Monday, January 31, 2011


Films: Orphee (Orpheus); Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus)
Format: VHS from Blackhawk College Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television (Orpheus); streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Black Orpheus).

As a kid, I was fascinated by Greek myth. Of course, I was more attracted to the violent myths filled with heroes and monsters than I was to the more love-oriented myths, but even these I found interesting. More than anything, I was struck by how unfair many of the myths seemed and how tragic a number of them were. People repeatedly got caught up in things much larger than they were and ended up crushed by these forces. Such is the myth of Orpheus, which has been filmed several times.

In the most famous version of the myth, Orpheus is the greatest poet and musician in the world, so talented that animals stopped to listen and trees and rocks came alive and danced. He and his wife Eurydice loved each other completely, but a satyr was taken with her beauty and pursued her. Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and was killed, causing Orpheus to fall into a terrible depression. His playing convinces Hades to release Eurydice back to life, but only on the condition that Orpheus does not look at her on the trip back. The two wander through the Underworld until they reach the exit, when Orpheus glances back, losing Eurydice forever. Swearing off women forever, he is eventually torn to pieces by the maenads (followers of Dionysus), and his head—still singing—floats down a river on his lyre. Gruesome, and kind of cool.

A myth like this one is ripe for interpretation, and in the 1950s, it was interpreted at least twice. First is Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (Orpheus), the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy. Cocteau takes a great deal of liberty with the basic story here, covering the Orpheus and Eurydice myth only on its edges in that we do have a character named Orpheus, he’s married to Eurydice, and there’s some death going on here. But Cocteau decides to essentially rewrite the myth in this version. Here, and this is a great indication that this isn’t taking place in Eisenhower’s America, Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a poet and is renowned enough to have groupies. However, he has fallen somewhat out of favor with the locals. The new poetic flavor of the month is a young man named Cegeste (Eduoard Dermithe).

In a brawl at a café (which sounds like a contradiction in terms, or that “brawl” is to sound more masculine than poets hurling epithets at each other), Cegeste is killed when he is run down in the street by a pair of motorcyclists. His patron (Maria Casares) who is considered a princess but is actually Death takes the body of the young poet back to her house, bringing Orpheus with her as a witness. However, since she is actually death, she takes Cegeste into the underworld, leaving Orpheus with her chauffeur/dead guy servant Heurtebise (Francois Perier).

This sets up one of the strangest love trapezoids ever conceived. Princess Death finds herself obsessed with Orpheus and visits his room every night. Orpheus is equally obsessed with Princess Death, essentially forgetting about his wife, Eurydice (Marie Dea). He’s also obsessed with a strange radio broadcast of nonsense sentences that, as it turns out, are the poetry of Cegeste (as well as a nod to the BBC broadcasts during WWII to the French Resistance). Heurtebise finds himself enthralled with Eurydice. For both Princess Death and Heurtebise, loving a mortal is a terrible crime, and they risk severe punishment.

Eventually, giving in on her impulses, Death sends her motorcycle assassins to kill Eurydice, and she takes her to the Underworld. Orpheus follows, but it’s evident that he isn’t necessarily following to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living, but because of his obsession with Princess Death.

It’s damn strange. Death frees Orpheus from his bonds to her, and a tribunal in the Underworld allows Eurydice to return to the living, but only if Orpheus never looks at her again. Should he see her, she will die. And then…


It’s revealed that all of this is a dream. Eurydice wakes up and she’s alive, and Orpheus is alive, and they’re going to have a child. However, since we essentially witness Orpheus return from the Underworld through reversed film (which is actually quite effective here), it’s evident that it’s not really a dream, but is being perceived as a dream. It feels like a dream and everyone calls it a dream, but it happened, and there are real consequences for Princess Death and Heurtebise.


Cocteau’s film is strange and unnerving. He does very interesting work with mirrors throughout the film, mirrors being the way to enter the Underworld. Despite the film’s age, the effect of going through the mirrors is interesting and still works pretty well. I’m less sure that the entire film works, though. It’s a difficult film to understand, particularly with the surrealist elements that take up much of its space. It is visually interesting, but I like my myths as they are, thank you very much. I’d prefer my Orpheus story to stick as close to the original as possible.

This, more than anything, is why I was not disappointed with Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). Marcel Camus’s film sticks very closely to the original myth, keeping much of the story the same but modernized. It’s the setting that makes this film something special, though. Rather than dreary cafes and bombed-out ruins from World War II, Orfeu Negro takes place in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Even better, it’s in color. This isn’t a knock against Cocteau’s film—the black and white of that film is crisp and suits the mood. But here, in Brazil during the craziest festival of the year, it’s color all the way.

Our main character is, naturally, Orfeo (Breno Mello), a streetcar driver who also plays the guitar and writes his own music. As with the mythical Orpheus, he is greatly loved by all of the women in the area. He is attached to Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), a pretty but extremely high-maintenance woman who demands that Orfeo marry her. At the same time, Eurydice arrives in Rio on the run from a man she is convinced is trying to kill her. She meets Orfeu briefly, but leaves to find her cousin, Serafina (Lea Garcia), who happens to live next door to Orfeu.

Despite Orfeu’s connection to Mira and Mira’s demands on him, Orfeu finds himself attracted to Eurydice, and he quickly realizes that Mira is far too demanding, mean, and unpleasant. He spends a magical night with Eurydice, much to Mira’s anger. The next day is Carnival. Serafina wishes to spend the day with her boyfriend, and convinces Eurydice to take her place in the costume. This way, Serafina gets what she wants, and Eurydice can spend the day dancing with Orfeu on the streets of Rio. The veil helps with this, and it helps to keep Eurydice out of the sights of the man who wants to kill her, who has followed her, and is dressed as a skeleton.

Since this story follows the myth quite closely, this means that Eurydice is doomed, as is the love between her and Orfeu. It’s here that Camus gets the most inventive. Charon, the boatman, is represented here as a government official in the bureau of missing persons, and he leads Orfeu to the morgue where Eurydice’s body lays. When Orfeu tries to make contact with his love, he does so at an Obeah ceremony. An old woman is inhabited by Eurydice’s spirit, and disappears when Orfeu turns to look at her.

The sell for this movie is the glory of the carnival—the costumes, the dancing, and the music. It’s truly something to see, and frequently, the film continues on a scene of dancing and music after our principal characters have left the area.

There are other nice touches throughout the film. When Orfeu plays his guitar for a pair of young boys, the boys silence the animals in the area so that they can enjoy the music, a nice reminder of the original myth. The boys also ask if it is true that Orfeu sings to the sun in the morning to cause it to rise, and he admits that he does. He also tells the boys that he is not the original Orpheus, and that when he is gone, another will take his place. This comment is realized in the final shot of the film.

This film is truly special and beautiful. Some shots go on a little too long, and the non-stop music and dancing can be wearying. Regardless, Orfeu Negro is a visual delight, and the fact that it stays true to its source material intelligently is an added bonus.

Why to watch Orphee: A unique take on a classic myth.
Why not to watch: Utter confusion for most of it.

Why to watch Orfeu Negro: A vibrant retelling that sticks to the main themes and plot of the original myth.
Why not to watch: Some scenes go on too long.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Butler Did It

Film: My Man Godfrey
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

No one has ever told me that I don’t think enough. Especially when it comes to things like film, I have a tendency to overthink, to read too much into what I’m seeing than I should. Freud is alleged to have once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” a reminder of which I need a frequent reminder. When I see a film like My Man Godfrey, I tend to spend too much time thinking about it and not nearly enough time simply enjoying it for what it is.

I can’t help that. Because of this, what should be a little happy-go-lucky screwball comedy becomes, in my world, a film closer in many ways to tragedy. It suffers from the necessity of a Hollywood happy ending, which turns the film from a subversive little comedy into something it shouldn’t be. Essentially, the wrong people win here. The film builds up to what should be a completely devastating commentary on the social and economic situation of the Great Depression…and then it punks out and gives in at the end.

We start with the Bullocks, a sort of quintessential screwball comedy family: dad (gravel-voiced and tubby Eugene Pallette), mom (Alice Brady), older daughter Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and younger daughter Irene (Carole Lombard). The women are participating in a scavenger hunt, out with the rest of the posh crowd looking for things that, as we are told, no one really wants. One of these things is a “forgotten man.” Cornelia spots a transient living in the city dump and wants to bring him along, but he pushes her into an ash pile. Instead, he wanders back to the party with Irene, winning her the prize for being the first one in with a human being for everyone to poke at and make fun of, and he leaves, justifiably outraged at being put on display as an object d’arte for rich people. However, Irene realizes exactly how degrading this process has been, and offers the man a job as a butler, and gives him some money to clean himself up.

This man is Godfrey (William Powell), who actually comes from a rather posh Boston family, but has dropped out of society for a variety of reasons. He takes the job and proves to be an admirable butler, since he’s the type who grew up with a butler and thus knows what is expected. He interacts with the family in a variety of ways. Irene has fallen desperately in love with him, and tries to mask this by claiming that he is her protégé. Cornelia aspires to be suspicious of Godfrey, but really manages little more than trying to spite her sister because she can. Mom is deliriously stupid and barely able to handle a conversation, while Dad does nothing but complain about money, hint at the family fortune being pissed through, and complain.

The middle act concerns both Irene’s desperate cry for attention from Godfrey and Cornelia’s attempts to, essentially, destroy the man for no reason other than the fact that Irene is infatuated with him and because she can do it. She learns that Godfrey actually has a past in society and she hides a string of her own pearls in Godfrey’s room, hoping to get him arrested when she claims they have been stolen. She’s foiled in this, a moment in which Irene takes nearly psychotic pleasure.

All of this builds up to what should be an incredibly satisfying conclusion. This is wry and intelligent social commentary up until the last fifteen minutes or so. Godfrey is a real man, a man who has seen the world from both sides of the glass. The wealthy Bullocks have absolutely no concept that other people have nothing. They question not that Godfrey was found living in the city dump, but why he would “choose” to live there, as if he had a choice at the time. Had La Cava stuck to his guns on this, My Man Godfrey could have been a real commentary on what the experience of real people was like at the time. But pressures from the studio or a necessity to stick with the formula gives us a formulaic happy ending to the point where Godfrey is essentially captured in marriage not of his choosing at the end, and a return to the society he escaped from in the first place.

And so, ultimately, I find this movie infuriating. I should have liked it and would have liked it had La Cava stuck with where he was going instead of making the turn into Happyville. It was close, but ultimately missed the runway and crashed on landing. Dang.

Why to watch My Man Godfrey: Screwball comedies are their own thing.
Why not to watch: An overwhelming desire to punch almost everyone on camera and an infuriating ending.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Don't Have to Ask, Don't Need to Tell

Film: Top Gun
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Once upon a time, just after I graduated from high school, when I was a Steve but not yet a Movie Guy, the movie Top Gun was released to a decent amount of critical acclaim. Back in those days, I was far more interested in drinking and having a good time than I was in watching film or intellectual pursuits. I went to see Top Gun with a group of my drinking buddies. The purpose wasn’t to watch the movie, but to “have a good time.” That being the case, we snuck a massive amount of beer into the theater. Thanks to my Army surplus pants and the liberal use of washcloths to deaden the clinking noises, I got in 18 Little Kings myself. I don’t remember much of the movie, although I do vaguely recall something having to do with airplanes.

Top Gun came right in the heart of Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, back in the heyday of the ‘80s when pro-America meant crapping on the poor, ignoring that AIDS existed, and building bigger and better weapons. I can’t help but imagine that this film gave Michael Bay his first cinematic hard-on and gave us all of the movies in his dubious canon. The intended message of this film, Kenny Logins soundtrack and all is undoubtedly one of American kickassitude and military superiority, and apple pie and the rest of that, although the real message is considerably different. We’ll get to that in a bit.

We’re introduced to our main character as he is flying. This is Maverick (Tom Cruise), a hotshot pilot of great skill and little impulse control and the man who sits behind him in the cockpit, a family man with the unfortunate callsign of Goose (Anthony Edwards). The two are flying a mission off an aircraft carrier with another plane headed by Cougar (John Stockwell) and Merlin (Tim Robbins…yes, that Tim Robbins). They encounter a couple of enemy MiGs, Maverick scares them off, Cougar loses his nerve and drops out of flying, and thanks to this, Maverick and Goose are sent off to Top Gun, the naval training school for the absolute best Navy pilots.

Once here, we meet a slough of character actors from the 1980s. Primary among these is Top Gun instructor Jester (Michael Ironside) and the winner of the first Top Gun trophy, Viper (Tom Skerrit). Maverick’s main competition at Top Gun is Iceman (Val Kilmer) and his backseat driver, Slider (Rick Rossovich). Maverick makes an ass out of himself in front of a woman at a bar, and she proves to be a civilian instructor codenamed Charlie (Kelly McGillis). Oh, and Goose is married to Carole (Meg Ryan). Seriously, all we need now is Stallone and Michael Biehn.

As Maverick and Goose hotshot around, we learn a number of things about them. We learn that Goose generally attempts to be Maverick’s conscience and fails miserably at it. We learn that Maverick acts the way he does in part because his father vanished in a jet under mysterious circumstances. We learn that Charlie can’t keep her hands off Maverick after he douches around her a lot. And we learn that as soon as we see a nice guy (Goose) happy, that we can expect him to die pretty soon after that, which is precisely what happens. It happens in a training mission when a freak incident happens that causes Maverick to lose control of his aircraft and Goose is killed when his ejection seat knocks him into his own canopy. The inquest clears Maverick of wrong doing, but of course he loses his nerve, and so for awhile we get to watch Tom Cruise act not like his typical self but as the Tom Cruise who doubts himself when suddenly everyone else believes in him. We’re supposed to flash back to Cougar at the start of the film here and think that it’s just possible that he’s lost his nerve for real…but of course he hasn’t.

And then, of course, there’s a real combat mission and the Navy needs Maverick and Iceman to fly it and everything works out, as if you didn’t know that going in. It’s a Tom Cruise movie from the mid 1980s, so no other ending was really possible.

Top Gun is Tom Cruise at his Tom Cruise-iest, his most douchey. It also features Val Kilmer at his douchiest as well. These are the guys who shoved band geeks into lockers in high school and got applause for doing so continuing to act like the world owes them everything they want. In short, it’s a film that could only have come from the time and place that it did.

The selling point for this movie wasn’t the ridiculous and straight out of Hollywood love story between Maverick and Charlie but the air combat sequences. These are pretty good if frequently confusing, but still pretty damn cool overall. I don’t really groove on airplanes that much, but there is a steroid-fuelled joy to watching stuff fly really fast, missiles launching, guns firing, and airplanes exploding.

That said, Top Gun is the most homoerotic film I have seen since I watched Satyricon last year. Iceman and Maverick hate the hell out of each other the way young boys show how much they hate girls by dumping their books. By the end of the film, they’re seconds away from dry humping each other on the flight deck. This is not the most homoerotic moment of the film, though; that happens when Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and Slider are playing beach volleyball shirtless (except for poor Anthony Edwards) while Kenny Logins sings “Playing with the Boys.” It’s gayer than a set of Paul Lynde Underoos, even more than the pilots walking around dressed in tighty-whiteys and towels or Val Kilmer making biting motions at Tom Cruise or the song over the credits singing about “blue steel” and “tak[ing] me on your mighty wings TONIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT.”

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Many of the most masculine things have this layer of homoeroticism in them, and the military is no different than wrestling in that regard. I just don’t remember it being this punch-in-the-face evident. Don’t ask, don’t tell, wink wink, nudge nudge.

Why to watch Top Gun: Flight sequences.
Why not to watch: Everything else.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Not to Do in a Haunted House

Film: Paranormal Activity
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Let’s talk about horror movies. It’s easy to classify horror movies in a bunch of different ways. One person, for instance, might classify them in terms of believability. A horror movie like Poltergeist ranks low on the believable scale while The Silence of the Lambs could possibly happen. They can be classified by the type of monster—slasher killer, zombie, vampire, etc. In my world, though, there are only two types of horror movie. There are movies in which the characters act intelligently and movies in which the characters act like idiots.

This brings us to Paranormal Activity, one of the newest entrants onto The List. This film is noteworthy because it’s another example of a film that made a truckload of cash on a shoestring of a shoestring budget, the entire thing being filmed for an alleged $15,000 and making something like $9 million in its first week. Those are numbers that make film execs sit up straight in their chairs.

This is the story of a young unmarried couple living in a starter home in San Diego. They’ve suddenly be plagued with what appears to be a haunting. We learn quickly that Katie (Katie Featherston) has experienced this before when she was a child and off and on since then. Her partner, Micah (Micah Sloat, and pronounced MEE-kah) is disturbed that he didn’t know anything about this before he moved in with Katie. They bring in an expert on the paranormal (Mark Fredrichs), who tells them that there is something going on and recommends that they don’t try to make contact with whatever entity is in the house—and that the entity is obviously focused on Katie.

Katie’s problem is that Micah is not taking things seriously. He takes things seriously enough to start filming things around the house, particularly their bedroom at night, and we soon start to see evidence that something is indeed going on. The door moves on its own accord one night, and another night they are awakened by a scream. Micah manages to record some EVP growls as well.

Things really start changing when it becomes evident that Katie spends some nights standing next to the bed staring at Micah. When Micah goes against her wishes and brings in a Ouija board, things start to change again. The planchette moves on its own and the board lights on fire for a few moments before going out. So there’s no question that there is something very dire going on in the house. Micah’s experiment with baby powder that reveals non-human footprints in the hallway shows that it’s likely that whatever is plaguing Katie is demonic.

And this is where I start to have issues with films like Paranormal Activity. With all of this evidence piling up that there is something going on in the house and with Katie, and their reaction to all of this is to stay in the house and continue to act like this is a problem that they can solve and work out on their own. In short, they act exactly like someone with an ounce of intelligence would not act; a sort of unnatural bravery that exists in movies and nowhere else.

Is the film scary? Certainly there are some parts of it that are decidedly creepy and disturbing. While made on a small budget with essentially first-time actors, the film is still professionally made and exhibits a level of quality that distinguishes it from an amateur production. From a personal standpoint, it helps that frequently the camera is placed on a tripod so I don’t have to live with the shaky camera thing, which tends to give me motion sickness (as in Blair Witch or Cloverfield). It’s not the low budget that bothers me here—it’s the way the people react to the events surrounding them.

In a film like this one, the characters in the film essentially deserve what they get. A horrible, terrifying, frightening event happens in their house in the middle of the night, and then they spend the next night in the same place, changing nothing. I understand why the parents in Poltergeist stay in the house; their daughter is missing. I don’t understand why Micah stays in the house at night with Katie, when everything seems to be connected to her. Both Katie and Micah deserve their fate.

This leaves me in something of a quandary. Oren Peli is a smart filmmaker, and this film is evidence of that. Rather than making it obvious that this is a film made on the cheap, he has created a film that looks far more expensive than it really is. Rather than making it obvious that this film was made with no budget, he works within the small budget he has. Paranormal Activity delivers scares in the old fashioned way, reminiscent of The Haunting in that for most of the film, nothing is shown and much is done with sound. That’s all to the good.

But the characters act so stupidly, so blindly walking into their fate, that I have trouble thinking they deserve better in the end. If Peli really wanted the ending he has on this film, he should have figured out a way to get there without giving Micah the self-preservation skills of a deficient lemming on the side of a cliff.

Why to watch Paranormal: Smart filmmaker.
Why not to watch: Dumb characters.

Monday, January 24, 2011

There's No Crying in Baseball

Film: Bull Durham
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

I’ve been making a concerted effort this month to really work on getting through not only some difficult films, but ones that are difficult to find and difficult to watch. I’ve been trying to challenge myself with films this month, and while that’s a good thing, it’s also exhausting. Since I had a full day off work today, it would’ve been sad had I not watched anything (that’s my Tuesday through the middle of March), I took a break in another way by watching a film I’ve seen a dozen times and love. In this case, that’s Bull Durham.

If you’ve never seen a minor league baseball game, or played a sport at any level, Bull Durham might pass over you in some respects, but maybe not—my wife likes this movie and was never much of an athlete. Frankly, I was never much of an athlete, either. Anyway, the film takes place across the length of one baseball season in Durham, North Carolina with the down-and-out Durham Bulls. On the team is a new bonus baby named Ebbie Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, who we’re told has a “million-dollar arm and a five-cent head.” Nuke is a hell of a pitcher, provided he can get the ball across the plate.

Brought in to take care of him, to nurse him through the ups and downs of being a minor league pitcher and attempt to turn him into a major league pitcher is minor league lifer “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner). Crash is tired of being in the minors, disgusted with being back in A-League ball, and sick of the whole thing. But the draw of the game is too much for him, and he agrees to stick it out because as his new manager (Trey Wilson) says, it’s a chance to come to the park every day and get paid to do it. And there’s the fact that he’s close to setting the record for the most home runs in the minors despite the fact that the thinks setting that record would be a “dubious distinction.”

Also interested in these two ballplayers is Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Annie, who works at the park during the summer and teaches part-time at the local junior college otherwise, is a baseball junkie and groupie. Her pattern is to hook up with one player every season and teach him the ins and outs of baseball and life (and gratify both of them sexually) until the end of the season, whereupon the player becomes a man and Annie moves on to her next player. Early in the film, she chooses Nuke when Crash walks out after one of the great speeches in film history, but there’s some evidence that both Crash and Annie think she made the wrong choice.

Anyway, the rest of the film concerns this odd little love triangle. Annie teaches Nuke what it means to be a man (yes, that way) and Crash tries to show him what he needs to do to succeed in the world of baseball. And there’s poetry, sex, fighting, baseball, a lot more sex, and perhaps a smattering of wisdom.

I’ll come clean here—I don’t have any love for baseball. It may be America’s pastime and the American game and on and on, ad infinitum, ad astra, but baseball frankly bores the crap out of me. I can’t watch a game for longer than a couple of batters before I wander away. But there is a real joy to this movie that is almost inexpressible. You can find something to enjoy here if you live and die with baseball or don’t ever watch a game.

There’s a lot here to love. For starters, the script feels right on, which is helped greatly by the fact that the writer/director Ron Shelton played in the Texas League. The characters come across as real as well. Most importantly, the events really come across as real. This is not a stereotypical sports film in which a team of wacky misfits who don’t have a shot at winning the big game come together and win the big game over a group of vastly superior players. Nuke ends up going to the big leagues, but does so after a loss, and Crash isn’t brought up with him as some sort of reward for his great service. Instead, his job with Nuke done, he’s cut from the team, just as he really would be.

In other words, Bull Durham is everything you want in a movie on its surface. It’s a funny film with a number of classic scenes and classic lines. Crash telling Nuke to aim a pitch at the bull mascot to freak out the other team is pitch perfect, as are the scenes where, when Nuke shakes off his pitch signs, he tells the batter on the opposing team what pitch is coming next. Everything from the sports angle works here, as do the three relationships involved—Nuke and Annie, Nuke and Crash, and Annie and Crash. All of them feel real.

Bull Durham is a perfect date movie in that sense. For the stereotypical guy, there’s baseball and swearing and sex. For the stereotypical woman, there’s high romance.

But more than that, this film strikes at a level of reality, of a true attempt not just to tell a story or sell a script, but to show a real experience of what life in the minors is like, what it’s like to be on the bus and have a guy who won’t shut up, or to be forced to hang around guys who drive you crazy. There’s a poetry to this film that doesn’t happen very often.

I forget how much I love this movie until I watch it again. And the truth is, today I watched it twice because it deserves to be watched twice. This is a special film, and damn near perfect.

Why to watch Bull Durham: Baseball the way it is played, even if it wasn’t meant to be played this way.
Why not to watch: You’re biased against Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and/or Tim Robbins.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shining, Glistening Eyes

Film: Doctor Zhivago
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Library on big ol’ television.

The epic romance is a style from a bygone age. Dr. Zhivago, based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, is one of the last epic romances on the grand old scale. A true epic takes place on a grand scale against a massive backdrop, usually of war and usually with huge, sweeping expanses of land. Since this story takes place across the years of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the scale doesn’t get much grander.

As tends to be the case with huge Russian epics, we have a lot of characters to keep straight here, but there are only a few that are really important. Also as is the case with Russian epics everybody has three names, and you can expect them to be used at any time, which can make some conversations difficult to keep straight.

We start, as many films of this sort do, at the end of things, with a Bolshevik general named Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) looking for his niece. The girl, who might be the right one, is brought to him, and he begins to tell her the tale of his half-brother, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Yuri’s mother died when he was very young, and he was taken to Moscow by an adoptive family that includes Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).

Yuri grows up to be a competent doctor as well as an acclaimed poet. He becomes engaged to Tonya around the time of World War I. Simultaneously, we are introduced to Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman who is enamored of a Bolshevik named Pasha (Tom Courtenay), in part because of his great passion.

The two meet for the first time when Lara’s mother attempts suicide and Yuri is one of the two who attends her. He is immediately smitten with the girl, but also discovers another rival in the form of Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), who acts as a sort of protector for Lara and her mother. He refuses to give his blessing to a marriage between Lara and Pasha, and takes it upon himself to essentially rape the girl as a way of exerting her dominance. She shoots Komarovsky during a Christmas party, and Zhivago watches her led out of the hall by Pasha and out of his life.

The war begins, and Yuri is posted to the Ukraine where he encounters Lara once again. She acts as his nurse while he tends to the troops, and they become quite close, but not in the Biblical sense. Back in Moscow, the situation has changed with the capture of the tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution. Yuri meets with Yevgraf, who manages to smuggle the family out of Moscow and out to a family estate in Varykino.

Here, naturally, Zhivago meets Lara again after first encountering Sasha, who now goes by the name of Strelnikov, and is quite the player in the Red (Bolshevik) Army. For the first time, their obvious love kindles into something much more despite the fact that Tonya is pregnant. No longer able to live with the affair, he breaks things off with Lara, but is captured by partisans and is forced to serve with them for nearly two years. He deserts and makes his way back to Varykino only to discover that his family is gone. However, Lara is still there, and she rescues him. They encounter Komarovsky again, who offers to take them to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, but they refuse.

Of course, like the players in any great romance, both Lara and Yuri are doomed, in part because of the events that surround them and in part because of their great love for each other, forbidden by their marriages to other people. And yet, in the vast sweep of the conflict where people are lost and unaccounted for, they live a life together filled with the sort of romance that people generally only dream of, burning terribly for each other constantly. Of course they are forced to separate eventually, and of course, their passion is what continues to drive them and eventually proves to be the thing that destroys them, only in the most impossibly romantic way.

The cinematography is, of course, as lovely and grand as you might expect from someone with David Lean’s reputation and track record. The film is truly grand, and it’s grand in no small part because of the huge expanses of Russian countryside filled with trees, empty spaces, and acres upon acres of white, glistening snow.

Despite this, it’s not the vast expanses of Russian steppes that I remember, but the close ups, particularly of Omar Sharif, with his eyes glistening with tears, shining in whatever ambient light happens to be available. Seriously, the man is read to cry so often that he’s almost a leaking faucet. Everything he does reminds him of this great love of his life or the injustices he sees under the Bolshevik system, and these things cause tears to well up in his eyes constantly.

Doctor Zhivago is the story of this great love. It’s also really freakin’ long for the story it tells. I had trouble more than once keeping my eyes open through some of the passages. It’s not that the story isn’t gripping in its own way, but the epic sweep, while impressive, doesn’t strike me as being entirely necessary for a boy-loves-girl, loses-finds-loses girl story.

Ultimately, I can’t get past those glistening eyes. Zhivago’s passion more often than not comes off as a weepy bitch. Great and grand, but not in the way I was hoping. And prepare to hear that damned balalaika version of "Lara's Theme" in your head for the rest of your life.

Why to watch Dr. Zhivago : Epic sweep and romance on a grand scale.
Why not to watch: Three-plus hours of shining-eyed close up.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Who You Gonna Call? Not These Guys.

Film: Hori, Ma Panenko (The Fireman’s Ball)
Format: VHS from Northern Illinois University Library on big ol’ television.

Comedy sometimes translates from one culture to another and sometimes it doesn’t. There are some things that seem to be funny regardless of who’s doing it while other things are culture specific or time specific. Milos Forman’s Hori, Ma Panenko (The Fireman’s Ball) falls somewhere in the middle. Some of the events of this strange little comedy are riotously funny. Others are funny only in the context of the film being made in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. If you don’t know that this was filmed in a Communist country, much of what makes it funny will go straight over your head.

Hori, Ma Panenko is a comedy of errors. It concerns a volunteer fire brigade in a small town in Czechoslovakia. Wanting to do something nice for their former chairman who has cancer (but doesn’t know it—the doctors refuse to tell him), the brigade wishes to present him with a ceremonial fire axe for his 86th birthday. They’d have done it for his 85th if they’d known about the cancer.

Regardless, they decide to have a ball, a fundraising lottery, and a beauty pageant. The bulk of the story takes place at this ball and concerns the series of idiocies, problems, and outright fraud that occurs there. First is the table of items for the lottery. Even before the ball begins, they start to disappear, the food and booze items going first. As the ball goes on, more and more items slip away from the table despite the fact that one of the fireman is attempting to keep an eye on it, and the fact that his wife seems to be joining in on the thievery.

While this is going on, a few of the firemen attempt to put together a collection of women to compete for the beauty pageant. Many of the firemen want their own daughters in the competition regardless of how tubby or homely they are. None of the girls appear to really want to be in the pageant. One mother wants to watch the judging process and won’t leave the room with the firemen. Another girl strips down to her bathing suit. And naturally, while this is happening, the prizes on the lottery table continue to vanish.

Eventually, it’s time for the beauty contest, but the girls who were selected refuse to participate and instead lock themselves in a bathroom. Other women are commandeered to the stage—dragged in some cases—but it’s all for naught, since at that moment, the fire alarm goes off. There’s a fire in town. The house burns to the ground since the fire brigade has no real equipment and is forced to resort to shoveling snow onto the burning building.

Everyone returns to the ball, and many of the partygoers respond to the fire by donating their lottery tickets to the old man whose house burned down. Of course, since at this point virtually all of the lottery prizes are gone, it means nothing. The lights are turned off so that the guilty can return the stolen items, and when the lights come back on, everything is missing. From here, things continue to go downhill for the hapless brigade.

Milos Forman made this film without professional actors, and he didn’t need them. He used an actual fire brigade in a small town, and was based on a real experience of a real nightmarish fireman’s ball. The film, which humorously depicts corruption, incompetence, and outright criminal behavior from virtually everyone involved, caused a huge uproar and was eventually “banned forever” by the Czech state. In fact, Forman was rescued from a 10-year prison term for causing damage to Czechoslovakia by virtue of his French distributors, and emigrated shortly afterward.

All of that is interesting, of course, but the real question is whether or not the film is funny. It is, after all, a comedy. The answer to that isn’t that easy. Hori, Ma Panenko has not aged particularly gracefully. Parts of it are still funny, of course, but much of it requires the context of when and in what country it was shot simply to understand why something might be funny. This is true of both the comedy and the political satire here.

Why to watch Hori, Ma Panenko : A slice of Czech life turned on its side.
Why not to watch: Not all the comedy translates.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pick Your Poison

Film: Requiem for a Dream
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

What is your addiction? Most people have one even if they don’t think they do. So what is it? Football? Food? Chocolate? Coffee? Sex? What is it that you have no control over? If you’re honest with yourself, you probably have several things that you can’t control yourself around. It’s a running joke where I work that I have no self control when it comes to Fig Newtons. When I open a sleeve of them, I walk around and offer them out to people because if I don’t, I’ll eat the whole thing.

Requiem for a Dream is a film about addiction. It would be easy to make the mistake on a first viewing to think that it’s specifically about drug addiction, but that’s the easy path to take here. Drug addiction is one of those things that we as a society look at and think of as a terrible problem that must be dealt with, but we ignore the fact that other addictions drive us and control us just as much and just as easily.

Requiem for a Dream is the story of four intertwined lives and the various addictions that move these people, drive them, and ultimately destroy them. Standing in the middle is Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), a widowed mother who lives on her own and who is slowly spiraling into loneliness and depression. Her world focuses around her television, specifically around an infomercial for something called “Juice by You” and hawked by a shill named Tappy Tibbons (Christopher McDonald). Sara has a son named Harry (Jared Leto), who has big dreams of an easy life and a reality that focuses on providing himself with heroin. Similarly addicted is his best friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and Harry’s girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly), although she sometimes dabbles in a bit of cocaine as well. See? Easy slide into calling this a drug film.

Harry and Tyrone frequently pawn Sara’s television for smack money, a process she completes by getting the set out of hock the next day from the local pawnshop owner. The two of them have a plan, a typical junkie plan, of scoring a pile of heroin and reselling it, eventually working their way up to a full pound of pure smack that they can cut, recut, and live off of for years. The money will not only support them but will also help Marion open a boutique.

While these plans start up, Sara receives a call that she has been selected to appear on a television show. She’s thrilled at the prospect and simultaneously distraught by the fact that she no longer fits into the red dress she wore for Harry’s high school graduation. She confides in her friend Ada (Louise Lasser), who lends her a diet book consisting of a strict regimen involving grapefruit and hard boiled eggs. Another older woman who lives in their apartment building recommends a doctor who helped her daughter lose “50 pounds just like that” through the use of pharmacology. A few days later, Sara is well on her way to becoming a full-on speed freak.

Things, of course, become complicated quickly. Despite their addictions, Tyrone, Marion, and Harry manage to successfully cut a purchase of smack and sell it off for a tremendous profit. Well on their way to becoming successful, Harry buys his mother a new television to replace the one they frequently stole. At the same time, Tyrone is involved as a bystander in a hit on his supplier, and the rest of the cash is needed to bail him out of jail. Now strapped on cash, Harry manages to convince Marion to contact her shrink (Sean Gullette) for money, knowing that she’ll essentially have to prostitute herself for the money. It becomes critical for them, because only one dealer in town is still handing out the skag. Looking to score, a group of junkies gathers until one pulls out a gun and the smack supply in New York dries up completely, and Marion is forced to prostitute herself to another connection who gives out dope for sex. Buoyed by a score, Tyrone and Harry head to Florida, ignoring the large, growing spot of necrotic tissue on Harry’s left arm. This is also around the time that Sara begins hallucinating that the refrigerator is coming to get her, starts slamming pills like candy, and seeing herself on television and then seeing her television persona in her home.

It would be unfair to call Requiem for a Dream a rollercoaster, because it is not one. It’s merely the first, largest hill. We get a nice climb up as everyone’s life appears to be on the ups and going well, and then we peak, the car starts to drop, and it simply goes faster and faster as it heads to the bottom of the hill. But with this film, the coaster doesn’t zoom back up; it just bottoms out, killing everyone in the cars.

The story is a powerful one, and would be a powerful, challenging, and difficult movie if simply filmed as a straight narrative. Place this story in the hands of Darren Aronofsky, and it becomes a nightmare vision. In one sense, it’s difficult to believe that this is only Aronofsky’s second film. It’s a mature film, the sort of story that someone with more experience should have made. On the other hand, it’s also obviously the film of a youthful director. There are so many new and innovative ideas here that it’s impossible to cover them all. In one early scene, Aronofsky places Harry and Marion next to each other. They lie on a bed, possibly post-coital, and talk, delicately touching each other. Except that it’s soon evident that rather than simply giving us a shot of the two of them, it’s a split screen. There’s a division between them even as they lie together—and it’s the same division and same split screen used earlier in a scene with Harry and his mother.

The most impressive shot in the film happens just after Sara starts slamming speed. In a shot the runs about thirty seconds, we see the daily activity of Sara as she obsessively cleans her apartment, hopped up on amphetamines. She moves in a blur, folding her clothes, making and remaking her bed, vacuuming, cleaning out the fridge, and scrubbing the tile. The camera makes a slow track, filming about two frames per second rather than 24, and her dizzying motion is a realistic depiction of her budding addiction. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Aronofsky uses camera tricks like this intelligently, not simply because he can or because it adds a visual wow to the way the movie looks, but because each one has purpose and meaning for the story as a whole. At the end, as Harry sits in a jail cell in Florida screaming about the gangrenous patch on his inside left elbow and Tyrone yells for help, the entire film jumps and stutters, reflecting exactly how far out of the normal way of doing things their life has become. The montage of the four characters at the very end, showing just how far they have fallen because of their addictions is tragic, horrifying, and brutal. That all four end up literally in the same physical position only underscores this reality.

Aronofsky is greatly assisted by a tremendous cast. The film belongs in many ways to Ellen Burstyn, who has never been better, but Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly are simimarly brilliant in their rapid decline from where they started to where they finish. It's Marlon Wayans who makes me the most angry, though. The man obviously has some real talent--he holds his own in this cast, and then he goes on to act in complete shite like White Chicks. Damn it, Marlon, go back to doing stuff like this because you're better than embarassingly stupid comedies.

Requiem for a Dream is the definition of “a hard watch.” It’s a film that should be watched, perhaps must be watched. It will be a long time before I decide to watch it again. The final shot is perhaps the most frightening thing I have ever seen. The most painful addiction, the one most impossible to give up, is our own delusion.

As a final note, even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve heard the music, since virtually every movie since 2000 that has needed a dramatic score for the trailer has used Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna.

Why to watch Requiem for a Dream : A powerful realization of a powerful story and a unique visual style.
Why not to watch: In the words of a co-worker, “It made me want to commit suicide, because it made me feel that bad about the human condition.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The City of Gold

Film: Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

Sometimes I wonder about the nature of cinematic muses. Some directors become almost impossible to separate from the actors they go back to time and time again. It’s difficult to think of Scorsese without conjuring up an image of DiNiro; Tarantino puts Uma Thurman in as many of his films as he can. Tim Burton appears to be lost if he isn’t working with Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, preferably both. I believe Dominique Pinon has appeared in every one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films. The actor most commonly and closely associated with Werner Herzog is Klaus Kinski.

The two made five films together, three of which appear on the 1001 List. Evidently, their relationship was relatively toxic, but it’s also evident that they brought out the best in each other. The rumor is that when Kinski threatened to leave the set of Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), Herzog threatened him with a pistol, claiming that he’d shoot the actor and then turn the gun on himself. Strangely, this film was not the end of their cinematic relationship, but the beginning.

I admit to an immediate disconnect with this film. It concerns a group of Spanish conquistadors exploring into the heart of the Amazon rain forest, but since Herzog and Kinski are German, it’s German that everyone is speaking. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. Regardless, as the film starts, we meet the conquistadors, led by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles). The expedition has just crossed the Andes range and is now discovering the jungle. If you ever thought it would be cool or fun to live during those times, the first five minutes of this film will instruct you otherwise. Watching a group of men in heavy armor slog through knee-deep water while carrying a cannon looks to be a ripe slice of hell.

Regardless, the expedition, bent on finding El Dorado, the city of gold, is in trouble. Pizarro decides to send out a group to scout ahead for food, hostile natives, and a clue to the location of the legendary city. This group is headed by Don Pedro de Ursua (Ruy Guerra) and seconded by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). They will be presumed killed if they don’t rejoin the main group in a week.

The new expedition heads off and immediately hits trouble on the Amazon. One of their rafts is caught in an eddy and can’t break free. Aguirre wants to push on without these men, but is overruled by Ursua. However, when rescue comes to the raft, it is discovered that the men who were on it are either dead or missing. Ursua wants to rescue the bodies to provide a Christian burial, but Aguirre takes things into his own hands. He hints to a comrade that the cannon should be cleaned, and the gun is fired, sinking the raft and allowing the expedition to move on without delay.

It’s evident at this point that Aguirre really wants to be in charge, and is chafing under the orders of Ursua. When Ursua wants to turn back and return to Pizarro, Aguirre stages a mutiny, shooting Ursua and killing one of his followers. He immediately determines that another of their group—Don Fernando de Guzman (Peter Berling) should be made Emperor of El Dorado. He has their spiritual guide Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (Del Negro) read aloud a screed that officially breaks the group off from Spain and Pizarro, declares themselves to be a new nation, and declares Guzman a king to rival that of Spain. From there, it is determined that the group will push on and look for El Dorado on their own, and that should they find it, they will all be wealthy and famous beyond measure.

However, this trek is doomed from the beginning. They are surrounded on all sides by angry and ferocious natives who prove to be cannibals. Men are frequently picked off on the rafts by arrows from unseen attackers. Guzman turns into a spoiled child, complaining that his roasted fish and fruits lack salt while the rest of the men are counting individual grains of corn as their rations. Naturally, someone commits regicide when no one else is looking, leaving Aguirre now in charge.

And things go from bad to worse as Aguirre begins to lose his grip on his own sanity. Eventually, harassed by the natives and with doom closing in, the raft continues flowing down the Amazon, unable to reach land, with everyone wracked by fever and starvation. It’s pretty bleak.

It’s also gorgeous. The film was done on location in Peru, and the scenery is what really makes for a great deal of the appeal of this film. The rain forest is lush and beautiful, and also dangerous and filled with unseen horrors. It’s a seductive thing, that huge green canopy, both beautiful and terrible.

What is curious to me is looking at the role of Aguirre and knowing something about the history and temperament of Klaus Kinski. He was, by all accounts, the template of the sonnuvabitch, temperamental artiste. When Aguirre the character in the film begins pontificating that he is the embodied wrath of God and that any who cross him will be chopped to pieces and stomped on until all that is left is something that can be used to paint walls, it’s easy to think that only some of it is the character, and some of it is Kinski himself.

This film is, as I say, bleak. The men on the raft battle against an unbeatable, unseen foe and against the terrible realities of starvation and disease. Plagued on all sides and without any help at all, there is nothing for them to do but die, and go down with as much dignity as they can. The closing shots, featuring the ravings of Aguirre as his raft slowly meanders down the huge river and eventually to the Atlantic are terrifying not because of the words themselves, but because of the evident disconnect with anything like reality. It also serves as a reminder that while history may well be written by the victors, there are likely many stories like this one lost in time, lost because there were no survivors of something doomed to fail spectacularly.

Why to watch Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes: Obsession, and the correlation between Kinski’s character and Kinski’s reality.
Why not to watch: Spanish conquistadors speaking German.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Get Thee to a Nunnery!

Film: Black Narcissus
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

While I haven’t reviewed it yet, I’m going to go on record now as saying that I really, really hate The Sound of Music. Imagine my displeasure when I discovered that there was another movie about nuns on the list. More nuns, and not the comical one from The Blues Brothers. I admit that I reacted poorly to this, even when I discovered it was a Powell and Pressburger film. I’ve learned to trust these two gentlemen. But still…nuns….

I needn’t have worried. Black Narcissus is a devastating film that, yes, is about a collection of nuns, but these aren’t the type who sing while dancing along Austrian hilltops. Instead, this is an intense film, one that goes right to the heart of the sort of thing that Powell and Pressburger seemed to love more than anything else: the darker parts of the human psyche and how those bad things are expressed in the real world.

We start with Sister Clodagh (pronounced KLO-da, and played by Deborah Kerr), who lives in a convent in Calcutta. She has been instructed to take another group of nuns into the Himalayas and start a new convent there. Going with her are Sister Briony (Judith Furse), Sister Blanche (better known as Sister Honey, played by Jenny Laird), Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), and the sickly and potentially unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Off they go, and they arrive at what used to be the home of a harem.

Here they are assisted by a trio of people. First is Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), the caretaker. She is a crusty old native woman who doesn’t much understand the reverend sisters. Second is Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.), a six-year-old child who speaks English, and thus can act as an interpreter for the sisters for the school they intend to set up. Third, and perhaps most important, is Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the local representative of the British government. He is unpleasant and cynical, and predicts the sisters will leave before the rains come.

Despite his unpleasantness, there appears to be a bit of attraction between Dean and Sister Clodagh. There’s also a significant one-way attraction between Sister Ruth and Dean. Things become more complicated when Dean drops off a young woman named Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who has been bothering him. When the new young general (Sabu) arrives for teaching, all manner of lusty thoughts are happening inside the convent, where they don’t belong.

The environment proves to be a hindrance to the women. The natives turn against them when Sister Honey attempts to treat an infant despite Briony’s warning not to. The baby dies and the people believe the sisters are responsible for the death. There is significant attraction between the young general and Kanchi despite her low status. Sister Philippa, who was to create a vegetable garden for the sisters plants flowers instead, and asks to be transferred.

Through all of this Clodagh is dealing with her reasons for joining the order in the first place. She loved a young man intently, and she (and the rest of the people in her Irish village) assumed that the two would be married some day. However, he had other plans that involved going to America and not taking her with him. Strung along and now dreadfully embarrassed, Clodagh joined the order as a way to leave first, and to hide her shame.

But it is Sister Ruth who takes up the last part of the story. She is completely infatuated with the sometimes-drunken, always rude, but still dashing Mr. Dean. She accuses Clodagh of the same infatuation, although Clodagh denies this. It’s in this scene (which actually happens before a number of the events mentioned above) that Black Narcissus takes its first hard left turn into something very dark. It’s evident in this scene that Ruth isn’t all there. She’s bordering on madness and obsession, although she hasn’t slipped into it completely.

The culmination of the film is Ruth’s departure from the convent, her confession of love to Dean, and his rejection of her. Ruth, naturally, puts all of the blame where it doesn’t belong, and acts as you might expect someone paddling with both oars a foot above the waves. I’ll say this—if nothing else, when Sister Ruth brings the crazy, she brings it in spades and with little bells a-ringing. She becomes something possessed by the end of the film, and is actually terrifying enough to send a small jolt down the spine.

Beyond this being a surprisingly gripping drama for being about cloistered nuns, the cinematography is truly something special. None of this was filmed on location, and the glorious mountain peaks the loom in the background of most outdoor shots were simply expertly created matte paintings. Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell.

Like any great drama, this film is less about the situation of the plot and more about the characters who act through it. As such, as a tale of loss, obsession, and guilt, it still manages to resonate despite its age. I expected very little here, and got far more back from a film about nuns high up in the mountains. I really should learn to trust great directors with their story rather than doubting them because of it.

It’s worth discussing the rather odd name of this film as well. “Black Narcissus” is the name of a perfume that the young general wears. Narcissus, according to mythology, was a beautiful youth who became enamored of his own reflection in a pool of water. That’s a level of introspection and self-study that both Clodagh and Ruth could understand.

Why to watch Black Narcissus: A realistic depiction of madness, passion and isolation.
Why not to watch: Well, it is set in a convent.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the Fu...Hell?

Film: Archangel
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I frequently like to think of myself as the smartest guy in the room, a bit of ego and mental narcissism I freely admit to. I know that more often than not, I’m not the smartest guy in the room. A film like Guy Maddin’s Archangel is all it really takes to prove to me that I am often a novice when it comes to deciphering some of the more obtuse films that exist in this world. As a viewer and critic, this is the most difficult thing I’ve had to write in a number of months, perhaps since I started this project.

Archangel certainly has a plot of sorts, and characters and all that, but it also feels completely random. It’s surrealist cinema, which always strikes me sideways. I never know if I’m supposed to take it seriously or if I should be laughing at it.

So let’s talk about plot, shall we? It’s 1919 and World War I is over, but no one has told the people living in and around the city of Archangel. One of those people is John Boles (Kyle McCulloch) who is mourning the death of his love, Iris far more than he is mourning the fact that he has only one leg. He has promised to sanctify her cremains in the White Sea, but he loses the urn overboard a ship. This causes him no end of mental anguish that manifests itself into something like amnesia.

He is billeted in the house of a family that consists of the elderly Baba (Margaret Anne MacLeod), the obese and cowardly Jannings (Michael Gottli), his wife Danchuk (Sarah Neville), their son Geza (David Falkenburg), and an infant. Also evidently living in the house is Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who might or might not be married to Philbin (Ari Cohen). Philbin is also suffering from something like amnesia and believes that every night is his wedding night. Boles believes that Veronkha is actually Iris and pursues her, and Danchuk pursues him.

And then there’s lots of revelations and battle scenes and Veronkha decides she loves Boles and suffers her own amnesia, turning into Iris. Boles decides that the infant is his. Everyone goes off to war except for Jannings, who stays home and is gutted by the terrifying, semi-human Bolsheviks. He overcomes his cowardice, though, fighting back and killing one with his own intestines before calmly going back to where he was, lying down, and dying.

And then Veronkha runs away and Boles chases her and she remarries Philbin despite having annulled their first marriage and they fly away in a biplane while Boles stays on the ground and rides in a cart. Whatever.

Throughout this movie, particular moments struck me with the overriding thought of “What the fu…hell?” Not much of it makes sense. Geza complains to Philbin that his father died a coward and Philbin responds by saying that everything happens for a reason—someone shaved off his mustache in the night. Seriously, what the fu…hell? Should I be taking notes on this and trying to figure out what it means or should I look at a piece of dialog like that and laugh?

It’s evident that Maddin is paying a great deal of homage to the silents with this film. Everything oozes silent film heritage from the costuming, lighting, make up, sets, and title cards. This is a modern take on German expressionism without question. It’s also an homage to David Lynch. The first thing I thought of in terms of comparison while watching this was Eraserhead and it’s an opinion that never left me.

The version of this film that I found promised glorious black and white photography, which is much nicer than what I actually did get. What I got was a lot of muddy scenery, scenes that were difficult to see from any angle, and even title cards that were so faded at times that I had to pause the film and get an inch away to see what they said.

Also on this DVD were a couple other Maddin films. I watched the short called The Heart of the World, and I recommend it highly. I certainly recommend it far more than I do Archangel.

Why to watch Archangel: A true artistic vision of film.
Why not to watch: It’s the damnedest 80 minutes or so you’ll spend in front of a screen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Same Colors, Different Flag

Films: Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue, Blue); Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red, Red)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Blue); DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan (Red), both on kick-ass portable DVD player.

If you had asked me a year ago what I knew about Krzysztof Kieslowski, I’d have said that he had at least one too many “z’s” in his first name and I’d have been done at that. Ask me that same question now, and I’ll tell you that he’s a director that more people should know about and that his use of camera, light, and color is some of the best in cinematic history. After watching all of Dekalog last year and being suitably impressed by it, I was excited to take another spin through Kieslowski’s world with two-thirds of his “Three Colors” trilogy.

The concept behind the trilogy is an interesting one. Using the three colors of the French flag (blue, white, and red from left to right) and the three words of the French revolution (liberte (liberty), egalite (equality), fraternite (brotherhood), Kieslowski made three films, two of which appear on the 1001 Movies list. These are Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue, or more commonly Blue), the first of the trilogy and Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red, or Red to its friends), the third.

Blue starts in a way that I find disturbing. A family of three are driving happily down a road when the car goes out of control, hits a tree, and kills both the father and the daughter. Julie (Juliette Binoche) survives the crash, but attempts suicide in the hospital when she realizes her family is gone. Unable to go through with it (she can’t swallow the pills), she decides to take apart her life and not start over, but drop out completely.

This becomes impossible right from the start, though. Her husband was a well-known composer and was working on a symphony to celebrate the European Union. The work was unfinished, and a friend and musician named Olivier (Benoit Regent) wants to finish the score. Julie won’t let him. She takes the work from her husband’s conservatory and destroys it completely. She also removes all of her and her family’s belongings from the large house, closes it up, deeds all of her husband’s money to take care of her own mother, and moves to Paris.

In Paris, Julie attempts to cloister herself from humanity completely. She reverts to her maiden name and tells no one where she is. Even in this situation she is unable to completely avoid being a part of the world, though. She becomes involved in the affairs of one of her neighbors (Charlotte Very), a sex performer who the other building tenants attempt to oust because of her job. She also discovers that Olivier has another copy of her husband’s last score and is attempting to complete it. More significantly, she discovers that her husband had a mistress named Sandrine (Florence Pernel), and that the woman is pregnant with his child.

As the title of the film implies, this movie is awash in tones of blue. The one thing Julie saves is her daughter’s lamp of blue beads. She also swims frequently in a pool suffused in blue light. The film is equally suffused with her husband’s unfinished symphony, a piece of surprising strength and beauty, particularly as it jumps out in places when Julie is confronted by a piece of her past. Over and over she is reminded that while she may have her freedom, there are always things that tie her to who she was and who she will become.

The story of Blue is engaging as are the characters, but it is not this that causes me to recommend the film. What does is the almost surreal moments of the film when Julie realizes that she has not gotten completely rid of her old life and finds it intruding on her once again. These are regularly accompanied by the sudden orchestral hit of the unfinished symphony and most of the time by a suddenly black screen as if she herself is blacking out for a moment. The first of these, however, sees her suddenly lit by an intense blue light. The moment is a startling one, and extremely powerful. I’m man enough to admit that Julie’s sudden shock accompanied by almost painful blue light and the driving symphonic score literally made me gasp and sent a full-on chill down my back, even when watching on a little 8” screen. I went back to that scene several times after I finished the film, and it had the same effect on me each time.

There’s real magic in something that can elicit that powerful of an emotional and physical reaction time after time, even when it’s expected. Trois Couleurs: Bleu is demanding and powerful, and not to be missed.

The completion of the “Three Colors” trilogy and Kieslowski’s last film is Red. Like Blue, this film’s dominant color scheme is the color of its title. Here, it appears everywhere—in furniture, on billboards, as the colors of food and cars and clothing. Just as we have moved along the flag in terms of colors, we have also moved along the French motto in terms of theme. Here, rather than liberty, the dominant message is one of fraternity.

Our heroine is Valentine (Irene Jacob), a part-time model and student in Geneva. Her boyfriend Michel, who appears only as a voice on the telephone, is in England and calls her frequently as if keeping tabs on her. It’s evident early on that Michel is either wildly jealous or incredibly insecure, or possibly both. He suspects her constantly of infidelity, assuming that if she isn’t at home and answering the phone when he calls that she is off with another man.

Valentine appears as the focus of a gum advertisement that appears in the middle of the film and also walks on a catwalk at a fashion show. While driving home, she hits a German shepherd and drives it to its owner, a reclusive former judge named Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant). He seems uninterested in the dog and tells her that now it’s her dog. She takes the dog to the vet to discover that it will be fine and that it’s pregnant.

The dog causes her to take a certain interest in the judge, but this interest turns to disgust when she finds that the judge is in the habit of listening in to the phone conversations of his neighbors with a huge surveillance set. Almost as Michel is doing to her, the judge is doing to the neighbors. He knows all of their secrets, knows who is having an affair with whom, but he also refuses to act on the vast amount of knowledge he has.

While all of this is going on, we discover another story tied up in this one. Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) is a law student having a romantic fling with Karin (Frederique Feder). According to the judge, she isn’t the right woman for him, though, and the affair will soon be over. His prediction proves true. He admits his surveillance to the neighbors and they press a case against him. In the course of the case, Karin meets another man, and Auguste catches them in flagrante.

It’s not until the very end that Valentine and Auguste meet despite a number of near misses (shades of Chungking Express from the same year), which is another dominant idea in the film—this idea of connection and missed connection to couple with the theme of brotherhood.

The ending, though, is beyond my ken. I’m not sure I understand exactly why the event that happens does, except that it serves as a way to not only get these two characters to finally stand in the same shot, but also to connect this film to the previous two of the trilogy. One nice touch is that our final shot of the film, of Valentine, is an almost exact duplicate of the shot we see of her throughout the film: the billboard for the gum.

Red may well be a better movie than Blue, but I liked Blue better. As a final comment, one aspect of both films that is absolutely worth paying attention to is the beautiful and butter-smooth camera work. Piotr Sobocinski earns as much of the credit for the overall look of these films as Kieslowski, and much of the power of them comes from his beautiful camera movements and shots.

Why to watch Trois Couleurs: Bleu: Startlingly beautiful.
Why not to watch: It’s over too soon.

Why to watch Trois Couleurs: Red: A new and interesting take on voyeurism.
Why not to watch: A strange resolution that sums up more than it needs to.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Films: Louisiana Story, High School
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (Louisiana Story); VHS from Northern Illinois University library on big ol’ television (High School).

There are certainly films on this list that I think shouldn’t be there. When I come across one of these, I really try my best to understand the rationale behind the film’s inclusion. Even if I don’t like the film or don’t find much of value in it, I want to try to remain open minded enough that I can spot someone else’s reasons for finding the film important.

However, there are also times when I get a film like Louisiana Story. I watch, I watch more, and when the film ends, I look at the screen with the expression my dog makes when it hears a noise it doesn’t understand.

Robert Flaherty specialized in ethnographic, documentary-style films. In fact, it was Flaherty who essentially created the documentary genre with Nanook of the North. Louisiana Story was his last film, and he never really strayed too far from where he started. While this film is fiction, it’s also very much done in the documentary style (enough so that it’s usually recorded as a documentary) and used local actors instead of experienced thespians.

He also never strayed too far from his silent film roots. Louisiana Story plays very much like a silent film throughout despite the sound effects, occasional dialogue, and the tremendous score, of which I will speak in a few minutes. Frequently we are treated to panoramas of the Louisiana bayou country, swamps, alligators, birds, trees, and as the film goes on, a large oil derrick.

We follow a young boy with the hellaciously awesome name of Alexander Napoleon Ulysses LaTour (Joseph Boudreaux), called officially “the Boy,” and his pet raccoon as they live an idyllic life in the middle of a swamp. The Boy fishes, avoids gators, and believes in a variety of mystical creatures inhabiting his world, like mermaids that swim up from the ocean and werewolves that hunt among the trees. The Boy keeps a small sack of salt tied to his belt as a method of protection, and catches massive catfish by baiting his hook with his own saliva.

At the start of the film, the Boy’s father (Lionel Le Blanc) deeds over a part of the swamp to an oil company so they can wildcat a drill rig to see if there’s anything under the swamp worth getting. The boy is fascinated by the oil well and frequently spends his time there, becoming a sort of informal mascot of the drillers. As the drill bores deeper and deeper into the swamp, it hits a gas pocket, which threatens to stop the drilling. The Boy, looking to help his friends on the rig, pours his salt down the shaft and hocks a lung cookie into it as well, and suddenly, the drill works fine and the well starts producing the crude. The moral of the story is, essentially, don’t mock the magical spit of a Cajun.

Except for a part in the middle where the kid watches gator eggs hatch, believes his pet raccoon is eaten by a gator, and then catches the gator for revenge, that’s really all there is here. Guys dig into the ground, the kid spits in the hole, and everyone gets rich. We’re treated at the end to a scene of the “riches” the poor bayou family gets as a result of the well—it consists of some cookware, a rifle, and a bag of sugar. Happy days are here again, evidently.

If the film has one redeeming quality, it is the score that plays through most of it. Virgil Thompson’s music is incredibly good, and the score won a freakin’ Pulitzer. Somehow, this film was also nominated for an Oscar for, of all things, Best Writing. Go figure that. The cinematography is also pretty.

But seriously, this isn’t a movie. There isn’t really a plot or a story, or anything beyond the scenery and the music to hold anyone’s attention. It would have been better without the dialogue and the oil well. At one point, I was actually hoping that a slowly approaching ‘gator might take a bite out of the kid.

It comes as no surprise in retrospect that this film was financed by Standard Oil, but it does raise an interesting question. What did Standard want from this film? On what planet did this film make any sense at all? Is this a promotional piece to show that the oil derricks bring little ecological damage and greater prosperity to the locals? Are they trying to assure us that every tank of gas from Standard is blessed with magical Cajun loogies? I’m completely flummoxed. I actually went back to the tome of reference here to make sure I was watching the right film, so confused was I that this made the list. Seriously, if it’s the soundtrack that does it, I’ll happily listen to it, but don’t force me to watch a kid paddling a canoe and spitting into a well.

Frederick Wiseman’s High School is a chilling portrayal of a fairly typical school in Pennsylvania during the late 1960s. Essentially a piece of direct cinema, this short documentary shows a typical day in the life of this high school and all of the soul crushing events that happen in the name of conformity, unity, and social cohesiveness. I remember my own high school years with a good deal of distaste in general; the environment was fairly oppressive and I didn’t like being there very much. I don’t have a bundle of happy memories. Is there a reason I haven’t attended any of my high school reunions but one? Yep. I can’t really be arsed to go. There’s no real reason for me to dredge up a bunch of memories that I find unpleasant or reopen issues and events from my past that have been buried since the mid-1980s and belong buried. My high school years were oppressive and painful, stupid, pointless, aggravating, and ultimately best left in the past.

Essentially, this film is a sequence of events that happen during the day. We see classes in progress, students being disciplined, and meetings between the school administration and parents. I’m not sure how many days the film was created over, but it plays like a single day in general, even if it did go over the course of a week, a month, or a semester.

Wiseman does the right thing here by offering these scenes of the high school environment without comment, voice over, or narration of any kind. We’re not instructed on what is happening at any time, but are instead allowed to draw our own conclusions on the events of the day.

And some of these events are, with a little thought, really disturbing. A young man, for instance, is given a detention when he claims he didn’t deserve one. He’s told that rather than stand up for himself and fight for himself, that a real man takes the punishment he’s given and (essentially) knuckles under to authority. Girls are shown in short gym shorts and are then one is taken to task for wearing a skirt too short for the prom. Other girls walk on stage showing off outfits that they created and are rather painfully criticized by their instructor (“You can see this girl has a weight problem.”) We are “treated” along with a class to a complete reading of “Casey at the Bat,” a poem that isn’t nearly as great as it’s assumed to be. No one in the room (or really, the audience) wants to hear that whole thing—which is exactly the point here. As the audience, we at least have the choice to turn the film off or walk away; the students can’t.

It’s almost impossible not to feel the waves of both oppression and repression coming off the screen as the film plays. Naturally, the high school itself would claim that it is functioning as a way to mold students into proper ladies and gentlemen. The reality appears to be much more severe though—the kids aren’t so much being molded as being crushed into new shapes by forces beyond their control and comprehension. There seems to be, at least to the minds of the kids, no reason for the many things they are told—they are merely told that they must comply, and that essentially, complying is its own reward.

The final scene is perhaps the most interesting, and also the most darkly comic. A teacher from the school reads a letter she has received from a former student who is now serving in Vietnam and about to be dropped behind the DMZ. He mentions that he has willed his insurance money to the school if he is killed in action so that they can benefit other people the way he benefitted from the school. More tellingly, he also comments that he no longer thinks of himself as a person, but merely as something there to obey orders. This segment concludes with the teacher congratulating herself and the rest of the staff for doing “a good job.”

Ultimately, Wiseman’s High School shows how contrary, arbitrary, and ultimately dehumanizing the high school environment is. That it does so without comment makes the statement all the stronger.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that in one way at least the high schools in Pennsylvania in 1968 were more enlightened than many today is in terms of discussion of birth control. In one scene, a gentleman addressing a group of boys specifically tells them that “proper protection” should always be used, a phrase and concept that is being protested by far too many people in this day and age.

Why to watch Louisiana Story: The closest thing “commercial” film got to ethnographic video was Flaherty’s work.
Why not to watch: Because nothing happens.

Why to watch High School: A reminder that “the best years of your life” actually sucked, were mind-numbingly boring, and probably smelled like vomit, sawdust, and chalk dust.
Why not to watch: Flashbacks to gym class.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Judging the Judge

Film: Judge Priest
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Like many of the great personalities of yesteryear, the star of Will Rogers has faded in the modern day. His movies don’t get shown much, and his populist, homespun wisdom, laconic delivery, and self-effacing brand of humor has little traction in today’s world. Judge Priest offers an interesting look at the man. It’s evident that in many respects in this film, Rogers is playing himself rather than a character.

The other reality of Judge Priest is that it takes place in the Deep South in the years following that War of Northern Aggression, and it is filled with the sort of pro-Dixie propaganda that certainly pervaded that part of the country (and still does in some places). Those non-white folks are still the backwards servants that they had been for generations before, and that antebellum view of the slave as childlike and needing to be cared for is never far from the thoughts of the characters or the words in the script.

In no place is this more apparent than in the two characters of Jeff (Stepin Fetchit) and Aunt Dilsey (Hattie McDaniel). Jeff is the town layabout, the laziest man around. He’s accused of stealing chickens at the start of the film, which is our introduction to him, to Judge Billy Priest (Rogers), and to Priest’s nemesis Senator Horace Maydew (Berton Churchill). Judge Priest takes the trial on something of a roundabout course, ends up exonerating Jeff, and turns him into his own flunky and gofer.

Shortly after this, we’re introduced to Aunt Dilsey, who is Judge Priest’s maid, cook, and general servant. Aunt Dilsey sings constantly, essentially narrating her daily duties (belting out, “I got to take down de judge’s clothes/Got to take dem in de house, yes Lord/Got to get out dat old ironin’ board” as she removes clothes from the washline). Aunt Dilsey is a menial servant, and just benighted enough to be happy in her work.

The big event of the day is the return of Jerome “Rome” Priest (Tom Brown) from a Yankee law school. He’s come home to set up practice in town, one that will no doubt benefit greatly from the fact that his Uncle Billy is the town judge. Back home, Rome courts the neighbor girl, Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise), although she pushes him off, and we don’t know why. We discover soon enough that Rome’s mother (Brenda Fowler) has her own thoughts on the matter. Ellie May’s parentage is suspect, and that will not do for the Priest name. She’s got her mind set on the boy marrying Virginia Maydew (Rochelle Hudson).

Ellie May seems to know this, and is being paid court by the town barber and local idiot Flem Talley (Frank Melton), who has a laugh the eventually turned into the laugh of the father on the old Hillbilly Bears cartoons. Billy Priest does everything he can to get Rome and Ellie May together, and that’s pretty much the whole start of the film.

Flem Talley speaks loosely of Ellie May in his barbershop, which brings down the ire of the local pariah, Bob Gillis (David Landau). Later, Talley and a couple of his friends lay in wait for Gillis with pool cues, and when it’s Gillis who lays waste to them, they decide to take legal action against him. Gillis turns to Rome Priest for help, and Judge Priest’s enemy Horace Maydew forces the judge to recuse himself from sitting on the bench. And it’s in this court case that all of our story’s threads come together in a flashback sequence that involves the glory of the South, the justification for the Civil War, and pushing the idea that Dixie was justified in everything it did. ‘Scuse me while I throw up in my mouth a little at the thought, and then put the end under a spoiler tag.


Of course, Bob Gillis is Ellie May’s father. More importantly to all concerned, evidence comes to light that Bob Gillis fought bravely for the Confederacy in the Civil War, risking his life for the glory of Dixie and all for which she stood. And on the basis of that alone, Bob Gillis is exonerated and Rome’s mom is filled with approval of Ellie May.


A film like this is difficult to judge from a modern perspective. Certainly the character of Judge Priest is inching slowly toward tolerance, although he’s still a long way away from today’s sensibilities. More concerning to modern eyes is the fact that the racism that is evident throughout the film, either explicitly toward characters like Jeff or implicitly in the support of the ideals of the Confederacy, is seen is just, natural, and good. It’s hard to overcome.

And so I’m torn on this film. On the one hand, it’s a rare and real pleasure to see and hear Will Rogers. On the other hand, the film is so completely mired in the sensibilities of the “Lazy Negro” and happy servant that it’s difficult to watch without wincing.

Why to watch Judge Priest: The homespun wisdom and downhome-y goodness of Will Rogers.
Why not to watch: Tacit racism throughout.