Monday, January 30, 2012

All's Fair in Love and Trench Warfare

Film: Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

Most films about World War I are not American films. That’s simply a fact. I think it’s because the U.S. was involved in World War I for only about a year or 18 months before it ended, while all of Europe (virtually) was embroiled in that conflict for years before we got there. For the Americans, it’s still an important war, but one in which our involvement essentially pushed one side over the other. Had we joined the battle in 1915, our perspective on the war might well be different.

Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement) is, then, a French film concerning World War I and the aftermath in the life of several people around France. We deal with terribly cruel punishments of men who desire to escape life on the front and the pursuit of these men after the war by their loved ones, who cannot determine if they are alive or dead. In particular, we follow Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) and her pursuit of Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who she believes to be still alive despite all evidence to the contrary.

As the film progresses, we get pieces of insight into what happened on the front. The five men were convicted of self-mutilation (four are actually guilty), a court-martial offense and tantamount to treason. Rather than simply lining the men up against a wall and shooting them, there is a much more horrifying and terrible punishment in mind. The five men are taken out into the no-man’s land between the French and German lines at a place called Bingo Crepuscule. They are left there with no food and no weapons or ammunition, with the assumption that they will be killed during one bombing or attack or another. Manech, of course, is one of the five.

Mathilde feels such a strong connection with Manech, though, that she is convinced that he cannot be dead. She begins to investigate what happened at Bingo Crepuscule. She starts finding out people who were there who survived the battles. Bit by bit and piece by piece she begins to discover what happened, creating a narrative of those days with the men standing out in no-man’s land as well as the days that followed. She is assisted on her journey by private detective Germain Pire (Ticky Holgado) and survivor Celestin Poux (Albert Dupontel), who met the men and took care of them before their sentence.

She also discovers several of the women who have waited in vain for their men to return. Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster, who speaks pretty good French) who lost both her husband in later days and her lover at Bingo Crepuscule. She also find Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard), a prostitute whose man was killed at Bingo, which leads her on a vendetta to kill those who sentenced him to death. Through all of this, Mathilde is supported by her aunt Benedicte (Chantal Neuwirth) and uncle Sylvain (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon).

Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles has all of the feelings of a typical Jeunet film with small touches of magical realism, which seems to be Jeunet’s favorite place to be. It does not have the same visual touches that a film like Amelie does, but these aspects are present in the script. Mathilde, for instance, has a series of superstitious tics that appear throughout the film as she attempts to reassure herself that Manech is still alive. She will, for instance, tell herself that if she can do something in a certain time or a certain way successfully, Manech will still be fine, almost like a child attempting to walk home from school without stepping on a sidewalk crack. And her mood and the path of the investigation seems to follow her success or failure on these little superstitious touchstones.

This is a hard film to dislike. Jeunet is one of the most expressive directors currently working. His films are visually gorgeous, and this one is no different. Even without the story going on, Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles is beautifully filmed with gorgeous landscapes almost caressed by the camera. The war scenes have a stark beauty to them, as terrible and violent as many of them are. And this is Jeunet’s genius from my perspective. Even his war scenes—several of which are truly terrible to behold—are still riveting and demand being viewed.

Of course, other Jeunet trademarks are here as well. He has a passion for damaged characters. In this case, Mathilde’s frequent lapses into fantasy (if I can peel this apple without breaking the peel, Manech is still alive) are only part of her story; stricken by polio at five, she walks with difficulty, frequently using her evident physical limitations to elicit sympathy from others.

But is it good? It is. It’s perhaps too much to take in at times, and more complex than it needs to be. The story is lovely, though, and contains a marvelous ending that is both joyous and tragic, and therefore virtually perfect for a film dealing with the tragedy and terror of war.

Why to watch Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles: Jeunet is a director worth watching.
Why not to watch: It’s not always easy to follow.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A New Definition of "Disarming"

Film: The Unknown
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m finding it difficult to explain The Unknown. Oh, it’s not going to be a difficult film to summarize; I’m having a difficult time explaining its existence. If nothing else, it’s evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Unknown contains the sort of plot that seems beyond a 1927 audience, and yet here is the film, proof that such a bizarre and disturbing idea can find an audience in what we tend to regularly assume is a more Puritanical past.

The action takes place in a circus where one of the headline attractions is Alonzo the Armless (Lon Chaney). Despite having no arms, Alonzo is a trick shooter and knife thrower, performing these tasks with his feet. His target when it comes to trick shooting and knife throwing is Nanon (Joan Crawford), who is also the daughter of the circus’s owner. Alonzo is madly in love with Nanon, as is Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s strongman. Nanon seems to return some of Malabar’s affections, but she has her own phobia to deal with. She has been grabbed and pawed by so many men in her past that she has become terrified of men’s arms and hands, making Alonzo sort of the perfect man for her.

Except for the fact that Alonzo has a secret to keep. He actually still has his arms. In fact, he’s got a little extra in that department; on his left hand, he has a double thumb. He hides his arms because as the circus travels around the country, he performs robberies and burglaries, not worrying about leaving fingerprints. Only his assistant Cojo (John George) knows that Alonzo still has his arms. Things change during a confrontation with Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz), Nanon’s father and the man who runs the circus. He warns Alonzo away from his daughter, and discovers the man’s arms. Desperate, Alonzo kills him. Nanon sees the crime, but not the face of the killer. She does, however, see his double thumb.

Cojo alerts Alonzo to his reality rather than his fantasy of life with Nanon. Should he become intimate with the girl, she will discover his arms. More importantly, she’ll discover his double thumb. Alonzo, desperate, makes a terrible decision, and this is where things really start to get disturbing. He contacts a doctor over whom he has blackmail evidence. In exchange for his continued silence, Alonzo has his arms amputated. This destroys any evidence of his crimes, eliminates any connection between him and Zanzi’s murder, and also makes him truly Nanon’s ideal man. But during his convalescence, Nanon has overcome her fear and has fallen for the brawny arms of Malabar. This sets up the terrible and inevitable conclusion.

Put simply, Lon Chaney is the reason to see this film and the reason this film exists. Malabar’s role could have been easily handled by any broad-chested man with a winning smile. Nanon’s role needed only a pretty face and a good figure, both of which Joan Crawford possessed in 1927. It’s Chaney who makes this film work, though. Initially, it is through his incredible ability at costuming, hiding his arms and acting like a man without them (although many of the tricks were evidently performed by a true double amputee hiding on the set). As the film progresses, though, Chaney’s expressive face carries the rest of the film. There is really no need for actual dialogue to understand the incredible torment of Alonzo, particularly at the moment he realizes that he has cut off his arms for nothing.

If anything really disappoints in this film, it is the length. I expected a film of about an hour’s length; The Unknown actually clocks in at fewer than 50 minutes. It’s incredibly compact, and while it does not feel like something is missing, it feels fairly insubstantial in some way. There should be more here. I’d like to see some of the crimes that Alonzo commits—these could be demonstrated by showing them to us rather than simply having Cojo tell us about the crimes. The strangeness of the story could very easily handle another half an hour or more. Alonzo is an interesting enough character that I’d like more insight into his character.

Lon Chaney has a reputation of playing monsters—Quasimodo, Erik the Phantom, and others. Alonzo the Armless fits into this pattern, too. Because of this, Chaney is thought of more as a horror actor out for thrills and chills. The Unknown as well as many of his other films serves as very real evidence that the man could truly act, create characters that are both terrible and vulnerable, and make an audience feel his character’s pain.

Why to watch The Unknown: Lon Chaney. You need no other reason.
Why not to watch: Just as it starts to get interesting, it ends.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Red Neck, White Truck, Blue Jeans

Film: Nashville
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I think I finally understand Robert Altman’s films. I tend to like Altman’s films when I actually watch them, but I also find them difficult to get myself involved in. There are multiple Altman films that I have seen the first half hour of, but couldn’t quite muscle my way through. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to watch Short Cuts. So I have to brace myself for Altman, despite loving M*A*S*H and The Player.

But now, having watched Nashville, I understand his films, I think. Where he tends to lose me is the massive size of the casts. All of his films seem to have these overwhelming casts and multiple stories that eventually sort of tie up. In this, Nashville is no different from other Altman films. With so many characters and names, I get confused and frustrated and eventually I just walk away from it and watch something else. I’d get lost in the battling stories and not want to continue.

There is, I think, too much going on here to provide anything like an accurate summary of the action (although I’m bound to try eventually). Everything centers on five days in Nashville and the intertwining lives of a couple of dozen people who undergo crises of faith, life-changing events, wake-ups to reality, or the fulfillment of dreams. Many of our characters are successful or wannabee country, folk, or gospel musicians, so there is also quite a bit of singing going on at various events. Additionally, in the background for all the film (and in the foreground for parts) is the political campaign of an independent running for president.

So there’s a lot going on, and many of the stories intermingle, bump into each other, or at least touch each other tangentially. The major theme for a lot of the stories is tragedy, disappointment, or a shattering of hopes. One of the main connecting themes is the creation of the political Replacement Party and the grass-roots presidential campaign of Hal Phillip Walker. This brings in the stories of Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a country singer who is told to endorse Walker for a return endorsement for the governorship of the state. Hamilton agrees to appear at the rally at the end of the film if Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) also appears. But Barbara Jean is fragile and has suffered a series of breakdowns. It is one of these breakdowns that causes her dominating husband Barnett (Allen Garfield) to commit her to the rally. Following her is Pfc. Glenn Kelly (Scott Glenn), who may have stalkerish ambitions toward the fading singer. Also in the mix is Connie White (Karen Black), who will not appear on stage with Barbara Jean.

While Barbara Jean recuperates in the hospital, she shares a floor with the wife of Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), who is being visited by his niece, Martha (Shelley Duvall), who really doesn’t want to see her aunt in the hospital and would rather spend her time chasing singers and performing whatever acts a groupie typically performs for singers. He also rents a room to Kenny (David Hayward), who is never seen without his violin case and seems twitchy about anyone else touching it.

And then we have Linnea (Lily Tomlin) who has a depressing marriage with Del (Ned Beatty), who is more interested in furthering his political aspirations with Hal Walker than in his two deaf children. Despite Linnea’s role as a gospel singer, she is tempted into infidelity with Tom (Keith Carradine), part of a folk trio. Of course, Tom is a serial womanizer and is also sleeping with singing partner Mary (Cristina Raines), who is married to the third member of the trio, Bill (Allen Nichols).

And then there’s Winifred (Barbara Harris), who wants to make it as a star, but is constantly pursued by Star (Bert Remsen), her husband, who is against the idea. Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) also has aspirations as a singer and the body to be a headliner, but has no ability to sing a note and not enough self-awareness to realize her own lack of talent. And through all this, Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum) shows up and drives through on his huge three-wheeled chopper and Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), who claims to be a BBC reporter making a documentary on Nashville, inserts herself into conversations and is never seen with a film crew.


So what’s the trick to understanding Altman? I’d argue that with a few exceptions, Altman doesn’t really want to tell stories. He wants to cut a slice out of lives and present them on the screen. What we see is messy because real lives are messy. We don’t have specific conclusions that we come to at a given time, and even when something in our lives does end, it doesn’t neatly wrap up into a package. Everything else in our lives continues on, unfolding its own plot as we continue. And that’s what Altman is giving us. In Nashville, we get a five-day slice out of the lives of a couple of dozen characters. A few things happen and time or fate or kismet brings many of those people to the same place at the same time for the end of the film.

That’s sort of the point. It’s not about the individual people or even their specific stories, but about how these stories mesh and blend and intertwine. The film almost becomes allegorical, with each character representing not a specific person in the real world, but a phenotype placed into this specific environment and story. And yet, on a real level, each story works as the story of a real person as well.

Nashville is a difficult movie to dislike completely because it is well made and because a number of the stories are compelling. It’s difficult to love completely because, well, it’s filled with a lot of country music, and a lot of it isn’t the good, classic kind. I have an intense dislike for the sort of redneck country that is frequently in vogue—the “Mom, trucks, God, and America” mentality that tacitly celebrates racism, antebellum values, and lack of education as positive values, and there’s a lot of that here. That it’s true to life isn’t the point.

But, it’s worth getting over that for this film. Nashville was difficult for me to get into, but once I got past the first half hour, I’m glad I stuck it out.

Why to watch Nashville: The stories all feel real.
Why not to watch: Have you heard country music?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Birth of a Career

Film: Roger & Me
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Michael Moore. When he first started, I was a big fan, which means you can expect that I’m going to end up reviewing this film favorably, since it is his first. However, as his career progressed, it became evident that as a documentarian, Moore was often less than honest, and sometimes edited events to suit his narrative rather than for truth. Eventually, I started to look at Moore as a liberal version of Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly: an ideologue with little to really add to the conversation.

But, boy! was he different when he first started. Roger & Me is clever, pointed, and sardonic as well as uncompromising. Moore goes straight for the throat and scores, and spends the rest of the film essentially jumping up and down on a damp patch where a dead horse once lay. So, while the film may well be overkill for the point that Moore is trying to make, the dark, bitter humor carries it through to the end.

Roger & Me is the story of Moore’s attempt to bring General Motors Chairman Roger Smith to Flint, Michigan for a day to meet with the people. Why? Because Smith closed the auto plants in Flint, putting 30,000 people out of work and devastating the town. Moore addresses this immediately in the film, suggesting that the plant closings were not to rescue a dying company but to build new plants in Mexico where workers would perform the same tasks at a fraction of the pay. Essentially, then, this film is one of the first media looks at the problem of outsourcing and loss of American manufacturing.

To tell the story, Moore splices in several attempts to meet with Smith in the GM headquarters in Detroit, as well as attempts to blindside the man at various other spots around the country. Moore spends some time speaking to other wealthy people in the Flint area, and to a person, they seem completely out of touch with the reality of the lives of the former GM workers. We see a local sheriff who is forced to evict dozens of families per day around the area interspersed with scenes of Smith discussing the meaning of Christmas at a yearly GM event. We see a woman forced to sell rabbits for meat told she could no longer supplement her income in this way due to health laws while the wealthy play polo. It’s powerful stuff.

And herein lies the problem. I’m aware that Moore played with reality on a number of his films, moving particular events in time so that they would conform to the narrative he wanted to present rather than the truth of the event he purported to be depicting. It forces me to wonder if he hasn’t done the same thing here. When he sneaks into a GM shareholders’ meeting, for instance, and attempts to ask a question only to have Smith immediately shut the meeting down, I’m forced to consider the possibility that this isn’t really what happened. Perhaps Smith really did answer his question. Perhaps Moore’s question and the response we are shown happened half an hour apart. I can’t know, and therein lies the problem here. Like a cop accused of evidence tampering, the future bad behavior taints everything that came before it. It throws everything into question.

The first rule for a documentarian should be that the truth is inviolate and something with which one should never tamper. Of course, that’s an ideal; even the first documentary (Nanook of the North, for those playing along at home) bent the truth and planned particular shots in certain ways for a specific effect. But that is significantly different from forcibly altering a chain of events. I’m left to wonder if Moore actually had enough of an impact to force Smith to shut down a shareholders’ meeting or if that’s more or less a trick of editing and an example of Moore’s hubris. The aforementioned eviction cut in with Smith's Christmas speech almost certainly didn't happen simultaneously, but we're certainly led to believe the two events are simultaneous.

All of this leaves me in a quandary.

The truth is that I like this movie a lot. The narrative that Moore gives us is beautifully edited to present this particular story. We see a wealthy class of people completely out of touch with the reality that most of their fellow citizens deal with on a given day. We see a company so devoid of humanity that it happily destroys a major city to save some money. We see a man so unwilling to communicate with anyone questioning him that he has the filmmaker forcibly removed from his building at all times.

It’s effective. It’s infuriating and funny and dark and brutal, but mostly it carries with it a sort of gallows humor that plays extremely well throughout. I just wish I could trust it, because the movie I loved the first time I saw it a few decades ago no longer has the assurance of complete truth that it once did.

Why to watch Roger & Me: Moore’s signature style in its earliest incarnation.
Why not to watch: Knowing his editing “tricks” in subsequent films, it can be difficult to trust.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

No Ticket, No Money

Film: Le Million (The Million)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’ve been trying to watch something from the earliest years at least once a week, a goal that I sometimes succeed at and sometimes simply do not. Films like Le Million (The Million) are the reason that I sometimes do not watch one of these early films and also the reason why I’m really happy to have most of the first 100 films done.

Anyway, Le Million is the story of Michel Bouflette (Rene Lefevre), a poor artist who is in debt to just about everyone he knows. Just as his creditors come to call on him and demand payment, his friend Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert) shows up and tells him that one of them has just won one million florins in a lottery. Just before they determine who has the winning ticket, Michel offers a 50/50 split regardless, which Prosper declines. As it turns out, Michel has the ticket.

Unfortunately, the ticket is in his old coat, which is in the apartment of Beatrice (Annabella), his fiancé. What he doesn’t know is that Beatrice has given the coat away to a thief named Granpere Tulipe (Paul Ollivier). Naturally, the coat doesn’t stay with him, either. So what follows is a grand chase for the coat around Paris. The police are after Tulipe and think that Michel actually is Tulipe. Michel and Beatrice want the jacket back. Prosper wants Michel out of the way so that he can claim the ticket as his own. And, as the saying goes, hilarity ensues.

Except that it sort of doesn’t. The biggest problem with this film is the opening several minutes after the credits. We discover these characters whose story we will soon learn about in the middle of a celebration. We’re told that they are celebrating something wonderful that has happened and that everything has turned out perfectly. So there’s not a bit of tension in this story—we know from the beginning that whatever problems we are going to encounter on the way to the finish are going to come out fine in the end. Michel in jail? We know he won’t stay there. The jacket stolen? We know it will come back.

Okay, it could easily be argued that with musical comedy we know going in that it’s all going to come out right in the end anyway. But a good musical comedy will keep that tension ratcheted up and put us in a position in which we don’t know how we’ll get to a happy ending. Or it will play with the ending and give us the happy ending we didn’t know was there. Lots of possibilities even though we expect the happy ending. Here, not so much.

Additionally, the entire plot and the success of our characters depends entirely on luck, and in several cases, the sort of luck that would make a Charles Dickens character blush. Michel is difficult to root for not because he is poor, but because he is successful in everything he does purely by chance rather than skill, determination, or any other positive quality. Better lucky than good, I suppose, but this film takes that to a ridiculous extreme.

I suppose that the songs are decent, but they’re not really anything that special. I found it interesting that many times the songs were not being sung by the characters in the context of the film, but appear more or less as a given character’s thoughts or conscience. That, at the very least, was an interesting difference from what I expected.

As it turns out, though, there’s not a lot here to recommend. The film is guilty in a large respect of equating personal value with bank account. Michel is a bum until the moment he has a winning lottery ticket, where upon he becomes a man greatly respected and to be taken seriously. The fact that this is disturbingly true to life doesn’t change the fact that this opinion seems to be fully endorsed and encouraged by this film.

And finally, for a musical comedy, it’s remarkably unfunny. I barely cracked a smile.

On a positive note, it’s only about 81 minutes long, so at least the pain is fairly brief. I was surprised at one point to check the time and discover that I had only about 10 minutes of the film left. So I guess that’s a good thing. At least I tell myself that that’s a good thing.

Why to watch Le Million : A very early look at musical comedy.
Why not to watch: There’s no tension and it’s not very good. Mostly, it’s not very good.

Monday, January 23, 2012

No, Lucy, You Can't Do the Show!

Film: Dance, Girl, Dance
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

A great deal of my life for the past few years has dealt with the fact that my older daughter is extremely involved in the ballet. Gail dances a dozen or so hours every week, and I spend a good deal of my time sitting on a couch outside of her rehearsals and classes. So when a film has a ballet component (The Red Shoes, Black Swan), I take more of an interest. And seeing as how I bought a copy of Dance, Girl, Dance a couple of years ago, knowing that it would come up on this list eventually, well, here we are.

The sell on this film is the director, Dorothy Arzner. Arzner was the only mainstream female director in Hollywood’s Golden Age, a feat in and of itself. When you add to that the twin damning facts (at least of that day) that Arzner was also an ardent feminist and a lesbian, well, her sitting in a director’s chair is all the more amazing. In short, Arzner is a blow for women, albeit one that didn’t have a huge impact until much later. Women directors are still pretty scarce in the industry, but at least these days no one looks cross-eyed when they discover a woman in charge of a picture.

Anyway, Dance, Girl, Dance follows two dancers in particular. The first, all-American named Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) lives to dance, and wants nothing more than to be attached to a real ballet. One of her dance partners and roommates is “Bubbles,” (Lucille Ball) who is in many ways Judy’s opposite. Where Judy loves dance for itself and is serious about it, Bubbles likes men, money, and everything that goes with them, and sees dancing as a way to get what she wants.

Eventually, thanks to the fact that she has little in the way of shame, Bubbles goes full burlesque, adopts the new stage name of Tiger Lily White, and begins taking over on Broadway with a risqué musical act. She brings Judy in as a stooge; Judy’s job is to perform a ballet number and incite the crowd to both anger at her and greater desire to see Tiger Lily. It’s a thankless job, but the pay is good, and Judy sticks with it.

Of course, because this is essentially a musical from 1940, there have to be men in the picture. And there are two of them. Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward), married but unhappily, has a thing for both girls. He meets both early in the film, ditching Judy to spend time with Bubbles. And then later, he returns into their lives, ditching Bubbles for Judy. Also important in all of this is Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), who is in charge of an important ballet company. He pursues Judy as well, both from a romantic and dance angle. On several occasions, Judy shoots herself in the foot with him, either from a lack of confidence or a desire to spend more time with Jimmy.

What is interesting here is that we’re given flawed characters. Perhaps only Steve Adams lacks a significant flaw, other than he’s a bit dreamy-eyed throughout. Judy continually deals with the fact that she has no confidence in herself. Witnessing a rehearsal of a ballet company, she simply walks away, deciding that she doesn’t have the talent to make it. In fact, at this point she almost gives up dance entirely. Bubbles doesn’t lack in confidence, but she does seem to lack a bit of humanity. She helps her friends out on the sly at one point, but otherwise acts entirely in her own self-interest and damn the cost. She’s quite obviously a gold digger, and more importantly for the narrative of this film, she’s ridiculously competitive with anything else wearing a skirt. Her job offer of stooge to Judy is part because she feels sorry for Judy, but mostly because it allows her to constantly ridicule a dancer who is, ultimately, a better dancer than she is. And then there’s Jimmy, who wants only a good time and someone else to pay for it.

For that, this movie is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, that’s also the only reason this film is pretty interesting. It has the pedigree of a film that should be giving its audience something real, or significant, or different. And it doesn’t. Ultimately, this film is no different than anything else that came out of the musical films of the era. It’s pretty much the same damn thing despite the possibility for something more. Ultimately, the women in the film can’t amount to anything without a guy there for them. And that’s just sort of depressing from a lesbian feminist, regardless of the era. The speech at the end doesn’t really make up for it, especially when it’s followed by an on-stage catfight.

Why to watch Dance, Girl, Dance: A feminist vision from before World War II.
Why not to watch: Despite its feminist background, it’s not much different from other films of the period.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Not Much of a Honeymoon

Film: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun)
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

It feels like it’s been awhile since I’ve found a film that is new to me that I’ve really been captivated by. Oh, there have been a couple in the past week or so that I’ve liked, and I certainly remember Der Himmel uber Berlin very fondly, but that one feels like it was months ago instead of just a couple of weeks. I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know if I’ve been choosing poorly or if I’m somehow starting to burn out a little bit trying to punch through 25 movies or so every month, plus films for podcasting. Burnout is possible, of course, and sometimes it does feel a bit like this is work. But I don’t think it’s that. I think my pushing myself to find more obscure films is paying a particular dividend—many of these films are obscure for a reason.

I suppose if I really needed to recharge myself, I’d pick one of the multiple dozens of films on the list that I’ve already seen and watch it again, something mindless and entertaining and fun. I wouldn’t, in that situation, select a dense German film that I’d never seen before. I picked up a copy of Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) when my local library started trying to slough off their stock of films on VHS. When you can fill up a bag for a dollar, it’s hard to resist, even if it’s a film you plan to watch only once.

I had some hopes for Die Ehe der Maria Braun, but those hopes found it a too difficult task to generate any real interest in me. It isn’t that the story isn’t any good or that the film is poorly made; on the contrary, the film is very well made (although it does smack a bit of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 style in places), and the story is an interesting one, up to a point. The problem is that it very much feels like I’ve been here before, like this is a film that belongs as the third film in a Lifetime marathon of films about troubled women.

Let me break it down for you. In the waning days of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch) before he goes back to the front. After the war, Hermann doesn’t return home, and Maria walks around carrying a sign with his picture on the back, hoping for anyone who might have seen him and who might have news. Eventually, she begins to believe that Hermann is dead, and she takes a job in a bar. It is here that she meets Bill (George Eagles, credited as George Byrd). Despite the language barrier and their racial differences (Bill is black), the two become something of a couple, and soon Maria is pregnant. This is all okay with Maria when she is told that Hermann is definitively dead. But of course he’s not.

Hermann comes home, finds Bill and Maria in flagrante, and all hell breaks loose. Hoping to stop the fighting, Maria clubs Bill over the head, accidentally killing him. At the military tribunal, Hermann takes the rap for her and goes to prison. She attempts to build a life for herself and for him in the hopes of his eventual release. She takes a job with a French company, working under Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny). She soon becomes his mistress and becomes wealthy enough to buy a house. She tells Hermann everything, saying that when he is released, their life together will truly begin.

But of course it won’t be that simple (After all, no Lifetime movie could resist further complications). Oswald finds out about Hermann and goes to him. He tells Hermann that if he will abandon Maria, he will make the pair of them wealthy. Hermann agrees and emigrates to Canada upon his release. However, he still sends a flower to Maria every month to remind her that he still loves her. And then, when Oswald finally dies, Maria finds out about this arrangement at the reading of the will. How she reacts to this essentially defines the movie, so I won’t spoil it.

And that’s it. We enter the world of a woman who really only had a single day with her husband, and the rest of her life was spent essentially waiting for that marriage to restart. It’s not a terrible idea for a film; it’s just really, really boring. That’s not something I say about a film too often, but it fits here. I didn’t care about the lives of any of these people. Maria is enough of an ingénue to be attractive, but not compelling enough for me to care that much about what happens to her. She seems more than willing to jump from bed to bed as it suits her, which makes her devotion to her husband almost ludicrous. In a more compelling character, I’d be willing to look at this as a sort of fascinating conflict, or a hypocrisy made interesting by the character. But not here. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to her.

And so it goes. Another day, another movie, and I’m still waiting to be wowed by something.

Why to watch Die Ehe der Maria Braun: A realistic depiction of a true survivor.
Why not to watch: It’s really hard to care.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Noir Avec la Comedie

Film: Tirez Sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

Film noir is an American film style, perhaps the only truly American film style in existence. This isn’t to say that Americans filmmakers don’t create innovative, interesting films in different genres, but film noir is a decidedly Yankee creation. It’s also the only accidently genre of film ever created—it wasn’t until after noirs fell out of fashion that they were determined to be their own thing. The French discovered film noir (hence the French name of the genre), so it comes as no surprise that some French directors might try to duplicate this style of film. Francois Truffaut’s Tirez Sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) is one of the finer examples of a non-American noir in existence.

We start with Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), a honky-tonk piano player in a dive bar run by Plyne (Serge Davri). Charlie is a pretty good player—good enough to be on the bar’s sign at least. We soon discover thanks to Plyne that one of the servers, Lena (Marie Dubois) has a bit of a crush on him. Also, almost immediately, everything goes to hell. A man named Chico (Albert Remy) rushes into the bar and begs Charlie for protection. It turns out that Chico is his older brother and Charlie is actually Edouard Saroyan, a noted concert pianist who is now hitting the ivories in the dive bar for some unknown reason.

And so Lena and Charlie/Eduoard (Edouard from here on out just for convenience) pick up a couple of new “friends” in the persons of Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), the two thugs who were chasing Chico in the first place. The outwit the pair on the night in question, but are sort of kidnapped the next day. Some quick thinking by Lena gets them away from the duo and she leads Edouard back to her place where we discover that she has known his identity all along.

It’s here that we get a long flashback that tells us really what is going on with Edouard and why he plays the piano where he does. Edouard was married once, but as soon as he started having some success as a pianist, his marriage started to fall apart. His wife, Therese (Nicole Berger) and he grow apart, and it seems there is nothing he can do. And we learn that his success actually came from Therese giving herself in the Biblical sense to Edouard’s impresario, Lars (Claude Heymann), and thus she resents all of the success because of what it cost her. She confesses, he leaves, but returns immediately. It’s still too late—she has flung herself from their apartment. And thus, Edouard becomes Charlie and gives up his success as a sort of penance.

This takes us through the first half of the film. From here, we have a number of plots to be resolved. Edouard has to deal with his new-found romance with Lena; Clarisse (Michele Mercier), the prostitute across the hall; Momo and Ernest, Chico; and Fido (Richard Kanayan) his kid brother who lives with him. It’s quite a bit of plot to charge through in what amounts to about half an hour, and it’s compounded by the fact that Fido gets kidnapped and Plyne and Edouard get into a scuffle that ends with Plyne dead.

A great deal of the film takes place inside Edouard’s head, a sort of stream-of consciousness narration. Much of this deals not only with his past, but with what is going on around him as the film progresses. His first walk with Lena, for instance, is filled with his own self-doubt and a sort of constant mental anguish about his own desire for her and to not appear to forward with her. He is very much like a young boy in these moments, while in others, he speaks like a man almost at the end of his life, given over to despair and a little self-loathing.

This is a supremely strange film in many ways. While the overall tone of the film is bleak and despairing, as befits film noir, quite a bit of what happens is done strictly for comic effect. One of the two kidnappers, for instance, boasts to Fido about his scarf, saying something to the effect of “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over.” We’re quickly given a shot of an old woman suddenly stricken and dying. It’s obviously comedic and silly, and ultimately feels a bit out of place, as does much of the rest of the humor.

And so Tirez Sur la Pianiste is a film of multiple parts and multiple intents that never quite gels. It’s interesting for what it is, in part interesting because it is Truffaut early in his career when he was still figuring things out. It’s worth a watch for that reason if no other, but it’s a difficult film to recommend on its own merits.

Why to watch Tirez Sur le Pianiste: The French have an affinity for film noir, and this film is proof.
Why not to watch: It never really decides what sort of film it is.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Have No Words

Film: Heaven and Earth Magic
Format: Internet video on laptop.

It’s not often that I find myself so completely flummoxed by a film that I have nothing to say, but such is the case with Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, alternatively titled No. 12. When I say that I can make no sense of this film, it seems like I’m just being lazy. I understand that. To give you an idea of what I mean, though, I’m going to use Smith’s own words to define his film. I found this on Wikipedia. I know Wikipedia is not always reliable, but damn me if this description doesn’t at least somewhat cover what I watched.

According to Smith, this film’s story is this: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Got that? Yeah, me neither.

When I was a kid, I was a huge Monty Python fan. I still am, really. I love Python stuff. I have all of the shows on DVD and own most of the films. I remember watching the show every Sunday night on public television (WTTW, channel 11, Chicago). Every Sunday, it was Python at 10:00 followed by Dave Allen at Large, which I claimed to like despite the fact that much of it was too adult for me to really understand. Anyway, when I’d watch Python, my mother would comment on how stupid she thought the Terry Gilliam cartoons were. I secretly loved the cartoons—they were some of my favorite things from the show.

I promise this isn’t a tangent. Heaven and Earth Magic is essentially a 66-minute-long Gilliam cartoon. Actually, Gilliam’s animations on Python come after Smith’s film, which means that Gilliam may well have gotten inspired by Smith’s work. What we have here are cut-out photographs that sometimes animate. Most of the animation is simplistic, often two-step animation. Little cut-out photographic people walk in herky-jerky motions across the screen. They give each other fish. A cow appears and is hit with a mallet, turning into a map of the various cuts. The woman of Smith’s alleged plot merges with her dental chair.

Yeah, it’s pretty damn avant garde. This impression is in no way changed by the bizarre soundtrack, which is essentially sound effects rather than any sort of music. Parts of the soundtrack might well be considered music—that is if you call a ceaselessly ringing bell accompanied by the sound of several clocks and a steam whistle to be music.

Seriously, this is one messed up film. I have no idea what any of it means. Even if we take Smith’s description of his own work at face value, I still have no idea what any of it means.

Look, I’ll make this really simple. I like Terry Gilliam’s animations. I think they are often funny. But when they go full-on avant garde with intentionally obscure meanings and last for more than an hour, I have enough of them quickly. By 20 minutes in , I was very much ready for this thing to be done. At the 40 minute mark, I was wondering how much more I could take.

Ultimately, avant garde cinema just makes my head hurt. I don’t gain anything in my life or in terms of valid meaning for my existence when I watch a skeleton and a machine essentially play jai alai with a cooing baby that turns into a watermelon. It is beyond me to see how I could have been enriched by such an experience, even on the best of days. Heaven and Earth Magic is not a challenging film; it is a punishing one.

I’m not going to pretend to make up a meaning here, folks. I have not a clue what any of this is about or is supposed to mean. I’m certain there is meaning here; I just seem incapable of fathoming what it is. And I have a genuine desire to soak my head in Epsom salts. Further, I’d suggest that you could show me a clip from this film from virtually any point in its running time, and I wouldn’t know which part it came from.

In the final analysis, I’m just glad it’s done.

Why to watch Heaven and Earth Magic: It will put skid marks on your brain.
Why not to watch: Because at 66 minutes, it’s 33 times too long.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Can't Choose Your Family

Film: Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

Family is one of those words that’s difficult to define. Who you consider a part of your family differs from person to person. Generally speaking, we don’t get to choose the members of our family. We’re stuck with them, like it or not. Everyone has those people in their families who they wish they didn’t need to claim, but that’s not the way it works. Family is family, regardless of how you classify it.

Bergman’s Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) is a film about family and all that that word entails. It’s also a film by Ingmar Bergman, which means you can expect existential pain and suffering a lot of it expressed oddly in Bergman’s style. Lots of austerity. Lots of self-inflicted emotional trauma. Oh, Ingmar.

The film concerns the Ekdahl family, particularly the two eponymous children, Fanny (Pernilla Alwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve). They live in a large, loving family happily ensconced in the upper middle class of turn-of-the-century Sweden. Their parents Oscar (Allan Edwall) and Emilie (Ewa Froling) run a playhouse and enjoy a sort of magical existence. They have kooky uncles, a nursemaid devoted to them, and a grandmother who adores them.

And then, tragically, their father dies. Seeking comfort, Emilie relies on the local bishop (Jan Malmsjo) for spiritual guidance and comfort. At least at first. Eventually, the bishop asks Emilie to marry him and she agrees. One of his conditions of the marriage is that she will leave her entire life behind—and so will the children. No clothing, books, trinkets, jewelry from their old life. And no contact with their old family. Essentially, the children are to be plucked out of their old lives and dropped wholesale into the world of the austere and harsh religious man. That they see visions of their dead father is not surprising. That others see him as well is perhaps a bit more.

The bishop seems to spend most of his punishments and his harshest behavior for Alexander, who is as defiant as most young children. His greatest sin is the telling of lies, each of which comes with a punishment—generally a bare-assed whipping witnessed by the rest of the household and evidently enjoyed by the bishop’s mother. Emilie sees what she has wrought with her children, that in selecting her family, she has perhaps chosen too quickly, too much in earnest, and thus poorly. Pregnant but not caring, she asks him for a divorce and he refuses, telling her that should she leave, he will take her children and raise them as his own, depriving her of them. Such a nice, upstanding, holy man, that bishop.

All of this takes us to the third act, and Emilie’s decisions regarding the welfare of Fanny and Alexander. It’s not something to spoil, so I won’t.

For all of the pain and misery that Bergman gives us in this film, it is very much a meditation on the power and value of family. The Ekdahl clan is one that, for lack of a better way to put it, is what a true family should be. They get angry with each other, frustrated with each other, and are constantly dealing with the foibles of one family member or another. And yet, at every turn and every problem, there is always the sort of unconditional love that creates a true family.

Bergman, of course, made his career creating the kind of movies that made Woody Allen concerned about his position in an uncaring universe. For all of the pain and suffering, all of the existential crises, and all of the people doomed by their own decisions he filmed in his career, he ended his career in the cinema with a movie that is, ultimately, incredibly uplifting.

(Yes, I’m well aware that Bergman made other films after Fanny och Alexander. However, this film is the final full-length feature of his career that was released in theaters. While not particularly his swan song, it was his last go-around with the venue that had been his mistress for so long. So no complaints.)

Fanny och Alexander is, like life, filled with both joy and pain, happiness and sadness, triumph and tragedy. I’ve not gone too far in Bergman’s filmography, but it would not surprise me if no other film of his felt as genuinely human, accessible, and natural as this one.

Why to watch Fanny och Alexander: A meditation on family, both good and bad.
Why not to watch: It’s long and pretty Bergman-y, even if it’s not quite as depressing as you might think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mad Dog

Film: Badlands
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There has always been a certain level of fascination around serial killers for a certain type of person. In the U.S., there is a particular unique brand of such killers that populate the wide open spaces of the West. These killers seem to thrive in the emptiness where they can be alone except for when some unlucky soul comes across them. Such is the story of Badlands.

Kit (Martin Sheen), a garbage man, takes an immediate liking to Holly (Sissy Spacek) when he sees her. The fact that there is 10 years separating them and that Holly is a mere 15 doesn’t seem to dissuade him at all. When he loses his job, he takes up as a ranch hand, and he and Holly see each other in secret, mostly because Holly’s father (Warren Oates) doesn’t approve of Kit. This may be his daughter’s age, the age difference, or the fact that Kit looks a bit like a greaser and a bit like James Dean. When he discovers their times together, he punishes Holly by shooting her dog.

The two resolve to be together anyway. Kit attempts the pacifist path first, telling Holly’s father that he plans to be with her. But Kit is run off again, and the two decide to leave town. While he is collecting Holly’s things, her father enters, and there is a bit of a showdown. It’s one-sided, though, because Kit is armed, and he doesn’t hold back, shooting her father several times. He records a message that he and Holly have decided to kill themselves, collects Holly’s things, and sets the house on fire.

And suddenly, the film enters a sort of lull. The pair run off into the untamed woods of South Dakota and build a sort of treehouse for themselves, living together without any intrusion from the outside. At least, that is, until there suddenly is intrusion from the outside. Kit is forced to kill again, and the pair hit the road again, slowly working their way out of South Dakota by heading west. Kit kills again a few times, sometimes for no reason other than to do it, and Holly simply goes along for the ride, never participating in the killing, but also never preventing it or even saying anything to slow Kit down.

Of course, a ride like this one eventually has to end, and this one does, too. And the police and state troopers find what we have slowly come to learn over the course of the film—there is a sense of magnetism in Kit. He is a conscienceless killer, but is almost likeable in a way. Through all of this, Holly becomes more and more distant, retreating into her own sparse mental world, about as unpopulated as the west the pair drive through.

Despite this, Holly’s musings are fascinating. Rather than focusing on the killings and the death, she instead focuses on her own feelings and her own reactions to everything that is going on around her. At one point, near the time when the two part, she has retreated inside herself completely, ignoring everything Kit does. She tells us that rather than talk, she spells out entire sentences on the roof of her mouth with her tongue so that the sentences will never be heard by anyone. Comments like this one have a strange, subtle beauty to them. There is a sense of poetry as well as a sense of loss in them that seems to fit the expansive wastes of the setting.

What’s interesting to me here is that director Terrence Malick seems not to care overly much about the violence that is happening in his own film. The various killings of Kit Carruthers are treated with no more ceremony or slow-motion footage or glorified camera angles than any other event in the film. Potential victims left alive are treated no different from those who Kit guns down in cold blood and for no reason. There is, within the confines of this film, essentially no moral difference between killing and not killing. In fact, Holly’s reactions to all of the violence around her, even the murder of her own father, is a sort of vague, passive indifference. Both characters appear to exist in a world of solipsism, where the death of another is important only in how it might affect the self.

Malick’s photography is as sparse as the landscape and as devoid of emotion as Holly’s narrations. It’s effective throughout. There is a sense of simply events happening on the screen with no implied moral judgment one way or another. The events unfold, each filmed with the same distance as the last, and we are given no cues as to how we should react. In effect, Malick lets us decide for ourselves.

Badlands is an almost contemplative film despite its lurid subject matter. It avoids attempting to shock the audience with the violence of similar films (Straw Dogs from the same era comes to mind. So too does Natural Born Killers of some years later). Rather than focusing on the violence, the film instead focuses on Holly and to a lesser extent Kit and simply shows us their lives together.

An astonishing, difficult, and worthwhile film.

Why to watch Badlands: Malick before he got as Malick-y.
Why not to watch: Because you need the movies to make your moral judgments for you.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What is it with Bertolucci?

Film: Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution)
Format: Internet video on laptop

Considering the parade of films I have watched in the past two years, it takes quite a bit more than it used to to really squick me, but Bertolucci’s Prima Della Rivoluzione (Before the Revolution) managed to in its first half hour or so. The reason will become evident as I get into the actual narrative here. What’s interesting is that the main reason for this, while central to the plot, could have easily been changed to be far less creepy and still have almost the exact same purpose in service to the narrative.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is in many ways the classic example of youth in revolt. Blessed with a bourgeoisie upbringing, he is filled with passion and energy, and the teachings of his professor, Cesare (Morando Morandini), a communist. At home, Fabrizio spends time with his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), who shocks Fabrizio with his sudden death. Agostino drowns, and there are some indications that it may be a suicide. Conflicted and filled with an energy that has no focus or direction, Fabrizio falls into the arms of Gina (Adriana Asti) and begins a passionate affair.

And here’s where the squicking comes in—Gina is Fabrizio’s aunt. She’s about 10 years older than he is and plenty attractive, and in many ways it would be natural for him to be attracted to her. In this case, though, the attraction is mutual, and they begin mashing on each other at Agostino’s funeral and continue for quite a bit of the rest of the film. I’m not a prude and I try not to keep my views provincial, but every time these two ended up in a clinch, I found myself wanting to look away.

This is not the first time that I have encountered creepy sex in a Bertolucci film. I am instantly reminded of the butter and pig vomit scenes in Last Tango in Paris as well as the sex with the epileptic prostitute and the pederasty sequence in Novocento. Of all of these, I can see the point of some of what happened in Novocento, but I’m forced into the belief that Bertolucci might have been something of a pervert. In the case of this film, the function that Gina serves is as more or less an outlet for Fabrizio’s undirected, general frustration. I don’t, honestly, see any real difference that would have been made by having Gina be a friend of the family, akin to something more like The Graduate.

The real point of the film comes in the third act when Fabrizio, Cesare, and Gina go to visit Gina’s friend Puck (Cecrope Barilli). Puck lives on a parcel of undeveloped land that he is about to lose, unable to maintain his hold on it into the future. That, more than anything, is what Fabrizio is dealing with. He cannot, and will not live in Italy’s fascist past, and it appears that the future is both bleak and completely unknown. For him, neither past nor future hold anything worth saving or working toward. There is only now, and now is also insufficient in fulfilling him.

Prima Della Rivoluzione was filmed in black-and-white, which is evocative of several different possibilities. One possibility is that Fabrizio, still young, sees his world in these same black-and-white tones. Another is that the world for many of our characters truly does exist in this colorless world. There’s really no reason to choose between these two possibilities, of course. Bertolucci may have meant both, or neither, or something else entirely. It’s noteworthy, though, that the one small piece of the film that is in color is essentially a short pseudo-fantasy that Fabrizio arranges for Gina’s benefit. Here, and only here, something completely outside the normal world, do colors exist for us.

With a film like this, I am unable to prevent myself from projecting the characters forward, beyond the scope of the film itself. In this film, my thinking concerns family gatherings in the future and just how awkward some of those meetings well be. “Hey, Aunt Gina, remember that time a couple of years ago when you and I had all of that incestuous sex?” In fact, near the end of the film, Gina leaves and Fabrizio goes back to Clelia (Cristina Pariset), his fiancé introduced very briefly at the beginning of the film. And while he accepts this, it is soon evident that his mind is still on Gina.

It’s evident throughout the film that Bertolucci spent a lot of time watching Godard, as this film is very similar in style to Breathless. We see similar jump cuts, similar camera movements. In fact the two films look very much like the could have come from the same director. This isn’t too surprising, considering Bertolucci’s age of 22 at the time of filming this. Like the work of many a young filmmaker, this comes across in many ways as a combination of homage, tribute, and outright theft of a favored mentor. This isn’t a criticism, but a statement of fact.

But really, Gina’s identity, her eventual betrayal, and the destruction of their relationship could have had 95% of the same effect had she simply been the girl across the street, although it does make for a fascinating reaction from Gina at Fabrizio’s wedding.

Why to watch Prima Della Rivoluzione: It’s a natural, Italian counterpoint to the French New Wave.
Why not to watch: Because for Bertolucci, good sex is disturbing sex.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Ever Happened to Paul Muni?

Films: I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; The Life of Emile Zola
Format: DVDs from personal collection on big ol' television.

How come no one seems to remember Paul Muni? For a time, he was one of the most lauded actors in the world. He was apparently born to play the lead in biopics, and a quick skim over his profile on IMDB shows that this seems to be where he made his bread and butter. Muni appears in several films on the Big List, and I’ve spent the better part of a day with the man.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has the lurid title of a film of a few decades in the future. It tells the somewhat true story of an escaped convict who broke away from a chain gang crew and lived as a fugitive. Certainly there are a number of whitewashed aspects of this story from the original, but this version served to expose the chain gang system and create a desire for prison reform.

Our hero is James Allen (Muni), freshly returned from World War I. He’s given his old job in a factory, but it’s not anything he’s interested in any more. Instead, after working with the Army Corps of Engineers, he has a desire to build things. Sadly, there’s no work to be had, and Allen eventually ends up on the road, living hand-to-mouth.

At one stop, another down on his luck drifter convinces Allen to go with him to a local greasy spoon to bum a couple of hamburgers off the owner. The owner, after a little pleading, agrees. But this is more than just a quick attempt at a bite to eat. Our drifter pulls a gun and forces Allen to steal the money. Killed by the police in an ensuing shootout, the drifter leaves Allen to take the rap, and take it he does—ten years of hard labor. It’s not too long before Allen desires to go on the lam, and with the assistance of another prisoner named Bomber (Edward Ellis), he makes a break for it.

Eventually, he lands in Chicago and gets a job on a construction crew. His hard work and good ideas see him rise in the ranks. As he does, he becomes more and more attractive to Marie (Glenda Farrell), his landlady. She discovers his chain gang past and holds it over him, forcing him into a marriage that is perfectly beneficial for her. She spends more than he makes and runs around with other men while she keeps him on a tight leash. This gets even more confining when he meets Helen (Helen Vinson), with whom he falls in love.

Eventually caught, Allen is told that if he returns to the unnamed state of his escape, he’ll be given a pardon after 90 days. But it’s all smoke and mirrors—he’s put back into the chain gang and left, his pardon unfulfilled and the case closed. And so he escapes again, and goes on the road, living in shadows and in fear.

This film is naturally melodramatic, and it plays for pathos rather than tragedy. James Allen is not so much tragic as pitiable. His only crime, (other than escaping from the chain gang), was to give up a stable but boring job. Everyone, it seems, is complicit in the miscarriage of justice that causes him to be condemned to a life on the gang despite the overwhelming evidence in his favor. This, more than anything, is the reason for my accusation of wart removal in this film.

And yet, it’s a pretty good film. Muni is quite effective throughout the film. He suffers well, at the very least. The rest of the cast in general (with the exception of Ellis as Bomber) is subject to fits of extreme overacting and over piety. Regardless of this, the injustice done to Allen strikes a chord, as do the constant and consistent cover-ups of the brutality of the chain gang system in the South. For what it’s worth, the film set the standard and tone for chain gang films to come like The Defiant Ones and Cool Hand Luke. And regardless of the melodrama, the actual story is pretty effecting.

One of Muni’s triumph as an actor, though, comes in The Life of Emile Zola, a film, like Chain Gang for which he was nominated for an Oscar. In this film, we see initially a few snapshots of the early days of Zola (Muni), living in a cold flat in Paris with artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). The two suffer for their art, when suddenly Zola is given a job at a book publisher. He goes, but suffers again, this time because he begins to publish articles that call into question a number of facets of French life and society. Dismissed from his job, he returns to poverty, this time dragging along his wife Alexandrine (Gloria Holden).

During this time, however, he meets Nana (Erin O’Brien-Moore), a prostitute. She tells him her story, which he publishes as the book Nana. The book becomes an instant hit, and suddenly everything Zola touches turns to gold. He is lauded throughout Paris and the world by everyone by Cezanne, who tells him that he has grown fat with his success.

At the same time, the French military discovers a traitor in its ranks passing information to the enemy. Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is accused and immediately found guilty, stripped of rank, and sent to Devil’s Island. Meanwhile, the real traitor, Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) is uncovered, but his crime is covered up to maintain the Army’s dignity over the Dreyfus affair. Eventually, Zola gets wind of this and, pricked by the conscience that Cezanne has left him, calls into question the entire affair, accusing the military and even the highest levels of government of conspiracy to keep an innocent man in prison and allow a guilty man to walk free.

Here’s the thing—much like Chain Gang, The Life of Emile Zola is melodramatic to the extreme. Historical events are compressed at the end for a more bittersweet and poignant ending so that the melodramatic feel can remain throughout. Because of this, the movie telegraphs many of its moves, particularly in the last dozen minutes or so. And yet it still works really effectively. This is still a film that has the power to move and to create a great deal of sympathy for the figure of Dreyfus as well as for Zola’s sudden return to firebrand status. The most telling moment is Zola's speech at the end of his own trial. Despite everything working against it--the age and melodramatic stance--it remains one of the great courtroom speeches in film history.

Additionally, the film does tend in many ways to follow the actual history of the events. In some ways, the real story is far more drawn out and difficult, so it would seem that many of the events were compressed for ease of storytelling as well as for melodramatic purposes. But no matter. The film manages to work very well as a courtroom drama, as the story of a man called to action once again, as the story of the man’s life, and, by the end, a story of vindication and triumph.

What’s particularly interesting is the lack of mention of Dreyfus’s ancestry. One of the main charges against the military tribunal that convicted him was very real and evidently legitimate accusations of anti-Semitism. This is completely glossed over in the film, more than likely because of the rising trend of anti-Semitic feelings throughout Europe in the late 1930s. There are mere hints here—Dreyfus is accused and condemned by his military superiors based strictly on his name, a slight nod to the reality of the reason he was convicted in the first place.

What’s also interesting here is the depth of the conspiracy. In many ways, there are echoes today in news coverage and political ideologues that resonate from this film. The Life of Emile Zola manages to expose the subtle workings of human nature and our ability to suddenly grasp onto exactly the wrong idea because our feelings have been stirred up by those paid to do exactly that. If for nothing else, the film is worth watching today because it reveals—as do many other, similar films—our failings as a people to truly understand the depths to which those in power will sink if such power is threatened.

Why to watch I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: It single-handedly caused a call for prison reform.
Why not to watch: Melodrama phasers are set to kill, not stun.

Why to watch The Life of Emile Zola: Melodrama that works almost in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: Yet another kick to the hoolies for the French military, as if they needed another one.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Your Cheatin' Heart

Film: Crimes and Misdemeanors
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Oh, Woody Allen! Is there any subject your various neuroses won’t cover? Crimes and Misdemeanors is a film with essentially two stories that are mostly tangential, with a couple of characters that intersect here and there. Except for the very end, there is a relatively minor character who appears in both stories sort of as a link between the two, although he’s not really a major player in either one.

The first, and sort of main plot, features an ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). Rosenthal is a hell of a doctor and has a string of honors behind his name. He has a wife (Claire Bloom) and a daughter (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and a deep, dark secret. The secret is that he also has been having an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores Paley (Angelica Huston) for the last two years, and things are starting to get difficult. Dolores wants him, and wants him out of his marriage. She’s threatening to go to his wife, and she’s also threatening to out him on his financial improprieties.

In the other story, a documentary filmmaker named Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) exists in a loveless marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason). Wendy’s brother Lester (Alan Alda) is a big shot television producer who makes sitcoms for the masses. He also makes Cliff exceedingly jealous. There is a documentary film being made on Lester, and Cliff is tapped to direct it. Also working on the film is Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Cliff forms an instant attraction to her, and is nonplussed to discover that Lester has a thing for her as well.

The two stories collide in the person of Ben (Sam Waterston), who is the brother of Lester and Wendy and a patient of Dr. Rosenthal. Ben, a rabbi, is rather rapidly losing his eyesight and will probably be completely blind in a couple of months.

In essence, the two stories also meet in this connection over infidelity. In Judah’s case, the infidelity is real and has been going on for some time. In Cliff’s case, the infidelity is desired and mostly in his mind. He feels this connection and it’s evident that there is a little bit of a connection from Halley as well, but it’s primarily from him. Judah, on the other hand, wants out and is trapped in this double life by the evidently increasing neurotic behavior and desperation of Dolores.

Things come to a head in Judah’s story when he confides in his gangster brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach). Jack suggests that perhaps Dolores can be convinced, strong armed, or simply eliminated, and eventually, Judah breaks down and agrees. When the deed is done, he finds it necessary to go to her apartment and retrieve some incriminating evidence, and is confronted with the body, which sends him into a serious existential crisis.

For Cliff, things come to a head differently, but in an oddly similar fashion. In addition to the piece on Lester, he’s been working on another biopic about a philosopher who espouses a basic idea of what love is and what it means for us. As he continues to work on it, the philosopher kills himself by jumping out a window, essentially invalidating his philosophy, his life, and Cliff’s dream project.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is interesting because it has all of the makings of a black comedy, but in general, there’s not a lot of comedy here. There are moments of it certainly, but too much of the film spends its time around Judah and Cliff in their own private dark midnights of the soul for the film to truly be comedic. This is not specifically a problem—it’s merely an observation on the way the film plays and the reality of the content.

There are a few moments that are difficult to watch, not because of violence or even really content, but simply because of the reality of the situation. Again, this is not a criticism of the film, but a mere observation.

I love the cast. It contains a number of actors who instantly place me in New York. Allen himself is primary among these, of course, but so too are Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston, both of whom I love seeing on screen. I also love Angelica Huston in most of her roles, and here she is suitably crazy and passionate all at the same time. Were he not already famous, this would be a break-out role for Alan Alda. Alda, it seems, had to work hard to overcome the Hawkeye Pierce role, and he does it here. Lester is a smarmy bastard, and Alda plays him as if from memory of seeing too many wealthy, egomaniacal producers wander through his life. He’s picked bits and pieces from many, I would guess, and created an amalgam that is mildly pitiable and easy to dislike.

Despite the lack of comedic content here, I enjoyed this film pretty well. The theme is an interesting one, as is the resolution at the end. At its heart, the film asks the question of whether or not a man can truly live happily with the memory and guilt of his past sins. For one of our two leading schmucks, the answer is affirmative, while the other seems to disagree with every fiber of his being. I’ll leave who is who out here—no need to spoil—but if you know the work of Woody Allen, you know the answer to this already.

Why to watch Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody Allen exploring the ideas of infidelity with Mia Farrow. If you think about that for a second, it’s almost too meta to handle.
Why not to watch: Jerry Orbach and Sam Waterston aren’t used nearly enough.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Film: Kundun
Format: DVD from Schmaling Memorial Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass DVD player.

Some films I find difficult for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are difficult because they are poorly made or badly plotted. In the case of Kundun, the reason for its difficulty for me is much more nuanced and complex. This film is expertly made and gorgeously filmed. The problem I find here is one of focus and direction rather than skill or quality or even subject matter. There are simply things going on here passed off as historical truth that I cannot get my mind around.

Kundun is essentially the history of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, secular and spiritual leader of Tibet, who has ruled in exile for more than a half century. Such a history is naturally of considerable interest. But, and this is where I will probably take heat from others, this history is enmeshed with spiritual, religious, and otherworldly portents and signs of significance.

“Of course,” you say. “This is, after all, the story of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It is only natural that there a spiritual side to this story.”

And with that I agree. I don’t have a problem with the idea that the film would naturally explore the spiritual side of Tibet and of Tenzin Gyatso. Where the problem comes in for me is that this film is less an exploration of the history of his finding, teaching, coronation, and flight from Tibet in front of the People’s Army of China and more a strict beatification of the man himself. Watch this movie and take it at face value, and you have no option but to simply believe that the man is divine.

I don’t want to take away from the more technical aspects of the film, which are as good as they get. The cinematography here is absolutely sublime. Additionally, the color and pageantry and spectacle of the various ceremonies and aspects of Tibetan life. Additionally, Scorsese was able to bring out professional-level performances from a non-professional cast, a number of whom are actually related to the Dalai Lama. On a technical level, this film is as good as it gets.

But again, I am continually drawn back to the idea that to accept this film and story as it is told, I must accept most of the tenets of Gelug Buddhism, which I frankly do not. I do not accept that Tenzin Gyatso is the reborn spirit of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas. I do not believe in the signs and portents that are given here, or that the Dalai Lama has the ability to foresee the future, as he is seen doing multiple times in the course of this film. I simply do not believe this, and thus I do not believe in the veracity of the film put before me.

Let me put it another way. A few months ago, I watched the entirety of the three-season television show Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s evident that a great deal of that show was borrowed from the life of the current Dalai Lama. The determination of his identity by choosing items from his past life, the spiritual connections, even the name Gyatso appears in the show as one of the Avatar’s teachers. And for Avatar, I buy it. I buy it because it is inherently a fantasy, something that does not purport itself to be a reflection of the real world in any way. It is a fantasy world complete with (essentially) magic and spirits and an entire, populated spirit world.

Not so for Kundun, which purports to be a part of the real world, mystic signs and portents, supernatural powers, rebirth, and all.

And so I find myself relatively conflicted on this film. On the one hand, it is an expertly made film by one of the greatest working filmmakers today. It is a difficult film to dislike because of the care and skill with which it has been made. On the other hand, the premise is something I find ludicrous on its face. I do not ascribe magical powers or divinity to any man, no matter how impressive.

This is not a knock against the Dalai Lama himself. He seems by all accounts to be an impressive and decent human being, a man who has sacrificed much for his beliefs, and who is willing to do anything for the betterment of his people. I respect that and admire that. But it still doesn’t make him a mystical figure, and there’s simply no getting around that.

I will say, though, that I did appreciate that at least the spirituality here is something other than what is traditionally hammered at us. The fact that at the very least I could get away from the strict Western view of religion—particularly as practiced by many of the most rabid supporters—was a welcome relief.

Why to watch Kundun: A tale of modern spirituality that differs greatly from most Western stories attributing everything to Christian teaching.
Why not to watch: As usual, spirituality offers no explanations other than itself.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Ordinary Average Guy

Film: The Crowd
Format: VHS from Downers Grove Public Library through WorldCat on big ol’ television.

Films often are about the people we want to be or wish we were. Frequently it seems to me that films are about a sort of wish fulfillment. The people in films are beautiful, and their characters live the sort of lives we dreamed we would as children. They have meaningful and important dream jobs, carry with them the fate of the world often enough, and exist in a world of either opulence or of at least quiet luxury. “Poor kids” in a lot of John Hughes films still live in big houses and have their own cars—they just aren’t the nicest houses and the cars aren’t new. That’s how you can tell they are poor in the film world.

This is why Italian neo-realism was such a shock. It’s also what makes King Vidor’s The Crowd such a noteworthy film for its time. It certainly starts out like the film we expect, with the main character overcoming terrible odds and adversity to become the great success he always knew in his heart he deserved to be. And yet it doesn’t really play out like that when we come right down to it. Instead, it is a sort of precursor to a film like It’s a Wonderful Life in tone if not in plot.

John (James Murray) is born on the 4th of July and has no reason to disbelieve his father when he is told that he is destined for great things. Despite the loss of his father at a young age, John is convinced that he is something and someone special and needs only a slim opportunity to make the best of everything. At 21 he moves to New York and starts on the bottom rung of a large company, one man in a sea of faceless office workers and identical desks. But he still has hope and ambition.

He eventually meets the equally ubiquitously named Mary (Eleanor Boardman) and the two are soon married. John isn’t much of a hit with the in-laws, particularly with his low-rent job and high-rent speech about his rosy future. A couple of kids follow, as do bills, marital strife, bickering, and a terrible tragedy that nearly crushes the couple under its weight. John eventually sinks into a terrible depression, quits a series of jobs, and becomes essentially a nothing, not capable of doing much of anything. Naturally for the time the film ends on an uplift, but throughout, the film depicts the slow spiral of John from his idealistic youth to the reality of the world around him.

And that, more or less, is the entire point of the film. John and Mary are not exceptional in any way. Oh, John can juggle a bit and play the ukulele, and Mary can sew a dress, but in the grand scheme of the world, there’s nothing about them that is particularly noteworthy or special. All of this makes John’s die-hard belief in himself and his own abilities that much more tragic and painful to see play out on the screen. In fact, the only real thing that John has going for him is this unwavering belief in himself that slowly erodes as the film wears on.

It’s an interesting theme for a film, particularly for 1928. Interesting in that John’s woes of unemployment and long lines of people seeking work seem to presage the stock market collapse of the following year. But also interesting in the sense that John is not by any stretch a movie hero. He’s a bum, He’s a man who spends much of his time dreaming about something better but who is evidently unable to work up the courage or the effort to do much of anything about it. Because of this, he is a tragic figure, lost, and lost because of his own shortcomings and faults.

Also critical here (and why the film was named as it was) is the faceless and impersonal nature of the crowded city itself. John can do nothing to separate himself from that crowd and can do nothing to rise above it. His complete lack of any exceptional quality turns him into just another faceless drone at his job and just another face in the crowd in the rest of his life. Ultimately, like most of us in the world, John’s fate is to be just a man struggling with his own existence rather than mastering the fates as he had always believed himself capable.

The Crowd suffers from precisely what most other silent dramas do. It is very melodramatic in terms of the acting style, and this is frequently off-putting. Additionally, there’s a reason that most films contain truly heroic characters. It’s easier to get behind and root for someone who is in some way exceptional than it is to cheer and hope for a many who seems at each turn to be unable to help himself at all.

Despite this, The Crowd is very effective at showing the life of this simple, average man an in showing how simple it is for that life to quickly become a tragedy.

Why to watch The Crowd: It’s tailor-made for the 99%.
Why not to watch: It’s still laden with melodramatic overacting, like most silent films.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

O Brother, Why Stay Thou?

Film: Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

The plot of Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) is relatively simple as plots go. However, the way these plots are put into action is strangely compelling. In fact this is another film like Black Narcissus that on the surface appears to be about a dull subject that will likely be told in a dull manner. It is, after all, a film about monks. For someone like me, with a religious background but no real current religious convictions or motivations, that is a hard sell.

Briefly, a group of Trappists live in Algeria. The monastery has evidently been in the location of this small village for some time and the monks are an accepted, even welcome part of the community despite its overwhelming Muslim population. The monks tend to the sick, work in their garden, and otherwise see to the daily running of the monastery. However, a group of fundamentalist Muslims has entered the area, and people are beginning to die at their hands. And thus, the question the film appears to ask is “What is the value of a life of sacrifice?"

What makes this film so interesting for me at least is that the monks appear to choose their fate. It is, perhaps, inevitable that they will at some point have a serious run-in with the extremists. They have multiple chances to flee the area. But they do not. That they stay is not what is noteworthy here. What is is their reasons for staying. Throughout, several of the brothers are film in their decision to stay at the Algerian monastery, while others come to this decision over time. For all, the reason is essentially that this is where they belong.

The film naturally has a strong amount of spiritual content, and it could not exist any other way. But this content is not jammed down the throat of the viewer. Instead, it is a quiet spirituality, a real world belief and conviction that is all the more powerful for its essential lack of theatricality. They simply believe in the value not of their lives, but of living as they always have, immune to the fear the terrorists want to engender. Their choice is one of peace and love over fear and hate. They stay because the people need them and they stay because this monastery is home.

It would not be difficult for Of Gods and Men to become a polemic against Islam, but the film does not make that particular choice. Instead, both the brothers inside the walls and the people outside the walls live in a sort of spiritual and religious harmony, The two groups have a deep and abiding respect for each other and for each others’ traditions. There is a simple beauty and poignancy in such mutual respect, and it is this mutual respect more than anything that motivates the brothers into staying. Thus, the Muslim extremists are treated as exactly that within the context of the film—extremists who do not represent the majority or even the sizable minority view of the people in the area.

What is evident here is a spiritual strength, and this sort of conviction in the face of everything is admirable. There is no earthly reason for the men to stay at their monastery, and so they stay for no earthly reason but for a divine one. That is smart and powerful filmmaking.

Ultimately, there is a quiet and moving strength here.

Why to watch Des Hommes et des Dieux: Another film that shows the power and value of a spiritual worldview.
Why not to watch: The real-world story behind the film.