too. Feathers, on the other hand, is somewhat attracted to the lawman, but he’s not having it from her. For his desire to help his friend, Wheeler is gunned down in the street by a paid killer, sparking a new desire for revenge in Chance.

We also have some comic relief, as any classic western had. Working with Chance and the attempting-to-clean-up Dude is Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a lame old man who complains endlessly, but is dependable and guards the jail. Running the hotel where Chance lives is Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), who frequently mangles the language and is mangled in turn by his wife.

And that’s the set-up here. Chance, Dude, and Stumpy need to hold off Burdette and his gang of hired men until the marshal shows up to take Joe Burdette into custody. There are attempts on everyone’s life and attempts to break into the jail. Through it all, Chance refuses the help of everyone, convinced instead that anyone who tries to help him will end up on the wrong end of a bullet courtesy of Burdette. The death of Pat Wheeler more than anything tells him that he should keep everyone else safe by keeping them out of the situation.

Of course, this is a traditional, old-school western, which means that it’s going to turn out the way you want it to. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. Anyone worthy of being redeemed (Dude, Feathers) is redeemable, and anyone who isn’t will eventually get what’s coming to them. Even our comic relief (Carlos and Stumpy) shows up at critical moments to provide real assistance, even if Chance didn’t want their help.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is High Noon, which is similar in terms of plot and action but completely different in terms of how the characters approach their situation. As with Rio Bravo (actually the other way ‘round because High Noon came first), we have a lawman facing off virtually alone against a gang of thugs.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just gotten married to the beautiful and much younger Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). In addition to being a sweet young thing, Amy is also a Quaker, and she objects heavily to Will’s occupation as a town marshal. Consequently, he also has decided to hang up his badge and head off for a much quieter, less gun-filled life.

It’s at this moment, though, that Will is given very distressing news. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a man he sent to prison a year earlier, has been released. Miller is coming into town on the noon train (hence the name of the movie), looking for revenge, and he’s bringing his entire gang with him.

This leaves Will in a predicament. He knows that Miller will want his revenge whether Kane stays the lawman or not, and having the power of that star on his chest should make things a little easier for him, at least in theory. He takes back the badge, knowing that a fight is coming in a little more than an hour.

Amy objects, unable to resolve her religious differences with the idea of the violence her new husband simply cannot avoid. While she seems to understand that he can in no way avoid the coming fight, she still pleads with him to leave and try to make a getaway from the Miller gang. When he says that he will or cannot, she threatens to leave on the noon train without him, so strong is her conviction for non-violence.

The film unfolds in front of us in real time. Will spends the bulk of the time up until noon looking for anyone in town to come to his assistance and finding no one. Even his own deputy (Lloyd Bridges, looking about 12 years old) deserts him, leaving him alone to face the Miller gang. Those who want to help him back out at the last minute when they see that they are the only ones who have come to his aid. Everyone is willing to help as long as everyone else is, but no one is willing to take the first step to stand beside Will.

And thus we have the main difference between these two films. In Rio Bravo, Chance won’t ask anyone for help, believing instead that it is a man’s duty to stand on his own and face the dangers without putting anyone else at risk. However, right-thinking people (Colorado and Feathers especially) come to his aid again and again. In High Noon, Will Kane asks for the help he knows he needs and is refused at every turn. When noon finally strikes, he is forced to stand alone against terrible odds, and fight on as best he can.

Which way is better? I like the philosophy of High Noon better, personally. I think there’s something to be said for the idea that people can ask for help, even if it’s refused. Rio Bravo seems to work on the philosophy that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In my experience, it’s more a sign of impending failure. That no one comes to Will Kane’s aid is not a failure of his asking, but a failure of their own courage and character.

Both films were remade a few times. Rio Bravo was turned into El Dorado and then Assault on Precinct 13. High Noon has been remade as High Noon twice and also seems to be a pretty strong influence on the sci-fi film Outland.

Both films are great. High Noon is tighter, grittier, and more nihilistic, and therefore makes (I think) a stronger statement.

Why to watch Rio Bravo: For a straight western, it’s hard to find a better one.
Why not to watch: Ricky Nelson is a lightweight compared with the rest of the cast.

Why to watch High Noon: Every reason you or I can think of.
Why not to watch: There is no reason not to watch this film.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oedipus Wrecks

Films: Psycho, Peeping Tom
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop (Psycho); DVD from personal collection on middlin’-sized living room television (Peeping Tom).

So now that I’ve reached 20% done on this cinematic expedition, it’s come time for me to finally watch something by the great master of suspense cinema, Alfred Hitchcock. I’m generally a fan of the maxim “Go big or go home,” so Psycho it is. There’s no question that Psycho is one of the great films in suspense/horror history. It’s been spoofed, made homage to, copied, and parodied, but it’s never been duplicated. It is certainly Hitchcock’s most famous film, although not anywhere near his best in my opinion. Regardless, it’s a landmark cinematic event, and a first viewing of this film is always something special. It’s also a film that really trades on its shock ending. Consider the rest of this entry under a spoiler warning—if you’ve never seen Psycho, you should stop reading now, because the shock ending is worth it.

Now that we’ve gotten rid of those who haven’t seen this movie, we can talk a bit more freely. If you think for a minute about what you can recall from Psycho, you’ll probably think of two to four scenes—the money scenes, as it were. These are the shower scene, the death of the detective on the stairs, the reveal at the end, and the final sequence in the asylum. Because of this, it’s easy to overlook just how damn good this film is everywhere else. There’s a lot to notice here, and a lot that’s worth considering even without those four critical sequences, and the fact that there is so much here worth seeing shows just how good a filmmaker Hitchcock really was.

The film starts like typical Hitchcock. A young woman named Marion (Janet Leigh) embezzles $40,000 from her employer. It may not sound like much, but this is 40 grand in 1960 dollars—roughly a quarter million in today’s money. She takes the money so that she can pay off the debts of her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin). She drives out of Phoenix on her way to California to share the new wealth and (she hopes) start a new life with him. Along the way, she trades in her car for a new vehicle, and eventually stops at the Bates Motel for the night.

Here she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is quiet, awkward, and under the thumb of his domineering, disturbed mother. Norman displays his collection of taxidermy birds to Marion, and he’s obviously taken with her. But then, while she is taking a shower, Marion is brutally slain by Mrs. Bates in one of the most famous sequences ever filmed. The rest of the film is the search for the missing Miss Crane, lead by her sister (Vera Miles), the boyfriend, and private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), who also meets the knife point of Mrs. Bates in another, not-quite-as-famous-but-just-as-great scene on the staircase.

Of course, the biggest moment in Psycho beyond the shower sequence is the reveal—Mrs. Bates is long dead, and is another of Norman’s taxidermy projects. Norman himself is the killer, dressed up as mother and wielding a massive kitchen knife. It’s a great shock moment, one that is memorable permanently after being seen only once, and it’s what really makes the film.

The genius of this film, though, is that throughout, up until the very end when we discover precisely why the film is called what it is, our sympathies rest almost entirely with Norman. When he ditches Marion’s body by sinking her car into a nearby mudhole, there’s a tense moment when it stops sinking. The first time I saw the film, I can remember wanting the car to sink to protect Norman; he seems like such a nice guy.

The ending, though, pulls the rug out from under us. Norman isn’t a nice guy—he’s massively disturbed and scary, and the trick that Hitchcock has managed is to get us to sympathize with a complete lunatic.

There are subtle things at work here. Marion, in the opening scene where she is getting dressed after a little afternoon horizontal boogie with her boyfriend, is wearing a white bra and carries a white purse. Later, after she has stolen the money (and is thus bad), her bra is black, as is her purse; her actions dictate the color of her wardrobe. The misdirection is also brilliant. Marion Crane is the focus of every scene up to that point in the film. The few times she isn’t on camera, we’re seeing things from her point of view (the first shots of the Bates house in the rain, for instance), or she is the focus of the scene (Norman spying on her through the hole in the wall). To have her ripped from the film less than halfway through is a risky move, but it’s also startling and brilliant.

I can’t imagine this film in color. The black and white is so good and so moody that it’s really the only way the film should be viewed. The music is also perfect for the film, consisting entire of stringed instruments throughout, especially in that critical shower scene.

That scene is worth an extra look, incidentally. It shows nothing and implies everything. There is no noticeable nudity, and we never seen the knife actually enter flesh. We see no wounds, and the only real blood is running down the drain or on Marion’s hands. And yet, it is so well done that we feel like we’ve seen everything. This scene is a dissertation on direction, style, and editing.

While Psycho is a great film, I’m a bigger fan of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. That seems strange to say, but it’s absolutely true. While Hitchcock makes his audience sympathize with a deranged, homicidal maniac, Powell takes it one step further. In Peeping Tom, we know in the first ten minutes that the character Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) is the killer. We watch through the lens of Mark’s camera as he kills a prostitute, films it, and then we watch with him as he looks at the tape.

We learn a little bit about him from here. He works as a focus puller for a film studio and does some cheesecake photography on the side. He also owns the building he lives in, and takes in boarders. Specifically, he rents to young Helen Stevens (Anna Massey) and her blind mother (Maxine Audley). Mark avoids them pretty assiduously until Helen’s birthday when she introduces herself to him.

Mark is immediately taken with her, and she with him, in no small part because he is so shy and awkward. Helen asks to see some of Mark's films as a birthday present, and he lets her in on one of his terrible secrets. His father, who left him the house he owns, was a psychologist whose main research was on the subject of fear. To investigate fear, he experimented on Mark, doing everything he could to terrify the boy and test his reactions. He shows her some of his home movies, including his mother’s funeral and the best gift his father ever gave him: his movie camera.

Helen, it turns out, has written a children’s book about a magical camera and wants Mark to take the photographs for her. He doesn’t want to, because everything he photographs he eventually kills, and he has started to care very much for her. In one very telling scene, he plans to go out with Helen, but first must deal with setting aside his camera, almost as if he is being unfaithful to his mechanical eye.

There are a couple more murders, including one of a young woman (Moira Shearer, from Powell/Pressburger classic The Red Shoes) who is acting on the movie Mark is working on. We learn a little more about Mark’s method of killing when he threatens Helen’s mother, and ultimately, we learn the entire truth at film’s end. The reality of his murder method is so fascinating and so bizarre, that I don’t even want to put it under a spoiler warning—it needs to be experienced.

The genius of this film is that, like Psycho from the same year, we are made to sympathize with a serial murderer. In Psycho, though, we are misled. Here, we know from the very beginning that Mark is the killer. However, Bohm plays Mark so sympathetically that the audience can’t help but feel something for him and, like Helen, want everything to come out well for him eventually.

Even more, all of the murders are filmed from Mark’s perspective. Essentially, the audience is made complicit in the killings, since we experience them voyeuristically through the eye of Mark’s camera. These murders are made to look like we have committed them as much as Mark has. While we may not approve, we are, in terms of the way the camera is used, just as guilty as he is.

It is this fact, the sympathetic killer who makes us a part of his killings, that caused the universally unfavorable reaction to the film upon its release. Actually, that’s understated. The outcry against Peeping Tom was so great that it destroyed Powell’s career and he eventually emigrated to Australia, giving up the film business almost entirely. It wasn’t until a good 20 years later when other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese cited the film as a major influence that it was given another chance.

As it turns out, Powell was simply ahead of his time by a dozen years or so. Had he produced the film in 1970, it would have been hailed as visionary, and by 1976, it would have been tame and almost trite.

It’s hardly a perfect film. It’s never explained, for instance, why Mark, who claims to have been born in the house he lives in, has a German accent. But this is a detail that can be overlooked. It’s a strong, powerful film that can still manage a shock, particularly at the ending. Bohm’s portrayal of Mark is tremendous, and Anna Massey is great. She’s oddly attractive—there’s nothing about her that screams beauty queen, but she’s perky and cute, and impossible not to like here.

Anyway, I like this film more than I like Psycho only because Powell went further than Hitchcock did. Both deal with mild-mannered killers with Oedipal issues (Norman with his mother, Mark with his father). Hitch went far afield and was applauded; Powell went further and it cost him everything. Damn shame. More people should know this movie.

Why to watch Psycho: Hitchcock’s first real foray into horror.
Why not to watch: Bad sequel, worse sequel, unmentionable prequel, stupid remake.

Why to watch Peeping Tom: You owe it to Michael Powell’s reputation.
Why not to watch: Mark’s unexplainable accent.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lush, Lush Losers

Films: The Big Lebowski, Sideways
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Lebowski), DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop (Sideways).

(Author’s note: I watched The Big Lebowski last week, but haven’t had time to write it up due to my schedule. When a quarter ends, I grade papers dawn to dusk, and movies make good background noise, but I don’t have time to wax philosophic about them. So, while these movies are being presented here on the same day, they were not watched this way.)

Genre bending isn’t easy. In fact, it’s so difficult that often, when a good filmmaker (or in this case, filmmakers) do it, it goes unnoticed. I’ve watched The Big Lebowski a few times, but never realized until this latest viewing that this is more than a really good comedy. This film is a comedy, a spoof of film noir, and an actual film noir itself. I was completely blown away when this hit me. The Coens are far better at what they do than I gave them credit for, and I already give them a lot of credit.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), better known as “The Dude” by everyone who has ever met him, finds himself in a great deal of trouble. Unbeknownst to him, the wife of a completely different Jeffery Lebowski has run up debts with a man named Jackie Treehorn. After a shopping trip for half-and-half, The Dude finds two men in his apartment demanding the money from The Dude’s non-existent wife. One of these men urinates on the rug, a tragedy for The Dude, because “that rug really tied the room together.”

The Dude tells his troubles to his bowling friends. These are the militant and stultifyingly blunt Walter (John Goodman) and the mousey, permanently behind-the-current-discussion Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter suggests finding the other Jeffrey Lebowski to pay for the rug cleaning, and this is what drives the rest of the plot. All The Dude wants is his rug cleaned. He meets the real Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) and his assistant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), walks off with a rug, and meets Bunny (Tara Reid), the woman who has run up all the debts.

From here, things get crazy. Bunny Lebowski goes missing, and Jeffrey Lebowski hires The Dude to handle the ransom. Through a series of misadventures, mostly caused by Walter, bad things happen, the hand-off isn’t made, and life gets extremely weird for The Dude for the rest of the film. We encounter the sort of characters that can only exist in the world of the Coen brothers’ ideas.

Among these bizarre characters are a trio of German nihilists (Coen regular Peter Stormare, the awesome Flea, and Torsten Voges), their girlfriend (Aimee Mann), porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), Jeffrey Lebowski’s extravagant artist daughter (Julianne Moore), flamboyant bowling pederast Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), and the country/western narrator (Sam Elliot). These are film characters rather than real characters, which often plays false to my mind, but the film is so broadly comic that the characters work here.

Despite the fact that everything here is comedic, the plot follows basic noir lines. Everything centers on the missing Bunny Lebowski and the equally missing million dollar ransom. No one is what they seem, and only through the white Russian and marijuana-fueled haze of The Dude’s world do we get any information. It takes him awhile to put everything together and put all of the players in their proper place. When the stoned-out, bombed-out Dude manages to think through everything in the end, it’s a magical moment.

Beyond the noir plot, you know, that whole “way the film works” thing that I completely overlooked every other time I’ve seen this film, what’s here is some of the greatest comedic moments in film from the past 20 years. The Dude is a quintessential movie character, someone who quickly became iconic—a drunk Indiana Jones or a fully stoned Napoleon Dynamite. The same is most definitely true of John Goodman’s portrayal of Walter. Walter obsesses over his comrades “dying face down in the mud in Viet Nam” and has charming character traits like pulling a gun on a fellow bowler who faults on his approach.


The reason this film works as a noir is that it starts as a simple problem—get The Dude’s rug cleaned. But everything encountered is smoke and mirrors. Everything that is supposed to make things easier or solve problems proves to make them more difficult, and everything has a deeper meaning. Bunny Lebowski hasn’t been kidnapped. The German nihilists are trying to capitalize on her temporary disappearance, as is Jeffrey Lebowski, who has no money of his own and is desperate to steal the proposed ransom himself. Every simple problem has a complexity that lies under it. It’s noir, but slanted about 10 degrees to the left.

For instance, The Dude, like any noir gumshoe, gets assaulted multiple times and takes his fair share of beatings. However, rather than a series of smacks to the jaw, the assaults are often bizarre, like a ferret being dropped into his bathtub while he’s bathing. Any good noir detective gets the girl, as does The Dude. However, she’s not looking for a relationship—she just wants a baby with someone who won’t take an interest in raising the child. The bad guys aren’t vicious killers, but whiney jerks who get torn apart by a pissed-off Walter. All of the pieces are there; they’re just knocked loose and turned at odd, wonderful angles.

It’s interesting to note as well that Steve Buscemi tends to get killed in Coen movies, and each time, what’s left of him gets smaller and smaller. In Miller’s Crossing, he leaves a faceless body; in Fargo, all that’s left is a leg and a spray of blood and bone. Here, he is cremated, and all that’s left is his ashes.


I do enjoy this film. I think it’s a damn shame that it was removed from the main list. It should still be there.

It’s worth noting this, though: if you are offended by language, this is not a movie that you will enjoy. There is a tremendous amount of language in this film, to the tune of an f-bomb about every 30 seconds on average. That stuff washes over me completely, but I understand that there are people who are truly offended by it, so it’s worth the warning. If you can look past the language, I can’t imagine someone not finding this film entertaining.

On the other end of the boozy spectrum is Sideways. Rather than white Russians made with cheap half-and-half and cheaper vodka, we get drunken wine snobbery. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed writer teaching eighth grade and still coming down off a marriage that didn’t work. His best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is an actor getting married in a week’s time. Miles and Jack are going to head up to wine country in California for a week of golf and wine tasting before the big event.

We discover early on that Jack really has different goals than Miles does. All Miles wants to do is show his friend a good time. Jack has decided that Miles, with his first novel sitting with a small publisher who may not want to print it and his prescriptions for a pair of anxiety/depression medications really needs to ditch the pills and the psychiatrist and just get himself old fashioned sexed up. Additionally, Jack is looking for a final casual fling or two before his big wedding day, and really doesn’t want the depressed Miles screwing this up.

Miles, in addition to his various foibles, is an unrelenting wine snob. As the pair drive through parts of Napa Valley, it appears that Miles is well known at every vineyard in the area. If this leads you to think that Miles has a drinking problem, you’d be correct. He does tip more than is fair share of bottles, but insists on drinking only the best. We learn that he is desperate in many ways when he and Jack stop by Miles’s mother’s house. Excusing himself from dinner, he sneaks into her bedroom and finds her private safe, peeling off about $1,000 in hundreds and pocketing them before rejoining the table.

At one restaurant, they meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), who is quite the cutie and is also evidently recently divorced. She’s obviously taken with Miles, although he doesn’t seem to be able to get past his own divorce to notice. At another stop, the pair meet up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who immediately clicks with Jack.

The obvious happens. Miles and Maya have a budding romance while Jack and Stephanie have good, old-fashioned lusty sex. It slips that Jack is a few days away from marriage, which cures Jack of nothing. It also slips that despite earlier comments, Miles’s book really isn’t “about to be published” but is only under consideration, and that’s hardly a sure thing.

The film is really about the downward trajectory of Miles’s life, his own personal failure to live up to what he wants out of life, and his self-immolation by wine bottle. Certainly there is the touch of the comic here, and many of the situations are really funny, as is a great deal of the dialogue. Smart dialogue is sometimes rare, and the conversations here are excellent, which is a large part of the charm.

Additionally, these are real characters instead of the broadly comic caricatures that frequently show up in Hollywood comedies. The characters are comic and tragic specifically because they are so completely real. Miles is smart and has done less with his life than he thinks he should have, and takes solace in knowing more about wine than anyone else he knows. Jack is a fun-loving goof, the guy who shrugs his shoulders and smiles when he gets his hand stuck in the cookie jar. Maya is sweet, open, and honest, and completely genuine.

There’s a lovely metaphor about halfway into the film. Maya asks Miles why he’s so into pinots. He answers that it’s a difficult grape to grow—they’re fragile and weak, and require constant care and attention, and only certain people are capable of doing anything with them. It’s unspoken, of course, but the brittle and fractured Miles is himself like this fragile grape, so ready to give up and die unless cared for. We get the same metaphor from Maya when she explains why she loves wine—about how it is a constantly living, evolving thing that changes constantly until it peaks, and starts its slow decline, not unlike a person. This too might be a metaphor for Miles, and the rest of the movie is there to determine if he is still evolving or if that decline has started.

Much of the success of Sideways comes from the actors playing these roles. I’m a big fan of Paul Giamatti. I think he’s made some really poor choices for film roles in the past, but he’s also made some great ones. He tends to fail when he takes broadly comic roles—actually, I think he fails when he plays anything broadly. Films like Big Fat Liar, Planet of the Apes, and Shoot ‘Em Up fail to play to his strengths. Where Giamatti is really successful is in roles like this one, or similar lovable loser roles in films like American Splendor and Winchell. He’s also excellent in straight dramatic roles. If he’d stick to roles like these, he might end up being typecast, but he’d always be worth watching.

I feel similarly about Thomas Haden Church. He works well in roles where he can be subtle and funny, and less well in films like Spider-Man 3. He’s certainly capable of comedy, and he’s good in comedy, but he’s a much better actor than he often gets credit for. Virginia Madsen shows here that she is capable of a performance with some heart and subtlety, and I like her in the role.

And then there’s Sandra Oh. She’s good here, and I can’t dispute it, but there’s something about her I find really disconcerting and weird. She always looks to me like she’s just smelled something unpleasant, like her companion has floated an air biscuit and she’s trying not to let anyone know. I feel the same way (actually, far more intensely) about Renee Zellweger, who looks either like she’s just left an unclean bathroom or she’s finished sucking on half a lemon. There’s something about these two actors that make my hand ball up into a fist. I’m not justifying this, and I realize it’s irrational. I can’t control it, but the first step to a problem like this is admitting that the problem exists, right?

Ultimately, Sideways works because it isn’t a traditional Hollywood movie and it avoids the traditional Hollywood ending. The ending is instead quite realistic, believable, and oddly uplifting. It also has one of the great tragic moments ever filmed, a moment best left to spoilers.


Miles has a prized bottle of wine that he had been saving for his 10th anniversary with his wife. When he realizes that she has not only remarried but is pregnant, and thus lost to him forever, he cracks the bottle and drinks it from a Styrofoam cup at a fast food restaurant. It’s so sad and painful, and yet perfectly human and believable.


This is a bittersweet film spiced with smart comedy, coming mostly from the realistic and entertaining dialogue between Miles and Jack. All of the elements of this film blend together into something bigger and better than any individual element. Like a great wine (at least from what I’ve been told—I can’t tell a $50 bottle from two-buck Chuck), the end product is far more than what the bottle appears to hold.

Why to watch The Big Lebowski: It’s funny. It’s really, really funny. And it’s the weirdest noir you’ll ever see.
Why not to watch: More language than you might expect.

Why to watch Sideways: It’s human, meaning it’s funny and tragic in equal doses.
Why not to watch: If you know nothing about wine, it will give you an oenological hangover.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Non-Political Politics

Film: Odd Man Out
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

The comedian Eddie Izzard does a great impression of James Mason. Usually, it’s Izzard talking as God with the voice of James Mason. This is, I think, appropriate. James Mason was a hell of an actor. He could play anything—good guys, bad guys, misunderstood geniuses, and conflicted heroes. He happens to be the bad guy in North by Northwest, which is my favorite movie ever. How could I not love James Mason?

Mason plays an Irish rebel named Johnny McQueen in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. It’s never mentioned exactly what organization McQueen works for, but it’s not difficult to make the assumption that the works for the Irish Republican Army. Regardless, McQueen broke out of prison and has reunited with his cell. For months he has planned a raid on a mill to generate the cash needed to keep his cell of the organization going.

It all goes according to plan until the gang makes its break after the heist. Johnny is temporarily dazzled by the light of the sun and is attacked by a guard. In the scuffle, two shots are fired; one hits Johnny in the left shoulder while the other kills the guard. Johnny is pulled into the getaway car, but falls out, and the rest of the gang bicker and end up abandoning him while Johnny runs off to hide.

What follows is series of interconnected vignettes. We see the members of the gang fight with each other, blaming each other for what happened to Johnny. Johnny staggers off, now badly wounded both from the gunshot and the fall from the car, and finds himself in an abandoned air raid shelter left over from the war. No one wants Johnny back safely more than Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), since it is evident she loves him desperately—although it may not be clear to Johnny himself.

While the various gang members attempt to rescue Johnny and come to a variety of conclusions, Johnny begins to hallucinate, is spotted a few times, and attempts to stumble home. What ensues throughout is that Johnny becomes less a man and more of a problem for the people who encounter him. Everyone he meets quickly discovers who he is, and either wants to help him or bring him to justice for their own selfish reasons. The police are looking for him and offering a substantial reward. Many see the betrayal of Johnny and his friends both morally correct and financially beneficial. Others see his presence as a problem to be dealt with, seeking only to shove him off to somewhere else before they are caught with him.

Where Carol Reed went right here is in keeping politics as far away from this film as he could. There’s no morality here in terms of Johnny’s believes, the rightness or wrongness of the IRA, or the actions taken by Johnny McQueen. Reed doesn’t ask us to praise Johnny and his band of revolutionaries, nor does he expect us to condemn him or be morally outraged by him. Instead, the film concerns Johnny’s struggle to survive the night, wounded and hunted like an animal, and ultimately, an animal is what he becomes.

What’s worth seeing here, though, is that Johnny is not the only one who turns into an animal. The characters who interact with Johnny act the same way. They become interested in Johnny only for what they can get from him—money, fame, power. Johnny stops being a man and starts instead to be merely an object, a thing. Conversations happen around Johnny and at him rather than with him.

Mason’s portrayal of Johnny McQueen is played in mime, essentially, for a large part of the film as people talk around and about him. Much of the drama comes from his eyes. It’s a hell of a performance to convey as much as he does throughout the film without speaking. It allows both Mason the actor and Johnny McQueen the character to deliver a rousing speech toward the end of the film in a way that is believable, even inspiring.

For a film that is ostensibly a political drama, or at least promises political overtones at the beginning, it instead turns out to be a very human drama. A police inspector hunting for Johnny to bring him to justice sums up the essential mood of the film when he says, “In my profession there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt.” Reed’s film doesn’t ask us to judge whether or not the cause is just, but how the person of Johnny McQueen should be viewed. That he is guilty is certain—the value of his beliefs is not on trial. What is a bigger question is whether or not he should be viewed with sympathy or empathy.

That sympathy can only come, however, if we are capable of viewing the man’s actions as justified. Or can it? Mason’s portrayal of the wounded and dying man is geared to create exactly that sympathy, and it works. Agree with the cause or not (and really, as a non-Irish American, I’m pretty neutral) the character engenders a significant emotional response. That’s the genius of Odd Man Out.

You want to know what’s even better? You might be able to guess the ending correctly, but you won’t really know how it’s going to turn out until the last few minutes, and yet the ending fits with everything we’ve been shown.

Why to watch Odd Man Out: Plots and twists and turns and no one to trust. Oh, and James Mason.
Why not to watch: A tendency to speak in an Irish accent once the movie is done.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Can Count to Ten

Film: Dekalog (The Decalogue)
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on laptop.

The word “masterpiece” gets bandied about frequently when speaking of any artistic endeavor. I’ve certainly used it more than my share of times on this blog in the past eight or so months. And yet, when a true masterpiece is encountered, it is undeniable. There isn’t another word for it. When Stanley Kubrick was asked to name a masterpiece created within his lifetime, he could name only one: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog.

This is not a film. Instead, it is a series of ten films are loosely on the Biblical Ten Commandments, or at least a version of them. It was interesting to me that there are different versions, or that they are at least broken down differently. The version I learned way back when, for instance, considered coveting as a single commandment, while the version here considers coveting a neighbor’s wife as the ninth, and a neighbor’s goods as the tenth. Regardless, the sentiments are the same despite differences in division.

Each of the ten films deals at least in a vague way with a single commandment, although the division isn’t perfectly clean. While one edict may be the main part of the story, elements of other commandments creep in and help drive each plot forward. The connection between the stories, other than the obvious Biblical references, is that all of the take place in the same block of apartments in Warsaw, each film is just shy of an hour long, and a young, unnamed man appears in the background of all but the final film. They are also all very slow to develop, with the true direction of the film often not being revealed until mid-way through. Sometimes, situations from one story or related people will crop up. The story of the second film is referenced in the eighth, for instance. The tenth film concerns the sons of a minor character in the eighth.

Because of the subject matter here, each of these stories pivots around ethical dilemmas, where people are forced into making terrible, difficult choices or are forced to deal with the consequences of decisions they have made. The main characters are placed into situations where a particular sin becomes a temptation, or even a necessity, with all that this entails.

What strikes me here is the inventiveness of some of these stories. Coming up with an hour-long drama dealing with infidelity or murder, for instance, would be easy. But how does one make a drama out of a false idol or keeping the Sabbath holy? Kieslowski, who co-wrote as well as directed these films, creates moving, beautiful stories to answer these questions, and does not stop there. The tales concerning the relatively “easy” commandments of adultery, killing, and covetousness are handled with the same level of inventiveness and style. In going deeper into each of the commandments, Kieslowski brings up and deals with complex moral issues.

For instance, in the fifth film, the topic is murder. A young man named Jacek kills a cab driver seemingly at random. The death is a terrible, brutal affair that lasts far longer than it should, either because Jacek cannot deal with his actions or because he is torturing the driver. Regardless, Jacek is caught, convicted, and sentenced to death. His attorney attempts to argue against the death penalty to no avail, and Jacek is killed, almost as terribly and brutally as the cab driver. So if killing is proscribed and Jacek a terrible human being for committing murder, why is it that we allow the state to commit the same act? How are the actions of his executioners any different from his own? Certainly this is an argument that could go around and around, but the fact that the film addresses that argument is a great thing. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, and one that the film asks, but leaves the viewer to answer.

The second film tells of a man lying in a coma. His wife continually pesters the doctor as to whether or not her husband will live. Eventually, we discover that she is pregnant by a man other than her husband. If he is going to die, she will have the baby, because she wants the baby. However, she also loves her husband, and if he is going to live, she will have an abortion. Does the doctor have the right to determine the fact of the man or the child? Does he have the right to place himself in a position before God?

The book upon which this blog is based mentions only the first of these films—Jeden—as the one to watch. I cannot agree. All of these films are beautifully done, and each is different from the next. Kieslowski, in an effort to make each film its own entity, worked with ten different cinematographers. As a matter of fact, I don’t think Jeden is the best of these films. Each has its merits, and each is worth not just watching, but pondering over. While Jeden may not be my favorite, I don’t think I can pick one I liked the best. Of them all, I think Dziesiec (10) was the most difficult to watch, although that may simply have been from my being so close to the end.

I’ve watched Dekalog over the course of the last several weeks, and I think this is the best way to watch it. The films bring up enough material that watching them straight through would quickly become overwhelming. Dekalog requires time to mull over each film and each of the moral and ethical problems posed. Don’t watch just the first one—you’re only robbing yourself if you do. Watch them all, and take your time with them. Give each one the space and thought it deserves, and you will find yourself amply rewarded.

There neither space nor time to discuss each of these films in depth, although each film is rich enough to deserve such treatment. In the interest of completeness, though, here is the story of each one (numbered as in the Polish) as well as the main commandment it concerns parenthetically:

Jeden (false idols): A young boy lives with his father, who has essentially lost his faith. Instead, the father trusts almost exclusively in his computer. The computer here is a false god, an idol given complete deference by the father, who believes in it completely.

Dwa (no other god): As mentioned above, the wife of a comatose patient is pregnant by another man. Should the doctor claim the power of God and pronounce the man dead, or should he risk the woman having an abortion against his own beliefs?

Trzy (keeping the Sabbath holy): A cab driver wishes to spend Christmas Eve (a holy day) with his family. Instead, he is contacted by a woman he once had an affair with. She claims she cannot locate her husband and begs for help. Should he keep this day sacred, or help someone who needs it?

Cztery (honoring father and mother): A young woman lives with her father, her mother having died days after giving birth. She finds a letter from her mother that tells her that the man she thought was her father is not. The film concerns how she reacts to this news and the relationship with the man who raised her.

Piec (no killing): As discussed above—the murder of a cab driver and the state sponsored execution of his killer. Why does the state have rights that the individual does not?

Szesc (no adultery): A man spies on a promiscuous woman through his apartment window. He is obsessed with her, and manufactures reasons to see her. He finally admits this to her, and she destroys his notions of romance, causing him to attempt suicide. Possibly my favorite of the ten (pictured above).

Siedem (no stealing): A girl is raised by her grandmother, not realizing that her “sister” is actually her mother. The girl’s actual mother kidnaps the girl and attempts to run away with her, stealing the girl in the way she envisions that her mother stole the girl from her.

Osiem (no false witness): An ethics professor is confronted by a translator who knew her in the past. The translator is a Jewish survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. The professor (of ethics, no less) is the woman who denied the translator asylum after having promised it, claiming that to do so would be to bear false witness, and that it conflicted with her beliefs. Another contender for my favorite.

Dziewiec (no coveting of spouses): A doctor discovers that he is permanently impotent. He suggests to his wife that she take a lover, and then finds himself obsessed and insanely jealous of the situation, in effect coveting his own wife.

Dziesiec (no coveting of goods): Two brothers inherit an incredibly valuable stamp collection from their father, and find that it is far more trouble than it is worth.

The word “masterpiece” is overused, but here it applies. Kieslowski’s series of films is a staggering achievement, and it is relatively unknown in this country only because of its origins as a Polish television series. That’s a shame. More people should watch this. You should be one of them. Yes, you.

Why to watch Dekalog: Intelligent moral questions without preaching.
Why not to watch: Locating it isn’t easy, and people will ask you why you are watching Polish television.

Monday, September 13, 2010

To the Mattresses

Films: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

If you are older than 15, you’ve probably seen both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. My wife has not seen either of these films and doesn’t really have a lot of interest in them. That makes her one of about five adults in the world who have never seen these movies.

With that in mind, I’m going to guess that the chances are very good that, male or female, you’ve seen these movies, so I’m not going to delve into plot here much beyond the very basics. There are plenty of places both on the Internet and elsewhere you can discover summaries of these films. And really, since the combined length of the films is over six hours, even a cursory summary here will have me typing for the next hour.

Suffice it to say that The Godfather is the story of the Corleone crime family. Specifically, we have Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who took the name when he arrived in America in the early part of the century. His last name is actually the name of the town he grew up in, and it was given to him by one of the immigration officials. Vito has four children: Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), Connie ( Talia Shire), and Michael (Al Pacino). Sonny is to be the next boss, and is hot-blooded and uncontrollable. Fredo is weak and not very bright. Connie is wild and spoiled. Michael is the family pride. He is to be kept out of the business so that he can be respectable.

A war starts between the Corleone family and the other crime families in New York based on the drug trade—Vito wants no part of it because it’s dirty. This leads to an assassination attempt on him, one that he survives. The war continues, significantly in that Michael enters into the conflict as an active participant despite the fact that he has always been a civilian—untouchable because he is a war hero and not a part of the criminal enterprises.

Of course, things don’t work out the way Vito Corleone planned, as Michael becomes more and more embroiled in family business, eventually ending up in charge of the family.

The sequel picks up several years after the original film stops. We also get a number of flash backs to the early oughts and the early pre-crime life of Corleone (played here by Robert De Niro). Corleone is poor, and loses his job to a crime boss in New York. When he turns to crime and is forced to give up some of his take to the boss, Vito plots to kill him and does so, leading to his eventual respect in the neighborhood and his life of crime as the head of a major syndicate, all of which is covered in the first film.

This film also concerns the continued criminal career of Michael and his role in charge of the family. Michael has learned to become ruthless, and acts in the way to best further the aims of himself and his people, despite promises to turn the family’s businesses legitimate he makes to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton). This story is much more about Michael’s consolidation of power as the head of the family and his own maneuverings made under the tutelage of his father.

Both films are really about Michael. The first concerns his entry into the family business as the one sibling most untouched by the life of crime originally. It’s important that his entry into the criminal world is voluntary—he makes it himself rather than by force from someone else, and this dominates every decision he makes from that point forward. While the second film does include the back story of Vito Corleone, it is also Michael’s film. His efforts to make the family business legitimate come to nothing, and he can do nothing to leave the life of crime he has entered, and soon no longer has a desire to do so.

These are sprawling films filled with death and pain. They also feature tremendous casts. In addition to the people above, Robert Duvall plays Tom Hagen, the family lawyer and all but adopted son. Other roles are played by Bruno Kirby, Lee Strasberg, Troy Donohue, Abe Vigoda, Harry Dean Stanton, Danny Aiello, Sterling Hayden, and more.

It may be that The Godfather films glamorize the Mafia and the criminal life despite their bleakness. Glamorized or not, these films are tremendous portraits of the people in them. All of their stories are tragic and unhappy, and while I find it difficult to really like them, there is still a great deal of empathy for them. There is cruelty throughout, and pain, and very little that happens here is good in any sense of the word.

But it is brilliant. Both of these films won Oscars for Best Picture; the second was the first sequel to do so. The third, considered by most people to be the poor stepchild of the bunch, was nominated. It is the worst of the lot, but is still good—but suffers in comparison with the first two films. It’s hard to be the third film following two of the greatest films ever made.

Which is better? Hard to say. They are both exemplary films, evidence of Coppola’s skill at that point in his career. If you’ve never seen them, spend a day with them and allow yourself to become engrossed in them. They are worth it.

Why to watch The Godfather: Movies don’t get much better.
Why not to watch: There is no reason to not watch this film.

Why to watch The Godfather Part II: It has everything.
Why not to watch: Few films glamorize the idea of the mob more than this film.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I'd Travel to Get Away from the Cast

Film: The Accidental Tourist
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

As a parent, there are things I don’t want to experience, even in a movie. I’m not a huge fan of films that put children in danger, or worse, kill them off. The Accidental Tourist starts with a dead kid and goes from there. Macon Leary (William Hurt) and his wife Sarah (Kathleen Turner) have lost a son to a random murder, which we discover about 10 minutes in. We also discover that Macon is emotionally distant, and has not dealt with the death in a way that helps Sarah. In fact, Sarah wants a divorce, which we also discover right away.

Macon writes travel guides focused on the business traveler. Sarah, in fact, seems to think that Macon’s travel guides are an extension of him. His guides specifically instruct travelers on how to be away from home without it feeling like being away from home. His books are loaded with instructions on how to feel at home while away—what to pack and not to pack, where to go in foreign countries to feel like an American in America, and the like.

When Macon heads out for a trip to London for his next guide, he is forced to board his dog, Edward (a little Welsh corgi that looks quite a bit like my mutant corgi mix), because Sarah can’t take him where she is living. He locates a kennel run by Muriel (Geena Davis), who is the sort of wacky movie woman who also happens to be Macon’s complete opposite in almost every way. While he is reserved and dislikes human contact, she is outgoing and bubbly. The only thing they appear to have in common is marital woes—he is going through a separation while Muriel claims to be a divorcee in one of her first ten sentences.

If this is the first movie you have ever seen, you may not know what is going to happen. If, however, you have seen at least one movie in your life, you know for a fact that these two are going to hook up. In fact, when Macon picks up Edward after his trip, Muriel all but humps his leg, offering to both train Edward and to be available just to talk if Macon finds himself lonely. Since Macon seems to survive without human contact, much like lichen or sea urchins, he finds this behavior disturbing, which means that she has to call him, and she does.

After a bizarre accident involving Edward, a basket of laundry and a skateboard, Macon moves back in with his siblings Rose (Amy Wright), Porter (David Ogden Stiers), and Charles (Ed Begley, Jr.), who are all suitably wacky and kooky in the way movie families often are. They do things like alphabetize their groceries in the cabinets and act in ways that make them endearing in a cinematic way, and in ways that no humans actually act. Everyone has crazy relatives, but very few people have charming, goofy relatives that make life wacky and sweet.

Because of his broken leg from his abortive skateboarding expedition, Macon has fallen behind on his latest book, and is visited by Julian (Bill Pullman, when he was evidently 12-years-old), his publisher, who immediately becomes enamored of Rose. This is despite the fact that one of the main reasons Macon’s manuscript is behind is because Rose doesn’t have the right sized envelopes for his chapters, and is just anal retentive enough to be unwilling to send out his work until she buys envelopes that fit his work exactly. As Julian prepares to leave, Edward bites Macon, who naturally decides that it is time to get the dog trained, and naturally turns to Muriel.

What happens next should surprise no one. Macon and Muriel start to find themselves attracted to each other despite their obvious differences. Macon goes back and forth between Muriel and Sarah, who decides she wants Macon back. And that's the movie.

Here’s the thing. I genuinely dislike everyone in this movie with the exception of Macon. All he wants is to be left alone, even if the movie gives him this burning inward desire for a connection with other people. Muriel is annoying and never shuts up. Sarah does nothing but cry and feel sorry for herself. Rose needs therapy.

I find it difficult to enjoy a movie that feels so artificial. Only Macon seems like a real character while the rest are either window dressing or plot points. I don’t like these people and I don’t want to like them.

Some movies stick on the list only for a cup of coffee—an edition or two. The Accidental Tourist is one of those films. Honestly, I don’t think it should have ever been on the list on the first place.

Why to watch The Accidental Tourist: William Hurt, travel tips, and a few good dog training hints.
Why not to watch: These people need to be beaten with sticks.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Films: Alien, Aliens
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

It’s been awhile since I updated, mostly because of a film that will be appearing here in a few days. I just received the last DVD for that, and while I’m interested in finishing that film up, I needed a break from it today. So I’m watching a couple of films I dearly love instead: Alien and its arguably better sequel, Aliens.

Alien is the story of the crew of the Nostromo, a towing ship with a crew of seven. The ship has been roving around the galaxy and is, at the start of the film, loaded with 20 million tons of unrefined ore. The ship is headed back to Earth with the crew in hypersleep, when they are suddenly awakened by a distress beacon from a nearby planet. The crew investigates and discovers something startling—a massive alien spacecraft with no evidence of survivors. The ship itself is huge, and the creatures it held, based on the scale, were massive. The skeletal remains of one sits in a chair on what passes for the bridge, with bizarre wounds—it appears to have had its ribcage burst apart from the inside.

What there is is a room filled with bizarre eggs. As the crew investigates, one of the eggs splits open and a creature leaps out, attaching itself to the faceplate of a crewman named Kane (John Hurt). It burns through the glass and attaches itself to his face. Kane is still alive, and the rest of the crew drag him back aboard the Nostromo before taking off. Any attempt to remove the creature threatens Kane’s life, so they leave him where he is. After a few days, the thing falls off his face and lies dead on the floor. This takes the first hour of the film.

Of course, if that was all there was, there wouldn’t be much of a film, let alone one of the greatest science fiction/horror films ever made. At the next meal, Kane convulses, and a brand new creature pops out of his chest in a scene that, despite being 30+ years old, is still effective and startling. The creature runs away, grows to a massive size, and then begins to pick of members of the crew one at a time. This crew, in no order, consists of Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Ash (Ian Holm). Once things get going, they really get going. Half an hour after Kane’s abortive last meal, half of the remaining crew is dead in one way or another.

There are other surprises along the way, of course. It would still be a great movie without all of the additional surprises that crop up along the way and the interplay of the personalities. Ash, for instance, is a hardass who tows the company line in all things. Parker and Brett just want their share of the money for the job. These characters turn into real people with depth over the course of the film, which is one of the reasons the film is so effective, as is the fact that we don’t really see many of the deaths on screen in front of us.

The two stars of this film are Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and the alien itself, which was based on the artwork of H.R. Giger. Beyond these two, and the rest of the cast, what makes the film work so well is the blending of genres. Alien is absolutely a science fiction film, but it is equally horror. Essentially, it is a slasher movie or a haunted house picture set in outer space, with higher stakes because the characters literally cannot get away from creature, since they are millions of miles away from home.

It’s worth noting that Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon, who was a college friend of John Carpenter. In fact, O’Bannon starred in Carpenter’s college film project, a low-budget science fiction comedy called Dark Star that is actually worth watching despite the $0 special effects budget (the alien in this film is played by an inflated beach ball). It’s not immediately clear to me who is responsible for the overall look of the film, but as far as I am aware, it’s the first time that a film of this type feature such a dirty, industrial look for the future. Far from the lean and clean spacecraft of earlier science fiction films, the Nostromo looks like an overcrowded factory with pipes and wires hanging everywhere, and not quite enough lighting to see everything clearly. It’s really effective. This is made even more effective by the constant smoking of the crew, which adds a foggy, smoky atmosphere to every scene.

It’s also notable in the sense of Ripley’s role. There are two female parts in this film—Ripley and Lambert. Lambert is far more of a traditional sci-fi woman’s role. She screams a lot, and spends a good bulk of the last hour crying, a stereotype often played in movies based on the idea that women are more emotionally fragile than men. Ripley, on the other hand, is a extremely strong, in-charge character. O’Bannon’s original script considered all of the character roles unisex, so there’s nothing specific about Ripley’s part that requires a woman to be in the role. What that means is that Ripley is, in many ways, one of the first film characters who is her job in the film first, and a woman second. There were certainly female asskickers in film before Ripley, but this role is different. Ripley isn’t a kung fu killer or a sexy assassin trading on looks and slinky outfits. She’s a competent performer in her job who merely happens to be a woman, making this an important film in terms of the presence and treatment of women by and in film.

Alien proved to be such a success that seven years later, its sequel was produced. Aliens does not pick up from where the first film left off, but instead gives us a new story with only one character consistent—Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The biggest change is the directorial duties. Ridley Scott opted not to direct the sequel, giving way to James Cameron. Cameron is much more attuned to straight action, and in this sequel he delivers.

In fact, Aliens is very much a straightforward science fiction film. While there are scares and jump moments here, no one would call this film horror. It takes place nearly 60 years after the original film. Ripley’s escape pod has been rescued, and she learns that, to coin a film cliché, everyone she knows and loves is dead, including her daughter. She’s put on trial by Weyland-Yutani, the company she worked for because of the destruction of the Nostromo, and is banned from finding work in the same field. Shortly thereafter, she is contacted by the company again when a terrible secret is revealed. The company has placed settlers on the original planet, and they have now lost contact with the colony.

Ripley, because she is the only one to have survived contact with the alien species the first time, agrees to return to the planet to investigate what has happened. She accompanies a team of marines who are going just in case the worst has happened (and if you know anything about films, you already know that the worst has happened). The colony has been overrun—the people are dead, and the place is crawling with the same kind of alien that ravaged Nostromo in the first film. Of course, the kicker this time is that there are a bunch of aliens this time—probably coming from the thousands of eggs that didn’t open in the first film.

Ripley is seen as something of a crackpot at first, at least until the marines first encounter the creatures for the first time. It’s at this point that the personalities of the marines start to come into play, and we get a better sense of who they are, and they are an interesting bunch. A good half of the marines bite it in the first encounter, and those remaining are a motley assortment. Ripley is still around naturally, as is a little girl they encounter on the planet early on. This is Newt (Carrie Henn), who survived the carnage by hiding from the giant creatures. Also surviving at this point is Hicks (Michael Biehn), the corporal, and a solid soldier; Bishop (Lance Henriksen), who is more of an advisor (see the spoiler below); Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a company representative; Hudson (Bill Paxton), a wannabe tough guy who is prone to panic; Gorman (William Hope), the inexperienced lieutenant; and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), a tough-as-nails marine out to prove that women can do anything men can do.


Bishop is an android. This is revealed early in the film, so it’s not much of a spoiler. Ripley has an intense reaction to this, though, because Ash in the first film was also an android, and attempted to kill her as well as the rest of the Nostromo’s crew.


Again, the goal is to survive, this time against overwhelming alien odds. The characters attempt to get off the planet, fighting against time and the aliens as well as each other. While there are certainly tense moments, this is an action film. The characters aren’t stalked by the aliens, but assaulted by them, and the aliens are fended off with high caliber weaponry, flame throwers, and explosives. Burke wants nothing other than a live specimen to bring back to Weyland-Yutani, and threatens the others at every turn.

There are two payoffs in this film. The first is that Ripley continues to be a strong female presence on the screen, this time with mothering instincts kicking in thanks to the presence of young Newt. While in Alien the Ripley role could have been handled by a man or a woman, in this film, the role is definitely a female one. Ripley is no less competent, no less bad-ass, and no less an asskicker than in the first film, but here she is allowed to be more than just a character who happens to be female. Here, she is allowed to be an asskicker who happens to have a nurturing, caring side. It’s an even better role than the first film.

The second great payoff is the confrontation between Ripley in the forklift suit and the queen alien in the loading dock. In this moment, Ripley comes into her own in one of the great fight scenes in science fiction film history. It says a great deal for Cameron’s script and Cameron himself that he was not only able to recognize this quality in the character, but keep it and expand it in the sequel without it ever becoming trite or maudlin. Ripley’s relationship with Newt is entirely believable. This is especially true in the director’s cut of the film, which reveals Ripley’s relationship with her biological daughter.

Aliens happens to be far more quotable than the original film as well. I don’t know if I can think of more than a couple of actual lines from the first film, but there are more than a dozen from Aliens that have become classics not only for the genre, but for film in general.

So which film is better? It’s impossible for me to say. These are not really comparable films despite the fact that the enemy is the same and the main character is the same. Alien is a horror film in a science fiction setting. The fact that the characters happen to be on a spaceship just means that they don’t have a way of getting out of the situation. They’re trapped, but they’d be trapped the same way in a deserted house with a guy carrying a machete. The second film is a straight action film. It's a war with an unusual foe, and so it really works like a war film in a lot of ways.

Naturally, with the success of the first two films, more sequels appeared. Specifically, there was Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection. The first of these was directed by David Fincher, who was so disgusted by what happened with the film that he wanted to have his name removed from it. Fincher has since gone on to have a tremendous career, but Alien3 started it out on a very wrong foot. In truth, it’s not a terrible film. It’s actually okay, but it starts with two strikes against it, namely the first two films in the series. Had it been a stand-alone film, it would have something of a following for no other reason than the kick-ass critter. As the third film in one of the greatest science fiction properties ever made, though, it falls woefully short. The fourth film is really better not mentioned any further. For my money, the series ends after the second film.

Why to watch Alien: Because it’s freakin’ awesome!
Why not to watch: Lambert needs a punch in the kisser.

Why to watch Aliens: More of what made the first movie great, plus a shit-ton of great quotes.
Why not to watch: Where the series went after this film.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

This Blog Post is Not Self-Referential

Films: Persona, The Purple Rose of Cairo
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Persona), DVD from Rockford Public Library on middlin’-sized living room television (Purple Rose).

Were I a smarter man, I would not have chosen Ingmar Bergman’s surreal black and white thought experiment Persona as the first Bergman film for this blog. I would have gone with something simpler, or at least easier to track. It is a film like this that makes Bergman easy to spoof, and probably has influenced a few hundred thousand film students in making their own film projects with meaningless juxtapositions and shots of bleak landscapes.

Ostensibly, Persona is the story of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who freezes on stage one night. From that moment, she slides into a sort of willful catatonia, refusing to speak or really interact much with the outside world. She is, we are told, physically and mentally sound (although I’m not so sure about the second part of that). After a long stay in a hospital, she is sent off to a beach house with her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

But wait. That’s not how things start. We start with a series of unconnected images. The film opens with what looks like problems with the projector. We see a lamb evidently being slaughtered, a man having a spike pounded through his hand, a spider, and then what looks to be bodies in a morgue. It looks that way until one of the bodies opens its eyes, and another one shifts around and looks at us. And then we get into the story of Elisabet and Alma.

Alma talks; Elisabet listens. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alma talks about everything, and much of it is trivial initially. Eventually, after drinking more than she should, Alma talks about the one time she was unfaithful to her fiancé, a casual fling on a beach during a day spent sunbathing nude. She also talks about the subsequent abortion. It’s clear that Alma is harboring a great deal of guilt for these events, but it is unclear as to the exact reason. It’s possible, and likely in her mind, that the guilt comes from having done something she regrets. The implication, though, is that the guilt stems from the fact that it appears this impromptu beach orgy is the only satisfying sexual event of her life.

The next day, Alma drives to the nearby down to send off some letters. One letter, written by Elisabet, is unsealed, and Alma reads it. She discovers that Elisabet is actually studying her, and revealing all of her confessed sins in the letter. Now furious and betrayed, Alma returns to the beach house and breaks a glass on the patio outside. She refuses to clean this up, and watches as Elisabet steps on a piece of broken glass, cutting her foot.

And then the film breaks. It tears vertically, freezes, and burns and the screen goes white. We’re treated again to some of the images from the opening of the film, and watch as one of the two women walks around in the house while the camera is out of focus. Suddenly it snaps back into focus, and we’re back to the story. Alma tears into Elisabet and threatens her with a pot of boiling water, which forces Elisabet to finally speak. She storms off and Alma chases her, begging for forgiveness.

Suffice it to say that at this point, it becomes evident that the two women are merging into a single personality—Elisabet’s will is dominating that of Alma, and Alma is essentially becoming Elisabet. This is shown in several different ways, initially by a visit from Elisabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) in which he mistakes Alma for Elisabet, and then by a merging of the two women’s faces in what is certainly the most shocking scene of the film. We see Alma’s face screen left, Elisabet’s screen right, and the two women look almost identical. There are differences in the nose and around the mouth, but the eyes are the same. Alma welcomes this initially—she accepts Elisabet’s husband as her own and agrees that she is truly Elisabet.

So, what the holy living hell is going on here? It seems to me that Elisabet is attempting to force Alma to become her. The pain of her own existence is so acute, so intense, that the only way out for her is to force someone else to become her so that she can live in seclusion without the pain of putting on the mask of real life. That’s got to be at least part of it based on the name—it isn’t called “People” or “Women”, but Persona, which calls to mind such words as “identity,” “public identity,” “character,” and even “façade.”

Despite this, Bergman never lets his audience forget that it is watching a film. The introductory sequence, the broken film and out of focus camera work in the middle, and the actual filming of the crew filming a scene at the end serve as reminders that this is not real. We are an audience watching a story take place on a screen. We’ve been watching what we have always been trained to believe, both willfully and by trickery, is life instead of a film. But really, we’ve just been watching personae adopted by the actors, who then go on with their lives once the filming is over.

The film is shot in stark black and white. Most of the scenery—the hospital, the beach house, the beach itself—is bright white while the women wear black outfits and little or no makeup. The camera moves very little if at all in most scenes and there is almost no set decoration, which forces the audience to pay attention to the women. Bergman frequently places his camera in such a way that one face appears in the foreground and the other behind, partially obscured. Even before we get the blending of faces near the end, the two women are already becoming one, since they are often shown in this way, one partially obscuring the other.

The genius here is that not only is the story about this idea of persona, the public façade that everyone has, but that Bergman constantly reminds us that these are actors playing a role. In discussing these personae, they are themselves adopting personae.

Is it Bergman’s greatest work? I don’t know. I haven’t watched nearly enough Bergman to know. It is justifiably considered one of the greatest films ever made, and its influence on films that followed it is understandable and justified.

Anyone who has ever seen both a Bergman movie and a Woody Allen movie knows that the first is a huge influence on the second. There’s something about Woody Allen’s style that screams existentialism, either when he’s being serious (which he does well) or when he’s going for comedy (which he does very well, especially early in his career). Allen, for all the strangeness of his personal life, is a consummate filmmaker. He rarely makes a good film—his stinkers are complete misfires, but his better films are truly great, and he’s made a lot of great films. It’s also evident from watching his work that he dearly loves movies. He undoubtedly loves to talk about movies and spends a lot of time thinking about movies. It comes as no surprise, then, that he’d make a movie about movies.

Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo contains a different sort of self reference. It’s less of a meta film then it is a film within a film. Even more than that, it’s a love song to movies in the same way that Allen’s Radio Days was a love song to the days before television. In this film, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a not-so-good waitress in New Jersey during The Great Depression. She’s married to Monk (Danny Aiello), who is a shiftless, out-of-work, philandering gambler. Cecilia loses herself in the movies, going to a show every week. She also attempts to leave Monk time and time again, but can never quite get there.

The latest film is The Purple Rose of Cairo, and she loves the film tremendously. In the film, an explorer is dragged away from an archaeological dig in Cairo and brought back to New York where he falls for a singer at the Copacabana. But everything changes when on a repeat viewing of the film, the character walks out of the screen into the real world and approaches Cecilia on the day she loses her job.

This is one of the great scenes of Allen’s career, or really anyone’s career. The character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen and the other characters immediately react as if they are characters on a stage. A minister shows up in the scene even though he’s not supposed to be there until reel six, and the maid comes out and complains that someone is playing a vicious joke on her since Tom has left the film. What makes this scene work, however, is the reaction of the audience. While Tom and Cecilia run out of the theater and the manager has a minor nervous breakdown, the bulk of the theater patrons sit, smiles on their faces, happily eating their popcorn as if this is precisely what is supposed to happen. The characters have a minor existential crisis when the manager threatens to turn off the projector.

Tom is a completely engaging character, a true movie character of the 1930s. He’s a sort of perfect man in his pith helmet and wide smile. He’s an odd mix of things, and while vaguely three-dimensional, he really isn’t. For instance, he talks about his father, but then claims to have never met him because the film’s story occurs at some point after his father has died. He is, after all, a character, and knows only those things that are written into him. Cecilia takes him to an amusement park that is currently abandoned as a place to hide, and he is excited because he understands amusement parks—they are written into his character. Popcorn, he doesn’t understand, having never eaten it, but has seen it eaten by the endless waves of theater patrons.

The movie company, of course, panics now that one of the main characters has left the film, and they bring the actor who played Tom Baxter, a man named Gil Shepherd (obviously, also played by Jeff Daniels). What follows is, I think, completely unique in film stories. Cecilia is wooed by both men, forgetting her bum of a husband. Both the fictional Tom and the very real Gil romance her, forcing her to make a choice. Her choice is best left to spoilers.


Cecilia has the opportunity to step into the film world with Tom and forever be a character on the screen. She opts not to, essentially forcing Tom back into his screen romance forever. Instead, Cecilia decides that it would be better to live a real life with Gil. Naturally, Gil leaves her, and she is without a job, without a home, and without a husband, and both of her romances have left her. The film ends with Cecilia again sitting in the movie theater, this time watching Top Hat and again finding solace in film.


So what does it all mean? It means that movies are movies. They are flights of fancy and a way to take us somewhere else than the mundane real world that most of us live in, but that they’ll never be more than that, and they shouldn’t be. The idea that they are imagination and nothing more than that may be sad, but it’s also ultimately true. Movies are there for us to love, and for us to fall in love with, but they aren’t and cannot be reality.

Allen’s film is, of course, self-referential, as any film about film must be. That it’s a different sort of self-reference than Bergman’s means nothing. This film is, as I’ve said, a love song, and like any great love song, it ends too soon.

Why to watch Persona: Bergman’s existential masterpiece.
Why not to watch: Seriously, WTF?

Why to watch The Purple Rose of Cairo: If you love movies, it’s what you dream about.
Why not to watch: The ending is a wrist-slitter.