Thursday, March 31, 2011

Month 15 Status Report

Another month done, and another month of movies watched. March contains within it a finals week where I teach, which is the reason I went about eight days with only a single update. Happens every three months. It's also why I went a week without a silent film.

But, the end of the month got me close to back on track. Sadly, I probably won't finish today's movie before midnight, which will make it tomorrow's movie. It's a good enough way to kick off a month in which I'm going to try to make a concerted effort to get through more and more subtitled films and films that lean heavily on the difficulty meter. Plus a silent or two every week. And some hopes for some longer films in April, too.

Ambition? Sure--it's good to have a goal to shoot for.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Foregone Conclusions

Film: Le Jour se Leve (Daybreak)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Sometimes, you just know what’s going to happen. Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se Leve (Daybreak) is one of those movies. You know the basic plot within the first couple of minutes, and you know from this point on that you’re not going to have a happy ending. There’s simply no way that a happy ending is possible with this one.

We start with a murder. A man named Valentin (Jules Berry) is shot, and he stumbles out of an apartment and takes a tumble down the stairs. The body is discovered and the police are summoned to the apartment of Francois (Jean Gabin), a factory worker. But Francois has barricaded himself into the apartment and will not open the door. In fact, he takes a couple of potshots at the police, who run for assistance. In the meantime, Francois tries to remember what brought him to this particular state.

Naturally, what brings him here is a woman, or rather a pair of women. The first is Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent), who works at a florist. They meet when Francoise is attempting to deliver flowers to the factory in which Francois works. The two click immediately because of the similarities of their names (the “e” on the end makes it feminine) and the fact that both were raised in an orphanage. Francois would like to take the relationship further, but Francoise says she can’t.

What Francois discovers is that Francoise has a relationship with Valentin, who is a dog trainer and performs frequently on stage. His assistant, Clara (Arletty) has chosen this night to make a clean break with Valentin, who promises the moon and never delivers. In their conversation, Francois realizes that Valentin has something of a hold on Francoise, but he does not confront her. Instead, he starts a relationship with Clara, almost to spite Valentin and to get back at Francoise.

And so the two men battle over the two women. Both Francois and Valentin want both women, and neither will budge. Valentin spins a tale about being Francoise’s father, a tale that proves to be a lie and further shows the underhanded nature of his character. Eventually, Francois realizes that he truly wants to be with Francoise, and will do anything to protect her, hence the opening few minutes of the film.

Throughout all this, we frequently flash forward to the present and Francois barricaded into his room. A horde of police show up and take positions both inside the apartment building and outside on the roofs of the buildings nearby. These police aren’t too keen on bringing in Francois alive based on the vast number of bullets they fire into his room.

And really, the ending here should be pretty obvious. With the actions of the police established fairly early into the film, it’s evident that no one aside from Clara and Francoise are too concerned about bringing this criminal to justice in court. Aside from an unbelievable deus ex machina, there’s no way that Francois is coming out with both his life and his freedom intact.

For all that it purports to be about love, Le Jour se Leve is more about possession than anything else. Both men are willing to kill to possess the two women, and are willing to throw away their lives and futures to get what they want. While Francois is the one who actually pulls the trigger, Valentin shows up at the apartment for the confrontation with a gun and ready to kill. So the question to me becomes one of whether or not the men really love the women—Francoise in particular—or simply want to conquer someone else for possession rights. The film would have us believe that Valentin’s love is more possession while Francois’s love is more pure. However, Francois’s actions with Clara seem to belie that. From what I see, both men are equally guilty.

This is not a happy experience. Le Jour se Leve is right in the heart of the French Poetic Realism movement featuring proletarian protagonists, film noir-style lighting and sets, and ultimately downbeat endings. If that comes as a spoiler, it shouldn’t. As I’ve been saying, the downbeat is pretty obvious from the moment those first shots ring out—no one is walking out of this one with a smile except perhaps for the police.

Le Jour se Leve is stylish and smart, and plays like a real drama for the most part. The biggest problem for me to overcome in terms of verisimilitude is the actions of the police, who seriously pump about 50 rounds into Francois’s apartment in an effort to end the siege. Maybe this is how the French police acted in the pre-war years, but it’s the sort of action that ends in a class action suit, suspensions, and paperwork headaches for the police force. But for this, the value here is how much Carne reflects real life, or at least potential real life.

Why to watch Le Jour se Leve: A film that is a match for Carne’s later Les Enfants du Paradis.
Why not to watch: The ending is a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Easy Rider Lite

Film: Two-Lane Blacktop
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

For whatever reason, the acting business and the music business are tightly connected. I mean, I understand precisely why in terms of using music in movies, especially as more and more directors follow the lead that Tarantino popularized in using found music. What I mean here is that it seems like every actor is a wannabee singer and everyone who sings would really like to act. Case in point? Two of the stars of Two-Lane Blacktop had never acted before and never did again, but both of them cut plenty of records.

Having watched this film, it occurs to me that there are two distinct possibilities. It’s entirely possible that The List contains a vast number of essentially plotless films because someone really likes them. It’s also entirely possible that there aren’t a ton of them, but I have merely selected a few of them in relatively rapid succession purely by chance. Two-Lane Blacktop is basically plotless. The characters drive, often in silence, and that’s pretty much it. They don’t even have names.

The Driver (James Taylor) pilots around a home-bulit ’55 Chevy assisted by The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys). The two look for other people who like fast cars and they race them, using the money they win to move on to the next town and the next race and making modifications to their vehicle. They have no real goal in mind and no plans other than finding new places and new people to race.

Things change, but not much, when The Girl (Laurie Bird) climbs into their backseat one day and goes along with them. Like The Driver and The Mechanic, she appears to have no real direction in where she is going, but simply comes along for the ride. Neither of the guys question her presence or where she came from, but immediately accept her presence in the car and in their lives.

Driving aimlessly around the same general area is an older gent in a GTO (Warren Oates) who decides that the ’55 Chevy is following him. He challenges The Driver to a cross-country race to Washington D.C. for pink slips—winner takes both cars. And they drive, sometimes try to cause problems for the other car, and more often than not end up in the same place at the same time. GTO picks up potential back-up drivers and generally just as soon ditches them while The Girl tries to decide which car she really wants to be in. And that’s really it.

For something that really has no plot, there’s a lot going on in this film below the surface. It deals in many ways with the same ideas that Easy Rider did a couple of years earlier, but with far less direction and optimism. At one point, GTO says to The Driver that he (Driver) needs to find something more in life than just driving around looking for new people to race. Then again, it appears that GTO hasn’t found much for himself, either. He tells a different story about who he is and what he’s doing to every hitchhiker he picks up, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s a former television producer or former test pilot or current location scout, or none of the above. And it really doesn’t matter. To get at the meat of this, though, it’s necessary to discuss the ending, and that means a spoiler:

*** BLOW IT OUT, GTO ***

Eventually, while our four primary characters are sitting in yet another nameless diner in yet another nameless backwater town, GTO and The Driver confront each other over The Girl. GTO wants her to go with him to Canada, or Chicago, or Florida, or New York. The Driver wants to go buy parts in Ohio. She decides…on neither of them. She gets up and hops onto the back of the motorcycle of the guy who just left the diner. As they pull away, she drops her bag and leaves it, completely letting go not only of the trio she has ridden most of the way across the country with, but her entire past.

With the girl gone, there appears to be no sense of purpose left. In reality, it seems that no one was really racing for pinks in the first place, but were racing for the rights to The Girl, who opted out of the competition completely, evidently deciding that she’s not a prize to be won. GTO picks up a few more hitchhikers and heads off, spinning yet another story of where his car came from while The Driver and The Mechanic to back to looking for suckers to beat in drag races to fund their continued wanderings.

It’s the final shot here that really sticks with me. As The Driver floors it, the sound drops out, and eventually the shot freezes and the film begins to burn, slowly burning out the image of this guy in his constant, unending, meaningless quest to go faster than someone else. Nothing has changed and he’ll keep racing until he can’t race any longer.


There is a mood to this film I find hard to describe or explain, a sense of unexpressed desire for meaning that truly doesn’t exist. The Driver, GTO, and to some extent The Mechanic are all looking for something. They don’t know what they’re looking for, and they probably won’t know if they find it until much later. But it’s never where they are, and so they drive off in search of it. There’s a sense of empty accomplishment with each race. It’s not a hurdle to overcome or a challenge to meet, but merely something there.

And so there it is—an endless chasing after nothing. It seems strange to sum up a movie with such a short statement. It seems stranger to say that said film is excellent, engaging, and worth watching multiple times. But it is.

Why to watch Two-Lane Blacktop: Kick-ass cars.
Why not to watch: A whole new definition of “taciturn.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

The End of Griffith

Film: Orphans of the Storm
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Since I started getting into the silents with intent a few weeks ago, D.W. Griffith has been something of my nemesis. While innovative and important in the annals of film, there’s something about his films that’s sort of like biting down on a piece of tinfoil. When the film doesn’t involve outright racism, it tends to involve insane amounts of melodrama and thick-headedness. So it’s with some relish that I sat down with the fifth and final Griffith film--Orphans of the Storm. If nothing else, this painful chapter of my life will be behind me and I can move on to directors who may be less important in terms of cinematic language but are far more enjoyable to watch.

True to form, Orphans of the Storm contains all of the typical tropes I have come to expect from D.W. Griffith. It seems that his favorite emotion is outrage just as his favorite leading lady is the irrepressibly cute Lillian Gish. While Griffith avoids the racism that seems inherent in so many of his stories with this one, he can’t stop his politics from coming through and dominating every aspect of this story.

As with the bulk of Intolerance, this film is a costume drama, this time set in the years prior to and during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. A man in Paris goes to lay his daughter Henriette at the door of Notre Dame since he can no longer afford to feed her. Instead, he finds another foundling and brings her home. This is Louise, who is adopted into the family in no small part because of the money she is found with.

The two grow up and lose their parents to a plague. This same plague renders Louise (Dorothy Gish) blind. Henriette (Lillian Gish) vows to care for her. The two journey to Paris with the hope of a cure for Louise, who must be persuaded to go by a promise from Henriette that she will not leave her or marry until a cure is discovered for Louise’s blindness.

Along the way, they encounter the decadent aristocrat, the Marquis de Praille (Morgan Wallace). He gets a look at the sexy Herniette and demands that his manservant capture her and bring her back to a party. He does so, abandoning the poor Louise to her fate where she is picked up by a group of tramps who use her blindness to garner more money from passersby.

In the meanwhile, Henriette is rescued by Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), a kindhearted noble who frequently takes pity on the poor and acts as a friend to those in need. The two quickly fall for each other, but Henriette has made her promise, and now Louise is missing.

All of this gets tied up into the French Revolution. Old grudges against the nobility come back to haunt everyone. Henriette and Louise find each other, lose each other, and find each other again. De Vaudrey is arrested simply for being a nobleman, and Henriette is arrested with him; both are sentenced to pay a visit to Madame Guillotine, sentenced by the wicked Jacques Forget-Not (Leslie King) with the approval of the equally wicked Robespierre (Sidney Herbert). Only the oratory skills of Danton (Monte Blue) and some mechanical problems with the guillotine can save everyone now. And what about Louise’s eyesight?

This is high melodrama at its silent finest, and it plays fast and loose with history, ideas of justice and nobility, and simple fact. Danton, Robespierre, and Louis XVI are depicted as old, weathered men when not a one of them lived past 40 in real life. It’s also quite interesting to see Robespierre considered a Bolshevik.

I will say this—based on Griffith movies I have already seen, there’s a surprising amount of tension at the end. His movies have both happy and unhappy endings, so there’s some real tension in the moments leading up to Henriette’s walk up the scaffold to the guillotine.

As a costume drama, this works pretty well if only because the costumes and sets are really interesting to look at. It’s interesting to see that Griffith manages to hit his anti-Bolshevik stride by commenting that real freedom wouldn’t come to France until after Robespierre was himself guillotined, glossing over the fact that his savior character Danton was guillotined on Robespierre’s order first. Ah, Hollywood—is there no history that you can’t screw with to get the desired ending and message?

So where does it rank in terms of Griffith? It’s certainly more watchable than Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Way Down East. It spins in the same circle as Broken Blossoms. It’s far less racism-driven, but it’s also far more overblown.

Why to watch Orphans of the Storm: All the joys of the Reign of Terror.
Why not to watch: For all its pomp and bombast…it’s still Griffith.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The White Man's Burden

Film: Gunga Din
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s a style of action film that has died out, and been dead and gone for some time. This is the sort of wild action film in which our hero(es) wink and nod at danger, ride straight into the jaws of overwhelming odds and emerge with nary a scratch because, well, they’re the heroes. The classic Western falls along this line, and it’s the sort of thing the Indiana Jones films played with, although Jones always took a hell of a beating (and Jones will come up in a few paragraphs). These “boy’s own” adventure films glorify this type of two-fisted hero, ready and willing to get into a good scrap and avoiding all of the mushy romance stuff.

And so we have Gunga Din (pronounced GUN-ga DEEN) from 1939, which might well be the most adventure-y adventure film ever made. Based somewhat on the poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, the film (and the poem) walks an uneasy line between racism and its opposite. Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) wants nothing more than to be a soldier like the three men he admires. But, he is nothing but a water bearer, and a very low man on the military totem pole. The end of the film serves in many ways not as his redemption, but as a sort of upbraiding to those who would consider him a lesser man.

Ah, damn. I get ahead of myself so often.

Despite playing the title role, Jaffe isn’t listed anywhere near the top of the credits. Instead, these places are held by the three men for whom Gunga Din totes water, the trio of two-fisted sergeants: Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). These three are inseparable, and our initial meeting with them is in a dust up over something that will become a bit of a theme. Cutter is treasure-mad and is sold a bum treasure map. We also soon discover that the three are first-rate soldiers despite their penchant for trouble. Sent to inspect and repair telegraph lines, the three are set upon by Indian natives who prove to be a sort of outlier for a new Thugee sect.

A complication arises in the group when Ballantine announces that his term of service with Her Majesty’s Army has come up and he plans on drumming out of the service and into a marriage and a life as a tea merchant. Cutter and MacChesney quite obviously don’t wish him well and scheme to keep him in the military instead of the cushy civilian life. But all of this is secondary when Cutter hears of a nearby temple actually made of gold. Din leads him to it, only for them to discover that this temple is in fact the central hub of the Thugees. Cutter allows himself to be captured and sends Din back for the others, leading to the climactic scene between the trio and Din, the marching Scottish Lancers, and the Thugee cult headed by their evil guru (Eduardo Ciannelli).

This film is done in the classic Hollywood adventure style. It’s evident from the very beginning that nothing too terrible, or at least nothing fatal is going to happen to our three main characters. They’re too likeable, too willing to step gladly into danger, and too sold on service to Her Majesty for any wound to be much more than something that requires laying about without a shirt. The reaction of Cutter and MacChesney to Ballantine’s proposed nuptials is less about his abandoning them for civilian life and much more about Ballantine subjecting himself to all of that mushy girl stuff. This is not a film made with the female viewer in mind. Instead, it’s a sort of non-serialized version of a cliffhanger serial made for the Saturday afternoon crowd of rowdy pre-teen boys who just sat through a newsreel and a couple of Popeye cartoons. Our heroes commonly handle their problems by punching them in the jaw, and most of the problems can be handled with a single punch for each. There’s no situation so dire that the three men can’t take a minute to poke fun at each other, pull pranks, or argue about what they’ll do when they get out of yet another impossible scrape. Evidently, they’re pretty confident that they won’t die, too.

I mentioned Indiana Jones at the beginning of this, and there’s a reason for it. A great deal of what appears in this film also appears in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In both films, we see a renewed and reborn sect of Thugee attempting to take over India in the name of Kali. In both, we have a mad guru wildly killing all who oppose him in terrible rituals, and in both, that guru is bald and speaks in flawless English. There’s a vibe here that feels like the second Indiana Jones film. I realize Gunga Din came first by multiple decades, but there’s no getting past the fact that the majority of film viewers these days are more familiar with Henry Jones and Short Round than with our trio of sergeants and the Indian water bearer.

And so the racism needs to be addressed as well—the racism not of the characters but of the film. Ballantine interacts little with Din. Cutter likes the man and tends to praise him. MacChesney tends to deride the little water carrier. This is part and parcel of the characters, though—three different relationships with the title character. The film itself, though, was made in a time when anyone who wasn’t white was either a lesser man or a man who aspired to whiteness. Din’s only wish is to be a British soldier; he has no real aspirations beyond imitating the three men he follows around.

This is most evident in the scene in which Cutter and Din find the Thugee cult. While Din’s eyes go wide at the sight of the terrible ceremony taking place before him, Cutter’s jaw becomes set and he fills with resolve. He is the one who allows himself to be captured while Din runs away—yes, he runs under orders, but run he does. That the film manages to redeem itself (and not Din because he truly needs no redemption) is actually laudable. But the evidence of that wanna-be-white-guy syndrome certainly creeps in.

Is it good? Yeah, it is. Films like this don’t get made anymore, but they used to be Hollywood stock in trade. An entire generation grew up on films like this and a generation of little boys learned (perhaps the wrong way) what being a man was all about from watching guys like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Cary Grant punch people in the jaw. Sometimes that’s enough.

Why to watch Gunga Din: Rollicking adventure-y goodness.
Why not to watch: For the most part, danger is met not with serious action, but a wink and a nod.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Patron Saint of France

Films: Artists and Models, The Ladies Man, The Nutty Professor
Format: DVD from Graves-Hume Public Library through interlibrary loan (Artists) and DVDs from personal collection (Ladies, Professor) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Just like Germany loves David Hasselhoff, France is constantly enamored of Jerry Lewis. There’s nothing especially French about Lewis; in fact he frequently seems to espouse all of the worst elements of the American idiot. On second thought, perhaps that’s precisely why the French love him so much. He’s a caricature of someone who has only a couple of functioning brain cells and is unable to get those poor, benighted cells to synchronize.

Whatever the reason for Jerry Lewis’s canonization in the salons of Paris, his wacky persona appears at least a trio of times on The List, once with his pre-Rat Pack partner Dean Martin and twice post-break up. Artists and Models may well be the prime example of the pair, and they function like a pretty standard comedy team. Like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy before them, we have a straight man and a goof. Dean is our straight man—he’s far too suave and good looking to be comic relief. Jerry is the screw-up, unable to keep his eyes from crossing for more than a few seconds at a time. One way to look at the duo is to consider Jerry as Gilligan and Dean as pretty much everybody else on the island.

In Artists and Models, we find the pair in a Greenwich Village apartment desperately trying to make ends meet. Rick (Martin) is a struggling artist who wants to be hung in galleries and art museums. Eugene (Lewis) has aspirations of being a writer of children’s books, but continually gets sidetracked by his love of comic books, especially The Bat Lady.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as your opinion holds, the artist of The Bat Lady, Abigail Parker (Dorothy Malone) moves into the apartment above Rick’s and Eugene’s with her friend, Bessie Sparrowbrush (Shirley MacLaine), who is the model for The Bat Lady and the receptionist at the publisher’s office. So this sets up the classic romantic comedy pitch—two men and two women living in close proximity, with one of each being perfect for each other.

What follows is a lot of misunderstanding, goofing around, and bizarre occurrences all circling around that wicked comic book market, much of it centered in the office of the comic book publisher, Mr. Murdock (Eddie Mayehoff). Abigail quits her job and Rick takes it, writing and drawing a new comic book based on Eugene’s vivid (and loud) dreams. However, Eugene now believes that comic books are evil and need to be stopped, which means Rick can’t admit that he’s drawing one. Plus, he needs to get Abigail to fall for him, and Bessie is trying desperately to get Eugene to notice her.

The problem with Artists and Models is that it has no idea what it wants to be. It starts as a wacky romantic comedy with these two made-for-each-other pairs and then spins off into a number of directions by the end. The whole plot of Rick drawing a comic book without Abigail and Eugene finding out is never resolved—it’s completely dropped for much of the last part of the film because the last half hour or so starts an entirely new story in an entirely new genre.

Essentially, Rick’s comic is published, and one of Eugene’s ravings happens to be the exact chemical formula for part of the United States’ rocket fuels, which brings both the Feds and the Russians into the mix. This means that instead of hiding his comic book drawing from Abigail, Rick now needs to hide a Russian spy who is trying to seduce him. All of this somehow culminates in a musical number with Rick and Eugene at a pageant, a kidnapping, a rescue, and a final song and dance number.

In short, I don’t get it. There are certainly some good bits. Dean Martin is hard not to like, even when his character is essentially a sexist wolf, and the numbers he sings are pretty good even if they don’t really fit. The “Innamorata” number is quite good with some excellent choreography toward the end. There are also a couple of nice gags. Once, as Dino sings to an unknowing Abigail, she comments that his voice is familiar. Bessie replies that it’s the same singer who had a hit with “That’s Amore.” Later, a guy with a camera says in Jimmy Stewart’s voice that he can’t get a good view out of his rear window. That’s cute.

But too much is either completely random or simply defies belief. Eugene is completely inept in everything he does and can barely communicate at even a rudimentary level. When confronted by Rick about why he came to New York, Eugene can’t answer. Instead, he has to mug for the camera for thirty seconds and then mime typing so that Rick can essentially pat him on the head for being a good boy and remembering something. So with that as part of the film’s reality, who in their right minds would put him on stage for a revue at a banquet? And why really were either of them performing? And what’s up with the shoehorned spy thing?

And then there’s the predictability. It’s obvious who will end up with whom. The two normal ones (Rick Todd and Abigail Parker) with normal names will wind up together just as the two kooks (Eugene Fullstack and Bessie Sparrowbrush) with the wacky names will end up together.

As a whole, some parts hit, but most of it’s a miss. Dean’s heart didn’t seem to be in it, and it shows.

The Ladies Man is Jerry solo, without Dean to buffer him or act as his straight man. In this film he again plays a guy with a goofy name—Herbert H. Heebert (the “H” stands for “Herbert”) who swears off women on the day of his graduation because he sees his childhood sweetheart in the arms of another guy. This takes him to Hollywood where he lands a job as (wait for it) the housekeeper and superintendent of an all-girls boarding house.

Naturally, this environment is a problem for Herbert, and we discover that it’s been a problem for a number of other men, too. Evidently, no maintenance guy has lasted more than three days at the boarding house, so the two women in charge, Katie the Cook (the immediately recognizable Kathleen Freeman) and Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel) tell the girls that they should treat Herbert with a lot of kindness and shower him praise to keep him around. Fay (Pat Stanley) takes on Herbert as a special case and helps him overcome his fear of women.

Throughout, a couple of Hollywood big shots show up as themselves, most notably George Raft, who pulls a tango with Herbert around the middle of the film. Others appearing as themselves include Jack LaLanne, Harry James, and Marty Ingels.

All this is well and good, but there isn’t a lot of plot going on here. Most of the film is really nothing more than a platform for Jerry Lewis to be himself. Half the time, he is his cross-eye, screaming persona. The other half of the time, he’s sharing an aside with the camera and the people in the audience.

While there’s really not much more going on here than a series of sight gags, I enjoyed this film more. I’m not exactly sure why, and I won’t say that I loved it. But I liked it more than I liked Artists and Models.

A few last notes—the set for this film is huge. Essentially, Lewis built half of a four-story house on a sound stage so that he could show all of the girls in the boarding house in their rooms at the same time. It’s pretty impressive. However, during the sequence in which Miss Wellenmellon is interviewed, it’s really evident that it’s a soundstage for them, too. It’s one of those moments where the verisimilitude vanishes and reminds me that the actors know it’s fake, too. Also, don’t get this confused with the Tim Meadows film of the same name. Really. It’s also worth noting that this film, for all its nuttiness, has a tremendous pedigree: Bobby Van choreographed all of the musical numbers and dances, and the costumes were done by Edith Head.

The quintessential Jerry Lewis film is The Nutty Professor, and it’s the film he’s still best known for despite the Eddie Murphy remake of a decade and a half ago. Chemistry professor Dr. Julius Kelp (Lewis) is also the perfect distillation of a Jerry Lewis character—the buck teeth, the glasses, the annoying voice, the little bow ties, the ankle-length pants, etc. He’s also a klutz frequently does things like cause his lab to explode, and he’s frequently the target for some of his larger, more football-oriented students. When an attempt to buff up at a gym fails miserably after six months, he looks instead to science.

What he creates is a Jekyll and Hyde potion that turns him into Buddy Love, and it’s this creation that makes The Nutty Professor almost a collaboration between Lewis and Martin again. Buddy Love is a smarmy bastard, a slick operator, and a complete (pardon the term) ladies’ man. Everything that Julius Kelp is not, Buddy Love is.

The appearance of Buddy Love causes no end of problems for Professor Kelp. The first reason is that the potion has a tendency to wear off, often at precisely the plot-appointed worst time. The second is that Buddy Love becomes Julius Kelp’s greatest rival for the affections of attractive and perky student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens).

In terms of character, Julius Kelp is an interesting one based on what Lewis typically played. While socially inept and bumbling, Kelp is at least an intelligent scientist—he does, after all, create the formula that turns him into Buddy Love. The typical Lewis character is inept on all fronts, so this is a step forward for him. Buddy Love is an equally unique Lewis character, although he really does appear to be based in a large part on Dean Martin. It’s either homage or sly dig—take your pick, but this film comes a half dozen years after that pair split and the blood between them was pretty bad.

The Nutty Professor is perhaps too predictable, and where it really fails for me is in its level of appropriateness. After all, Julius Kelp is a college professor and is pursuing a student romantically. As a college teacher, I find this a little difficult to swallow, although it’s certainly not unheard of. One school at which I taught for a short while (not my current employer) had no standing policy against teachers dating their students, a fact that at least one co-worker contemplated with considerable relish. Still, it’s not the healthiest relationship to promote, is it?

This film is unquestionably dated, not the least in its treatment of Stella Stevens as more of an object than as a person. It’s a harder sell today than many comedies of the same era, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t possess a particular charm. The main problem it has is that it no longer has a real market. It’s too much for kids and not enough for adults. Maybe it can still find an audience in France.

Why to watch Artists and Models: Dino is one smooth operator.
Why not to watch: Two hours of Jerry Lewis’s “hijinks” requires ibuprofen.

Why to watch The Ladies Man: It’s the best movie ever made with that name.
Why not to watch: It frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Why to watch The Nutty Professor: It’s Jerry Lewis at his most Jerry Lewis-y.
Why not to watch: It’s Jerry Lewis at his most Jerry Lewis-y.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Oh, Behave!

Film: Blow-Up
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol' television.

There’s a particular fascination people have with fashion. It’s a combination of glamour and the idiocy that seems to come with fashion. The only television show I watch regularly is Project Runway despite the fact that I know nothing about color, clothing, fashion, or style. Movies tend to be intrinsically tied with fashion, too. Movies both reflect the trends of their time and set the style for their time. It’s impossible to divorce particular movie scenes and styles from the fashion of those films. So, it only makes sense that there would be a number of movies involving the fashion world.

Blow-Up (sometimes just Blowup) is perhaps the first and greatest of films that combine cinematic elements with an eye for fashion and fashion photography. Our main character is Thomas (David Hemmings), a young hip photographer who makes his living doing fashion photography even if his heart really isn’t in it. His real goal is to publish a book of his more serious photography, and he leaves a fashion shoot to find some final shots for his book.

He finds as a subject a couple who are apparently quite in love, or are at least pretty amorous while he’s filming them. Eventually, the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) spots him taking pictures and confronts him, wanting the film and the negatives. He demurs, but she tracks him down, evidently willing to do anything to get that film back. This makes Thomas all the more curious about its contents, and he gives her a different roll of film and makes prints of the shots he took of the woman and her lover.

When he looks closely at the shots, it appears to him that there is something more going on than just a woman and a man standing in a park. In one shot, it appears that a hand holding a gun is sticking out from some trees, and in a final shot, it looks like the man’s body is lying half concealed by the hedge. Now, in addition to some real shots to end his book, Thomas has a mystery on his hands that only he has the keys to.

There’s a lot going on in Blow-Up. In his opening shoot, Thomas shoots the model Veruschka (as herself) in one of the steamiest few minutes ever filmed. Moving on, he shoots a collection of five women in various poses, but quickly becomes bored, setting the plot in motion. This scene will look mildly familiar to you—it’s undoubtedly the inspiration for the photographic career of Austin Powers—the conversation with the models, the shouting, etc.

Thomas as a character is fairly misogynist in that women are merely things for him to photograph and sometimes have sex with. His only non-sexual relationship is with his neighbor’s lover (Sarah Miles), and in one particularly aggressive escapade, he has pretty violent foreplay with a pair of young girls (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who want him to photograph him. (On a similar note, Jane Birkin became infamous as the partner and singing partner of Serge Gainsbourg on Je T’aime Moi Non Plus which featured her simulated orgasm. She’s also the namesake of the Hermes Birkin bag.)

The film is framed by a troupe of mimes, but their meaning can’t be discussed without spoiling the film, which means that I can either stop writing or put a few paragraphs under a spoiler warning. Guess which I’m going to do:


Thomas goes to the park and finds the body of the man and realizes that the woman has probably been complicit in his murder. When he tries to involve anyone else in discovering what happened, though, he gets nowhere. He goes to the park and sees the body himself, but when he goes back to photograph it, the body is gone. Similarly, his studio gets raided and all the negatives and blown up photographs have been removed.

The mimes at the start of the film seem to indicate that we’ll be treading in territory that borders between reality and non-reality, or actual and filmed life. At the end, the troupe performs a mock tennis match that Thomas observes. When the “ball” goes over the fence, Thomas retrieves it for them and mimes tossing it back to them. Once he does, the mock tennis game resumes, but this time with the actual sounds of two people playing tennis.

It’s an odd moment that seems to imply this same sort of divide between reality and image, or truth and illusion. This appears to be confirmed in the final shot of Thomas standing on the field with his camera, slowly fading out and leaving the field empty.

*** ALL DONE ***

I think this is a film that needs to be watched multiple times to really get. There are a lot of nascent ideas milling around in my brain with this one—the mimes, the connection of the field a the start of the film and again at the end, the seemingly unnecessary presence of The Yardbirds toward the end of the film and the scrum that results from a destroyed guitar. Antonioni packed a lot into this film that requires some thinking and some fermentation.

For all that, Blow-Up is remarkably slow to develop (yes, pun intended). Thomas doesn’t spot the body until about halfway through, and there seem to be some side plots and actions that don’t do much but take up some space. I’m certain that Thomas’s desire to purchase an antique shop and the massive propeller he buys have some specific meaning, but I haven’t ferreted that meaning out yet.

Ultimately, I think I’d like a little less artistic oomph and a little more story earlier on. With repeated viewings, who knows what I’d think?

Why to watch Blow-Up: Sex, drugs, rock and roll, jazz, fashion photography, and possibly murder.
Why not to watch: Despite everything that happens, it’s slow to start.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ars Gratia Artis

Film: Dog Star Man
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Experimental films are very much their own thing. Watching one takes intense concentration. This seems to be especially true of the film in question was made by Stan Brakhage. Dog Star Man could not legitimately be called anything other than an art film or an experimental film. It consists of layered images, film leader, seemingly random shots of trees, mountains, solar flares, and Brakhage’s naked wife, plus blood moving through blood vessels, frames marred (and sometimes completely obscured) by scratches, burns, and paint, the moon, and landscapes. This is not to say there isn’t a narrative in here somewhere—a man (Brakhage himself) walks up a mountain with is dog and chops down a tree. I said there was a narrative—I didn’t say it was War and Peace.

Because there is no story here, what we’re left with instead is the images that Brakhage presents and an attempt to make sense of them through the five parts of the film—Prelude (about a third of the running time), and Parts 1-4. Brakhage repeats images frequently, flashing back to solar flares and mountain scenery, for instance, and often rotates the film around so that we see the same image in multiple ways—the flares coming from the top of the sun, then the bottom, and left and right. Additionally, the film starts completely black for several minutes and stays black for a long time—long enough at points that it seems prudent to see if the disc is still playing.

The Prelude seems to be a sort of filmed equivalent of a life as told by Camus or Jean Paul Sartre. It starts in darkness, then shows brief flashes. While it never becomes coherent, it does develop as a series of images that metaphorically could work as a person’s life—we see work (the man, shirt off, with an axe), sex (Brakhage’s nude wife), birth (their child), aspirations (the sun, moon, and stars), and obstructions (the scratches and paint as well as the overlaid images on top of the main image), ending with a return to darkness and brief flashes of light.

Part 1 is the most coherent of the five parts of the film as well as the longest. While there is still some flashing around of images, this is the part of the film that contains something the most like an actual story. The man, now in winter, climbs up the side of a mountain, struggling the entire way, often slipping back almost as much as he advances through the heavy snow. It’s also the easiest to follow in the sense that there is no overlay of film through most of it, which makes it easier to see exactly what is going on at all times rather than trying to parse something out of the visual equivalent of having multiple people talking at the same time.

Part 2 brings in the image of Brakhage’s infant child. We still get the man trudging silently up the hill with his axe, but much more frequently we see the baby sleeping, yawning, eyes opening. Additionally, much of this section consists of two layers of film—a sort of main story of the infant with an overlay of scratches, snowflakes, and lens flares. Brakhage gets very artsy here, essentially scratching out parts of the film and placing new images inside these burned out locations. Inventive stuff.

Part 3 adds a third layer of film over the story and seems to be obsessed with the body. We get extreme close-ups of Brakhage’s wife’s nipples, for instance, plus blood coursing through veins, a beating heart, shots of genitalia often layered with film of internal organs, a sort of porn for serial killers. It’s like massively non-erotic hippie erotica, making this a difficult part of the film to watch. Thankfully, Part 3 is pretty short. There’s something gratuitous-feeling about seeing shots of the director’s penis and larger-than-life pictures of his wife’s labia.

Part 4, overlaid with images almost to incomprehensibility, is blessedly only a few minutes long. We get flashes back to all of the earlier parts—the solar flares, the infant, and functioning organs, plus a lactating breast or two. We also get religious imagery for the first time. So with work (Part 1), family (Part 2), sex (Part 3), we finally get a realization of mortality and a grasp for meaning and something beyond this life.

It’s worth noting here that Dog Star Man is completely silent—not even a musical soundtrack, which makes it quite punishing to watch. I had never really realized how attached we become to the idea of sound in a film; the music is so intrinsic to the experience. In this sense, watching this film is not unlike watching what amounts to Brakhage’s home movies. You may want to supply your own soundtrack for this. I recommend either something full-on psychedelic or something slowcore. Pink Floyd and The Amboy Dukes or Low and Red House Painters —your choice.

More to the point, this is a film that I think would be far more interesting to study frame-by-frame than to actually watch. Some of the specific sequences are quite striking, as are some of the frames covered in scratches, burns, and pockmarks. Going past at 24 fps, they become a sort of radiant blur, difficult to capture. I did pause the film a few times on some great shots that I feel I would have easily missed had I not stopped the proceedings. The scratches in places are so intricate that they deserve to be studied like a great painting, particularly when Brakhage puts other images inside burn marks.

All this is fine, and I understand why Dog Star Man made the list. But I don’t like it. It’s like talking to a stoned hippie. The stoned hippie is so completely sure that he or she is blowing your mind by telling you about his or her great revelation that came from an extra hit of acid or by smoking a little more pot than medically necessary when in reality, you’re just having the tits bored off you. Seeing what amounts to someone else’s acid flashback isn’t really that entertaining.

As a final note, The Book lies about this film. It claims that it is a mere 30 minutes long. Part 1 is about that length, but the entire thing runs somewhat over 75 minutes. That’s quite a shock if you were expecting a weird little short you could knock out easily. Even at half an hour, it’s an ordeal. At 150% longer, it’s an epic tale told by someone who has burned out his brain on a hash pipe.

Why to watch Dog Star Man: It’s truly ars gratia artis, and that should be celebrated.
Why not to watch: Overwhelming bongwater stench.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Othello Meets Winchester '73

Film: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There are plenty of movie tropes that I don’t fully understand. One of these is the romance between two people who are each married to the wrong person. It’s not simple infidelity; it doesn’t surprise me that movies go back to that particular well time and time again. No, it’s actual full-blown romance between people two people married to others that I don’t understand. Movies are full of this story. Brief Encounter is nothing but this, and Now, Voyager certainly touches on this as well, and these are merely two examples in a list of at least dozens. These days, often the characters are merely engaged or involved with the wrong person when the right one comes along, but the trope lives on. A very good example of this is Madame de…, more commonly known in the U.S. as The Earrings of Madame de…

In many ways, Madame de… is a variation on Othello, substituting earrings for a handkerchief and attempted infidelity for assumed transgression. In movie terms, this is a posh, society version of Winchester ‘73 with a pair of earrings as the focus instead of a rifle.

Madame Louise de… (Danielle Darrieux), whose last name is never mentioned, has debts she needs to pay off and would prefer her husband not know. Looking through her jewelry and expensive clothing, she determines that the best course of action is to sell her heart-shaped diamond earrings back to the jeweler from whom they were purchased. Normally, this would not be noteworthy except that the earrings in question were given to here as a wedding present by her husband, General Andre de… (Charles Boyer).

To cover the sale, Louise pretends to lose the earrings at the opera, causing her husband to involve the police; he believes them stolen and would like them returned. The jeweler brings them back to the general, who buys them again and gives them to his mistress, who is leaving for Constantinople. Once there, she promptly loses the earrings at the roulette wheel. Placed in a jeweler’s window, they are purchased by Baron Fabrizio Donati (Italian director Vittorio de Sica) and brought back to France.

And it is here that the only-in-a-movie coincidences begin. Donati meets Louise, since she is the wife of Andre. The two immediately become involved with each other, evidently with the full knowledge of the general, since he warns Donati about the flirtatiousness of his wife. The two find themselves running in the same circles and in a very interesting montage, we see them dancing together at various functions commenting on how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other.

Naturally, he gives her her own earrings as a gift, and since they have come from him this time, now Louise loves them and will not give them up. She conspires again, this time to “find” them in one of her drawers, not knowing that her husband had already purchased them a second time and given them away.

We go through several more permutations of this before the end of the film, the same jeweler getting them back a few more times and both successfully and unsuccessfully attempting to sell them back to the general. What’s interesting here is how the earrings have changed as a symbol. Where at the start of the film they were the easiest thing for Louise to part with, they become something worth sacrificing everything for by film end simply because of who gave them to her. Initially a symbol of her relatively loveless marriage, they become a symbol of her eternal dedication to Donati.

There are some interesting things going on in this film. While it is unquestionably a romance at its core, initially I almost classified it as a comedy. There’s certainly many comedic elements to the film, particularly in the first act when the general buys the earrings back from the jeweler and believes he has curtailed the entire problem and his wife’s potential embarrassment by sending them out of the country.

I’m also fascinated by the openness of the marriages. It’s as if the rule for infidelity is that it’s fine as long as no attention is specifically called to it. Both Louise and her husband have evidently a series of lovers, infatuations, and romances. All of this is seen as a matter of course and not a problem provided that each partner doesn’t have specific knowledge of the other party. The minute the general realizes that Donati is making time with his wife, the kid gloves come off and things become serious. It’s an odd moral code.

I also really like Vittorio de Sica in this film. I like it when people best known as directors take major roles in films directed by other people. It’s a chance for them to put into practice the advice they give their charges when directing, and I often find their performances interesting. Like Preminger in Stalag 17 or von Stroheim and de Mille in Sunset Blvd., de Sica turns in a credible performance here, one worthy of being taken seriously.

It’s a good story, if one that I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around in places. The coincidences are too big and the trope has become so standard that I can’t help but find some of the film rather predictable. I like the injection of humor, though; it adds a sense of reality to something that could have otherwise been very dry and serious. More importantly, Ophuls used his camera like no one before him, from great close-ups to his montage scenes and camera use to suggest motion and urgency, this is a film with true credentials.

Why to watch Madame de…: An intense romance told with surprising realism.
Why not to watch: Dickensian-level coincidences cut into that surprising realism.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Upon a Pale Horse

Film: Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

There’s something special about a ghost story. There’s no way to tell if spook tales are the earliest form of storytelling, but it wouldn’t shock me if they were. Human beings like to find meaning and cause for events, and many of us—particularly in the days before the scientific method—determine anything unexplainable as coming from supernatural sources. Ghost stories are a part of every culture. It does not surprise me that several of the earliest films on this list are ventures into the world beyond this one.

Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, and not “George Carlin” as I’ve been calling it in my own head) is a morality tale of death and redemption, punishment and penance. On top of that, it’s also one of the earliest forays into filmed special effects—particularly double exposures and ghostly images overlaid one on the other.

We begin on New Year’s Eve with Edit (Astrid Holm), a young woman who has spent her life working with the Salvation Army. Edit is dying of “galloping consumption” and demands to see David Holm before her time is up. This causes some consternation amongst those attending her, but a friend goes out dutifully to find Holm and bring him back. We also meet Holm (director Victor Sjostrom), a dissolute drunkard.

Holm tells us of a legend he learned from his friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) the previous year. According to Georges, whomever is the last person to die in a given year becomes the servant of Death for the following year, driving around the ghostly carriage of the title and collecting the souls of all those who have passed until the year is up and a new servant takes the last servant’s place. Naturally, Georges dies on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, which according to the tale means that he will become the new driver of Death.

Since this is a film, we can expect things to happen according to the necessary plot. Holm himself is killed at the stroke of midnight on this New Year’s Eve and discovers that Georges’s tale was the truth. In fact, it is Georges who comes for him. The bulk of the film from this point forward is a sort of Swedish version of “A Christmas Carol” as we learn of the dissolution that Holm has fallen into and the pain and misery he caused to those around him, particularly his wife and children, who he has abandoned.

Like all silent films, Korkarlen requires the correct mindset to view properly. It would be simple to see the equivalent of the strings and pass this off as amateurish. But that doesn’t give the film, or Sjostrom, their proper due. This is an inventive tale and an inventive film for a number of reasons. One that I was particularly taken with is the way that the story unfolds. Many a silent film slams its viewers over the head with exposition in the opening minutes, pounding the poor viewer with title card after title card so that the audience can be sure of the story.

Not so here. While we learn of the tale of Death’s carriage early on, we know virtually nothing about Holm and his story, or his connection to Sister Edit until much later in the film. Instead, we must learn of these connections as we go long, discovering the meaning of Edit’s desire to see this wretched man once the film is half over. It requires its viewer to stay attentive to the entire narrative, because each piece becomes important to the understanding of everything.

Like all silent film, Korkarlen is stylized and contains the sort of melodrama that only a silent film can manufacture. And yet, for all its otherworldly trappings and potential for wild overacting, the film is actually quite understated.

It’s also pretty coherent and efficient in its storytelling. We discover the story of Holm when Georges comes for his spirit. We see Holm with his family. We see Holm with his family enjoying a picnic. We then see Holm, Georges, and another drunk sitting in the same spot having an alcohol-infused party. Holm drags everyone around him into depravity and desperation, something effectively demonstrated with almost no title cards in a relatively short sequence.

It’s not a perfect film, of course. While the montage in the middle that explains the life and decline of Holm is quite effective, at other times, the film goes too long between titles and shows us little but people standing around looking at each other. It’s one of those conventions of silent film that didn’t carry over much into the talkie era, and it makes this difficult to take in places.

Why to watch Korkarlen: Surprisingly effective horror elements from a film that is so rudimentary by modern standards.
Why not to watch: So many umlauts in the Swedish titles.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Holy Crap, I'm White!

Film: Superfly
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

A film like Superfly (or if you prefer, Super Fly) brings up a number of interesting questions. One of the reasons the film is worth watching is because of the questions it raises. I’m certain that most viewers are looking for something different than I am here and will have a different set of questions than I do. But here goes:

Is this the greatest film soundtrack ever recorded? I think it may well be. Plenty of films have a great song or two, and fans of musicals will no doubt tout their favorites, but for my money, the Superfly soundtrack is the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever heard. It suits the mood of the film as if Curtis Mayfield had written the script as well as the music; it’s so in tune that it feels to have come from a single mind. It’s also a soundtrack that, like Shaft before it, attempted successfully to latch onto a particular musical subculture. It would be a great soundtrack with those two facts. What puts it in the elite, though, is that the songs truly kick ass on their own. Curtis Mayfield was a bona fide genius. This film, entertaining as it is, would be half as good without the soundtrack.

Does it glorify drugs and drug culture? Perhaps it does. I can see that interpretation of it. Certainly our main character, Priest (Ron O’Neal) lives a lifestyle that would be the envy of any number of 1970s ghetto residents and not a small number of suburban residents as well. The man is smooth. He dresses in a unique and arresting fashion, drives a sweet pimped-out Caddy, has two girlfriends (one white--think about that in terms of 1972!), and carries a huge bankroll with him everywhere he goes. As his friend and business partner Eddie (Carl Lee) comments, “8-track stereo, color T.V. in every room, and can snort a half a piece of dope every day? That's the American Dream...” For many people, particularly those living in rat traps on government assistance, no other dream seemed possible or worth attaining.

After saying all that, can you justify the opinion that it doesn’t glorify drugs and drug culture? Yes, I can. Because the entire plot of the film is Priest’s desire to get out of the business. He’s a hustler, and he’s always been a hustler. He’s told that he doesn’t have the stomach to be a pimp (and he doesn’t) and pushing drugs is all he knows. But he tells his girlfriend Gloria (Sheila Frazier) that he wants out. He doesn’t know what he will do, or what he can do, but with one last score and a fistful of cash, at least he’ll have options. What he really wants is freedom from the life.

Is it racist against Caucasians? It may be, but I think if it is, it’s a symptom of the times in which it was made. The Civil Rights era was ending (or ended) and not enough had changed. If there was anger against the white community as a whole, it was understandable even it if makes this intensely white guy uncomfortable at times. Hey, I turned 5 the year this film was released. I wasn’t oppressing anyone, Priest.

Is it racist against African-Americans? Again, it may be, and if it is, I think it’s unintentional. There are a few lines that I don’t believe are intended as racism and probably didn’t read as racism in the early 1970s, but do now. When Priest tells someone that he has hired killers—white ones—the implication is that black killers might not be as good, or might be stoned or wired up, or perhaps simply incompetent. The idea that the only way for a black man to make it in the world is as a hustler of one thing or another is certainly a product of its time as well—although it would not surprise me to learn that many people still feel the same way. What was real in 1972 comes across as caricature in 2011, so if this racism exists, it exists merely as an artifact of the inherent racism of the time in which the film was made.

Who is central to this story? The easy answer is Priest himself, and almost every scene features Priest at its center. However, the most telling and interesting comments come not from Priest but from the characters around him. It is through his connection Scatter (Julius Harris) that Priest discovers that The Man will never let him leave the life—The Man exists to keep the brother down, and lets him up only long enough to turn a profit on him. It is through Eddie that we learn the true moral heart of the story—for some, this is the American dream, and that hustling is the only game The Man lets a brother play. From Gloria, Priest learns that he doesn’t need money to live away from the life, a truth he will not accept. From Fat Freddy (Charles McGregor) he learns that every man has a breaking point and that when there is money on the line, no one can be trusted.

Is this the most important blaxploitation film ever made? Good question. It certainly ranks in the top several--Shaft, Boyz N the Hood, and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song sit in that same constellation.

Is it any good? Yes, yes it is. The fashion comes off as mildly amusing these days, but even though lapels have shrunk and men no longer wear floor-length coats and fedoras, there is a groove to these characters that is unmistakable. The story still plays, albeit with more racist overtones and undercurrent than a similar film might have today. And, of course, it does have that unmistakable soundtrack that became the sound of an entire generation. There’s a reason that the soundtrack made more money than the film.

Do yourself a favor and watch this. Do yourself another favor, too. Even if you don’t watch this right away, go right now to Pandora or Grooveshark (or even YouTube) and hunt up the Curtis Mayfield tracks like the title song, “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman.” If you can’t groove on these tracks, this experience might be lost on you.

Why to watch Superfly: A powerful cast, a timeless story, and the funkiest bass lines ever laid down ("Freddie's Dead" will rock your world).
Why not to watch: You’re even whiter than I am (and that would be difficult).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Eventually, the Title Makes Sense

Film: Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating)
Format: VHS tapes from the John C. Murphey Memorial Library through WorldCat interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

First a note of thanks: my local public library refuses to get DVDs and VHS tapes through WorldCat. Oh, they’ll do interlibrary loan from places in the network, but they will not go outside the network for DVDs and tapes. This means that of all the libraries I use, the only one that will get such films for me is the school I work at. Cynthia, my librarian, is made of equal parts rock and roll and awesome, and she’s agreed to start bringing in some difficult-to-find films for me. However, Cynthia’s numbers are important to me—she needs to have more checked out from her library than she brings in, so I make sure I check out at least half a dozen things every quarter. The last thing I want to do is damage her numbers. But, this means that some of the more obscure films are now within my grasp.

The first of these—I chose it because it was one of the longest I couldn’t find—is Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating). This film is obscure in multiple ways; it’s not only difficult to find, it’s a bit difficult to grasp. It is at times surrealist and at other times it dips heavily into magical realism in the telling of its narrative.

Naturally, our two stars are Celine (Juliet Berto), a stage magician and Julie (Dominique Labourier), who works in a library. Julie is tall, red-haired, and attractive in a 1970s way while Celine is shorter, dark, and much more classically beautiful. I say this only because it actually isn’t always easy to tell them apart. The frequently play each other’s roles, each substituting for the other, and both playing the same role in one sense.

Yeah, I know that’s a bit confusing, so I’ll try to explain this more closely. At the start of the film, the two women do not know each other. Celine is running through a park dropping items and is spotted by Julie. Julie gives chase, and the two act as if they know each other, but it’s evident that they don’t. However, this doesn’t prevent Celine from moving into Julie’s apartment within the first half hour.

What we learn is that both of the women have a connection with a strange old mansion in a relatively deserted part of Paris. It appears that the two of them in turn take the role of a nursemaid for a young girl named Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) on her birthday. Also in the house is the girl’s father Olivier (Barbet Schroeder) and two women who are competing for his attentions—Sophie (Marie-France Pisier) and Camille (Bulle Ogier). During the course of this day, Madlyn is killed. Soon after, whomever has spent the day as the nursemaid is ejected from the house, dazed, with no memory, and with a hard candy in her mouth.

Celine and Julie determine that the candies that they leave with every day are the key to their memories of what happens in the house, and by slowly sucking on the candies, they can relive at least parts of the day that they experienced. It appears that the same day repeats endlessly, because they have the exact same memories. The more they remember, the more they can predict what will happen next, and the two begin to include their own changes into the “script” of the house, altering the unfolding drama. This culminates when the two of them both manage to get into the house on the same day.

The idea is a great one. Essentially, Celine and Julie are the authors of their own story, making it up as they go along, changing it to the way they want it to be until they discover the ending that they can both live with. At several times, as mentioned above, the two take each other’s place in the real world just as they inhabit the same role within the house. Celine pretends to be Julie with one of Julie’s old boyfriends, breaking up with him. Julie takes Celine’s place on stage and destroys her act on a different night. These problems don’t seem to bother either of them, but are taken in stride and ignored.

As for the rest, a spoiler is required.


A few important things become evident in the telling here, but not until the very end, and it is this final shot that makes the film what it is. Celine and Julie do eventually get on a boat, because they manage to rescue Madlyn from her daily death. While on the boat, they see the other three from the house, still unchanging and unchanged, but without the girl they have rescued. They have gotten the story to the conclusion they have wanted.

However, the film ends with Julie running through the park dropping her items and Celine chasing her, their roles from the film’s opening reversed—just as they have been reversed throughout the entire film. So, will they live through the same process again? I think they will. In a meta-moment, it occurred to me that just as the people in the house live the same story over and over again, so do Celine and Julie. And they do—should I watch the film again, the same things will happen again. The characters are trapped in their reality just as firmly as their images are captured on film. Neat, huh?


There are some pretty nice editing moves here. As the two constantly flash back to their memories in the house, some nifty editing switches them in and out of the nursemaid character. Julie starts a scene as the nursemaid and turns into Celine after a cut and then back again after another. What’s surprising here is not that it happens, but that it happens so seamlessly and without much in the way of jarring.

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau is a queer duck of a film. It’s also too long. It’d like to take a good 45 minutes out of its running time because a lot of what goes on outside the house seems needless. I’d really like for this film to be a lot more joyous than it is. For something that exists in such a magical world, it shouldn’t be so darn drab.

I suppose I enjoyed this movie, but I think I really need to watch it again to fully grok it.

Why to watch Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau: Oddly endearing and endearingly odd.
Why not to watch: It can lose 25% of its running time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Keep Your (Wig) Powder Dry

Film: Dangerous Liaisons
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I imagine that for an actor, a period piece is a lot of fun, depending on the period. It might be entertaining for a day or two to run around in a loincloth, but that would get pretty old pretty fast. However, something taking place during the Victorian Era, perhaps…or in France before the Revolution? The costumes look like they might be a problem at times, but it still looks like it would be fun. There are few more lavish period pieces than Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons, and few better.

As with many a great story, what’s going on here is actually quite simple. A French noblewoman named Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) wishes to be revenged on a former lover who left her—the first time any lover has dared do that to her. When this lover departed, he left with the mistress of Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont (John Malkovich), the one-time lover and sort of friend of the Marquise. This former lover of hers has settled on a woman to be his wife, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), both for her beauty and for her chastity—guaranteed by her convent education. The Marquise wishes Valmont to seduce the girl and spoil her for her wedding night.

But Valmont initially refuses. He has a reputation as the greatest rake in France, and this conquest would be too easy. He has set his sights on Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman noted for her purity, religious fervor, and happiness of her marriage. His goal is to make her betray everything she holds dear, enjoying her fall into the betrayal of her beloved husband. The Marquise is intrigued by this and promises a night of sexual passion to Valmont if he can offer written proof in de Tourvel’s own hand that he has seduced her successfully.

The Marquise and Valmont are our two main characters, and they spend the bulk of the film exercising their appetites for virtually all of the seven deadly sins. Only gluttony seems to sit out, and with a little thought, that one can probably be added to the mix. Certainly the two bear no slight without furious and overwhelming anger and revenge; they lust after everything and everyone they see; they spend money on whims; are part of the idle rich nobility; envy anyone else garnering attention for anything; and exhibit a pride unlike any seen on a movie screen. These are not nice people.

While Valmont schemes to win the heart of Madame de Tourvel by any means possible, the Marquise works to get anyone into the sack with Cecile, including a poor music teacher named Danceny (Keanu Reaves). Ultimately, pretty much everybody goes to bed with everyone else, betrayal abounds, and lives are wrecked on the shores of pride, arrogance, and sexual passion.

I admit it sounds pretty lame, but it really isn’t. The intrigues are convoluted and vicious. Better, despite the fact that the women wear umpteen layers of clothing and the men wear powdered wigs and lace cuffs, this movie brings the sexy. There is something undeniably erotic and tawdry about someone using one lover as a desk to write a letter to another lover.

One of the best scenes is the opening one. We see our two main characters getting dressed and prepared for their day. Both of them require an army of servants to powder them, squeeze them, primp them, dust, daub, tuck, fold, and otherwise spindle them into what was the fashion of the day in pre-Revolution Paris. It’s a great scene for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic introduction into the era. It also serves to show us precisely how much pretense these characters put on—nothing about them is what it seems and everything is hidden under layers of falsehood.

Our two main characters are in many ways the only ones who are important. The others could really be played by almost anyone. Cecile needs only to be young and pretty, and Uma Thurman does a credible job here. Her mother (Swoosie Kurtz) needs only to be outraged by everything she sees, and she’s good at it. De Tourvel needs only be innocuous and pretty—two things Michelle Pfeiffer can pull off. The only person I think is miscast is Keanu Reaves, but I think that about Keanu Reaves in everything except The Matrix and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This is Close’s and Malkovich’s movie, as it should be. Malkovich’s performance is nuanced and tremendous, and I think it may well be the single greatest acting role and performance of Glenn Close’s very storied career.

I watched this film for the first time years ago and remembered that I thought it was good. This second viewing a couple of decades later has shown me that I underestimated it. This movie is more than good—it’s one of the best of its kind. For the men in my reading audience, don’t shy away from this one. Watch this with someone special. It’s lurid and tawdry, and might well excite a few passions, which is reward of its own. Even if it doesn’t my guess is you’ll enjoy the intrigues and the plots exhibited here, even if it does mean seeing John Malkovich’s bare ass.

This film is actually a remake--I'm curious to see the original.

Why to watch Dangerous Liaisons: The prettiest piece of evil you’ll ever see.
Why not to watch: John Malkovich’s naked ass.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hangin' With Mr. Cooper

Film: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

You can see a Frank Capra ending the minute the film starts. That’s the way of Frank Capra movies. He made the same movie over and over, changing a few things here and there—names, places—but at their core, Capra had one story. The story he tells in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is essentially the same story he tells in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life and many of his other films.

It helps that it’s a good story. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the tale of a good-hearted, naïve man suddenly gifted with great power and afflicted by great trials, the template for Capra’s later film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The characters here serve as templates for that one—the naïve, the hard-hearted woman, the hangers-on, the people who wish to exploit the naïve for criminal (or political) gain, etc.

But I’ve jumped ahead, haven’t I? Someday I’ll learn.

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits $20 million upon the death of his uncle, making him suddenly one of the richest men in the country (and remember, this is during the Great Depression). He moves to New York where he meets nothing but conniving people intent on separating him from as much of his fortune as they can.

The first of these is Mr. Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), his uncle’s lawyer. Cedar wants power of attorney over the fortune, because he’s got a $500,000 hole in his own books to cover. Also on the trail of Deeds is Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), a crack newspaper reporter bent on getting as much of a story from Deeds as she can in exchange for a raise and a month’s paid vacation.

Babe discovers that Deeds has a thing for damsels in distress, so she fakes being in need and is quickly scooped up by Deeds. As he tries to cheer her up (he is a nice guy and a naïve, after all), he gets in a couple of fist fights with some drunken authors who want to make fun of him, and then goes on his own drunken bender. All of this is grist for Babe’s mill, who quickly dubs him The Cinderella Man, making him the laughing stock of New York despite his extremely deep pockets. In fact, he has only two friends, Babe and Cobb (Lionel Stander), and Babe really isn’t his friend.

Eventually, Deeds wises up and realizes that everyone is out to get him, and that the money is at the heart of the problem. Confronted by a destitute farmer, Deeds concocts a plan to use his fortune to buy a huge parcel of land and divvy it out to men who need it, allowing them to farm the land themselves, thus becoming productive members of society. Other relatives of the dead uncle, snubbed benefactors, and Cedar react badly to this and try to have Deeds committed, because anyone willing to give up that much money must be crazy. Of course, by this time, Babe has come around. This all leads to the big courtroom scene at the end, a scene that takes the final act, and essentially the last quarter of the film.

Like I said at the start, there’s no mystery to this film except for those who have never seen a classic Hollywood film or are very young and naïve themselves. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town doesn’t have a single surprise for anyone with any sort of movie watching history. I say this not as a criticism of the film, but merely as a fact to be stated—where this film is going to end up is pretty obvious from the start.

And that’s okay. In a world filled with anti-heroes and people I don’t enjoy spending a couple of minutes watching, let alone a couple of hours, seeing a genuinely nice guy on the screen is pretty refreshing. Okay, Deeds is sort of a ridiculous ideal and has just enough quirkiness to make him a movie character, but it’s all to the good here. It’s a sweet film, heartfelt and cute. Deeds is a nice enough guy, and Cooper plays him well. He’d be a fun guy to go have a beer with.

A story like this naturally gets remade time and time again. The two most recent examples that I know of are The Hudsucker Proxy and Mr. Deeds, which was a pretty straight remake. I really like Hudsucker, in part because of the actors in it and in part because it’s a Coen vehicle. It’s a smart remake, but it really is a remake in almost every way, up to and including the hard-bitten female reporter who once won the Pulitzer. As for Mr. Deeds, it’s best handled in a spoiler:

*** $20,000,000.00! ***

In the Capra original, Deeds takes the money he has inherited and helps out a few thousand people who really need the help. It’s a ridiculous gesture, but heartwarming and sweet. Sure, it smacks of classic Hollywood sap, but it plays nicely on the screen, even if the courtroom scene gets ridiculous with everyone laughing at everything Deeds says. By contrast, in the Adam Sandler remake, he allows someone else to take over the company he inherits, walks away with a cool billion, and buys everyone in his old home town a Corvette. Instead of the milk of human kindness, we get greed and conspicuous consumption. It’s proof that somewhere along the way, a large part of the movie industry stopped trying to pretend it had a soul.

*** BANKRUPT! ***

In what should generally be a theme for anyone serious about movies, it’s always a good idea to stick with the original. It’s sappy and ends up being essentially as naïve and Deeds himself, but sometimes it’s okay to end watching a film with a little smile and a little faith in humanity.

Why to watch Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: It’s a heartwarming tale from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Why not to watch: The ending is visible from 100 miles off.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Emphasis on the Last Syllable

Film: L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

[Author’s note: For slightly more than 14 months, I have kept this blog rated PG-13. I have toned down my normally obscene self and kept the swearing to a minimum. I knew that someday I would come across a film that pulled my naturally profane nature to the surface. I didn’t know when it would happen; I only knew it would. Well, today I discovered the film that brought me at least temporarily out of my swearing shell.]

Years ago, my brother Tom had a book called “The 50 Worst Films of All Time.” Naturally, a book like that was going to be wrong on virtually every count; there are certainly at least 50 films worse than every film included in that book (proof? It didn’t include Manos: The Hands of Fate). But it was a fun book to flip through. Imagine my surprise to see at least four films from that book on The List: Zabriskie Point, Ivan the Terrible, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and today’s entry, L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad).

This is the first of these films that appear as both must-see and wretchedly bad that I have encountered thus far. Since its initial opening, Marienbad has received a number of positive reviews. It has a divided reaction from its viewing public. There are those who find it filled with meaning and great possibility (Roger Ebert, for one), and those who find it to be 95 minutes of smelling its own exhaust and applauding itself. I was curious to see which camp I’d fall into.

Well, now I know.

Marienbad is not the worst movie I have ever seen. It probably doesn’t rank in the bottom 100 of films I have seen in my lifetime, and that’s even if I don’t include what I watched on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is, though, the most pretentious, filled with itself, navel-gazing piece of shit I have ever encountered. This movie is so filled with its own artistic pretense that it farts Picassos in waltz time.

Here’s what you get: we have three main characters and a bunch of other people wearing fancy clothes and standing around like J.C. Penney mannequins. Our first character is A (Delphine Seyrig, who pissed me off last year by starring in Jeanne Dielmann). A is nothing more than an attractive, sometimes mobile thing to hang slinky dresses and feathery dressing gowns on. She’s in a gigantic hotel with M (Sacha Pitoeff), her skull-faced maybe-husband. While they are supposed to be relaxing, what they really do is go to an occasional show, stand around, and stare at things. Also at the hotel is X (Giorgio Albertazzi), who claims to have had a passionate affair with A the previous year. It might have been at Marienbad. Or it might not have happened. Or something. Anyway, he spends the whole movie trying to convince her that they are madly in love with each other. She has no memory of this, because evidently in addition to being someone who moves exclusively in slow motion, she’s also a fucking amnesiac.

That might actually be interesting if the film had done anything with it. Instead, virtually the entire film consists of three things. First, X walks down the endless corridors and hallways of the giant, Cleveland-sized hotel and narrates it. When I say he narrates, what I mean is that he says the same thing over and over about corridors and empty rooms and walls and more corridors and rooms and doors and statues and people and things and air and fucking molecules and Jell-o pudding pops and fruit bats and…

Sorry. He doesn’t talk about fruit bats or Jell-o. Or air molecules.

Second, X talks to A in the second person, telling her all about what they did the previous year at another giant hotel with big fuckin’ statues that are possibly the same statues at this hotel or maybe not because maybe it never happened, and she certainly doesn’t have any memory of it. Regardless, he tells her all about her room there in great detail, and what she wore, and what they talked about (mostly the statues), and everything else. When he gets done with one of these monologues, she usually says that she doesn’t remember and that she’d like him to leave her alone, which he never does. Also during these scenes, we frequently change locations between sentences, and almost as frequently change times of day. Night time, day time, night time, lunch time, morning, night. These time changes do not appear to matter to the flow of the conversation.

Third, X and M play Nim. M always wins. Always.

That’s it. There’s 95 minutes of people standing next to each other, looking in opposite directions, and not moving while one of them talks about what they may have done or not done together or alone at a similar hotel that might have been this one or was possibly Marienbad when they were or weren’t there the year before.


I hated this film with the sort of passion I typically reserve for televangelists, people who interrupt constantly, and those motherfuckers who don’t use their turn signals. I want to punch everyone involved with this film. I want to punch this film in the celluloid equivalent of its uterus and/or testicles. I want to gender-neutralize it so that it cannot procreate and fill the world with its incomprehensible little art babies. It makes me feel like the narrator in Fight Club when he says he wanted to kill every panda that wouldn’t fuck to save its species. I want to let the original negatives rot and I want to film this happening, because that will be more interesting than this film.

I don’t mind art films. I genuinely don’t. Sometimes, they’re a lot of fun or at least have something interesting to say. This film was as fun and interesting as picking lint from my asscrack. Fuck this movie, fuck the people in it, and fuck Alain Resnais. I hold this film specifically responsible for why Americans think French people are snooty bastards and for why the French think Americans are incestuous, brainless primate sphincters.

50 Worst Films of All Time? Probably not. 50 Films I’d Like to Throat Punch and then Watch Drown in its Own Vomit? Top of the list, baby. Top of the list.

Why to watch L’Annee Derniere a Marienbad: With so many possible interpretations, it’s like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.
Why not to watch: The adventure sucks.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

Film: Napoleon
Format: VHSs from Freeport Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Most people in our society are experienced moviegoers. We’re aware of typical movie conventions and what to expect. We learn quickly what particular shots mean—what it means when we’re shown something in slow motion, or what a particular close-up means in the contexts of a film. Many of these conventions came from the earliest films, and many of these conventions were created by a handful of specific directors. Abel Gance was one of those truly innovative men behind the camera, and he showcases his innovative style in Napoleon.

This is not a film to watch lightly. There’s a lot going on here, as well as more than a dozen different cuts of the film. The one I found was the four-hour version. Evidently the original version of the film stretched to something longer than six hours, and there’s supposed to be a five-hour version considered fairly definitive. However, the four-hour version was all I could locate, and it’ll have to be definitive enough for our purposes here.

I have no idea what is contained in the hour or two I didn’t get to see, but the four hours on the two tapes I watched had plenty worthy of comment. If nothing else, Gance was an innovator and stylist as important (or far more important) than D.W. Griffith. As a real benefit here, Gance is also a much better storyteller than Griffith, or at least tells more interesting stories.

Napoleon, as the title indicates, is something of a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonne). It stops short of true biopic status, though, because it doesn’t come close to covering the man’s entire life or military career. It covers Bonaparte’s life as a child (Vladimir Roudenko), his early military career, the time of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror and Bonaparte’s Italian campaign. We don’t see him crown himself Emperor, we don’t see his eventual exile, or his death. What’s here is sort of a career highlight film, a “best-of,” if you will.

There’s also a lot of hero worship going on. The Napoleon character in this film is as close to a perfect human being as can be imagined. He has no real faults or weaknesses. His mere presence inspires men on the battlefield; these men want only to know the name of the brave and intrepid leader who led them before they die, happy in knowing that they served such a great man. Early in the film, when Bonaparte is sent to Corsica to help maintain French rule, he runs into a meat grinder of pandemonium. Everyone, it seems, wants Corsica to belong to a different country. Some want Spain, others Italy, and still others England. The only thing they agree on is that Napoleon should be slain. But brave and forthright Napoleon stares them all down, cowing them into submission with his noble presence, and naturally Corsica remains a French possession.

Very much the same thing happens at the start of the film. Napoleon’s biggest fault as a child is that he’s not much liked by his classmates, in part because of his genius and in part because he comes from the little backward island of Corsica. Napoleon suffers the terrible slings and arrows of these classmates, who are regularly depicted as jealous of the young man’s genius. At one point, two of these young men release Napoleon’s captive falcon, sending the boy into a deep depression and causing him to fight all of his dormitory mates at the same time. All is made well when the bird returns, justifying Napoleon’s confidence in himself somehow.

The hero worship is applied with a very thick brush throughout the film. Much of Dieudonne’s job is evidently to stand perfectly still and stare straight ahead and look impressive. This stare is not the “thousand-yard stare” of combat veterans, but more the piercing gaze of someone touched by the gods of battle. If nothing else, this is an exercise in nationalism and Gallic pride.

All of this can be overlooked. The reason to watch this film is not to see Dieudonne stare piercingly at his enemies or sit statue-still astride a steed (enjoy my kick-ass alliteration!). Napoleon is noteworthy because Gance was a true innovator in terms of how and where he used his camera. Gance believed very much in the idea of a mobile camera, which is easier said than done when cameras weighed a metric ton. Regardless, many scenes are shot with the equivalent of a hand-held camera, predating the shaky-cam visions of films like The Blair Witch Project by more than half a dozen decades. Gance mounted cameras on horses, on a guillotine, on a trapeze, all in an effort to find and create new ways of capturing the action happening before him.

Also innovative is the use of lightning-fast cuts, switching from one scene to another at a pace just fast enough to allow comprehension. Some sequences feature so many quick cuts from one image to the next that it borders on subliminal messaging, and is still visually arresting now. Gance also uses split screens and multiple images, sometimes showing as many as nine different images—a 3x3 box—to indicate confusion, chaos, and constant motion.

The real great moment is when Gance projects three images simultaneously, creating the first ever use of a wide-screen format. Originally this required three projectors, one for each image. It may seem like a nothing these days, when we have become so used to wide-screen and letterboxing, but this is one of those moments when filmmaking truly grew up.

I admit the film seems too long. The copy I found came on a pair of VHS tapes, and with the exception of that wide-screen moment, I felt like I got the point of what Gance wanted to do and was trying to do by the end of the first half. The movie slows down some in the second half only to pick up again and build to that amazing climactic moment. I was tempted to fast-forward to get there. Under further review, the build-up is worth it. But it feels too long.

The story is good, but really secondary here. What’s exciting is what Gance did with the camera and what he showed could be done on celluloid. Its achievement is its innovation.

Why to watch Napoleon: Staggering camerawork.
Why not to watch: The first half is really enough for what’s important here (except for the end).