The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

RECOMMENDED

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.]

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019, Céline Sciamma)

!!! 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.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Ingmar Bergman)

!!! 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]

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, George Clooney)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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.

The Hours and Times (1991, Christopher Münch)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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.

Capsule digest #9

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.

***

Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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.

Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When the controllers of the living-room monoculture graduated from radio to television, there was inevitably a moment when the power of transmission of commerce and sponsorship into every family’s private home became absolutely clear in its incalculability, when the forces that dictated the forms that popular culture would take in the decades to come got their most inarguable taste of what sheer lightning they now wielded. Arguably, that moment corresponded with the quiz show scandals of the middle 1950s, a fascinating episode that tells us a great deal about America’s character as a nation and how that character was permanently altered by TV. It also tells us how quickly the networks and their sponsors learned how far they could push the American public, and how they could tweak those limits. The events themselves were simple enough: at the height of the primetime game show craze that took hold near the end of network television’s first decade, several programs — most notably NBC’s Twenty-One, though the first domino to fall was actually the short-lived, Colgate-sponsored Dotto — were found to have been feeding contestants answers in an effort to control the personalities that kept appearing before the cameras week after week, thus affecting ratings and advertisers, but as an ancillary result managing to alter the unspoken conventional wisdom over whose visage actually belonged on the glowing screens of the United States, and what impressions and thoughts those personalities were capable of or interested in implanting into us.

Charles Van Doren was an unlikely yet somehow impeccable superstar of the moment; as a long-running Twenty-One contestant whose clean-cut demeanor and seemingly boundless knowledge made him a pop culture phenomenon (on the cover of TV Guide and Time in 1957, accompanied on the latter by a caption that says much: “brains vs. dollars on TV”), he was beloved by his network for his mass appeal as a comforting and competent presence — he brought eyes to sets, relaxed sex appeal and the tension of the ticking clock and all. But in the exact same America in which Dwight Eisenhower had won two elections over grousing about his opponent Adlai Stevenson’s eggheadedness, Van Doren’s popularity had the unexpected effect also of adding an intellectual appeal to the burgeoning medium; he was the privileged offspring of Mark and Dorothy Van Doren, upper-crust academic writers and editors both. It’s relatively low on his list of achievements, but Mark Van Doren was film critic for The Nation in the 1930s, where he said of Modern Times: “The film as a whole means no more than Charlie Chaplin means.” So it goes: Mark’s son Charles meant whatever America needed him to mean, and in 1994’s Quiz Show he means what director Robert Redford needs him to mean, largely regardless of his own consent or, as far as Van Doren seems to want us to realize, willpower. He became another contestant on Twenty-One, the most charismatic, amiable and reassuring of all (think of an anti-Arthur Chu), enough so that hordes of the public became invested in his becoming rich, a life of hard work and intelligence paying off at last. He was also, like his predecessor the eventual whistleblower Herb Stempel (John Turturro, in a somewhat off-the-handle performance that’s nevertheless deeply compelling), a contestant to whom the answers were given. The justification by his benefactors and by his own conscience was that he would have known or been able to learn the answers himself, so high-level were his faculties, so in his case it wasn’t even really a “lie.” Was it? And how could he say no?

Redford’s lengthy exploration of this rich narrative, forging a bond between the audience and the characters that’s formed into what may or may not be even higher drama than the game shows that inspired it, is a long movie but one that’s worth every second — it doesn’t entirely escape the superficial period-piece indulgences common to Hollywood reenactments of things that, at time of production, were still in something like conscious cultural memory, but there’s very little of that unfortunate winking to distract us from what is actually an incredibly nuanced portrait less of a long-ago zeitgeist than of a handful of people whose lives were forever altered by that moment. The cracking screenplay by Paul Attanasio demonizes no one, but also leaves little doubt of its adherence to a coherent point of view: that is to say, the key players and Van Doren in particular all performed according to their instincts, but those instincts were often revealing darker forces that had formed both who these figures were, what kind of world they were occupying and where that world was heading. There’s sympathy and wit, and a masterfully ambiguous fate for each of three major figures, but there is also a sense of sickening inevitability. The investigation becomes a tragedy of sorts; it can uncover something that should very well be obvious to all, but somehow it seems impossible to stop the forces it underlines: the permeation of commercially motivated popular culture into every aspect of day to day life, and the reigning over all else of privilege, the most benign elements of which are made less benign by how plainly they benefit from the more blatant, less apologetic forces of greed.

Quiz Show has a real-world urgency that calls to mind the Redford-produced and -starring All the President’s Men, part of a subgenre of procedural based-on-fact narratives that at their best (The Insider, Shattered Glass, Zodiac and Spotlight to name a few) are as exciting and breathless as great thrillers. Such films ride overwhelmingly on detail rather than emotion, even though the best of them overcome this limitation through the great work of actors or through a deep recognition of human truth underneath all the gripping process-nerd, investigative action. In this case Redford locates the human core of the film both in the righteousness of plucky Harvard Law grad Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, a good anchor despite controversial accent) who’s working for a congressional subcommittee to investigate the quiz shows, and in the film’s overall sense of alignment with a country’s collective fascination with early television and disappointment when the oft-illusory nature of its vicarious thrills is uncovered, at least for a while. Erring toward subtlety even at its big dramatic crescendoes, the film locates verisimilitude everywhere, in minor characters like Goodwin’s wife Sandra played by Mira Sorvino, whose believable coolness adds considerable vitality to the film’s scattered domestic scenes, or in the depictions of NBC as a slick capitalist machine to churn out undemanding product in one direction, eyeballs and money in another. The scandal is simply so readymade for this kind of intricate, point by point storytelling it feels as though Redford scarcely has to create much in the way of additional drama.

What he does create is the space for several actors to run with their characterizations and create remarkable, larger-than-life impressions carved from telecined memories. Every role in the picture is beautifully cast down to the smallest (even Martin Scorsese shows up barking orders over telephones as a rep for Twenty-One sponsor Geritol), but the heart of it is Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren. Fiennes’ youth and eagerness here are striking when compared to most of his other signature rules, including a year earlier in Schindler’s List; but his evocation of Van Doren, the budding educator and golden child, the well-bred academic and the NBC pop star, is incredibly perceptive and full-bodied in its projection of both discomfort and unchecked, nearly unconscious self-regard. It would be simple enough to depict Van Doren as a sort of naive and railroaded alien, too pure for the machinations overtaking his life, too pure even to realize the depth of his own wrongdoing; equally the film could flaunt the lie at the core of so much “white collar” crime — what I do is not wrong because I am the one doing it and I do not act badly — and shame him into submission. Fiennes takes neither route; we’re privy in every second to his self-torture over the basic dishonesty of his new life, but also to why it’s so extraordinarily beneficial to him and why it feeds into his extant ego. The core of his personage is laid out nicely in his onscreen relationship to his father (Paul Scofield, stoic but sensitive) and the way its easy intellectual repartee, and the yearning of one to impress the other, is disrupted from the beginning by NBC glamour. But simultaneously, the story of the film is in the elder Van Doren’s expectations for his son, and the elbow room the entire family is provided by an illusory, society-wide sense of what it means to be “important.” In this sense we see that Charles Van Doren, and network game shows, only reinforce and finally extend the power of an established order spanning generations. On a person to person level, it’s not even malicious; what’s being blindly upholded comes to feel like just the natural order, but when a transgression like this occurs, and it’s plainly visible who is being cast aside in favor of it — Stempel for sure in this case, whose undoing comes as a result of being requested to miss an embarrassing question about Marty, but even the investigator and semi-protagonist Goodwin whose moral compass requires no external validation to measure itself, and who would never be at the receiving end of the adulation Van Doren briefly finds — that’s when we get a picture of something that’s much longer lived than a television trend.

This is how Quiz Show ultimately manages to provide one of the most salient and economical portraits of privilege in cinema. (It’s a lovely accident of fate that Marty, about working class New Yorkers, becomes such a thematic linchpin.) It flows downward from the top and ends where it wishes: NBC chairman Robert Kintner (Allan Rich, who again is ingeniously cast) having a friendly chat about their last shared golf game to the congressman (Oren Harris) chairing the committee that’s about to interrogate him — golf, incidentally, as the ultimate symbol of tone-deaf prestige, something I really don’t believe most movies of this commercial caliber would point out — but more than anything in the way that Van Doren is brought down to earth in ways he can’t even fathom. Selling himself as the eternal gifted child who was led astray and giving a self-congratulatory statement about his valiant struggle to tell the truth, he receives the expected commendations from several members of the panel, only to then be castigated by Steven Derounian, who pointedly announces that he’s from “a different part of New York” than Van Doren. His monologue is from the historical record: “Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don’t think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth.” The chamber then erupts in applause, an injection of anti-classism into the moment. It’s bittersweet for Goodwin: unlike his wife, who (in a speech that makes one particularly sad that Sorvino’s career stalled after the mid-’90s) gathers that Van Doren is more of a phony, seduced by high regard, than he lets on even to intimates, he has no interest in destroying a person, even as he recognizes that obliviously meaning well is not enough to redeem such a man. He understands the catharsis this moment allows for deceived Americans, but also realizes that the NBC executives in the room, like the opportunistic double-teaming parrots Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (David Paymer and Hank Azaria), will hear this outburst of populist anger and the cogs will start turning: how can this impulse be turned into our favor? We would gradually find out, and we certainly know now. “Television is gonna get us,” he says. It’s on the nose and it’s also indisputable.

***

[Includes some scattered leftover work from a 2005 review of the film.]

JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

JFK could very well be the most risible film ever nominated for an Academy Award; it may not be the worst film ever made, as there are too many possible avenues of ineptitude and evil corroding the marketplace that could potentially result in tangibly visible motion pictures, but fortunately most of us will never have to see them or even know about them or their creators. It’s essentially impossible to care about movies and not know who Oliver Stone is or what JFK is about; if you were alive when it was new, you’ll recall it was the subject of breathless news stories, innumerable parodies and even awards season hype. A box office hit and a video store phenomenon (on two tapes!). And if you weren’t, then the disgusting residue from it still permeates your media intake whether you know it or not; start with the defining ’90s artifact The X-Files, which seems to have been lifted wholesale from a stoned surfer’s weekend renting this, All the President’s Men and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But also, enterprising filmmaker Stone, who’s just like your scary Vietnam vet uncle who hoards canned goods in a converted school bus buried in his backyard except it’s somehow for “leftist” reasons, really harnessed the culture more than he defined it — he latched onto a long-lived countercultural phenomenon, non-exclusively but conspicuously popular among parties with very lax critical thinking skills, of inventing ever more intricate narratives around the murder of President Kennedy. Forever after, conspiracy talk would inevitably be tied to memories of this film, a rather ingenious cultural association that’s paid off handsomely; it’s scarcely relevant to its commercial, critical and cultural acumen that artistically and narratively, Stone’s film is a failure on absolutely every conceivable front.

None of this is brought up here to make an ideological point. While I share Stone’s feelings about the Vietnam War and war in general, I’m skeptical of the presentation of John F. Kennedy as peacenik killed for his radical views, which is hardly the only reason that I feel many of the alleged conspiracies surrounding the assassination are much ado about nothing. I feel persuaded that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crackpot; but if he was one of multiple crackpots or an entire hemisphere of crackpots, it really doesn’t deeply interest me personally in light of the much more egregious crimes of current relevance we might spend our time poring over. I wasted a respectable amount of time reading about Kennedy’s death in my youth, have since been required to waste considerably more on the same topic for my job although at least then I got paid for it, and I don’t especially want to wander through enough of that muck again to make a coherent argument about my views here, so you can consider them irrelevant to what follows. I just want it stated emphatically that I am not strictly opposed to this film because of a lack of alignment with its conclusions about the assassination. It goes a lot deeper than that, and using that as the basis for a castigation on this level would require me to be a lot more passionate on this subject than I am, by far.

Paranoia is a great subject for a character study; Stone’s intent here is undoubtedly to revise the black-hearted, singleminded obsessiveness so richly laid out in 1970s New Hollywood films like those of Alan J. Pakula, not to mention Francis Coppola’s The Conversation. A well-directed and compelling version of the story of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the district attorney who was the only lawyer ever to bring anyone to criminal trial for the Kennedy assassination, seems well within the grasp of Hollywood cinema; a great piece of conspiracy propaganda, if you’re not generous. No medium is superior to film at the compelling dispensation of bullshit presented as palpable reality, from Flaherty to Griffith to Riefenstahl; and if you don’t accept the premise that it’s bullshit, fine, imagine the Eisenstein or Pudovkin investigation of Kennedy’s death. The point is that there is undeniably a compelling story to be told here, irrespective of the viewer’s relationship to it.

But somewhere along the way, Stone appears to have carried the reasonable enough expectation of “dramatic license” to an absurd conclusion; available literature suggests that rather than interpret the contradictory evidence that’s said to surround JFK in such a manner to suggest a specific and carefully reasoned point of view, he like some disgruntled Alice in Wonderland accepts and articulates seemingly every possible theory that has ever been associated with the conspiracy legend and presents them all, simultaneously, as the forbidden Truth. The bulging mass of semi-information, a ratking of half-truths and unformed ideas, is simply thrown at the wall in a manner that inundates rather than even explicating anything on its own terms; it’s never obvious what anyone’s talking about in the pages and pages of fast-‘n’-furious dialogue, and that seems to be the intention. You’re sunken into the paranoid mire, and I’m reminded of a defense I once heard from someone who was trying to get me to watch a very lengthy 9/11 Truther video back in the heyday of that stuff: “there’s so much in there, how can you not think that some of it is true?” This sort of credulity is, for whatever reason, what Stone sought; he cannot even provide the most basically believable dramatic interpretation of real life without flying off a bridge of wide-eyed madness. And it’s impossible to make the argument that this confusion is the artistic function he sought here; his admitted goal was to open minds to the cause of reinvestigation, parroting Garrison’s Fiat justitia ruat caelum statements in the film. Would that not be an easier task with a more cohesive narrative?

The conclusion has to be that the obfuscation in the film was by design. It would take a book or two to follow the many trails here that lead nowhere, most of them so mundane that it wouldn’t be a terribly rewarding task. But such is the fragility of the film’s house of cards that a blind sweep in any given direction will generally encounter a spurious “factoid” or several, all of which are presented with great dramatic weight as though they are shocking revelations, designed like a Fox News telecast to burrow under the skin of the audience and nag at them. Take, for example, the moment when Garrison and an associate linger outside the building containing Guy Banister’s office (Banister was a wackjob racist working as a p.i. who conspiracists often link to the assassination) and solemnly muse that two of its entrances, facing different streets, reach the same destination, a complete fabrication and actually the opposite of reality, but treated here with the heart-stopping import of a breakthrough. Why? Or better yet, the controversial matter of the “Clay Bertrand” alias, attributed by Garrison to the defendant at his trial, well-to-do New Orleanian Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Stone runs with an assertion made at some point by a random cop that Shaw admitted to the alias when questioned, a weak link that was never otherwise corroborated, but the way that he stages this moment is screamingly funny, with Shaw quite nonchalantly delivering the smoking gun as soon as he’s asked if he has any other names, at which point it’s dutifully typed onto the arrest report. In reality, said report was apparently filled out prior to the arrest, which seems to have resulted in it being declared inadmissable as evidence by the judge in the trial, which creates a big moment of righteous indignation in the film.

Another example: one of the most compelling moments in the film explores the infamous “single bullet theory” of Kennedy’s killing. The Warren Commission declared that Oswald shot three shots in about nine seconds — not six as the film repeatedly attests — one of which missed, one of which was the fatal shot that hit him in the back of the head, leaving a middle shot which wounded both Kennedy and John Connally. In the conspiratorial conception of this theory, delivered well by Costner in one of the few moments when Stone seems to trust his material enough to let the film breathe, it seems quite ridiculous; as Garrison says, the bullet is required to make all sorts of bizarre manuevers in order to inflict all of the necessary injuries on both men. Except that this dismissive notion of the “magic bullet” requires one to ignore the radically different heights of the seats occupied by Kennedy and Connally, and their uneven positioning in the limousine; modern computer modeling backs up the Commission’s argument that one bullet could easily be responsible for all of that damage. But how inconvenient in the face of an opportunity to let Costner lecture us on the nefarious forces at play in Dallas, that some piece of random dumb luck could destroy so much in a heartbeat. Once you’re aware of this, the scene becomes almost unbearably smug, with the same energy as a man battering you with a photo of the moon landing demanding to know why the flag is “moving.”

Perhaps most irksome of all is one of the shocking bombshells unveiled by a “man on the inside” Stone gleefully names “X,” apparently based on ex-JFK White House official Fletcher Prouty (who, being a very above-board non-scumbag, later did some PR for the Church of Scientology). The entire ideology of the film is formed around the notion that John F. Kennedy, in National Security Action Memorandum 263 (NSAM-263), announced intent to withdraw troops from Vietnam, thus curtailing the war to come; but when he was killed, Lyndon Johnson approved NSAM-273 which walked back this removal. This is so disingenuous in every respect it beggars belief; the withdrawal as originally conceived was dependent on the absence of events like a coup d’etat that occurred twenty days before Kennedy’s assassination, yet nevertheless, the memo signed by Johnson continued to promote the same long-term withdrawal. The narrative as Stone presents lacks even a casual relationship with the truth and requires a nonsensically simplistic notion of who both presidents were, and of how the U.S. military operates. All this begs the question of how much of this stuff Stone himself believes, and how much of it is his own opportunistic pandering to an understandably on-edge populace. His defense would undoubtedly be “dramatic license,” to make his story more cinematic, but if the facts as they exist are so compelling why must one not just boost them a bit but invent them wholecloth? If his intention is merely to present a fairy story of a lonely lawyer fighting back against the system, why is it necessary to adopt the iconography of a shared lived experience like the assassination of a president? The only conclusion one can make is that a movie about a fictitious assassination that nonetheless explored well-justified concerns over the draconian and murderous United States government wouldn’t have sold so many tickets and rentals, and wouldn’t have so thoroughly invaded the cable news cycle, at a time when such free publicity was manna from heaven.

Somehow, even this fails to really address the actual frustrations of JFK as a film. There’s some theory of reality in which you watch the movie and Stone tells you all of this stuff with style, verve and urgency and it blows your mind; and then you go home and look it up and get steamed because the bulk of it is make-believe. At least in that scenario, the structure of these revelations and the drama surrounding them is compelling. But Stone is such a dreadful filmmaker, and so infatuated with his prowess as a theoretically important artist, that he can’t even let us have this. This can’t even be a well-made, fun dumb movie; it has to be a sledgehammer-force, corny, self-important, juvenile and dramatically rote dumb movie, all gawking slow-motion gay orgies (Garrison was very preoccupied in his lifetime with “the homosexual underworld”) and celebrity cameos trotted out like it’s Judgment at Nuremberg all over again. The picture opens with Martin Sheen narrating the history of the U.S. during the Kennedy administration with the affect of an announcer who thinks it’s heart-stoppingly important that he sell you the right brand of mashed potatoes; soon enough John Williams’ bombastic, sentimental score kicks in, reminding us of why that now-univeraslly beloved figure was so difficult to tolerate when his work was still ubiquitous outside the whiz-bang genre. The movie has already declared itself a monument to ego-stroking chutzpah before it even really starts.

Stone’s dramatic shortcomings were culturally familiar well ahead of this; Platoon took home the Best Picture Oscar for 1986, and the Ron Kovic biopic Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise, furthered that film’s uncomfortable mixture of unironic male bonding, mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality and the bold-colors, nuance-free exploration of war and politics. But the real roadmap for his sensibility is Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which Stone won his first Oscar for writing nearly a decade before Platoon. It’s all there: the gay panic, the slick ugliness, the unwavering, jugular-hit dramatics, the freewheeling spin of actual events into a wild and wooly tale for the masses, all packaged in a manner as loud and as friendly to the needs of macho posturing as possible. His films, including that one, are auteurist through and through; to see them is to view the entire world through Oliver Stone-colored lenses. (How else would whiny one-dimensional Republicans populate more frames than not; how else would someone find a way to complain in vaguest possible terms about “hippies running around on drugs” in a scene that takes place in 1966?)

As in all of Stone’s films, everything is on the nose, which is why Jim Morrison was such an ideal subject for him; even the lighting seems to be trying to doubly convince us of something we’ve already gleaned. All the dialogue has grandiosity such that when Costner begins reading closing statements at the trial it doesn’t seem like he’s behaving any differently. Bereft of any real sense of threat, the film travels down into realms of pure cheese: Costner researching and flashing back and indulging in the flailing frustration of Jane Fonda in Julia; Jack Lemmon beaten up in slow motion, Joe Pesci’s eyebrows, John Candy entertaining interrogators with jive talk. The relationship of all this to real life doesn’t matter much when Stone only sees it as a way to sand it all down into cute caricature.

The larger problem is that even the ostensible point of the film is diluted by the incompetence with which it usually doles it out. The integration of documentary and staged footage is the least of the concerns; Stone isn’t great at pulling it off without really straining credulity, but few directors are. Other techniques are more bothersome: on two occasions, monologues by different characters — Walter Matthau on a plane, Donald Sutherland in a park — go on for so long that Stone breaks them up with stock footage, the music video affect of which only worsens the problem of basically being forced to listen to someone drone on at length (something like half an hour in Sutherland’s case; that might be an unfair exaggeration but I learned from the best) in interruption rather than complement to whatever story we’re meant to be following. Constant use of endless expository dialogue and flashbacks to explain all of this seems like an uncinematic methodology (imagine if All the President’s Men had constantly broken into Nixon B-roll) and, in addition to just sowing additional confusion, feels lazy; so much of the film is finally comprised of actors talking, talking and talking some more over footage: sometimes documentary footage, sometimes goofy impressionistic montages. Worse yet it nearly always seems to be talking past us rather than to us, an incomprehensible and unstructured flood of meaningless information whose only purpose is to have the final effect of feeling like, well, a lot. So much, again, that there just must be something there. That’s the essence of Stone’s strategy, and it seems not only wrongheaded but unwarranted.

All of which is made worse by the absolutely terrible portions of JFK in which Stone attempts to fashion it into a domestic drama, presumably as an extra narrative hook (again, a ridiculous error in judgment that Pakula never made, though he also had the advantage of directing a movie about something that actually happened). In over 200 minutes, Stone never establishes Garrison as much of a character except insofar as he says “oh, no!” when Kennedy is shot, announces that he’s ashamed to be an American that same day (you just wait, pal) and likes to demand that people tell him if they remember their “Hemingway” and “Shakespeare,” which makes these scenes particularly hard to take — they are so vague, so familiar and so heinously half-formed that they come across as a sub-Saturday Night Live sketch about an inattentive father. Sissy Spacek, who is too good an actress for this maltreatment but you wouldn’t know it from what she does here, gets to play the pathetically undercomposed nagging wife role, reminding him it’s 4:30 in the morning and that he’s too busy making speeches to watch his kids grow up. “I think you care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she announces, proclaiming that she wants her life back only to be confronted with a torrent of such kooky declarations to satisyingly dance around the problem as “You just don’t get it, do you!?” and “The government wants you to be scared!”. If it’s too late for Costner’s Garrison to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and kids, who cry when Mommy and Daddy fight, then at least he has the compensation that his “eyes have opened”; what’s more important, attending a dinner with your family or interviewing Pesci’s eyebrows? In the end, of course, Mrs. Garrison will appear dutifully in the courtroom just at the climactic showing of the Zapruder film, still his last and best supporter, and the picture will end on their walk into the future. They are America, or something.

It all rings ceaselessly false, like so much of Stone’s work, and builds up its self-regard on the underhanded illusion of naivete; what good does it do for Stone to parrot a line like “I can’t believe they killed him because he wanted to change things!”, to act therefore as though the pie-in-the-sky belief in an apparently miraculously competent government conspiracy is the obvious and unquestionable position of anyone who wants a better world. (In fairness to Stone, the fact that conspiracy-debunking falls so much to conservative and libertarian crackpots scarcely helps matters.) And it seems surprising that someone who flaunts his skepticism of institutions as much as Stone does would encourage so sycophantic a statement as the attribution of Kennedy as “your dying king.” In trying to get a handle on all this you’re left with the feeling of having to clean up a terrible mess; unlike Garrison, I don’t think it’s worth much more effort. The film is ideologically incoherent, silly and self-regarding, and it succeeded in every fantasy Stone had about it: generating just the right level of controversy at the time to render it inescapable as an artifact and to reframe the narrative around Kennedy’s assassination. It’s not just David Crosby-like doofuses who believe this stuff anymore; now there are plenty of people who took it on good faith that Stone was a decent enough soldier. He did, after all, dedicate the film to the youth of the planet, suggesting that they alone would be the harbingers of truth. What a nice sentiment, like the one at the end of Platoon. But the enterprise is really just cynicism; that’s Stone’s entire covert brand, and what’s worse is how many people understand this and still find reasons to praise him as a great schlock merchant, a charlatan with a conscience, whatever. JFK is the quintessential Oliver Stone propaganda piece designed for the further thriving and development of Oliver Stone’s career. It’s also the ultimate fruition of Hollywood’s — and auteurism’s — very worst promises.

The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols) : mark II

!!! A+ FILM !!!

[Note: please see here for our previous writeup of the film, which covers more of “the basics” about it than this does.]

There was a time when I watched The Graduate nearly every year; not only did I adore it quite fervently, naming it for a good while as my all-time favorite film, but there was also something that felt tantalizingly unresolved about it to me. It seemed that each time I saw it I came away with a different interpretation of what it was actually telling me, questioning on each occasion my previous impressions. Now, seeing it for the first time in nearly a decade and therefore the first time in my thirties, it continues to unfold with fresh secrets, unexpected meanings and chords that strike altogether differently than they once did. Although it no longer occupies the shrine I once afforded it in my heart, it still may be the classic movie that fascinates me the most, the one whose implications I still don’t believe I’ve fully appreciated even after roughly ten encounters, and a lifetime’s worth of mulling it over. That’s why it now becomes the first film to receive a second essay in this space; I don’t know whether others will — it’s certainly possible — but I can guarantee this still won’t be the last time I try to wrap my head around the whole of The Graduate.

What has never really wavered — with the passage of time, the aging of the film’s initial audience (most of its key creative operators are now deceased, while all were still working in 2000 when I first saw it), and the generations of interpretation, appreciation and reinterpretation greeting The Graduate — is that its basic structure is that of a young adult rite of passage; and not necessarily, as some uncharitable readings would have it, a male rite of passage. That is to say: fighting as hard as you can to end up in a situation you never especially wanted. The hippie movement that was once associated with the movie, despite actual radicals’ and leftists’ misgivings about its apolitical tone, has receded into a relatively quiet subculture; the squares of 1967 are now the corpses of 2020, the rebels (at least those who sprang up as a result of the cultural ubiquity of a certain revolutionary mindset, rather than those who came about rebellion by way of naturally evolving belief) have become the squares and then some. Babies born in that year are now older than Murray Hamilton, who plays Mr. Robinson, the epitome of out-of-touch masculinity, was then.

It’s fair enough to argue that Mike Nichols and Buck Henry must have seemed tonedeaf at the time by ignoring the student demonstrations at Berkeley and the protests across the country that were reaching a boiling point, by only acknowledging the flowering of a growing morality in the youth of those heady days through a throwaway joke about “outside agitators” (a line that unexpectedly became funny and incisive again in 2020), through the disapproving sneers and glares directed at Benjamin and Elaine at the climax, and through Mr. Robinson’s weighty line of inquiry “Is there something I’ve said that’s caused this contempt, or just the things I stand for that you despise?” But in point of fact, what Robinson “stands for” is what has ailed Ben from the first moments of the film, a sullen youth aboard an airplane, and what the film thus spends its time investigating, and what it concludes he hasn’t the werewithal, discipline or self-reflection to really understand or, certainly, to destroy. (It was a very different case for the author of the novel The Graduate is based on, Charles Webb, but more on that in a moment.)

Beyond its sheer fleet ingenuity in scriptwriting, acting and directing terms, the ticket to the film’s continued relevance is America itself, and by extension capitalism: more and more a system designed to beat down individuality while also shunning the collective love and compassion that might once have saved us. Benjamin, like many, knows he wants his life to be different, but knows no imaginative way to achieve this: his great radical act is nothing more than the disruption of two marriages and the implied forging of a new one, and the ideological limits of this solution to his travails are apparent from the moment we leave him behind. But what else is he supposed to fight for? What love can he know beyond that which is handed over to him, predetermined? Conversely, Ben’s “time” (meaning the late ’60s) is basically meaningless to his story; the outer world beyond his tortured introspection and his brightened moments of respite from same, at least the parts of it which are visible to us, are no more or less banal than what any of us might face outside our own narratives any day of our lives: a college bonehead feeding cereal to his dog, for instance; the mocking “do not tease” sign that greets him in a private moment of misery outside the monkey house at the zoo.

There is also the specter of Benjamin’s life before his return home, subsumed in culture shock like somebody coming back from the war, and his dalliance with Mrs. Robinson — what were those “college experiences” he had no interest in discussing with her? It seems most likely they were no more inspiring than her time as an art student, or Elaine’s at Berkeley; it just ended with a note of more auspicious and conventional success. Much as the creeping familiarity and destructive inanity of the stories that sprang up from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court coronation two years ago just pointed up how little boring people have changed in the specific and malicious manner of their boredom across generations, the tortuous flatness of the world around Benjamin does not feel particularly divergent from anything we ourselves know today; he is too sheltered to have to struggle for livelihood, but he is also too protected and too assured of his position in a well-oiled machine to experience anything like a real emotional cycle or, frankly, a human connection of any serious depth. When we meet him he lives for others, zombielike, with half-hearted, ingrained eagerness to please (even upholding a phony sexual prowess with a performative wink when an older woman sets him up for a boast about being past “the teenybopper stage”), surrounded by predatory actions and people; the only people he knows, it seems, are his parents’ friends, up to and including the one he has an affair with mostly, it seems in the beginning, to be polite.

You can track the ever-present banality of the passing years within the characterizations of Ben’s parents (Elizabeth Wilson and William Daniels); not only are these caricatures familiar, they are essentially identical to what a comedic depiction of the affluent suburban couple and lifestyle would be to this day. He is a lifestyle symbol to them; any moment in which he asks them to listen is met with impatience and derision. It’s undoubtedly the Braddocks that have given Ben the constant sense that he is being watched, even on the rare occasion when he isn’t; twice he demands to know what other, absent people would say if they saw what he was doing “right now.” Little wonder he constantly finds himself literally unsure of where to stand or where to go. Little wonder that he warms to the idea of being seduced then immerses himself in it, shutting out everything else. It becomes his only escape from the prison of preordained convention into which he was born.

Little wonder also that he leaps, equally headfirst, into his first encounter (since college, at least) with someone his own age; they don’t necessarily have much in common besides their youth and the social status of the families they come from — the Robinsons’ is a broken marriage, but it presents an outward portrait of normalcy — but after the inept, cruel date he tries to take Elaine on, he discovers or rediscovers the supernatural wonder of bullshitting with someone while eating french fries in the car (which nonetheless underlines the lack of a place for him in the purgatory between the straight world and the counterculture, as he spars with some local groovies over their loud music). Elaine’s “the first person” he can “stand to be with,” he says, later ominously adding the only direct statement of his mindset he ever offers: “My whole life is just a waste; there’s just nothing.” At first blush it feels like Katharine Ross, who really does look like she could be Anne Bancroft’s daughter, isn’t given much to do as Elaine — while Nichols and Henry are careful to show empathy toward her in the various kinds of pain and inconvenience she’s dealt in the course of the narrative, she also has to justify the central joke that Benjamin falls in love, or thinks he falls in love, with the absolute first person he runs across back home, and the exact person both his parents and Elaine’s dad were insisting that he take out, and this is his act of defiance!

But Elaine is just as confused as Ben is, and Ben is less of a monster than is sometimes reported; there is some intentional menace, and more than a slight touch of the pathetic, in the way he wanders around following Elaine after she discovers the truth about his affair with her mother, but it’s also just an oversized illustration of the way unrequited love sometimes makes a simpering fool out of everybody, and moreover, Elaine herself is clearly conflicted about Benjamin: quite attracted to and interested in him but finding it impossible — for familial reasons — to pursue anything but the most permanent union with him, and understandably uncertain about committing to that. Meanwhile the extremely naive Ben is all-in immediately because the idea of marrying Elaine feels like a clarification and a resolution for the great fear he’s been expressing throughout the film, about “the future” — a vague expression of inarticulate dread he keeps returning to because he has no better words for what’s upsetting him, then a motif he keeps returning to in order to explain away (to himself or to others) why that fear and dread won’t go away. It goes away when he talks to Elaine because he’s comfortable around her, opens up to her and admits to his compulsion to be rude to the people who are constantly demanding him to uphold a certain image, exhausting him; it even seems to go away later when her absence gives him something to pine for, as though playing the part of a seasoned suave playboy tormenting an exasperated woman gives him an identity. It’s telling that he seems oblivious to the moral implications of basically becoming a stalker, but feels scummy and irredeemable when doing something as primal and human as having an affair.

It may be easier for Benjamin to talk to Elaine, but the person who actually understands his mindset and what troubles him is her mother, who spins his vague discontent into the actions of someone who long ago dropped all pretense, outside the confines of her suburban prison, to living for anything except unassuming pleasure. When he asks her “Are you always this much afraid of being alone?” and she bluntly replies “yes,” she is speaking for his destiny — at least on the assumption he continues to live a life “playing a game” in which “the rules don’t make any sense to me.” The later fast food conversation with Elaine is the resolution of what he asked for when he requested that Mrs. Robinson talk to him instead of just fucking him (“I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she answered); that simple yearning for a connection in fact required far less of a conversational partner than her mother seemed to assume, even if perhaps it’s because she knows where such vulnerability can lead.

This is borne out by Mrs. Robinson’s own arc of insecurity and alcoholism — she “had” to leave college and marry her husband, and her face when she says the word “art” for the second time reveals the same exhaustion Benjamin knows from years of trying to play along with his parents’ social circle and their class-conscious hectoring as much as it parallels the departure from school that the film’s climax will require of Elaine. She has a narcissistic streak as well: when he makes any sort of objection to their arrangement, she reacts nastily, at one point prodding him along with “I’m disgusting to you,” and manages to so completely short-circuit his attempts at conversation that he ends a long argument with the ultimate concession, “Let’s not talk at all.” If it’s unfair that Ben thinks of Mrs. Robinson as a brief respite from the boredom of his summer at home, it’s fair to say that she thinks equally little of him, in fact seems to view him as trash because of her own self-loathing — but it’s equally possible that, in trying to circumvent a doomed partnership in the latter part of the film, she’s just serving as a kind of conscience for the film, just trying to prevent another loveless marriage, another pair of tanked lives. Her “goodbye Benjamin” after Elaine discovers their affair is the first time she doesn’t place herself above him somehow; they’re in the same desperate club now and, at least in her conception, always will be. But you can see why Ben comes to think of her as just another of those parental satellites chipping away at him; all he seeks is the young and simple and fresh love that should be anyone’s inalienable right. But he has walked into a spider web of a kind. The fact remains that he is leaping from one illusion to another, spinning the relationship his parents wanted him to have in the first place into an act of rebellion.

If Buck Henry did not revolt against this conception of Benjamin’s, Mike Nichols certainly did, first off in his refusal to demonize Mrs. Robinson (which the novel arguably does) and then in one of the most refreshingly and fascinatingly ambiguous endings to any film. The cloud of uncertainty and terror that slowly settles on Ben and Elaine’s faces in the last scene as “The Sound of Silence” reappears on the soundtrack — the end referring back to the beginning and plainly but not childishly giving an eloquent voice to what’s happening onscreen — is masterfully executed, and it remains distinctly unsettling even long after passing into the annals of popular culture. Frankly, there is no simple way to “explain” what is happening to these two people on that bus and why, just like there is no really handy simplification for the three-way conflict between Benjamin, Elaine and Mrs. Robinson. It seems to hang in the air after the fade, completely circumventing any temptation to take a simple black and white view of anything that happens in the preceding film. I can attest to this myself, if you’ll indulge me. I first saw The Graduate in July of 2000, the night before my girlfriend — who I’d never met face to face; we’d been fellow internet message board denizens in good old Web 1.0 — came to visit me for the first time to stay for a week. Our relationship had suffered much skepticism from my parents as well as hers, and coordinating this visit had been a Sisyphean task for a couple of powerless high schoolers. I was deep into a committed “love conquers all” mentality at the time, struggling through an emotionally taxing year by thinking of this relationship as the grand Odyssean quest of my life, and interpreted virtually all art I encountered during this period as somehow being about the importance and all-consuming inevitability of True Love, forever and for always, etc.

So of course, I found it cathartic when Elaine cried out Ben’s name and went running to him in the chapel, willfully missing (because deep down, I knew) that it was an expression of confusion, not love. I especially loved it when Elaine has her moment of revelation about the world being against the two of them, when she sees her parents and husband-to-be chiding her and cursing Ben in a series of impressionistic POV shots that demonstrate for the first time that she has now experienced the way that other people look at Ben. That us-versus-them mentality carries a universal ring of truth, especially in a world like ours that so often loudly presents genuine ideological enemies as targets for our resentment, but it undeniably sounds its bell loudest of all when you’re sixteen. Of course I howled with laughter at the outrageous moment when Ben wards off the wedding party and guests with a cross, then stops the door with it — it was funny and it felt good. And when the two of them boarded the bus and began to laugh at what had just happened, I laughed with them, thinking this film the perfect expression of what it felt like to fall in love and for no outsider to understand. I knew what was coming, of course; you couldn’t grow up watching television and not know, but it was still a rude shock in proper context — when Hoffman and Ross fell into that uncomfortable silence and started to look pensive, their hearts almost visibly sinking, I was left shaken. I wanted to deny what it was saying; I wanted to censure it as yet another missive from squares who thought they knew better than me — after all, the film showed no real solidarity with “the kids” either, passing Simon & Garfunkel (who I basically liked, and love now, though they were very much my parents’ music in a way that even the Beatles weren’t) as rock & roll and castigating nameless teens for making too much noise. I also loved the suggestion of unstated complexity; I found it truly haunting, but it all made the film so much more difficult to file away as validation for the sullen introvert who just wants to lay everything down for what he thinks, in his complete absence of lived experience and confronted with curt and emotionally limited surroundings, is love. I pushed the film out of my mind for a while, not finding its complex statements immediately useful and actually rather disturbed by them, but when I did recall it a couple of years later and sought out the shooting script I found myself retroactively thrilled by the bleak ambiguity of this finale, which by then had already borne itself out for me in a romance that had grown far more complicated than I once believed it would.

But the ending is not, in reality, a sharp rejection of Ben and Elaine’s courtship; that’s just the most obvious suggestion of Nichols’ decision to stage it in this manner. For the actual creator of The Graduate‘s story, novelist Charles Webb, the point is much different. Webb died in 2020, prompting the publication of a rather engrossing New York Times obituary, laying out among other things the narrative of Webb’s marriage and lifelong relationship with artist Eve Rudd, later known as Fred. Their own union mirrored that of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson, running afoul of disapproving authority figures and born of a general disillusionment with the establishment, and specifically with education. (“What was the point of that four years of hard work?” “You got me.”) The novel shares much of its dialogue with the film in between a good deal of intentionally barren prose but paints a broader kind of morality, with more explicit class consciousness. It ends with Elaine grabbing Benjamin’s hand and the simple statement “The bus began to move.” For the characters’ real life counterparts, a life in the suburban complacency (or anguish) of their parents was not in the cards — the Webbs lived a simple, anti-materialist lifestyle and shirked traditional capitalist values, confounding observers for their entire life. They remained together, often on the edge of self-imposed poverty, for the rest of their lives. In reality, Benjamin’s yearning for something “different” came true.

Still, a very different current runs through the film; Webb apparently viewed it as Nichols and the producers surveying the love story in the same condescending manner as the adults in the film, but this seems like an example of the same sort of black and white thinking that’s often evident, for good or ill, in the book. Ben and Elaine in the film don’t come across as budding creatives or left-wing idealists; their connection could amount to something, but for now it’s tentative and superficial as almost any relationship is in the first hours of its existence. And while the film’s ending does not preclude the utopian, romantic eventuality lived out by Charles and Fred, it also doesn’t court it; many liberal viewers did correctly interpret the picture as a rejection of the bourgeois and of the postwar California aspirational class, but the specific nature of that rejection was less apparent. Webb’s finale is a question mark, a mystery, teeming with possibility; the film’s could be read the same way, or it could just as easily be a treatise against conformity, a missive from a future filled with mistakes. In either case, it is so much more than a mere ride into the sunset — it is a cry from the soul, a refusal to resolve any kind of roadmap of life for us, and an intimidating insistence that we attempt to do so ourselves. Earlier in the film, at the stage when Ben confesses to Elaine that he’s having an affair but not with whom, she asks if it’s all over now. “Yes,” he proclaims, and we can see that he means it; and that is the only note of finality The Graduate offers — everything else is the oblivion of the unknowable, in all its promise, terror and impossible absurdity.