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March 19, 2019

The Tarnished Angels

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Douglas Sirk - 1957
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

At first glance, it might seem that the combination of producer Albert Zugsmith and director Douglas Sirk would be wholly incompatible. As one of Universal-International's house producers in the mid-Fifties, Zugsmith shepherded films with such lurid titles as Female on the Beach, The Tattered Dress and The Girl in the Kremlin. Sirk was known for the glossy melodramas produced by Ross Hunter, frequently starring Rock Hudson. With their two collaborations, Written on the Wind being the first, Sirk gave Zugsmith class, and an Oscar winning performance from Dorothy Malone. Zugsmith gave Sirk the support and freedom to make more adult films within the confines of the still extant production code.

Watching Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels, and the combination of Zugsmith and Sirk, I thought about the scene at the Cinecitta screening room in Godard's Contempt and the film within the film. Fritz Lang is making a serious film about Greco-Roman gods. As far as the producer, played by Jack Palance, is concerned, Lang is making an arty film with scantily clad women. Malone was aware of how she was being used by both Sirk and Zugsmith. As LaVerne Schumann, Malone plays a woman who allows herself to be exploited by her husband, a former World War I ace pilot, now part of a traveling Depression era airshow. The first time we see Malone, the wind from an airplane propellor pushes the thin fabric of her white dress against the contours of her body. The outline of her panties are visible at one point. Later, Malone performs a stunt jumping from a plane, again wearing that thin, white dress. Malone's dress flutters up, while she is parachuting down, much to the delight of the male spectators at the air show, and presumably the male viewers of the film. Whether this is a critique or celebration of the male gaze may be up to debate.

The film was one of Douglas Sirk's most personal films. Having accrued enough success as a contract director at Universal-International, Sirk was able to adapt William Faulkner's novel, Pylon. The story is about a group of itinerant "barnstormers", pilots who performed races and stunts around the United States. A reporter sees a story about these people he describes as gypsies and becomes involved with them. Faulkner's original novel took place in a fictional city, with LaVerne in an active relationship with her husband and another stunt performer, with the paternity of LaVerne's son in question. The film takes place in New Orleans rather than "New Valois", and one character eliminated, and a careful use of dialogue required. Like other filmed adaptations of Faulkner that appeared in the mid-Fifties, there was a bit of work done to make the film pass the production code. In spite of the changes, this was the one filmed version of a Faulkner novel that the author liked best of those made during his lifetime.

While Malone always looks great, though LaVerne is a masochist, thanklessly in love with a man she idolized as young farm girl. The men in The Tarnished Angels are all seriously flawed, and this may explain in part why the film was not successful commercially in spite of the cast. Rock Hudson, as the reporter, is constantly disheveled, uncombed, occasionally drunk and unshaved. Hudson wanted to play against type, much to the horror of the studio suits. As was confirmed with Seconds, Rock Hudson was only popular with audiences when he played Rock Hudson, not a guy who finds that good intentions are not enough. Robert Stack's Roger Schumann is emotionally remote, addicted to the thrill of flying. Previously known for playing likable if not trustworthy sidekicks, Jack Carson as Jiggs portrays a mechanic who lives in the shadow of Roger, wishing for some reflected glory.

Of course the CinemaScope frame was invented to film Dorothy Malone lounging lengthwise on a couch. What many contemporary filmmakers can learn from Sirk is the idea of spatial unity. Almost every shot is of two or more of the characters sharing the space within the frame, the camera frequently gliding around often in a partial circle. When the character is isolated visually, it is there as a kind of punctuation to a scene, or is dictated by the narrative. The most significant example is when Sirk cuts between shots of Schumann losing control of his plane during a race, and his son, on an airplane kiddie ride, trapped and helpless, watching his father's plane on fire, both father and son seen behind their respective cages.

I have yet to hear a disappointing commentary track from historian Imogen Sara Smith. Aside from adding to the already available information about Sirk, Zugsmith and the cast, Smith also allows for spaces within the commentary to allow the viewer to hear the dialogue of a couple of choice scenes. Now that Kino Lorber has added films from Universal to their catalogue, I would hope that more films from Sirk and Zugsmith will be available. On my wish list is the Zugsmith produced waterfront drama, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:11 AM

March 12, 2019

Fly Me to the Saitama

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Tonde Saitama
Hideki Takeuchi - 2019
Toie Company

Totally unfamiliar to me until recently is the existence of Asian Pop-up Cinema, a festival of Asian films held in Chicago. The selection of films might best be described as eclectic. Of note is that several members of the Advisory Board are also connected with the internationally respected Far East Film Festival held in Udine, Italy. Mark Schilling, who covers Japanese cinema for the English language Japan Times, and also advises on Japanese films for the Far East Film Festival, will be on hand for what will be the North American premiere in Chicago. Director Hideki Takeuchi will also be in attendance for this opening night screening.

My own interest in seeing Fly Me to the Saitama comes from seeing Takeuchi's previous two features, Thermae Romae and Thermae Romae Ii. Like the new film, these films also originated as manga, the Japanese comic books. The Thermae Romae films are about a Second Century Roman architect who enters a Roman bath with an underwater connection that takes him to a contemporary Japanese bath house. The first of the two films is quite funny, and understandably the second most popular Japanese film of 2012. The new film, released in Japan just a month ago, has also proven to be a popular hit.

The 1983 source manga by Mineo Maya does not seem to be available online. I was able to find a couple of pages reproduced on an Italian site. Maya's inspiration was his own living in Saitama Prefecture, considered part of greater Tokyo, although it is something of the equivalent to the distant suburbs of major metropolitan cities. What may get in the way for some western viewers is that parts of the story are very culturally specific to Japan, enough so that I am certain I missed certain jokes.

The film is bookended by a Saitama family, the parents and their daughter, going to a the engagement ceremony for the daughter, Aimi. The father is unhappy about how far he has to drive, while Aimi dreams of getting out of Saitama and moving to Tokyo. The comic bickering between the parents and the daughter is funny enough that I had wished the whole film was about them. While driving, they listen to an "urban legend" about Saitama that took place in the past. The legend makes about the bulk of the film - about a time when people from Saitama were not allowed to enter Tokyo, with some exceptions. The two main characters of legend are the son of a rebel leader, Rei, and the son of a Tokyo government leader, Momomi.

Stories about class prejudice, or big city folks versus people from the "boonies" aren't unusual. What happens here is that first scenes take place in some kind of school where the top tier female students are all in the same color 19th Century style dresses. Rei, the only top tier male student, with his very long hair, might be described as a fop. Momomi has a blond page boy hair style, and is always referred to as being male, and yet . . . the role is performed by a female, the two characters kiss and are referred to at one point as being like Romeo and Juliet, with any homoerotic implications totally ignored. In the mix is a bit of science fiction, a few sight gags, and Japanese pop culture references. Whatever one may make of Fly Me to the Saitama, it's never visually dull.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:36 AM

March 05, 2019

Monsieur & Madame Adelman

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Nicolas Bedos - 2017
Icarus Home Video Region 1 DVD

In one of the scenes taking place in the early years of their relationship, Victor and Sarah Adelman go to the movies. A very quick glance on the theater marquee indicates that they are seeing "a film by Woody Allen". No title is seen, but that isn't necessary. But there are a variety of connections to be made here, some similarities as well as differences. There is more here than the critical regard by the French for Allen's films.

Like many of Allen's films, Monsieur & Madame Adelman centers on a relationship between and a woman, as well as sense of identity in terms of being Jewish and as part of the general culture of the time. Unlike Allen's films, being Jewish is not something played down or the subject of stereotypical humor. There's also the occasional literary name-dropping in an Allen film, but it's featherweight compared to the discussions between the characters here. In a Hollywood film, even an independent production, if the character in question is suppose to be a writer, all that's expected is to have a scene with someone hunched over a keyboard tapping away. Some viewers may well be unprepared for a film where literature takes on some of the kind of importance some have for professional sports, whether it's debating who is worthy of the Prix Goncourt, or hoping one's daughter becomes the next Francoise Sagan.

The couple in question are a graduate student of literature and a struggling would-be author who meet in a dive one night in 1971. Sarah is attracted to Victor. She's a bit gawky, he's very drunk. Their one-night stand ends with Victor passing out in bed, while Sarah takes a red marker to Victor's recently rejected manuscript. They meet again by chance a few years later, the real beginning of their relationship. Victor meets Sarah's parents over dinner. Spotting a novel by Philip Roth, Victor is introduced to modern Jewish literature by Sarah's father, whose library includes Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow. A different kind of literature is introduced to Victor which in turn inspires his writing. The Christian Victor decides he is actually Jewish and takes on his then fiancee's family name.

Bedos and Doria Tillier wrote the screenplay as well as taking the title roles. In keeping with the literary aspects of the story, the film plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator. Most of the film is of the couple from 1971 through Victor's death in 2016, as told by Sarah to a young man, a would-be biographer looking for a different angle on the life of Victor. The narrative is bookended by scenes of Victor's funeral. Some of the comedy comes from the discrepancy between what Sarah describes and what we see on the screen. As a counterpoint to the ups and downs of the marriage, we see glimpses of television news indicating the various changes in the French government. There are also questions of Victor's career as a best-selling author, with novels that are thinly disguised biography and autobiography.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman was Nicolas Bedos' feature directorial debut, following several years of writing and acting. The film was a nominee for Best First Feature for the 2018 Cesar Awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:30 AM

March 01, 2019

Apollo 11

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Todd Douglas Miller - 2019
Neon IMAX 2D

Between the release of First Man last Fall, assorted previous documentaries, and for those of us old enough to have seen Neil Armstrong on television as it happened in 1969, one might wonder why make yet another documentary on man's first flight to the moon. I don't think there's anything that has not been seen before. And I don't have any idea if the impact of Apollo 11 would be significantly different on a regular sized theater screen or on a home system. And maybe as as the old joke goes, size matters.

The moment I found most striking is watching the liftoff of the rocket. For my first time, I had a sense of the intense heat, the blast of fire, and the rumble similar to a minor earthquake. It's almost as if one was standing beneath the heat of several industrial furnaces.

Miller's film is primarily made up of documentary footage culled from various sources. It begins by alternating between the preparations of the rocket and the astronauts, and the crowds gathered a distance from Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch. There is no offscreen narration. Occasional superimposed titles identify the astronauts and the key people in the control room. Most of the footage is enlarged from 16mm film which was the standard at the time, with bulky portable video cameras just coming into use, but it's not as obvious with contemporary digital technology used here. Once Apollo 11 is on its way to the moon, Miller spends as much time with mission control as he does with the astronauts.

Miller provides the viewer with a much greater sense of how many people are in mission control. What the exact functions of these hundreds of men, and a handful of women, are, is never explained. Most are seen sitting behind a computer screen, writing notes. I was also unaware of the multiple teams that were assembled as part of mission control. What is also worth noting is that there is no sense of drama or tension. Instead there is the attitude of professionalism, of people doing their respective jobs without any drama.

In addition to culling archival footage, Miller breaks up the screen alternating between single images, and two, three or more images at once. This is another reason why it is advantageous to see Apollo 11 on the IMAX screen. I would also encourage viewers to stick through the final credits which are include footage of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in their temporary isolation chamber, celebrations and parades, as well as an excerpt from President Kennedy;s 1961 speech vowing to get a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:51 PM