« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

August 31, 2005

Fritz Lang: One by, one about

Lilliom
Fritz Lang - 1934
Kino DVD

Fritz Lang: Circle of Destiny - The German Films
Jorge Dana - 2000
Image DVD

I saw a part of Lilliom theatrically at Telluride about thirty years ago. Charles Boyer goes to Heaven amidst some hokey looking special effects. Now that Lilliom is restored and available on DVD, I figured I would see the entire film with the Heaven scene in context. The highest praise I can give Lilliom is that I did manage to see the entire film unlike An American Guerilla in the Philippines, which I gave up on after about half an hour when it was aired on AMC.

Most people would be familiar with the story of Lilliom from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine a romance between a former carnival barker who's become a loafer with a seamstress. In addition to living in poverty, the relationship between Lilliom and Julie borders on the masochistic in the way that Julie accepts Lilliom's temper and occassional physical outbursts. Heaven looks like a bad Hallmark card. More fun to look at is the star Lilliom steals from Heaven. With the firmness of jello, this obviously hand scratched piece of very low tech special effects provides a welcome moment of humor.

Made in France between leaving Germany, and before his Hollywood career, Lilliom is more interesting for its historic value. In addition to Lang, producer Erich Pommer was in transition from Germany to Hollywood. In addition to several films starring Charles Laughton, Pommer's first American film, Music in the Air had lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, future librettist of Carousel. Composer Franz Waxman and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were two films away from their respective Hollywood debuts, Waxman scoring The Bride of Frankenstein and Mate shooting the cult classic, Dante's Inferno. Mate is possibly remembered most for photographing several of Carl Dreyer's silent classics. Mate moved to the director's chair after moving to Hollywood. Sadly, his name is never mentioned in spite of the news that a science fiction classic he helmed, When Worlds Collide, is to be remade by Steven Spielberg.

While the documentary, Fritz Lang: Circle of Destiny does not add many insights into Lang, it should probably be required viewing for people who think film history begins with Star Wars. Not only was Fritz Lang the Steven Spielberg of his time with the oversized budgets and state of the arts special effects, but the shots of the futuristic city of Metropolis are still being duplicated almost eighty years later. While Patrick McGilligan's biography may be the best written source on Lang's life and films, the clips are fun to watch. The anecdotes and analysis from people like McGilligan, Volker Schlondorff, Claude Chabrol and producer Artur Brauner are all less interesting than the clip of Lang discussing his films with Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt. That Lang ended his film making career in the same place as he began, essentially remaking films he created in the silent era, is fitting for someone who's screen characters were people unable to escape from the patterns of their lives.

Posted by peter at 06:12 PM

August 30, 2005

Good Morning, Night

Buongiorno, Notte
Marco Bellochio - 2003
Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD

My original plan was to write about Good Morning, Night at the same time I wrote about Devil in the Flesh. Due to the uncertainties of the postal system, especially with Hurricane Katrina, that didn't happen. While one can appreciate either film on their individual merits, Good Morning, Night helps deepen one's understanding of the background events concerning Devil in the Flesh and the Red Brigades.

Bellochio has recreated the kidnapping of the Christian Democratic party leader Aldo Moro in 1978 by the Red Brigades. The Red Brigades were a group of left-wing terrorists that grew out of the activities in the Spring of 1968. There closest American counterpart would probably be the Weather Underground, but more disciplined. For those who may not have lived through those days, this was a time when middle class college students seriously thought they would lead a workers' revolution based on the ideals of Karl Marx. The ideas and ideals, though praiseworthy, conflicted with various realities and the complexities of politics. Moro was kidnapped based on the premise that he compromised the Italian Communist Party by forming a coalition government. The kidnappers conducted a private trial in the name of the "proletariat" that concluded with Moro's execution.

The film primarily focuses on one of the four Red Brigades members, a young woman named Chiara. Her function is to maintain the house where the three who kidnapped Moro live, to feed them and Moro, and be the conduit to the outside world. Chiara finds herself confronting the clash between the fervent belief in the Red Brigade ideals, and the reality of their activities, much like the real Red Brigade members who left following the kidnapping of Moro. A pivotal moment is when Chiara attends the memorial service for her father who died as part of the resistance fighters in World War II. Bellochio points out to the very real fight for the liberation of Italy as opposed to the more abstract notions of liberation of a different generation. Like previous Bellochio films, the Red Brigades unit stands in for the fractured family unit that is often the subject of his films, with Aldo Moro as the patriarch that the children are rebelling against.

The actors are often filmed in close-ups. Chiara, especially, is photographed in shadows, with only the upper part of her face visible. Documentary footage is integrated into the narrative, often as part of television broadcasts. Bellochio is not totally realistic with the story, allowing dream images of Moro padding quietly through the apartment while his kidnappers are asleep and even walking alone on a cold, quiet street.

The DVD comes with a documentary titled Same Rage, Same Spring. Much of the film explains the history behind the Red Brigades and the kidnapping with interviews of former Red Brigades members, as well as having Bellochio explain his motivations in making the film. The documentary also serves as an overview of Bellochio's career, with an emphasis connecting Good Morning, Night, with his first film, Fists in His Pockets. Bellochio also talks about his own family and growing up Catholic. Of particular interest is the revelation that he had a twin brother who committed suicide in 1968, giving autobiographical meaning to the film The Eyes, the Mouth. A backwards retrospective of Bellochio's feature films, each a few seconds long, is included. Bellochio is one filmmaker I care enough about to see as many of his films as possible. The recent DVD release of Devil in the Flesh, and the scheduled U.S. release of Good Morning, Night, are most welcomed.

Posted by peter at 06:29 PM

August 29, 2005

Devil in the Flesh

Il Diavolo in Corpo
Marco Bellochio - 1986
No Shame Region 0 DVD

Devil in the Flesh is, for me, a difficult film to evaluate. While it uses Raymond Radiguet's short novel as the basis of the film story, the adaptation is so loose that the film lacks the novel's context of a love affair as an act of rebellion against middle class mores. Bellochio's updating of the story against the backdrop of the Red Brigade trials lacks the weight of Radiguet's semi-autobiographical story which coincides with the first World War.

The original novel was about a French teenager, about 16 years old, and his clandestine affair with a young married woman only two years older than himself. The woman's husband is a soldier who is in the field fighting during most of the affair. The young man expresses cavalier attitudes towards those active in the war, and eventually mistreats the woman. Bellochio ups the age of the young man, Andrea, to 18, and has the object of his affection be the fiancee, Giulia, of a former Red Brigades member, Giacomo, on trial. Bellochio has made a film, Good Morning, Night, that is directly about the Red Brigades. In this film, the political aspects seem almost besides the point. The film works better when seen simply as an examination of what the French would call l'amour fou.

In the interview with Bellochio that is part of the DVD, Bellochio explains how he sees Devil in the Flesh as pivotal in his career. As the theatrical release of his films has been inconsistent, and there are several films still unavailable on tape or DVD, this is difficult to clearly evaluate. Certainly this film is less overtly political in comparison with such early efforts as Fists in His Pocket and China is Near. The conflicts of family relationships, usually a major theme throughout Bellochio's career, is muted in this film. Likewise, the impact of the Catholic Church is significantly less here than in the earlier In the Name of the Father or the more recent Religion Hour. Based on the descriptions of the two films made following Devil in the Flesh, Bellochio explored the theme of erotic love further.

While Devil in the Flesh is best known for an unsimulated scene of oral sex, this too is a minor part to the overall scheme of the film. The affair overwhelms the lovers' sense of responsibility. The woman risks her impending marriage which is viewed as a means of helping her imprisoned fiance gain the bourgeoise respectability needed for integration back in society. The young man ignores his school work in his crucial year before presumably attending a university. The former Red Brigades member speaks longingly about being mediocre, while Andrea's father also gives himself that identification. Devil in the Flesh concludes with Andrea in his final exams at school, ambivalently following the expected path determined by society.

The political aspects of Devil in the Flesh are remote for American audiences. The closest to domestic terrorism experienced in the United States since the Viet Nam era would probably be the Oklahoma City bombing. The kind of domestic terrorism experienced in Italy is more abstract. Bellochio shows that Giulia is the daughter of a man who was killed by a terrorist as noted on a public monument. Giulia is also engaged to a former terrorist. This seeming self-contradiction is not explained in any way, and Giulia appears totally apolitical. Again, the political concerns of the film are weak, not only within the context of the film, but in comparison with Bellochio's other work. The enclosed booklet is indespensible as it includes an overview of Italy and the Red Brigades as well as excerpts from an interview Bellochio made at the time of Devil in the Flesh which more clearly conveys his intentions.

There is a moment of visual poetry. Andrea is climbing up the rope on the side of an apartment building under some kind of construction. The roof of the building seemingly vanishes into the night sky, underneath the very big moon. The shot is composed to make it appear that Andrea is literally climbing into the night.

It is worth noting that Raymond Radiguet's novel has been filmed several times. The most famous film version, directed by Claude Autant-Lara in 1946 is unavaila
1000
ble on DVD at this time. The most recent version, made for French television in 1990 has a screenplay written by Catherine Breillat. This is somewhat ironic as the on screen sex that Bellochio briefly explored in his version of Devil in the Flesh has virtually defined the career of Breillat.

****************************
I am adding a note from NoShame's Joyce Shen:

The first 3000 copies of DEVIL IN THE FLESH include a coupon for a free poster. Well... it turns out there's been a mistake in the printing of the coupon. The coupons are still good, but as you'll see, the self-addressed sticker part was a little too much for our printers to handle. However, the promotion is still happening, so please return the coupon (with your name and address) to:

NoShame Films
P.O. BOX 5095
Hacienda Heights, CA 91745-0095

We apologize for any inconveniences and we ensure that all coupons we receive will be processed for the free poster. Thanks for your patience and understanding in this matter

Posted by peter at 03:42 PM

August 28, 2005

Blind Dead Double Feature

Tombs of the Blind Dead
La Noche del Terror Ciego
Amando De Ossorio - 1971
Anchor Bay Region 0 DVD

Return of the Blind Dead
El Ataque de Los Muertos sin Ojos
Amando De Ossorio - 1973
Anchor Bay Region 0 DVD

One of the most fun books on film is Cathal Tohill and the appropriately surnamed Pete Tombs' Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984. Since the book first appeared in 1995, many of the guilty pleasures described by the authors have appeared on DVD. One of the best aspects to this book are the plentiful illustrations, primarily stills from the movies, but also posters as well. Tohill and Tombs are partially responsible for what is on my Netflix queue, with the loopy Horrors of Spider Island as one of my first rentals.

Since first reading the book, I was intrigued by the poster and still from Tombs of the Blind Dead. I can't explain it rationally except to say that there is something fascinating about skeleton-like zombies in medieval armor, riding horses. I finally saw the first two films of Spanish director Amando De Ossorio's four film series through Nicheflix.

Even though there are four Blind Dead films, each films has its own self-contained narrative. If the two films I have seen are any indication, De Ossorio likes to repeat certain scenes. The two films also shared several of the same actors. The basic narrative concerns a group of 13th Century knights who are described as Templars in the English language versions of the films. These particular knights have learned Egyptian Black Magic and have blood drinking rituals. The blood is usually supplied by scantily clad young woman who clearly isn't attending the ritual by choice. The knights are killed by angry villagers and buried in an abandoned castle, only to come back to life to drink the blood of some modern day victims. These zombie knights are all blind, but somehow possess acute hearing. Even more amazing is that they are skilled equestrians, riding around on zombie horses. Both films show a young woman trying to escape on a zombie horse which got me pondering if someone should make a film called Night of the Living Seabisquit.

Where the first film lives up to the promise of the poster and the still is in the imagery of the knights on horseback. De Ossorio filmed the horseback riding scenes in slow motion, creating dreamlike imagery. It's likely that De Ossorio was inspired by the scene of the ghostly carriage in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. If not enough to sustain an entire film, these images provide a sense of cheap but effective visual poetry amid the narrative nonsense.

While it isn't a consistent source of information, re-checking the cast list on Return of the Blind Dead provided a little chuckle. Briefly appearing among the zombie knights and their victims is an actor who would lead the renaissance of filmmaking in Spain. Cast as Farmer #2 is a future director, Pedro Almodovar.

Posted by peter at 04:10 PM

August 27, 2005

Two films by Two Oswalds

Crime of Passion
Gerd Oswald - 1957
MGM Region 1 DVD

Different from the Others
Anders als die Andern
Richard Oswald - 1919
Kino DVD

One of the blogs I regularly check in belongs to Girish. About a week ago he was trying to explain to his mother about how his choices in films are usually director driven rather than star driven. A film discussed was Crime of Passion. I hadn't yet seen it myself, but it was on my Netflix list as I've wanted to see more films by Gerd Oswald. My interest in Oswald originates from reading Andrew Sarris' brief essay in The American Cinema, and the later realization that Oswald was a frequent director of one of my favorite television series from the Fifties, Perry Mason. In its own right, Crime of Passion is an interesting film, primarily because of its commentary on gender and society. Gerd Oswald is the son of Richard Oswald, a German director whose career primarily spanned from the silent era until the mid-Thirties, who also was a socially conscious film maker.

The stories of Richard and Gerd Oswald illustrate why film companies need to do a more consistent job of making older films available on DVD, as well as why there are still gaps in films scholarship. Only two films by Richard Oswald are currently available on DVD in the United States. From the evidence of his filmography, Richard Oswald was not only prolific, but worked regularly with several top German actors, primarily Conrad Veidt. In addition to the socially conscious films, the senior Oswald made musicals, horror films and comedies. Gerd Oswald's filmography is much smaller but still has gaps worth filling. Based on what little I could find through a Google search, most of the interest in his career has been for his direction of several episodes of the original television version of The Outer Limits. A major portion of Gerd Oswald's television series work is easily available while only three of his features are on DVD. Gerd Oswald's career influence could be evaluated better if his version of Screaming Mimi becomes available. According to Dario Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh, Oswald's film, along with the original novel by Fredric Brown, contributed to the Italian giallo genre.

Crime of Passion is primarily valued because of its feminist message. Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a female reporter based in San Francisco who is famous for her advice column. Ferguson is a variation of the character Rosalind Russell played in His Girl Friday. She agrees to use her column to lure a murderer who is in hiding after murdering her husband on behalf of two Los Angeles based detectives. Ferguson writes an open letter to the murderer about how woman live in a "man's world with men's rules". Oswald shows several different types of women reading excerpts from the letter such as a housewife, a couple of young woman at a movie theater concession stand, and a couple of butch looking cabbies. For reasons that require a major leap of faith, Kathy decides she is so in love with one of the Los Angeles detectives, Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), that she ditches a career offer in New York City to be the wife of a Los Angeles Detective. Kathy soon finds that socializing with policemen's wives is less fun than hanging out with the most male reporters, and is frustrated by Bill's seeming lack of ambition. Kathy tries to manipulate Bill's career and her social status by ingratiating herself with Police Inspector Anthony Pope (a relatively svelte Raymond Burr) and his wife, Alice (Fay Wray, playing the wife to someone a bit more proportionate to her than King Kong).

My internet research on screenwriter Jo Eisinger revealed little more than her filmography. With her gender ambiguous name, Eisinger has written both original and adapted screenplays, with films such as Gilda and Night in the City among her credits. One of her later films, Mistress of the World, was directed by William Dieterle. Dieterle began his career as an actor in Germany where one of his directors was Richard Oswald. I am not sure if this is coincidental, but in checking the principal cast, the wives were all older than the husbands. At the age of 50, this was one of Stanwyck's last turns as a romantic lead. Certain aspects of Crime of Passion appear to lend themselves to a "queer" reading. Early on, when Kathy quips that the lovelorn "other woman" should leave a married man and run off with his wife. A conversation between Raymond Burr and Stanwyck takes on a more personal reading especially when Stanwyck mentions "people like us". Crime of Passion concludes with Barbara Stanwyck punished ultimately for having acted against her true nature.

Conversely, in Different from the Others, Conrad Veidt is punished for acting in accordance with his true nature as a gay male. The film can not be fairly evaluated because what remains is only part of the original footage augmented by explanatory titles and stills. The version of Different from the Others that is we see is presented with an explanation of the history of Germany's Paragraph 175 which made male homosexuality illegal. Additionally, the film is placed in the context of film history, made during a time before stricter film censorship, and when film was seen as a medium to educate people on various controversial topics including prostitution and drug addiction. Pioneering sex researcher Magnus Hirschfeld contributed to the script and appears as a lecturer. While certain aspects of the film may appear naive, the main message of the film concerning the need of respect for homosexuals is unfortunately is still as needed now as it was in 1919.

Richard Oswald made his last German movie in 1938, and made three American films for "Poverty Row" studios. His last film, The Lovable Cheat seems of particular interest based in the assessment of the contributor to Internet Movie Data Base, although that is contradicted at Answers.com. Maybe this is just an interesting cultural footnote, but I also view it as reason enough for better film preservation and film scholarship.

Posted by peter at 10:50 PM

August 24, 2005

Kirk Douglas Double Feature

Strangers When We Meet
Richard Quine - 1960
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Town Without Pity
Gottfried Reinhardt - 1961
MGM Region 1 DVD

A couple of weeks ago I saw Lee Grant's "documentary" about Kirk and Michael Douglas on HBO. While it was sort of heartwarming to see Kirk Douglas' Bar Mitvah at the age of 83, I would have preferred more clips from his movies as well as some better informed commentary. Jack Valenti made the claim that Kirk Douglas was the first star to have his own production company. Ignoring that United Artists was founded by three of the biggest stars of the silent era (Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin), the first sound era star to be his own producer was James Cagney. Douglas was also credited for breaking the Hollywood Ten blacklist by giving screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus. My understanding is that this is partially true, as it was it was already known at the time that Otto Preminger was planning to give Trumbo screen credit for Exodus, released two months later.

There was a clip from the Academy Award broadcast of 1958 which seemed to be symbolic of Kirk Douglas' career. Douglas and Burt Lancaster perform a duet singing about how they are glad not be nominated for Best Actor of 1957. In addition to singing together, there is a little acrobatic bit with Kirk Douglas standing on the shoulders of Burt Lancaster. It's an image that seems to sum up Douglas' own sense of self. Call it penis envy, but the guy born Issur Danielovitch always seemed to look up to the guy born as Burton Lancaster. In spite of his self doubts, Douglas and his films have proven that they could stand on their own.

Douglas and Lancaster's duet seems more ironic in view of the films they made in 1957. Together they starred in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, John Sturges' very entertaining western. 1957 was also the year that Douglas produced and starred in Paths of Glory, while Lancaster produced and starred in Sweet Smell of Success.

Stangers When We Meet and Town Without Pity were the films Douglas starred in before and after Spartacus. Strangers' novel and screenplay were by Evan Hunter. It is a bit incongruous to see Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak introduced in the film as suburbanites and parents. More interesting that the story about adultery between housewife Maggie Gault and architect Larry Coe, is the film's exploration of artistic expression in a commericial context. Coe is designing a house for best selling author Roger Altar (a very subdued Ernie Kovacs). Coe is caught between the demands of his client, Altar, and the ability of his builder to create a dream house that all are happy with. Altar is encouraged to write a novel that is more true to himself at the risk of commercial success. While Hunter is undoubtedly writing about himself, he wrote as Evan Hunter for his more literary works and as Ed McBain for his police procedurals, this part of the narrative is also clearly a commentary on the compromises of film making. In an interview Evan Hunter praised Richard Quine for being faithful to his screenplay. The dream house built for the movie was not only real, Quine bought it and lived there with his real life love, Kim Novak.

The most memorable aspect of Town Without Pity is still the theme song. Lyrics by Ned Washington, music by Dimitri Tiomkin, wailing by Gene Pitney, the song was rightly nominated for an Academy Award. The movie makes an interesting contrast to The Young Savages made the same year. Douglas plays a military attorney in what appears to be a clear case of rape. The Young Savages was about a seemingly clear case of murder. Douglas' defense lawyer and Lancaster in The Young Savages both go through a crisis of conscious which leads to the defendants in both movies being saved from death sentences. Town Without Pity is one of those films that isn't bad but should have been better. Of interest is seeing a young Robert Blake and Gomer Pyle's future Sergeant Carter, Frank Sutton, take the stand. But the best part is the music, hearing variations of the theme song, including a twist version.

For those keeping notes on where Burt and Kirk cross each other: In addition to Stranger When We Meet, Evan Hunter wrote the novel that The Young Savages was based on, and Disney ingenue Roberta Shore appeared in both films. Town Without Pity was the English language debut of Christine Kaufmann, who would later star in Taras Bulba, a film produced by Burt Lancaster's former production partner, Harold Hecht. Kaufmann would marry her Taras Bulba co-star, Tony Curtis. Curtis, of course, acted in several films with Lancaster and Douglas. Curtis, Douglas and Lancaster also were in the same film, though not all three together, in The List of Adrian Messenger. Town Without Pity is about a small town in Germany where everyone seems to know everyone else, kind of like Hollywood.

Posted by peter at 02:22 PM | Comments (3)

August 23, 2005

Fugitive Lovers Double Feature

Burnt Money
Plata Quemada
Marcelo Pineyro - 2000
Strand DVD

Wanda
Barbara Loden - 1971
MK2 France Region 2 DVD

I haven't read Edward Anderson's novel, Thieves Like Us. Written in 1937, and officially filmed twice, by Nicholas Ray and Robert Altman, the story seems to be the literary template for films about criminal lovers on the run from the law. Anderson's real life inspiration, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow have of course inspired not only biographical, if not truthful, films, but also have served as a model couple for other films. The two films can be viewed as reworkings of the Bonnie and Clyde story.

Burnt Money is based on a true story that took place in Argentina and Uruguay in 1965. Nene and Angel are a gay couple, together known as "The Twins". They participate in a botched payroll robbery and escape to Uruguay. The majority of the film is about the pair hiding out in Uraguay with the other gang members, biding their time until they can escape to a county where they can avoid extradition. During the extended period of hiding, Angel decides he no longer wants sexual activity with Nene. When the fugitives are allowed limited time in the streets, Nene has clandestine relationships with men and one woman, Giselle. The ending of the film seems inevitable, with the lovers trapped by the law, guns blazing until the last possible moment.

The director, Marcelo Pineyro, was also the producer of the film The Official Story (1985). This is a very moving film about the unanticipated impact of the military junta on a well-to-do Argentinian couple. Burnt Money has been Pineryro's only film to have wide international distribution. Noted in imdb.com is that he has made two films so far that have been Argentina's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Eduardo Noriega, the actor who plays Angel, has worked with some of the best Spanish language filmmakers like Amenabar (Open Your Eyes) and Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone). For those who haven't seen it, I would also strongly recommend the romantic and fatalistic The Yellow Fountain.

Wanda is one of those films where the story behind the film is, at least for me, more interesting than the film. There is a very lengthy analysis about Wanda and Loden at Senses of Cinema. I have to assume that Loden saw her screen character as a version of herself had she not moved to New York City. Both the real life relationship with Elia Kazan and the relationships with men in the film are abusive. The screen character may be realistic and indicates that she is doesn't seem to learn from her past actions, essentially being a willing victim. Not only is the character of Wanda not very sympathetic, but she is also not particularly interesting.

What is interesting to me is that as volatile as Loden's relationship with Kazan may have been, Wanda may have influenced Kazan as a filmmaker. Pretty much forced into retirement following the box office and critical failure of his film The Arrangement (1969), Kazan worked outside of the Hollywood system in 1972 with his film The Visitors. Photographed by Nicholas Proferes, again doubling as cinematographer and editor as with Wanda, The Visitors is a much less polished film than any of Kazan's other films, even America, America. In retrospect, Loden and Kazan provide an interesting intersection in film history where the younger artist was a pioneer of independent film, providing a new sylistic path for the established artist.

Posted by peter at 06:10 PM

August 22, 2005

Entertainment Weekly's Fall Preview

As anyone who has visited this site should know, I see a lot of movies. Most of the people who visit this site probably also see a lot of films. Most of us read about films, be it biographies of film artists, histories, critical studies, and maybe even a book on film theory when we are no longer required to read Bazin or Eisenstein. For the past ten years or so I have had a problem, more with American films: reading about the movies is often more interesting than actually seeing the damn film.

I am using Entertainment Weekly as an example. One could use a magazine like Premiere. This phenomena is not restricted to a particular type of publication. I just know that I can read about 145 movies and think to myself that some sound more interesting than others. I also know that even if I was selective about what I saw, after the movie is over, I often hear Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is?"

As it is, the only film on the list that I am truly excited about is thirty years old. This is probably due to my regarding Michelangelo Antonioni was the best living filmmaker, and the thrill of seeing The Passenger again. For those who haven't seen it, the final shot is a technical marvel. I hope that it makes it to my neighborhood multiplex where art and indie films usually come and go in a week if they show up at all. Whether I see the film theatrically or on DVD, according to the Sony Classics website, the film has a running time of 126 minutes, unlike the original MGM release of 119 minutes. Jack Nicholson held the rights to this film as payment for a big budget film that MGM ended up not producing.

The only films I'm fairly certain I will see theatrically are two that interest my significant other as well - Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes, and Transporter 2. Some reading may ask, how does Louis Leterrier rate over Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. The answer is that some second unit work was shot on the Miami Beach street I lived at last year.

Even among the Christmas holiday releases, the only film I know I want to see in a theater is Peter Jackson's King Kong. Preferably on the biggest screen possible. Ideally with a quiet, attentive audience.

I used to be the kind of purist who felt that I had to see a film in a theater in order to fully appreciate it. But more often than not, I find that I am, if not happier, at least less unhappy, to see the film at home on DVD or cable.

Posted by peter at 03:49 PM | Comments (1)

August 20, 2005

The Alligator People

Roy Del Ruth - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

A few days ago there was a news story from Reuters explaining that crocodiles had an immune system that could kill HIV. Scientists are at work developing a drug for humans. While I am all in favor of a cure for HIV and AIDS, this story sounds like Fifties science fiction. I took it upon myself to investigate what happens when reptiles and humans mix.

The Alligator People was somebody's idea of a follow-up to the massive success of the original The Fly. On the eve of her honeymoon, Beverly Garland's husband disappears after recieving a telegraph. Garland uses various clues which lead her to a remote plantation in Louisiana bayou country. After being met at the train station by hook-handed Lon Chaney, Jr., you know she's in trouble. Actually, we know Garland would be in trouble simply by sitting on a box of radioactive material, which she does. Her husband looks like a Marvel comic reject, the Hulk without bulk. For a while he is still human enough to play piano. What does an alligator person play on the piano? Scales? Crocodile Rock? Actually, schmaltzy movie music. Chaney, who's hobby is to shoot alligators with his pistol, saves Garland when she's lost in the swamp. Doing his darndest to get her drunk and naked, the alligator husband saves Garland from Chaney's hook.

The scientist who created the alligator people explains that his goal was to cure injured people in the same way that certain reptiles are able to regenerate body parts. Garland's husband, thought to be cured of severe injuries, has a severe skin problem and the need to play in mud. Chaney causes the husband to get more radiation than needed causing him to have a rubbery upper torso and an alligator head. You would think he would get stumpy legs and a tail, but not according to this film. Garland sees her mutant husband and screams. It's a moment that wishes it duplicated the scene when Patricia Owens sees David Hedison, and the CinemaScope screen shows the fly's eyes view of the scream heard 'round the world.

The Alligator People was the second to last film directed by Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth made a fair number of purely entertaining films based on the handful I've seen, primarily Taxi, Blessed Event, and Du Barry was a Lady. Into his sixties, his career was limited to low budget horror films and television series work. While overshadowed by John Huston's version, Del Ruth made the first film version of The Maltese Falcon which is reportedly interesting in its own right.

I also am something of a fan of Beverly Garland, primarily from her films with Roger Corman. When I was a contestant on The Ultimate Film Fanatic, I stayed at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in Los Angeles. Not only can one get various memorabilia, like a poster for It Conquered the World, but the television has a channel dedicated to a documentary on Beverly Garland's career. After the age of 77, she seems to have retired, but I am convinced Beverly Garland was the hardest working woman in show business.

While The Alligator People isn't scary, the biggest shock for me is that it is on DVD when so many other films from 20th Century Fox are still in the vaults. I wish someone at Fox could explain how this film was given priority over such films as Pretty Poison (Noel Black - 1968), a film Pauline Kael declared the best debut film since Cititzen Kane, Royal Flash (Richard Lester - 1975) , Yellow Sky (William Wellman - 1949) and Frank Tashlin's best work. It's bewildering decisions by unknown studio executives that always manage to haunt me.

Posted by peter at 06:49 PM

August 18, 2005

Russian Horror Double Feature

Viy
Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov - 1967
Ruscico Region 1 DVD

Night Watch
Nachnoy Dozor
Timur Bekmambetov - 2004
Russian Region 1 DVD

My significant other loves vampire movies. She asked me if I knew anything about a new Russian vampire film that 20th Century Fox was to distribute in the United States. I did a little research and found that the film in question, Night Watch, was indeed available on DVD. This is a good thing as Fox has no release date set for the U.S. and because there are questions as to the if the film will be altered for the U.S. market. The first part of a proposed trilogy, there is conflicting information regarding whether there will be a third Night Watch, or if the story concludes with a reshot Part Two.
In any event, for those interested, the Russian DVD is available for those who either can't wait for the official U.S. version, or like me, would rather see a movie in the comfort of your own home.

Night Watch isn't really a vampire film, though it does have vampires. It's Russia's entry in the good versus evil genre with the conflicted character doing his best to prevent the apocalypse from happening. There are bits of Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and the Satan is coming for Y2K movies. What makes Night Watch somewhat amazing is that it was done only a little more than Four million dollars. Yes, I am as stunned as the guys at Fox probably were when they found out some Russians made their own version of Constantine for less than it cost a American to make a film about two middle aged guys having a road trip around California vineyards. It should be no surprise that director Timur Bekmambetov has a background in commercials and music videos just like some of the American directors making CGI heavy films.


The story is a bit confusing. Good and evil are at a standoff as of the year 1342. The forces of light and the forces of darkness keep each other in check in the present day. As it turns out, the good guys aren't always good, and the bad guys aren't always bad. There's a virgin witch who brings trouble just by showing up, kind of like the cartoon character with the cloud over his head. An owl turns out to be a bird of a different feather when she transforms herself into a woman. While the story centers on the emergence of "The Great One", the choice is simply between light and dark. Unlike many of its American counterparts, Night Watch is not a replay of God versus Satan or a variation of that theme. In spite of the sometimes unclear narrative, Night Watch is very watchable, kind of like Constantine without the religious trappings. At its best, the film as a couple of Keanu Reeves moments where you marvel at the action and go, "Whoa".

I figured that while I was watching a recent Russian film, I should check out an old school horror film. Viy is based on the same story that was the basis for Mario Bava's Black Sunday. The Russian story is about a less than devout seminary student who is asked to pray for three days over the body of a recently deceased young woman. The young woman is actually a witch who tries to break through the seminarians devine circle of protection. Most of the film is devoted to showing the student, Khoma, getting drunk on vodka. The film, shot in color, as some pretty good low tech special effects in some scenes that would almost make it in Bava's Black Sabbath or Roger Corman's Poe films. There's lots of dizzying circular pan shots. The scene with the witch conjuring all manner of creatures to terrorize Khoma is more funny than scary. The viy, which is suppose to be the most horrible of creatures, looks more like a large, deranged teddy bear. I'm assuming the filmmakers of Viy were hoping to compete with Bava, Corman and Hammer Studios. Their big scene of horror made me recall instead Mexican horror movies like Brainiac.

The Viy DVD also has excerpts from three silent films made between 1915 to 1918. For me, it was interesting to see examples of Russian filmmaking that were closer in style to Griffith, as opposed to the usual film history examples usually centered on Eisenstein.

Posted by peter at 06:15 PM | Comments (2)

August 17, 2005

Girls! Girls! Girls!

Norman Taurog - 1962
Paramount Region 1 DVD

During the 4th of July weekend of 2004, I was at what may be the most American place to celebrate the holiday, Graceland. I stayed at, yes, the Heartbreak Hotel in all its wonderful tackiness. One of the features of the Heartbreak Hotel is that there was a television channel dedicated exclusively to showing Elvis Presley movies. In honor of the passing of "The King", I took it upon myself to see one of his films.

Like most Presley films, Girls! Girls! Girls! is an amiable time waster. While not as good as Flaming Star, it's not as rotten as Kissin' Cousins. I'm not sure why the film is called Girls! Girls! Girls! as Elvis is caught between Stella Stevens and Laurel Goodwin. I guess it would take a genius like James Toback to come up with a film titled Two Girls and a Guy. Second bill Stevens is hardly in the film. Mostly seen singing in a nightclub, she does one somewhat jazzy piece. Stevens' talents were put to much better use the year before in the infinitely hipper Too Late Blues by John Cassavetes. As for Laurel Goodwin, she's sort of cute, but I kept thinking she was essentially a stand-in for Deborah Walley.

As it is, the title song is not particularly interesting. The musical high point is actually one of the handful of Elvis songs I like, Return to Sender. In addition to being sung over the opening credits, the title song is used for a musical number at the end of the film. Costumed dancers representing "girls" from around the world (Africa not included), surround Elvis.

What is somewhat remarkable about Girls! is that there are a more Chinese actors in this films than usual for an American film. There are more than one even sees in Wayne Wang's last few films. I bring this up because of the low profile Asians have in most American films period. Where the film also gets it right is that it is actors of Chinese descent playing characters of Chinese descent, unlike the upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha which has Chinese actors as Japanese characters. Unfortunately the characters speak as if they are in the old Charlie Chan movies, with references to honorable ancestors and Number One son. At least Elvis is game enough to let two cute little Chinese girls steal the film from him.

The film was directed by Norman Taurog. If I were Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, or Bryan Singer, I would have a shrine devoted to Norman Taurog. Norman Taurog has probably made lots of fairly routine films most notably with Jerry Lewis and Elvis. Norman Taurog not only won an Academy Award for Best Director, but he won directing a movie based on a comic strip. Who in the name of John Avildsen did Taurog beat in the year of 1931? Josef von Sternberg for Morocco and Lewis Milestone for The Front Page to name two contenders. Clarence Brown, six nominations and zero wins was another nominee as was Wesley Ruggles who saw his film Cimarron win Best Picture. Taurog's film, Skippy, starring Taurog's nephew, Jackie Cooper is unavailable on tape or DVD, so I have to assume that based on the Academy's esteem, Taurog actually had one good movie in him.

There is one good aspect of the screenplay by Edward Anhalt. Producer Hal Wallis assigned Anhalt the screenplay to Girls! Girls! Girls! has his condition for allowing Anhalt to next adapt the screenplay for Becket. Thanks to his time with Elvis, Anhalt won his own Academy Award.

Posted by peter at 04:10 PM

August 16, 2005

Ab-normal Beauty

Sei mong se jun
Oxide Pang - 2004
Universe Hong Kong Region 0 DVD

Well before it became a staple on the Sundance Channel, I saw the Pang Brothers' The Eye theatrically. My interest was seeing one of what were several Asian films listed as being sources for American remakes. Danny and Oxide Pang are two ferociously talented twin brothers who have made films together, such as The Eye and Bangkok Dangerous, and individually. From Hong Kong, they started their professional careers in Thailand, and have filmed both in Thailand and Hong Kong. The Eye is everything one would want in a horror movie: scary, suspenseful, artistic and apocalyptic. A warning is in order here - Tom Cruise has the American remake rights.

Ab-normal Beauty is a solo effort by Oxide Pang. The story is of an art student who gets herself enmeshed in images of death once she photographs a car accident victim. The film has its clear antecedents in Rear Window and Peeping Tom, with nods to De Palma's 8mm, Amenabar's Tesis and Dario Argento's "animal" trilogy. Beautifully photographed, much of the color is very rich, with much tinting using phosphorescent red, green and blue. Ab-normal Beauty is somewhat like The Eye in suggesting that the greatest horror may be confronting the truth about one's self.

In having a female protagonist, Pang touches on such subjects as sexual abuse, real and false memories, voyeurism and the objectification of women, without direct comment. Not only is Pang's protagonist, Jiney, a stand-in for the viewer who is fascinated with artistic representations of death, such as horror movies, but Pang plays with the audience by having a scene where Jiney is videotaped by an unknown person while she is in the act of photographing a woman falling from a building. By extension, Pang is exploring the difference, or lack of difference, between an artist like Joel-Peter Witkin or Oxide Pang, with the creators and consumers of images that may be more arguably exploitive.

My attempts to translate the Chinese title with Babelfish have failed, but the English language title is worth commenting on. Ab-normal Beauty works as a double entendre. Jiney could be considered abnormal based on her interest in photographing scenes of death, as well as her persistent trauma from sexual abuse at a young age and ambivalent sexual orientation. The photographs created for the film, like the photographs refered to by Witkin and Weegee, are simultaneously brutal and beautiful, a distance from the more traditional "beauty" of nature photographs. Maybe I'm stretching here, but because of the hyphenated title, I wonder if this is a play on AB blood, or even the A and B rolls of films.

* * *

Ab-normal Beauty was available through the web rental outlet Nicheflix. Fellow film blogger Girish wanted to know more about Nicheflix and my experience with this company.

My overall experience with Nicheflix is that they are pretty good. They specialize in films that are not available through U.S. sources. If you have a code free DVD player, you can view anything they offer. For those who are limited to Region 1 DVDs, many of the DVDs from outside the U.S. are NTSC Region 1 or 0. While there are some duplications of titles with Netflix, I have been able to see films I might not have been able to enjoy otherwise, and saved substantially by not purchasing titles of interest.

The downsides to Nicheflix are relatively minor. As this is a small company based in Indiana, the gap between receiving films and sending them back is several days. The selection of titles seems abitrary. I have a queue list of about one hundred films, yet I can always name other titles only available as imports that Nicheflix does not carry.

These negatives are minor when one considers some of the films I have been able to see like Gumnaam, the Bollywood musical thriller best known for the excerpt shown in Ghost World, the Italian classic Bitter Rice, and several films by Cedric Klapisch and Marco Bellochio. All in all, I'm glad I stumbled upon Nicheflix when I was Googling for a now forgotten title one night.

Posted by peter at 12:32 PM | Comments (1)

August 15, 2005

The World of Jacques Demy

L'Univers de Jacques Demy
Agnes Varda - 1995
Wellspring DVD

Both of Agnes Varda's documentaries on her husband, the late Jacques Demy, have left me frustrated. Not that it's her fault, but I can't help but feeling frustrated when I see can see excerpts of films, but not the full length feature. In the case of Jacques Demy, it's as if the twenty years following The Young Girls of Rochefort didn't exist.

The World of Jacques Demy can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Varda's earlier film, Jacquot de Nantes. While Jacquot was primarily a kind of biography of Demy, particularly his childhood, World is more interested in Demy's films. The structure is not totally chronological so that while Lola is discussed early on, Bay of Angels is not covered until near the end. In addition to the excerpts from Demy's features, Varda included interviews with actors and other collaborators, as well as "home movie" footage.

Dead at the relatively early age of 59, I had to wonder what a Jacques Demy film would look like were he still alive and active. In addition to his best known film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy would demonstrate an interest in a stylized use of color, especially in settings and costuming. One could only assume that had he been able to make a film using computer generated special effects that Demy would have perhaps created yet another film with totally unanticipated images. At the very least, I would hope that Demy's later films, especially A Room in Town and Three Places for the 26th, along with his English language films, are made available on DVD. In terms of subject matter, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy is probably as good an homage to Demy as possible, starring the Demy and Varda's son Mathieu.

One person I wouldn't expect to see in a documentary on Jacques Demy is Harrison Ford. With just a handful of supporting role credits, Ford was Demy's original choice to star in The Model Shop, Demy's only American film. The top executives at Columbia Pictures vetoed the unknown Ford in favor of Gary Lockwood, fresh from 2001. A footnote to The Model Shop is that the script supervisor was Shirley Ulmer, wife of director Edgar G. Ulmer, a filmmaker dedicated to making the best film he could with the most limited of budgets.

In 1975, I had the chance to sit in on an interview with Demy's most famous musical collaborator, Michel Legrand. I don't remember what was said other than that I asked about Legrand's piano driven score for Bay of Angels. I found out a little later that Legrand was appreciative that someone knew him for more than Umbrellas or his Hollywood scores.

The World of Jacques Demy gives on a taste of Demy's entire filmmaking career. One can only hope that one doesn't have to wait long for the full meal.

Posted by peter at 04:22 PM

August 13, 2005

Prince Valiant

Henry Hathaway - 1954
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Is it possible that Dudley Nichols was a teeny bit subversive in his screenplay for Prince Valiant? Keep in mind that the screenwriter has an interesting history beyond the films to his credit. Nichols was key in organizing the screenplay writers in Hollywood in what eventually became the Writers Guild of America. Because the conflicts between the writers and the studios had not been resolved, Nichols was the first person to refuse an Academy Award, which happened to be for The Informer. In Prince Valiant, Robert Wagner is held prisoner by Sligon, a Viking trying to overthrough the rightful Viking king, Valiant's father. Several times, Valiant is asked to name the enemies of Sligon. After Valiant refuses, Sligon mentions that he already has a list of the names of traitors. Taken out of context, it is not too big a stretch to imagine that Nichols was making a little dig at both Joseph McCarthy and the Hollywood Ten trials.

Prince Valiant was made at a time when it was far more unusual to make a film based on a comic strip or comic book. It's more likely that the film was made primarily as a response to the success MGM was having with films like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table. I'm not sure if the film would have been visually better had the compositions and lighting more resembled the work of the comic artist Hal Foster. What is fairly obvious is that director Henry Hathaway and the cast seem lost in the CinemaScope screen.

Released in April 1954, this was only the seventh film in CinemaScope, made during the first year that the new format was imposed on virtually all 20th Century Fox productions. An interesting comparison to make would be with Sam Fuller's Hell and High Water, the fifth CinemaScope film. Made as a challenge by Darryl Zanuck to have a widescreen film that was primarily shot in a confined space, Fuller proved adept at handling both the new screen shape and color. Until the final swordfight at the end of the film, Hathaway is too distant from the action, making the film less involving then it should be. The only other time that Hathaway and cinematographer Burnett Guffey have figured out what to do with the wide screen is in scenes of jousting with the shots of the long lances in action.

The film is an entertaining trifle with Robert Wagner looking awkward with his pageboy wig. Nichol's script pretty much gives away the identity of the mysterious Black Knight early on. Among the other actors lost under their wigs are Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain and the title character of The Informer, Gypo Nolan himself, Andrew McLaglen as a big, blustery Irishman in Viking warrior drag. Janet Leigh seems to basically marking time between films with then husband Tony Curtis, and those films that made use of her acting talents. Prince Valiant isn't boring or badly made, but even compared to similar films of its time it is not particularly memorable. Compared to John Boorman's Excalibur and the under-rated Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, Prince Valiant is just another Knight at the movies.

Posted by peter at 04:30 PM | Comments (1)

August 12, 2005

Call Girl and Nurse Double Feature

Secrets of a Call Girl
Anna, quel particolare piacere
Giuliano Carnimeo - 1973
No Shame DVD

The Sensuous Nurse
L'Infermiera
Nello Rossati - 1975
No Shame DVD

Maybe it was a coincidence, but based on the names of the two main characters of No Shame's newest releases, these films could be boxed together as "The Passions of Anna". (Apologies to Ingmar Bergman.) What is good about these films being on DVD is that while they will mostly be appreciated by fans of Edwige Fenech and Ursula Andress, for more scholarly types one can get a better idea of the kind of bread and butter filmmaking that went on in Italy in the mid Seventies.

Secrets of a Call Girl is as misleading a title as the original which roughly translates as Anna, a Particular Pleasure. Either title suggests a sex romp which this film is not. The film is primarily a drama following Edwige Fenech descent from gangster's girl friend to prostitute. After witnessing a murder, Fenech attempts to escape her past. I have only seen one other film by Giuliano Carnimeo, The Case of the Bloody Iris which I thought was a kinder, gentler variation of Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace. While Secrets isn't as visually stylish, there is one nicely framed scene with gangster Corrado Pani in the background shooting at Fenech, who is stopped by glass doors in the foreground. Fans of Edwige Fenech can also enjoy more nudity than in the thrillers currently available.

The interviews with Fenech, Carnimeo and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi are of interest in explaining the history of the filmmaking process not only for Secrets, but for those involved with genre films in the early Seventies in Italy. For me, the highlight of some of the No Shame DVDs has been the interviews with very informative Gastaldi. A very attractive brunette with long black hair, big brown eyes and cleft chin, Fenech is perhaps even more attractive today as a woman "of a certain age". Now working primarily as a film producer, her best known credit is Michael Radford's recent version of Merchant of Venice.

The Sensuous Nurse is the answer to the oft asked question: What does Ursula Andress look like without the white bikini she wears in Dr. No? This is another film about greedy relatives waiting for the wealthy patriarch to die so they can spend the anticipated inheritance as quickly as possible. Andress is the nurse who is hired to hasten death by exciting Mario Pisu with her presence, thereby causing a heart attack. There are a few chuckles as well as generous nudity provided by Andress and Carla Romanelli as a maid frequently out of uniform. Andress' fellow (fellow?) Bond girl, Luciana Paluzzi is seen frequently fighting to keep her clothes on in scenes with Duilio Del Prete. Keeping his clothes on is Jack Palance as the businessman planning to buy out the family's wine business, pending the death of Pisu. Somewhat similar to his role in Contempt, there is a scene of Palance on a hotel bed, phone in one hand, tweaking the breast of his female companion with the other hand. The Sensuous Nurse was made for those who enjoy, pardon the pun, broad comedy.

It may be worth noting that both The Sensuous Nurse and Secrets of a Call Girl were produced by Carlo Ponti. I may be wrong about this but one of the clients of Edwige Fenech is a short, older guy who suspiciously looks kind of like Ponti. While Ponti is better known for his association with films with loftier ambitions such as Contempt, with these new DVDs one can see a more pragmatic sensibility at work, the kind of commercial filmmaking that allowed Ponti to finance the more risky artistic expression.

Posted by peter at 08:04 PM | Comments (1)

August 11, 2005

The Deadly Companions

Sam Peckinpah - 1961
Platinum Disc DVD

One of the blogs I've been reading regularly is titled Self Styled Siren. Around the time that I started checking in, the Siren was posting articles on Maureen O'Hara. I was never really a fan of hers although I like some of the films she was in like The Quiet Man and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Siren's report on Ms. O'Hara's autobiography indicates that she has had some serious issues with various men in her life. My hope for Maureen O'Hara is that she is remembered for more than playing John Candy's mom in Only the Lonely.

The Siren inspired my to play with my Netflix queue and see the one film I had starring O'Hara, The Deadly Companions. My main reason for seeing it is that it is Sam Peckinpah's first feature. I still have a couple of films to see, but as mediocre as the DVD is, I'm glad I saw this film. I don't know if a good print of this film is available, but it should be noted that the DVD is standard screen format of a Panavision film.

Looking at The Deadly Companions in terms of a career retrospective, the film is something of a sketchbook of ideas and images that Peckinpah would rework or amplify in later films. Children playing at swordfighting would later become children playing with the scorpion in The Wild Bunch. Steve Cochran flanked by two prostitutes would be redone and doubled with Tector and Lyle Gorch. A key scene involves a bank robbery gone awry. O'Hara's character of the fallen woman would be reworked to better effect by Stella Stevens in the far superior Ballad of Cable Hogue. Peckinpah was dismissive of The Deadly Companions because he was essentially a hired hand on behalf of O'Hara who produced the film. Still there are moments of visual audacity including Steve Cochran manically shooting at his mirror image, and fur coated Chill Wills draped lengthwise on a branch like a large Chesire cat. Maybe I was looking too hard, but I saw bits and pieces that anticipate the films more characteristic of the director.

In some ways, the narrative reminded me more of Budd Boetticher's films. Three former Civil War soldiers, one Yankee, and two Rebels, escort a dance hall hostess across Apache territory. The woman is taking the coffin of her young son to be buried in another town, in the graveyard where the son's father is buried. The son has been accidentally been shot by the Yankee. With the majority of the film following four characters through a desolate stretch of Arizona, The Deadly Companions resembles the films Boetticher made with Randolph Scott as described by Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema.
While The Deadly Companions involves characters who call each other's bluff until the end, Peckinpah's Odyssey is less allegorical and more psychological.

One aspect of O'Hara's performance that I did not anticipate is that she seemed set on reminding the audience, and probably Hollywood, that at the age of 40 she still had a great body. Previously appearing as Lady Godiva, Maureen O'Hara was clearly not shy about hinting at nudity. With two scenes in The Deadly Companions, O'Hara was probably making sure people knew she was as attractive as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor. As it turned out, O'Hara and co-star Brian Keith worked together again in 1961 in The Parent Trap. As far as Hollywood was concerned, Maureen O'Hara was from then on trapped in the roles of wives and mothers.

Posted by peter at 04:50 PM

August 10, 2005

Burt Lancaster

The Young Savages
John Frankenheimer - 1961
Turner Classic Movies

Valdez is Coming
Edwin Sherin - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

Lawman
Michael Winner - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

When I was much, much younger, I decided that Burt Lancaster was my favorite movie star. I was so determined to see Birdman of Alcatraz that I petitioned my parents for several weeks before they finally allowed me to see the film. Buying and reading Thomas Gaddis' book was no problem, but at that time in my life, I couldn't see movies without parental approval. I loved the film as much as I thought I would. I saw Birdman again on television, in part with my parents. My mother got sarcastic when Lancaster and Edmond O'Brien, playing Tom Gaddis, embraced. Like a lot of other people, I found out later that Gaddis' biography idealized Robert Stroud, and that the real Birdman remained imprisoned for several very good reasons. I saw A Child is Waiting, The List of Adrian Messenger, and Seven Days in May theatrically. After those films I saw Lancaster films mostly on television. As a budding auteurist, I only saw films starring Lancaster based on who the director was primarily, which is why I didn't see Burt Lancaster in a theater again until he made Ulzana's Raid.

As part of my constant stream of rental DVDs, I've been catching up on Burt Lancaster films. I also read the biography, Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford. A lot of research went into the book which is not always flattering. There are little errors that make we wonder if there were some other, larger errors. Executive Action, which I saw theatrically, is in color, not black and white. The Colorado town is Canon City with a ~ above the n, not Canyon City. The U.S. version of The Leopard was not in Cinerama, but CinemaScope, the format of virtually all 20th Century Fox films until 1967.
Still, the book is most interesting in showing the history of an actor who not only became a star almost overnight, but one who immediately took control of his career as his own producer. I got around to seeing a couple of films Lancaster made in his transistion to mature character actor, as well as seeing an earlier film on cable.

The Young Savages was Lancaster's first film with John Frankenheimer. Aided in no small part by Lionel Lindon's black and white cinematography shot in the streets of Spanish Harlem, the film is visually striking. In spite of being a box office failure, Frankenheimer not only was asked to work with Lancaster again, but had the remarkable year of 1962 which saw the release of Birdman, All Fall Down, and The Manchurian Candidate. The Young Savages is sometimes described as West Side Story without singing or dancing, which may in part explain why it was not commercially successful.

Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, The Young Savages could be categorized as the type of socially conscious film that United Artists seemed to specialize in until the late Sixties. Lancaster plays an Assistant District Attorney who is set to prosecute three punks who have stabbed a blind young Puerto Rican man. It's not quite Rashomon, but Lancaster learns that the truth is more complicated than what the various people affected by the killing acknowledge. Liberal and humanistic impulses are challenged, as is the desire for swift, severe justice. The film was something of a homecoming for Lancaster who was born and raised in the part of New York City known as Spanish Harlem, an area predominantly Italian in the years of Lancaster's youth. Shelley Winters portrays the mother of one of the accused punks as well as Lancaster's former flame. According to Buford, Lancaster and Winters were intensely involved ten years earlier. The film appears to have been shot entirely on location including the interiors of the slum apartments. Frankenheimer had a great eye for composition which is why The Young Savages is still worth watching.

Ten years after The Young Savages, Burt Lancaster was doing what many of his contemporaries were doing, making Westerns. Especially after The Wild Bunch, westerns were the most commercially viable films for male stars of Lancaster's generation. In Lancaster's case this also meant doing films that still served as a form of social commentary. Buford makes it interesting to speculate on what Valdez is Coming could have been. The film originally was planned to star Marlon Brando in the title role, with Lancaster as his nemesis, Tanner, with direction by Sydney Pollack. Pollack and Lancaster had worked several times previously. The screenplay is credited to longtime Pollack collaborator David Rayfiel, and Roland Kibbee, an associate of Lancaster's since Ten Tall Men in 1951.

Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, none of the characters are the likeable sleazebags of Leonard's crime novels. Bob Valdez is a constable who is manipulated into killing an innocent man by Tanner. Attempting to collect one hundred dollars to benefit the innocent man's wife, Valdez finds himself shooting it out with Tanner's men and kidnapping Tanner's wife. The film is not particularly visually interesting with novice film director Edwin Sherin doing better work on television, most notably Law and Order. With Lancaster as Valdez, the role of Tanner went to Jon Cypher. In this film, Cypher looks suspiciously like a thinner version of Lancaster, with the sideburns and mustache similar to how Lancaster appeared in The Leopard. One could argue that the oppressed Indians and Mexicans of Valdez is Coming are the American equivalent to Visconti's poor Sicilians.

Lawman is interesting for watching Lancaster with veterans Robert Ryan (the second of three films together), Lee J. Cobb and Joseph Wiseman. Michael Winner was a bit zoom happy with this film, his first of two with Lancaster. Lancaster is the marshal who comes to the town of Sabbath to collect several men wanted for an accidental murder. Lancaster's character has echoes of his previous roles in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Vera Cruz. Ultimately, the ending undermines Lancaster's declaration of movies being "the hero business".

As inconsistent as his films after Airport were, Lancaster remained interesting to watch. I remember seeing Cattle Annie and Little Britches in a theater where it played with no advertising. Being part of the audience was like being in a secret club, with members with special knowledge. I'm not sure how meaningful Burt Lancaster is to a generation that knows him mostly as an old guy in Field of Dreams, but in his words: "We're all forgotten sooner or later. But not films. That's all the memorial we should need or hope for."

Posted by peter at 07:01 PM | Comments (1)

August 09, 2005

Abbas Kiarostami Double Feature

Close-Up
Nema-ye Nazdik
Abbas Kiarostami - 1990
Facets Video DVD

Crimson Gold
Talaye Sorkh
Jafar Panahi - 2003
Wellspring DVD

I've been making a point of getting better acquainted with Middle Eastern cinema. Part of it is my own need to have a better sense of international film culture. Part of it is also a form of political action to have a little more knowledge of people who are usually stereotyped or marginalized. I do find it ironic that the films most available and interesting are from the country declared an "axis of evil".

If I have learned anything from Close-Up, it's that while not everyone may want to be Paris Hilton, the desire to impersonate a celebrity may be universal. A semi-employed print shop worker was arrested for impersonating Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami read the account in a newpaper and recreated the arrest as well as filmed the trial with the actual participants. The worker, Hossain Sabzian, not only convinced a comparatively well to do family that he was Makhmalbaf, but believed he could actually make a film. The highpoint is after Sabzian is released from his month long prison term and meets the person he has impersonated.

Both Kiarostami, who is heard but not seen, and Makhmalbaf show warmth towards Sabzian. We see Sabzian crying when he meets the man he pretended to be, and Makmalbaf embracing him as if they were the long lost brothers that they resemble. During the trial, Sabzian admitted that being an actor might be easier than being a director. Briefly, Sabzian was able to realize his dream.

Crimson Gold, written by Kiarostami, is also based on a true story. The film begins with the interior shot of a jewelry store being robbed. The shot is static with people moving in and out of frame, with the only camera movement being a very subtle zoom and tilt at the end of the shot. Like Close-Up, Crimson Gold is about the marginalized people in Teheren, people who are barely getting by. Much like Panahi's previous film, The Circle, the police and the application of law are criticized. More extreme than Close-Up is the depiction of class disparity in Teheren.

The story is of a pizza delivery man with an increasing sense of alienation, and sense of injustice towards himself and others. The jewelry store and the homes he delivers to represent unobtainable affluence and success. In a scene that seems to encapsulate Pahani's view of the situation of Hossein, the delivery man, and of Iranians in general, Hossein is prevented by the police from making a delivery
and can neither leave nor call his restaurant. The police are waiting to arrest people who have been attending an illegal party in one of the apartments, where men and women are dancing together. No one is immune from being a potential victim.

Near the end of Crimson Gold, Hossein walks around the enormous townhouse of a customer. He views Teheren from the roof, seen in a very wide shot. The shot was eye opening for me in that I had no idea how spread out Teheren is, kind of like Los Angeles with smaller buildings.

With two films based on true stories of two marginalized people in contemporary Teheren, this quote by Kiarostami from wsws.org is of interest: "The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad that as a result he may decide to change his life. We become more aware of the day-to-day hardships. As Shakespeare says, we're more like our dreams than we are our real lives."

Posted by peter at 07:15 PM

August 08, 2005

Santa Sangre

Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1989
Anchor Bay U.K. Region 2 DVD

After reading an article on Santa Sangre by Roger Ebert describing the film as unlike anything he had seen, I was intrigued. I finally saw the DVD. I even spent a couple minutes listening to the commentary between Jodorowky and someone named Alan Jones. Jodorowsky claimed that he wrote the screenplay entirely himself and that Roberto Leoni and Producer Claudio Argento shared credit in order to obtain Italian financing. Based on what I saw on the screen, Roger Ebert hasn't seen any of the films Claudio Argento usually produces, and Jodorowsky may be less than honest.

The film is about a young boy named Fenix who is the son of a circus strongman, Orgo, and an acrobat, Concha. Fenix also is a magician. His mother has also created a church centered on a created saint, a woman who was raped, had her arms cut off, and was left for dead. Her remaining pool of blood is claimed to be holy, but a visiting priest declares that it is only red paint. Concha finds Orgo with the tatooed lady and spills acid on Orgo's genitals. Orgo cuts off Concha's arms so she resembles the "saint" she has worshipped, and kills himself. Young Fenix goes mad seeing the fate of his parents, and is institutionalized. As an adult, Fenix is reunited with Concha. He provides his arms for her as part of a stage act. Additionally he murders women on her demand, acting without a will of his own. Concha claims she is keeping her son pure.

There is a scene where Fenix is watching James Whale's film of The Invisible Man. Concha reminds Fenix that he is invisible, that no one notices him. The filmmaker most echoed in Santa Sangre though is Tod Browning. Between the dwarf that his Fenix' best friend, as well as the several physically deformed people throughout the film, I was constantly reminded of Freaks. Unlike Freaks, Santa Sangre's freaks are not confined to the circus, but are part of the larger world. Another film by Browning that has a circus setting is The Unknown with Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower, and Joan Crawford as his protegee, found in the arms of the circus strongman. One of the key characters, Alma, is a deaf-mute like the parents of Lon Chaney. So much of Santa Sangre's basic narrative seems made up of various elements from Browning's films, the best of which were about performers and illusionists, often a small band against the outside world.

Some of the scenes of murder could easily be a part of Italian gialli, horror thrillers. This is hardly coincidental as Claudio Argento is the brother of Dario Argento, as well as his producer. The psycho-sexual aspects are a staple of giallo. Assuming that the Argento brothers have similar interests, the circus setting is not distant from Dario Argento's films which have performing artists as protagonists. The other credited writer, Roberto Leoni, has several thrillers to his name. Keeping in mind that Hitchcock's Psycho was a major influence on giallo, it should surprise no one that Fenix is ultimately a variation of Norman Bates, the most famous screen serial killer and mama's boy.

Actually, I liked Santa Sangre. For me, it was more watchable than the earlier Jodorowsky films I've seen, Fando and Lisa and El Topo. I can see why Ebert brought up comparisons with Fellini and Bunuel, but I also think there were other filmmakers that inspired Santa Sangre.

Posted by peter at 07:38 PM | Comments (2)

August 06, 2005

Zombie Double Feature

Dawn of the Dead
Zack Snyder - 2004
Universal Region 1 DVD

Zombie Lake
Le Lac des Morts Vivants
Jean Rollin - 1981
Image Region 1 DVD

A bit over a week ago, my significant other and I caught the last half hour of a movie called All Souls Day on the SciFi Channel. It was pretty obvious that this was a George Romero inspired zombie movie that took place in Mexico. Once again you had characters trying to outwit and outrun slow moving zombies. I mentioned to S.O. that a contributor to cinematical.com wrote that he felt the reason why Romero's recent Land of the Dead wasn't a hit was because most film audiences prefer the new fast moving zombies as seen in the remake of Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. The writer may have a point there. In Romero's defense, I think Universal could have promoted Land of the Dead better, rather than sticking it into theaters rapidly as a way of staunching their losses from Cinderella Man.
In any event, my S.O. encouraged me to look a little closer at zombies past and present.

While I'm not an expert on zombie movies, I have seen all of Romero's Dead films. I liked the recent Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. It's been decades since I last saw White Zombie (the movie, not the band) or I Walked with a Zombie, two older classics of the genre. I've also seen a couple of Lucio Fulci's zombie movies, but frankly, I'm not enthusiastic about Fulci's propensity for eyeball gouging.

I enjoy French cheese (the food), and I enjoy the cinematic fromage of Jean Rollin. I first learned about Rollin from a White Zombie, Rob, who's song Living Dead Girl is the title of one of Rollins better known films. Usually Rollin makes films about lesbian vampires who extremely sheer lingerie. In Zombie Lake, Rollin cobbled a slapdash story about Nazi zombies. The film has plot holes, continuity errors, and actors who are clearly embarrassed to seen in this mess.

Zombie Lake begins with a young woman tossing away a sign that indicates that a certain lake is to be undisturbed. Swimming nude, her presence awakens zombies in World War II era German uniforms. Zombie soldiers start emerging from the lake to eat the villagers of a small French town. The mayor explains to a reporter that the soldiers were shot by villagers and tossed into the lake. According to the mayor, scenes of black magic and witchcraft occurred at the lake. I should point out that the DVD has two audio tracks, French with NO subtitles, and an English language dub. Now I don't know if the film would have made any more sense with a better dub or with accurate subtitles, but even if one can gloss over the plot point of a cursed lake, another major plot point makes even less sense. One of the village women decides she would rather "collaborate" with a handsome, very Aryan soldier, than "resist" him. The woman later dies giving birth to a baby girl. During the present day scenes, the child of the soldier meets her zombie father. Maybe I'm being picky here, but I like some logic in my zombie movies. As best as I can tell, Zombie Lake takes place during the year it was filmed, about thirty-five years after the end of World War II. The daughter of the village woman and the soldier appears to be no older than twelve! Much of the lack of logic in Zombie Lake may be attributed to a screenplay by Jesus Franco, the man of many pseudonyms. Depending on one's point of view, the prolific Franco's films are surrealistic or incomprehensible or both.

Maybe Rollin was as embarrassed as the woman seen trying to stifle laughter in one scene. The director's credit goes to J.A. Laser. The Franco connections include frequent Franco star Howard Vernon as the mayor. The trippy score, kind of like John Cage doing lounge music, was by longtime Franco collaborator Daniel White. Zombie Lake lacks the intellectual pretensions of Rollin and the flat out loopiness of Franco. I give it a barely passing grade simply because this film is as funny as it is inept.

To put a more contemporary spin on it, Zombie Lake reminded me of Uwe Boll's House of the Dead. The difference is that in Zombie Lake, the underwater scenes are obviously shot in somebody's pool, and the zombie masks don't always fit. On the plus side, the full nudity of Zombie Lake is something Boll can only dream about.

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead is more problematic for me. The story is essentially the same with a small group of people trapped in a shopping mall, surrounded by flesh eating zombies. I liked an early scene when Sarah Polley's daughter, a recently transformed zombie, takes a bite out of Dad. Dad turns into a zombie and chases Polley into the bathroom. Once Polley escapes from her zombie husband, the film becomes less interesting. I admit that fast running zombies are scarier than zombies that just stumble and stagger. But with even with a bigger budget, Snyder has far less to say.
Romero's Dead films have always been understood to be about more than zombies. While one could enjoy his films as energized genre entries, the social commentary has always been to clear to miss. While Romero's Dawn of the Dead was a parody of consumer culture, Snyder's Dawn is just a bunch of people trapped in a shopping mall, fighting off zombies. There's a depth to Romero's humans and zombies that Snyder's version completely lacks.

While watching Dawn of the Dead, I listened to the director's commentary. A couple of times, Snyder complains that he was working with low budget and short shooting schedule. According to imdb.com, the budget was about 28 million dollars, and shooting took about three months. Universal was much more generous with Snyder in his first feature than they were with veteran Romero. Land of the Dead was produced for the more modest sum of 18 million dollars, with better known actors taking pay cuts to work with the beloved Romero. The zombies of George Romero may be slow moving, but the movies of George Romero have a lot of heart.

Posted by peter at 03:38 PM

August 05, 2005

The Religion Hour (My Mother's Smile)

L'Ora di Religione (Il Sorriso di Mia Madre)
Marco Bellocchio - 2002
Elleu Italy Region 2 DVD

Bernardo Bertolucci and Marco Bellocchio will probably always be linked for me. Both are about the same age, Bellocchio in 1939, Bertolucci in 1940. Bertolucci's first feature, The Grim Reaper was made in 1962. Bellocchio's debut feature, Fists in His Pocket followed in 1965. Both contributed short films to the omnibus feature Love and Anger. I first saw films by both filmmakers at about the same time in New York City around 1970. Unlike Bertolucci, Bellocchio has remained an Italian filmmaker both in language and subject matter. What this has meant is that his films have received inconsistent distribution theatrically. I have only recently started to catch up on some of Bellocchio's films through video and DVD.

Not being Italian or Catholic, I am limited in my understanding of certain aspects of The Religion Hour.
Still, there is much to appreciate in this film. Ernesto, a painter, and declared atheist, learns though a Vatican representative that his mother is being considered for sainthood. Ernesto is asked to testify to his mother's status as a martyr. While not containing the black comic anarchy of his early films, Bellocchio is still examining the institutions of the Church as he did in In the Name of the Father, and the institution of the family as in the aforementioned Fists in His Pocket and China is Near. Again Bellocchio has a protagonist who is placed in the situation of having to confront others with their hypocrisy while fighting to hold on to his ideals.

The film begins with a scene of Ernesto's young son, Leonardo, alone, talking, telling someone or something not seen to not bother him. Leonardo explains to his mother, Irene, that he has learned in school that God is omnipresent, and Leonardo would like to be totally alone. The Religion Hour of the title refers to the class Leonardo is taking in school. Leonardo and some other characters take the Catholic identity as a form of insurance to go to Heaven. Ernesto has to confront other family members who have pointedly identified as Catholic, and are campaigning for the mother's beatification for social status. The mother's smile of the title refers to the smile that the family members share. The meaning of the smile is subject to misunderstanding. Ernesto sees his mother's smile as an indication of passive indifference. Ernesto's smile is viewed as mocking and insulting by others.

Not knowing Italian, I was not able to take advantage of the interviews with Bellocchio and the actors on the DVD. In cineuropa.org there is an interview with Bellocchio discussing The Religion Hour. The conclusion of the interview can also be applied to Bellocchio's other film. "A persistent state of dissatisfaction should encourage us to fight. This film is not about resignation and is not depressing."

Posted by peter at 06:05 PM

August 04, 2005

Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo - 1971
Fremantle U.K. Region 0 DVD

I never saw Johnny Got His Gun at the time it was initially released, which according to imdb.com was on August 4, 1971. Trumbo's novel was so vivid, with many disturbing images. I had enough horrifying images imagined after reading the novel that I felt uncomfortable seeing these same images on the big screen. I decided to see the film now primarily because it seemed quite appropriate when the United States is again in a war, with some parallels to when Trumbo's film was released.

Dalton Trumbo's novel and film are about a young soldier who is severely wounded during World War One. Missing both arms and legs, with his face "scooped out" in his words, Joe Bonham is presumed to be a vegetable with no feelings. The film cuts between black and white scenes of the hospitalized Joe, mostly under blankets and bandages with only the top of his head visible, and scenes in color of Joe remembering his past or in his dreams. Much of the real and imagined horror of the novel is muted for the movie, yet Trumbo succeeded in conveying the frustration of having an active, thinking mind trapped by almost total physical inability.

Not all of Johnny Got His Gun succeeds in translation from novel to film. Some of the problems could be attributed to Trumbo obviously working with a limited budget. The dream sequences are very stagey, and some of the exterior scenes look like low budget Fellini. While some of the name actors appeared in this film as a way of supporting Trumbo and his vision, it is still disconcerting to see Donald Sutherland as a blue eyed, blond hippie Jesus. Jason Robards is better as Joe's father, the person who explains the relationship of war and democracy to his young son in flashback. The film was also the debut of Timothy Bottoms, released just two months before his more widely seen turn in The Last Picture Show.

That Johnny Got His Gun was made into a film seems almost inconceivable today. Trumbo's novel, published in 1939, questioned whether the goals of the first world war had been achieved in view of the number of dead and wounded soldiers following the armistice. The novel was republished in 1970 when the United States was involved in Viet Nam. Trumbo, a blacklisted screen writer in the Fifties, had by the end of the Sixties re-established his career more successfully than any of the other Hollywood Ten. Perhaps it was more commercially viable in the early Seventies, but it is difficult to imagine a film expressing clear anti-war sentiments made by Hollywood today.

One could almost imagine Trumbo being blacklisted again for this statement made in 1940:
"If they say to us, 'We must fight this war to preserve democracy,' let us say to them, 'There is no such thing as democracy in time of war. It is a lie, a deliberate deception to lead us to our own destruction. We will not die in order that our children may inherit a permanent military dictatorship.'"

Posted by peter at 05:07 PM

August 03, 2005

What the Bleep Do We (K)now?

William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente - 2004
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

First, some brief information about myself. I am a Buddhist, and have been for over thirty years. More specifically, what I practice is Nichiren Buddhism. This is the practice that includes the repetition of the phrase Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, and the belief in simultaneous cause and effect as symbolized by the lotus flower. I took the time to see What the Bleep because several fellow Buddhists love this film. I even know one person who has seen it several times.

Here is where I get in trouble with some people: As a Buddhist, I can understand why this film is popular among some of my friends, and why this film has become something of a grass roots hit. But the film historian and critic in me has to also acknowledge that a film one agrees with philosophically is not always a good film. If that were true, Stanley Kramer would the great American filmmaker.

The film tries to convey quite a few thoughts, mostly concerned with quantum physics. At the most basic level, the various talking heads, most with science backgrounds, explain how our thoughts influence our interaction with the world. One of the scientists explains how people are one with the universe. All well and good, no arguments from me here. Where What the Bleep stumbles is in the choices the filmmakers have made in the assembly and presentation of these ideas.

Perhaps the intention was to not have the viewer prejudge the speaker, but we never know who those talking heads are until the end of the movie. I can understand that point of view in the case of the person who is channelling a 35,000 year old mystic named Ramtha. When I don't know who the scientist or physician is on screen, I have to wonder who I am listening to and why? Some of the computer generated illustrations are helpful for showing how neurons and atoms theoretically work.

Where the film is wrongheaded is in its narrative presentation of the ideas in action. Marlee Martin portrays a photographer having a very bad day. Her interaction with her boss, her room mate, and participants at a wedding are coupled with computer generated graphics to help explain how Martin influences her world with her particular emotional baggage. Some of the concepts that What the Bleep purports to explain have been portrayed in other, much better films.

To show cause and effect, Run, Lola, Run repeats the same story three times. The first two times, Lola actions bring about tragedy, while the third time shows that things can change with a little politeness and accomodation to others. Robert Bresson's last film, L'Argent does a masterful job of explaining through the actions of the characters, the ripple effect of one person and the unintended consequences upon others. The interconnectedness of people has been handled in interesting ways particulary by Robert Altman and Guy Ritchie.

It may be somewhat simple and simple minded, but to show the idea of oneness with the universe, I love the final scene from The Incredible Shrinking Man. After continually getting smaller, and battling a spider, Grant Williams, in voice over narration, accepts the fact that he is going to keep on shrinking beyond human comprehension. The camera shot is his point of view, looking up a the sky, while blades of grass tower around him. Thanks to the Internet Movie Data Base, here is that soliloquy:
"I was continuing to shrink, to become...what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends is man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I STILL EXIST!"

While author Richard Matheson used a Judeo-Christian framework, the conclusion for The Incredible Shinking Man is both a universal picture, and a Universal Picture.


Posted by peter at 04:12 PM

August 02, 2005

Persona

Ingmar Bergman - 1966
MGM Region 1 DVD

Today's poll at the Internet Movie Data Base was a vote for the greatest living director. The poll was inspired by Roger Ebert's declaration, following the release of his new film, Saraband, that Bergman is the best director alive. As far as the imdb.com voters are concerned, Bergman runs a distant third behind Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. I have to wonder how many people who voted for Bergman did so on the basis of actually seeing his films, or based on his reputation. It's been over thirty years since the release of Cries and Whispers, Bergman's most financially successful film in the U.S. Considering that Bergman declared himself retired from directing films at the time that Spielberg and George Lucas were ascendant, I have to ask how meaningful he is to a younger generation of film goers.

The poll spurred me to see the one Bergman film I currently have in my DVD collection. The working title was Kinematografi which seems very fitting. More than anything, I think Persona is Bergman's meditation on filmmaking. From the images of the projector and film at the beginning to the fade out of the projector carbon at the end, the viewer is always reminded that a film is being viewed. Some of the shock value of images of film ripped or burned in the projector is lost seeing the film as a DVD rather than projected on a theater screen. Still, there is something new to glean from seeing Persona again.

One thing different about seeing Persona on DVD is that I chose the English language option. I probably will never do that again. The actress who dubbed Bibi Andersson had too high a voice, almost like Jennifer Tilly. I had wished that Andersson had dubbed her own voice. Her English was good enough to make her American film debut in Duel at Diablo, also in 1966. Andersson also starred in Bergman's first English language film, The Touch, in 1971. I watched the film dubbed in order to see all of Bergman's images without the distraction of subtitles. I felt like I was a little more conscious of the interplay between Andersson and Liv Ullman seeing the entire frame rather than looking at the bottom to read the dialogue.

In having the film's narrative be about an actress who chooses to be mute, Bergman has Ullman personify the power of the image. Ullman is challenged, primarily by Andersson as to if her silence and other actions are genuine or are manifestations of acting. Ullman's actress challenges the gap between her stage image and her sense of self. Stage and screen imagery is challenged by the reality of documented images of war - a monk burning himself in Viet Nam, and Jews rounded up by Nazi soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. Andersson voices her admiration for Ullman's devotion to acting while Bergman seems to be questioning the value of filmmaking in the face of much greater human suffering.

I have seen Persona at least three times. Almost forty years old, this film is still vital for me. Perhaps because of the sparse settings of the interiors, and the rock and shrub exteriors of Faro, Persona does not look moored to a specific time or place. Perhaps Bergman's own feelings about Persona are best:
"At some time or another, I said that Persona saved my life - that is not exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up. Today I feel that in Persona, and later in Cries and Whispers, I had go as far as I could go. And that in these two, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover."

Posted by peter at 07:30 PM

August 01, 2005

Francoise Sagan Double Feature

Bonjour Tristesse
Otto Preminger - 1958
Columbia Tri Star Region 1 DVD

A Few Hours of Sunlight
Un Peu de Soleil Dans l'eau Froide
Jacques Deray -1971
Vanguard DVD

After finally seeing Bonjour Tristesse on cable a couple of years ago, I decided that while I might not read anything by author Francoise Sagan, I would see a couple more films based on her novels. My significant other and I saw La Chamade a couple of months ago. More recently, I saw A Few Hours of Sunlight. Additionally, I was encouraged to read Sagan, so I read Bonjour Tristesse in addition to seeing the film on DVD.

For me it was jarring to see Preminger's film immediately after reading Sagan's novel. Jean Seberg was the right age for the role of Cecile, the self absorbed 17 year old, and looked similar to Sagan with her boyishly short hair. The film takes the novels first person narrative from the point of view of Cecile, but that point of view is expressed differently in the shift from book author (Sagan) to film author (Preminger). What makes the difference is that while Sagan was writing for a young French audience, Preminger's characters are Anglo-American in both speech and attitudes. Cecile's father, played by David Niven, maintains his facade as the English gentleman by sleeping in the little guest house, while Sagan's roue of a father clearly shares his bedroom with his mistresses. Sagan's Cecile actually discusses a passage from Bergson, while Preminger's Cecile drops the names of Pascal and Spinoza. Perhaps it is in part the difference between what one can do with literature as opposed to film, but Sagan's Cecile is an intellectual slacker, while Preminger's Cecile sometimes appears as an American teenage girl who happened to vacation at the Riviera.

There is also some parts of the film that Preminger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents seemed to put in that may have been intended to lighten Sagan, but seem to play to a tourist's view of France. Created for the film are three identical sisters, played by the same actress, as the villa's maid. A scene of a town dance seems to have been created to show American audiences how free spirited French people are. A minor character in Sagan's novel, a drunk South American millionaire, is too cute by half. The trailer, included in the DVD, indicates that audiences were sold a more lighthearted romp than what was written by Sagan.

The difference could also be that literary audiences are more receptive of precocious writers and literary characters. Sagan was 18 when she published her novel about a 17 year old girl who is possessive of her father, and undermines his relationship with Anne, a woman he is about to marry. The novel was an international success, and Preminger's film was the first of many films based on Sagan's novels. Sagan had a long, successful career as a novelist that was undermined by her novels eventually becoming formulaic, and addictions to alchohol and cocaine. Jean Seberg was 18 when Otto Preminger cast her as Joan of Arc following a publicized nationwide talent search. The film, Saint Joan, was a box office failure upon its initial release. I have only been able to see this film in a VHS copy and feel that it has been seriously undervalued. Seberg was only three years younger than Sagan, and with her hair still short from playing Joan, looked like a prettier version of Sagan. While Bonjour Tristesse was a modest success, Seberg never was accepted as a star by American audiences. If Seberg was never a star, she became attained icon status having co-starred in Breathless. She also made a second film based on a Sagan novel, La Recreation. Seberg's life was as tumultuous as that of some of Sagan's characters with two unhappy marriages and several affairs. Seberg ended her life following harrassment by the F.B.I. for her political activities in 1979. Seberg wanted to be taken seriously from the beginning, while audiences prefer young girls to be cute and unchallenging.

In addition to writing novels that were filmed, Sagan made an uncredited appearance in Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. Also appearing in that film was a young actress named Claudine Auger. Not only did Auger star in a Sagan based film eleven years later, but she made two films in 1971 with Barbara Bach. The former Bond girl from Thunderball also was in the giallo, Black Belly of the Tarantula, with the future Bond girl of The Spy who Loved Me.

A Few Hours of Sunlight is a much less interesting film than Bonjour Tristesse. Marc Porel, who looks something like a young Alain Delon, plays a journalist who is going through some unexplained existential crisis. He fall in love with small town married woman, Auger, and dumps his live in American girl friend, Bach. Porel acts like a cad to Auger once she moves in with him.

Here is where Sagan repeats herself. In Bonjour Tristesse, Deborah Kerr overhears David Niven telling his mistress that his marriage proposal wasn't serious. Kerr hurries to her car and is found dead. Her death is officially an accident although the book and film suggest it may have been suicide. In A Few Hours of Sunlight, Auger overhears Porel in conversation, runs off, and is found to have committed suicide.

I've seen a couple of good films by Jacques Deray, but A Few Hours isn't one of them. Of course it doesn't help that the DVD is a standard frame version that crops off parts of the side, the color is very faded, and there is a constant hiss during scenes that should be silent. Seeing a very young Gerard Depardieu as Auger's brother is a tiny bright spot in a dull film. By the time Porel begins to reflect on the error of his ways, I was glad the film was over.

Bonjour Tristesse ends with an extreme close up of Jean Seberg. Looking at a mirror, she is literally reflecting on her deliberate shallowness. Even if the shot lacks the sense of loss explained in Sagan's novel, seeing Seberg in tears is heartbreaking. Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse is not the same as Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, but that final shot is where he gets it exactly right.

Posted by peter at 07:18 PM