June 29, 2005
Alexandre Aja - 2003
Chinese Region 3 DVD
It's no surprise that Alexandre Aja's next film is to be a remake of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. Even before I read interview after interview with Aja naming Craven as an influence, High Tension made me think contantly of Last House on the Left because of the brutal nature of this film. With a scene that is reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I was left with the impression that if Aja had his way, he would have been the house director for New Line back in the early 70s when low budget splatter films were their bread and butter.
I opted to see this film on DVD in order to see it unedited and in French. From what I understand in Aja's interviews, the film was partially dubbed as well as slightly cut in order to get the film as wide a release as possible. As it turned out, the audience that showed up for remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror stayed away. Unlike a film like The Blair Witch Project that creates a sense of constant dread, but doesn't show anything, High Tension lives up to its title by creating both the constant unease of the viewer and assaulting the viewer with intense gore.
The film begins with two female college students, Marie and Alex, driving to the remote farm house which is the home of Alex's parents and little brother. While on the road, Marie describes her nightmare of being chased in a forest. In the meantime, we see a stocky man in a battered van, somewhere in a field, being orally serviced by a woman. Moments later, in a long shot, we see the arm stick out of the truck, dropping the woman's head on a rural road.
Aja is undeniably talented, and still very young. He was twenty-five when he directed and co-wrote High Tension. In terms of getting his career established, for this, his second feature, he had the backing of Luc Besson. Along with Besson, Aja can be seen as part of a group of younger French directors like Louis Letterier and Florent Siri who, if not making Hollywood films per se, have their respective eyes on genre films with international appeal. As it is, I am hoping Aja can show he can make a film with true substance now that he shows he is capable of style.
Aja is also a second generation director. His father is Alexandre Arcady, who while unknown in the U.S., has had a long career as director in France. Arcady's longtime companion is filmmaker Diane Kurys. While I don't recommend High Tension except for those of strong heart and stomach, I suspect that Aja is on track to eventually join the ranks of such second generation film stylists as Gerd Oswald and Jacques Tourneur.
Posted by peter at 01:34 PM
June 28, 2005
Don't Look Now
Nicolas Roeg -1973
British Region 2 DVD
I read the announcement yesterday that plans were made to remake Don't Look Now. According to the producer, Mark Gordon, the original film was, "very much a product of its time with a lot of atmospherics that wouldn't necessarily work today . . ." What has me confused is that Gordon is essentially criticizing the very things that make this version of Don't Look Now venerated as a horror classic.
For those who have never seen the film, a couple who's daughter has drowned accidentally, go to Venice. The husband, John, is restoring the artwork of an old church. The wife, Laura, meets two older women. One of the women is blind but has apparent psychic abilities. The blind woman claims to be able to see the dead daughter. During the time that John and Laura are in Venice, there is a serial killer on the loose.
The reason why Don't Look Now has achieved classic status is not for the story but the way the story is told. Nicolas Roeg's films from his first ten years are noted for their fragmented narratives and dynamic visual compositions. While I was aware that Roeg was a cinematographer prior to being a director, I learned from further research that he actually started out in the editing department of a small studio. While most of the narrative of Don't Look Now is linear, Roeg plays with the imagery so that shots from the past and present echo each other, and the viewer is as visually disoriented as the characters. One of the main visual motifs is in the use of the color red, the color of the raincoat that the drowned daughter wears. Maybe I'm slow, but it took me over thirty years and several viewings to notice that there is a photo of the killer in the beginning of the film.
The film is also very much about atmosphere especially at the end, with Donald Sutherland lost in foggy streets, with Julie Christie unable to find him. Because of the set ups, there is more tension and surprise in the two moments of terror - the scene with Sutherland almost falling off the scaffold, high inside the church, and the climax at the end. I don't know if Roeg watched any Italian thrillers that were released at the time he was shooting in Venice, but there is similarity to scenes particularly by Dario Argento. I wouldn't be surprised if Don't Look Now has had an influence on some of the current makers of Japanese horror films, particularly Deep Water.
If the remake of Don't Look Now is actualized, I suspect that the narrative will be totally straightened out, the horror amped way up, and the eroticism totally muted. The scene of Christie and Sutherland cross cut to alternate between shots of love making with shots of getting dressed isn't as erotic for me as it was on first viewing. It is an important scene showing the re-establishment of intimacy after grief. While Christie and especially Sutherland were game for on screen nudity, I can't imagine this scene being duplicated in any way especially within confines of the almost obligatory PG13, and the general lack of interest is Hollywood to depict adults in love.
Looking back at Don't Look Now, in SFX Magazine - August 1999, Roeg has stated: "It had a situation in which people were in danger, as we all are, permanently. That's part of life. And God knows that now that I'm in my 70s its all 'you must be careful of this and careful of that', or 'don't do this or don't do that'. Well, it's not going to make much difference anyway. We're only hanging by a thread, and we're here to live. We think we can control life, but we can't control anything. We're constantly taken by surprise. And in the best science fiction or fantasy you can never really second guess it because it does away with all the expectancy of behaviour."
June 25, 2005
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
Donald Richie - 2001
Like probably everyone else in North America, I learned about Japanese movies from Donald Richie. My pared down collection of film books still includes The Japanese Film (1959, co-written with Joseph Anderson) and Japanese Cinema (1971). I also crossed paths with Richie a couple of times. I was a student volunteer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1972-73, while Richie was associated with the film department. Word got out that he vetoed the showing of Japanese War Bride when the museum presented a King Vidor retrospective. I briefly met Richie again a few years later at the Denver International Film Festival where he presented the early Kurosawa film No Regrets for Our Youth.
In approximately 250 pages with tiny type and stills smaller than postcards, Richie gives an overview of the history of Japanese film from the beginning to the near present. While some of material is familiar, what Richie has attempted is to explain this history in terms of the history of Japan, the history of the Japanese film industry, and a general overview of Japanese culture. Even though I usually don't remember any of the Japanese names for the different genres, what I appreciate about a book like this is that it piques my interest in filmmakers I might otherwise not know about.
Thanks to DVDs I am actually able to see more Japanese films than I did when I lived in New York City back in the early 70s. I am still stuck with Princess Yang Kwei Fei and An Actor's Revenge on tape. Here's hoping that New Yorker Films, the most consistent distributor of classic Japanese films in the U.S. with convert their entire library to DVD soon.
Richie answered a question I've had for a while which is "Whatever happened to Susumi Hani?" Hani was a relatively young director who started in documentaries in the late 50s and made dramatic films from 1960 to 1968. His career coincided with the French Nouvelle Vague, but more interestingly, is that Hani's films at this time were all independently financed, unlike his contemporaries such as Nagisa Oshima who were employed by the studios. I had seen several of Hani's films in the early 70s, but was totally unaware that by that time he had given up making narrative films and had returned totally to the documentary, specifically wildlife films.
While Richie has written books on Ozu and Kurosawa, he remains enthusiastic about several of the filmmakers working today. Of the older directors still active, Richie cites Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Takashi Kitano is also discussed, with several titles included in the VHS/DVD list. Richie also discusses other contemporary directors, most of whom are unknown in the U.S. and can only be seen on imported DVDs.
What is left out is of interest. Richie discusses Kyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to A.K.) but otherwise ignores the recent boom of horror movies from Japan, the most visible genre for American audiences. It would be interesting to know Richie's take on the popularity of J-Horror for a very dedicated audience, as well as the fact that several titles have been, or will be, re-made by Hollywood. More to the point is the cultural difference between Japanese and U.S. audiences. The Japanese seem comfortable with random horror, at least on screen, while U.S. audiences demand clarity and explanations.
There are a couple of interesting paragraphs concerning the collapse of Japan's studios in the 80s that seem very relevant to contemporary Hollywood:
"Subjected to what were, at the time, unprecedented levels of advertising hype, the curious flocked, money was made, and a precedent was created. The pictures, of course, were unexceptional. As Umberto Eco has observed, mass media insists upon repetition, redundancy, and iteration as well as obedience to a schema. This means that the film is fit only as product, and soon only product fits the audience.
In this cycle, since the cultural traffic is all in one direction, any cultural activity that is not mainstream will be neglected. Whole visual cultures, many venerable, will disappear, along with the personal vision of the artist and the apprehension of all that is different - since these are contrary to the expectations of mass media."
Whether Japanese film history is in any way a forecast of what will happen to Hollywood is yet to be fully seen. Even if it comes to pass, in Richie's view the technology will change, but Richie can always see film history's past in the films of the present.
Posted by peter at 04:58 PM
June 24, 2005
Land of the Dead
George Romero - 2005
35 mm movie
Today I did my part to help Hollywood out of the box office slump. If anybody deserves opening weekend success, certainly George Romero is worthy. Land of the Dead is one of the most satisfying films I've seen in a while.
Admittedly I was hooked from the opening credit with the classic Universal logo from about seventy years ago with the airplane flying around the world. The sound and image montage at the beginning sets up the story in addition to paying tribute to the original Night of the Living Dead. From there we follow a team of zombie hunters and their tank like vehicle called Dead Reckoning.
What makes this film fun to watch is Romero's evolution of his zombies. Danny Boyle made the zombies of 28 Days Later fast. Romero's zombies have become smart. They still move slowly. In the opening scenes we see the zombies are pretty much like the ones portrayed in Dawn of the Dead, acting out of habit when not chomping on unlucky live people. One of the zombies, Big Daddy, is introduced stumbling out of the gas station he operated when he was alive. He witnesses other zombies killed around him and cries out in heartfelt pain. The zombies are normally slaughtered at night, distracted by the sight of fireworks. While Romero doesn't explain things (nor should he), Big Daddy discovers his ability to communicate with and organize the zombies. Eventually the zombies learn how to use tools and weapons. For me, the best and most inventive scene showed the zombies walking through a river that had until then kept them a safe distance from the city where the humans were barricaded. The actor who played Big Daddy, Eugene Clark, has done the kind of performance that perhaps only Romero would envision: a soulful zombie.
In a scene taking place in the city, Romero playfully pays a kind of return tribute to the makes of the Shaun of the Dead. Not only are the filmmakers included, but Romero further elaborates on the domesticating of zombies as seen in Shaun. But what makes Land of the Dead a success is that Romero has created a film with a budget more substantial than before to develop the themes of his previous films with the benefits of a more polished look.
In discussing his newest film, Romero was interviewed at horrorchannel.com. "Initially it was about ignoring the problem, ignoring social ills like homelessness and AIDS and just telling people, "Don't worry about it, that's their problem" and I think this is more impactful. I don't try to put it right in your face, I just try to get it in there. Maybe it's a little too on the nose when he says, "We don't negotiate with terrorists". I have to say somebody noticed. A reporter I talked to earlier today said, "Boy that truck, when it comes down that little street in that town, you just can't help but think of Iraq". So I guess the stuff does get noticed but I try not to put it right up in there."
The above quote helps illustrate why Land of the Dead is more than a great genre film. Romero has added a poignancy that one usually doesn't expect in zombie movies. Even the living dead are appear at moments to be sympathetic. One actually is thrilled to see the working class Big Daddy take on Dennis Hopper's Kaufman, a corporate leader who believes he is protected by his money and mercenaries.
George Romero not only has brought his zombies back to life, but for me has brought back the joy in film going.
Posted by peter at 05:28 PM
June 23, 2005
Chistopher Nolan - 2005
Having Christopher Nolan as director and co-writer got me back into my neighborhood multiplex. I would have seen anything done by him. It just turned out that like Bryan Singer and Ang Lee, he's joined the league of indie directors who've made films based on comic book characters. I never bothered to see the last Batman film figuring that Joel Schumaker did enough damage after Batman Forever. But I did like Nolan's version of Insomnia, having actually fallen asleep watching the original.
Because Nolan had an obvious hand in the screenplay, his Batman shares some characteristics with his previous films as being partially about memory and the intentional and unintended effects of one's actions. Unlike Momento or his debut feature, Following, Batman Begins is more linear in its narrative. Unlike Momento, with its protagonist who can not remember and takes no responsibility for his actions, Nolan's Bruce Wayne can not forget witnessing the death of his parents, the death he feels he caused, or the fear he had encountering bats as a youth.
My main problem with Batman Begins is that it is murky. Dark knight indeed! Nolan reportedly showed Blade Runner to the cast and crew to show how he wanted the film to look. He even included Rutger Hauer in the cast. The visual pallette is often blacks and dark browns that it is sometimes difficult to tell who is doing what to whom during some of the scenes of mayhem. Nolan's Batman is so staightfaced and sober that I felt nostalgic for the playfulness of Tim Burton, especially with Batman Returns. Seeing the origins of Batman was interesting, but I'm still more likely to re-watch Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman.
Christian Bale isn't bad as much as he's not particularly memorable. Perhaps it is not entirely Bale's fault as he shares scenes with certified scene stealers like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Tom Wilkinson. Caine is such a warm and comforting presence that his Alfred has a gravitas not seen in previous incarnations.
Perhaps based on Nolan's previous work, my expectations were unrealistic. I was hoping that Nolan would provide the kind of crackle that Doug Liman has shown he can do in his transition from independent films to big budget enterprises. If you haven't seen Following yet, make a point of doing so. Batman Begins is pretty good as Batman films go, but it's Following and Momento that have the real thrills and chills.
Posted by peter at 04:06 PM
June 20, 2005
Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguoro - 1911
I saw this film listed at Nicheflix and decided to check it out. In general, I like seeing silent films with contemporary music scores. The music commissioned by Turner Classic Movies for some of their silent films is as good as anything on the big screen and certainly more interesting than the stuff John Williams grinds out for the likes of Lucas and Spielberg. In terms of rock scores for silent films, I have to admit to being somewhat more ambivalent. I'm pretty confident that Fritz Lang wasn't dreaming of the day that Bonnie Tyler would be wailing along with Metropolis. I haven't bothered with version of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera with the goth rock soundtrack. Still, if it gets more people to see a silent movie and get a tidbit of film history in their life, I say more power to you Giorgio Moroder, et al.
In my case I was baited by Tangerine Dream. The music is OK but nothing as good as the score they did for Thief. Mostly the music could be described as stately and spiritual, very similar to the kind of music Hans Zimmer does in collaboration with Lisa Gerrard as in Gladiator.
The movie itself is sort of interesting. Visually taking cues from Dore, the film is a series of full shots of Dante and Virgil exploring the circles of Hell. The film is very much pre-Griffith with only a few panning shots. Most of the the time the camera doesn't move. From what little information I could find, this was the first feature length made in Italy and took three years to produce.
In some ways Inferno illustrates that while the technology has changed, the essence of block buster filmmaking has remained the same. The special effects are pretty much at the low tech level established by Melies. There are a lot of superimpositions and combination shots using masking to make it appear that giant demons are appearing with the mortals. Angels fly in and out with the use of wires. We know all the camera tricks because some of us have used them ourselves in our own amateur or student movies, making objects appear and disappear . . . LIKE MAGIC! Sure, the special effects in Inferno look pretty hokey in the age of computer generated effects, but really it's not too different from, for example, Constantine, except it has more literary source material.
What amazed me about this film was the amount of nudity. This was in keeping with the visual inspirations of Dore, Blake and others who have illustrated Dante. I'm sure Cecil B. DeMille was envious of what the Italians could do. According to one source, Inferno made two million dollars in the U.S. This was when top admission prices were ten to fifteen cents. Some of the images of hell reminded me of the scene of hell in Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. I'm sure that Fulci was inspired by the same material as his predecessors.
Not having read Dante, I was taken aback by one bit that is very timely. One of the condemmed is Mohammed, apparently for being a disruptive influence. Dante may have written a parable about his time, but once again we see that some things haven't changed.
Posted by peter at 04:43 PM
June 19, 2005
J. Lee Thompson - 1962
Taras Bulba is a film I originally tried to see when it was released. At the time, most of my film viewing was done with the approval of my parents. I figured I had a shot as the movie was based on a book by Gogol and my father was big on Russian literature. The reviews of the film were less than enthusiastic. My parents usually went by the word of Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times. In this case he trashed the film.
The story is essentially about the son of a 16th Century Cossack who betrays his father to save the life of a Polish princess. Even worse, his father kills him for his action.
The Cossacks are mostly burly guys who love getting drunk on vodka, dancing, and tossing each other in the air. They're led by Yul Brynner who wears a mustache and queue of hair from the middle of his head. Tony Curtis, who is ten years younger than Brynner, plays the son, Andrei. Curtis, of course, is pretty much playing his usual eager to please persona. Curtis falls for Christine Kaufmann. Christine was seventeen at the time, twenty years younger than Curtis. Even though Curtis dies at the end of the film, he got Kaufmann in real life.
Aside from the age discrepancies of the lead actors, we see Curtis and his brother go to college in Kiev where all the students are at least thirty years old. Even more unbelievable are the faux Russian folk songs with lyrics by Mack David. Breaking up the action with songs is something I'll allow in westerns, usually in something by John Ford or Howard Hawks. It's a convention that pretty much ended after Rio Bravo. Within the context of a costume drama made in 1962, the musical numbers are pretty cornball and more glaringly anachronistic. Maybe producer Harold Hecht figured that Yul Brynner should get another chance at singing on the big screen since The King and I.
The music can be described as rousing. This was one of the last scores by Franz Waxman and was rightly nominated for an Academy Award. The music can by described as old fashioned, but in a good way, which is to say comparable with his contemporaries like Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza.
In terms of J. Lee Thompson's filmography, Taras Bulba pretty much marks his decline from earlier artistic and commercial promise. This was his first film after back to back hits with Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. This film was a commercial flop, reportedly earning about four million dollars with a budget of seven million. It's not that Taras Bulba is a bad film as much as it is uninvolving. The best moment comes early when Yul Brynner unexpectedly lops off Guy Rolfe's had hand with a sword. Thompson lovingly films Curtis and Kaufmann in iris shots with the lens smeared with vaseline. If ever a screen romance could literally be called gooey, this is it.
At cinema-scope.com, Jonathan Rosenbaum has an article titled Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomolies and Experiments. Rosenbaum discusses his own exploration of various films found either in foreign DVDs or in the DVD-R format. While Taras Bulba is hardly a classic, it is another example of the arbitrary policies regarding DVD releases of older films. While a U.S. VHS version is available, I saw this film as a Japanese DVD. While I understand that there may not be a great demand for certain titles, especially older films, this is for me another reason by region coding is detrimental to film scholarship. Especially as most of the older films are commercially played out, it would make sense to me to have DVD versions of older titles released code free. This would allow the greatest number of people who appreciate less popular or obscure titles to view the films rather than forcing serious film lovers to either purchase code free DVD players or go without seeing certain films. As it is, the film production companies, like much of the audience it aims for, is made of people with short memories.
This is why a recent box office failure like the remake of Flight of the Phoenix gets a second life on DVD. With the current state of older and classic films on DVD, I'll see what I can and appreciate those opportunities that exist.
June 18, 2005
Why I Stay Home
In the past few weeks articles have appeared with Hollywood executives bemoaning the decline in box office receipts and why people haven't been going to the movies. I don't understand why these people are surprised at all. I figured that if I wrote something on my own reasons for not going to movies, maybe some fairly bright exec will get a few more clues. Besides, any reason why I shouldn't weight in here with my own reasons?
First you need to know that until a couple of years ago, I went to movie theaters more frequently than most people. Denver is a better movie town than Miami Beach. There are about sixteen screens in Denver devoted to art and independent films, with three Landmark Theaters and the independent Startz Theater. There were even more screens in Denver when Madstone ran a six screen theater until a year and a half ago. In Miami Beach, there is only one theater. Of eighteen screens, sometimes two or three will have art and indie films, and when they play, it is usually for a week or two at best. The films I see in Miami Beach are usually from the big distributors, or are the films that have the best box office. In Denver, the Starz Theater could usually be counted on to show the revivals as well as films getting good reviews. When I was in Denver last Labor Day weekend, kicked out of town by hurricane warnings, I saw the Japanese version of The Grudge. That's one of many smaller foreign films that never came to the beach. But I have come to the point where I make a note of a film of interest, and keep an eye open for its DVD release because . . .
It's the economy, stupid! Bargain matinees aren't that much of a bargain at $7.50 a pop. Where I live, evening shows are $9.25 per person. There have been too many times when I see a movie and Peggy Lee starts singing in my head, "Is that all there is?". I know I am not part of the demographic that Hollywood seeks out first. I also know that not every film can be The Aviator or even Return of the King. On the other hand, the more money you shell out for a movie, the greater your demand is to get your money's worth. Renting a film means less of a financial investment. It also means I can more frequently enjoy the film on its own terms. For me this means catching up with diversions like Troy, Cellular or The Day After Tomorrow without grumbling about wasting my money. With some exceptions, I have also chosen to wait for the DVD release of foreign language and independent films because the cost of renting allows me to gamble more on films that I may or may not like.
The audience has also chased me out of the theater. A few years ago I went to see Chungking Express. I was at the Mayan Theater in Denver, well known as an "art house". During the course of the movie, a woman answered her cell phone and conversed in the theater TWICE! I confronted her about her rudeness. From her point of view she had done nothing to cause offense. Old fogey that I am, I remember a time when you could sit in a full theater and the audience was quiet during the course of the film. Those days seem to be gone. At least with stadium seating I no longer have the problem of people sitting in front of me, ruining my sightline.
What I have at home is a good system but not a great system. I have a sixty inch LCD TV with a Bose stereo system. I did the math. With the number of movies I watch, my home theater will pay for itself in about a year. In the past few weeks I saw a varied selection of films good: Night and the City, the Jules Dassin original, not so good: The Village, and guilty pleasures: Venus in Furs. Essentially, I'm pretty much watching what I want on my own schedule. No out of focus projections, no volume to loud or too soft, and much better and cheaper snacks.
Steve Soderberg may have the right idea in his proposal to have films released simultaneously in different platforms - DVD, theatrical, and cable. I just know that as interested as I am to see how George Lucas concludes the second Star Wars trilogy, I will excercise my force to watch it at home. I already paid enough when I saw Jar Jar Binks the first time.
Posted by peter at 03:01 PM
June 17, 2005
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick - 1999
Warner Brothers Region 2 DVD
No deliveries from Netflix or Nicheflix, so I finally got around to watching my DVD of Eyes Wide Shut.
I made a point of buying a British copy as I wanted to see the film as Kubrick made it. Keep in mind that because Kubrick died only four days after he delivered his final version to Warner Brothers, that the alteration of his film for North American release was done by his producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan. True, Kubrick was contractually obligated to make an R rated version for Warner Brothers, but one will always wonder if the digitally inserted people who partially block the orgy scenes are what Kubrick intended. This is especially of concern in noting that the MPAA, as I understand it, never saw the original version of the film. I have problems with the ratings anyways because: they are often abitrary, I believe that some films are not intended to be seen by children or by people under a certain age, parents have proven to be stupid by bringing babies and young children to R rated films, and the film companies have realized that they can make more money by releasing unrated versions of movies on DVD instead of or in addition to the rated theatrical version. One bit of irony, Warner Brothers has an unrated version of True Romance on DVD for North American audiences, but has thus far refused to release a Region 1 unrated version of Eyes Wide Shut.
You're wanting to know if getting that extra bit of nudity was worth it. Yes, it was.
I recall some so-called critic complaining that Stanley Kubrick made a film about sex that was not erotic. Well, gee, I think that was the point. By baring all, as it were, we are able to share in Kubrick's dispassionate view of the world. It's no accident that Kubrick's New York City is filmed in the same style as 2001 and Clockwork Orange. What too many less than thoughtful viewers of this film forget is that Kubrick's films since Lolita represent a viewpoint of detachment from the world. There is discussion on love, sex and the erotic in Eyes Wide Shut, but the sex and nudity in the orgy scenes are about class and power.
Just as Kubrick short circuited expectations by making a film about sex that was deliberately not erotic in the most graphic moments, he reduces Tom Cruise to a reactive character. Only Kubrick could get away with having a scene where Cruise is hassled by a group of men he passes on the sidewalk with accusations that he is gay. Unlike the real Cruise who has successfully won libel suits, or Cruise's typical screen persona who would fight back, Kubrick's Cruise avoids fights and encounters of possible negative consequence.
I would say Kubrick was smitten, yes, smitten is the correct word, with Nicole Kidman. Not only is she the character with the most power, but Kubrick gives her the last word, not only of this film, but significantly, of all Kubrick movies.
About thirty years ago, my friend Ric Menello told me about an interview that Pauline Kael did in the late fifties with two Hollywood directors, an established veteran, and a newcomer.
The veteran was Nicholas Ray, the newbie was Kubrick. As the story goes, Kael had asked the two directors what they most wanted to film, and they both responded that they wanted to show a couple fucking. Maybe they were having a laugh at Kael's expense. Kubrick did first announce plans to film Dream Novel, the literary basis of EWS, in the mid 70s, so that it is clear that the Dream Novel was a dream movie for quite a while.
Going back to the discussion of the two versions of EWS, I have to wonder if Kubrick and the film would have benefitted from being made about thirty years earlier. During the brief time between Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris, studios supported films for an adult only audience. Kubrick's home base of Warner Brothers released not only Clockwork Orange, but also Ken Russell's The Devils, Visconti's The Damned, and Roeg and Cammell's Performance. Kubrick almost always had a problem with his films being appreciated during the time of their initial release. Then again, made during a time when the President of the United States was impeached for his sexual activity, Kubrick may have been making a comment on our new era of puritanism.
Posted by peter at 05:52 PM
Ultimate Film Fanatic
Ultimate Film Fanatic
Independent Film Channel series
Time for a rant.
Lumena and I periodically watch the Independent Film Channel because most of the film we agree on are the type that are shown on the channel, foreign, classic or independent. Lumena told me about a new show that was looking for contestants, and figured that with my knowledge of film, I was already the Ultimate Film Fanatic.
I appeared on the Mountain States episode of the first season, 2004. Based on both my experience as well as the responses I have read about the show, I felt a few notes were needed.
The written exam to be on the show indicated a bit more film scholarship than the questions on the actual show. The odds were very much in my favor as there were only about thirty-six people who auditioned. Because of my score, I ended up taking two written exams. Questions I recall include identifying the body part discovered on the ground in the beginning of Blue Velvet, and naming Brian Cox as the other actor to portray Hannibal Lector (see Manhunter immediately if you haven't). I stumbled a bit, having remembered everthing about Ghost World except for the title. In general, the questions seemed appropriate for a show that would air on IFC, covering aspects of classic, foreign and independent film.
I scored well enough to be in the video audition. Lumena made sure I was dressed to be camera friendly. I was asked about to name my favorite movie (Suspiria), and do a little show and tell about some of my personal items that indicated my love of movies. I showed my copy of a book on Vincente Minnelli by Stephen Harvey, and talked a little bit about being a student volunteer at the Museum of Modern Art Film Department where I knew Steve. I also showed my DVDs of Tears of the Black Tiger and The Leopard (this was months before I knew the Criterion version was coming), to show that I would get films that were only available as foreign DVDs. In retrospect I should have said that these two films constitute a great animal theme double feature.
About a week after the audition, I got a call letting me know that I would be on the show. Frankly, the odds were in my favor as they needed six contestants and only thirty-six people auditioned. I had to fill out a questionnaire where I had to name favorite and disliked actors and directors. There were also more questions. One I recall asked if movies were better thirty years ago.
The actual show turned out to be different than what the auditions seemed to prepare me for. The actual UFF seems to be made by and for people who believe film history begins with Star Wars. Most of the questions were about mainstream films made in the last twenty-five years. Many of the categories were designed for entertaining an audience with at best, a casual interest in film.
The first part paired off two people to answer questions in a category such as films of Quentin Tarantino or documentaries. By my turn the category choices included Drunks on film and Animated Badasses. Lost Weekend is not a favorite Billy Wilder film, and Harvey and Arthur rate even lower, so I chose Animated Badasses. Clay Fong, my opponent in this round turned down Horror Films as he was sure I would beat him easily.
Because of the questions and categories, some viewers of the show have questioned whether the participants truly are film fanatics. What the viewers weren't aware of was the challenge of the audition questions, which I have indicated a love of film that is wider and deeper than that covered in the series. The bunch that I was with was generally a bit older, with people who know about the Nouvelle Vague, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles, among others. So for those of you who have seen the show and think we were undeserving to be contestants, don't blame us for the questions or categories.
Now it should be mentioned that the difficulty of some of the questions seemed abitrary. The second set of questions on Tarantino included one on who played the ghost of Elvis in True Romance. I saw the film and couldn't remember that it was Val Kilmer. It's a much harder question than knowing the title of the film where the characters are named after colors.
I lucked out as I had seen all the films I was asked about. Clay was asked about Watership Downs and Aladdin, two I hadn't seen. Still, when the category is Animated Badasses, I would think there would be a question on Yosemite Sam or the Tazmanian Devil, not Toy Story or Yellow Submarine. I'm also not certain that Fritz the Cat was a badass, although he may have thought of himself as one.
The debate and personal items sections were even more abitrary being up to the whims of the judges. In my case, they were Traci Lords, Richard Roundtree and Jason Mewes. Only Mewes appearance made some sense by virtue of his appearance in Kevin Smith's films, but otherwise it felt like a gathering of C list names who needed some pocket money. You figure that if the show was going to be on IFC, the judges would be people whose films appear on IFC.
Three people remain for the debate portion. This is very problematic. The loser of the first debate gets a second chance to debate. Debating the merits of Kubrick's Lolita versus Lyne's Lolita was probably a stupid idea that Vince proposed, and I agreed to. But the format of allowing one of the three people in the debate round two chances is both poorly thought out and plainly unfair. Sure, the winner of the debate is up to the whim of the judges, but the format allowing one person to debate twice is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I lost the debate because the consensus was that Vince was improved over the first round. Ah well, I was never exactly a fan of any of the judges, although Traci Lord's autobiography was more entertaining than than some of her movies.I simply figured I would win because more people have actually seen Kubrick's version of Lolita and remember the image of Sue Lyon in the heart shaped sunglasses with the lollipop in her mouth.
Since I didn't make it to the final round, the show and tell section, the audience was denied the opportunity to see my autographed Sam Fuller novel, or my copy of Robert Benayoun's study of Jerry Lewis, written in French, or my copy of the screenplay to the never to be filmed Adventures of Augie March.
Watching the finals, I saw people quickly eliminated trying to name films starring Tom Hanks or Gene Hackman. You would think this would be easy, but you got people not paying attention to titles previously mentioned or simply staring at the camera like the proverbial deer facing the headlights. There were also categories combining names, like James Cameron Crowe.
So how to improve things if there is a third season?
Season one had one question on Citizen Kane and one question on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There should be more categories involving classic, foreign and independent films.
They can be entertaining, but here are a couple of suggestions:
Henry King Vidor
Who's the Mann? (Films by Anthony, Delbert and Daniel Mann)
Lon Chaney (the real film fanatic knows there's more than Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame)
The Original Gangster - Scarface (1932)
Made in USA (American films by European directors)
I would encourage the producers to either drop the debate portion or change the format so that you do not have one person getting two opportunities. This is the only time a loser gets a second chance and is inconsistent with the rest of the show because of that particular rule. Maybe it would make more sense to have two sets of rounds with people naming film titles to eliminate two players quickly, followed by two pairs debating, followed by the two winning debaters showing off their prized possessions.
Just my thoughts on improving a show, and showing that the true film fanatic sees more than what's shown up at the multiplex.
Posted by peter at 05:05 PM
Akira Kurosawa - 1951
The most enduring image in Kurosawa's version of The Idiot is snow. Lots and lots of snow. Big, fluffy mountains of snow covering roofs and streets. Throughout most of the film there are blizzards or snow showers.
Made between Rashomon and Ikiru, The Idiot has virtually fallen through the space separating the two acclaimed films. There are several reasons to suspend a critical eye on The Idiot. The only version available is 166 minutes long. Kurosawa's original version which may never have been publicly shown has been documented at 265 minutes. In the initial Japanese release, the film was 180 minutes long. What we know by this information is that the version of The Idiot is not the film Kurosawa intended to make, but one that was compromised for a more commercial length. In his autobiography, Kurosawa also notes that it was soon after The Idiot was released in Japan that Rashomon won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first of several awards for that film, paving the was for Kurosawa to make films pretty much his way through 1965, and probably in the view of his producers, primarily for the international market.
The quality of the print based on the DVD is suspect. Perhaps Kurosawa's ambitions were far greater than what was allowed in his budget, but many of the exterior shots were filmed with a jarringly different film stock, with the effect similar to that particularly of war films with stock and documentary footage inserted into for polished footage. As the film was a major financial and critical failure for Kurosawa, there was probably less care in preserving the negative or existing prints by the studio.
Still, this film is of interest, at least for those of us who care about the entirety of Kurosawa. The film is an update from Dostoevsky, taking place in post WWII Japan, in Hokkaido. The title character is a passive man, an innocent, whose blankness is given meaning by those in his environment. The convoluted plot is essentially that this man is caught in a triangle between two women who accuse each other of trying to manipulate the innocent for their own benefit.
What was of more interest to me than the story was seeing Setsuko Hara as one part of the triangle. Based primarily on her roles for Yasujiro Ozu, and even Kurosawa's earlier No Regrets for Our Youth, Hara is the most selfless, self sacrificing woman is cinema. In comparison, Meryl Streep is a selfish, conniving bitch. Apparantly Ozu was upset by this film as it deviated sharply from how he presented his muse. Unlike the somewhat mousey woman in Ozu's films, Kurosawa recreates Hara as a woman of fashion, who is able to be assertive, at least for part of the film.
There is a sequence, with the title character, Kameda insistently wooing Akayo. We see a series of short shots, with changes of scene and dress. Most of the dialogue belongs to Akayo, insulting Kameda in one shot, apologizing in the next shot, and later telling Kameda not to visit her every day. This sequence made me think of the breakfast scenes in Citizen Kane, shot to illustrate the changing dynamics in Kane's first marriage. I would not be surprised if this was intentional as Kurosawa loved American film, especially John Ford, and it is quite possible that he had seen Citizen Kane sometime after 1946.
There is also a scene of Kameda sitting alone on a park bench, waiting to meet Ayako. Kameda is totally alone. The scene, from the perspective of Kurosawa's future films, could be viewed as a rough draft for the very similar scene from Ikiru done the next year, with Takashi Shimura sitting alone on a park swing.
Kurosawa's sentimentality gets in the way of making The Idiot as compelling as the films made up through High and Low. As admirable as it is to believe in the "brotherhood of man"' Kurosawa comes to close to overstating his case. Still this is a very watchable film, not as good as the well known films usually associated with Kurosawa (name your own favorite here), but far better than the syruppy sweet Mandadayo.
Posted by peter at 04:59 PM
Love is a Many Splendored Thing
Henry King - 1955
20th Century Fox DVD
I had seen parts of this film on TV about forty years ago. While Henry King is barely remembered nowadays, I did meet him in Telluride in 1975. Since then, I have made it a point to see his films where available. More about my meeting Henry King later.
As for the film in question, yeah, it's nice to finally see it in color and cinemascope. The film is dated in its attitude towards Chinese culture, and in the casting of the very caucasian Jennifer Jones as the Eurasian Han Suyin. It is interesting to consider than only five years later, William Holder would return to Hong Kong to star with a genuine Eurasian, Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong. By 1960, civil rights were more significantly in the forefront, and Hollywood had pretty much abandoned casting white people as Asians or in bi-racial roles, with the most glaring exception being Mickey Rooney as the Japanese photographer in Breakfast at Tiffany's (why Blake Edwards, why?)
But throughout this film, I kept on thinking, how would Wong Kar-Wai make Love is a Many Splendored Thing? Thematically, this would be an appropriate film, as Wong explores themes of physical and psychological dislocation. The discretion shown by King primarily due to the cultural constraints of 1955 are not to disimilar to the discretion of Wong's adulterous couple in In the Mood for Love. Of course in the older film, the clearest indication that the relationship has been consumated is the close up of William Holden's cigarette igniting Jennifer Jones' cigarette. Of course at the time the film was made, you couldn't show Jones and Holden in bed together period. But consider that in our more graphic era that Wong deliberately chose to delete the scenes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung fucking. In the Mood for Love's erotic power comes from the shots of Maggie Cheung's hips encased in the Cheongsam dress.
What Wong would probably bring to a remake of Love is a Many Splendored Thing is a greater sense of Hong Kong in 1949 so that the history is less distant and abstract. In King's film the surge of refugees into Hong Kong is discussed but is not visually represented. The discussions of what Chinese identity means to individuals whether politically (Hong Kong vs. People's Republic) or having a bi-racial and bi-cultural identity are only lightly touched on. Wong immerses you into a Hong Kong he knows intimately. King's vision of Hong Kong and the Chinese is that of a tourist.
A side note is that King's Ramona also explored similar themes with Don Ameche as a Native American and Lorretta Young as the half-Native American heroine.
Back to my meeting with Henry King - I went to the 1975 Telluride Film Festival where King was one of the honored directors. I was studying film at NYU at the time. I sat in on his interview for Denver Post, and as I was more knowledgable about his films than the Post critic, I essentially conducted the interview. We met outside, by a creek running through town. The somewhat pastoral setting was appropriate, looking as it did as the kind of setting for one of King's silent films or films from the 30s. I mentioned to King that I had seen The White Sister (1923) at the Museum of Modern Art. I explained that most of the audience was hostile torwards the idea that Lillian Gish was committed to being a nun, even after seeing her reportedly dead lover, Ronald Colman, alive following years of separation. As a recent convert to Buddhism, I could feel more sympathetic to Gish's reasons to remain a nun. King told me that he converted to Catholicism at the time he made Song of Bernadette. While I do not remember details other than that part of our conversation, what I do remember is that King recounted growing up in rural Virginia, and discussing his time making making movies without getting out of the silent era. He was 79 at the time. Although his produced film was Tender is the Night (1962), King still went to his office, and mentioned that he was working on a film about Mexico.
King's films can usually be remembered as amiably as the man himself. Carousel is the best of the films based on Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, especially compared to the heavy handed South Pacific and Oklahoma. The Gunfighter holds up as the epitome of films about the reluctant fastest gun in the West attempting to retire peacefully. If King is remembered at all now, it is thanks to Robert Evans. Before becomine production chief at Paramount, novice actor Evans appeared in a small role in The Sun Also Rises. In spite of a major campaign by author Ernest Hemingway and most of the stars to have Evans fired, Fox head Darryl Zanuck insisted that, "the kid stays in the picture." Unfortunately for Henry King, one of his dullest films, with a cast of stars too old for the parts they play, is the film of any significance for contemporary audiences.
Posted by peter at 04:56 PM
Gregg Araki - 2005
35mm, Regal 18 South Beach
Is it possible to talk about this film without giving away the plot to those who haven't seen this film? Should it matter? Maybe the best possition to take is that the best critical writing about film is that which is like a conversation between two people who have both seen the film in question.
I think it is possible to read Mysterious Skin as a film about gay self-loathing. The narrative about Nick is that while he acknowledges his attraction to men at the age of eight, and enjoys his sexual experiences with the coach, he views his sexuality as something to be exploited for personal profit, and expresses contempt for most of his tricks. Nick's voice over indicates that had he not had the relationship with the coach, he probably would not have become a hustler. The tricks in this film are presented as unattractive, needy or in the last instance, sociopathic. Nick's healthiest relationship is the platonic relationship with Wendy, that is to say healthy because of the mutual caring, although one can of course argue that the relationship is healthy because no sex is involved.
Brian's narrative about being abducted by aliens is Araki's literalization of the concept of being alienated from one's self. By the time the picture of the alien with human legs and baseball shoes is pointed out, the plot is figured out for the audience. Brian's withdrawel when offered a desparate blow job from a woman who may be a fellow UFO abductee, seems to have have more to do with a sense of revulsion to sex in general, than with the potential partner being unattractive physically or being a woman.
Nick is described at one point as being like a remote planet, with the people in his life as moons that revolve around him while he remains indifferent. That discription is analagous to how the characters in this film exist. In most of Araki's films the characters are loners who feel alienated from others, as well as from themselves. Interaction with other people is more often than not both painful and destructive. The closest Araki comes to a viable family unit is the menage-a-trois of two men and one woman. Even that relationship is at best fragile as illustrated by Splendor and The Doom Generation.
Araki's seems to have fun with his own literalness by having the eight year old Nick showered with Fruit Loops. Not only do we see Nick seduced on a floor littered with breakfast cereal, but we have a visual reference to the slang usually used by children.
The plot description to Araki's newest film, involving aliens and Malibu teens seems to be a combination of subject matter from Mysterious Skin and Nowhere.
This being said, Araki has apparantly felt that he has yet to exhaust the themes and characters of his previous films. In Araki's films are alienation, and lately alien nation. Sex is at best a brief pleasure. Although Araki is often identified as a "gay" film maker because of the actions of some of his characters, these same characters can be said to be more ambivalent about their sexuality. Araki himself may be sexually ambivalent judging from how sex is often equated with death or psychic damage.
If the conclusion to Mysterious Skin is any indication, Araki suggests that the best we can hope for is another person to talk to who can help make sense of an anarchic and uncaring world.
Posted by peter at 04:50 PM
Here Comes the Groom/Just for You
Here Comes the Groom/Just for You
Frank Capra -1952/ Elliot Nugent - 1952
Am I a "completist"? Not really. Do I try to see as much as I can by favored directors? Yes. Sometimes to diminishing returns.
Such is the case with Here Comes the Groom, a film Frank Capra made primarily to fulfill his brief contract with Paramount. This is the kind of film that helps illustrate the difference between a classic and "an old movie".
As many times as I've seen it, I still get engaged by It Happened One Night. I might be channel surfing, or in one case, eyeing it on the television at my neighborhood bodega in Denver. In any case, I know the story of journalist Clark Cable and runaway heiress Claudette Colbert almost by heart. No matter how many times I see Colbert flash her leg to hitch a ride, the film still makes me laught. I love this film enough to have it in my collection.
With Here Comes the Groom, all the contrivances of the story appear, well, contrived. It doesn't help that the leads, Bing Crosby, Jane Wyman, and Franchot Tone all are clearly too old to play the parts of the itinerant reporter, his long-suffering girl friend and an eligible bachelor. There were a couple of mild chuckles when Bing plays a record with the recorded letter of Wyman, and a minuture Wyman appears standing on the rotating disc, a fuzzy image, a low tech prototype of Yoda (thanks Lumena}, repeting gestures when the record needle gets stuck. Othewise, I don't care if it won an Academy Award, I can go through life without hearing "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" again. This may be the most overplayed song in one movie with the possible exception of "Over the Rainbow" in I Wake Up Screaming. (Yeah, that's right, more times than in Wizard of Oz.)
Just for You gets points from me mostly for having Natalie Wood appear as Bing Crosby's daughter. Not a girl, not a woman, to paraphrase a recent song, but you see glimpses of a 14 year old who will be a heartbreaker when she meets Nick Ray in three years for Rebel. Elliot Nugent made the kinds of films that are entertaining but not memorable with stars like Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. Nice use of color in the stage productions, but Bing Crosby was never a compelling screen presence for me.
Posted by peter at 04:45 PM
Go, Johnny, Go!
Paul Landres - 1959
I'm a sucker for rock and roll movies from the 50s. I know that they were usually shot on the cheap, with inconsequential story lines, shoddy sets, amateurish acting, etc. But I keep on seeing any film I may have not seen previously for the music. If you prune away the lame stories, you have filmed documents of some great performances.
Go, Johnny, Go! was produced by Alan Freed, the disc jockey credited for creating the term "rock n roll". Freed is also most associated with the payola scandal, taking money to play certain songs. This movie came out a few months before Freed's career was destroyed. Freed is both one of the film's lead characters and its weakest link.
The story is about Freed's search for a new singer to be named Johnny Melody. The elusive singer is portrayed by Jimmy Clanton. Clanton's star rose in 1958, when he was only 18 and sank a couple of years later after being drafted. By the time Clanton was ready to resume his career, The Beatles changed the course of rock. It's some of the other performers who appear in this movie who have remained more interesting and vital.
The most frustrating scene for me involves Richie Valens. Most of the time you see Valens sitting at a club with three women watching Alan Freed lamely drumming for Chuck Berry. Afterwards, Valens is invited to sing, "Ooh, My Head", a raw rocker that stands out against some of the post-Elvis blandness of the time. Unfortunately, we don't see the full performance as the film cuts to Freed chatting and later leaving to chase after Johnny Melody. I suppose that I should give the film makers some slack as no one knew that Valens would die a few months before the film's release. Still, it's a performance that is more watchable than the silliness of novelty singer Jo-Ann Campbell. Valens, by the way, looked more like La Bamba co-star Esai Morales than Lou Diamond Phillips.
The singing and dancing boy bands of the late 90s have nothing on The Flamingos or The Cadillacs. Maybe it's me, but I can't say anything bad about doo-wop, and The Flamingos are one of the few groups that rightly belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Cadillacs were a doo wop band that by the late 50s specialized in novelty numbers with two and a half minute stories. The songs performed, "Jay Walker" about a jay walker and traffic police, and "Please Mr. Johnson", about a broke teenager begging for part-time work at the corner drugstore in exchange for candy and Coke are cute. But the songs we usually remember The Flamingos and The Caddilacs for are not in this movie. I still associate The Flamingos version of "I Only have Eyes for You" with American Graffiti. The Cadillacs most famous song is "Speedo" with the line that inspired writers Tom Robbins and Richard Price: "They often call me Speedy but my real name is Mr. Earl."
One other singer I ended up researching was Harvey. I guess back in 1959 no last name was needed as most of his fans knew him as the lead singer for The Moonglows, later known as Harvey and the Moonglows. The Moonglows were the other top doo-wop group of the time, rivaling The Flamingos. Anyways, Harvey is actually Harvey Fuqua, singer, song writer and producer. He is also the uncle of Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day. Another reason to appreciate Google and IMDB.com.
Eddie Cochran is OK doing "Teenage Heaven", but he's more energetic in The Girl Can't Help It. (Hey 20th Century Fox, why isn't this out on DVD?)
Chuck Berry actually gives an amiable performance. He looks sort of like a skinny Billy Dee Williams. Most remarkably, he keeps a straight face while refering to Jimmy Clanton as "swingin". The songs "Memphis","Johnny B. Goode" and "Little Queenie" are here, along with the duckwalk.
Joe Flynn makes a practice run as McHale's Navy's Captain Binghampton in a brief appearance as a theater usher. I guess some of the supporting actors had karmic ties. Flynn, along with supporting actors Milton Frome and Frank Wilcox would appear in various pairings in other films, particularly Disney comedies in the late 60s.
I was unfamiliar with director Paul Landres. As it turns out from looking at his filmography, I probably have seen more of his work than I remember. Landres has mostly been directing tv series since 1950. Considering that he helmed episodes of Topper, Maverick, Cheyenne, Bronco, Bonanza, Hawaiian Eye, and 77 Sunset Strip, the chances are good I saw some of his work. Not that Go, Johnny, Go! has anything to distinguish itself other than being less inane than the rock exploitation films from Sam Katzman and Fred Sears like Rock Around the Clock. But there is one brief moment when Jimmy Clanton is recording in a studio. The film cuts to a shot of a sax player, his back arched back while he plays. The shot is tightly composed so that you just see the musician from the shoulders up and his sax in full. In the back you can see the drummer looking on. It's a memorable shot in an otherwise forgettable movie. But sometimes the point of watching a movie is to seek out those great moments of brief, even accidental, artistic expression.
For those interested in knowing a bit more about Alan Freed, check out Jewsrock.org. The site also relays information on the Jewish background of The Flamingos!
Posted by peter at 04:36 PM
Joseph H. Lewis - 1949
I once came across a quote from Nelson Mandela where he said that what helped him during the time he was imprisoned was remembering favorite movies. I have wondered if he has ever had the opportunity to see any of these films again. The reason I ask is because my own experience is that sometimes the memory of a movie can be better than seeing the film again.
I first saw Gun Crazy over thirty years ago in New York City. The story is about two young people who love guns and each other. The guy is a former soldier, an expert shot unable to shoot living beings, whether hunting or in self defense. The woman is a carnival trick shooter who has no trouble shooting to kill. Modeled somewhat after the real Bonnie and Clyde, the film is a chronicle of the pair's decent into crime. The quick and easy robberries are replaced by more challenging heists that eventually undo the duo. The film ends with the two out of bullets and luck.
Since I had seen the film before, I decided to watch it with the commentary on. This is by someone named Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant. Some of the information was interesting. The best was knowing more about the legendary single take done of a bank robbery. The back of a car was set up to carry a 35mm movie camera, plus sound equipment including several microphones. The robbery scene is one continous take with stars Peggy Cummins and John Dall. The car is parked in front of a bank, Dall walks out of the car and into the bank, the camera holds on the bank until we see Dall run out and into the car. The camera continues to run so that we continue to watch the action as if the audience was in the back seat, while Cummins and Dall drive out of town. Not only does this single take take several minutes, but according to director Lewis, was shot in the first take.
When I first saw this film theatrically, it was because of the acclaim given this film by Andrew Sarris in his book, The American Cinema. Sarris's view was that Gun Crazy was "subtler and more moving" than Bonnie and Clyde. What I remember was the feeling of euphoria after seeing this film. I knew that it was shot on a relatively small budget with Lewis making the most of his resources. The one thing I remembered was that the sexuality suggested at in Gun Crazy was, and still is, more evocative than whatever is hinted at between Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde.
And yet... seeing the film again was not quite as good as how I remembered it. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered with the commentary, or at least at the first pass after more than thirty years. I know that I only have a handful of films I have watched several times since I bought them on tape or disc. I have to wonder if the act of buying movies is in a sense a way for people to totally possess and own dreams and memories.
Posted by peter at 04:33 PM
Bad Guy /Lady of Musashino
Lady of Musashino
Kenji Mizoguchi - 1951
Region 2 DVD
Kim Ki-Duk - 2001
Two films came in from Nicheflix that unintentionally complimented each other. Made fifty years apart, the films are linked by shared theme of a woman's honor. Where they are different is that Mizoguchi's fallen women, whether that descent is real or percieved, often commit suicide at the end of the film in response to the codes of society. Kim's female protagonists live by their own moral code in defiance of society.
Mizoguchi's film takes place in an area outside of Tokyo in the years following World War Two. Michiko is introduced as the dutiful daughter who has impulsively married a teacher, Tadao.
Just before he dies, Michiko's father discusses the marriage and characterizes Tadao as vulgar. Shortly after, Michiko's cousin, a former soldier and prisoner of war, Tsutomu, returns to Musashino. Mizoguchi dramatizes the post war search for absolute moral values by positing the platonic love between Michiko and Tsutomu against Tadao's attempts at adultery in the name of rebellion towards social order.
All of the men are opportunistic and deluded. Tadao sees himself as a version of Stendahl's Julien Sorel, and sees the post war era as a time to fulfill his desires as the wartime demand for self-sacrifice is over. Michiko's other cousin, Eiji, has profitted from manufacturing munitions. With the war over, he persuades Michiko to mortgage her land so he may keep his business, lessening her security. Tsutomu, returning to college, has some casual affairs with other students who share his nihilistic viewpoint. He also becomes absorbed with the history of Masushino.
Michiko can be viewed as also deluded. Her actions are guided by thoughts of not shaming the family name. There is no traditional family following the death of Machiko's parents. Her own marriage is characterized by both her and her husband as loveless. It is also childless. The family name idealized by Machiko ends with her. Her cousin Eiji has a tradional family, but his marriage is also described as loveless. Eiji is open about his affairs. Tsutomu has thus far lived with situational families - the military, his cousin, and other students.
Mizoguchi concludes with the encouragement to live in the world as it is. Musashino's identity as a separate city has given way to its merging with metro Tokyo. Likewise Tsutomu has to find a way to live that is not rooted in a long lost past, nor is totally transient.
Mizoguchi's final film was about prostitutes, Street of Shame. The prostitutes of Bad Guy are less idealized. While Mizoguchi's characters are often in their situations due to an otherwise hopeless situation, Kim's characters are less thoughtful, living on instinct and impulse. We are introduced to Sun-hwa as a college student, waiting on a park bench for her boyfriend. Han-ki, a street punk, is sitting on the bench, occassionally glancing at Sun-hwa. Her boyfriend initiates a fight with Han-ki who grabs and kisses Sun-hwa. The fight spills to the street and ends with several soldiers holding down Han-ki. Sun-hwa spits on his face. Later, Sun-hwa is seen at a bookstore by Han-ki. He has a crony leave an wallet near her. Sun-hwa is caught stealing the wallet. She finds herself taking out loan for money that is claimed to be missing by her "victim", for $15,000.00 with her face and body as security. The only way she can repay the loan is by working as a prostitute for Han-ki. For Mizoguchi, the prostitutes are victims due to circumstances. Sun-hwa's dishonesty to herself and others has forced her into prostitution.
The pimps, prostitutes and gangsters of Bad Guy are the marginalized of society. The characters live in an insular society that has its own peculiar code. Sun-hwa's eventual acceptance of her fate is counterpointed by the emergence of Han-ki's stunted humanity. The ideal of Mizoguchi's world has been replaced by ambiguity, ambivalence and resignation. In a recent interview, Kim discusses that his goal for the audience is to be "psychologically happy". "I wish to show human behavior and human nature rather than show talking. I think actions are a more powerful media to deliver my message. There are no lies in the movements of human beings. They are honest, no matter whether it is good or bad."
Kim's films are now getting theatrical release in the United States. While I have his other available films in my rental queues, I strongly recommend The Isle for those who haven't seen it. This is one of the best films in terms of visual composition, perhaps more striking now when too many contemporary directors seem to plant the camera without thinking. What also makes Kim interesting is that he deliberately pares down dialogue with the goal of making his films understood visually, by the widest audiences possible. Says Kim, "I think that laughter and crying are the best dialogue."
Posted by peter at 04:31 PM
Louis Leterrier - 2005
The incredibly prolific Luc Besson has collaborated again with Jet Li. Unleashed is, to say the least, a better film than Kiss of the Dragon. While Besson wrote and directed, the actual director of record was Louis Leterrier. I am also assuming the credited "consultant" Robert Mark Kamen, who has written the past Besson English language films, also had a hand in the script.
The working title on the film was Danny the Dog. That title suggests some kind of kid friendly film with a canine hero. A more accurate title would be the very awkward Uncollared as Li wears a metal and leather collar that is removed before he fights. The story is about a man who has been raised to be a human attack dog. The film begins with several scenes of Li being set on Hoskins foes, bashing heads against walls and floors, throwing bodies out windows, arms and legs flying in attack. When gangster Bob Hoskins removes the collar from Jet Li, Li becomes a relentless killing machine. While waiting inside a warehouse for a signal, Li is befriended by a blind piano tuner. The piano tuner, Morgan Freeman, has entered unaware that Hoskins and gang are in another part of the warehouse. His kindness to Li is in direct contrast to the harshness of Hoskins. After an ambush directed at Hoskins, Li seeks out Freeman at the warehouse and begins a process of reclaiming his humaness.
In some ways the story for Unleashed is a revisiting of themes explored in Leon (The Professional). Both films are about differing concepts of family, biological and situational. Both films center on professional killers who are orphaned, are adopted by an older gangster, and find their humanity in their chance involvement with a person that they save. In Unleashed the themes are amplified as Li is simultaneously both a killer and an innocent, while Freeman, as Li's mentor in humanity, both saves Li and is saved by Li. In Leon, being human has cost Jean Reno is life, while in Unleased, Li regains his true sense of self.
There is one scene with all three principles together near the climax. Li is sandwiched between Hoskins and Freeman, about to kill the man who turned him into a dog. Hoskins continues to bring out the dog in the man, while Freeman appeals to Li's higher consciousness. The scene reminded me of an extreme version of the type of scene that appeared sometimes in older films and often in cartoons, particularly of Porky Pig torn between a tempting devil and self righteous angel.
The fight choreography was by Yuen Woo-ping, best known in the U.S. for his contributions to the Matrix series and the two Kill Bill films. There are no special effects here, nor is there any obvious wire work. Visually, the most interesting fight scene is near the end. Hoskins sets are very big man in white to fight Li. After running up and down staircases and across a rooftop, the two are in a very tight hallway. The space is just big enough to hold the two men standing, facing each other, body against body. Yuen is able to choreograph an astonishing number of ways the two can punch, pummel and kick each other within a confining space.
While the fight scenes are the main attraction for a film starring Li, Unleashed has a signicant number of quiet scenes. Much time is given to character development. The film works around Li's limited ability with English by having making his dialogue short and simple, and expressing himself more with facial expressions and body language. Whether Li will ultimately be able to transition himself from martial arts star to dramatic actor in non-Chinese language films remains to be seen. At the age of 42, Li is clearly looking to stretch out from being a kung fu hero.
Besson and Leterrier have Transporter 2 coming soon. I had the fortune of living on the street where some second unit work was shot. I will write more about that when that film is released. In the meantime, Unleashed is one of the best films written and produced by Luc Besson, and is as good as the films he's directed.
One may want to check out an interview with Louis Leterrier at chud.com. Leterrier points out that the American release of Unleashed is somewhat different from the European version, with some editing done on the dramatic scenes. Leterrier also states that after Transporter 2 he plans to make a film independent of Besson. That Leterrier is self disciplined to submerge his personality on behalf of Besson for three films indicates more promise once he separates from his mentor.
Posted by peter at 04:24 PM
The Village / Spirit of the Beehive
Spirit of the Beehive
Victor Erice - 1973
Region 2 DVD
M. Night Shyamalan - 2004
I finally got around to seeing The Village on DVD. I know M. Night has a lot of fans but I'm not one of them. For me, every film from The Six Sense on has turned out to be a big budget, elaborate Twilight Zone episode. But compared to M. Night, Rod Serling had more wit and irony in a compact half hour. I am glad I didn't spend money to see The Village in a theater. Not only did I figure out the 'twist" to the story well in advanced, but I was distracted by lapses of logic that undermined the premise. With William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver and cast in 19th Century dress, and the glacial pacing of the narrative, this is what a horror movie would look like if it was made by Merchant-Ivory.
The Spirit of the Beehive was a film one of my teachers at NYU encouraged me to see. I didn't for some reason. I made a point of catching up with this film in part because I have since had greater interest in Spanish language cinema.
The story is about two young girls in a small village in 1940. A travelling projectionist presents Frankenstein at the town hall. The younger of the two girls, Ana, is entranced by the monster, and is told by her slightly older sister, Isabel, that the monster lives on the outskirts of their village as a spirit visable to only a few. The two girls visit the empty barn where the monster is said to live. Ana finds a man in the barn during a solo visit. While it is not clearly explained, the man is presumably a political fugitive of some kind. Ana brings the man food and clothing. Eventually she and the fugitive are discovered. Ana is seen hiding by a lake in a scene that replicates the seen of the Frankenstein monster and a young girl in James Whale's film. Ana has her own encounter with the monster.
Ana Torrent was six years old when she appeared in Spirit of the Beehive. She has grown to be a gorgeous woman. While I haven't seen her most recent work, I noticed from her filmography that I did see her in Vacas (1992) by Julio Medem, and Thesis (1996) by Alejandro Amenabar, two of Spain's best younger directors.
What is interesting about the narrative of Spirit of the Beehive is that it reminds us about how powerful movies can be when we are younger, when we are at an age of total belief in what we see. I was six when I first saw the original King Kong on tv. I asked my mother how the film makers were able to get a giant gorilla to climb the Empire State Building. About three years later some neighbor kids told me the story of William Castle's The Tingler. Gullible child that I was, I endured several nights of insomnia, afraid that this tingler creature would attach itself to my spine and eventually kill me. I was even certain after seeing George Pal's film of The Time Machine that there would be nuclear war in 1964. O.K., cold war jitters aside, that actually almost happened. It is possible that for many people, there is the need to believe what they see, as in the conviction of many at the truth of The Blair Witch Project.
What The Village and Spirit of the Beehive share is the shared belief in the power of story telling.
Posted by peter at 04:19 PM
The Killer Must Kill Again
Luigi Cozzi - 1973
First I want to get a cheap shot out of the way - the somewhat redundant title this film is saddled with makes me think this film should play on a theater marquee with Nightmares come at Night.
The story behind The Killer Must Kill Again is in some ways more interesting than the actual film. The title was changed from The Spider, indicative of the webs the characters create to trap others, as well as trap themselves. The director's commentary is a history of making a film with one compromise after another. Several of the actors were cast at the insistance of the producers. The film was re-edited and held up for release for two years. In spite of the obstacles, Cozzi still has a pride in his first theatrical film.
We see a man, Giorgio Mainardi, arguing with his wife, Norma. She controls the accounts that support his business ventures. He leaves to meet with a girl friend, and stopping to make a call from a pay phone, sees a man, only identified as D.A., pushing a Volkswagen into a river. The Volkswagen has a dead woman inside. Mainardi blackmails D.A. into murdering Norma. D.A. strangles Norma while Giorgio is at a party. D.A. hides the dead woman in the trunk of a very large Mercedes and goes back into the house to wipe fingerprints. The Mercedes is stolen by a couple of teenagers who are off to the beach. D.A. pursues the car thieves to a large, abandoned house.
While Cozzi is most know for his association with Dario Argento, this film is in some ways an anti-Giallo. For those unfamiliar with the term, Giallo is Italian for yellow. Paperback crime thrillers had yellow covers, and the books were the inspiration for movies characterized by extreme violence and sexuality. While Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace from 1964 is generally considered the first true Giallo film, the genre's cycle peaked during the early 70s following the release of Argento's Bird with Crystal Plumage, eventually fading in the next few years. Cozzi deliberately works against the genre conventions.
Unlike Giallo, Cozzi introduces the killer in the beginning of the film. D.A. is not the compulsive, illusive killer of other Giallo but a person reluctantly put in circumstances that force him to kill again. The plot is propelled by D.A.'s ineptness, first not noticing Giorgio, and then allowing the car to be stolen. The initials D.A. that are on the killer's cigarette lighter are an obvious reference to Dario Argento. While Cozzi confirms in the commentary that the scene of the Volkwagen sinking in water is his tribute to Psycho, the film has other Hitchcockian references. Death by strangulation and hidden corpses have popped up throughout Hitchcock's films, such as Frenzy and Rope. Cozzi has also populated the film with several blonde women, although much more voluptuous than Grace Kelly or even Janet Leigh. The Killer Must Kill Again is more old fashioned and linear in its narrative.
The film does have a great visual reference to the genre. The house of the Mainardis has a bold yellow interior decorated with pop art. What was amazing to learn in the commentary is that the interior belonged to a real house with nothing changed for the film.
The commentary was done with Pete Tombs. Tombs co-wrote one of my favorite books, Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956 - 1984. That one book has determined quite a bit of my Netflix list. Tombs has expanded from writing about films to establishing his own DVD label, Mondo Macabro, for the Anglo-American market.
I first learned about Luigi Cozzi from a Dario Argento internet list I use to belong to. Cozzi's career as a film maker has been erratic at best. His last original film was made in 1989. Since then, Cozzi has been the director of record on a couple of films documentaries on Dario Argento. The only film by Cozzi I have seen previously was The Black Cat (1989). This is a film about the making of a film inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. While Poe supplied the title, the narrative is about an angry female spirit, connecting the film more directly to Argento's Suspiria and Inferno. There is even a scene where the characters discuss Suspiria while the theme music by Goblin is played. I saw the film on the SciFi network several years ago. As only a couple of his films are currently available, it may be a while before Cozzi's career can be more fully assessed.
There is an interview with Cozzi at Devildead.com from February 2004. In addition to running a bookstore with Argento in Rome that specializes in horror and science fiction, Cozzi has acted as a publisher on books on film, as well as author on books on Argento and Bava. Cozzi has stated that he has been unable to make films due to changes in the Italian film market. One has to wonder, based on the career paths of his peers, if Cozzi no longer had the stomach or passion needed to continue being a director. Based on the this one online interview I could find, I suspect that the battles and compromises outdid the rewards for the completed work.
Posted by peter at 04:14 PM
Peter Bart - 1990
Until I became a film student at NYU in 1969, I had no concept of how what happens at the studio offices affected what I saw, and even if I saw the film at all. I started getting a few clues from a glosssy magazine that was primarily industry oriented. Several of the articles were about MGM. One article was about how the plug was pulled on a film version of Man's Fate to be directed by Fred Zinneman virtually days before shooting was to begin. Another article mentioned that Michelangelo Antonioni's newest film, Zabriskie Point, was scheduled to be released as the film maker intended, after approximately a year on the shelf. What I began to learn was how studios were no longer independent entities, but were companies subject to the whims of the owners, and whomever was in charge of production at the time.
Reading the news about MGM's recent sale to Sony inspired me to look a bit closer at the history of the studio. Peter Bart's book alternates as both a history of MGM from 1969 to 1989 when it was owned by Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian, and an autobiography of Bart's brief time as a studio executive. In terms of some of the facts presented, I have to conclude that some of the studios not only have their own karma as it were, but have had both family and spiritual ties. After reading the history of MGM, the sale to Sony seemed almost pre-ordained.
MGM and United Artists almost merged in the 1920s. United Artists was founded by three top silent stars, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and one director, D.W. Griffith. Imagine if Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts formed their own studio and you get the idea of how significant this was. The studio founders eventually decided that they needed professional management. Joseph and Nick Schenk came on board. In order to get more United Artists films made, they suggested buying out the then fledgling MGM. Chaplin vetoed the suggestion. Nick Schenk eventually left United Artists to become chairmain of MGM. The two companies merged their distribution departments in 1981 when Kirkorian bought United Artists following the box office failure of Heaven's Gate.
Prior to his purchase of United Artists, Kirkorian had made an attempt at getting a controlling interest of Columbia Pictures. Due to SEC and anti-trust issues, Kirkorian backed down. As it turned out, as a result of changes in the anti-trust laws and their enforcement, Columbia's parent company, Sony, bought MGM this year. In an ironic sense, Kirkorian dream came true.
Bart's history of MGM from 1969 is also the history of several production chiefs who attempted to make hit movies within the parameters set by Kirkorian. Basically this is a history where the concept of making a film that is both a financial and critical success totally eludes everyone. The person who is most derided is James Aubrey. A former top television executive, Aubrey is infamous for taking films from his top directors and severely editing them. While Blake Edwards hasn't made a director's cut of The Wild Rovers, the restored version of Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has been met with the acclaim it never got in 1973. That Aubrey could not leave Peckinpah alone is especially sad when Bart relates that Aubrey was a big fan of Straw Dogs.
Another ironical footnote is to be added here: After Aubrey left MGM, he produced a sequel to one of his few hits, Westworld. The sequel, Futureworld, was made for American International Pictures. As it eventually turned out, the AIP library was eventually bought by MGM when they bought the Orion Pictures library. Orion was founded by several executives who left United Artists after its purchase by TransAmerica. But the reason why classic MGM films, along with classic United Artist films are released by Warner Brothers in their video formats is because Ted Turner bought the MGM and UA library from Kirk Kirkorian. UA bought the Warner Brothers library of films up to the early fifties primarily for television broadcast rights. Now the classic Warner Brothers movies are back with Warner Brothers. Got it?
Bart claims that MGM could have had more hit films than it had if only someone hadn't let the opportunity pass by. He lists several films including Jaws, Terms of Endearment, Last Tango in Paris, and Crocodile Dundee as films that almost were MGM productions or releases. Yes, these films represent varying degrees of box office success. But I have to wonder if these particular films would have done as well had they been part of MGM. What Bart does not question is whether some of the films that failed or underperformed could have done better with a different studio. I did suspect that had he had the financial support and autonomy needed, that Daniel Melnick might have turned MGM around. MGMs last films to be critical and box office successes, as well as Academy Award winners, were produced under Melnick's tenure. This would include The Sunshine Boys, Network and The Goodbye Girl. While Bart shows himself to be supportive of Gillian Armstrong while she makes Mrs. Soffell and Peter Markle directing Youngblood, he does not second guess whether he could have changed the fates of those films or any of the other productions he supervised.
Hollywood is concerned about the general decline at the box office, and audiences are complaining about the general lousiness of Hollywood films. Fade Out is a good reminder that these problems always existed. If there are any lessons to be learned, they are either ignored or forgotten. To paraphrase that famous saying, he who fails to study history is destined to repeat the course.
Posted by peter at 04:08 PM
Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak - 2002
I first heard about Cinemania about a year and a half ago when Lumena saw it on cable. I later read about it after the Ultimate Film Fanatic series first aired. At least a couple of viewers asserted that the contestants on UFF were nowhere near as knowledgable about films as the people profiled in Cinemania.
The documentary covers the life of five residents of New York City who basically live to watch several movies a day, more precisely movies playing in theater type venues. I lived in New York City for about seven years so I know it's easy to do, provided you have the funds and are willing to let go of other aspects of having a life. I use to know people like this that I use to see usually at screenings at the Museum of Modern Art.
My alibi, and I'm sticking to it, is that I was a Cinema Studies student at N.Y.U. Besides, I didn't want to disappoint one of my teachers, film historian William K. Everson, who told us students that there was no excuse not to see at least one movie a day.
A couple of the characters have been classified as disabled, while another is living on unemployment checks. One lives at his parents' home, while another is able to live off of inherited money. Four usually make the rounds of the venues that are devoted to film art and history such as Film Forum, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and even the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The very cheerful Harvey will take in two or more films when he can at a mammoth New York City multiplex. Bill and Jack are both avid readers. Jack is seen reading a book on political theory and also discusses how his reality of sitting at a Parisian cafe was nothing like the experience presented in French movies. Bill proclaims that one his occupations is a writer, but except for a personal ad, nothing is written, much less published. Eric is an older man with a preference for classic musicals. Roberta is an older woman who insists on keeping her admission tickets untorn, and who collects a dozen or so programs or other written material that occompanies the presentation of a film in the name of preservation.
To describe some of these people as pack rats is gentle. Having lived in New York City, I know that it is very common to live in a very small apartment with too many books. But garbage is part of the clutter shown. I guess the camera lights were to bright for New York City�s legendary rats to make a cameo appearance.
The film makers generally do not make any judgment on their subjects, but let them speak for themselves in their activities. Jack and Bill are the most self reflective. Bill attempts to create a social life for himself, albeit one where he can have friends to see movies with. Jack is seen at a gym, attempting to deal with girth developed with years of bad food and little physical activity. The film presents the subjects as part of New York City's film going infrastructure.
Are these people more fanatic than the participants of Ultimate Film Fanatic? Yeah, sure. Do they know more about film than the UFF crowd? Not necessarily. Eric, for example, mispronounced Antonioni and Fassbinder, and discussed skipping a retrospective of Alain Resnais. These names may mean nothing to most contemporary audiences but are respected with critics, historians and other film makers as three highly influencial European directors. So maybe I'm being a bit of a snob here, especially since the UFF series was pretty much about mainstream American films. Based on my experience, at least the contestants from the "Mountain" region all had jobs, except for Vince who was a student. Two are married. Everyone bathed, and wore clean clothing. I guess the biggest difference was that the UFF participants all were willing to not go to the movies long enough to attend the audition, and then go to Los Angeles for the taping. We didn�t even go to any movies during our time off. We did take advantage of our per diems to eat well at dinners where we sat around and mostly talked about movies.
One of the film makers, Angela Christlieb, initiated making the film as the result of meeting with Jack at a large number of screenings. Christlieb even characterized herself has having been similar to her subjects with her film going compulsion. As Christlieb is a film lover who has transitioned to being an active film maker, this film provoked questions in my regarding the relationship between art and the audience.
There are bibliophiles who do not write. I am certain many of the Dead Heads who followed the Grateful Dead from town to town are not musicians. The cinephiles in Cinemania have neither made films nor have added in any way to film scholarship. There are countless non-athletes watching ESPN whose lives revolve around televised and live sporting events. Are these kind of devotees something new, as the result of mass media? Have there always been an audience that had their lives center on art? Are they more visible now? Is it that there are more of this type of person now? Why is the person who can rattle off sports statistics with ease more cool than the guy who carries filmographies in his head?
On a more professional level, is there a balance between art and life? Who decides? What I am thinking about here are the truly dedicated film critics and historians who manage to both watch a prodigious amount of films and also write about them.
Maybe Cinemania can be viewed as a document about one symptom or result of living in a consumer culture. One may argue that the subjects of the film are no better or worse than the average American who watches several hours of television a day, or the recreational shopper, or those who need to keep up with the fashion of the moment such as in music or clothing. No easy or facile answer here, other than that the characters of Cinemania aren't that different from the rest of us, just a bit more obvious in the way they live their lives.
Posted by peter at 03:28 PM