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August 31, 2007

Death of a Cyclist

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Muerte de un Ciclista
Juan Antonio Bardem - 1955
Janus 35mm Film

Seeing Lucia Bose on the big screen is a good enough reason to have seen Death of a Cyclist. I was unaware of Bose until I recently saw Story of a Love Affair. Just twenty-four years old in 1955, Bose could have easily become as famous as such peers as Sophia Loren or Gina Lollabrigida had she not retired from stardom to get married that year.

Bardem’s film is about a man and woman who hide their hit and run accident in order to not reveal their affair. Even when the ending become too easy to anticipate during the last reel, Bose remains sympathetic as the woman who will do anything to protect her comfortable existence. Bardem's points about Spanish society cover familiar ground. The most Spanish aspect of the film is a scene where flamenco dancers perform for two American visitors. Otherwise, the story of a woman married to a wealthy man, and in love with a noble, but poorer man, is almost universal (or had Douglas Sirk made this film, Universal).

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One interesting visual motif employed by Bardem is a visual linking of scenes. The cigarette smoke of Bose's husband cuts to the cigarette smoke of her lover. A close up of Bose's face illuminated by the flames of a fireplace is cut with a shot of the fireplace at her lover’s home. A journalist friend throws a bottle at a window, but the window shown breaking is at the university where the lover is a teacher. Bardem also plays with the depth of field and perspective in the placement of his characters. The location of the accident, an empty field with a couple of bare trees, seems especially abstract. That field may be too obvious a metaphor for the emptiness of the lives of Bardem's main characters.

While what little writing I have found concerning Bardem discusses his work as being influenced by the Italian neo-realists, Death of a Cyclist suggests that the influence may not have been totally one way. Spanish cinema, especially of films and filmmakers prior to Saura and Almodovar, has been virtually ignored, save for the films of Bunuel. One of the more interesting English language articles on Bardem and Death of a Cyclist is to be found in The Hispanic Research Journal. Based on this one film, Juan Antonio Bardem may be, as Andrew Sarris would put it, a subject for further research.

Posted by peter at 11:44 AM

August 29, 2007

Citizen Dog

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Mah Nakorn
Wisit Sasanatieng - 2004
Tai Seng Region 0 DVD

While pondering my list of favorite foreign language films, Citizen Dog looks like a candidate for future favorite. While as much of a celebration of movie fakery as his debut, Tears of the Black Tiger, Wisit Sasanatieng's Citizen Dog might be more easily embraced by those who were put off by the violence of the previous film. A film about the magic of the world, of finding love in a candy colored environment, Citizen Dog is like the contemporary version of the kind of film one might have seen from Jacques Demy or Vincente Minnelli.

Even if some of the satirical aspects of life in Thailand, especially Bangkok, may be lost on western viewers, one can still identify with a story about romantic love at its most intense and misguided. The film is a fantasy where a young girl, who may or may not actually be twenty-two, has a talking, cigarette smoking teddy bear for a best friend. At the same time, Wisit pokes fun at both the consumerism of Thais and their muddled attempts to be environmental activists. And while for the most part Citizen Dog is a romantic comedy, it is also a film that recognizes that relationships are often fragile, breaking apart sometimes more easily than coming together.

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Pod is a young man who decides to explore life in Bangkok where he first has a job in a sardine factory. Later, as a security guard in an office building, he meets Jin, a maid who is compulsive about cleaning. Pod's infatuation for Jin is such that while other people would see Jin wearing a maid's uniform, for Pod what Jin wears is a pretty blue dress. Wisit's film is about how love is often informed by how we see people, whether or not how we envision someone is actually true. In the same way, Jin believes a white book that fell out of the sky, written in an unfamiliar language, will provide answers to her life. Jin also, for a time, has her life wrapped up in a magazine romance novel, upset when it seems like the two lovers may not unite. Pod and Jin seem a bit too naive, often failing to connect the dots. In one scene, Jin realizes that in order to read the mysterious white book, she needs to go to a foreign language school. She does, to work again as an office cleaner, somehow not realizing that she actually would need to attend the classes.

Gorgeously photographed in Hi Def Video, Wisit's film is of a world with intense pastel colors. There are no choreographed performances, but instead some musical numbers such as one with Pod rhapsodizing about Jin's blue maid uniform, seen by the cast members, male and female, surrounding Pod. The warm narration is done by Wisit pal, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. The subtitles are superior, having been done by Film Comment contributor Chuck Stephens and Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee. For myself, there is a bit of irony that I had to wait until I returned to the U.S. to see Citizen Dog with English subtitles. Citizen Dog combines the heart and soul of a classic MGM musical with the digital technology of the early 21st Century.

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Posted by peter at 12:38 AM | Comments (2)

August 27, 2007

LOL

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Joe Swanberg - 2006
Benten Films All Region DVD

Would the young filmmakers of LOL be angry at me for saying that the film is an updated version of an old story? It may be possible that as an aging boomer, I may have missed the point of the film film. It's almost like the Thai expression that was popular when I was there, "Same Same, but different".

What connects LOL to past films is that essentially the film is about the sense of connection, or lack of connection, that young people feel, to each other as well as themselves. That sense of connection taken to its most literal meaning with the reliance on communication by cell phone and computer. Without beating the heads of the audience, as would more likely happen in a more conventionally made film, for at least one of the characters, the online relationship becomes more important and more real than the potential relationship with the young woman who has all but thrown herself in front of him.

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Further exploring connectivity of the electric kind, what struck my interest was the exploration in creating different art forms, particularly with music. The young man, Alex, composes music that is made up of electronic sounds. Tim creates videos of his friends making vocal sounds that are edited on a computer to become forms of music. It's a kind of art form that even has to a limited extent been institutionalized.

What makes LOL worth seeing is that, at the very least, it is people in their twenties telling their own story. For that reason alone, LOL should be prefered over the stuff filling the multiplexes that claims to speak to and for a generation. Was LOL made to be viewed by someone with a lapsed membership to AARP? Probably not. Still, it will be interesting to see what Joe Swanberg and company go from here. Or at least as soon as his newest film shows up at a theater reasonably near me.

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Posted by peter at 12:05 AM | Comments (1)

August 26, 2007

Coffee Break

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Bibiana Beglau and Jenny Schilly in The Legend of Rita (Volker Schlondorff - 2001)

Posted by peter at 09:57 AM

August 25, 2007

True Stories of Nicholas Ray

The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall
Geoff Andrew - 2004
BFI Publications

The True Story of Jesse James
Nicholas Ray - 1957
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

As an introduction to the films of Nicholas Ray, Geoff Andrew's book provides a fairly good overview, particularly of Ray's themes. For those who are more familiar with Ray's films, the book may not provide as much information as might be desired.

One of the better sections is on Rebel without a Cause, with Andrew discussing the scene in the police station. The characters portrayed by James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo do not know each other, but are unified by the CinemaScope frame. Wood is separated by a glass partition from Dean and Mineo who eventually meet. That scene is just one example of how Ray made creative use of the wide screen format.

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In the chapter on Bigger than Life, Andrew examines the use of color and shadows. One of the key quotes from Ray is taken from a 1956 Sight and Sound interview: "It was all in the script a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?"

Andrew provides a synopsis before discussing aspects of the production of each film and an analysis. While this has increased my interest in Born to be Bad and Hot Blood, Andrew has not quite convinced me that Party Girl, a film I found increasingly dull, is worth re-watching. The book is a reminder that too many of Ray's better film are still unavailable on DVD although this situation has improved in the past year.

One of the more interesting bits of information is in regards to The True Story of Jesse James. According to Andrew, as the film was originally conceived by Ray, "He planned, he said, to forgo any notion of realism and to do the whole film on the stage as a legend with people coming in and out of areas of light, making it a period study of . . . the effects of war on the behavior of young people." At least from the description, Ray is anticipating Dogville by almost forty-five years.

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While the final film, edited without Ray's participation, is a much more conventional western, The True Story of Jesse James has its moments. Breathtaking is a shot with the stunt doubles of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter. Frank and Jesse James are trying to escape the posse trailing them following the disasterous robbery of the Northfield, Minnesota bank. At the edge of a cliff, the two men and their horses hurl themselves over the brink, into the river below. According to IMDb, that one great shot was from Henry King's 1939 Jesse James. One wishes the rest of the film were as good. Even with lowered expectations, The True Story of Jesse James is hampered by the wooden performances of Wagner and Hope Lange.

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While The True Story of Jesse James was conceived as a CinemaScope remake of Henry King's Jesse James, Ray's film undermines the romantic view of James. Ray looks at the creation of celebrity, the gap between the real Jesse James and the one celebrated in the dime novels of the late 19th Century. Ray even makes a few jabs at the spectacle of celebrity death. Soon after Bob Ford hits the streets to declare that he shot James, the neighbors of the man known as Mr. Howard crowd into the house to glare at the corpse, some grabbing souvenirs of personal belongings while being urged out of the house. If John Ford is "Print the legend", Ray is "State the facts".

In writing about other Ray films, less convincing is Andrew's argument about the influence of On Dangerous Ground on Psycho. There are some undeniable similarities - music by Bernard Herrman, shots of driving in bad weather with the camera viewing the road, and a killer in the basement. After seeing On Dangerous Ground again, the connections seem much more forced than those linking Psycho with Touch of Evil.

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One chapter is devoted to a short television play, High Green Wall, made in 1954. Andrew also includes a list of the films Ray had a hand in shooting while at RKO, as well as other films that included Ray's uncredited contributions. Those familiar with Nicholas Ray will probably find the back stories to the production of the films of most interest. For those less familiar with Nicholas Ray, Geoff Andrew's book is a good introduction to a filmmaker who was much more than Rebel Without a Cause.

Posted by peter at 11:46 AM | Comments (2)

August 23, 2007

It's All True

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Yes, it's true. Of the 122 foreign language films that I have to consider, I have not seen eight. Jim Emerson has five to catch up on. I checked the list a couple of times to make sure about what I had not seen. And yes, it is also true that I could have seen a couple of the nominees theatrically but I didn't. Why not? Well I guess I could quote Dick Cheney and say, "I had other priorities".

I could have seen The Decalogue and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul on the relatively big screen but chose not to. On the other hand, I have seen the Three Colors Trilogy and Double Life of Veronica so I am not unfamiliar with Krzysztof Kieslowski. Likewise with R.W. Fassbinder, I have seen several of his films, and even worked as the Assistant Manager where The Merchant of Four Seasons had its American premiere. My favorite Fassbinder is actually the one made from his play and filmed by Francois Ozon, Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

I almost was going to see that other version of Day of Wrath when I spotted it a my neighborhood VCD store in Chiang Mai, but the version they had was strictly Thai dubbed. Otherwise, I think of Carl Dreyer as the film equivalent to broccoli. I know it's good for me, but I really rather go for the nutritiously dubious works of Jesus Franco. I have seen Vampyre, but I have more fun with the exploration of the genre by Jean Rollin. Maybe if Carl Dreyer had the courage to stock his films with lesbian vampires who wander around wearing diaphanous nightgowns, I'd watch more of his films. I guess I will have to seek out Dreyer's Day or Wrath as well as Ordet on DVD.

I missed the theatrical run of Army of Shadows as I was in Thailand at the time, but I will be getting a copy from the Denver Public Library soon. Forbidden Games was already on my rental list. It's a film I recall my parents discussing. I've seen a couple of other films by Rene Clement including what may be one of the best films Charles Bronson was ever in, Rider in the Rain.

As for The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, I'm not about to buy a VHS tape for the sake of a possible vote. Had my own film collection not been in storage, I might have more easily remembered my own favorite Mizoguchi, Princess Yang Kwei Fei. My region free DVD player is also in storage so Bela Tarr's Satantango will have to go unseen as well.

I may see Cinema Paradiso again only because of the recommendations of those who have seen the complete version, not the U.S. theatrical version I am familiar with. The films I have seen by Giuseppe Tornatore have not made me enthusiastic about his work, including the Italian version of Malena.

While some have questioned Run Lola Run, I might have included this film. I saw it theatrically and own both the DVD and the soundtrack DVD. From my Buddhist point of view, Tom Twyker's film and Robert Bresson's L'Argent are both terrific in how they detail cause and effect, the unintended consequences of actions of people.

I have to wonder if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would score so high if more people were familiar with Ang Lee's source of inspiration, King Hu. Having seen a number of Hong Kong martial arts films that have preceded Lee's, my own feeling is that Lee had the advantage of a relatively huge budget and the marketing muscle of Sony Pictures. Part of my problem stems from the fact that the success of Lee's film has inspired so many variations, the best of which was Zhang Yimou's Hero. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see one of the first Hong Kong films with a female star, Come Drink with Me with Cheng Pei-Pei in attendance. Speaking of King Hu, I am hoping to see Dragon Inn, the film screened in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I do love the Tsui Hark remake. Not that Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh are not attractive, but nothing compares to the opening scene of the new version of Dragon Inn. The sparks are palpable when, disguised as a young man, Maggie Cheung flirts with Brigitte Lin.

Posted by peter at 12:41 PM | Comments (4)

August 22, 2007

The Big Broadcast of 1938

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Mitchell Leisen - 1938
Universal Region 1 DVD

Last week, The Siren had asked about the status of Mitchell Leisen. If the director is remembered at all, it is because of the films written by Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. The conventional wisdom is that once the best screenwriters also were allowed to direct the films they wrote, Leisen's career went downhill. There may be some truth to that, though Senses of Cinema presents arguments that in some ways Leisen actually improved upon Sturges and Wilder. While The Big Broadcast of 1938 is not the ideal showcase for an introduction to Mitchell Leisen, it does merit a look.

The high point is seeing sixth billed Bob Hope, in his first film, performing the duet of Thanks for the Memories with Shirley Ross. The melody is probably familiar to those who at least know Hope from when he hosted the Oscars. The song itself, which won for Best Song, is a look at how distance reshapes the view of the past, giving a romantic glow to a relationship that may have been difficult at the time. The song is more bittersweet than nostalgic, with the memories cites becoming progressively darker, coinciding with the disintegration of the marriage. More than just being a love song, the lyrics are about how fragile relationships can be between two adults.

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There is also an extended musical number about how the waltz has survived the various trends in social dancing from the mid 18th Century through 1938. This is where Leisen gets to show off his background in set and costume design. He also gets to throw in a few shots of women's underwear - an abundance of petticoats and culottes, particularly in a brief Cancan number.

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The almost nonexistent story line involves a race between two oversized luxury liners, the Gigantic and the Colossal. The Gigantic looks like an art deco yacht on steroids. W.C. Fields portrays two brothers which have the Gigantic as part of their shipping line. The more unfortunate brother, whose reputation for misadventures dates back to the sinking of the Merrimac is suppose to travel on the Colossal. He winds up on the Gigantic instead where disaster immediately strikes. On the way, the crew picks up Field's daughter, the even unluckier Martha Raye. One of the running gags of the film involves Raye breaking mirrors every time she sees her reflection.

The Big Broadcast of 1938 primarily serves as a showcase for a variety of performers. The specialty performances seem especially dated. I'm not sure how many people remember Tito Guizar, while Kirsten Flagstad is probably of more interest to those who are as serious about opera as some of us are about film. The Shep Fields number combines the big band performance with animated water drops credited to Warner Brothers' animation producer Leon Schlesinger.

The film may be viewed as a changing of the comic guard, made just a couple of years before Bob Hope became the top comic star for Paramount. For top billed Fields, this was his last film at Paramount. His best scenes are a sort of review of some of his best bits involving games of golf and pool, as well as traveling on a contraption that is a combination scooter and airplane. Hope's humor has always been largely verbal. Where Hope really shines is as the self-deprecating master of ceremonies, telling jokes so terrible that they are still funny, such as the one about the guy who went to the dentist with only one dollar and got buck teeth. In retrospect, it is as if Hope's performance in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was an audition for his best remembered role, hosting the Academy Awards.

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Posted by peter at 01:46 PM | Comments (1)

August 20, 2007

The Invasion

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Oliver Hirschbiegel and James McTeigue - 2007
Warner Brothers 35mm Film

The best moment in The Invasion is right at the beginning when we see Nicole Kidman, struggling to stay awake, grabbing a bunch of pills, followed by guzzling Mountain Dew straight from a one liter bottle. That one image may be all that is memorable about this fourth film version of Jack Finney's story.

It's not that The Invasion is bad, but that it is ultimately less interesting than the three films that came earlier. The basic concept may have seemed ripe for a remake of some kind for the post 9/11 age. At a time when there is all sorts or serveillance on the streets and in the work place, and demands of rigidity from different political, religious and cultural spectrums, the story of an alien invasion that results in mass conformity would seem to have contemporary resonance. What may ultimately hurt The Invasion in the long run is that the film is too specific in its references to Iraq, Darfur, George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez. One reason why Don Siegel's original film version has remained popular is probably due to the film being subject to wider range of interpretation. Philip Kaufman knew he could't escape the comparison with Siegel's version but brought a few twists of his own. Abel Ferrera in turn blended the best elements of Siegel and Kaufman, making his version less of a remake than something of a continuation of the story.

One major change in this new version is that the alien invasion is spread largely through people spewing on each other. By comparison, the scenes of Kevin McCarthy and Carolyn Jones discovering giant pods with their soulless twin selves verges on visual poetry. The new version also tries too hard to give a scientific explanation for the invasion, as well as resolving the film with a cure, diminishing the sense of mystery and helplessness that informed the previous films. As The Invasion underwent reshooting with an uncredited John McTeigue replacing Oliver Hirschbiegel, and the Wachowski Brothers doing some rewriting, there may be questions about what was changed in the course of production. There are a couple of scenes with frenetic cross-cutting of Nicole Kidman in flight at two different moments. The sense is less of intensifying the pace of the film than of a desperate disguise of discarded or unfilmed footage.

Also disturbing is that none of the actors in The Invasion are in any way as vivid as in the earlier versions. Nothing can match Kevin McCarthy's growing paranoia and hysteria, but nothing in The Invasion compares to Donald Sutherland's impish sense of humor in the 1978 version, or Meg Tilly's cool menace is the 1990 version. After such films as Fur and Birth, Nicole Kidman's performance is adequate, but will probably seem like a time filler between more interesting films and performances where more serious demands bring out the best in her. Daniel Craig virtually recedes into the scenery as if the guy who grabbed our attention as James Bond was a long ago memory. Jeffrey Wright, as the doctor who comes up with the cure, manages to make something of his relatively small role. While Wright saves the world in The Invasion, his performance is not enough to save the film.

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Posted by peter at 10:12 AM | Comments (3)

August 19, 2007

Coffee Break

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Isabel Carre in Private Fear in Public Places (Alain Resnais - 2006)

Posted by peter at 12:19 AM

August 18, 2007

The Favorite Foreign Film List: The Sometimes Sweet Sixteen

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Due to the lack of foreign language films that made the final list of the Online Film Critics, Edward Copeland decided to initiate a list made of only foreign language films to be selected by those wishing to their respective choices. The list I created is different based on both Edward's criteria and my own. Does the world need yet another list? Of course not. But considering how many IMDb voters had not seen even one listed title and could not name a favorite film by Bergman or Antonioni, maybe the foreign film poll will help nudge a few more people into checking out some of these filmmakers.

Instead of listing what we thought were the greatest films made, we were asked to list favorite films and to keep out lists to no more than twenty-five titles of films made before 2002 but after sound was introduced. To keep my own list severely down to size, my criteria was that I needed to limit myself to films I have seen at least three times, and that are available on Region 1 DVD, with one exception that is available in the U.S. in a letterboxed VHS tape. This is to explain at least partially why films by Renoir, Bresson, Ozu and a whole bunch of other people are not on this list - I have seen their films, but usually only once, or in some cases twice. Conversely, because it was an art house staple when I lived in NYC in the early Seventies, I managed to see Georges Franju's Judex three times, but that film has yet to see a DVD release and I can not vouch for the tape version currently available. I saw no point in listing favorite films that are not currently available for viewing. Italian productions may be the most controversial, as well into the Sixties and Seventies it was common practice to film without sound and dub the film into several languages in post-production for different markets. One of the films on my first list to Edward was 1900 which was deemed too international a co-production to qualify. Not only did I see the original US theatrical version three times, but I once saw Bertolucci's epic twice on two consecutive days. What constitutes a favorite film is not always the same as what may be a great film. Sometimes, but not always.

My list may strike some as being mostly conservative, reflecting on my living in New York City in the early Seventies when many of these films played the art house circuit in theaters like the New Yorker, the Elgin, the Bleeker, the Thalia and Carneigie Hall Cinema. There is only one film on the list that I have never seen theatrically. That film, An Actor's Revenge, is available as a wide screen film on tape in the U.S., so that it is a reasonable copy of what Kon Ichikawa had in mind. There are some films I have seen multiple times theatrically or on video and like quite a bit, but do not love which is why they are not one my list. What I suspect is that the different lists submitted to Mr. Copeland will reveal is that while there may be some disagreement on the individual titles, there will be a consensus on certain filmmakers. The following is my list of foreign language films that I have not only seen at least three times each, but that I would not have any problem wanting to see again if I weren't busy trying to catch up with the many unseen films in the world. The list is in the order of the year of original theatrical release.

1. Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa - 1952)
2. Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa - 1958)
3. Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati - 1958)
4. Black Sunday (Mario Bava - 1960)
5. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni - 1962)
6. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut - 1962)
7. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard - 1963)
8. Eight and a half (Federico Fellini - 1963)
9. An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa - 1963)
10. The Soft Skin (Francois Truffaut - 1964)
11. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard - 1964)
12. Persona (Ingmar Bergman - 1966)
13. My Night at Maud's (Eric Rohmer - 1969)
14. Suspiria (Dario Argento - 1977)
15. The Chinese Feast (Tsui Hark - 1995)
16. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai - 2000)

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Posted by peter at 01:31 PM | Comments (3)

August 16, 2007

Christopher Lee: Entertainment to Die For!

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Theatre of Death
Samuel Gallu - 1966
Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

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Circus of Fear
John Moxey - 1966
Blue Underground Region 1 DVD

I wanted to take a break from more serious film and serious writing about film to see a couple of films starring Christopher Lee. This was sort of like the filmic equivalent to comfort food. I sort of knew what to expect, and enjoyed being distracted for a couple of hours. Both films are murder mysteries rather than horror films, with Lee as the chief suspect.

Theatre of Death is actually a pretty good film, with Lee as the director of a Grand Guignol theater that seems a bit too realistic in its depiction of mayhem. The trail of a vampire-like killer leads to the theater and Lee. What may be more interesting is that it brings up the argument about what defines entertainment. Especially with the controversy over what some call torture porn, how different is something like Hostel or Saw to what played on Parisian stages? Or, if there is a difference, how is that difference defined? Maybe I can't really escape from writing somewhat seriously about film after all.

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But getting back to watching Christopher Lee in the mid-Sixties, the two films were sold as being more horrific than they really are. Theatre of Death starts off with a fake decapitation on a guillotine, and ends unsurprisingly with the death of the killer. What’s fun is watching Lee as the Stanislavski of Slaughter declaiming on what theater and acting should really be about, bringing comedy out of tragedy and vice versa. There is nothing scary about Theatre of Death, but the parody of method acting is as amusing as it is incongruous.

Circus of Fear is less interesting, although it is one of the more credible films from writer-producer Harry Alan Towers. Lee is hidden behind a black mask and a faintly Eastern European accent through most of the film. Loot from a heist is hidden at a circus. Hot on the trail, detective Leo Genn has to wade his way through the various rivalries in the circus. Several people are killed by a knife of the style used by circus performers. Could the killer be lion tamer Lee? The high point is seeing Klaus Kinski as one of the gangsters who was part of the heist. The most shocking aspect of Circus of Fear is seeing how relatively healthy Kinski was during this time. Inspired by the Edgar Wallace films of the time, Circus of Fear also has a proto-Gialli touch with only the black leather gloved hands of the killer visible.

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Posted by peter at 08:19 AM | Comments (2)

August 14, 2007

Two films by John M. Stahl

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The Immortal Sergeant
John M. Stahl - 1943
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

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The Keys of the Kingdom
John M. Stahl - 1944
Twentieth Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

I first became aware of John M. Stahl through Andrew Sarris' American Cinema. Stahl is listed in the "Expressive Esoterica" section. In the almost forty years since publication, Stahl seems to have become more esoteric, though not less expressive. I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Holy Matrimony quite a while ago which I enjoyed. I had also seen Leave Her to Heaven though I am fuzzier about when and how I saw what may be Stahl's most famous film. What had stuck with me in reading Sarris was his description of a scene in The Immortal Sergeant.

I finally got to see The Immortal Sergeant which was quietly released on DVD last Spring. The scene in question is of Henry Fonda's desert dream. A soldier, trekking through the desert, with little water left, Fonda's mind wanders to a memory of water, actually a lake, and the woman of his dreams, Maureen O'Hara. The scene was not quite what I had imagined. But the film goes into a direction that was unexpected and satisfying.

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What little is written about John M. Stahl mostly is about Leave Her to Heaven or his other so-called "women's pictures". Stahl's reputation also rests on the fact that two of his films Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession were remade by Douglas Sirk. Very few of Stahl's films are available on tape or disc. One key early sound film that would be most welcomed, if still preserved, would be Strictly Dishonorable, Stahl's 1931 film from Preston Sturges' hit Broadway play. What The Immortal Sergeant and The Keys of the Kingdom accomplish at the very least is that they are reminders that Stahl also made at least two worthy films about men.

Although both films were essentially works for hire, they share some key elements. Both films are about men who discover their strengths after being sent to remote parts of the world. Both Fonda and Gregory Peck are encouraged by mentors who die in the course of the film. One could also say that both films are about protagonists who seek balance between following orders and their own inner direction, and between personal beliefs and and a more expedient greater good. Also shared is a core belief of the two main characters in the inherent dignity of others, a respect given to all. Whether as soldier or priest, that respect is accorded everyone regardless of who they are, unless that person demonstrates that the respect is not mutual. Both Fonda and Peck are self-effacing, and view whatever they have accomplished as no more than the job that they were assigned.

The Immortal Sergeant is an unusual war film, especially for its time. Henry Fonda is motivated to enlist not because of patriotic ideals, but because he has seen newsreel footage of how the Nazis have imprisoned his favorite French waiter. Fonda also chooses to enter the war as a Private, playing on the notion that as a civilian his character is a very private person. Even though the Italian and German soldiers are virtually unseen, war is presented as a waste of human life. There are really no winners or losers, just the survivors and the dead. Fonda calls himself a tinpot hero. Military victory is less meaningful than developing a backbone, and considering oneself worthy to propose marriage to Maureen O'Hara.

The Keys of the Kingdom may strike some as being shockingly liberal when viewed at a time when concepts as Christianity and faith seem so narrowly defined. Gregory Peck's Father Francis chooses to have converts come to him rather than force conversion on the Chinese. Faith is something one come to out of personal conviction and sincerity. Francis comes in conflict with the church because of his pluralistic viewpoint, that how people treat each other is more important than the particular faith that is embraced. In this way, Keys of the Kingdom is as unusual a film about faith as The Immortal Sergeant undermines itself as a war film. In The Keys of the Kingdom, it is less important to be Catholic or even Christian in one's identity than it is to do good in the world.

Both Fonda and Peck are encouraged by their mentors in the form of voices that they hear from Thomas Mitchell and Edmund Gwenn respectively. That these two idiosyncratic mentors are dead almost suggests that one could almost retitle either of Stahl's films about men with a mission, "Leave Him to Heaven".

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Posted by peter at 02:45 PM | Comments (3)

August 12, 2007

Coffee Break

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Hugo Stiglitz and Laura Trotter in Nightmare City (Umberto Lenzi - 1980)

Posted by peter at 10:00 AM

August 07, 2007

Farr West with Delmer Daves

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The Last Wagon
Delmer Daves - 1956
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

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3:10 to Yuma
Delmer Daves - 1957
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

In both The Last Wagon and 3:10 to Yuma, Delmer Daves often uses long shots of his characters dwarfed by their environment. Both films can be read as being about people living with nature. In The Last Wagon, Richard Widmark tell Felicia Farr about how he prefers to sleep under the stars rather than live in a permanent home. Van Heflin is motivated to escort prisoner Glenn Ford in order to purchase water rights following a three year drought. The long shots and overhead shots might be read as commenting on how puny man's efforts are in contrast with peaks and valleys. Certainly Daves mastered the art of wide screen composition.

As Daves champion, Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, "What first impresses the viewer is Daves' attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism. He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors - extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight."

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Daves also examines how fragile the family unit is, and how acting on behalf of one's family can have unexpected consequences. A group of young people go for a midnight swim in The Last Wagon. One of the boys accidentally is pulled by the river to death or at least injury in the rapids. In the course of being away from the main camp, the young people find that they saved themselves from an Indian massacre. In 3:10 to Yuma, Van Heflin is originally motivated by necessity for himself and his family, which by the end of the film is replaced by acting for the greater good of the community at large.

Both films have key scenes taking place during mealtimes. In the two films, Richard Widmark and Glenn Ford are prisoners. For Daves, dinner is not only a time for the family to get together, but a time to share in the sense of common humanity. In The Last Wagon, Felicia Farr and Tommy Rettig make sure Richard Widmark is fed, arguing with the sheriff that Widmark is a human being. In 3:10 to Yuma, Glenn Ford sits at the head of the table with Van Heflin and his family where he engages in friendly banter. The dinner scene in 3:10 to Yuma is played out for Ford to unbalance both Heflin's family and audience expectations about how an outlaw is suppose to behave.

Man's law, a staple of westerns, is part of both films. Richard Widmark acts according to Indian law which has put him in conflict with the laws of the U.S. government. In 3:10 to Yuma, the conflict concerns whether one is willing to sacrifice oneself on behalf of enforcing the law.

Both films also feature Felicia Farr. Farr plays a woman who brings out the more idealistic aspects of Widmark and Ford. I hesitate to say civilizing as that suggests in turn domesticating these two men who feel committed to a transient existence. In The Last Wagon, Farr inspires Widmark to lead the survivors of the massacre to a safe haven, in spite of the danger he may cause to himself. In 3:10 to Yuma, Farr is temporarily Ford's lover in the film's most wistful scene. It is during this scene that Ford sees himself not as a career criminal but as a gentleman who feels it his duty to treat a woman in the best possible fashion.

If 3:10 to Yuma is the greater film, it is because it is as much psychological drama as it is action film. Alone in the hotel room, waiting for the train, Glenn Ford tries to tempt Van Heflin with greater and greater sums of money than Heflin has known, while also reminding him of the odds he faces when Ford's gang returns, and the risk Heflin places on his family. Although the film is gorgeously photographed in stark black and white, Daves is interested in the shading of his characters. Ford's character of Ben Wade is not simply a robber and killer, but one who makes a point of being charming and likable. 3:10 to Yuma also benefits from a supporting cast of great character actors, especially Henry Jones as the town drunk who tries to redeem himself by also escorting Ford, Richard Jaeckel as a member of Ford's gang, and Leora Dana as Heflin's wife.

The scene of Ford alone in a bar with barmaid Felicia Farr is Daves at his most romantic and idealistic. Maybe one can attribute the emotional impact to the musical queues, but the scene anticipates Daves eventual sequeway to the romantic dramas that capped his career, especially A Summer Place. For Daves, the best romantic relationships provide a temporary haven from the hostility of the world at large. Men and men’s laws are transient, and people are all subject to nature and its laws. As Richard Widmark comments to Tommy Rettig in The Last Wagon, "Death's a path we're all on, son."

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Posted by peter at 03:54 AM | Comments (1)

August 05, 2007

Coffee Break

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Barbara Steele and Mathieu Carriere in Young Torless (Volker Schlondorff - 1966)

Posted by peter at 03:59 PM

August 04, 2007

A Scandal in Paris

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Douglas Sirk - 1946
Kino Video Region 1 DVD

The real life of Eugene Francois Vidocq appears have been more exciting than the version of Vidocq in A Scandal in Paris. What may have interested Douglas Sirk was not the biographical aspects. A key moment that defines Sirk's theme comes near the end of the film when a former detective shoots his wife, thinking she was with another man when he sees her in the window, in shadow, with a mannequin. Setting aside the fanciful presentation of 19th Century France, what A Scandal in Paris is really about is the differences between people as they are, and how they are imagined to be.

Earlier in the film, George Sanders and Akim Tamiroff have escaped from prison. Found sleeping in front of a church, they are hire by a painter who has been commissioned to restore a painting of St. George and the dragon. Sanders poses as St. George because of his appearance of innocence. Signe Hasso falls in love with the image of Sanders as the saint. Even after meeting Sanders, and acknowledging his criminal life, Hasso expresses her belief that the image of Sanders and the real man would eventually be the same.

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Deeper examinations of Sirk's themes can be found by Tom Ryan and Tag Gallagher, among others. Even viewed simply for its value as entertainment, there is Carole Landis doing her best faux Dietrich, and Sanders exchanging witticisms with the rest of the cast. Sanders seemed born to toss out bon mots like, "Women always surprise us by doing the expected." Several other German emigres contributed to the film including composer Hanns Eisler, cinematographer Eugene Shufftan, and editor Albrecht Joseph. While watching the film from a sixty year distance evoked for me the loss of a time when it was less uncommon to for a films to have dialogue actually worth listening to, what A Scandal in Paris may have meant especially for the people behind the camera was a look back at a world they once knew that was now irretrievably lost.

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Posted by peter at 12:27 PM

August 03, 2007

La Dolce Morte

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Spasmo (Umberto Lenzi - 1974)

La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film
Mikel J. Koven
The Scarecrow Press, Inc. - 2006

As a writer, Mikel J. Koven reminds me of the divided characters he describes in La Dolce Morte. While stating that he wants to discuss giallo films on its own terms, Koven loves to pepper his sentences with words like diegetic and liminal among the favorites. The book is described as "the first academic study of the giallo film in English". In this case, academic means boring.

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What Have You Done to Solange? (Massimo Dallamano - 1972)

There seemed also to be an assumption on Koven's part that whomever would read his book would not be familiar with any of the other books about giallo. How else to explain his mentioning of Maitland McDonagh's study of Dario Argento, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds only in reference to Argento, but not to note that she wrote about the literary roots of giallo films twelve years earlier? While Koven greatly amplifies the history of the yellow mystery paperbacks, as well as the influence Agatha Christie has had both in print and on film, he was not the first to make those connections. Koven may have missed the point when he mentions how film critic Kim Newman compared Dario Argento with Vincente Minnelli, only mentioning how the two filmmakers choose to suspend filmic reality for their highly stylized set pieces, with Minnelli usually in the form of his major dance numbers, while with Argento, in his more elaborate scenes of mayhem. Not having read Newman's original piece, I may be taking what was written out of context as well, but I think Newman was not as "flippant" as Koven assumes. What Minnelli and Argento also have in common is their dramatic use of color as well as their moments of briefly shifting within a scene from something to be viewed as reality to a change of exterior setting to reflect an interior shift within that character. A very rough comparison might be in the scene in Some Came Running where Frank Sinatra is in a mansion, questioning his life with Martha Hyer. The interior is a large room, when suddenly Minnelli briefly changes the lighting to something more stagey, to visually illustrate Sinatra's sense of isolation from his environment. Roughly analogous to that would be the scenes in Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome where Asia Argento becomes literally lost in the painting she is viewing at the museum, a painting which comes alive and is transformed temporarily into her environment. Also undercutting Koven's pretensions is the faulty proofreading that renders Pupi Avati's last name as Avanti on one page. (Reading Avanti made me think of Billy Wilder's film of that title, and the comic possibilities we will never know with a character named Pupi.) To prove that the proofreader should ring twice, Koven also refers to author James M. Caine.

What is of interest in La Dolce Morte is Koven's theory of vernacular cinema. Koven discusses how many of the gialli were made to be shown in what were called terza visione (literally third vision) theaters. Playing to a primarily working class audience before television finally decimated the filmgoing habit, going to the neighborhood theater to get out of the house and socialize was more to the point than actually paying close attention to what was happening on the screen. Koven argues that what has been criticized as weak narratives is besides the point, and that the audience cares more about the set pieces, in this case the various acts of murder that take place on screen. There are some interesting ideas that lead to the concept of popular and populist entertainment which in turn made me think of the changes in Hollywood filmmaking which maybe have been incorrectly articulated both by critics and by those speaking on behalf of the studios. By this I mean that with the emphasis on marketing and opening weekend box office combined with a youthful audience that is more interested in the social act of going to the movies, that mainstream Hollywood film is a form of vernacular cinema. In this regard, well written screenplays and thought out visual motifs are besides the point. Much like the films made for terza visione theaters, many current mainstream Hollywood films simply may not be made for critical scrutiny. This explains why comedies that never rise above the level of mediocre television sit-coms have been popular. This may also explain why Michael Bay makes films in his particular style, which is his way of forcing audience attention. It is in his chapter on vernacular cinema that Koven is most interesting, and even exciting, to read.

It is when Koven writes about gialli films that he tends to get dull. While Koven complains about other writers, his own use of language which is hardly vernacular makes me wonder who he is trying to address. If there are any academic film scholars who are still too squeamish to bother with Dario Argento or Mario Bava, much less Sergio Martino or Lucio Fulci, I'm not sure if La Dolce Morte will necessarily inspire them to check out The Beyond or Spasmo. Those who might appreciate a good overview of the giallo film might be frustrated by a book that screams at the reader to check the dictionary every few pages, that they might simply jump to the filmography in the back. I have little patience for books about film that have no stills or frame reproductions. What does no one any favors is that La Dolce Morte is one very high priced book about a form of film that emphasizes the visual, that needs to be seen to be understood, and yet with the exception of the cover, a still from Blood and Black Lace, there are no bloody illustrations.

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The Pyjama Girl Case (Flavio Mogherini - 1977)

Posted by peter at 09:00 AM

August 01, 2007

Some thoughts on The Online Film Community's Top 100 Movies

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The list of online film critics to determine the top one hundred films turned out to be less interesting than I hoped it would be. I am trying to view the list with some perspective as some of the films named reflect the sensibilities of film bloggers and critics younger than me. I would also add that the list may also reflect what older films are, or are not, available on DVD, as well as which older films are getting shown in classes or cable.

Back in 1975, in conjunction with the bicentennial celebrations, a film archive in Brussels invited various film scholars to list the greatest American films. One of my teachers was able to make me one of the contributors. I figured most of the people making lists would name the usual bunch of films and directors - Griffith, Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock being the most revered, followed by Capra, thanks to his autobiography. I decided to weigh my list with a bunch of relative newcomers, some of whom had maybe one or two features behind them.

Among the directors and films I listed were Francis Ford Coppola, for The Rain People and The Conversation; Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver; and George Lucas for THX 1138 and American Graffiti. I also listed Steven Spielberg for Sugarland Express. Coppola was the most established director on the list. The directors, if not all of the films I listed, may seem like obvious choices thirty years later, but that was not the case at the time.

Among the films and filmmakers I listed that some might still find questionable were Monte Hellman for The Shooting and Two Lane Blacktop, Ralph Bakshi for Heavy Traffic, and Noel Black for both Pretty Poison and Cover Me, Babe. I vaguely recall also including Brian De Palma, John Milius, Melvin Van Peebles and Dennis Hopper in my list. I was also big on Robert Altman at the time. The most heated reaction to my list came from an acquaintance, not a film scholar of any kind, who acted as if I committed a crime against humanity because I failed to include Singin' in the Rain.

I did include some relatively older directors films in my list, with work by Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Richard Lester, Anthony Mann and Donald Siegel. I even included a few films by Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Griffith and Capra.

How this relates to the list I just participated in is that while I don't share the enthusiasm that the younger writers have for the original Star Wars trilogy, or Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy, I respect the craftsmanship of the filmmaking. I admit discomfort with a list that includes Ridley Scott and James Cameron at the expense of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, I also have to recognize that critical evaluations are subject to constant shifts. I refer to Herman G. Weinberg's dismissal of Nashville, Day of the Locusts and Shampoo on my sidebar as a reminder that whatever it is that constitutes a classic film will always be subject to discussion, if not heated arguments.

Of the films that made the top ten, I would hope that the love for The Empire Strikes Back would inspire some of these younger film journalists to treasure the other films by the otherwise forgotten Irvin Kershner. The uncredited Roger Corman produced Kershner's debut feature, the wonderfully titled Stakeout on Dope Street. Most of Kershner's films were about characters who lived on the margins of society. One of the best, sadly denied a DVD release, is the uproarious Flim Flam Man with con man George C. Scott teaching the tricks of his trade to Michael Sarrazin and Sue Lyon. Kershner's best films are linked by his interest in human nature which is at least partially to explain why, of all of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back is the one with the biggest heart.

Posted by peter at 08:53 AM | Comments (7)