July 31, 2007
A couple of thoughts on Michelangelo Antonioni
I feel sideswiped by the one-two punch of the deaths of Ingmar Bergman, and now Michelangelo Antonioni. By coincidence, I picked up Story of a Love Affair, Antonioni's first feature, from the Denver Public Library last Friday. There are others who can analyze the film better than I can. What I can say is that one can see the elements of future Antonioni films - the doomed love affairs, the empty spaces, even photographs that hide more than they reveal.
Lucia Bose in Story of a Love Affair (1950)
As Michael Guillen can testify, I've even flown across an ocean to see some rare Antonioni films. I wrote about I Vinti almost four months ago. Hopefully it won't be too long before someone makes that film, along with Antonioni's other film made in 1953, The Lady without Camileas, available on DVD.
Watching Story of a Love Affair, I was thinking first how the film developed with a plot line similar to something from a James Cain story. From there I was thought how a few of Antonioni's films are mystery stories of sorts. Consider how in The Story of a Love Affair and Blow Up are about the misreading of clues that were supposedly documented by photographs. A woman disappears in L'Avventura and her friends forget about looking for her. One man switches identity with a dead man whom he vaguely resembles in The Passenger and no one seems to notice. As James Brown wrote for Senses of Cinema, Antonioni was mostly interested in the personal mysteries of his characters.
Michelangelo Antonioni at the screening of the restored Story of a Love Affair, greeted by Dario Argento
July 30, 2007
Scenes from watching the films by Ingmar Bergman
Reading about the death of Ingmar Bergman, watching other films, much less writing about them seems trivial. While I have been thinking about some of Bergman's films, especially Persona, I have also been reflecting on the act of seeing Bergman's films.
My introduction to his films came in the form of his screenplays. My mother handed a book she got from the library. I didn't spend much time reading any of the screenplays, but I could never forget the still of the knight playing chess with Death. I could have seen Hour of the Wolf during my senior year of high school, but was talked out of it by an adult whose judgement I trusted. In those days before home video, I didn't have the opportunity to see any of the older films by Bergman until I went to New York.
I spent a good chunk of my sophomore year at NYU going to an out of the way theater called the Elgin where they had a Bergman retrospective. I didn't see everything, but I did see many of the key films. What I do recall after over thirty years is that I found that some of Bergman's films were more entertaining than I was lead to believe, particularly The Magician. I also remember finding it rather funny to see Max Von Sydow, by then an established international star, in a bit part as a gas station attendant in Wild Strawberries.
During one summer vacation during my time at NYU, I went back to Denver. At the little two screen art theater run by one of the guys who later co-founded the Telluride Film Festival, I finally got around to see The Passion of Anna. Afterwards, I couldn't understand why I had put off seeing it in New York. On my way out, I encountered a young woman that I had vaguely known in high school. It was the first time we had seen each other since graduation. She was coming to see Bergman as I was on my way out. During that brief moment it was as if, unlike anyone else we both knew, we were able to share a secret language.
July 29, 2007
Raoul Walsh heads for the hills
Esther and the King
Raoul Walsh - 1960
Diamond Entertainment Region 1 DVD
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw
Raoul Walsh - 1958
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD
In The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, Jayne Mansfield sings "If the Hills of San Francisco could only talk". Judging from the actresses featured in a couple of Raoul Walsh's last films, the veteran filmmaker was more interested in the geography of human body, especially the twin peaks of Mansfield and Daniela Rocca. This should be no surprise to those who recall a Walsh gag where a female character is refered to as the lay of the land. If that wasn't enough, one could imagine Walsh yelling bring on the dancing girls.
1960 was a banner year for Jewish biblical stories on film. My grandparents took me to see The Story of Ruth. I missed out on the theatrical run of Esther and the King though. My parents probably read Bosley Crowther's New York Times review which began, "The beautiful Bible story of Esther has been thumped into a crude costume charade . . ." The film is hardly vintage Walsh, but it does deserve better than the crummy pan and scan DVD release currently available. Made during the peak of Bible inspired films as well as the Italian peplums, Esther and the King is loaded with cheesecake and beefcake.
The beefcake doesn't get much beefier than Richard Egan. Between this film and The Three Hundred Spartans, I've seen more of Richard Egan's massive chest, legs and even his teeth than I ever wanted. Much of the cheesecake is provided by the plush Daniella Rocca who does a striptease ending with a display of her voluptuous chest. Physically, Rocca and Egan are a better match than Egan with Joan Collins. Compared to the many well endowed women in Esther and the King, Collins looks like a veritable waif, albeit one with an abundance of eye shadow. And although Walsh, who co-wrote the film, liked to boast about his way with the women in his autobiography, there is a discomfitting scene of a nearly nude Egan wrestling with his equally beefy soldiers.
Even though the film is based on a bible story, Walsh may have gotten it in his mind to create a post World War II allegory. When characters talk about the fate of the Jews using such key words as scapegoat, annihilation and holocaust, it suggests that Walsh was trying to give the film some deeper meaning. There is also a scene where the chief bad guy prays to a statue that looks unmistakably devilish. Esther and the King is best when it can not be taken seriously, especially in the anachronistically modern musical scenes. Some of choreography was re-used for "Walk Like an Egyptian".
Tim Lucas was gracious enough to email a response to my inquiry about how much of Esther and the King was actually directed by cinematographer Mario Bava. In his forthcoming book on Bava, Lucas has devoted an entire chapter on the making of Esther and the King. What I will say is that there are a couple of scenes that visually resemble some of Bava's future work as director, based on the use of color and lighting, especially one brief scene of a whipping, with both man bathed in red light.
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is more or less about the end of the West and the triumph of capitalism and industrialisation. What may be of greater significance is that according to IMDb, this was the first westerns to be shot in Spain, making Walsh the unwitting godfather of the spaghetti western. The comic peak is early in the opening scenes with Robert Morley. Walsh may have had a hand in the casting of older actors like Henry Hull and Bruce Cabot, both of whom worked with Walsh previously. It is an easily forgettable film that might have been nominally better had the film starred Jane Russell instead of Jayne Mansfield. Attending the Raoul Walsh retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art almost thirty years ago, I have not forgotten the image of Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. Russell took on everybody, even Richard Egan. Walsh has a shot of Russell overlooking Hawaii, standing defiantly as if she was John Wayne surveying the west. Jayne Mansfield saves Fractured Jaw and Kenneth More, while Joan Collins saves Persia and Richard Egan. In examining Raoul Walsh's filmography, it seems like that iconic image of Russell on top of the peak was Walsh's visual acknowledgment that after The Revolt of Mamie Stover his long career would soon be entering a steep decline.
Posted by peter at 07:47 PM
July 27, 2007
DVDs in your BVDs
Christina/Christina y la Reconversion Sexual
Francisco Lara - 1984
Private Screening Collection Region 1 DVD
Love Circles/La Ronde de l'amour
Gerard Kikoine - 1985
Private Screening Collection Region 1 DVD
I don't know if anyone else writing about films has this problem, but I feel that any time I get DVD screeners, I am obligated to write about them. Especially as the number of screeners I receive is relatively small, there is no reason not to write about them. What gets in the way is when the film in question is not really designed for any real critical scrutiny. This is obviously the case in these two DVDs of soft-core films produced by the unstoppable Harry Alan Towers. These two films are from the 1980s, and could have easily been left there.
Seeing Christina has confirmed what I have long suspected - that it's more fun to read about Jewel Shepard and her films. This Christina is introduced by one character as the "playgirl of the Western World". Kidnapped by a gang of lesbian terrorists known as the 10th of November group, she escapes their clutches only to be held ransom by a suave smuggler named Alain. The film is hugely padded with Shepard's couplings with various men and women. Whomever the audience is for this film, it's not me. Not only does the European cast sound badly dubbed in English, but Shepard does as well. If you miss big hair and bad disco music, you might want to take a peak at Christina. The film opens with Shepard dancing topless, and closes with her dancing nude, in what appears to be the same disco set. For me, all that was missing was for Shepard to lip synch to the Andrea True Connection.
Love Circles is dubiously even less erotic or entertaining. No one who reads this web site would confuse Love Circles with La Ronde. The film jumps from character to character, going around the world from Paris to other exotic locales before ending up in the same Parisian disco. The height of wit in Love Circles is when a man is bedded by a pair of Hong Kong twins, and is befuddled by the butterfly tattoo that seems to switch cheeks. Somewhere Arthur Schnitzler is cursing himself for not thinking of that first. Christina benefits from a modicum of imagination with a filmmaker who has an eye for the symbolic aspects of architecture. Either way, without setting the bar very high, both films make me miss the nuttiness of Jesus Franco's Venus in Furs, in its very unique way Harry Alan Towers' towering achievement.
July 25, 2007
Simon Sauve - 2004
Atopia Region 1 DVD
The first images of Jimmy Weber show him barely keeping his head above water. This is the perfect visual metaphor for a guy who seems to be living from one scam to the next, the kind of occupations Weber would call "Jimmywork". In the website statement by Simon Sauve, he suggests that Jimmywork was a documentary that eventually evolved into something different than might have been initially planned. For the most part it is deliberately unclear how much of the film is actual documentary, staged enactments or re-enactments, or pure fiction.
Shot digitally, and transfered to film, Jimmywork is primarily in grainy black and white. Kind of like The Blair Witch Project, even if what we see isn't real, it looks real. What follows is the story of a fifty year old guy who decides to unsuccessfully recreate himself as a maker of television commercials. Weber's idea is to film commercials of the rodeo in the rural Quebec town of St. Tite (sounds like "tit"), for play on U.S. television in Oklahoma and Texas. As this small community has a large stadium specifically built to host the rodeo, it is indirectly stated that the rodeo is doing fine attracting as many attendees as they can handle without additional advertising. His plan to film commercials eventually rejected, Weber comes up with a nutty scheme to "kidnap" the 12,000 cases of beer held in storage for the rodeo audience.
The film ends with a sort of happy resolution, although it uncertain whether Weber has ever really learned from anything from his past misadventures. Sauve's blend of documentary and fiction is fairly seamless. Jimmywork seems almost like a con job on the part of the filmmaker, the story of a fabulist as told by a fabulist. That may have been the point of the creation of Jimmywork.
Posted by peter at 11:31 AM
July 23, 2007
The Dream Life
The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties
The New Press - 2003
I'm of a mixed mind about J. Hoberman's book The Dream Life. At over 400 pages, there are times when I think there is too much, and other times when some of his themes could have been explored even more fully. While his book explores the symbiotic relationship between Washington D.C. and Hollywood in the Sixties, Hoberman goes beyond to explore Watergate and the beginning of the Reagan years.
Hoberman discusses how the Western, particularly the twilight Western, became a viable genre again during the years that Texan Lyndon Johnson was President. Based on that premise, it would follow that more there should have been more discussion of Dwight Eisenhower. It would follow that there would be a connection of Ike being from Texas, an American war hero who saved Europe from Hitler, and President of the United States during an era when Westerns were at their peak both on the big and small screen.
Throughout The Dream Life, Hoberman discusses Westerns as illustrations of a variety of political agendas. That the revisionist Westerns such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue were indirect critiques of the war in Vietnam was pretty much understood during the time those films were released. Hoberman discusses how John Ford attempted to reframe that same conflict as a documentary with the same archetypes as in his own Westerns.
In terms of straight film history, one of the more interesting parts is about the making of the film PT 109, based on the book about JFK heroism in the South Pacific during World War II. Unknown to those of us who were in the latter part of elementary school was Joe Kennedy's involvement with film production or Gloria Swanson, or John Kennedy's relationship with Gene Tierney. According to Hoberman's sources, Warren Beatty was Jackie Kennedy's choice to portray her husband. Beatty turned down the role. Rejected by JFK were Peter Fonda, Jeffrey Hunter and Warner Brothers contract player Edd "Kookie" Byrnes. Raoul Walsh was initially proposed to direct until Kennedy saw Marines, Let's Go. Lewis Milestone got the job only to be replaced by Leslie Martinson. If the film PT 109 was to be helmed by a veteran director, it seems surprising that John Ford was not offered the job as he had made the PT boat film They Were Expendable, plus he was one of the most visible Irish-Catholics in Hollywood.
More might have been made of LBJ pal Jack Valenti's appointment as head of the MPAA. While the new production code was introduced in part to allow Hollywood to compete directly with the more adult films imported from Europe, it is also an example of liberalism turned on its head. Whatever idealism Jack Valenti may have had in creating the code in freeing American filmmakers instead turned into a method of censorship of expression. While the code was effective in diminishing interest in imported films, Valenti was proven wrong in assuming that Americans would distinguish between differing types of films marked as being for adult audiences, lumping A Clockwork Orange and The Damned with Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas.
Of course Hoberman's book lacks a definitive ending with Watergate lawyer turned actor turned potential Presidential candidate Fred Thompson's presumed candidacy. A more complete history of Washington D.C. and Hollywood might not only discuss how Richard Nixon's career began with his involvement on the House of Un-American Activities that begat the Hollywood blacklist, but also the defeat of a one-time Hollywood actress who turned to politics, Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Posted by peter at 01:43 PM
July 21, 2007
Frank Tashlin: Day after Day
The Glass Bottom Boat
Frank Tashlin - 1966
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
Frank Tashlin - 1967
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD
It was fitting that the last film to be produced in Cinemascope was directed by Frank Tashlin, with cinematography by Leon Shamroy. The two worked together on The Girl Can't Help It prior to the two Doris Day spy films. Ideally, Fox and Warner Brothers will be inspired to give DVD releases to two much better examples of Tashlin's work, Bachelor Flat and The Alphabet Murders, respectively. What the two films have in common aside from the star and espionage premise, is how Tashlin was able to inject personal touches into films that were projects for hire.
In The Glass Bottom Boat, Dom DeLuise seems to be doing his best to impersonate Jerry Lewis as a bungling sound sytem installer. This is not only with the pratfalls, stepping on a cake and getting his foot stuck in a vase, but also with the verbal schtick of incomplete phrases. Like many of Tashlin's other films, there are references to other movies as when Doris Day more or less mimics Greta Garbo as Mata Hari. Day also sings a couple of stanzas from "Que Sera, Sera", her signature song that was in The Man who knew too Much. Better are some of the asides as when Rod Taylor's goofy sidekick, Dick Martin in caught in bed with General Edward Andrews and comments about the two shopping for furniture in the morning. Where Tashlin's hand is most apparent is in Rod Taylor's kitchen of the future, especially with the mechanical vacuum cleaner that pops out like an eager puppy to clean any messes on the kitchen floor. The Glass Bottom Boat, while not unawatchable, is not particularly funny either.
Judging from the fact that Tashlin had a co-writing credit on Caprice, he seems to have had more freedom with his second Doris Day vehicle. Visually, this is the stronger of the two films based on some of the more unusual camera angles Tashlin and Shamroy employ. Setting aside the inconsistent comedy, Caprice suggests that had he wanted to, or had been given the opportunity, Tashlin could have done well shooting relatively straight action thrillers, or at least something along the lines of one of the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin. In this story about industrial espionage between cosmetic companies, Day and Richard Harris walk into a studio where a commercial is being shot by Shamroy making a cameo appearance. One might assume that Harris is speaking for Tashlin with the line, "If you've seen one studio, you've seen them all", a line that might refer to Tashlin's own career in the Sixties. The setting, with the various bathing beauties on behalf of adverstising easily recalls Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?.
The two ski scenes are genuinely thrilling to watch, each featuring monochrome figures, one pursuing the other. The more serious tone of Caprice is unusual for a Tashlin film, although as a part of Day's filmography is not so out of place with The Man who knew too Much or Midnight Lace. One of the best gags of Caprice involves Day following a model to a movie theater where the film playing is Caprice. And although Day was game enough to do the physical comedy Tashlin is known for, and gives an interesting double reading from Hamlet, the best verbal and visual joke of Caprice, one winces anytime Day, looking every bit her forty-two years, is refered to as "young woman".
July 20, 2007
Hell to Eternity
Phil Karlson - 1960
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
While I am glad that Warner Brothers finally got around to releasing Hell to Eternity on DVD, I wish someone would have had the foresight to interview Guy Gabaldon or better, had him do a commentary track, before he died last August. While Gabaldon loved the movie about his life enough to name a son after Jeffrey Hunter, even a superficial examination reveals discrepencies between Galbadon's own experience and the version filmed by Phil Karlson. A closer look also reveals that in spite of any good intentions on the part of the filmmakers, Hell to Eternity is as conflicted about whatever it is trying to say about racism as Gabaldon is shown being conflicted about his own sense of identity.
While Hell to Eternity is one of the first of the few films that addressed the treatment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the film simultaneously ignores that Gabaldon was of Mexican descent. One of the constant themes of the film is the idea of being "all American". As shown in Hell to Eternity, speaking English and adopting the culture was not enough for Japanese immigrants or their children. With the narrative and casting of Jeffrey Hunter, there is no discussion of the discrimination that Gabaldon faced as a Latino in the Marines.
And yet . . . overlooking that Jeffrey Hunter was the same age as Guy Gabaldon in 1960, and too old to play the eighteen year old war hero, and giving a pass to the fictionalization of Gabaldon's life, Hell to Eternity remains a moving, and sometimes heartbreaking film. Through Hunter, the film addresses the contradiction of the U.S. government specifically interning Japanese-Americans though not those of German or Italian descent, as well as the initial rejection of Japanese-Americans in the military. Gabaldon is presented as a person who, if not in some kind of conflict with others, is conflicted within, an outsider who finds himself identifying not only with the Japanese family that adopted him, but with by extension, the Japanese. On the battlefields of Saipan, Gabaldon identification with his military family is such that he becomes a virtual killing machine after witnessing the murder of a Marine Corps buddy played by David Janssen. In a scene in Hawaii, where there was no internment of the Japanese, Hunter ends up with a caucasian reporter portrayed by Patricia Owens, while Janssen and Vic Damone are with two Japanese women. If Gabaldon is not battling his darker impulses or other men, he is depicted here in a battle of the sexes, conquering the unattainable white woman. Karlson cuts directly from a shot of Hunter and Owens in embrace to footage of naval cannons blasting away, as if to say love, as well as life, is a battlefield.
What the real Guy Gabaldon may have seen in Jeffrey Hunter's performance that struck him as true was the intensity that Hunter projects, the flashes of rage provoked from witnessing discrimination or the death of his best friend in the Corps. Sessue Hayakawa brings his considerable dignity to the role of the Japanese general who commits ritual suicide in front of his troops after ordering them to surrender. Hayakawa's wife, silent star Tsuru Aoki made her last film appearance as the woman Gabaldon called "Mama-san". There is a bit of coincidence that approximately five years after they appeared together in Hell to Eternity, Jeffrey Hunter starred in the pilot episode of "Star Trek", while George Takei, who played his "brother" George, went on to co-star in the series. They is much to admire about Hell to Eternity, but there is still room for the true story of Guy Gabaldon to be told.
July 17, 2007
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
Nathan Juran - 1958 (signed as Nathan Hertz)
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD
Does anyone know if Pedro Almodovar saw Attack of the 50 Foot Woman? The poster from the original film has an erotic promise of an ordinary sized man with the giant, beautiful Allison Hayes. This promise is even discussed in Christopher Guest's 1993 remake, an offer made by the giant sized Daryl Hannah. In Amodovar's film Talk to Her there is the depiction of that erotic fantasy at its most graphic. When looking at the 1958 poster, I have to wonder how many of those tiny men are actually running away from the giant Allison Hayes, and if any took the chance to peak under her very short skirt.
Rewatching the first Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, it seems that there was always a self-knowing sense of humor in Mark Hanna's screenplay. What has helped elevate the film to cult status is Nathan Juran's craftsmanship, with better cinematography and lighting used creatively to disguise the limited budget. While the double exposures showing an almost transluscent giant as big as his spaceship betrays the cheap special effects, the scene inside the spaceship with the faces of two men distorted against glass globes is a triumph of imagination with limited funds.
I hadn't intended on seeing the HBO remake, but the rental company twice sent me that version in an envelope describing the first version. The second version gives the story a feminist slant as well as playing up the comic possibilities of the first film. Even so, the first version remains the funnier, and more entertaining film. Unlike the remake which attempts to be both a spoof of Fifties sci-fi movies and a social critique, the first film clearly articulates its theme of unfulfilled, and impossible sexual desire. This theme is both stated verbally when a one of the doctors treating the giant Allison Hayes describes her irrational love of unfaithful husband William Hudson as similar to that of a middle aged man "longing for a twenty year old girl". More eloquent is the distaff parody of King Kong with Hayes peering through a window in search of the two-timing lout.
Fifties bad girl and Playboy Playmate, Yvette Vickers, provides a commentary track with film historian Tom Weaver. Laughing her way through the film, Vickers discusses the making of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman as well as her own career. Clearly enjoying the recognition received from a film her agent assured her "no one would see", the voice belies a woman who will be seventy-one in August. The best special effect of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is the sight of Vickers, wearing one of her form fitting dresses, doing her rock and roll tribute to Rita Hayworth as Gilda.
Posted by peter at 10:50 AM
July 16, 2007
Miss Barbara Stanwyck's 100th Birthday: Roustabout
John Rich - 1964
Paramount Region 1 DVD
According to several sources, the part of Maggie Morgan, the carnival owner in Roustabout was originally offered to Mae West. Aside from the part being a supporting role, it should be no surprise that West turned down this opportunity for a "comeback". In Myra Breckinridge, West received top billing, playing another version of her on screen persona. That Barbara Stanwyck took the role may have been as a favor to producer Hal Wallis as well as an admission that at age 57, her choices of roles in theatrical films was limited. However the casting worked, Stanwyck also shares the film with Leif Erickson, the co-star of the Wallis production, Sorry, Wrong Number. In her second to last theatrical film, Stanwyck could be viewed as doing a warm-up for her role as the matriarch of television's "The Big Valley". The role of Maggie Morgan probably could have been taken by one of Stanwyck's peers without any major difference to the film. Stanwyck's performce is primarily as testament to her sense of professionalism.
Lifelong movie fan Elvis Presley was reportedly happy to share the screen with Stanwyck. As a Presley vehicle, the film is fairly entertaining, although any attempts to make Presley more in tune with 1964 America seem to confirm Bob Dylan's lyrics that something was happening, but neither Elvis, Tom Parker nor Hal Wallis seemed to know exactly what that was. Roustabout was filmed around the time that Beatlemania took over the United States in March of 1964. By the time the film was released in November, A Hard Day's Night would help make Presley, as well as Presley movies, look like squaresville.
With the screenplay written during the peak of the folk music revival of the early Sixties, Presley's character of Charlie Rogers is introduced as a controversial folk singer. This being a Hal Wallis production, Presley's role is a variation on the short tempered loner of Loving You. Singing to an audience of college students, Rogers sings a protest song about . . . legacy students! The song, "Poison Ivy League" is closer to Tom Lehrer than Bob Dylan. There is the punning mention of "the sons of the rich" in this song. Offended students including perennial lunkhead Norman Grabowski gang up on Rogers, who is advised by the police to leave town. Riding his motorcycle, wearing a black leather jacket, I kept on expecting a replay of The Wild One with Presley in the Brando role, and one of the actresses to run up and ask Elvis what he was rebelling against. (And of course the patented Elvis sneer with the response of "Whaddya got?")
Driving Stanwyck and screen daughter Joan Freeman in a jeep, Leif Erickson causes Presley to get into an accident, damaging the motorcycle. Presley falls in love with Freeman, gets talked into working for the carnival by Stanwyck, and keeps on getting on Erickson's bad side. Elvis works initially as a roustabout, doing the various jobs needed to get the carnival set up and running until Stanwyck discovers that her new hire can sing, and even better, attract crowds to the carnival. Rival carny owner Pat Buttram decides that if he can't buy out Stanwyck, he'll try to get her new singer. Presley does one carnival related song about hula girls "shaking their grass". Better is his cover of Leiber and Stoller's "Little Egypt". In the Elvis filmography this is one of the more watchable films although television veteran John Rich maintains a sit-com style of two-shots and group shots.
The role of Maggie Morgan was essentially thankless. The billing Stanwyck received belies the relatively small part she has in Roustabout. Taking on the burden of running a carnival, and adding to it unwavering loyalty to the alcoholic Erickson, this is Stanwyck at her most self-effacing, with the possible exception of her last big screen role in The Night Walker. At least compared to some of the films her contemporaries were doing, Stanwyck was able to end her screen career with a modicum of dignity.
July 15, 2007
My Belated Bob Clark Double Feature
Bob Clark - 1974
Critical Mass Region 1 DVD
Bob Clark - 1967
Something Weird Video Region 1 DVD
Some of the more serious writings about Bob Clark following his death last April suggested that his earlier films were worthy of reconsideration. What connects these two earlier films with Clark's later work is the penchant for bawdy humor. Although most of Black Christmas is a straight forward thriller, the scenes with Margot Kidder are given to exchanges concerning that most prominent part of male anatomy. The dialogue is such that the infamous locker room scene in Porky's is virtually inevitable. Made at the same time as giallo horror films were made, Black Christmas is quite restrained, with Clark seeming to have studied Psycho so that in the one scene depicting a murder, we only see the glass unicorn getting bloodier in the hand of the unseen killer. One side note - Olivia Hussey is beautifully photographed throughout most of this film.
She-Man is a much earlier effort that Bob Clark probably would have preferred to leave off his resume. Fortunately this obscurity has been rescued by the maniacs over at Something Weird. The preposterous story is about a former Army officer, Albert Rose, who is kidnapped by the AWOL soldier who served under him. The soldier has become some kind of transgendered secret agent who blackmails various people into service, usually forcing them into cross dressing roles. It takes our "hero" the length of the film to figure out that Dominique, the soldier from his past, is now Dominita, the blackmailing dominatrix. Albert Rose becomes Rose Albert, forced to serve as a maid. One of Dominita's victims is a lesbian named Ruth who falls in love with Albert, or more likely with Rose. Either way, the film is bookended with a doctor who explains that there is nothing wrong with being a transvestite as long as it's kept indoors, or words to that effect. Curiously, Clark made an unreleased film the previous year according to IMDb titled The Emperor's New Clothes that has a similar story, concerning a cross dressing soldier.
She-Man is actually less interesting to see than its description might indicate. There is one hilarious moment with three dancers in oversized top hats that suggested that even if Bob Clark's future as a filmmaker was uncertain, he could be counted on to provide at least one good laugh.
Posted by peter at 07:23 PM
July 14, 2007
Sir Arne's Treasure
Herr Arnes Pengar
Mauritz Stiller - 1919
Kino Video Region 1 DVD
Not being able to go to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year, I settled for watching a silent film on DVD. I had seen a couple of films by Swedish pioneer filmmaker Victor Sjostrom, but none by his friend and sometimes filmmaking partner, Mauritz Stiller. Sir Arne's Treasure was probably appropriate for the night of Friday the 13th with its violence and ghosts.
I don't have my copy available to quote, but Andrew Sarris suggests that Sjostrom and Stiller may have been great filmmakers before D.W. Griffith. One aspect of Sir Arne's Treasure is that should be noted is that Stiller was adept enough at conveying much of the story visually that there is less dependence on titles to follow the action. I have to compare this to my experience seeing Ernst Lubitsch's The Oyster Princess made the same year, with German titles. Much of humor of Lubitsch was lost, based as it was on verbal jousting of the characters. It is only towards the end of Sir Arne's Treasure that Stiller resorts heavily towards titles.
Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlof, the bare bones of the story have become something of a template for other films. Taking place in 16th Century Sweden, three Scottish mercenaries escape prison, and find themselves at Sir Arne's remote castle where they murder all but but Elsalill, a young woman who successfully hid herself during the mayhem. Finding that they can't escape with Sir Arne's heavy box of coins, the three go to nearby town where they live off the loot. The treasure is supposedly cursed, and the three mercenaries find themselves trapped by the frozen ice surrounding the coast.
With cinematography Julius Jaenzon, Stiller does not stay still with his camera, either in the studio or on location. One of the more amazing traveling shots is of a prison guard marching towards the camera, which moves continually along the side of a curved wall. A helpful supplement to the DVD version of the film is an introduction by Peter Cowie who notes that one of Jaenzon's students was Sven Nykvist.
July 11, 2007
Henry Hathaway - 1960
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD
Seven Thieves is not a bad caper film, but it is the kind of film that could have been better. The mistake was to entrust Henry Hathaway with the direction. Hathaway's talents have never been the consistent, but Hathaway diminishes the suspense by keeping his distance from the actors and their activities. This is the kind of film that demands an occassional close-ups of faces and hands, of details. Part of the pleasure of the heist film is when the filmmaker makes the audience feel like they are participating in the crime, which is why Hathaway fails where directors like Hitchock, Dassin, Verneuil or Melville succeed. Hathaway has always been his best with films that are largely set in the great outdoors like True Grit and Nevada Smith. Not only does Hathaway seem uncomfortable with a film that takes place in confined interiors, but what little is shown of Monte Carlo is perfunctory.
What pleasure is to be found in Seven Thieves is primarily in seeing Eli Wallach's sax playing hepcat and Joan Collins', er, "performance artist". This being a film for general audiences, Collins' stage act is a clothed bump and grind. Even with Collins dancing and shaking in front of the camera, Hathaway frustratingly keeps a gentlemanly distance from the action.
The robbery of the casino will strike some as quaint by standards now set with the Ocean's Eleven remake and its sequels. Rod Steiger and Michael Dante basically have to keep to the floor to avoid a few electric eyes, and assume no one hears their noisy power tools. Leading the gang is Edward G. Robinson, playing a former academic gone bad, although the details a deliberately left fuzzy. What can be said is that in this film, the tenderest moments do not involve Collins, but are between Robinson and Steiger. I am not familiar with Max Catto's novel, but producer-screenwriter Sidney Boehm's screenplay flirts with homoerotic feelings, both to explain why there is no sexual relationship between Collins and Wallach, and also in the initial framing of the relationship between Robinson and Steiger. Nothing in Seven Thieves is as dramatic or as tense as it should have been. Even the final twist comes as no surprise. In a way, the film reflects the basic plot in that everything was in the plans, but no one really has the heart to try and get away with it.
July 10, 2007
Some thoughts on writing about film
These are new times, and they call for a new criticism; I believe that we are entering the age of the "termite critic." It is no longer necessary, desirable, or even possible for film critics to be "movie experts," to be King of the Mountain, Arbiter of Good Taste. Instead, the critics of tomorrow will devote themselves to some small part of the Cinema and nibble away at it until sated, at which point they will move onto another.
It's now clear that movie history is as mysterious as any iceberg. Some of the major movies are currently visible; some exist in archives but to see them all would be a major research project involving university funds which are rarely made available for the insigficant mass media; many others were dismissed when they appeared, and have never been revalued since.
- Raymond Durgnat
Thirty years ago, I attempted to get a job as a professional film critic here in Denver. I was turned down by the Rocky Mountain News because the editor who interviewed got it in him mind that I was not the type to honor deadlines. I also tried to write for a new Village Voice wannabe that had was just starting to get organized called Westword. I bring this up because during the week I returned here, I read an article in Westword that noted that the long-time Rocky Mountain News film critic, Robert Denerstein, accepted a buyout on his contract as part of a cost-cutting move by the paper. The Westword article also noted that as part of the trend of newspaper to publish syndicated film criticism, local contributor Bill Gallo also got the ax. It should be pointed out that the company that now owns Westword also owns the Village Voice, and the one upside of Westword is that when I bother to read it, I can now read J. Hoberman's reviews. What this all means for me though is that it may not have mattered what direction my life would have taken professionally, I would still probably end up writing about film online rather than in a printed publication.
Which brings me to the two quotes which I believe compliment each other. As has been pointed out by others, what the serious film bloggers do best is write about past films in the present tense. Yes, there are current films worth writing about that are often shabbily or superficially evaluated by the so-called professionals. What I think those of us within our virtual communities do best is create little chain reactions of re-looking at films, pointing out previously unoticed connections and parallel lines, and sometimes create little ripples that create other little ripples. That I found the Durgnat quote at about the same time I read Andy's piece was a result of a recent posting by Zach Campbell, who reminded me of what I missed not having read Durgnat since my NYU days. The Durgnat quote is from his book about Hollywood comedies, but constantly he reminds the reader about forgotten filmmakers such as Charley Bowers. Discussing Andrew Sarris' "Subjects for Further Research", almost forty year later James Cruze has become more obscure and virtually forgotten. Even in the most dedicated of revival houses of New York City, the only Cruze film that was ever screened was I Cover the Waterfront. More often than not, those of us writing about film online are dependent on what is availabe on DVD or tape.
I might be off in connecting these two dots, but I attribute the increasing number of older film being made available on DVD to the existence of the online film critics and their communities. If I may use the collective "we", we are the ones most interested in the older films, as well as the films that didn't play at the multiplex, or get distribution from the boutique label of the big studio. And our interest has in turn generated to one degree or another, the interest of others who might not want to write about a film but definitely want to see it. And in turn this has caused the studios to realize that there is a dedicated audience for titles languishing in their vaults, as well as some profit to be made. As incomplete as things are at this moment, with DVDs we are able to discuss a far greater range of films at any single moment than we could have even living in New York City in the early Seventies. Even with the films available to us now, there is still so much work to be done simply to acknowledge and value what we have, and to let others know of treasures they might otherwise overlook.
July 07, 2007
The Performance that Changed My Life Blog-a-thon: From Russia with Love
Terence Young - 1963
MGM Region 1 DVD
Like many of my junior high friends at the time, From Russia with Love was our introduction to James Bond. And like many people my age, this was the film that first cemented in our minds that there is only one James Bond on film, and that is Sean Connery. I was twelve at the time that I first saw From Russia with Love and at the time required permission from my parents before I saw any movie. The permission from one parent being sufficient, this was one time I had to ask my father, helpfully noting that Lotte Lenya was in the film. I don't know if he saw through my ruse, or if I really need to try so hard to justify why I was going to see a spy film.
While I remembered that a film called Dr. No had come and gone about a year ago, it was not until that late Spring that I "discovered" James Bond. By the Summer of 1964 I was collecting the Signet paperbacks that cost fifty cents each. What made James Bond so irresistable for most twelve year old boys was not the adventure, but the sex. We wanted to be James Bond not to fight SPECTRE or SMERSH, but because James Bond got laid, and often. Since we couldn't be James Bond, the James Bond movies were the sexiest films available to us at the time.
Daniela Bianchi's brief glimpse of nudity was considered quite risque once upon a time. It wasn't until Goldfinger when I had my first crush on a Bond girl, Shirley Eaton. For a part of my life, one of the pleasures of seeing a James Bond film was the chance to look at attractive women with a much skin as could be revealed in a mainstream film.
Even though I had seen Sean Connery in Darby O'Gill and the Little People a few years previously, I did not remember him from that film, probably because he wasn't one of the title characters. Connery did become the first movie star in my life that hadn't had a career that was well established by the time I was paying attention to actor not in servitude to Walt Disney. Unlike parental favorites like Gary Cooper or Bette Davis, Connery was one of the first movie stars that as far as we were concerned, did not exist prior to the Bond films. One of my other reasons for liking From Russia with Love more than the other Bond films is due to Robert Shaw. What probably made the difference is that this is the one of the few films where Bond has an adversary that is his equal, where he is required to have a true duel to the death, in this case within the confines of a train. Lotte Lenya will mostly be remembered for her shoes with the knife blade toes. And even though James Bond saves the world at the end of the film, what was never sufficiently explained to me was who is Matt Monro and why is he the one singing the title song?
For more life changing performances, go to Emma's blog, also known as "All About my Movies".
July 05, 2007
The Taste of Tea
Cha no Aji
Katsuhito Ishii - 2004
Viz Pictures Region 1 DVD
The Taste of Tea seems like the title of a film by Yasujiro Ozu. What it has in common with Ozu is that it is a film that centers on a family, and there is a bit of tea drinking when everyone gathers at home. There is even a death at the end of the film which brings the family members closer together with a greater sense of happiness.
That the special effects of a The Taste of Tea look like they were done on someone's home computer adds to the charm of this whimsical tale. A little girl, Sachiko, is followed around by her giant doppelganger. Her uncle was once trailed by a yakuza ghost. Mom is an anime artist who uses Grandpa as her model for her super heroes and monster. Dad is a hypnotherapist, while his brother is a manga artist who wishes he were a pop star. This is a quietly comic film about artists and eccentrics crossing each other's paths.
Katsuhito Ishii looks at the odder qualities of Japanese pop culture, with men dressed as robots, a Japanese reality television show with a woman who thinks she is a sabre tooth tiger, and a pop song so simple, and simple minded, that a producer is sure it will be a big hit. Ishii himself is best known for his anime contribution to Kill Bill, Vol. I. Unlike his work for Tarantino, The Taste of Tea is more contemplative, and rarely frenetic.
The Taste of Tea should ideally be seen on a large screen. Ishii makes use of some extreme long shots with the characters seen in the distance. Ishii also more typically films his characters as part of a group, or at least as several characters sharing a specific space. It may be his way of suggesting that strange environments are the home of strange people.
The one cast member that may be most familiar to western audiences would be Anna Tsuchiya, the growling teen punk from Kamikaze Girls. In this film, she plays Aoi, the Go playing new girl in school, the high school crush of bicycle riding Hajime. Following an after school game of Go, Aoi and Hajime walk in the rain, the two seen in long shot under a shared umbrella, walking on a road surrounded by fields. Hajime tosses his umbrella to Aoi who is inside a bus, just as the bus door closes. The gesture is romantic, yet understated. Like the surrealism and whimsy of The Taste of Tea, Ishii knows how much is enough without overwhelming his characters or the audience.
Posted by peter at 08:04 AM
July 04, 2007
The John Ford Blog-a-thon: What Price Glory?
John Ford - 1952
20th Century Fox DVD
As much I like, or even love, some of the films directed by John Ford, I choose not not embrace all of Ford's films as some of my peers have. I have given Donovan's Reef at least three viewings and have never found the film to be particularly funny or charming. What Price Glory? is one of Ford's films that eluded me over the years, never seeming to appear on any late night telecast, nor in any kind of revival screening. With the film's availability on DVD, I was able to add another notch to seeing as many Ford films as possible. To some extent, I wish I hadn't bothered.
I'm not familiar with Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stalling's original play or the earlier 1926 film version from Raoul Walsh. Even disregarding that Ford essentially jettisoned the authors' original intentions, What Price Glory? still comes off as a too boisterous, overacted and false celebration of military life. The falseness of the film is evident from the opening shot of a French battlefield that is clearly a studio set. It could be the choice of working with Technicolor betrays whatever serious intentions Ford had, especially comparing What Price Glory? with the much better They were Expendable. Even setting aside Ford's views of men and war, What Price Glory? pales next to such idealized portraits of military life as The Long Gray Line or The Wings of Eagles.
While Ford briefly acknowledges the original message of the play, of youth sacrificed in the name of some abstract ideal, he is more interested in portraying men, perhaps more accurately, over-aged boys, who who would rather fight each other when not fighting the designated enemy. Fisticuffs aside, James Cagney and Dan Dailey are more in love with each other than either of them are with Corrine Calvet. Given the opportunity to run off with Calvet, they both choose to go off together to fight the Germans. Even military lifer William Demarest ignores the discharge papers he finally receives, choosing male comradeship and possible death.
There is one effective scene in What Price Glory? The soldiers are finally marching into battle, observed by the French civilians. In a long shot, Marisa Pavan is seen running up to Robert Wagner, grabbing a brief kiss before letting him go back into formation. Pavan runs up towards the camera, stopped by an MP who sticks his left arm, acting as a barrier between her and Wagner. Pavan looks over the arm which she is able to lower, expressing the foreboding that she may never see Wagner again.
Ford's Madonna/whore dichotomy is unmistakable in What Price Glory? as the film ends. Pavan is seen with a shawl over her head, a virgin in mourning, unsullied by sex. Calvet is shown making herself available to virtually any man in uniform, officers preferred. For Ford, Calvet's character is only good for two things, one being laundry. Neither Cagney nor Dailey is serious in their marriage proposals to Calvet. As soon as it's convenient, they would rather be caught dead with their comrades-in-arms rather than alive in the arms of a woman of questionable reputation.
More on Ford can be found at Inisfree.
July 02, 2007
Hilary Brougher - 2006
Regent Releasing 35mm Film
More than the old definition of a women's film, that is to say a film primarily about women or a woman, Stephanie Daley, made me feel more self conscious about being a man observing, what seemed to me, some of the most private expressions of being a woman. This gender distinction was most keenly felt during the scene when Amber Tamblyn, as teenage Stephanie, realizes with a certain amount of pain and horror, that she was pregnant and finds herself expelling the fetus from her body. More so than the quasi-pornographic musings of Catherine Breillat, Hilary Brougher made me feel a greater sense of the physical and emotional differences of being a woman.
Stephanie Daley is an independent film in the truest sense of that term. After her visit to Narnia, Tilda Swinton, who also served as Executive Producer, is back in familiar territory, playing Lydie, the pregnant forensic psychologist trying to establish the truth about Stephanie's pregnancy and state of mind. Not having watch her previous, more family friendly work, this was my first time seeing Amber Tamblyn. By turns callow, shy and vulnerable, Tamblyn is able to elicit sympathy for a part that some may find troubling. Timothy Hutton, almost shockingly mature looking, lends support as Swinton's husband.
Much of the film is told in flashback with Stephanie telling about the events from when she initially was impregnated, through the time when she was found bleeding on a ski slope. While the narrative is about one woman trying to establish the truth about the other, the film is also about the truth and lies told to ourselves and others. Stephanie's pregnancy is counter pointed with Tilda's current pregnant state, and the fact of a previous stillbirth. More than most films, Stephanie Daley chronicles the emotional upheaval experienced by one woman, considered to be high risk because of her age. Lydie's situation makes one question her particular objectivity towards Stephanie, the tension between one woman who might not be able to give birth even though she wants to against the young woman who seems to have chosen not to have a baby.
Gender difference in viewing the world is also presented in a scene at Stephanie's high school. Another female student questions one of the plot points of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. A young male teacher intimidates the young woman to tears with his assertion that Reverend Dimmesdale's dilemma, his relationship with God is the most important part of Hawthorne's story. While not wearing a large red letter, Stephanie finds herself becoming something of an outcast in her small town.
Stephanie Daley is in part about the treacherous lives of teenagers, in particular, teenage girls. Without being judgmental about any of the characters, the film also takes a queue from Hawthorne in being about faith, and how that translates into the relationships people have with each other. In turn, the two women learn how to suspend judgment on each other, allowing for a deeper connection to bond them.
July 01, 2007
100 Films, 100 Filmmakers
I was invited to submit a list of the 100 greatest films every made. There are times when 100 is too many films, and other times when it is not enough. The one aspect to creating the list that frustrated me was that the list was limited to feature length films. When thinking about some of the best films every made, I was forced to delete several short films, some of which are not only better than many feature films, but simply some of the best examples of filmmaking period.
As far as I'm concerned, Luis Bunuel has never topped Un Chien Andalou, a film that struck me as still contemporary when I had the chance to re-see it a few years ago. I love Alain Resnais' early features, but nothing says more about memory than Night and Fog. Most of the great films from the so-called experimental filmmakers are short, meaning that I could not include Stan Brakhage's Mothlight, Curtis Harrington's On the Edge or Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon.
On the sillier side of film history, I would have loved to have included Putting Pants on Philip. Seeing silent Laurel and Hardy films in San Francisco last year was a treat, as well as a reminder of how funny they could be. This 1927 short, directed by Clyde Bruckman, has a hilarious sequence with Stan Laurel wearing a kilt, walking over an air grate about thirty years before Marilyn Monroe's famous bit in The Seven Year Itch. The film's biggest gag does not show Laurel, but the shocked faces of the crowd. Contemporary filmmakers could learn from this film about getting a big laugh by what is left to the imagination of the audience.
I also could not list a few animated shorts from Termite Terrace, better known as Warner Brothers. Gone was Chuck Jones' One Froggy Evening, the film that introduced Michigan J. Frog. Deleted also were Robert Clampett's Porky in Wackyland and Tex Avery's Porky's Preview. I could not list my favorite cartoon of all time, Frank Tashlin's Booby Hatched featuring the voice of Mel Blanc (who else?) as the walking, talking, angry egg named Robespierre.
Until I reread the rules regarding feature length films, I almost was going to include You Nazty Spy!. The Three Stooges parody of Hitler is one sixth the length, and at least three times funnier than Charles Chaplin's sometimes maudlin The Great Dictator. Another parody not on my list is Guy Maddin's Heart of the World, for me, the best thing he has ever done, a madcap pastiche of silent Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein.
Below is my list. Instead of piling on the usual suspects, I went for a more democratic approach in the off chance that some otherwise overlooked films might be mentioned by someone else contributing their list. I will offer no apologies or explanations. The comment space will be kept open for those who feel I am out of my mind being possibly the only one left on the planet who even remembers Ugo Gregoretti. Once upon a time, this filmmaker was good enough to join Rossellini, Godard and Pasolini for an omnibus film. I have added the director and year for a few films where there has been a remake or multiple use of the same title. The films are numbered but not ranked. Counting 100 films is hard enough without trying to decide which film is better.
1. Citizen Kane
2. The Searchers
3. A Hard Day's Night
4. Eight and a half
6. The Leopard
7. Sherlock, Jr.
8. It Happened One Night
11. Tokyo Story
12. The Circus
13. Apocalypse Now Redux
14. Rebel without a Cause
18. Raging Bull
19. Man with a Movie Camera
20. The Roaring Twenties
21. Scarface (Howard Hawks)
22. Last Tango in Paris
23. My Night at Maud's
24. The Soft Skin
27. The Rise of Louis XIV
28. Mon Oncle
29. The Third Man
30. Man's Castle
31. Dr. Strangelove
34. Once Upon a Time in the West
35. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
36. Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker
37. Bay of Angels
38. Miracle at Morgan's Creek
39. Judex (Georges Franju)
41. The Girl can't help It
42. Alexander Nevsky
43. Scarlet Empress
44. Forty Guns
47. Boudu saved from Drowning
48. Burmese Harp
49. Some Came Running
50. Bride of Frankenstein
51. Bonnie and Clyde
52. Point Blank
53. The Beguiled
54. Russian Ark
55. Broken Blossoms
57. The Gunfighter
59. The Wild Bunch
60. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
61. Deep End
62. Peeping Tom
63. A Crazy Page
64. On the Waterfront
65. Je t'aime, je t'aime
66. The Last Laugh
67. Black God, White Devil
68. Sweet Smell of Success
70. Zero de Conduite
71. Come and See
72. Some Like it Hot
74. The Tango Lesson
75. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima - 1971)
76. The Chinese Feast
77. The Go-Between
79. Best of Youth
80. The Soong Sisters
82. One hundred and one Dalmations (1960)
84. All the Vermeers in New York
86. In the Mood for Love
87. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
88. Phantom Chariot
89. Sons of the Desert
90. The Unknown
92. Bob le Flambeur
93. Y Tu Mama Tambien
94. A Scene at the Sea
97. All that Jazz
99. Earrings of Madame De
100. Kiss Me Deadly