When I saw this film theatrically, by myself at a midnight screening in January 2006, the trailers positioned before it at my screening included one for the controversial Flight 93 (later retitled United 93), an uneasy beginning to the new phase in which Hollywood believed 9/11 was old enough news to be fair game for an action movie from an A-list director, Paul Greengrass (swiftly followed some months later by Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center). The trailer was ceaselessly unpleasant, using nothing but air traffic control images while sound clips from cell phone calls on the flight raced around the 5.1 surround speakers. I’m not sure how well this was taken at the time but it seemed tawdry in the moment, in a way that Greengrass’ eventual film, however pointless it may have been, did not.
Be that as it may, the act of being confronted with what in this era still felt like a fresh wound for most Americans, even those with no real connections to it besides the ones sold to us at length by the media, ended up being a rather salient prelude to a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the moral and spiritual muck that terrorism and retaliation invite; how, after all, did my discomfort in the pleasantly well-heated movie theater as a sheltered 22 year-old white American food services worker compare to the constant reminders of instability that surrounds everyone around my age and in my class in that part of the world? I thought of myself as one of the good guys — opposed to Bush and the Iraq War, passionately anti-war in general, and broadly disgusted by nationalism, though if I had any thoughts about Israel and Palestine they weren’t particularly deep, I was just here for a night at the movies — but that this unexpected reminder of 9/11 elicited such a strong response in me at all suggested that I was no more immune than anyone else to feeling as if some strike on my country, with or without moral justification, was a censure of sorts against me. United 93 would finally go down as Hollywood’s first truly direct reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but Steven Spielberg’s Munich should be remembered as the movie that really captured the emotional shakiness of those times, despite the fact that it takes place in 1972.
As the film’s title indicates, it hinges upon the massacre of Israeli athletes that took place at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany, but this actual event really, apart from flashbacks, occupies only the first twenty minutes of the picture — which are almost assuredly its weakest, however competent they are. It’s here that director Spielberg shows his traditional stylistic fallbacks most glaringly, the presentation of news clips and of iconic figures (particularly Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who’s treated with slightly over-the-top reverence, at least in her actual onscreen appearances as played by Lynn Cohen) of the relevant period possessive of a “hey, remember this? and what about this?” quality that would also show up a decade later in The Post; none of the actual content is especially troublesome but the manner of capturing and editing it feels simultaneously rote and confusing in a way that doesn’t bode well for the film to follow. But from there, we fire off into the intense story of the barely-qualified Mossad bodyguard Avner (Eric Bana) and his quest with four others, none of them trained assassins (or bomb-makers, or cooks), to avenge the deaths of the Olympic players by murdering eleven people Mossad has deemed responsible — an important distinction, as the connection some targets have to the event is revealed to be tenuous at best — all done covertly without the organization’s direct involvement aside from their generous funding. The mission quickly goes off the rails, with innocent victims, clueless recklessness, vaguely nefarious sources, all the marks of a group of men who don’t really know what they’re doing, and eventually the picking off of their own ranks one by one — and most perversely, all this mess and unfocused destruction is still considered a full-on success by the troupe’s secret bosses.
The violent, deliberately morally confusing film that results recalls, more than any Spielberg film since Duel, the thematically similar work of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular his little-known but excellent Maugham adaptation Secret Agent, also about a non-spy — a writer — sent out to kill people for the government whose conscience begins to rattle and sicken him after the trail of death and waves of complication caused by his work become clear to him. Munich fuses this sensibility with the minutely detailed, fiendishly intricate excitement of Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal, equally exploiting the sense of fascination of being allowed a glimpse of such secretive operations, even cruel or violent ones; and the complete ideological breakdowns of The French Connection, in which we gradually become unsure if the hero cop we’re following is even a half-decent person, much less a hero. All that said, this is very distinctly a Spielberg film, and one of his best: no one defines characters so adroitly, sometimes in mere seconds; no one directs an action setpiece like him or launches into an indelible, enigmatic interlude the way he does — for instance, the sequence in France when we meet the father of Avner’s main information source, Louis, whose family and organization have no national allegiance; or a shockingly lurid but totally galvanizing sideline involving a hired killer from the Netherlands played by Marie-Josée Croze. Or observe the way that we have a full understanding of how each of the five Mossad killers (the others are courtesy of Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler), without excessive overexplanation, react and respond inwardly to the violence and increasing ambiguity of their undertaking. It needs no laying out because it is built into each of their performances and into the way they are situated and narratively aligned within the film, rivetingly so.
Spielberg is correctly recognized as perhaps the cinema’s all-time greatest poet of the action sequence, responsible in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in other hands would almost certainly have been a forgettable film, for some of the most unspeakably impressive such moments since William Wyler sent Charlton Heston et al. running laps in Ben-Hur. Numerous fluidly designed and blocked scenes in this film indicate he lost nothing in the intervening decades, but this is hardly a fresh insight. What he gets less credit for is this: of all popular directors of the last few decades, he may be the most intelligent in terms of the use of screen violence. He understands the primal appeal and the repugnant ugliness of it and is able to exploit both simultaneously. There are exhilarating blasts and deaths here that show how no amount of movie magic can conceal the waste and horror of the events depicted. A horrifying hotel blast offers some wrenchingly real pictures of life suddenly shattered. Later, the unforgettable sequence featuring Croze has a woman who has killed one of Avner’s partners being slaughtered as she attempts to bargain with the Mossad agents using sex. She finally collapses on a chair nude and limp, covered in blood, and one of her killers closes her bathrobe before another insists that he leave it open as revenge for the way she left her own victim lying pathetically in bed. Of all the rough spots in Munich, this is the hardest one to escape. And what matters is that, whatever else these men are, and whatever prompted their actions, there is no mistaking what they are in this moment; there is no room for denial, and the film makes that culpability absolutely impossible to escape.
And this, inevitably, ruffled feathers. In the conservative talk-radio vision of the world, the only options are to be blindly pro-Israel or to be anti-Semitic, and in the aftermath of Munich‘s release Spielberg, Academy Award-winning director of Schindler’s List, was painted as the latter. This despite the fact that the film hedges quite a bit on its dark view of the assassination program, insofar as it doesn’t really acknowledge anyone in the fight as politically or ideologically “superior” per se and at one point even has Bana parroting some propagandistic Zionist statements to a Palestinian he has a lengthy conversation with at a supposed safe house (set up for his group, and apparently for others at the same time, by his French contact) that play, certainly these days, as downright repugnant — the usual party lines about God and destiny and, most ludicrously, how “there are lots of places for Arabs.” To his credit Spielberg doesn’t exactly underline this as totally righteous; he gives sparring partner Ali (a gracious Omar Metwally in a thankless part) the last word and some discomfortingly vicious editorials of his own, and elsewhere depicts Avner as being blindly patriotic in origin, a condition that fades a bit in the course of the film (in contrast to his partner Steve, who right up to the end of the film is proclaiming “Jewish blood” to be the only blood that matters), but he doesn’t exactly sell the anti-Palestinian view as any sort of failing on his conflicted hero’s part either. He’s quite careful, almost slavishly so, to present “both sides”; and in fairness, the film is about a violent terrorist attack and its aftermath, but it also investigates the perceived justification for that attack without demonizing either its perpetrators or the semi-fictional men who avenged it — it would be insane to claim it has some sort of radical or even leftist position on the conflict overall. Yet this wasn’t enough; the film was broadly painted as an attack on Israel by the usual gang of idiots who’ve never done any kind of critical thinking in their lives.
But more importantly, that’s not even what the film is about; it would be impossible, even for such a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg, to wring a worthy thriller out of a mere rant. The specifics are crucial, but the real essence is within the underlying values and elemental clashes that they uncover. At times the “heroes” become monsters, and just as often, the people they are sent to assassinate are shown unmistakably as people, people with thoughts and hearts and lives; a little girl playing the piano, a discussion about the beautiful evening, a bag of groceries, all the signs of what we don’t want to humanize because it hurts too much. Munich may not be a strictly pro-peace parable; but it explicitly calls into question the purpose of killing for vengeance, killing for government, and most of all, killing for religious belief. The senselessness is claustrophobic, but so is the logic that allows it to continue, the way these things have persisted longer than any of us have been alive and how therefore they “must” go on.
Aside from an impeccable cast of mostly character actors (Daniel Craig was not yet a star at this moment, Casino Royale hitting theaters mere months later), with Bana delivering a particularly nuanced and well-controlled performance that’s ultimately the film’s most broadly powerful element, the director is aided tremendously by his usual crew; editor Michael Kahn’s work is flawless as always; Janusz Kaminski’s remarkable photography, despite the use of a blown-out color palette that unfortunately does date the film, generally gives the production a sense of nightmarish immediacy; and even John Williams offers one of the subtlest, finest scores of his career. These three, the screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, and Spielberg himself force us to linger on what most would skirt past, while never allowing the film to stop being the story of a man, the family he leaves, and the juxtaposition of his increasing maturity with an external world that invites his most black and white ideals to fester.
Munich, its story’s deliberate disorganization marked by the abandonment of its initial structure of the systematic location of eleven people and the destruction of each of them, ends with a quick title card describing the aftermath of the events depicted in the film, before panning over to a shot of the intact Twin Towers, over which the credits begin to roll, a moment that’s distressingly “neat” in a film that otherwise refuses such boxing in. The message, as an outgrowth of earlier comments from various characters and real-life figures about the world beginning to listen to decades of grievances from the Arab world about the many and myriad crimes against it, is obvious, though not absent of irony given how much the events of 9/11 itself caused even further marginalization of Arab and Muslim peoples and culture in the West. Full disclosure: at the time I was blown away by the catharsis of it, the opposite reaction I’d had at the Flight 93 preview three hours earlier; it probably bears mentioning that I also really liked Oskar Schindler’s “I could have…” monologue the first time I saw Schindler’s List. Today it seems like the most pointlessly on-the-nose and tastelessly Spielbergian flourish of the whole film, and all these years removed there’s no doubt the film would be better off without that line being explicitly drawn, especially now that the preoccupations of those times seem ever more distant with each passing day, and as 9/11 starts to become just another historical event like the Munich massacre itself. We don’t have those associations to make that moment especially resonant anymore, if it ever even was to people less naive than I was at the time; luckily, the rest of Munich doesn’t require resonance within modern-day headlines to succeed on its own terms, and after a decade and a half its moral questioning and storytelling mastery have proven themselves enduring in a way that few other artifacts of its time are.
[Heavily expanded from a review posted in 2006.]
In François Truffaut’s celebrated book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, the latter’s 1956 exploration of the real-life miscarriage of justice experienced by New York jazz musician Manny Balestrero, prompts one of the few extended disagreements between the two filmmakers. Truffaut’s bone of contention hinges on a moment that closes the first act of the film, when after being put through the wringer for the whole of an evening by the NYPD, Balestrero (Henry Fonda) finds himself alone for the first time in a jail cell, at which point the camera begins to swirl dramatically around his forlorn, exhausted face in a showy, surreal manner — after half an hour of painstakingly straightforward, documentarylike depiction of the same man’s plight. Truffaut claims that this flourish is a disruption of the film’s explicitly stated mission of presenting an actual story without embellishment; Hitchcock defends his choice by claiming that the audience’s identification with the character renders this projection of his internal state of mind, if not wholly necessary, then certainly justifiable. At one point, after this back and forth has continued for several minutes and progressed to Truffaut questioning whether Hitchcock was even the right director to bring a “true” story to the screen — that his sense of melodrama clashes with reality — Hitchcock seems to get slightly frustrated and exclaims: “It seems to me that you want me to work for the art houses.”
For much of the previous decade, French critics such as Truffaut had been pushing the argument that Hitchcock already was doing precisely that — that for all his commercial success, Hitchcock’s work was rife with subtext and depth that defied its easy connection with the mass audience it enjoyed. Today there’s scarcely anyone who would disagree that Hitchcock’s immensely popular Hollywood movies, particularly by the 1950s, were serious-minded and ambitious works of art, but it was a novel opinion in its time, even though some of Hitchcock’s darker efforts — I Confess and Under Capricorn, to name a couple — were as tortured and morose as any downbeat European film festival darling of the same period. But The Wrong Man may very well be the first film he made that potentially takes the lofty interpretations of the Cahiers auteurists into account (assuming he ever did): a tour de force of evocative minimalism and well-contained anguish that is as dramatically and technically masterful as anything Hitchcock ever produced. It is also one of his most viscerally upsetting films, and despite its almost wry title and the presence of a big star in the lead, it does not have the feel of escapist, romantic entertainment that even a movie as bleak as Vertigo manages to attain. Instead, Hitchcock putting the spotlight on the maddening and anticlimactic tragedies and injustices of day-to-day life among the working class has just as much conviction and urgency as Hitchcock coasting around New England giggling about a dead body; it turns out he’s as good at depressing us inconsolably as he is at showing us a fun time, but that may in fact be The Wrong Man‘s downfall for some: you don’t exactly walk away reassured about love, life and security.
Supposedly to stave off audience members who’d otherwise spend 100-odd minutes squinting for his traditional cameo, Hitchcock appears forebodingly, a shadow far from the camera, at the outset of the film — before the Warner Bros. logo, even — to announce that this project is different from his usual fare, and makes a basic and quick point about truth being stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Sure it is; it’s certainly more troubling. In contrast to Truffaut’s point, The Wrong Man actually achieves an astonishingly fluid synthesis of form and content; Hitchcock, with the help of screenwriter and longtime associate Angus MacPhail as well as writer Maxwell Anderson and the director’s usual stable of cohorts from his peak decade (Robert Burks, George Thomasini, Bernard Herrmann, etc.), applies every one of his hard-won lessons about audience identification to the intimate account of Balestrero’s wrongful arrest and subsequent imprisonment, his camera gliding and cutting its way through the terrifying and cruel process of his physical and emotional confinement, a tormented journey expressed with images, most of them surprisingly haunting given their objectively mundane settings.
But Hitchcock doesn’t quite have it right either when, at the beginning of the film itself, he implies that the story he’s about to tell has all the riveting ups and downs, twists and turns of a conventional thriller. That sounds nice but this isn’t really a thriller at all — most of its suspense is vague in nature, not dependent on pace and information as is typical of the director’s films, and the more important elements of the story have to do with its mood, its easily understandable despair and its riveting presentation of actually lived experience in the very places where it was lived. While there’s some compression and conventional fleshing out of the real story, Hitchcock sticks quite strictly to the sequence and nature of events depicted, and many of those events are dead ends, coincidences, disappointments, banal repetitions and anticlimaxes (the delicatessen scene in which the “right” man is caught is a shining example of a moment that is presented exactly as it happened and that no screenwriter in the world would be brilliant enough to conjure up from thin air); no one would decide to conjure up and tell this story — even the answered prayers, a rare respite, would be dismissed as too contrived. But those disappointments, from mistrial to dead witnesses to aborted music lessons, are precisely what make this film so singularly powerful, and incidentally are what align it closely with the language of film noir: the theme is that there is doom at every turn, and you’re fucked through no fault of your own. And it really does feel like it’s happening to you, because that’s the way Hitchcock shoots it and also because its events are so devastating in their, for a lack of a better word since they really happened, believability.
Balestrero’s tale is enough to strike fear in the heart of most anyone, even as the presentation of it here trades liberally on Hitchcock’s (and, presumably, much of the audience’s) well-known phobia and suspicion of police. A bass player at the Stork Club in Manhattan, Manny doesn’t carouse with that establishment’s high-class patronage; rather, he lives in Jackson Heights and after stepping into an insurance office to secure a loan for his wife Rose’s wisdom teeth removal, he’s misidentified as a serial armed robber who’d previously held up the same office as well as several other nearby businesses near Manny’s home. On being confronted and handcuffed, Manny isn’t permitted to call his wife and children and let them know what’s happening, and is quickly railroaded by the NYPD, positively identified by the victims at the insurance agency and thrown into jail overnight, told all the while in sinister tones “It’s nothing for an innocent man to worry about,” not an easy dictum to take to heart when Manny’s picked out from a lineup and his handwriting is found to be a close match for the perpetrator’s. It’s a rather profound illustration — as good as any that exists in the movies — of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or the fallibility of certain areas of expertise (handwriting analysis, for instance) in declaring a holistic truth.
It’s certainly an important part of Hitchcock’s strategy to bring all of this to the recognizable world we ourselves occupy; The Wrong Man is rife with incredible shots of New York, subways and all, in 1956, and reenacts numerous scenes at their actual locations, periodically using actual involved parties in lieu of actors and occasionally capturing incidental documentary evidence of life in progress, such as when Fonda’s booked into jail and real prisoners can be heard heckling the celebrity in their midst. The Stork Club gets considerable use in the film too, providing an unexpected glimpse of jet-set nightlife pre-’65; and even the sanitarium in which Rose is institutionalized, once her mental state is finally crushed under the weight of Manny’s situation, is the corresponding real place with its real staff. But the authenticity of the film doesn’t really come from its heavy use of these decidedly uncinematic settings (all of which Burks shoots and lights majestically, never more apparent as one of the most skilled and underrated cinematographers in Hollywood history) so much as from its uneasy awareness of the banality of its story, of the fact that its events are something like daily occurrences. The disruptive message is that all of the protocol and bureaucracy that we watch in action, over and over and at length, cannot save us from the infuriating simplicity of a human mistake. That these often innocent mistakes can have the power to derail and permanently damage lives isn’t lost on the director, or on us.
Talking of innocence, one reason The Wrong Man is free to toy with expressionistic ideas while maintaining its relentless use of Manny as audience surrogate, his perspective as our guiding light, is that cinema provides an opportunity real life does not: we the viewers unmistakably know of Manny’s innocence, because it can be shown to us. We also know he’s one of us, a relatively ordinary but gentle soul who loves his family and is already suffering under the constant anxiety of financial stress. All this makes the procession of random events that destroy him all the more haunting. It justifies the pounding drama (and surprising looseness) of Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous score, which at times directly suggests his work on Vertigo the next year. It merits the heartbreaking nature of the moment when Vera Miles’ Rose, at last informed of Manny’s whereabouts, is first glimpsed by Manny in POV in the courtroom after his night in jail. It makes Fonda’s terrified eyes gazing out of his cell in one nightmarish shot a moment of aching realism rather than unjustified gimmickry. And it creates the tension in the moment when actress Doreen Lang, identifying Manny in court, also seems to be accusing us. (Interestingly, she would do virtually the same thing six years hence in Hitchcock’s The Birds.)
But the cinema can also show us that most of the people who cause Manny’s arrest are no more evil or malicious than he is; Hitchcock’s outstanding staging of the initial scene at the insurance office, in which three of its employees quietly consult one another to try and determine if Manny is the man who twice robbed them, doesn’t demonize or undermine them — it plainly shows the three of them, in tight and claustrophobic compositions, trying their best to handle a horribly stressful situation. At the end of the film, when Manny sees two of them face to face after he’s finally cleared, he doesn’t look upon them with condescension or anger but with a certain resigned blankness; he knows as well as we do that it would do no good to blame them, to blame anyone except the actual crook or perhaps the police who made communication so impossible.
Inevitably, the most expressionistic flavor of The Wrong Man comes from its actors — in the end this isn’t a documentary at all, it’s a piece of drama and a piece of theater that just happens to be drawn from actual events, and the performers don’t necessarily make a play at imitation or grit. Their work is subtler than that. Fonda’s portrait of innocence here is absolutely gripping — he is awkward and sad, he’s cheerful and flawed, he’s all the things his most famous roles made him but in a lower key that renders his vast age difference from the man he’s playing (38 versus 52) all but invisible. Yet somehow, under the tense eyes and open face he does still betray just enough mystery to imply the menace that’s picked up on by his false “victims” (and eventually by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone). Fonda was great in so many films that it’s hard to justify calling this his best performance, but it’s probably his most finely tuned and impeccably realized in terms of its function as the linchpin of a complex narrative.
Vera Miles, as his wife Rose, is equally brilliant — fully realizing her role as half of a couple struggling valiantly with everything except each other, then as a broken woman, while completely convincing us of the fusion and bridge between those two personalities. And their chemistry is easy, natural, palpable; they and their children are the rare Hitchcock family that doesn’t come under negative scrutiny, perhaps because life itself put them through enough, and there may be no other couple in Hitchcock’s canon since Leslie Banks and Edna Best that seems, at the outset and even after their lives are upturned, to deliver such a feeling of real mutual respect and warm longevity. Their first embrace after Manny posts bail is stirring in its exquisite easiness: “You’ll never know,” he says. “I know. I know,” she replies, and you believe it. (Miles’ resourcefulness and sophistication in this part, which while well-written does have all the same caveats and limitations of most domestic female roles in ’50s Hollywood films, clearly blew Hitchcock away; he immediately cast her as the lead in Vertigo, but she had to drop out when she became pregnant, and he used her instead — prominently, but in a less crucial role — in Psycho. Kim Novak is tremendously good in Vertigo, but out of sheer curiosity, the mind boggles at wondering what Miles might have done with that character.)
That makes it so hard to take when she begins to slip away from him, through no fault of either of them, and is unable to so much as hear or reply to him when she takes up residence in the sanitarium. At that stage, the story almost becomes Rose’s more than Manny’s, and as such it can be taken only as a tragedy despite Manny’s validation and freedom. Hitchcock clearly intended it as a downcast finale — the pair’s last scene together has her completely unmoved by the end of their ordeal, repeating the words “That’s fine for you,” as Fonda mournfully walks away in a prediction of Barbara Bel-Geddes’ same movement a year later — and this is only half-heartedly stymied by the insertion of a title card alleging that Rose, two years later, was “completely cured.” Almost needless to say, this wasn’t true; according to her son, Rose Balestrero never recovered from the traumas of 1953 and spent the rest of her life under a cloud, although she did remain married to Manny until the end of her life. (Rose died in 1982, Manny in 1998; Manny was consulted heavily on the film and is said to have been very pleased with the results.) Even without this knowledge or the knowledge that all of the money the family made from The Wrong Man went directly to paying for Rose’s health care, the half-second of optimism — accompanied by a quick shot of Florida, where Manny moved the family and returned to work in the aftermath — would feel insincere. It’s unmistakable that Hitchcock intends the fracturing of communication in this marriage to be his final statement, and his final declaration of the havoc wreaked upon his characters by nothing more than a chance encounter with fate. In a filmography rife with freakish incidents and dangerous psychopaths, this might be the most distressing final message he ever left us with.
This was the last of Hitchcock’s films for Warner Bros., part of a protracted deal that had risen from the ashes of his ill-fated production company Transatlantic Pictures in the early ’50s. It was also his first black & white production since I Confess, also for Warners; meanwhile Hitchcock was making history with a procession of big-budget color films at Paramount, plus a monstrously popular CBS TV series, that were increasing the intensity of his fame — interrupting all this for an intentionally modest title like The Wrong Man could be argued as a dry run of sorts for Psycho, but that film used its grittiness to make its jolts of horror more shocking. The horror in The Wrong Man is more of a pall of unease that refuses to clear even well after its conclusion. Truffaut’s feeling that the movie’s moments of embellishment were misplaced could be justified if the movie were exploiting the Balestreros’ pain; in fact, Hitchcock didn’t take a salary for the picture and its production values, including those moments when the camera begins spinning on its axis and delving us further into Fonda’s agony, are designed specifically to foster further empathy for Manny and his family. With its essentially unerring picture of stomach-churning hopelessness born of nothing more than freakishly bad luck, and of the unhelpful yet ruthless efficiency of authority figures, an argument can be made that the film comes off as more personal to Hitchcock himself than Vertigo. He alters his language to deliver this story, and does so in a manner that reminds us the extent to which cinema itself was his language — and, as ever in Hitchcock’s canon, it tells us everything we need to know.
This entry covers the period from October 1st to December 12th, 2020. Several long-term projects of mine are entering the home stretch almost simultaneously, which makes it feel like they’re going more slowly than they are. The 1950s canon is about to become my nearly exclusive focus for a couple of months; gathering up a massive number of library holds, typically my final step in this process, will be an interesting challenge during COVID. I have one unseen theatrical title left in my “Beatles cinema” undertaking, then will be revisiting their various video and television projects. I’m at last only three years behind on catalog DVDs in the unwatched pile; pathetic, yes, but at least I finally knocked out the Ozu Eclipse set and Universal’s Marlene Dietrich “Glamour Collection” box and some Criterions that must date from five or six 50% off sales ago. And of course there’s also all the 2010s rewatches I’m determined to eke out by sometime next year.
The main news to share is that after I finish the ’50s list I’m working on and offer up another hopefully illuminating post about the experience, I will be taking a temporary break from the canon projects before I move on to the 1960s. The reasons for this are rather convoluted and I don’t expect them to make much sense to anyone but me. But I feel like trying to illuminate something non-work related so let’s give it a shot. I came up with the idea for these chronological canon lists back in 2015 because I felt that my original plan for the blog was taking too long and keeping me away from the kinds of movies I was interested in for too-lengthy stretches, preventing me from broadening my horizons in terms of the classic and world cinema that most interests me. I was correct about this; as a matter of fact, the process has so completely reframed and reconfigured, even skewered, my understanding of cinema that two things have happened. I am finding the very foundations of my taste changing rapidly, and I am seriously questioning how qualified I really was in the first place to have a blog like this when each year it seems like a new world opens up and I realize how little I knew or understood. Some of this is just the emotional changes that come with growing older, some of it is a deeper understanding of how much one’s relationship with art is the essence of an enriched and enjoyable life (at least in my view). But basically I am finding that my perspective is shaking pretty radically from where it used to be thanks to the education I’m getting from these films and the dramatic way in which they’re altering my cinematic “bedrock,” if you will.
I see this as being a wonderful thing, even if it causes me to look askance a bit at many of the things I wrote and wrote about in the early years of this outlet as well as others I’ve had. Simultaneously, however, it occurs to me that if the future projects in this vein cause me to rethink things as drastically as those already completed ones have, and if my life continues to be as unpredictable and complicated as everyone’s inevitably is, my outlook is going to be changing even more. I’m going to lose touch increasingly with the movie world I inhabited as an adolescent and as a young adult. (Aging and living through epochs does something to you — it’s quite weird and fascinating and scary to me that I wrote capsules back in ’06 for films that I no longer remember existing, much less seeing as a teenager or child.) But I do regret one element of this, which is that there are things I never investigated and expressed that were important to me. It feels like I’m about to enter a period when it’s my last chance to tackle some of the films that really had an impact on me early on, at least with any kind of emotional honesty about how they affected me.
As a small gesture toward compensating for this, in 2021 I will be resurrecting one of the viewing projects I cancelled when I switched to the decade canons. The films nominated for the AFI 100 in its two iterations (1997 and 2007) totaled 400 each time, with considerable overlap. There are about 75 I’ve never seen at all, some really glaring gaps in my knowledge and some once-popular movies I never seriously planned on subjecting myself to. But there are around 60 that I’ve seen and never written about at length — and they tend to be, in some sense, “big” films (major parts of popular American film culture, for better or worse) that, were I not constantly preoccupied with this or that, probably should have been early titles in my collection of movie writeups. Quite a few of them I love but haven’t seen in years; a few I saw once, maybe when I was too young to get much out of them; a few I actively dislike but still deserve attention in this space. It’s not that I don’t think I’ll still have something to say about Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Blazing Saddles or Airplane! or Brazil or Pinocchio or Night of the Living Dead in another ten years, but I think it’s a fair bet — judging by the work I’ve done so far — that such output would have no resemblance to what I would write now or what I would have written when I first fell in love with them. And since this blog’s only real purpose is as a sort of personal journal of my progression as a film lover, I like the idea of trying to grab those things one last time before they slip away.
Also, if you detect that I’m feeling a little lost and sentimental these days, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong; I don’t think I’m alone.
Only thing that gives me pause is that this will return us to the state in which the two main lists I’m working on currently are going to be dominated all but exclusively by films from the U.S., which was an accidental situation that bugged me early on about the state of things here. I considered having three mainline projects going at once but it just feels like too much, and anyway, the movies we’ll be tackling here would have needed attention at some point regardless of the source. But worry not. Those who’ve thrilled at my first encounters with Cinema 101 arthouse titles — which I would not want to abandon, even temporarily, anyway — will be pleased to learn that in the past few months I have made the following three very important purchases…
…and that the AFI titles will be interspersed healthily with my delvings into these sets, which I’m greatly looking forward to as well. Anyway, I expect there will be lots of long reviews and I do want to actually enjoy myself, so no promises on my pace of getting through this. (I’m also considering adding a series of director-oriented posts to the repertoire here, inspired by the auteurist nature of the Blu-ray sets pictured above, but I’m not yet sure if I can schedule that without any strain.)
Full reviews this cycle: As will hopefully be the case from here on out, quite a few.
– The Hours and Times (second viewing, last seen 2008) for the Beatles project at my music blog. (LBoxd capsule)
– Good Night, and Good Luck (second viewing, last seen 2006) for the continuing but soon to be briefly sidelined Best Picture nominees project. (LBoxd capsule)
– Smiles of a Summer Night (fourth viewing I think? last seen 2009 or 2010) for the 1950s canon. My Bergman set came just in time. Wrote a long review back in the Livejournal days that was heavily revised for this. (LBoxd capsule)
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (second viewing, last seen earlier this year) on the occasion of its Criterion release (reviewed below) and also because when I initially saw the film I promised I’d actually wrack my brain and get some legit thoughts down as soon as possible. (LBoxd capsule)
– The Day the Earth Stood Still (second viewing, last seen 2007) for the 1950s canon. I had written what I remembered as a lengthy review back in ’07 but it was mostly unusable.
– By coincidence, we’re looking at a probable situation shortly in which there will be about three of these posted in rapid succession and I hope it doesn’t discourage anyone from checking them all out. I don’t know why it would but I always feel funny about oversaturation.
Other films seen (with LBoxd links):
– For the seemingly neverending 2010s rewatch project, these were all second viewings, all last seen at various points earlier in the decade: Calvary; Rabbit Hole; The Beguiled; Nightcrawler; and This Is Not a Film (slight upgrade on that last one, a more ingenious work of art than I’d remembered).
– Because of its new Criterion release, a second viewing of Noah Baumbach’s very fine Marriage Story.
– Just-for-fun watched a couple of the first Blus I bought, Out of the Past (third viewing, last seen 2018) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (god fucking knows how many times I’ve seen this, probably about twelve, but the last was at IMAX in 2018).
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– What the last of the six Looney Tunes Golden Collections indicates more than anything is how significant the individual stamps of specific directors were on those cartoons. Laying a Chuck Jones against a Robert McKimson, say, there is simply no comparison — Jones’ work screams out in its singularity and vision. I don’t know why it’s hidden amongst the bonus cartoons, but his film about the tiny elephant, Punch Trunk, is an unsung masterpiece — impeccably designed and timed, hilarious and curiously modern. And his “house style” has a distinctiveness that can’t be matched even when other directors attempt a similar expressiveness, as in the serviceable but comparatively flat Bartholomew Versus the Wheel (which I adored as a child, full disclosure). The last disc gets rather weird in general; I was actually unaware that Bob Clampett had turned Horton Hatches the Egg into a Merrie Melody in 1942. He did a fine job, but it fits oddly with the generalized aesthetic of the Schlesinger studio. But nothing prepared me for the very last Looney Tune in the set, something called Norman Normal, based on a song by Peter Paul and Mary (!?) and honest to goodness one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever seen. But the more I think about it the more I believe it may actually be quite brilliant? Judge for yourself.
– Managed to complete the set of all five of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures boxed sets of DVDs, which ran from 2000 to 2011. The comical thing is I have them all but have only had time to watch the first one… until I at last cracked open the second this week. Right away I was confronted with something intimidatingly, maybe accidentally brilliant that I’d somehow never seen. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894) is an experiment in synchronizing a sound cylinder with a roughly ten-second bit of footage. But said footage has such an ethereal, unexpectedly surreal quality that it beggars belief. Like so many films from the first decade of cinema it attains poignance from its sheer age but calling it “primitive” would be short sighted; it’s higher art, and more interesting, than a lot of expensive feature films made today. The two men dancing, looking uncomfortable and out of place; the giant sound apparatus that dominates the frame; the squawking, eerie violin music that survives through all the crackle; and the Edison employee who wanders in during the final frames all create a strikingly off-balance quality. I watched the thing about fifty times in a row. It completely consumes me. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. How can anything so perfect even exist, much less totally free of any kind of ambition or intention? So far nothing else on the second Treasures set even touches it.
– My favorite rock band these days is the Wave Pictures. Filmmaker Tabitha Denholm’s 2013 video for their track “Like Smoke” is inexpressibly beautiful and I can’t stop looking at it.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Grand Budapest Hotel (Criterion): The home video releases of Wes Anderson’s movies are always a treat. Criterion really made this film’s physical manifestation count, with a tremendously fun and evocative package containing an assortment of printed knick-knacks relevant to the movie and selling it as a really immersive experience. As far as actual disc content, there’s a bunch of EPK stuff that isn’t too interesting and a lot of video essays that don’t add much — David Bordwell’s is all right — but there’s a lot of very cool verité behind-the-scenes footage and a nice documentary about the intricacies of the production. The audio commentary with Anderson, Jeff Goldblum and others is all over the place — almost manic, really — but very fun. The main booklet is more fun to look at than to read; Richard Brody’s essay isn’t very good, and I couldn’t really follow the relevance of the included Mark Twain story. But who cares. Such a delight, all in all.
– The Great Escape (Criterion): A good example of the kind of movie noted in the long digression above that I fully worshiped as a teenager — watched it repeatedly over the course of a couple of years — and have never gotten around to properly delving into and appreciating in written form as a grownup. I got a huge kick out of this new release of it; it has a few neat vintage 1990s documentaries, made for cable, about the movie as well as the real story that inspired it. These are quite fun to watch, especially since they incorporate the participation of several of the real prisoners depicted in the film. There’s some repetition of anecdotes here and there, inevitably with this much content, but the only thing I felt was a bit of a waste was an interview with the critic Michael Sragow who really adds nothing and seems to be present only so that not everything on the disc is “old” material. There are two audio commentaries and surprisingly, both are reasonably engrossing, but of course I especially liked the old 1991 laserdisc track that includes the director John Sturges as well as Elmer Bernstein and various actors and such. Of course it repeats a lot of what you’ve heard elsewhere on the disc, but even the essay by Sheila O’Malley is guilty of that. I found this a really absorbing package on the whole, even though it took me quite a while to get through everything. (Two three-hour commentaries is a lot to hear.) There’s been some controversy over the compression on the film itself; it looked all right to me on the projector.
– A Midnight Clear (Shout! Factory): A much-needed rescue of an excellent movie that’s never been given a remotely respectable video release in America, where the old DVD was open matte and low-quality. Shout! goes all the way here, with a superb transfer and a brand new documentary with updated 2019 insights from Keith Gordon (as engaging as ever) plus Ethan Hawke, who seems to care particularly deeply about this movie, and Frank Whaley among others. It was strangely fun to watch Gordon get wound up talking about how poorly served the film (not to mention its predecessor The Chocolate War) has been on video. Shout! also brings over the extras from the old European DVD release circa 2000; there’s a commentary from Gordon and Hawke, recorded on opposite coasts, that’s pleasantly laid-back. (Includes amusing anecdote about Gordon as cuckold, thanks to his directing of his wife in a scene that has her making out with the entirety of the male cast.) You also get deleted scenes with commentary; these are kind of interesting, adding to the atmospheric nature of the film and potentially making it an even darker, more downbeat experience. Shout! truly killed it on this package, and it’s welcome because it’s a film that long invited such an elucidation.
– It Couldn’t Happen Here (BFI): Was very excited about this — in the VHS days I tried to track down a copy of Pet Shop Boys’ feature film when I wanted to see and hear everything they had anything to do with, and it was always out of reach… with the commercially released video apparently PAL-only and impossible to get your hands on in America anyway. Having now seen the film, of course, it’s hard not to be disappointed even when set up with low expectations, but I’m still glad the new disc release exists. I managed to get in on the ground floor with the dual format limited edition set, which has a hardbound book — handsome looking, but packed with essays of quite limited appeal, and a new Neil Tennant interview that’s depressingly short. The supplements are probably more interesting than the film; director Jack Bond proves quite engaging in a long interview and on the commentary track, in which he goes on and on about how insane you are if you don’t like the movie. An interview with choreographer Arlene Phillips is equally illuminating, but less about the film itself than her career overall. The presentation quality is terrific, as you’d expect, but honestly? A video collection would’ve probably been better and more fun. (And you do get one of the band’s videos, “Always on My Mind,” comprised of judiciously edited footage from the film.) It looks neat on the shelf anyway.
– Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Criterion): Oddly skimpy package for what may be the best film of the decade. Dana Stevens interviews director Céline Sciamma and does an excellent job, creating an illuminating and sometimes funny conversation that dates from immediately prior to lockdown. (Sciamma says something about “Criterion and chill” and gets amusingly defensive when she’s accused of using Ligeti in her film.) The interview with painter Hélène Delmaire is also fascinating, in terms of her own technique and the way it was integrated into the film. I was less enamored with the montage of discussions with the two lead actors; perhaps it’s the editing, but somehow it just wasn’t very interesting to me. The last of the interviews, with cinematographer Claire Mathon, probably is interesting but is so technical and involved I found it hard to follow. And that’s really it — no further elaboration beyond the booklet. At least the movie looks incredible.
– The Lady Eve (Criterion): Criterion’s technical director Lee Kline tempered expectations for this release in an interview last year, explaining that the only available elements were in such poor quality or condition that there was no way to make the film look as good as it ought to, considering its status as such a major work. So I expected a really underwhelming visual when I got the disc, but in fact it looks quite good with only sporadic evidence of subpar prints and the lack of a negative. As for supplements, perhaps the biggest of the new extras is a Zoom conference between Preston Sturges’ son and a gaggle of filmmakers and critics who are acolytes of Sturges’. This was produced during the pandemic, and the results are weird; and I’m not sure what to make of Criterion’s decision not to edit out some of the technical fuckups. The new David Cairns video essay is all right, as is a cool featurette about Edith Head. There’s a song from a proposed musical that was meant to be made of the film’s story, but why? The commentary by Marian Keane comes from the original 2001 DVD; I owned that disc — have now donated it to the library — but never listened to the commentary as I generally disliked the tracks Keane recorded on Hitchcock films. Having now heard it finally, it’s OK — heavily analytical and sometimes too much of a simple narration — but not something you need to hear more than once. I am glad I finally sat and listened to it instead of expecting I knew what it was going to embody, though. Finally there’s a nice thick booklet but half of it is an extremely boring Life Magazine profile of Sturges. This is another strangely underwhelming package — artwork’s pretty bad too; the old DVD used the poster, which was lovely — but the unexpectedly high transfer quality somewhat makes up for it.
– Marriage Story (Criterion): The inclusion of the two letters read aloud at the beginning of the film as separate inserts in the digipack is a really brilliant touch, and adds to the feeling of uniqueness for a physical package to a movie that many would argue doesn’t need one. (I would not argue this, as I don’t trust Netflix or any other company to actually keep things available in perpetuity, but many would.) As for the on-disc supplements, I liked the Baumbach interview fine (the more press kit-ish compilation of actor interviews less so) but was really taken with a below-the-line crew interview piece that felt like it went in-depth in a way unusual for such pieces. Despite not being a big Randy Newman fan (I keep trying), I also enjoyed his interview; I’ve never seen him talking about film composing at this length. But the jewel in the crown is the ninety-minute “fly on the wall” behind-the-scenes documentary, which is my favorite kind of extra — context-free footage of filmmaking in progress — and really delivers a sense of immersion and detail. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my favorite of all the recent Criterion releases in terms of its supplemental content.
– Tender Mercies (Kino Lorber): This lovely film, despite winning a couple of high-profile Oscars, has only ever had rather lackluster video releases so it’s nice to see it get some sort of a red-carpet treatment — the cover art alone feels like an incalculable upgrade from the hideous DVD. Kino’s only newly added feature, though, is one of the worst audio commentaries I’ve encountered in a while, by a critic I’m not going to name (google it yourself) who is ill-prepared and badly informed — several statements he makes are directly contradicted by other, more accurate information given elsewhere on the disc and even, in one case, in the actual closing credits of the film — and, I know this is unfair, but has an annoying voice and a fondness for cute “little jokes” that grated on my absolute last nerve. He also spends a lot of the commentary reading other critics’ reviews of the film, which I understand to an extent but comes across as time-filling after a while. I really don’t know that the film needed a commentary if its attempt at scholarship was going to be so off-the-cuff and informal. Slightly better is a vintage featurette from around 2002 (I guess it must be from the old DVD though honestly I don’t remember it being there); this has solid talking head interviews with most key figures involved with the film, including Horton Foote who’s since died, plus child actor Allan Hubbard who grew up to be a guitar instructor and even sings a song. As these cheaply produced retrospectives go, it’s a good one. But the main thing to say about this Blu-ray is that I couldn’t get over how good the film looked — the transfer is absolutely stunning, one of the best I’ve seen to date, and for such a “small” movie a real treat to feast the eyes upon.
– Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Warner Archive): No label has been more consistent in recent years in the quality of its video output than WAC so it’s no surprise that this concert film looks terrific in its latest iteration. (Apparently it’s a clone of a former retail release, which I didn’t realize.) This was a blind buy for me; I’ve been a fan of Elvis for only about 10-12 years (which may sound like a lot, but I’ve been a Beatles fan for 30) and I’m leery about most of his feature film output, but this documentary about his first Vegas residency seemed like something I should have. (Certainly if I need It Couldn’t Happen Here, I need this!) I was right — it’s great fun and quite fascinating. The film was completely reedited, reconfigured, reimagined in 2001 to become less a talking-head documentary and more of a performance film, and only the revised version is on Blu-ray… WAC does add the original theatrical film but it’s just on a DVD, which may be disappointing to some. Personally I’m fine with it; the original movie is mostly a curio, and the 2001 version looks and sounds excellent.
Depending on how long the Varda set — next up in my new-release kevyip — takes me to get through, this section may be omitted in the next update.
The usual crop of capsules follow; twenty-nine new, one revised.
Tokyo Chorus (1931, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[Part of Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies Eclipse DVD set.] An insurance salesman with a lingering thread of childhood rebellion walks out on his job in solidarity with an elderly coworker, prompting hardship on the part of his wife and three young children. Several Ozu “tropes” about children and the men who resemble them make their probable debuts here, but as usual, the movie surprises at every turn in what it doesn’t do, and in how simultaneously warm and cutting it manages to be. It’s a cliché to watch a silent film and proclaim that it lives in the memory as a talkie, but the acting in these early Ozu titles is really that bracing in its realism.
Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Hard not to be shaken by the darkness of this legendary and violent western, which feels in nearly every respect much more like noir than it does your average Ford or Hawks classic, starring Gary Cooper as a reformed killer — appearing at the outset to be a bumbling and nervous amateur hick — who gets caught in a botched robbery then wrapped back up in his disowned family’s sinister business along with two other innocents from the train that left him behind way out nowhere. Compelling and beautiful from its first frames, and continually surprising as narrative, this is possibly the ideal introductory western, free of flabbiness or cornball distraction.
Bugsy (1991, Barry Levinson)
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Basically a vanity vehicle for Warren Beatty who does about what you’d expect, up to and including making eyes with future wife Annette Bening, in a fairly generic gangster movie that’s slick enough not to feel too terribly dated; the pedestrian Ennio Morricone score actually works for it, adding a certain salient timelessness to its macho posturing.
The Golden Coach (1952, Jean Renoir)
[1950s canon.] Opulent Technicolor comings and goings of the nobility and a theater group in Peru, with titular coach serving as a symbol of transgressive action between the two classes. This plays as a very watered-down Rules of the Game; a softened Renoir, already perhaps too generous to the bourgeois in that film, serves up the asinine bickering of the subjects of his aesthetic fixations as though they were actual points of narrative interest. It’s all very pretty and nothing sticks, including the humor, and including the almost uniformly annoying performances.
Lenny (1974, Bob Fosse) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films of its era, and a fine example of a movie that transcends its static origins through sheer immersion, plunging us into a procession of muddy, jet-black clubs in which Lenny Bruce and all his famous supposed obscenities, by turns tame and dated now, regain their power from the way that they seem to burst out from empty space and float around in three dimensions. The performances, especially Dustin Hoffman’s, are engaging and powerful; and it may be one of the last New Hollywood pictures to really sink into an us-vs.-them cultural dynamic.
The Birth of the Beatles (1979, Richard Marquand) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Former Beatles drummer Pete Best served as a consultant on this dramatization of the band’s Hamburg period, but it’s lazy and superficial on an Encyclopedia Brittanica level — only less accurate, using versions of the group’s personalities that seem to be lifted more from Richard Lester’s Help! than from reality. Stephen MacKenna’s John Lennon dominates the narrative and looks much too old for the part, playing a 20 year-old at 34. Any Beatles fanatic can shoot holes through every scene, but it’s so inert and awkwardly paced you can’t imagine anyone finding it compelling without being a Beatles fanatic.
The Merry Jail (1917, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
[Included on Trouble in Paradise Criterion DVD.] Very early German-language Lubitsch farce, focused on a woman catching her husband in a sensual trap after he skirts both her and the police to attend a wild party, is witty and charming in pretty much exactly the manner of his 1930s Hollywood films, with a bit more camera mugging but overall subtle acting and astonishing technical chutzpah that calls to mind how much more advanced The Love Parade looks than other early talkies. It’s all rather slight but wears the years far better than you’d expect of a 1910s comedy of manners.
Le Notti Bianche (1957, Luchino Visconti) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Impossibly beautiful two-hander with a couple of lonely people connecting on a neon-lit street over the course of a few emotionally charged evenings. A basically peerless example of actors, camera, environment as impeccable emotional match to a story; virtually every moment is soulful and immediate beyond description, and the pain that comes through actively stings. Plus there’s rock & roll.
It Couldn’t Happen Here (1987, Jack Bond) [c]
[New Blu-ray.] Pet Shop Boys’ long-buried theatrical film — a Magical Mystery Tour-like wasteland road movie, England laid waste by Thatcherism, and lots of songs from Please and Actually — is directed by a surrealist provocateur prominent in British TV and film known for his associations with Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Jane Arden and Roald Dahl among others. Casting him as the auteur of a full-length pop video is a very 1980s stunt that sadly fails to pay off, mostly because the mixture of Bond’s sensibility with Pet Shop Boys’ actual material is so fatally jarring; quite often it’s just bewildering and/or irritating.
Beatlemania (1981, Joseph Manduke) [NO]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] A filmed version of a Broadway musical that was comprised of a Beatles lookalike-soundalike band playing bland, slavish covers of many of the group’s most well-loved records. But it gets (even) worse: the rote performances are interspersed with “psychedelic” montages that volley between non-sequitur and, you guessed it, major historical events of the ’60s. The schlocky, kitschy way it’s all executed is just so gross and does a terrible disservice to the genuine emotional resonance of the Beatles’ music.
The House That Jack Built (2018, Lars von Trier) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] This is maybe the only serial killer movie that actually captures what a mundane and insipid person one must be to choose that as their vocation. As usual Trier’s script is mordantly funny and richly revealing in all its discomfort; the film is also of course ravishing in its visual design, and he coaxes a phenomenal lead performance out of Matt Dillon. It’s one of the director’s most aggressively moral films.
It Comes at Night (2017, Trey Edward Schults) [hr]
[2010s catchup.] A profoundly distressing horror film about a family holing up and hiding out off the grid as the result of a pandemic, forced to contend with complication when a stranger enters their ranks. Neatly plotted in the most spirit-crushing manner, with fine performances and a rich atmosphere of the unknowable and unanswerable; a movie that doesn’t flinch or compromise before pure dread but defines people as people rather than genre tropes with striking compassion and vividness — which only makes it harder when conditions begin to slip.
Alfie (1966, Lewis Gilbert) [c]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Some carousing cock-of-the-walk asshole (Michael Caine) repeatedly refers to women as “it,” is generally belligerent and vile in a manner clearly intended to be amusing (or, more likely, an act of naughty escapism for the button-down elements of its audience), only to then have a screenwriterly come-to-Jesus prompted by a contrived and mawkish face-to-face collision with, like, humanity innit. This inexplicable cultural touchstone isn’t even good Mod-hedonistic escapism; watch The Knack if you want to see this kind of thing done well.
The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa) [hr]
[1950s canon.] Kurosawa was such a master that an adventure premise which is now so familiar as to be almost beat-for-beat predictable (a tougher-than-she-looks princess played by Misa Uehara is escorted across dangerous grounds along with reams of hidden gold by Toshiro Mifune, all seen from the perspective of two greedy peasants who can’t stop bickering) retains nearly all of its appeal and freshness after sixty-odd years. It would probably still be a joy even if it weren’t so visually breathtaking; the director’s sense of composition and breadth are infallible, to say nothing of how vividly his characters develop.
The Letter (1940, William Wyler) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] The second of Wyler’s big Bette Davis collaborations is oft cited as an early or prototypical film noir, but it’s basically a straight melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham play, about the conniving wife of a rubber magnate in British Malaya and the aftermath of her murder of her alleged would-be rapist. Although Davis’ performance is enjoyably fraught and campy, the plot is so generally ludicrous and lacking in palpably human behavior that you start to get wound up in the more minutely implausible details. The whole affair does get enjoyably wild and surreal in the last half-hour.
The Lower Depths (1957, Akira Kurosawa) [r]
[1950s canon.] It’s fascinating to see Kurosawa take on this kind of material — a straightforward adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play about the variously hopeless occupants of a slum — whose relatively natural performance style and theatrical staging are so far afield of the kinds of movies we associate with him. While affecting at times, though, it’s not an exaggeration to say it feels more like a play than most plays; the single-minded proffering of dialogue and monologues and multilayered but severely contained chaos leads to a lengthy film that constantly seems to stop in its tracks and revel in sheer misery.
A Tale of Two Cities (1935, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Solid literary adaptation, surely ammo for someone’s “Dickens is foolproof” thesis, given extravagant production values by MGM and David O. Selznick — and generally quite well cast, though the plot has so much ground to cover in 125 minutes, incorporating a big Bastille-storming setpiece, that the characterizations don’t really come through apart from Ronald Colman’s cynical Carton. Conway pulls off the finale with great sensitivity; it’s genuinely moving, thanks largely to Isabel Jewell’s performance as the Seamstress.
Backbeat (1994, Iain Softley) [hr]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] (Second viewing, last seen 2000; no change.) Though it could be even stronger if it really contended with the emotional weight of its central tragedy, this film about erstwhile Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (sensitively played by Stephen Dorff) and his intense romance with photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee, luminous) is gripping and fascinating, and easily the best dramatic portrayal of the Beatles’ early career to date, capturing the grit and grime of their Hamburg days in generally well-observed detail.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Narratively the same movie as The Blue Angel — Marlene Dietrich is inscrutable, hovers her sexuality powerfully, destroys some guy’s life — except with the additional campiness Von Sternberg had absorbed and rendered into a language at Paramount, though on a much more modest scale than his best efforts at the studio. It’s amusing but it doesn’t really go beyond a trifling variation of the title; obviously you’ll eat it up if you’re a fan of the lead actor or director.
Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Jean-Pierre Melville) [r]
[1950s canon.] Adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s influential novel about an unnaturally close and mutually toxic relationship between a brother and sister, one fragile and the other ruthless, and how the various claustrophobic settings in which they find themselves reinforce the increasingly decrepit and codependent nature of their lives together. One of the central performances, Nicole Stéphane’s, is hugely magnetic; the other isn’t so well-defined, which is fatal. And this only flirts with the fanciful grace of Cocteau’s own cinematic work because it generally can’t graft verbal enigmas onto visual ones.
Naughty Marietta (1935, W.S. Van Dyke) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] This operetta, revolving around a fairly routine story of a princess traveling undercover to avoid an arranged marriage and instead meeting up with Nelson Eddy, is less ribald than a Jeannette MacDonald vehicle with this title should be; but it benefits from the neatly frantic plotting of director Van Dyke, MGM’s usual ridiculous production values, some significant chemistry between the leads and even some actual comedy here and there. The “Sweet Mystery of Life” climax packs a bigger wallop than you’d begin to expect a film with this premise and staid atmosphere could generate.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958, Andrzej Wajda) [r]
[1950s canon.] Strikingly visualized, noir-like story of divided sympathies, loyalties and human needs in the immediate aftermath of WWII in Poland. Set in the 24 hours following Germany’s surrender, the film explores the instantly emerging conflict between the newly ruling Workers’ Party and the Underground. As in so much topical cinema, there’s a disconnect here between politics and their actual purpose resulting in an ambiguity feels both salient and like something of a copout, all too malleable in its point of view.
Rachel, Rachel (1968, Paul Newman) [r]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Newman’s obviously deeply felt directorial debut is the painful story of a repressed schoolteacher who scolds herself for masturbating and wishing she had a family beyond the narcissistic mother for whom she caretakes, and what happens after she goes on a date with a long-estranged childhood friend. Joanne Woodward strikes alternately stilted and splendidly believable notes in the central role; the film is nearly stolen by Estelle Parsons as a closeted colleague who’s significantly more interesting than the actual love interest the story offers up.
Night Moves (2018, Kelly Reichardt)
[2010s catchup.] The usual naturalistic expanses of Reichardt’s cinema, bent not-very-seamlessly into a thriller structure with an environmental conscience. In Oregon, three nervous outsiders (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) perpetrate a dam explosion then scatter but are reunited in mutual anxiety by an unforeseen bit of violence. Starts out well, atmospheric and suspenseful, but lacks a coherent way to wrap up its intriguing premise.
Stoker (2013, Park Chan-wook) [c]
[2010s catchup.] Park’s Hitchcock obsession completely sinks this generically excruciating mess, his first English-language film, about the increasingly psychotic and metaphysically ambiguous events surrounding straight-A goth girl Mia Wasikowska after her dad dies and her creepy Uncle Charlie (uh-huh) visits Disney’s Haunted Mansion where she lives with her narcissistic mom Nicole Kidman. Emptily flashy horror-thriller that sledgehammers every one of its half-baked ideas into oblivion. Apart from Wasikowska and Jacki Weaver, the cast is phenomenally bad, especially Kidman.
The Flame of New Orleans (1941, René Clair)
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] A bit weird to see Marlene Dietrich in a straight comedy (Clair’s first American film), a fairly polite chronicle of romantic duplicity in New Orleans. Not without its funny moments but pretty forgettable on the whole.
Yesterday (2019, Danny Boyle) [c]
[Beatles cinema project for music blog.] Himesh Patel does the best he can as the only person in England and the world who remembers the Beatles, who starts passing off their songs as his own and becomes world famous; from there the trajectory is obvious and terribly dull. Richard Curtis’ screenplay makes infuriatingly little sense and is desperately unfunny. A more thoughtful film with this premise is possible, but it would have needed to be more complicated and messy, which would have left less time for the supremely half-assed romcom that dominates the ludicrously extended running time.
Z (1969, Costa-Gavras) [hr]
[Best Picture Oscar nominee.] Explosively exciting, relentless and almost assaultive political thriller is the cinema of outrage much like The Battle of Algiers, with the twist that it’s also a crackerjack, highly accessible thriller of the first order. The mystery elements only enter the fold in the second half; before that it’s a movie about the physical logistics of direct action, its risks and its consequences. Costa-Gavras makes no secret of where his sympathies lie, nor of the actual events he means to amplify, but he also tells a story of almost universal power and intrigue — and using techniques that retain their power of breathless immediacy even now.
Golden Earrings (1947, Mitchell Leisen) [NO]
[Part of Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection DVD set.] Leisen’s love of deliberately uneven narratives coalesces in trainwreck fashion with a wartime comedy of manners: Marlene Dietrich is a ridiculous “Gypsy” singing and making stew in the forest, stumbled upon by escaped British POW Ray Milland, who soon plays dressup and joins her while hiding out. Alternately offensive and tedious, this is a monstrous humiliation for all involved — the two leads in particular, Milland never more transparently inadequate as a heartthrob or a comedian in a role that seems to expect both.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970, Denis Sanders) [r]
[New Blu-ray.] This concert film documenting the first week of Elvis Presley’s 1970 residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas exists in two distinct versions — a trendy, frenetic mess interspersed with often banal talking heads and ample footage of Presley fucking up and exhausting himself; and a 2001 recut that emphasizes the band and the music from rehearsal to fruition nearly without interruption. What the two films have in common is that they communicate that Presley was a peerless showman even on the cusp of his decline; he is an engaging and magnetic presence throughout.
There was a time many years ago when The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise’s classic production for 20th Century Fox, was considered the greatest of all science fiction films. It isn’t difficult to understand the reasons for this; serious-minded and compelling in a way that sets it apart from the industry of B-pictures for which it was in some sense largely responsible, the film harnesses the considerable resources and polish of its pedigreed director, studio and even composer (Bernard Herrmann) for a sensation of real and high-stakes drama that isn’t limited by the typical trappings of genre. The only sense in which it stands apart from “prestige” studio fare is its relatively anonymous casting, and even this helps the film transcend its natural limitations — the “regular folks” coping with jarring circumstances come across as convincingly ordinary citizens, who despite their proximity to the seats of power in Washington function as multi-pronged audience vessels. They believably interpret the sudden worldwide zeitgeist into which they’re swept in just the disparate fashion you can imagine the actual populace would, something with which we collectively have plenty of experience (especially in the 21st century).
The crisis with which the entirety of planet Earth must contend is the sudden landing of a real-live flying saucer in the U.S. capital city, where military and government officials interpret the flashy visuals and verbal promise of peace about as you’d expect: by firing a shot that throws a potentially enlightening encounter into disarray. This sends messenger alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) on the run as he desperately attempts to stave off the human race’s construction of space-bound atomic weaponry in order to prevent our own planet’s assured destruction from interplanetary peace forces. Leaving his strong-arm robot Gort at base camp, he solicits the assistance of the occupants of a small boarding house where resides, among others, widowed Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, never posited as a love interest for Klaatu, thank heavens) along with her precocious son Bobby (Billy Gray, later of onetime Nick at Nite staple Father Knows Best). This kind of “peace, or else” narrative was especially and understandably common in the ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though there was no less impulse than there is today to treat any unequivocal antiwar statement as crackpot moralizing, as sardonically displayed again and again within this film, wherein it’s completely out of the question for Klaatu to express his warning to all nations at once due to the political machinations required for such a communication. (Such a notion is the entire basis for the non-sci fi British picture Seven Days to Noon, whose ironies are much subtler.) Klaatu eventually must turn to direct and foreboding action to acquire attention — with the world and especially the American population totally immune to the abstract possibility of destruction, again something we all now know the film got exactly right — and in doing so has to race against a manhunt forming against him, aided by Helen’s slimy boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe).
As implied, the effect The Day the Earth Stood Still had on the film industry, especially the financially lower tiers of same, was monumental and is visible in science fiction of films of the best and worst quality for decades hence. The ingeniously minimalist production design, with contributions from Frank Lloyd Wright, has echoes everywhere from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina; the use of varied ensemble casting to convey a large-scale crisis, and to render seriously the threat of a supernatural phenomenon, is mirrored and furthered effectively by Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years later; and hardly a year goes by without a film in which an alien or a monster or a misunderstood criminal stumbles onto the same mother-child dynamic encountered here. As one of the earliest truly “literary” sci-fi pictures, carrying a dormant torch from Just Imagine and Things to Come and of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it seems inevitably to have given rise to the staid thoughtfulness of Star Trek, though conversely it also displays just enough of the whiz-bang excitement of the older, more kid-targeted film serials to keep younger eyes riveted, at least to a point. Less generous viewers can find its occasional hamminess, its sledgehammer political subtext, its strained seriousness and the general silliness of some of its ideas and dialogue (Neal admitted to busting up frequently during the production) off-putting, but only if they’ve never seen one of Roger Corman’s weaker sci-fi movies or even something more nobly intelligent like This Island Earth or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, compared to any of which its sincerity and spirit are impressively long-lived. The broad trend of 1950s sci-fi is to talk endlessly about ideas in a fashion that eventually feels stilted and self-important; the triumph of Robert Wise, screenwriter Edmund North and most of the cast is to render these oddball notions immediate, their metaphoric relevance unmistakable.
That’s to say nothing of the sense of wonder the picture is able to convey, thanks in part to the rendering of the film’s second act largely from the eyes of the young boy Bobby, whose curiosity and openness are engaging without coming across as overly wide-eyed in the familiar manner of so many similar roles in sci-fi movies of this vintage. Secondarily, Rennie’s enigmatic performance of Klaatu and the reasonable, enlightened urgency North provides to his character make even the modern viewer feel a certain peace of mind in his presence, an understanding that what he is dispensing is the only variety of wisdom that truly matters to a species now capable of destroying itself and everything around it. But it’s hard to convey how radically this idea of listening to an intellectual analysis of the human race’s situation would have played in 1951, on the cusp of the Second Red Scare; it’s a bit surprising everyone involved with the production wasn’t ultimately blacklisted, especially since one of its central messages is that Americans should “talk” to the U.S.S.R. A movie whose central advocation is of thoughtful communication and active listening is inevitably destined to be thought of as a hallmark of “liberal cinema,” which is more than a little depressing.
Perhaps that’s why The Day the Earth Stood Still somewhat muddies up its polemical tendencies in the last ten minutes, which for various reasons manage to squander much of the goodwill that the film spends an hour-plus acquiring. For anyone who is watching for the sheer excitement of it all, the structure of the ending (a murder, a resurrection, a speech, a departure) can only be described as an anticlimax, but that may well be a structural necessity in order to bring across the film’s impassioned message, which zombie Klaatu must deliver to an assembly of (most likely powerless) scientists from across the world. It’s a coyly cynical notion that it’s completely impossible for the actual leaders of Earth to end their “petty squabbling” long enough for a plea to end war and destruction, just as pointed as the fact that the compassion-driven Klaatu begins and ends his time on Earth by being gunned down. The film probably should end with a moment of bitter disappointment: either with Klaatu dying on the street giving orders for Gort to destroy the planet thanks to the inevitability of its belligerence, or maybe even with a direct call to action to the scientists and therefore to the audience. What we get instead is something of a half-measure; there is a vaguely exploitative, largely pointless sequence in which the heretofore strong and self-possessed character Helen, given an order to convey the message of Klaatu’s death to Gort, meaninglessly hesitates out of apparent fear, gets chased around in typical helpless-woman-in-distress fashion, and then upon finally saying the key words as assigned gets picked up and carried onto the spaceship and watches awkwardly as Gort carries out the retrieval then revival of Klaatu. It’s protracted and juvenile in a way the rest of the film isn’t, and you’re left with the notion that the entire massive chase scene portending all this (precipitated by the greed of Helen’s future ex-fiance, a character poorly and cartoonishly conveyed by a miscast Marlowe, who’s too dorky to play this kind of straightforward egomaniac without making the film seem like a joke; and by the Judas-like behavior of the kid Bobby) was just a way to stretch out the runtime a bit.
Nevertheless, now here we are, and we assume we are about to be treated at last with Klaatu’s grand, vital message for all of the human race — the scientific minds from all nations on the specially arranged chairs in the film, the regular folks and future generations watching in the movie theater and years later at home, the government leaders and officials who’d finally see the error of their ways after witnessing this fine work of popular art. Surely it would be something stirring like Chaplin’s moment in the sun at the end of The Great Dictator pleading for action and reason, or like the “now or never” intensity of what Joel McCrea says over the radio in Foreign Correspondent. Or, to travel three years into the future, Joseph Welch laying into Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor. Or the Gettysburg Address by the previously invoked Lincoln. What is the grand, paradigm-shifting bit of wisdom our hero Klaatu has to offer us? I will now reproduce it in its entirety.
I am leaving soon and you’ll forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first signs of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace without arms or armies, secure in theknowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now, we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
While it begins and ends well enough, this aggressively marble-mouthed treatise about the importance of, er, flying robot police amounts to something closer to Peter Graves’ incomprehensible faux-profound “man is a feeling creature” verbal essay in Corman’s It Conquered the World, or better yet, Bela Lugosi’s infanmous Bride of the Monster show-stopper. (“Home? I have no home. Hunted, despised, living like an animal! The jungle is my home. But I will show the world that I can be its master! I will perfect my own race of people. A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”) Instead of tying the film’s text to its subtext in a meaningful fashion, this chatter only makes it seem childish, and has a distancing effect from any attempt to take its moral standing seriously — today it almost feels like a cowardly refusal to truly convey a message of peace, instead an advocation for the thought-crime unit eventually depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. It leaves the film in a compromised state, the audience (including the still-terrified gaggle of scientists) in confusion. It’s a gross derailment of a deeply respectable project.
For that reason, The Day the Earth Stood Still lives in the memory mostly as a fun and influential curio; you process it the same way you might any engagingly antique piece of once-relevant ideology, quickly forgetting how prescient, tense and upsetting it is for the majority of its first two thirds. The performances, apart from Marlowe’s, are wonderfully wholehearted and human, especially Neal whose heroine has a real heft and dimension far apart from the traditionally expected 1950s “Mom” archetype. Saddled with a lot of difficult dialogue, Rennie delivers most of it impeccably, and seems just off-kilter enough — like a forecast of David Byrne — to sell himself equally as a being from another world as as someone who actually could blend in on the streets of Washington. The pacing is impressively brisk — Wise has UFOs landed, Americans botching it and the planet in serious trouble within fifteen minutes — and the special effects from the flying saucer interior and exterior to the giant robot Gort are impressively slick and dreamlike, capturing the perfect balance of camp, menace and joyous futurism. You can ask for little more from entertainment; but for enlightenment, the movie steps just up to the precipice and then flies dejectedly away, which may after all be all that we humans really deserve.
[Includes a modest amount of material from a review I posted elsewhere in 2007.]
!!! A+ FILM !!!
There is a peculiar convergence that only seldom appears, in the field of cinema at least, between the emphatically universal and the deeply personal. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film that, to put it very crudely, is born of the heart; but the particular brewings, contemplations, feelings it conjures up happen to touch on enough corners of the essence of humanity that it becomes the sought-after movie that explores virtually every strand of a lived experience: beauty, despair, humor, mystery, anger. An eighteenth century period film, set in France and focused on a portrait painter given the impossible task of capturing a subject without her knowledge, eventually encompasses a love story that has the breadth of few others in even great films, because it is fashioned organically and secretly but also believably; it is built like few other movie romances upon privacy. And when it blooms, Sciamma and her cast prove themselves as much concerned with the new manner in which the world (in these characters’ conceptions of it) appears to fall under this enrapturing spell as they are with the specific mechanisms of change they experience themselves. In other words, it is an externalized depiction of love, which is why it is also, crucially, a story about art.
It’s also why the film’s communicative quintessence is so far-reaching. It’s necessary to step a bit lightly on this topic; this is a movie about a romantic and sexual relationship between two women, and the specifics of living as women and certainly as women in love drive the entirety of the narrative. There’s no doubt that the film’s existence and its success, despite its faroff setting, are a sign of the times and of the breaking of long-strict boundaries within filmmaking as a craft; the film does not presume a primarily or even largely male audience, and it does not seek to amuse male curiosity or libido. It’s in multiple respects a politically potent and righteous film, including in its handling of abortion (one of the film’s most striking, unforgettable sequences, and one whose rarefied air of hidden truth it makes a point of underlining) and obviously also its treatment of same-sex relationships in the context of an incomparably different time. At the same time, however, the film also takes pains to depict its characters’ tumultuous connection as being deeply familiar; for all the movie’s ideological crusading, which is important and necessary, what’s just as striking is its warmth — as well as its wit, which comes around naturally in the expected manner of people unfurling to one another, though the most acerbic exchange (“I didn’t know you were an art critic” / “I didn’t know you were a painter”) comes early.
It would be reductive to try and claim that Sciamma is telling a story for everybody; it would be reductive to pretend that the film can say the same things to a straight man that it can (for instance) to an LGBT woman, and I don’t intend to try and co-opt its emotional messages or political statements for my benefit, but there is no way to avoid addressing here that Portrait of a Lady on Fire captures the sweep and intoxication of its characters’ state of mind like scarcely few other works. So many examples of grand cinematic evocations of lust or longing are one-sided; far too many revolve around characters who never seem to say anything and never seem to exist as anything but figurines (see Amélie for an especially annoying example of “love” based on literally nothing). Even a sumptuous film like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, which captures the language and urgency of young romance, depends greatly on the separation of its lovers, and Luchino Visconti’s stirring La Notti Bianche is based on the wistful yearnings of a single fleeting night — its lack of ultimate destiny is baked into its glimpse at a single evening’s worth of bliss.
Portrait is about a fleeting moment too, but it’s one in which the couple (Noémie Merlant as the painter Marianne, Adèle Haenel as the initially reluctant poser Héloïse) is aware from the beginning of the precise limits of their time and, as women presumably often had to, harness it to its limits. Additionally, it is difficult to avoid for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a visit with a long-distance partner how impeccably Sciamma captures every aspect of the resulting excitement and the desperate staving off of the end: regrets over wasted time, the minute descriptions and memorization of one another’s body language, the struggles to keep eyes open on the last night, the sense of every minute passing meaningfully, and the horrible goodbyes. In this five-day microcosm arrives some sense of the natural life cycles of a couple, unnaturally denied the two of them by their gender or, maybe more accurately, by their respective stations in life. (It’s pointed out that Marianne lives with something like freedom thanks to her job apprenticing for her father, while Héloïse’s fate is sealed by her pending marriage into nobility; so whereas the former may live her life in whatever shape she ultimately chooses, Héloïse’s parameters are more severe. This adds another practical hindrance to the already insurmountable taboo of the relationship itself.) They shyly trade the pushing of boundaries back and forth, eventually discover their bodies, mutually form a united front against a crisis (the pregnancy of the maid Sophie, played beautifully by Luàna Bajram) and near the end of their union have an argument that shatters their peace only to be passionately resolved. But none of it is contrived or forced by some invisible screenwriterly land, because as it’s directly noted, they like all lovers “feel they’re inventing something.”
Sciamma’s previous films have largely been concerned with coming of age, specifically among young girls resistant to traditional gender roles, but they have also captured transcendent moments. In Girlhood (whose French title is the much better Bande de Filles), the centerpiece is a magical moment in a hotel room when a group of teenagers drink cheap liquor and listen to Rihanna. The equivalent sequence in Portrait takes place on the beach, when the three central characters gather around with a group of women by a bonfire and sing — a striking, overwhelming moment when Héloïse and Marianne seem to see one another anew, a dress catches on fire and the music persuades us of the perpetual intensity with which the night will live on. This prompts one of several paintings in the film that later appear, impassioned bids to use art to extend and expand life. There is no explaining what this moment means; you know, as though you were looking at a painting, by seeing — and, as it happens, by hearing.
The commingling of love and art, and the breaking down of the boundaries between artist and subject (helped along by the absence of a gender imbalance), create the meaning of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because in every respect art becomes a tool for memory and an escape for loss. The portrait whose creation drives the narrative is neither here nor there, except in the sense that Marianne and Héloïse are relatively pleased with it because they created it together, not just by collaboration but by falling in love, with the fading of lines between professionalism and carnality thus suggested. But the story is really told by the painting that prompts the film’s initial flashback, of Héloïse’s dress aflame; the erotic self-portrait Marianne draws in the pages of Héloïse’s book; the communication from a noblewoman to her former lover via conventional portrait some years later; and eventually the use of music as a retreat into memory, and perhaps emotional and sexual release, which prompts the film’s indescribable final shot.
It’s worth coming back momentarily to the absence of men, which is highly important to the entire film but especially to the sequence following the departure of the Countess (Valeria Golino), Héloïse’s mother, who hired Marianne to paint the portrait — a spell neatly broken by the actual physical presence of a man in the final scenes at the château. In that sense, perhaps just as important as the absence of men is the absence of authority; left to their own devices, not just Héloïse and Marianne but also Sophie become fully realized versions of themselves, uncorrupted by the outside world and able to relate to one another fully as equals without the hindrance of hierarchy or patriarchy. This same experience grounds the rare moments of fulfillment in Girlhood — the point unmistakably being that, as Héloïse said when talking about the convent she left, egalitarianism is “a pleasant feeling.” In the absence of outside restrictions, these people become themselves, which includes falling in love, yes, but also includes sitting around a table reading about Orpheus and Eurydice, playing cards, singing by a bonfire. The enclosure of obligatory day-to-day life as it begins its systematic sucking away of all this living for recreation and creation can seem only tragic, the destruction of so much potential life — and, of course, art.
Sciamma’s script is an impeccable collision of themes with nearly infinite potential, touching on its various ideas with grace and depth and not a hint of overreaching; this is transferred to her projection of it onto the screen, which is miraculous in its passion but is also impeccably controlled. But obviously she owes plenty to her actors, who intentionally do more to define these characters than the script possibly can, and all of the performers but particularly Haenel add things to the story that cannot be written. This is the old Alfred Hitchcock theory of writing “in camera,” whereby the actors play as much of a role in deciding the final essence of the characters as the screenplay. The dialogue, apart from a few heavy scenes, is sparse, especially as the film goes on and the reality of what’s happening goes too far beyond the verbal to be appreciated in that medium; laughing says more, as does silence.
All that said, this is a masterfully directed and realized film, and it’s both one of the best-looking color films in many years and perhaps the best case that has yet been made for digital over celluloid. The lushness of the colors and visuals are necessarily considering the subject matter, but the awe they strike is still quite unexpected, and adds to the sense that this is a movie that intends not just to talk about love and art but to attempt to define their coalescence. Nearly every scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a terrific idea gorgeously presented, but they fit together to create a genuine cry of heartfelt zeal. In The Trouble with Harry (1956), Hitchcock quietly posited the artist as the highest savior of humanity, whose lives fall into line as a result of his input: everything in its place. For Sciamma, the artist herself must contend with needs that are destined to be forever denied, but funneling those maddening memories into her work causes them to live again, and causes even their miseries to become ethereal, welcome, necessary — in the absence, naturally, of what she actually desires, and deserves.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The popular conception of Ingmar Bergman is of the most dour kind of cinematic auteurism: movies you watch in school, movies that are artistically admirable in a cerebreal sort of way and make you feel bad. The truth is that even many of Bergman’s most ambitious and serious efforts, like The Seventh Seal, are too lively and full of vibrancy to fit this stereotype, and even at his most humorless (Cries and Whispers, say, or Persona or Scenes from a Marriage) his films come about their moods through raw, humane emotional outpourings; they are not pretentious or difficult to follow, enjoy or understand. But to the individual who happens to see Smiles of a Summer Night — the film that secured Bergman’s reputation as a major filmmaker in Europe if not on the world stage, which would come soon enough — before any of the director’s other immortal classics, the accusation seems especially absurd on the face of it. What person could walk away from this film without feeling elated, affirmed and overflowing with love? It’s a delight in the purest, most unadulterated sense, full of warm humor, caustic wit and unrelentingly frank but sweet-natured eroticism.
Retroactively, Smiles has faded slightly in the critical interpretation of Bergman’s canon, the study of which it essentially inaugurated (the Bohemian melodrama Prison from 1949 is probably his most celebrated prior work, at least today); the argument is that it’s so atypically conventional, light and airy, even — after a fashion — innocent. However, this is a short-sighted view of the work unfair both to the film itself and to the immensely pleasing ambiguity within Bergman’s overall view of the world, which is much less unremittingly dark than is credited. The movie has precedent in the stage comedies of Molière and even, in a sense, Shakespeare; and, slightly, within the remarriage comedies of 1930s Hollywood cinema from Lubitsch to The Philadelphia Story, but on the whole has proven both strikingly singular and broadly influential, inspiring musicals and remakes and farcical send-ups both credited and non. There is nothing else quite like it in Bergman’s filmography, and more importantly, there’s probably no other film that quite provides the feeling of bliss and exuberance it emanates, seemingly almost effortlessly. In the way that certain movies seem drunken on the camera and its transcendent possibilities, Smiles of a Summer Night is intoxicatingly over the moon about nothing more or less than life at its essence: a beer at sunrise, a literal roll in the hay, a midnight elopement, a moonlit field, a house full of couples romping far less discreetly than they think they are, the impermanence of a youthful tryst or the unexpected revival of one that long lived only in distant memory.
Bergman spends much of Smiles of a Summer Night describing and defining love, which by turns is presented as tragic, as “perfectly imperfect,” then bombastic, quiet, glorious, mistakenly ignored. These contradictions fall upon the weekend occupants of a country castle presided over by a once-great actress (Naima Wifstrand), now wizened and retired and completely disinterested in the follies of the guests invited by her daughter Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), a well-established actress as well who toward the beginning of her career once enjoyed an ill-fated affair with a dour and self-important attorney, Fredrik Egerman, portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand as the sort of stuffed-shirt whose entire personality changes depending upon how sexually interested he is in the person he is talking to, dripping with condescension toward the excessively young wife he lusts after but will not touch (Ulla Jacobsson as Anne) — he claims she is frightened of him and that he wants her to assert her desires to him, but then never displays anything like genuine affection toward her — but intimidated and chastened by Desiree whom he respects and still has sexual dreams about. Desiree now regularly makes time with a jealous boor known as Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose violence toward every perceived threat to his masculinity is matched only by his apathy toward his gorgeous and bitterly bored wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist). Thrown into this mix is the happily slutty maid Petra (Harriet Andersson) who approaches life with lust, verve and spontaneity and seems the most fulfilled person in the film for most of the running time; and Egerman’s tortured son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a moralist punishing himself through a religious education but aching with unrequited passion for his stepmother, who’s much more appropriate in age for him than for his father — and is clearly more attracted, in turn, to the younger man. The party is a scheme by Desiree and Charlotte to form three happy relationships from all this morass, with a bit of gleeful partner-swapping along the way.
If all this sounds overcomplicated — less a love triangle than a love dodecahedron — with the interpersonal ins and outs of an Austen novel, not that there would be anything less than fascinating about Bergman approaching such a narrative, it doesn’t feel that way in the presentation, with the characters and their relationships flowing out organically from the film, and all of them defined beautifully by the script and actors. It can be pared down in the end to the story of two or three couples finding happiness by escaping from self-denial; as a neat by-product of this structure, it also places young Henrik and Anne as a proper unit, the self-hating and egotistical Fredrik away from nineteen year-old Anne and with his peer Desiree who so can so much more deeply understand him, and vice versa.
Bergman’s masterful direction of the picture is largely quiet; the photography only sharply asserts itself in some of the night scenes that show Petra cavorting around with her latest spirited conquest Frid (Åke Fridell), who waxes poetic about the summer evening underneath a windmill, outside a barn and in a haystack as the sky seemingly does his (and the director’s) bidding. Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s camera also clearly loves the ornate nooks, crannies and marvelous grounds of their main location, Jordberga Castle near the southern coast of Sweden. But the point is the people themselves, the script and performances, more than the aesthetic and stirring boundary-breaking of Bergman’s more obvious masterpieces. He shirks any Rules of the Game-like class commentary here; there is no combative relationship to speak of between the moneyed and the servants. In one memorably sensual sequence, Petra and Anne even briefly roll around in bed together, the suggestiveness of the moment neither underlined nor ignored by Bergman, whose chief fixation is the unforced naturalism of their brief moment of wildly expressive freedom: they are so young, it’s implied, that the possibilities are still endless. The writer-director’s overall interest in these people, however privileged and oblivious they may be, is purely down to their inner lives. By setting the film in 1901 and among lawyers, soldiers and artists, he creates a bubble in which his primary pursuit is the wickedly funny and heartfelt essence of matters of the heart: in this conception there is nothing more important, and there doesn’t need to be.
Having said all that, the film is not lacking in depth; if anything, its commentary on meaningful and empty — and cheerfully frivolous, which isn’t the same thing — romantic relationships is far more forward-thinking than could be found in any Hollywood comedy of this specific vintage (a decade or two earlier, it was a different situation), and not merely because it’s so much more explicit than those could be. Though there is a touch of the deliciously stagy and supernatural in the presence of Mrs. Armfeldt holding court at the dinner table surrounded by grapes, or of sheer absurdity in the broad characterization of the amusingly hair-triggered Count, the angst and desire of these people is as vividly rendered and believable as that of the much less upper-crust occupants of Prison: the film ridicules Fredrik, but it also understands him… and it expects us, generally correctly, to do the same. Perhaps more to the point when taking all of Bergman’s greatest work of the ’50s into account, his ability to capture the sheer splendor of living — the open country, the eyes and the hips of a lover, the appearance of the youth to the aged and the other way around, the commingling of life and death, land and sea — would find similarly poignant, much more solemn but no less life-affirming outlet in The Seventh Seal and particularly Wild Strawberries; even more than Bergman’s profound and provocative later works, these films leave one with the fervent desire to leave the theater and embrace the world in unambiguous totality. Would the Black Death’s coexistence with roadside picnics, young love and strong marriage in The Seventh Seal feel so cozy yet inherently tragic without Smiles of a Summer Night as its road map, as the establishment of its irresistible language?
All of Bergman’s films are philosophical, which perhaps is what has given him his exaggerated reputation as a figure of snobbery outside of cinephile circles. In his early major films, cynicism and humanism coexist almost interchangeably; unanswerable complexity is embraced and adored. Love and theology and, especially, sin are all examined with equal weight and no condemnation; indeed, “sin” itself becomes a source of redemption: not just sex, but (twice) attempted suicide. What Bergman adds to his forebears, Renoir in particular, is both the unapologetic overcommunication of emotional anguish, overblown and otherwise, and the unflinching before embarrassment. As The Seventh Seal encourages dance and laughter in the face of death, Smiles of a Summer Night posits the same response to the doomed, inevitable self-tortures of love and sex. Go ahead and laugh at these things, for they will laugh at you.
Bergman wrote this film in a period of grave depression and credited it with saving his life. Never one to apply such vast platitudes to any kind of creative work, I believe his romantic anecdote in this case. There are countless moments in Smiles of a Summer Night that can make you just marvel to yourself with a sigh of laughing recognition. Virtually everything that happens in its final third is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, the emergence of a bed from a wall after a slapstick pratfall offering one of the most unabashedly sweet moments in any great film. And it’s sweet in a bizarre fashion: neither an intentional product of any character or even something that in and of itself would mean much — because the incredible warmth felt from it is really felt for the movie itself, not for any of those within it, engaging as they may be. Bergman’s output in this period expressed both despair and wonder at the world, and what makes this his most accessible work is the way that he persuades us to consider the blurred boundaries between the loveliest and saddest aspects of being alive. It’s not quite even-handed though, with “sin” far more deserving of celebration than of scorn — and sixty-five years later, he is still correct that sin in this definition is what makes the entire game worth playing.
[Includes a few short passages from a review posted in 2005]
This is my brief writeup of Good Night, and Good Luck from the only previous time I saw it, soon after its DVD release:
Good Night, and Good Luck, the stark and well-told tale of Edward Murrow’s televised confrontations with Joseph McCarthy, is not as good as George Clooney’s masterful first film as director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but it is just as risky and entertaining. Its one major flaw is that it seems to exist in a bubble, where no one outside the world of television is engrossed in the happenings of the McCarthy period. Outside of a few select moments, most of them coming via stock footage, we see little of the effect of the communism witch hunt on the outside world.
But the wonderful music gives the movie the breath of life, the performances are beautifully understated, and the whole thing comes together thanks to the visual brilliance of the production, photographed in glorious black and white. It is via Clooney’s uncompromising insistence on not condescending to the audience or accepting any commercial motivation that the film’s ideology (and idyllic vision of people living their lives as they wish, and must) becomes its powerful, haunting story without the overreaching tackiness found in so many politically-charged movies.
First of all: big lapse into Peter Travers-style critspeak there, but my horizons were pretty small back then. Fascinated by McCarthy, the blacklist and the “Red Scare” since I was a teen — and immensely fond of black & white movies as an aesthetic unto themselves, not to mention intricately detailed fact-based stories about this period specifically (see Quiz Show) — I was almost automatically predisposed to like this film. Frankly I still am: it corresponds to many of my personal interests and superficial fetishes, enough that on revisiting it now I did greatly enjoy myself, especially viewing it on our projector and thus allowing it to become especially immersive. Cinematically and dramatically, however, the film has many issues that are difficult to ignore. As with Steven Spielberg’s The Post, these aren’t enough to distract me from having an unabashed good time with it, but they do stick out, and they’re instructive in terms of how the film itself and American political culture have aged as well as how I have aged, which may not be interesting for you to hear about but may provide some helpful context for other things you read here.
It seems worthwhile to give a more cogent and detailed explanation of what the film is and the context into which it was born. In 1953, American journalist Edward R. Murrow, known and beloved for his radio dispatches from London during World War II, was cohost and cocreator of a CBS newsmagazine called See It Now, which among other things became famous for a series of incendiary exposés of the Second Red Scare of the 1950s and an extended confrontation with loathsome crackpot Joseph McCarthy that preceded his downfall in the Army-McCarthy hearings. The environment of early television news, with a generally accurate depiction of the production team behind See It Now, provides the backdrop and a sort of wispy context for the meat of the production, which reenacts Murrow’s famous monologues that anchored his big reports about McCarthyism, dramatizing the behind-the-scenes nervousness over a sponsored TV show directly confronting any aspect of U.S. politics that extends to CBS chief William Paley (Frank Langella). Murrow is portrayed with outstanding subtlety and sensitivity by David Strathairn; Clooney delivers nothing of the man’s life outside of his work (this is not a biopic) but nonetheless Strathairn finds considerable depth in the limited scope provided. There’s one particular moment, at the close of his last depicted broadcast about McCarthy, when the cameras turn off and he switches out of his network-TV dignity and is overtaken by a certain stoic uncertainty, beautifully played: modesty and integrity side by side, the way you like to imagine your idols.
McCarthy himself appears at length in archive footage, including in his famously incoherent direct rebuttal to Murrow and his doddering confrontation of Pentagon staffer Annie Lee Moss. Other tangentially related CBS dramas of the time play out succinctly: the secret marriage of Joseph and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr., fun to remember as a fine and not at all smug actor before the superhero industrial complex swallowed him whole, and Patricia Clarkson at her best respectively), the suicide of Don Hollenbeck (a tragically miscast Ray Wise, who is just too schlocky for the role) and Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney)’s repeated head-to-head fights with the network itself over the fate of journalistic integrity within a haven of commercialism such as TV, culminating in Murrow struggling through interviews with the likes of Liberace, quizzing him about potential wives.
For all its merit as history and art, Good Night, and Good Luck — named for Murrow’s traditional signoff — is a fairly archetypal example of the Hollywood liberal cinema of the 2000s, specifically the era of Air America, Michael Moore and the Kerry campaign and the ineffectual attempts of all of the above at protesting one of the most egregious shames in the nation’s history, the Iraq War. Directed generally competently by Clooney, whose previous film was certainly imaginative but I don’t know about “masterful” (I haven’t seen it in many years now and most of my memories of it have to do with Sam Rockwell), it utilizes as a framing device a bruising speech of Murrow’s from 1958 about the doom forecast by network television’s social emptiness and trend toward irresponsibility. This speech bears some resemblance to Holly Hunter’s unsuccessful lecture about superficial newscasts toward the beginning of Broadcast News not to mention the entire satiric message of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, both of which were certainly influenced by Murrow’s philosophy and skepticism about the form that made him an infallible cultural figure.
But somehow, Clooney’s use of Murrow’s actual words feels less like a commentary about the world and more a tirade directed at the audience itself, either as validation or as admonishment. Murrow’s words had undeniable relevance to the world in 2005 — no doubt the rise of Fox was on everyone’s minds at the time — and even today, when he accuses TV of being wires in a box divorced from its social purpose he could just as easily be talking about the internet. But Clooney does little with these thoughts and information besides simply present them straightforwardly, and while this isn’t an embarrassing choice by any means, as a result the film provides little that a documentary or book about the events in question couldn’t — and moreover, for all his lack of intrusion he clearly wants us to feel a wink and a nudge with every word out of Murrow’s mouth. Lumet and James L. Brooks were talking about the times in which their films were made, and the results have continued relevance because of their honesty. Clooney is using 1953 to talk about 2004, and the results feel tied to the latter time much more than the former, but what he has to say about 2004 isn’t terribly interesting or insightful. Again it is the same way in which Spielberg uses the Pentagon Papers to address the Trump era, none too intelligently. To specifically address the crimes of our century in mainstream American cinema is viewed as gauche, which is our loss.
As I hinted at in my original writeup, the story might well seem more perceptive if it was as much about the social impact of McCarthy’s power-tripping insanity as it is about the tireless heroism of journalism and “resistance” itself. On the exceptional podcast Michael & Us, Will Sloan and Luke Savage have pointed out a tendency toward “politics — what a concept!” as a thesis statement of so many intensely charged social-issue films of this period; there is the uncomfortable suggestion that Clooney is less interested in what McCarthy’s accusations and the surrounding red-baiting meant than he is in the fact that Murrow et al. were the heroes who Fought Back; the repeated moments when characters scattered around the studio applaud Murrow’s speeches feel terribly indulgent and self-satisfied. The poster tagline “We will not walk in fear of one another” feels as weak and ineffectual coming from this source as “Democracy dies in darkness.” Because McCarthy wasn’t defeated, nor was TV commercialism; these ideas would only continue to undermine American life — and Clooney knows this, but he cannot fully resist the idea of a heroic crescendo.
Clooney’s instincts don’t fail him entirely; one of his biggest dramatic coups is the presentation of several extended portions of real film of McCarthy himself at the most dastardly moments of his career. There is a long excerpt of the ceaselessly astonishing Annie Lee Moss interrogation, which McCarthy can’t even be bothered to linger around for, and a couple of the most earth-shaking extracts of the Army-McCarthy hearings themselves. The problem is that when Clooney repeatedly interrupts this with (however enjoyable) song performances by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves — a bit of atmospheric padding that is evidently justified strictly by CBS subsidiary Columbia Records occupying the same 52nd Street building — and long sequences of journalists and producers carousing around restaurants smoking and reading the newspaper reviews of their broadcasts (one clear sign of the intellectual divide between print and TV journalism), you can’t escape the sensation of retreating into — as I put it in 2006 — a bubble, one that’s all too stylistically seductive for the bracing import of this subject matter. It’s as though the story is being treated as a two-hander between McCarthy and CBS, with only the most rudimentary evidence of any effect on a broader universe.
And frankly, it hurts a bit that every intriguing element of this narrative is better served now by several other means. The relevant broadcasts of See It Now are easily accessible on Youtube, as are multiple documentaries about Murrow and McCarthy’s lives. Emile de Antonio’s magnificent verité documentary Point of Order! is a brilliantly edited compilation of Congressional footage that does more to indict McCarthy and McCarthyism than any Hollywood picture ever could. But what of the immediate pleasures of Robert Elswit’s cinematography, Straithairn and Clarkson’s performances, the generalized feeling of immediacy you get from a focused, serious dissection like this? Well, those things are irreplaceable, although what once seemed otherworldy in its stark essence seems less so once you’ve seen a earlier film like Bob Fosse’s Lenny that goes much farther with its expressionistic view of seismic events through photographic ingenuity, with the lighting up of life as cinema as a smart undercutting of received-wisdom mythos. Clooney can’t match that, not with his color film stock in a fit of masquerade, and not with his often perfunctory and predictable rhythms and blocking.
All that said, the film retains a lot of dramatic heft, even if outside events are largely responsible for its feeling of urgency, and even if other media, words as well as film, does much of the film’s work for it. At the same time, the film breezes quite beautifully by in its 93 minutes, free of excess, and as with All the President’s Men, what seems rushed and fragmented on a first viewing eventually comes to seem appropriately unsentimental and minimalist. But it’s more a kind of blissful escapism for a certain breed of righteously outraged nerd who lives for this shit — myself included, and again, I had a great fucking time watching this again — than a really illuminating piece of modern history.
Recently restored by the Sundance Institute and Oscilloscope Labs, The Hours and Times is a model of absolutely uncompromising DIY independent film production the likes of which would be rare until the late 2000s and the retreat of film itself as a physical medium. It had essentially no budget, no cinematographer and no art director; shot quickly around Barcelona by calling in lots of favors, it only really aimed higher, aesthetically, in terms of its casting, and even then, there were few roles to cast in what amounted to a chamber piece. Once it was filmed — in the summer of 1988 — writer-director Christopher Münch spent three years in postproduction, only able to begin editing once he convinced a lab to develop the cans of film, themselves a cut-rate purchase from another production, on credit. But thanks to the delay, the movie then rode the wave of the new queer cinema and the independent film movement, both of which it prefigured in conception and production, and became broadly and deservedly acclaimed by critics. One wonders, however, if the film — which never played widely thanks to its niche appeal, black & white photography and modest length of 55 minutes — would even have achieved the notoriety it did if not for its central subject matter; in other words, would this yearning, personal and tiny-scaled film be a known commodity, worth festival screenings and a high-profile restoration, at all if it didn’t have something to do with the most famous pop culture story of the 20th century?
That would be, of course, the story of the Beatles. Münch was a big enough fan to fall, as many of those of us who’ve passed over into pure obsession with the band have, into frenzied speculation about certain events in their career. The one he builds his debut from is a storied and hotly debated weekend in the spring of 1963, at a moment when the Beatles’ success in England was just reaching its height, when John Lennon went on holiday to Spain with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, a gay man — at a time when being such in Great Britain amounted to constantly living at risk of your life and freedom — who has been speculated by some to have held a romantic torch for Lennon. Intrigue over whether or not any sexual encounter took place goes back literally decades, and in fact prompted one of the most infamous of the violent episodes that littered Lennon’s life, when he beat Cavern DJ Bob Wooler to a pulp after Wooler made a homophobic joke about the pair’s getaway. As to the reality of what happened, Lennon himself told Jann Wenner that it was a romance without consummation, and talked about being driven by curiosity; but according to his lifelong friend Pete Shotton, who’s generally a reliable narrator of the parts of the Beatles’ history he witnessed, Lennon said privately that some sort of physical contact did take place.
The matter is regarded at various lengths in every major biography of Lennon and most books about the Beatles (Münch named Philip Norman and Peter Brown’s books, Shout! and The Love You Make respectively as influences; for the record, these are two of the most contentious and salacious of the major Beatles books), sometimes dismissively, but there is enough dramatic potential in the story, not just for the unknowable elements of it but for the curious position it occupies chronologically within the band’s and Lennon’s lore, to generate the backdrop for a fascinating and emotionally rich screenplay, which is precisely what Münch has written. It would be very easy to spin the Lennon-Epstein story into something exploitative or lurid, or to harness it for some variety of “fan service.” But in the bizarre subgenre of Movies About the Beatles, the films that attempt to make grand statements about the vitality of the band’s music (Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe most notably, but also the Bee Gees vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the dreadful stock footage collage All This and World War II) tend to fail miserably, and to accidentally minimize the Beatles as personalities and as musicians as so much tired kitsch. Conversely, movies that approach small pieces of the Beatles’ legend and attempt to make some collectively rewarding sense of them have often proven much more engrossing — for instance: Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about one momentous weekend not long after this one; and Iain Softley’s Backbeat, about the band’s time in Hamburg and their ill-fated bassist Stuart Sutcliffe — because, divorced of the larger social implications of the Beatles’ music or the sheer magnitude of their sonic and cultural footprint, we’re left with the much less limited possibilities of chipping away at the outskirts: taking a little cross-section of it all and exhausting its dramatic (or comedic) possibilities.
Therefore, what makes The Hours and Times so hard-hitting and effective is its unapologetic smallness. That’s “unapologetic” only in the sense that its logistical limitations scarcely prevent it from fulfilling the entire potential of its idea. It is true that there is not a note of Beatles music in the piece, that the film operates on the assumption that the viewer is aware of who both Lennon and Epstein are, yet this also manages to become largely incidental as the drama grows ever more compelling. As Ian Hart, the actor who plays Lennon, later pointed out, the movie works even just as the story of two men who have a close if unorthodox friendship and are on the cusp of something momentous that goes far beyond their mortal imaginations. The characterizations are sufficiently well-defined that the neophyte can quickly get a respectably complete view of who these men are: Epstein the terrified and dignified child of a family of refinement and “quality,” who’s alarmed them first via his sexuality and then by resting his fate upon the destiny of a rock & roll band, at a time when such diversions didn’t tend to be seen as the least bit legitimate; and in the other corner, Lennon, a troubled and tempestuous personality completely blindsided by the uncontrollable largeness of the world he’s entering, as contrasted by the tiny new family he has left behind in doing so — terribly young, terribly frustrated, terribly confused, but unmistakably brilliant and passionate. To this lifelong acolyte of the Beatles who has spent years reading about them, Münch captures both men with impressive perspicacity; and instead of doing so in service of some winking nostalgia piece, he does it in a way that captures their obviously unknowable inner lives as believably as could conceivably happen.
Münch gets considerable help in this capacity from the actors at the core of this two-hander; David Angus’ performance as Brian Epstein is shattering in its vividness and sensitivity, which seems to incorporate not just his known history as a pop manager but his classical shyness, his air of practiced dignity (visible in the interviews and candid footage that survive of him, such as the haunting clip of him riding in a taxi in New York in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary The First U.S. Visit). There’s a moment late in the film when he recounts the true story of Epstein’s potentially life-ruining blackmail episode, wherein he propositioned a stranger outside a restroom and was beaten and robbed then taunted remotely, which his parents encouraged him to pursue legally, and does so with the self-deprecating flavor of someone who’s ruminated on the incident for years now — the dialogue is flowery but, coming from a figure like Epstein, entirely believable. As for Hart, a great actor saddled in the unenviable position of portraying a real-life character with whom everyone is familiar, he sometimes falters into aping the vocal mannerisms of Lennon’s public speech; this comes off like an impression of the John we see in Richard Lester’s films, but from Lennon’s more unguarded moments on Beatles bootlegs, home tapes and even in certain press conferences, we sense that this practiced and deadpan way of speaking was not likely representative of his private communications. This, however, is the only flaw in a riveting performance that’s otherwise often uncanny; there is such palpable soul in his unpredictability and restlessness, and there is the constant sense of something those who knew Lennon have continually reported: the visibility of the cogs turning, the constant decision-making of whom to regard and how. It feels electric, and you can sense why and how he so torments the Brian we come to know here, and why his charisma would eventually set the world on its head.
Hart plays well opposite not just Angus but also Stephanie Pack as a stewardess who visits John in his hotel room for a possible tryst, only to find him in an unexpectedly ornery state (just after he kisses Brian and then walks away disgusted); she is compassionate but unsentimental and quickly sizes up the nature of the situation, which leads to some scintillating repartee between them that has a certain despair at its center; one senses that Pack’s character Marianne, more than any other, gleans the entirety of the destiny of these two men, which is something the film only fleetingly glances at. He immediately recognizes that he’s met his match, no effusive or submissive groupie here, and their exchanges to follow resemble nothing so much as the wondrous first meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. John is confounding, unsettled, playful but cruel and incisive; and she meets him at every last turn, in fact outpaces him. They talk past one another, saying everything except what they directly mean, and somehow size up one another and the situation perfectly. She walks away with every bit of her dignity, and he with the knowledge of the counterintuitively small world he has let himself inhabit. (One provocative scene earlier on has John in a lengthy discussion with another woman, his wife Cynthia, portrayed with grave accuracy by an uncredited voice actress; it’s a difficult scene to watch, and one that feels uncomfortably true to life and well-researched, especially in terms of their relatively abrupt segue into discussion of art. Cyn hangs like a shadow over the entire film, as does Julian; and the meaning of their presence remains as distressingly unresolved as it does for 22 year-old John himself.)
The only remaining major cast member is Robin McDonald as a traveling Spaniard named Quinones whom John attempts to “recruit” for Brian’s benefit, prompting an argument between them back at the hotel. Arguments and conversations of various intensities comprise, essentially, the whole of The Hours and Times, which in some ways is a very theatrical film — setting these heated discussions and liaisons in a tiny handful of locations: planes, rooms, bars, a park bench — but nevertheless it achieves a distinctly cinematic intimacy with the camera, with the faces of the actors drawn far from one another and close to the camera, and with the secrets that come from these close interactions that couldn’t be evident in another medium. Münch’s visual reference point is one of the Beatles’ own films, Lester’s masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night that captures the band’s original design and attitude in stone for eternity; but this film is A Hard Day’s Night as though reimagined by Kelly Reichardt — its chronicle of showbiz torn asunder from within, its barrage of youth and promise and its fleeting suggestion of impermanence funneled into a display of insurmountable loneliness.
That loneliness is the greatest fringe benefit of the picture’s modesty; like the work of another of the film’s explicit reference points, Ingmar Bergman (a screening of whose Silence is attended by Brian and John in the course of the film), it forges a vision of psychological unease as though physically manifested; no matter how beautiful Barcelona is, the world to which these two men are confined feels dismayingly limited. And in reality, this was a grave lesson of the middle ’60s for both Lennon and Epstein, both of whom found that success and its attendant comforts did little to settle the lingering questions and dissatisfactions that haunted them. In the case of Lennon, who by 1965 would be contending with a serious state of despondency and emptiness that he attempted to exorcise in songs like “Help!” and “Nowhere Man,” it was a matter of searching for a degree of stimulation and purpose he would only find upon meeting the Japanese avant garde artist and writer Yoko Ono in 1966. Though Lennon like Epstein died young, the former at least achieved some degree of contentment for a time; Epstein never had the opportunity, dying of an overdose in the same year that homosexual activity was decriminalized in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the riskiest of Münch’s “fan fiction” ponderings here places the two men in a park, where Epstein insists that Lennon agree to meet him in this very spot ten years hence, in April 1973; it’s a heartbreaking moment with the recognition of where Epstein would be by that year, to say nothing of the thought of where Lennon would be in a mere twenty.
Some viewers may find it odd to label that successfully touching scene the film’s most potentially wrongheaded stroke of speculation (only because it could easily come across as emotionally manipulative in a way that most of this film isn’t), given that this is indeed a film that depicts Epstein and Lennon making out nude in a bathtub and later implies that they spend the night in bed together and presumably have sex. But this is depicted so gracefully and believably that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually objecting to it, at least today; in fact it could probably have gone much farther without seeming crass or untoward, but of course times were different — Ray Coleman’s biography of Lennon is one of a number of books that takes considerable pains to reassure readers that John was not gay or bisexual, as though this would have been some sort of horrid insult to not just the man but his fans. Norman’s book is a very different matter, hinting around liberally about John’s ambiguous sexuality. (Neither here nor there, but: in a rather moving interview that accompanies the paperback edition, Ono soon after her husband’s death remembers teasing John over how often he complimented her for looking androgynous.) We will likely come closest to knowing everything we could know about the Barcelona episode in a few years when Mark Lewisohn, the most even-handed and ruthlessly accurate historian ever to write about the Beatles, publishes the second volume in his history of the band.
But to me, what did or didn’t happen seems hardly the point — the emotional essence of Münch’s film lines up perfectly with what we do, or can, know; and the halting awkwardness of the initial encounter depicted here seems entirely true to life to anyone who’s familiar with the experiences of people taking their first steps toward questioning or asserting their sexuality. And, perhaps more importantly, it feels like the lived-in reality of a temporary step into romantic or sexual expression between friends. These moments of connection — which, again, could and maybe even should be more explicit — are crescendos in a film that feels often like a piece of music, one with many blank spaces into which it’s easy to insert oneself, one’s own state of mind, one’s own sense of loss.
As noted, we never hear any Beatles songs in the picture — the production could not possibly had afforded them and, in the 1990s, actual Beatles performances were generally not made available to film producers for any price anyway — but there are two fascinating aural substitutes: there is a moment when Brian stands off alone after waking up next to John in bed and we hear, on the soundtrack, the vague hiss of an audience of screaming teenagers and an emcee, in muffled tones, announcing the names of four men, an eruption of high-pitched cheers after each. The chaos is too pronounced to be the memory of anything that had happened that spring or even would happen that fall, when the Beatles would mount their triumphant national tour that would remain etched in the cultural memory of Great Britain for generations; no, we know that he is thinking about America, about a future of incalculable fame and mastery. The look on his face speaks volumes: if he cannot have what he wants on a personal level, this is where his fulfillment will come, at least for a while.
Yet the film’s most spiritually transcendent and powerful moment comes a bit earlier, and it’s the one sequence in which we somewhat glean “what it’s really all about” in the abstract. Marianne, the woman from the plane, enters John’s room with a 7″ record smuggled over from the States; it’s a new Little Richard — credited, in fact, to the Upsetters, a bouncing and gleeful cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again.” John recalls (accurately) opening for Richard the previous year and also (inaccurately) describes how the first-generation rocker would only really speak to Brian, a not-so-covert reference to their shared sexuality. (In point of fact, it was Ringo Starr, then new to the band, with whom the notoriously promiscuous Richard was sexually intrigued, but he was convivial with all of them and later praised them to the skies as a white band with a “Negro sound,” the rare unambiguously positive interaction they had with one of their influences: Elvis met them in a stiff and awkward state afflicted by mutual suspicion, Gene Vincent terrified them with his penchant for weaponry and joyriding, and Carole King was such a hero to John that he, fully starstruck, stiffened up and was unable to speak when they met.) Suddenly the teenager excited and obsessive over rock & roll comes roaring back; just like when he and Paul would haunt the NEMS record store for the latest sounds, he takes the 45 to the turntable and begins widely grinning as soon as the intro starts — then he and Marianne, alone in this room, share a silent and joyous dance, an expression of every buried feeling of oblivious ecstasy that rock & roll can bring out, a reminder of what — at bottom — the mission of the Beatles and every other great pop musician was destined to be: to express the inexpressible, the things that fill the space between people in these rooms.
The Hours and Times is a compelling drama in and of itself, but it’s also a profound piece of reactive art to the Beatles and their following because it takes seriously their importance as a cultural phenomenon and suggests that theirs is such a large story that this miniscule slice of it can tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that would be the endless hours of wonder we might engage in about whether most of us in the world could maintain our mental health upon receiving that level of international adoration so suddenly, at such a young age, before even having the time to process the loss of one parent and abandonment of another; perhaps it is through the narrative it brings us of the injustice, shame and secrecy of being gay in England in those times, or the continued microaggressions or worse one might still face virtually anywhere if one isn’t straight. To graft the universal feelings explored by these characters upon such a famous and well-trodden story is a strong suggestion of the love and devotion that story has inspired; a tale like the Beatles’ could provoke an infinite number of such speculative pieces of small drama. But Münch brings us his particular interpretation with such impeccable judgment, subtlety and tough-minded honesty despite the complete lack of real means at his disposal, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone bettering his remarkable achievement in this hauntingly minimalist film.
As autumn sets in I finally put the brakes on catching up with modern-ish films for a while; they were just getting on my nerves and I stopped being able to judge them fairly around the time I sat through The Great Beauty and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the same week. The post, after the usual housekeeping segments, covers everything I watched from July 12th to September 24th of this year. I’ve hit a bit of a rash of classics on the ’50s list that don’t much resonate with me, but that’s all right; that project also further reinforced how Ozu has rapidly become one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.
Full reviews this cycle: It was a pleasure to write four long reviews this summer, including one for the ’50s project and two Best Picture nominees. Once upon a time I posted three every week, but not only were these often revisions of my old writings, when looking back now (I’m still in the midst of reformatting all of the old posts here) I often find that they are not up to the standards of the work I try to produce now, I guess because I’ve continued to evolve since 2012 or so which is probably a good thing. (It’s also alarming, especially in the cases when I was “improving” older work I then considered unsatisfactory.) Among these fully new pieces was the first-ever “second” essay about a film here, dedicated to my onetime all-time favorite and still perhaps the film I find most fascinating on the largest number of different planes, Mike Nichols’ immortal The Graduate (lboxd / tenth (?) viewing). Years back when I still held out some real ambitions of writing actual legitimately published “books” someday, I used to fantasize about a whole monograph dedicated to The Graduate and I certainly knew I’d have enough material. That was in my late teens and early twenties; now, of course, the film looks very different to me and so I have even more material. This turned out to be one of the most satisfying pieces I’ve written for this blog. The more you examine the picture, the more it seems to reveal; and you learn about it even when you don’t intend to, such as this month when I saw a later Nichols film, Working Girl, and realized how much the philosophical differences between the two were saying about the respective films and the worlds they were born into.
Two of the other long reviews I posted — for Quiz Show (lboxd / third viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2010) and Rififi (lboxd / second viewing, slight downgrade, last seen 2008) were quite expected from the moment their titles appeared in the lists I was working on. I wrote about Quiz Show way back when I first saw it (2005) but, naturally, that piece was unusable. Rififi I had only ever talked about at one-paragraph length; both are wonderful and I had fun writing about them. But the wildcard was JFK (lboxd / second viewing, last seen 2000); I went back and forth on whether the movie I once called the worst ever made really needed multiple paragraphs explaining why I deemed it such, but on reflection I realized that saying my piece about it now should stave off any future need to see it a third time, which I rather hope I won’t. This too turned out to be, I think, one of the better pieces of writing I’ve offered here, and considering the manic hatred I feel for the film, it also strikes me as clearer-headed than I would’ve feared.
The guidelines for what receives a “full review” have changed over the years, as you’re probably aware, but it bears mentioning that I do have a certain baseline in mind that tells me when something is canonical and noteworthy enough to need that level of attention. Any film I love deserves a full review, which is why the lion’s share I write now are “positive” — I hesitate to use that terminology since, as things have scoped outward, they’re not so much reviews as essays — but also any film with a certain degree of notoriety that seems “major” in any sense, as long as it’s not superhero shit, will probably eventually be tackled, at least in theory. So maybe you’ll see more long takedowns like the one for JFK, though they take an awful lot of energy so also maybe not.
Other films seen (with Lboxd links):
– For the continuing 2010s rewatch project, I revisited: The Meyerowitz Stories; The Lobster; and mother!; all second viewings, all with Amber.
– I also showed Amber Gun Crazy (second viewing, on Warner Archive’s blu) and, in memory of Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (my third viewing, I’m not writing about it yet but I will someday — actually I think there’s a review somewhere at the old blog, but I was just returning to it for fun this time, don’t make me write or edit anything plz).
– I saw Walk the Line for the third time, which I’d been meaning to do ever since reading Johnny Cash’s memoir Cash. I was also hoping to be re-persuaded that Joaquin Phoenix is a good actor after Joker. Mixed results, but I do really love Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened:
– New Hitchcock things don’t come across the desk very often, so there’s some reason to cheer for this recently discovered tidbit of him fake-directing William Shatner for a primetime special about cancer.
– My lingering obsession with quack medical cures and the like prompted me to follow a coworker’s recommendation over to the Essential Oils episode of Netflix’s Unwell, which wasn’t any great shakes but gave us lots of weird shit to laugh at… a nice reminder of media as a communal force!
– Several years ago I received, as a gift, the complete Looney Tunes Golden Collection set; that’s “complete” insofar as it contains all of the Looney Tunes that were released on DVD from 2003 to 2008, not complete in terms of housing all 1,000 cartoons in the series, which Warner Bros. has done a poor job at getting out into the marketplace in full. At any rate, I intended to savor this and I’m just now on the last two discs. The penultimate one was comprised strictly of black & white cartoons, most of them made by directors who left the studio before its height (Harman and Ising, notably); infamously the early cartoons made by the Schlesinger studio weren’t much beyond second-rate Disney imitations, largely uninspired, but they’re still interesting to see, and it’s always fun to catch some really bizarre moments of stretch-and-squash animation. The disc also contains a deeply weird live-action short Schlesinger produced called Cryin’ for the Carolines, which I might as well admit I now remember more vividly than any of the cartoons I fucking just watched.
– Haven’t had much MST3K time lately but I did revisit Cave Dwellers and Pod People and it’s pretty wonderful when something you knew by heart in eighth grade can still make you laugh.
– My wife and I are starting to venture slightly into the world with carefully socially distanced and masked-up dates with friends here and there (the library’s back open so it’s not like I can totally avoid humans anymore even if I wanted to), but overall we continue to try to make our own fun, which has occasioned more frequent drinking and loud music at our house than is even the norm. It’s getting pretty crazy here, folks. Anyway one tradition is to throw in a DVD with weird things on it while this is going on. You like weird stuff, right? My go-to has long been Image’s now decades-old compilation Landmarks of Early Film, but I recently returned to the first couple of discs of the classic box Treasures from American Film Archives. Some particularly well-suited selections from this set are Tony Sarg’s silhouette animation The Original Movie (1922), Scott Bartlett’s masterful abstract video creation OffOn (1972), and Richard Protovin & Franklin Backus’ inexpressibly beautiful Battery Film (1985). All are viewable on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website; and better academic libraries should still have the DVD set, which is fascinating and sadly out of print.
– Do not ask me to explain why this is so engrossing but I have sat and watched this long commercial break from my local NBC affiliate in the 1980s twice now; and Amber and I are particularly obsessed with the anger directed toward peas in the commercial at the 13-minute mark.
– Some music videos that really need your attention for reasons that aren’t strictly tied to the music in them, all shot on video in the early 1980s: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” (can’t find a director credit, does anyone know!?); Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” (directed by Toni Basil, included on the Heads’ VHS/DVD collection Storytelling Giant but without the opening shot and closing credits seen in this version); and M’s “Pop Muzik” (directed by Brian Grant). These are so hard-hitting and/or stylish and exciting to watch!
– As part of my research for my essay about Quiz Show I watched the American Experience documentary about the Twenty-One scandal. It’s very interesting, although sadly the rip that’s uploaded is in very poor quality. (PBS seems to have offered a stream at some point but it’s currently offline.)
– A long-standing and indefensible fascination of mine is corporate training videos, an interest I’ve recently had somewhat validated by Street Fight Radio who regularly riff on them. One of the most incredible ones I’ve ever encountered is this 1988 morsel from Pizza Hut, in which a very enthusiastic young woman is taught by a slightly older woman, unmistakably a bit of a Mrs. Danvers figure, how to follow the Pizza Hut protocol for keeping the customers happy. As the video unfolds an increasingly complex relationship becomes evident. Not teacher and pupil exactly, not exactly a friendship, but a mutual trust and eagerness to please that suggests something deeper, something almost haunting in its subtle and mysterious dynamic. What happened after the pizzas were made? We can but speculate.
– I’m in the middle of Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland which has inevitably sent me down a series of video rabbit holes. Have you ever seen Anita Bryant take a pie to the face? And what about this astoundingly apathetic campaign ad Pearl Bailey made for Gerald Ford? Finally, I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing (zzzz) but there’s an incredible sequence in the first Ford v. Carter debate when the audio drops out for nearly half an hour and absolutely no one knows what to do, and both candidates stand there with an awkwardness that could make you cringe out of your skin even now, unwilling to sit down so as not to appear weak, as stiff as plastic dolls. Amazing.
– The regular lists projects at the Criterion Forum are, as you may know, the source of my “canon” projects here; and since 2012 I’ve tried to participate in most of them. We’ve actually cycled around to the ’50s again; the last goround was the first of these for which I submitted a ballot, and by coincidence I’m also in the middle of the ’50s currently for my own blog pursuits. My new ballot is quite different from the first one I sent, in part because of everything I’ve seen since then and in part because I realized shorts could be included. So in order to double-check my convictions on my new list I revisited the following shorts, all of which I would give the highest of recommendations and the first few of which are masterpieces: Tout la memoire du monde (Resnais 1956); The Tell-Tale Heart (Parmelee 1953); Night and Fog (Resnais 1956, more on this coming soon); Rooty Toot Toot (Hubley 1951); The Red Balloon (Lamoirisse 1956); Duck Amuck (Jones 1953, more on this coming soon as well); One Froggy Evening (Jones 1955); The Three Little Bops (Freleng 1957); and What’s Opera, Doc? (Jones 1957). I’ll post my full ballots on Twitter after the project is done. (The list you can see by clicking “top 50s” at the top of this page only includes features.)
– But most importantly we have the only unambiguously good thing that ever happens on local news: a bird invasion of a weather report. Forget the header, This Is Cinema.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The Maya Deren Collection (Kino): Almost by default one of my favorite Blu-ray discs I’ve purchased so far, helpfully gathering all of the films by America’s premier avant garde director, contextualizing them and documenting their (often slow-rolling) impacts. As with most Kino releases, there are shortcomings: the prints are often not in great shape, or suffer from flawed digital restorations; every film, no matter how short, is preceded by the same irritating sequence of logos; and the liner notes are largely just straightforward descriptions of the films. But as a cohesive viewing experience it’s hard to quarrel with the program as presented. The set begins, of course, with Meshes of the Afternoon, one of the best short films ever made (previously addressed in our 1940s canon writeup). I had never previously seen her follow-up films At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time and found both just as provocative, sensual and masterful as her debut. The last one in particular is a shattering survey of the confusion of modern life that is completely undiminished by its sixty-four years. There is also the charming The Private Life of a Cat, though Deren only contributes its narration (her Meshes collaborator and onetime husband, Alexander Hammid, is credited as director).
After that, Deren’s filmography takes a major turn toward so-called “ethnographic” documentary, occasioned by her consumption with Haitian culture (and voodoo). These films aren’t as striking as her earliest works; Meditation on Violence, for instance, feels more like an art installation than a film, comprised of Chao-Li Chi performing martial arts and sort of dancing with the camera, more engrossing in theory than in practice; it draws on Deren’s earlier Study in Choreography for Camera, but that film was only three minutes rather than fifteen and thus seemed less repetitive. Deren’s only credited feature, Divine Horsemen (completed and released decades after her death), is a documentary that directly studies Haitian ritual. It’s reviewed below, as is the included documentary Invocation, Lastly, The Very Eye of Night is a charming, slightly corny experiment that has students from the Metropolitan Ballet performing, overlaid over footage of the stars.
The extras are mostly very informative, especially to the new scholar of Deren’s work. Thomas Beard provides good commentaries for three of the films; Moira Jean Sullivan does the same for the other three Deren-directed projects. (There is no commentary for The Private Life of a Cat.) I preferred Beard’s earnest engagement to Sullivan’s collegiate lecturing, though both have their moments; I was surprised to learn that John Cage and Anaïs Nin both apppear in films of Deren’s (which ones? buy the set to find out!). This collection, regardless of supplemental material, is a cornerstone to any serious student of experimental and wholly independent filmmaking. Deren’s work is electric: kinetic, restless and vivid in its intelligence, boundless curiosity and irresistible beauty. Her films’ purity as art is far beyond what critical analysis can try and lay out — it’s too visceral to be reduced to any other medium, certainly including words.
– Sergio Leone Westerns (Kino Lorber): I have a pile-up of new Blu-rays to go through but this one ended up dominating my summer because it has so much material. I picked up this five-disc set chiefly because I love two of Leone’s films, both included here (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) and have some lingering childhood affection, especially stylistic, for the other two movies he made with Clint Eastwood, which were the only westerns that resonated with me at all when my dad showed them to me thanks to their humor and keenly visualized action. Having seen all these movies again for the blog over the years, I found that Ugly gained a lot in my estimation, that the other two Dollars films now seemed all too emotionally limited in comparison to their influences, and that Once Upon a Time in the West towered above the rest of them with its lyricism, scope, its gleeful taunting of Hollywood traditionalism, and the sweep of history it embodied.
Problems with Leone’s films that may be tolerated by many viewers who watch a greater number of “macho” films than I do are very hard for me to deal with, namely their staggering misogyny, which is most egregious in his last film, the non-western Once Upon a Time in America which isn’t included here, but is certainly evident throughout his filmography in its treatment of female characters and non-characters. Once Upon a Time in the West overcomes this somewhat (women are largely absent in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) because its protagonist is played by Claudia Cardinale, but even she comes in for some rather brash treatment — one of the film’s big emotional crescendos revolves around how it’s necessary for her to tolerate being groped by male workers because it’s no big deal. I’m sure someone can launch back at me with a litany of movies I’ve highly praised that are horribly regressive or were made by dreadful men, but all I can tell you is, Leone’s treatment of women generates a recoiling that I can’t ignore, and I’m not alone; this is addressed many times in the thoughtful extra features all across this set, including by leading Leone acolyte Sir Christopher Frayling. The biggest mystery is that Leone’s key influences, like Nicholas Ray and John Ford and Howard Hawks, don’t display this contempt (in their films) at all; something like Johnny Guitar is practically a feminist screed by comparison.
Nonetheless, few moments in cinema have the impact of Cardinale’s walk out onto the railroad in that last scene and the crane shot that follows; “breathtaking” doesn’t seem like enough. Leone was a poet, no doubt, and might well have been a master if his choice of material (and, possibly, his ideology) didn’t limit his range. And on the other hand, he’s smarter about violence — how to portray and process it, and how to balance its excitement and humor with the moral reckoning it portends — than perhaps any other major director, certainly more than the likes of Martin Scorsese or Sam Peckinpah.
The Kino box repackages four of their own releases and one of Paramount’s, but being a Blu-ray latecomer I’d never seen any of these movies on Blu; I like the boxed set because, individually, it’s unlikely I’d have purchased the first two Dollars films or A Fistful of Dynamite (which I’d never seen at all until now; it’s reviewed below), and it’s nice to have them all on the shelf. The transfers are fine, apart from A Fistful of Dollars having a strange yellow sheen that inexplicably renders the sky a pale green color. The other films look magnificent, especially For a Few Dollars More, which is hard to recognize from Dad’s old pan & scan VHS tape. These movies, on top of being post-dubbed like nearly all Italian features, were shot in Techniscope, a weird process that uses half the celluloid frame to make a faux-Cinemascope picture and apparently makes restoration a headache. They’ve also all been cut, restored and recut numerous times in their various exports over the years, which has led to endless mindnumbing arguments among fans about the definitive versions of each film, and Kino evidently displeased some by using the theatrical cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here (their stand-alone release has a second disc that’s missing here and features the other cut), but this is what my ancient MGM DVD has anyway and I can watch the missing scenes on that disc, where they’re included as bonus features, if I want to.
A Fistful of Dollars sets the stage extras-wise; there’s a wealth of material, a lot of it inherited from MGM’s older DVD releases and really so much that it’s the most overwhelmed I remember being by a package of supplements in years. But they were so interesting that I kept watching, even though I initially planned to skipped straight to the two movies I really cared about. The most interesting offerings here include a censorship-motivated prologue shot for the film’s TV premiere in the 1970s by Monte Hellman (!) featuring an extra portraying Clint Eastwood from the back; it’s just as fun to learn that the film itself is lost and had to be sourced form a private collector who happened to be taping that broadcast. Eastwood himself is interviewed (in 2003) for both this and For a Few Dollars More and is more coherent and insightful than you’d probably expect from his modern-day persona. There’s a more recent, and amazing, interview with Marianne Koch, who went on to become a doctor and a TV personality and is engagingly critical of the film’s violence. Christopher Frayling, Leone’s biographer who’s omnipresent on this collection, shows up with his reams of memorabilia for the film — really amusing to learn that Leone and his crew removed their names from the original release, replacing them with generic American-sounding names, so people wouldn’t realize it was an Italian movie. There are also nice image galleries and a pretty good Tim Lucas commentary (which is actually new to Kino’s release). It made me a bit melancholy to flash back to when DVD extras were a big enough deal to be a selling point for random normals purchasing movies at Best Buy — big enough for a studio to get Eastwood to sit down for them. I never thought I’d be so nostalgic for the 2003-04 DVD zeitgeist.
For a Few Dollars More offers more of the same, adding Alex Cox — another constant contributor to this set — running around showing what the various locations look like today, tying it to the punk years somehow. You learn a lot about how these films were shot but even more about how they were marketed. This one’s got two commentaries, good for different reasons: Tim Lucas is more analytical, Frayling gets into the technical weeds and the mythos. I was entertained and I don’t even like this movie that much. Lucas does all right again on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his commentary the only major supplement for that film since the bonus disc isn’t included. Then we have a Paramount interlude, porting over the contents of their old two-DVD set for Once Upon a Time in the West which I owned but never delved into; it’s a much more superficial collection of material rather typical of studio fluff from the time, although unlike Kino/MGM, Paramount actually shows Leone himself being interviewed (briefly), to say nothing of Henry Fonda (vintage) and Claudia Cardinale (modern as of ’03)! But whereas Kino would likely have opted to include these interviews at full length, Paramount prefers to edit bits of them into a hacky documentary that’s dominated by modern interviews with famous people who like the film, my absolute least favorite type of supplemental material; you get John Milius (jesus, no wonder John Goodman was cast in that role in The Big Lebowski), John Carpenter, Cox again (interviewed in a bar with a camera apparently mounted on the ceiling?), and Bernardo Bertolucci (who did work on the script, so that’s a bit different). The commentary is similar, with the various filmmakers mostly just narrating the proceedings apart from a really patronizing sexist remark from Milius, and scholar Frayling who quite engagingly walks us through the beginning and end of the picture; it’s really disappointing when the track wanders away from him. Carpenter is the worst since all he does is speculate on what’s location and what’s a set; Frayling actually knows what’s what (several scenes gain even more poignance knowing they were shot in Monument Valley) so why not just let him talk through the film?
Somehow the most interesting disc of all may be the one for A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a. Duck You Sucker!, Leone’s preferred title but one most people hate — I kind of like it actually), the one film here I had never seen. It has two commentaries, another terrific one by Frayling who seems to have devoted his whole life to documenting Leone’s career and one from Alex Cox, who’s charming but mostly sounds like, I dunno, me talking over a movie without any preparation, which he does from his “cabin in Oregon” (and this before COVID!). The featurettes on this disc are also particularly good: a rundown by Frayling on the movie’s very interesting history, its revolving door of directors (one of whom will come as a big surprise to anybody who didn’t listen to the exquisite recent season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This about Polly Platt) and its atypically high budget; and a fascinating look at the restoration process (pre-Blu) plus a tantalizing feature on an extensive exhibit about Leone that stood at the Autry Museum of the American West for a few years, opening in 2005 and of course long gone by now, but I’m very glad Kino chose to include the feature which unexpectedly offers an interesting perspective on how museum exhibitions are put together. (The exhibition was curated by Estella Chung, who’s interviewed at some length here — I won’t lie, it’s rather reassuring to see a woman’s input somewhere on this set.) After going through all this, I’m officially Leoned out for a good while but there really is great stuff here, and the set is a true bargain.
– Quai Des Orfevres (Kino Lorber): One great mystery here is what makes something a “Kino Lorber Studio Classic” versus just a regular Kino release. Neither this nor most of the Leone films were American studio films, but I digress. I broke up the creation of this post on a busy Sunday watching the extras here. You get amazing vintage TV interviews with Henri-Georges Clouzot and the cast on this disc, wherein he openly admits to physically bullying his actors, who also cheerfully confirm that he was pretty liberal with the on-set slaps. A truly scary human being! Nick Pinkerton offers a superb commentary that addresses all this and more; he’s so much more colorful than most people who do these things nowadays, and his closing summation of the film’s appeal is all-time shit. Also the movie looks flawless here.
I’ve got some time off coming up so, on top of #living #live, I will probably stay up late a few nights and bask in some of the other new discs I’ve gotten recently, some of which I’m really excited to watch and write about.
Thirty-one new capsules follow. Housekeeping note re alternate titles: three films below are labeled differently on their current home media releases than the way they’ve traditionally been known in English-speaking territories. I will add separate listings for two of these (A Story from Chikamatsu née The Crucified Lovers; A Fistful of Dynamite née Duck, You Sucker!) directing readers to the proper location of the capsule reviews, even though in both cases I prefer the “old” titles. As for Europa ’51, I just stuck with the Italian name since anyone looking will find it anyway and it really doesn’t sound right to me to call it Europe ’51, even though Criterion disagrees! Meanwhile I don’t consider Il Postino a controversy, since no one ever calls it The Postman if they remember the film at all, which they don’t.
The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard) [hr]
[2010s catchup project.] Haunting illustration of the short, tragic life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar is harder hitting than a conventional documentary; it fuses archival footage with on-location performances of her best-known work and actors very capably miming interviews with Dunbar’s family and intimates. It’s rare that the medium gives us so direct an opportunity to explore the effect of words and actions upon others across years and even decades, to say nothing of its troubling implications about motherhood, the responsibility of adults to children and the repetition of cycles of abuse and neglect.
Elena (2011, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
[2010s catchup project.] Zvyagintsev shows a real flair for composition and for directing actors in this domestic chronicle of a middle-aged woman’s dispute with her rich husband over finances, but it’s ponderous and prolonged enough that even when something ultimately does actually happen it feels strangely inconsequential, as if the mere suggestion of possible events constituted drama.
Street of Shame (1956, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Mizoguchi’s last film, about a group of prostitutes coping with the fickleness of day-to-day life amid the looming possibility of a ban on sex work that could leave them destitute, an issue it tackles without demonizing or glorifying anyone. As usual for the director, one of cinema’s greatest and most sensitive, it’s incredibly prescient, and beautifully acted and observed. Maybe not as hard-hitting as Women of the Night and Sisters of the Gion, which deal with similar situations and themes, but equally lyrical and haunting — especially that final shot. Exquisite score by Toshiro Mayuzumi.
Here Comes the Navy (1934, Lloyd Bacon) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Uneven peacetime Warner Bros. war movie, with lots of drop-of-a-hat fistfights, whose tone is hard to figure; it’s too wacky to be a drama and too infatuated with its characters’ machismo to be a comedy. James Cagney is a diminutive local tough who joins the Navy explicitly to get revenge on a random guy who slighted him once, in what may be the pettiest scheme ever recorded in a Hollywood picture. The film’s engaging enough due to Cagney but it’s just too silly to carry much weight and its Best Picture nomination is hard to swallow.
Fire at Sea (2016, Gianfranco Rosi)
[2010s catchup project.] This illustration of the mid-2010s migrant crisis, shot around Sicily, is stunningly intimate — so much so that it often feels more like a narrative fiction film than a documentary — but it’s constantly interrupted by a slingshot-building kid who seems to be practicing for a future gig as a talk show host. The apparent point, that people’s problems are on vastly different scales, strikes me as trite.
Graduation (2016, Cristian Mungiu)
[2010s catchup project.] Claustrophobic drama, about a middle-aged shlub bumbling around trying to juggle various problems that spring up when his daughter is sexually assaulted, is well-acted and not without dramatic gravitas but simply feels too much like a hundred other acclaimed arthouse films of its era; Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills was much better because its characters were so much less predictable.
Senso (1954, Luchino Visconti) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Visconti’s distractingly gorgeous Technicolor effort at a Madame de…-like story of the fractured heart of a noblewoman stands out from his earlier work with its concerns of sexual liberation and self-torture. Alida Valli leans fully into the unpolished melodrama of her role as an Italian countess with Nationalist sympathies (and a cousin in the rebellion) who falls in love with a cad among the occupying Austraian army, a rather miscast and surprisingly unrecognizable Farley Granger. With better casting, this might well have been truly extraordinary (Visctonti wanted Brando and Bergman).
Flirtation Walk (1934, Frank Borzage)
[Best Picture nominees project.] A disjointed mess of a military comedy-musical in which Dick Powell, in over his head, stars as a hotheaded Army private who revels in a rebellious give-and-take with his button-down commanding officer and derails his career after a coitus interruptus episode involving a higher-up’s daughter (Ruby Keeler, game but ineffectual); his response to an offhanded insult is to go to West Point to prove his mettle, where he transforms into a stoic asshole. The film then inexplicably turns into a big “put on a show” routine that has Powell and Keeler singing some insipid numbers. The best you can say about the whole enterprise is that it’s well-photographed.
The Great Beauty (2013, Paolo Sorrentino) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] Loud, screaming, flashy and unflaggingly obnoxious modern homage to La Dolce Vita has a journalist and onetime novelist played by Toni Servillo wrestling with the moral quandary of being surrounded by decadence among the Roman jet set, the weight of the city’s history and the meaninglessness of this and that within his personal life as well as on a higher level. All the worst tendencies of lifestyle-porn arthouse, geared toward the sort of people who go to the movies to find out where to book their next Hilton excursion.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Taika Waititi) [NO]
[2010s catchup project.] All the trash kids rented at Blockbuster in the ’90s except unbearably smug, courtesy of one of the most shamelessly self-regarding charlatans working in the movies today.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Brilliantly executed and creepily effective horror/sci-fi about a small-town doctor stumbling upon a phenomenon that, initially, can’t even be quantified enough to seem improbable but is unmistakable to those who witness it. Like Cat People, this is genre fiction that uses the wildest of fantastic ideas to explore vividly human, deeply uncomfortable emotional issues. Siegel studiously avoids either dull exposition or making things too explicit, though there’s plenty of delightful visual audacity to balance what is ultimately a rather serious parable.
Fanny (1961, Joshua Logan) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier get the band back together like some Hollywood Francophile precursor to The Irishman in this picturesque (shot beautifully by Jack Cardiff) romance inspired by Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays and films about a love triangle of sorts in ’20s Marseille. It’s called “Fanny” (Leslie Caron) but it’s really about the men around her — discussing her, sizing her up, planning her destiny. Logan proves adept enough at the sometimes thorny emotions within the situation depicted that the rather forced slapstick and moments of wacky levity seem like wasteful distractions.
In Jackson Heights (2015, Frederick Wiseman) [r]
[2010s catchup project.] In this mosaic of processes and exchanges from a year or so in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, everything we see is a furthering of the stark reality of the entirety of the human race essentially being abandoned by capitalism; some still survive within it or sit in denial of its failure, but for how long? The compassion and understanding of Wiseman’s camera is a given, but it never asserts itself; the only thing that does is his unflagging interest in nearly every aspect of day-to-day life. When splendor and grace do enter, it’s through the perseverance of the humanity and zeal for life, even if muted, common to every face he captures.
Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)
[2010s catchup project.] Frustratingly silly, overlong and sloppily written horror film has Florence Pugh, her useless boyfriend and his bros — including a convenient anthropology student — following a friend to Sweden where he exposes them to the sinister behaviors and practices of the cult in which he grew up. Production designer Henrik Svensson does much of the work here to make this visually interesting; the story and script are truly dreadful, with boring characterizations and every movement telegraphed from the first moment each theme is unveiled.
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985, Maya Deren) [r]
The only feature film credited to the pioneering avant garde director Deren, most famous for Meshes of the Afternoon although she made several other films that were equally brilliant, was shot in the late 1940s and assembled posthumously by her husband Teiji Ito. It’s a documentary in which Deren takes an experimental approach to filming a series of dances, ceremonies and practices of Haitian Vodou; the trust she earned in this process is evidenced in just how intimate much of the footage is, though it doesn’t entirely escape the “othering” that is so common to midcentury explorations of non-Western cultures.
Invocation: Maya Deren (1986, Jo Ann Kaplan) [r]
Overly rushed and slightly credulous but often remarkable overview of the life and career of one of the greatest American filmmakers to work completely outside of standard narrative cinema, with many surprising primary-source inclusions plus interviews with her collaborators. There is a haunting sense of loss hanging over the film and its incidental capturing of NYC Bohemian culture of the war and postwar periods; Deren’s presence in every sense, including her physical stature, looms engagingly over every moment.
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950, Roberto Rossellini)
[1950s canon project.] Rossellini’s illustration of vignettes from the life of Francis of Assisi relies on a sympathy if not outright subscription to Christianity and maybe even specifically Catholicism in order not to seem silly, flippant and unnecessary — although it is lovely to look at.
Lola Montès (1955, Max Ophüls) [r]
[1950s canon project.] The balletic “ringmaster” scenes of this very Ophüls reenactment of the Montès legend are magnificent. The narrative material falls short, although Martine Carol is wonderful throughout.
Across the Universe (2007, Julie Taymor) [c]
[Beatles film project for music blog.] Another musical fashioned in perfunctorily strung-together Beatles tunes along the lines of the Bee Gees version of Sgt. Pepper, filtered here through much greater self-importance and idealized ’60s nostalgia. Taymor senses grace notes in the Beatles’ work and treats it as hallowed ground, but the threadbare story she and her cowriters concocted here provides no context with any real depth or meaning unless you think conflating the Beatles with Vietnam is a profound idea. The song performances are mostly as rote and uninspired as their placement in the “narrative,” and in the cases of Bono and Eddie Izzard’s cameos, downright humiliating.
First Cow (2019, Kelly Reichardt) [hr]
A film boundless in both its knowing cynicism about capitalism and generosity toward humans (and animals!), about early American settlers finding success through their enterprising use of a nearby cow; a beautiful chronicle of a deep friendship, sensitive and well-performed with the same touch of melancholy that marks all of Reichardt’s best work, and subtly hilarious in the most invitingly dorky manner to boot.
Il Postino (1994, Michael Radford)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Harmless semi-romcom from Italy about a layabout who takes a job delivering mail to renowned poet Pablo Neruda (in exile from the political situation in Chile) and ends up harnessing him as a sort of Cyrano figure as he attempts to seduce a dreadfully underwritten bartender. Pleasant-looking and completely unmemorable, this won a lot of acclaim in its day up to and including a Best Picture nomination courtesy of the Weinstein machine and some understandable sentimentality toward its deceased star Massimo Troisi; it’s all sweet-natured but fatally banal.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] An even more profound and achingly sad portrait of an emotionally distant marriage than Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, with the same harrowingly direct portrayal of awkward interactions and fatal miscommunications. Along the way there is also the gentle prodding of the generation gap and the lingering feudal tradition of arranged marriage. Of course our director’s eye is unfailing, and the performances are shattering.
Working Girl (1988, Mike Nichols) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Romantic comedy concerning corporate ladder-climbing on the part of an ambitious secretary charmingly played by Melanie Griffith is a pure morsel of late ’80s nostalgia; she’s oddly third-billed under perfunctory hapless-foil and screeching villain roles by Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver respectively. Writer Kevin Wade has the usual infatuation with “structure” that makes so many big comedies of this era feel so schematic, but for sheer entertainment value this certainly delivers from beginning to end. (Half the reason you’ll want to see it, though, is its time-capsule view of ’88 New York.)
Monte Carlo (1930, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
The second entry in Lubitsch’s cycle of Paramount musical comedies from the very early talkie period is just as winning and exuberant as The Love Parade but there’s a large Maurice Chevalier-sized hole in it and the far less charismatic Jack Buchanan is only a passable stand-in. Jeanette MacDonald easily makes up for his inefficiencies in her deliciously sensual lead role as an impoverished countess who falls hard, in a reverse-Love Me Tonight scenario, for a nobleman passing himself off as a hairdresser. Claud Allister steals the film in a wrenchingly hilarious role as her useless fiancé, and the whole affair is bubbly and delightful.
Passing Fancy (1933, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Lovely slice of life from Ozu’s late-lingering silent period is just as compelling as his more beloved later works, with every shot beautifully composed, every character lovingly defined. Takeshi Sakamoto stars as the widower and single father Kihachi, who’s only sporadically attentive to his son (Tokkan Kozou) in between flirting with women who are much too young for him and drinking too much; complications arise when Kihachi attempts to take a destitute girl under his wing only for her to be drawn to a cynical coworker of his. This feels like it’s scarcely aged a day and is particularly astute about the strain that comes out of “parentizing” a young child.
The Crucified Lovers (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi): see A Story from Chikamatsu
A Story from Chikamatsu [The Crucified Lovers] (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
[1950s canon project.] Absorbing and rapidly paced Romeo and Juliet-like narrative, set within feudal Japan and adapted from an eighteenth century play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, juggles the same themes as all of Mizoguchi’s major works — traditional society’s inhumanity to women and celebration of capital, all in all — but is set apart from them in its fast-moving energy and wonderfully sharp sense of irony, and like all of his work it’s immaculately shot and composed.
One Night of Love (1934, Victor Schertzinger)
[Best Picture nominees project.] Innocuous opera-comedy about an up-and-coming singer played by the sadly ill-fated Grace Moore, wringing her through the usual beats about her sparring with a controlling lover-manager (Tullio Carminati). Cheap-looking and weakly directed, this just barely passes muster thanks to several unexpectedly witty jokes, surely the result of some rogue dialogue insertions on the part of somebody among the five credited screenwriters; the leads do OK but can’t really conquer their inconsistent and quite persistently unlikable characterizations. The performance numbers, mostly just straight lifts from M. Butterfly and Carmen, are thoroughly forgettable.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020, Charlie Kaufman) [r]
A Charlie Kaufman road movie that goes about the way you’d expect: lonely claustrophobia, some moments of awe-inspiring ingenuity, and a really sharp comic sensibility that unfortunately, by the end, haven’t really found a cohesive groove and just come to feel loose and random in their execution, especially when the pop culture references take over. Still a singular experience, with a stunning lead performance from Jessie Buckley, plus one scene set at an ice cream store that could be one of the most inspired moments in modern cinema.
Duck, You Sucker! (1971, Sergio Leone): see A Fistful of Dynamite
A Fistful of Dynamite [Duck, You Sucker!] (1971, Sergio Leone) [r]
Leone brings considerable humor and excitement to what might well have been a relatively pedestrian story about a Mexican bandito (improbably portrayed by Rod Steiger) joining forces with an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn, shiny-toothed and ridiculous) to rob a bank only to accidentally become a political hero. Not nearly enough plot here to justify the exorbitant length and it really amounts to a padded-out and regurgitated version of themes and ideas Leone had already explored quite extensively, but he was a true poet of the camera and this is still great fun to watch.
Europa ’51 (1952, Roberto Rossellini) [r]
[1950s canon project.] Achingly tragic scenario of Ingrid Bergman as a self-involved woman trying to come to terms with her aloofness as a mother when her young son commits suicide, with rich performances and often stunning visual flourishes and settings, collapses into a religious parable about saintliness that just feels all too well-trodden and obvious. Rossellini’s moral uncertainty rescues it from total banality but, as with The Flowers of St. Francis, for a nonbeliever it all just seems like a gross misappropriation of beauty.
Via Villa! (1934, Jack Conway) [r]
[Best Picture nominees project.] Very pre-Code, very handsome MGM biopic of Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery, in a slurring and goofy performance) openly admits to being largely fabricated and wears its catchphrase-driven proto-sitcom sensibility proudly. Biggest debit is Stuart Erwin as a boring white journalist who follows Villa around and manages to witness every major event in his life; he saps the film’s energy and keeps it from being a full-on Mexican Revolution Scarlet Empress. As the movie stands, it’s a bit politically suspect but also fun (and wildly violent, even amoral), and it certainly looks spectacular, especially the early sequences.
The film noir that sprang up in Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s — hard-boiled fiction transferred to cinema with a gargantuan, Biblical moralism attached — could encompass much that was repugnant as often as alluring, sometimes in the same picture. Lust leads to protracted murder-suicide in Double Indemnity, which is nonetheless enveloping because we witness each step of its doomed protagonist’s psychic collapse and all of them are crushingly believable. The central romance in Gun Crazy is sparkling enough in its lust that the viciousness of the violence it courts feels like a gradually warming bath that we only belatedly realize has become intolerable. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the thrill of watching an intricately planned ripoff spring into action is a momentary but exhilarating distraction from the oppressive bleakness of the lives surrounding the event.
More typical, however, are the noirs in which nihilism rules the day. In Out of the Past, the entire world conspires against one who believed he “got out,” the implication being that one toe stepped out of saintliness is enough to permanently wreck a life; and in The Maltese Falcon, murder itself becomes so casual an occurrence that the characters and film come to treat it as window dressing, puzzle pieces in a convoluted narrative. Everything is card sharks, smoked-out hallways and clubs, pop-up diners and service stations, dank alleyways and slimy apartments, the symbols of poverty that mainstream American cinema only acknowledges in order to conflate with banal, quick-buck evil.
American director Jules Dassin’s French noir Rififi seems at first glance to belong in the latter category; unlike Kubrick a year later, Dassin finds no perverse pleasure or humor in the company he keeps during this two-hour descent into Hell, even if Hell in this case is just the wrong side of picturesque downtown Paris, into the gutter of the bottom-of-the-barrel sleaze that the heavens spit out. It is absolutely not attractive or inviting, nor is there any yearning for a palpable world beyond this dead end that you sense in something like The Asphalt Jungle (at least in the novel by W.R. Burnett). The crooks that populate Rififi are seemingly beyond redemption; there is even scorn to cast upon the amiable family man Jo, played by Carl Möhner, whose miraculous avoidance of prison for an extravagant theft, thanks to a buddy who took the rap, has done nothing to dissuade him from risking his wife and kid’s lives for the sake of another big score. That Tony, “le Stéphanois,” the ride-or-die who went down for Jo and is now fresh out of prison, isn’t meant to glean our good graces is unmistakable — he’s a nasty, sadistic motherfucker whose beating of an ex-girlfriend rather starkly dominates one of the first scenes in the film. For all the dignity and regret cast all over Jean Servais’ wearied face, he isn’t even an anti-hero, he’s unambiguously villainous — capable of unforgivable, unglamorous hatred — while feeling more like an actual lifer than the half-baked gangsters populating so much American noir. We’re thankfully never asked to believe in some sort of hidden gold in Tony’s heart, only that there is a certain perverse integrity, or at least consistency, to his outlook — and therein lies the real essence of the story here.
It may or may not be beside the point that there’s also something weirdly intoxicating about all this misery, in the same way that the despair in an early Ingmar Bergman picture such as Prison can become curiously comforting. Quite apart from the elevated visuals — that tauntingly doomed Third Man-like shot of a tied-up body being regretfully finished off then left behind, for instance, outlines the potential emotional range of a story like this in seconds — Dassin’s story makes no secret of its contempt for its unscrupulous central figures; but in contrast to the Hollywood pictures that delve this unapologetically into the underworld, there’s a certain empathy here toward forbidden emotions: greed is not treated as a source of shame, but the virtually inevitable outgrowth of human nature — we’re not expected here to scold ourselves for being somewhat aroused at the thought of an illicit life on easy street, or the directionless, smoky lust of a dim nightclub, or the empty possessiveness of the most toxic kind of love affair. It is rather the weakness of those men who succumb to these basic, seemingly inevitable elements of their nature that Dassin serves up to rebuke.
What’s not beside the point is that the real subject of Rififi, apart from the sheer outrageous dramatics of the central heist scene, of which more shortly, is the idea of moral relativism within the underworld: the “criminal code,” so to speak. It is a given that an above-board existence is either impossible or out of the question for the four highly skilled architects of this film’s big jewel robbery — theirs is life on an entirely different plane, one in which things look and sound different and the boundaries vary wildly from those of the seldom-glimpsed straight world. But throughout the final third of Rififi, starting at the point when our hoods become dogged by an even more ruthless set of hoods who’ve stumbled on the truth about the recent operation, we gradually discover where almost everyone’s limits are: for multiple characters, the involvement of a child is beyond the pale, sloppy and underhanded and vile in a way that casts the gamesmanship of mere ordinary con artistry into stark relief.
One is reminded, inevitably, of the kangaroo court in Fritz Lang’s M, in which the whole of Berlin’s illegitimate underclass becomes vigilante and takes Peter Lorre’s child molester to task out of both moral outrage and self-interest. And in a way, it can all still be read as self-interest: Jo finds his commitments impossible to keep when confronted with the loss of the child for whom he claimed he was fighting in the first place. Tony’s own specific protectiveness of Jo makes him dedicated to the rescue of the child but he’s also invested in the recovery of the operation’s stability, so it’s more telling that his most decisive action in the ugly aftermath of the crime is to murder the Italian safecracker (played by the director himself) who gave the game away and informed on his partners. But simultaneously, it casts a fascinating divide, again, between “our” hoods and the “other” hoods — and Dassin challenges us to examine and question the depth of the differences. Much as each character has his or her definition of “too far,” we are meant to locate our own. (The script is adapted from a novel by Auguste Le Breton, written in dialect and apparently very difficult to translate; Dassin disliked the book, largely due to the racist characterization of the “villain” gang as Arab and African criminals exclusively, and removed this offensive undertone. At least one French critic, François Truffaut, commented upon the immensity of the improvements Dassin and his cowriters made to the novel.)
Dassin had been an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock during one of his earliest American films, the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, before moving on to direct shorts then features at MGM. There and at Fox he would become one of the accidental architects of noir; then, like so many other Hollywood filmmakers and performers with leftist or communist sympathies, he was blacklisted in the late 1940s and forced to exile himself to Europe, where he would make Rififi — his first picture outside Hollywood — and became so renowned in France he would for the rest of his career be frequently mistaken for a native director. There is a certain catharsis to the film’s absolutely unwavering cynicism, but also a feeling of profound loss and pointlessness; in some ways it resembles a picture like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko or Renoir’s La Bête humaine, even Hitchcock’s 1936 pre-Hollywood Sabotage, more than any American thriller of its era, because there is no compensatory sense of iconography to avoid a sensation of falling into the abyss. No Bogie, no Edward G. Robinson, no lovable lug of a Cagney, just regular people who’ve already fucked themselves over fucking themselves over more.
But there is one important difference; Renoir, Hitchcock and Duvivier’s films were stark and unsentimental in their examination of amoral or misguided lives falling apart. Dassin takes a rather surprisingly gleeful pleasure in it; like Henri-Georges Clouzot, who was in the midst of his artistic peak around this time, he isn’t exactly cold-blooded in his treatment of his hopeless characters, but he does receive an unmistakable joy from the deliciousness of a narrative that functions in the end as a perfectly formed trap for its occupants. Beginning at the halfway point, there is something uncomfortably fun about watching all of this go awry. The first half of the film shows Tony only reluctantly agreeing to interrupt his gambling activities to participate in the big heist; he’s already physically and emotionally in the dregs, unforgivable, and the robbery is essentially an act of final, writhing desperation. Once the crime is underway, however, and as soon as we let ourselves forget the poor elderly upstairs neighbors knocked out and tied up in chairs, it’s thrilling to watch the pattern of grand theft and grander comeuppance pay off. There are scattered hints of a certain smug pleasure in play during the slowly paced first act — the unexpectedly stylish song sequence, for example, which feels like something out of The Pink Panther in all its phony jet-set decadence — but the latter half of the picture harnesses unpleasant characters and dread-ridden situations for a purely thrilling exercise in capital-c Cinema.
The most famous card up Rififi‘s sleeve, and really one of the centerpieces of film noir (ceaselessly imitated forever after, including by Dassin himself), is its thirty-minute burglary scene, played fully without dialogue and with few sound effects, as intricate and painstakingly detailed as A Man Escaped and as nail-bitingly intense as the drive across the mud pits in The Wages of Fear; there’s even a somewhat tragic hint of the male camarederie that surrounds the wild scheme in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. All this for a bag of jewels that must be filtered through a fence, divided up and scattered — it’s no accident that the act of retrieval is more exciting than the actual goal, certainly for us and maybe even for these career criminals. Over the course of an entire intense night, the jewelry shop must be invaded from above, the safe must be cracked meticulously, which takes hours, and everyone has to make their escape under cover of dawn. Every moment seems poised to make your breath catch or your heart sink.
Whenever a film is structurally dependent on a showstopping sequence like this — take The Red Shoes to name one — there is the risk that everything afterward, everything required to actually resolve the story, is going to be hung over and sickly in comparison and will make its denouement a chore. But Rififi remains energized up to its conclusion; the heist is a success, and it’s only some time later after a bit of loose-lipped philandering by one of the involved parties that everything begins to unravel, but it does so spectacularly, giving us even lower rungs of bestial dirt to sift through. It eventually falls upon Tony to deliver us back out of the fantasy in which all this could somehow end in something harmonious, literally dying during a chaotic drive through Paris with a jolly shouting child (whose demonic presence calls forward to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook) that ends in an anticlimactic one-car collision. All of which hits very differently from the Hollywood fantasy in which no crime goes unpunished — the tone here is not of moral righteousness but of philosophical silence at the pointlessness of it all, as in Renoir’s La Chienne: it all just adds up to nothing. The money will offer no deliverance, will go nowhere, and life will continue in its endless, useless circle.
But Dassin does let a sliver of judgment show when he briefly gives the floor to Jo’s wife, who provides this incendiary monologue: “There’s something I always wanted to tell you. There are kids, millions of kids, who’ve grown up poor like you. How did it happen? What difference was there between them and you, that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think, Jo? They’re the tough guys, not you.” For all its detail and danger and intrigue, Rififi dismisses the illusory toughness of its characters — the gritty real world its characters inhabit is more of a fantasy than the private one in which the little boy lives during that final car ride, gazing at the sky and the trees and his toy plane. He’s more alive than any of them.