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August 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Henry King

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from left to right: Frank Lloyd, Henry King, John Ford and Frank Borzage

For the better part of September, I plan on writing about some of the films of Henry King. Why this director and why now? September marks thirty-five years since Henry King was honored at the Telluride Film Festival. Prior to being a Cinema Studies student, I had seen Carousel, still for me the best of the films made from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and quite liked A Bell for Adono on television. Then I read Andrew Sarris's assessment of King in "The American Cinema", which dictated my opinions regarding film directors for a while. I started to reassess my attitude when I got into a long conversation with Noel Black, the director of Pretty Poison. Black, who had interviewed some veteran directors for the Directors Guild of America's magazine, was a fan of Henry King. Weirdly enough, almost half a year later, I managed to see Carousel again, playing with Black's second film, Cover Me Babe, at New York City's most disreputable grind house, Variety Photoplays, only because I happened to walk by the theater that never advertised their constantly changing double features.

Sometime after that, I saw my first silent film by Henry King, The White Sister, at the Museum of Modern Art. In that film, Lillian Gish plays a young woman in love with Ronald Colman. Colman goes off to fight in World War I, and is later reported as killed in battle. A distraught Gish gives herself to the Church and becomes a nun. The report of Colman's death was an error, and Colman returns home in hopes of reuniting with Gish. For much of the audience I sat with, it was an easy choice, and there were expressions of disbelief that Gish would not want to live happily ever after with Colman. And to me, The White Sister is one of several films Henry King has made about the idea of commitment to an ideal, or an act of faith or belief. One of the themes of King's films is about dedication towards a possibly abstract idea at the cost of personal comfort, or even one's life.

As I have written about previously, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Henry King in Telluride. The location was away from the main festival stomping grounds, outside, near a small stream. I don't remember much of what was discussed except that we barely got into his career in the 1920s when we ran out of time. What I do remember was telling him about the experience of watching The White Sister at MoMA. King had told me he had become a Catholic at about this time. Unlike some filmmakers where the concept of faith is a given, King's film are about people in conflict not only with outside influences, but their own very valid self-doubts. A very civil dialogue between self declared atheist James Stewart with priest Jean Hersholt in King's version of Seventh Heaven is for me an example of King's generosity of spirit towards both his characters and his audience.

I will probably refer to the only book on King, Henry King: Director - From Silents to 'Scope, published by the Directors Guild of America, culled from several interviews. In the years since 1975, I have been able to see a theatrical presentation of Romona, one of the first westerns shot in the then new Technicolor process, and a few more films on television, VHS and DVD. I'm not getting any younger myself, so I can't put off this promise I made to myself, to see more of Henry King's films. If anyone else gets inspired, interested or intrigued by any of my postings or by something about King or his films, so much the better.

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Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven (1937)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:24 AM

August 29, 2010

Coffee Break

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Simone Simon and James Stewart in Seventh Heaven (Henry King - 1937)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 03:28 AM

August 26, 2010

My Ernest Borgnine Weekend DVD Retrospective

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The Stranger Wore a Gun
Andre De Toth - 1953
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Delmer Daves - 1956
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Ice Station Zebra
John Sturges - 1968
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

The Screen Actors Guild recently announced that they would be handing a Lifetime Achievement award to Ernest Borgnine this coming January. While I don't have any problem with Borgnine being a more than worthy recipient, I feel like someone is tempting fate here. I'm pretty sure there were several people who were counting on giving Stanley Kubrick an honorary Oscar in 2001. And while Borgnine is still going strong at 93, with several movies yet to be released, I would still keep the proverbial fingers crossed.

The news was enough for me to watch a couple more films featuring Borgnine that I hadn't seen, plus one that, if I had seen it, had viewed as a pan and scan black and white televised version of originally produced with CinemaScope and color. The guy is most famous for his wide, gap toothed grin. Depending on the movie, Borgnine makes that grin whether he's the bully who takes joy in kicking someone when they are already down, or the pal who's ready to give you a rib crushing bear hug as a sign of unlimited friendship. Borgnine's most interesting work for me is in part of male ensemble pieces such as The Wild Bunch or Flight of the Phoenix. While films like Marty and The Catered Affair have their fans, I would rather see Borgnine, if not nasty and villainous, as in Hannie Caulder, then as the sleazy studio head modeled after Harry Cohn and Darryl Zanuck in The Legend of Lylah Clare. I might have made a better choice in one of the films I saw over the course of a weekend, but even that film had some elements worth appreciating.

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In The Stranger Wore a Gun, Borgnine plays one of the two lead henchmen of lead bad guy George Macready. If you've seen a couple of Randolph Scott westerns from the Fifties, this one follows the template of Scott coming into town, cleaning up the corruption, and getting the girl. Surprisingly though in this film, Scott ends up with the nearly his age Claire Trevor instead of young hottie Joan Weldon. But the real reason to watch Andre De Toth's film is to see Borgnine in his first teaming with Lee Marvin. The two made several films together, top lining as arch enemies in Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North, about twenty years later. Marvin is a slack jawed baddie, and the putative brains for a bunch of thugs. Borgnine's villain is as loud as his shirts, negotiating with brute strength.

The Stranger Wore a Gun was originally made in 3D, and uses that device as was intended, for actors to throw stuff towards the camera and the audience. In this regard, the film is similar to De Toth's House of Wax. The film begins with a group of Confederate guerillas shooting at the audience when they're not tossing flaming torches. The big fight near the end features Borgnine aiming his gun at the camera as well as tossing a chair. Those in New York City had the fortune to see the film as intended. Even without the 3D, the film is still fun primarily because of Marvin, Borgnine as the smiling sadist, and Alfonso Bedoya as a goofy rival bad guy, and chief nemesis to town boss Macready.

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Those who have read this blog for a while already know how much I like Delmer Daves. Jubal is one of three westerns Daves made with Glenn Ford. Borgnine is a more sympathetic character here, a cattle rancher who finds the physically exhausted Ford on the side of the road, takes him in, and gives him a job as a ranch hand. Borgnine has a young, attractive wife, played by Valerie French. The film isn't exactly Othello, but French is soon eyeing Ford, the only photogenic guy on the ranch, while fellow ranch hand, Rod Steiger, is seething with resentment over the stranger who soon is elevated to ranch foreman. One scene lets us know that French and Steiger were lovers. Perhaps deliberately, their is some dialogue that may remind some of Marty, where French tells Steiger that she finds him no more physically attractive than Borgnine.

I have to wonder if the feelings Steiger expressed on film towards Ford may have really been his attitude towards Borgnine. Steiger had played the role of Marty for television in 1953. Borgnine took the same role in the 1955 movie version, and won his Academy Award as well. One of the film's highlights is Steiger suggesting to Borgnine that French is sleeping with Ford. Borgnine is about to explode with anger but it is Steiger that he attacks. Neither Borgnine nor Steiger might be considered the most subtle of actors. Steiger has one gentle moment, saving a stray calf. Seeing the two on screen together has me believe that Borgnine was the better choice for the big screen Marty, with his more open, friendly expression, rather then Steiger, whose screen characters never seemed particularly warm.

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As for Ice Station Zebra, there are better films by John Sturges, and better films starring Rock Hudson, Patrick McGoohan. Jim Brown is stiff here. Borgnine show up as a Russian spy who may or may not actually be on "our side" in this story of Cold War espionage. Is his character of Boris Vaslov responsible for sabotage on the submarine, endangering his own life? And can anyone trust McGoohan's character who cheerfully admits that Jones is not his real name?

None of this matters when the real stars of Ice Station Zebra are the submarine, and the polar ice cap. The best scene is of several men trying to find the remote station of the title in a blizzard. The ice cracks and several men fall into a crevice. The ice is seen as a living organism, constantly shifting and contracting, with the men about to be crushed between two walls. This is the most suspenseful part of a film that undermines itself by being filmed in Super Panavision for Cinerama exhibition, yet was almost completely filmed in studio sets. At no time does breath appear on screen as it would if the film were shot in outdoors, in the cold. Between the obvious expense, star power and some intriguing set pieces there are watchable elements to Ice Station Zebra. What convinced the suits at MGM to think that what could have been a serviceable thriller from the author of Guns of Navarone had the spectacle required of Cinerama? Bigger is not better for a film that would have been as good filmed in standard Panavision. Of note is that Borgnine and Brown also starred in the crime thriller, The Split, a film that could well be worth seeing if only for a cast that included Julie Harris, Gene Hackman and Donald Sutherland. My enthusiasm for Ice Station Zebra is at best luke warm.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:49 AM | Comments (5)

August 24, 2010

Girl of Time

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Toki o kakeru shojo/The Little Girl who Conquered Time
Nobuhiko Obayashi - 1983
IVL Region 3 DVD

Like the other films I have seen to date by Nobuhiko Obayashi, Girl of Time centers on an adolescent girl who gets lost in a world of cheap special effects. It is a charming movie, really, and the debut of then teen star Tomoyo Harada. What I've been finding interesting also about some of the Japanese films I have come across is that there have been several films about high school girls that genuinely respect the characters. There is none of the smarminess that seems almost obligatory in too many films that view young women as nothing more than exploitable raging hormones. Overlooking the fact that the story doesn't entirely make sense, Girl of Time shows the sweeter side of the filmmaker still best known for Hausu.

Obayashi takes some of his visual queues from The Wizard of Oz. The opening scene is in black and white, in academy ratio, slowly turning to color and wide screen in the following scene. When color is introduced, it is done slowly, a yellow background seen through a train window, a small object, a pink face among the monochrome kids. The effect is as if the film was hand tinted. The girl of the title, Kazuko, even has a poster from Victor Fleming's film.

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Cleaning the science lab in her high school, Kazuko accidentally knock over a beaker with some kind of overpowering chemical. Discovered by her two best friends, Goro and Kazuo, Kazuko finds herself increasingly in situations where she is suddenly in events that haven't happened yet. The time shifting is the least interesting aspect of the story. What is of interest to Obayashi is the sense of wonder of the world. Kazuko also tries to navigate her way through being a young woman with loyalties to the two young men in her life, the practical, down to earth Goro, and the tall, occasionally poetic, Kazuo. This much is made clear in the opening scene when Kazuko gazes on the night sky, and Goro explained the phenomenon of stars in scientific terms. When Kazuko turns around to join her friends who are night skiing, she bumps into Kazuo, well over a head taller than the petite Kazuko.

Obayashi's film was the first feature of several versions of the novel. Setting aside the fantasy aspects, the story is more symbolically about a young woman's sense of confusion about herself. Kazuko constantly asks Goro and Kazuo if they think she is strange. The film could be said to be about an adolescent's sense of unease, physically and emotionally. Kazuko is less interested in the ability to travel through time than she is to feel "normal", of her place and time. At the same time, Kazuko is conflicted about pursuing an impossible, ideal love, one that she mentions at the beginning of the film, a longing for a prince who would emerge from the stars.

The film ends amusingly enough with a musical number, Tomoyo Harada singing the title song in scenes that virtually recap the entire story. There is one scene where Obayashi gets to play with film technique, with simultaneous fast cutting and overlapping images. The one shot that makes the most impact, is a dolly zoom when Kazuo disappears from Kazuko's life. That Obayashi used a shot first associated with Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo is quite fitting for a story about love lost and found, false memories, and overwhelmingly real heartbreak.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:50 AM

August 22, 2010

Coffee Break


Diane Baker in Mirage (Edward Dmytryk - 1965)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:09 AM | Comments (1)

August 19, 2010

A World without Thieves

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Tian xia wu zei
Feng Xiaogang - 2004
Tartan Video Region 1 DVD

I've only seen four films by Feng Xiaogang. Even when I don't find the work successful, I feel some respect for his ambition. Feng should be a better known filmmaker outside of China, if for no other reason than that he has made the two most financially successful Chinese films back to back. The romantic comic drama, If You are the One from 2008 has recently been bested by this year's disaster epic, Aftershock. The box office in dollars may seem like no big deal, about 75 million or so, but when you consider the size of the audience, this is the equivalent to Spielberg, Cameron or Nolan. Does this make Feng a great, or even good filmmaker? No. But it may be at least one reason to pay more attention to the guy and his films.

Feng almost undermines himself by tarting up his images with unnecessary digital coloring, when letting the story speak for itself would be sufficient. At several points, there is so much cutting of action that is meant to reveal rather than obscure, that one wishes Feng had allowed the camera to linger when thief tries to outwit thief. That the spiritual journey is concurrent with the train journey also makes what Feng might have to say about free will and karma groaningly obvious. What makes the film work is the engagement of the actors, lead by Andy Lau, with sly turns by Ge You and Li Bingbing.

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That the film may be intended as some kind of Buddhist parable is difficult to say as the Buddhism depicted in this film is both generic and casual. A man and a woman are introduced, arguing while on a road trip. It is eventually revealed that they are professional thieves in a stolen BMW. Wang Bo (Andy Lau) and Wang Li (Rene Liu) are also lovers. Wang Li tells Wang Bo that she wants a "normal life", stop with the thievery. For Wang Bo, it is once a thief, always a thief. The two stop at a Buddhist shrine under restoration. While Wang Li joins others in prayer, Wang Bo finds plenty of pockets to pick. He also encounters a young woman with similar designs on the unsuspecting worshippers. Another argument leaves Wang Li on the road, alone and distraught, until the open-faced, naive, Sha Gen, known as Dumbo according to the subtitles, picks up Wang Li on his bicycle. An offer of money for the ride is refused, though Dumbo gives Wang Li a talisman said to ward off evil.

Dumbo has earned 60,000 yuan, about $9000 U.S. dollars, in his five years of working as a craftsman. His plan is to return to his small village to buy a house and get married. In spite of encouragement to wire the money, he feels secure enough to carry the cash in a satchel. Standing outside the train station, he shouts out for any thieves to identify themselves to him. Wang Li appoints herself as Dumbo's protector, with Wang Li trying to get the money for himself. Also on the train is a rival gang of pickpockets, lead by the aphorism spouting Uncle Li. Among Li's gang is the previously spotted young woman, Leaf. The majority of the film takes place on the train with Wang Li trying to outguess Wang Bo, and the pair kept on their toes by Uncle Li and his gang.

With the exception of Dumbo and Wang Li, the other characters are disguised, either in costume or intention. Dumbo sees only goodness in other people, calling Wang Li a Boddhisattva, and ascribing good intentions to Wang Li. For Wang Li, visiting the Buddhist shrine is an attempt to change her self-perceived karma, while Wang Bo indirectly argues that karma is immutable. Wang Bo feels that stealing Dumbo's money will provide a life lesson on the realities of life. Wang Li does what she can to protect Dumbo and his money so that he can continue his belief in "a world without thieves".

The philosophizing is set aside for more visceral set pieces, such as Wang Li standing on top of a moving train with two of the rival gang member, facing a tunnel just low enough to knock off somebody's head. There is a furious dance of sorts between Wang Li and Leaf, done to flamenco music, one of several scenes of mutual attraction and distrust between the two.

Where the film does not work is in depicting the sleight of hand involved in the thievery, especially that between thieves. Feng's editing of very quick shots of hands going in and out of pockets might have intended to indicate just how fast these professionals work. The lack of clarity regarding who is doing what to whom stands in sharp contrast to Johnny To's look at Hong Kong pickpockets, Sparrow, where the hand movement is more clearly, and thrillingly, depicted. A World without Thieves does work as a thinly disguised critique of post-revolutionary China, where money and appearances are valued more than good intentions or camaraderie. The ending is ambivalent, ending where the film began, at the Buddhist shrine. Where a sense of order cannot be restored by the police from the outside, order will be internally restored by traditional religious beliefs or karmic retribution.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:41 AM

August 17, 2010

The Time Machine (1960)

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George Pal - 1960
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

I was eight years old when The Time Machine was released. I was set on seeing the movie after reading the Illustrated Classics comic book version dozens of times. And then my mother said, "No". It never occurred to me why she would not want me to see a movie based on an acknowledged classic novel. By my reasoning, if a film was based on a great book, that automatically made the film worth seeing. Begging, pleading, and a very dramatic temper tantrum finally proved persuasive. Spending that summer in Detroit with my grandparents, it was my grandmother who took me to see George Pal's film. I remember going by another theater in downtown Detroit, and seeing a poster of an attractive woman wearing nothing but a bra, and a fat guy telling the would be audience that they weren't allowed entrance once the movie started. I also recall seeing the last few minutes of the movie playing with The Time Machine, a film I would catch up with in total on DVD, Edgar G. Ulmer's Amazing Transparent Man.

As far as I was concerned, The Time Machine pretty much lived up to my expectations given some of the liberties taken with the story. But what I never told anyone was that part of the film freaked me out. It wasn't the morlocks that I found scary. What gnawed at me for a few youthful years was the scene of the "atomic war". Somehow, I got it in my mind that George Pal knew that life as we know it was going to end on August 16, 1966. Again, it never occurred to me to wonder how George Pal had this special knowledge. I just knew it had to be true. Part of me, especially at night when I was suppose to be sleeping, felt like Toshiro Mifune in I Live in Fear, cowering with awareness that the "big one" was going to be dropped any day. George Pal's taking advantage of one very impressionable eight year old boy never stopped me from rereading H.G. Wells' novel, or seeing Pal's movie several times.

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Seeing the film recently, what struck me was how easily fooled I was by the Oscar winning special effects. The imperfect matte photography, the use of models, the insertion of some documentary volcano footage, good enough to fool an eight year old boy who was clearly less sophisticated in such matters as Hollywood trickery. Then again, what might have been more important is what Wells and Pal were trying to say, regarding the human predilection for warfare. The scene of destruction by an "atomic satellite" was not in the novel, but isn't out of place either, with the incorporation of cold war anxiety giving the film more contemporary resonance between the Victorian era that bookends the film, and the far distant future of Eloi and Morlocks.

On the other hand, has anyone learned anything? George, the hero played by Rod Taylor, arguably teaches the basics of war to the Eloi, temporarily defeating the Morlocks with brute strength. For myself, the film raised a lot of questions that the film skirts over. All of the Eloi are college age, attractive and blond. While it's understood that there are no old Eloi, presumably because they are eaten by the Morlocks while still young, there are no baby Eloi being raised. Likewise, the Morlocks all appear to be male. There is also the question about a balance between the Eloi and Morlocks, based on an implied evolution by one of the talking rings. Being Morlock happy meals seems to be the trade off the Eloi have for a short life of leisure in the sun. The Morlocks might be ugly looking characters, but they are also the ones who make life sweet for the Eloi. I don't know how much of this was intended, but the Eloi seem to also stand in for California's evolving youth culture, blond youth, living lives revolving around pleasure and leisure, post-literate, interested only in life in the present tense, where there is no past or future. On the plus side for some is that the Eloi diet is decidedly vegan, and pairs of girls holding hands suggest that if you are young and reasonably cute, being lesbian will always be cool.

George Pal considered Paul Scofield, James Mason and Michael Rennie in the lead role before deciding on Rod Taylor. Shirley Knight was once considered for Weena. While the other actors may have had an edge in conveying the intellectual side of H. G. Wells, the younger Taylor seems like the better choice as a man of action. Rod Taylor isn't someone usually named in discussions about great screen actors, but having worked with Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Michelangelo Antonioni should be more than adequate validation. Whatever feelings I have about Yvette Mimieux pretty much rest on her presence in The Time Machine. That Mimieux made an impression on other boys of my generation could be felt nine years later when, at NYU, a group of freshman surreptitiously tended to a little kitten named Weena.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:37 AM | Comments (1)

August 15, 2010

Coffee Break

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Charles McGraw and Don McGuire in Armored Car Robbery (Richard Fleischer - 1950)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:34 AM

August 12, 2010

Flying Boys

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Ballet Gyoseubso
Byun Young-Joo - 2004
Bitwin Region 3 DVD

The flying in this title refers to the leaps made by the young men, who have found themselves learning the basics of ballet. One could also give a more symbolic spin to the title, as these are high school graduates who are on the verge of leaving home or living more independent lives. Dance is not the focus of Byun Young-Joo's film, which is primarily the story of a group of young men and one young woman, trying to figure out their directions in life, and get a better grasp of their sense of self-identity.

Caught by a ballet teacher driving without a license, Min-Jae and his friends are convinced to take her course in a community center. For the young men, the class is also a way of killing time between going to the college that will accept them following the competitive national examinations. One of the subplots involves another classmate who was part of a gang, looked down by the others, until it is revealed that he is the sole support for himself and his leukemia stricken younger brother. Integrated into the story are glimpses of prejudice based on class and sexual orientation, although Byun also has one humorous moment when an anguished mother wrongly imagines her daughter having a lesbian marriage.

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Aside from a group of matrons who act out of ignorance regarding several children with leukemia, Byun is remarkably egalitarian towards her characters. Being a college student is not regarded as being of greater value than working in a warehouse. In Korea, as in Japan, one can put off going to college for a year if the exam grades are not enough to get the student into a more prestigious school. For the young people in Flying Boys, it is about taking the second or even third choice and making the best of that situation.

The film leads up to the big dance scene. Unlike what might be expected from a Hollywood counterpart, the dancers are not always graceful, and there are several missteps and falls, primarily when the dance class performs classical ballet. The gang comes back for more contemporary moves to the sound of T-Rex's "Bang a Gong", a bit of break dancing, and a lot of booty shaking. One of the boys performs without his shirt, while some of the other boys have bare midriffs. If Byun wasn't a woman, one might think this sequence was directed by a gay man.

I'm not sure if it was intended, but there is a scene with Min-Jae sitting on a park swing that made me recall Takashi Shimura in Ikuru. A more obvious nod to another filmmaker is when Min-Jae and the young woman he's infatuated with Soo-Jin, watch a DVD of Save the Green Planet. Mostly what I got from Flying Boys was appreciation for a film that allowed its character to make mistakes, do some growing up, and respected their right to figure out their own destinies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:05 AM

August 10, 2010

Countess Dracula

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Peter Sasdy - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

"CARA may make and/or retain a copy of any version of any motion picture submitted for rating as a reference to compare it to any other version submitted for rating and, after a rating has been certified, to verify that the version being exhibited or distributed is the rated version, or for any other reason related to the rating of that motion picture or the administration of the rating system."

Nowadays, it seems that the Motion Picture Association of America's idea of a PG film involves animatronic animals that say rude things, and have comically anti-social behavior. When the rating, first "M", than "GP" and finally "PG" was doled out, it was for films that may have been a bit more extreme than the kind of films that would have simply been approved under the old MPAA code. This meant that Charlton Heston running around in a loin cloth in Planet of the Apes or John Wayne killing Viet-Cong in The Green Berets would be considered G rated entertainment. A slightly more severe rating was imposed for Richard Harris baring all and getting hoisted up with hooks in his chest in A Man called Horse or George Sanders in drag in The Kremlin Letter. Countess Dracula has a copious amount of nudity, even in comparison to some of the films of its time. What is also striking is that the violence is mostly suggested, with splatters of blood here and there. That the film received a PG rating in its U.S. release in 1972 suggests that there was a time when parents were more concerned about children exposed to graphic violence than an exposed human body. It's a sad commentary that the reverse is true with the current ratings board.

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I'm not totally sure what it says about our time that even when there is onscreen nudity in an English language film, it more often involves male actors. For a contemporary movie involving female nudity, I have to add a Spanish film to me Netflix queue, usually starring Maribel Verdu or Paz Vega. While the ratings board has been shaken a bit by Kirby Dick's documentary, This Film is not Yet Rated, my wish is that more filmmakers would use Countess Dracula as a weapon against the MPAA when the board insists on editing onscreen nudity. As it is, in spite of some small efforts to seem more even-handed, the board still sees fit to give big budget Hollywood productions like Lord of the Rings a PG-13, while the less violent Red Cliff is rated R. I have to assume that the MPAA thinks its job is to protect children from subtitles.

Usually when it comes to films, even on DVD, my response is res ipsa loquitur, let the thing speak for itself. Countess Dracula has one of the few commentary tracks worth listening to while watching the film. Most of the commentary is from Peter Sasdy, telling about how he blended his own Hungarian heritage within the framework of a Hammer film, basing the story on Countess Elizabeth Bathory. One point of interest is that the film's sumptuous look comes from reusing the sets that were originally constructed for Anne of a Thousand Days. Sasdy also mentions that this was the first Hammer film produced in more than a decade without Hollywood money, making concerns about the budget even more stringent. Sasdy's discussion about the history of Transylvania helps put the cross cultural elements of his film into greater context with the German and Turkish elements on screen. The titular star, Ingrid Pitt, doesn't say as much, but apparently did some heavy research into the life of her real life counterpart, called Countess Elisabeth Nodosheen in the film.

There is no blood sucking, no fangs in the neck. Unlike Elizabeth Bathory, Ingrid Pitt's countess finds rejuvenation with sponge baths, albeit with the blood of virgins. The scenes that come closest to depicting vampirism are of men nuzzling the voluptuous breasts of some of the women, including Pitt. Some might consider the display of flesh exploitive or demeaning, but Ingrid Pitt expresses no such concerns. As she says, "I had a beautiful body".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:44 AM | Comments (3)

August 08, 2010

Coffee Break


Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray in Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur - 1957)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:43 AM | Comments (1)

August 05, 2010


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Bong Jooh-ho - 2009
Magnolia Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Bong Joon-ho could have used the title Memories of Murder instead of Mother, had he not used it six years earlier. Bong’s new film is not a sequel, but in some ways a continuation of that earlier film in its subject matter of murder in a relatively small community. The twist is that instead of a big city cop showing the small town police how to investigate the crime, the investigation is done by the mother of the alledged murderer.

The young man accused of murder has a memory like a sieve. Not only does Do-joon sometimes forget what he’s doing within a few minutes, but he’s suseptable to others creating memories for him. Early in the film, he confesses to kicking a car side mirror, an act done by Do-joon’s friend, Jin-tae. A young woman is murdered, her body virtually draped over a balcony where she can be easily seen. Based on circumstantial evidence, Do-joon is arrested, and even confesses to the murder.

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Do-Joon’s mother doggedly is insistant on her son’s innocence, pursing every possible lead. The film is in part a mystery, but it also shares elements of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, where a crminal investigation is also an examination of class structure, in this case in a small Korean city. The mother, Do-joon, and the victim, a teenage girl known for her sexual activities, are marginal characters. Were it not for the murder, these are would be people given the least regard, especially compared to the policemen, lawyers, academics and politicians that manipulate the community.

Mother does her own kind of manipulation where possible. When Do-Joon is being interrogated by the police for his part in breaking the car mirror, Mother comes in with bottled drinks for the police. Mother works as an unlicensed accupunturist, a profession that can bring both real and imagined feelings of well being. Mother is propelled by her unwavering belief in Do-Joon's innocence, chipping away at evidence to the contrary.

Bong has stated that his film was influenced by Psycho. Unlike other films that have resorted to shrieking violins and progressively shocking scenes of murder, Bong is more interested in the mother-son relationship. There is one graphic murder that takes place onscreen. What Mother shares with Hitchcock's film is the sense of isolation, of the mother and son alone against a mostly indifferent world. In Psycho, that isolation takes on a more obvious physical form with the Bates Motel and family home away from the main thoroughfares. Norman Bates mentions that a boy's best friend is his mother. In Mother, the two main characters are marginalized, Mother, without a husband, eking out a living with her accupunture, and Do-Joon characterized by his stunted intellectual capacity. Mother and son sleep in the same bed. There is a shot of Do-Joon putting a hand on Mother's clothed breast, a scene that Bong explains in an interview as being a normal form of affection shown by children towards their mother. Within this context, one has to understand Do-Joon's relationship to his mother as being pre-sexual, unlike Psycho which was in part about sexual jealousy.

Due to inconsistency of basic film scholarship is the casting of Kim Hye-ja in the title role. Bong has spoken about her iconic presence in interviews. Not that not knowing about Kim or her career gets in the way of appreciating Mother, but it certainly adds to the significance of this actress in this particular role. That a beloved Korean actress plays a title role that goes against her previous screen image indirectly recalls when Alfred Hitchcock took a very popular Hollywood actress and killed her off in the middle of the movie.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:16 AM

August 03, 2010

Red Garters

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George Marshall - 1954
Paramount Region 1 DVD

Depending on your point of view, Red Garters could be best appreciated as either being ahead of its time, or simply out of its time. Originally filmed in 3-D, the film was probably intended to give movie audiences something of a Broadway show experience, something along the lines of Oklahoma with smaller artistic ambitions, and a smaller budget. Simply being a genre buster combining the western with a musical comedy would have been enough. The stylized sets and color are what will grab the attention. Filmed inside a studio, the sky and land are a sun bright yellow, while the interior of the Red Dog Saloon is a shade somewhere between pink and red. All of the sets would be the kind found in a theater, enough to be recognizable, but relatively abstract, especially for a mainstream Hollywood production. Red Garters was hardly a commercial or critical success in its day, but in retrospect almost looks like a mash-up anticipating a cross between the wild pastels of Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger and the Brechtian distancing devices of Lars von Trier's Dogville.

Who's responsible for what, I don't know. According to IMDb, George Marshall replaced Mitchell Leisen, while Frank Tashlin had an uncredited hand in the screenplay signed by Michael Fessier. What I do know is that a musical made at a time when making a musical wasn't such a big deal. Based on what Frank Capra wrote about his time at Paramount during the early Fifties, the budget would have been no more than two million dollars and was probably much less than that. More importantly, even when the best known actor for most contemporary viewers is probably supporting player Buddy Ebsen, and the top billed star is primarily known as George Clooney's once famous aunt, Red Garters is still a hoot.

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The whiff of a story concerns the proverbial stranger in town who has come to avenge the death of his brother. The town's leading citizen, Jason Carberry, is protective of his young female ward, almost coming to blows with the stranger, Reb Randall. In the meantime, the star of the Red Dog Saloon, Calaveras Kate, pines in secret over Jason, who seems to have eyes for all the other women in town. The judge who has come to town to bring law and order, has also brought along his neice, attracting the attention of vaquero Rafael Moreno. There's a bunch of talk about "the code of the West", but in its heart of hearts, Red Garters is another version of men and women arguing, or being coy with each other until they finally admit their love for each other.

The only time the film seems obviously made for 3-D viewing is during a line dance, with the men and women rushing to the camera, men high kicking, and the women rustling their skirts. Guy Mitchell and Rosemary Clooney do most of the singing, and most of the time face the audience. Clooney never had much of a film career, with her two starring roles being in this film and White Christmas, also in 1954. As Calaveras Kate, Clooney mugs a bit in a role that probably would have been better served by Betty Hutton. Still, nothing prepared me for hearing Rosemary Clooney sing a cappella for a few minutes, a reminder of her vocal ability. Guy Mitchell, playing Red, spent even less time as a movie star than Rosemary Clooney, with a pleasant voice and appearance, but little lasting impression. Jack Carson is his usual dependable self, full of bluster and self-importance as Jason Carberry, literally the big man in town. Briefly on can see Buddy Ebsen show off his own dancing skills. Even though he had starred in War of the Worlds just the year before, a very skinny Gene Barry has fun as Rafael.

There are eleven songs by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Nothing particularly memorable like "Que Sera Sera" or "Mona Lisa", but nothing awful either. If some of the songs hadn't made it for this film, they might have shown up in something Bob Hope would have made at the time. The sets were nominated for an Oscar, and Red Garters certainly doesn't look like any other film from 1954. Without putting too fine a point on it, a comic American Indian character might be interpreted as being a borderline racist creation, yet one could also enjoy the film as being almost proto multi-culti with population of whites, native Americans, and Mexicans drinking and dancing together.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:56 AM