Archive for the ‘Cinema Capsule’ Category

“Wagon Master” (1950)

March 6, 2014

Shot in between the final two installments of his famous “Cavalry Trilogy,” John Ford’s Wagon Master is a piece of personal filmmaking which expresses its director’s sensibility just as purely as Mean Streets reflected the young Scorsese. Adamantly not a “significant” work and devoid of any A-list stars, it was shot on a budget that was probably strained by the cast’s bologna sandwiches, yet it represents the zenith of Ford’s optimism. It remains one of the most satisfying films in his body of work, a road movie that moves at 5 mph, whose pliant laidback vibe, closeness to nature, and menagerie of offbeat characters make it a cousin to Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The story follows a wagon train of Mormon settlers as they journey to a distant river valley; along the way they hire a pair of exuberant young horse-traders as guides, rescue a dissolute medicine-show troupe, share an evening’s entertainment with a band of Navajo, and cope with a gang of degenerate outlaws. On paper that may look like a lot, perhaps even too much. But plot takes a backseat in Wagon Master, which instead focuses on such intangible pleasures as mood, time of day, the interplay of dust and sunlight, and the stirring sight of man and horse moving as one over the mesas of Monument Valley. Nothing is forced or rushed, and one comes away from it dwelling not on its moments of confrontation or violence (indeed, it’s pacifist to the core of its soul), but on the myriad small delights that give it flavor: the way a young, almost absurdly appealing Ben Johnson flips a poker chip into a shot glass without moving in his chair, the now reassuring, now spectral tones of the Sons of the Pioneers on the soundtrack, the communal shadings of an impromptu square dance, or the moment when the camera turns away from a large-scale river crossing, content instead to follow a colt picking its way on its spindly legs up the steep bank. People will always have their reasons to criticize John Ford—for his occasionally shabby treatment of Native Americans, or the broad Irish shenanigans shoehorned into some of his movies—but the low-key lyricism of Wagon Master reveals its creator at his most generous and alive.




“The Respectful Prostitute” (1952)

February 11, 2014

Last night it was The Respectful Prostitute, taken from Sartre’s play about racial tensions in the Deep South, a movie surprising both for its perceptiveness about American culture and its adult, no-bullshit approach. A prostitute (the rather scrumptious Barbara Laage) becomes a pawn in a powerful politician’s plan to frame a black man for rape, but the seemingly predictable theme of two outsiders is undercut by the Northern woman’s inability to comprehend the utter helplessness of the Southern black’s position. Though a word from her could save his life, she’s too busy launching a romance with one of the local bigots—himself a beautifully complex creation—to get involved.

Produced by a French film company, and performed in French by French performers, it’s nevertheless indistinguishable in look and feeling from many American movies of the period, to the point that it’s a through-the-looking-glass vision of what our movies might have been like had they never been subverted by the Production Code: unapologetically political, sexually frank, and pragmatically blunt in language. This is a movie in which unmarried lovers are seen waking up together after a one-night stand, and whose script freely employs the words “bullshit”, “whore” and “nigger” whenever those terms are called for—which is often.

Like the gathering of the lynch-mob in Fury or the road-trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, this X-ray of America by a foreigner is so revealing that in places it’s almost embarrassing. Certainly no white American movie I know of ever bothered to capture the atmosphere of a “coloreds only” railroad coach, much less did it so convincingly. It’s also noteworthy for being the last film of Marcel Herrand, who played the lethal Lacenaire in Children of Paradise, here playing the senator who clouds Laage’s mind with some subtle racist logic. However, I can’t pinpoint in the credits the name of the black actor who played the accused man—which is fitting, in a sick kind of way.

respectful prostitute

“The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)

February 10, 2014

Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek is another DEFA production, this one about a Hamburg butcher whose shop is ailing because he can’t afford to modernize. The time is September 1933, i.e., just a very few months after Hitler took power, and through a string of circumstances (a couple of them a tad forced) the butcher is offered 2,000 marks if he’ll do the state just one tiny favor: behead four Communists who’ve been framed for murdering a soldier. The thing is, this isn’t like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo Vittelli had to choke down his scruples to commit murder. No, Albert Teetjen wants to perform the executions, because he wants the money, but knowing that he’ll be ostracized in his community if word gets out, he takes steps to hide the deed, even from his bourgeois, religious wife. Then, of course, word does get out, and…

The Second Track remains the most visually accomplished DEFA production I’ve seen, but The Axe of Wandsbek is the most poetic one. Axe opens with a Langian touch: some little girls playing hopscotch between the words “Heaven” and “Hell” scrawled on the sidewalk. The quadruple execution isn’t shown directly—instead, we experience it through the wildly varied reactions of four secondary characters watching it from an attic. The giant old axe which the butcher is so proud of—it belonged to his grandfather and, as he constantly points out, is made of “the finest Sheffield steel”—is a potent symbol. When things start going wrong for him, Teetjen literally tries to bury the token of his misdeeds, but a neighbor, spotting him, digs it up again, and the bad penny comes home with a vengeance.

The movie was made by people who lived through Nazism’s early years, so all the little social touches—the salutes, the atmosphere of the shops and beerhalls, the decor of the various abodes, the things the characters do for entertainment—ring true. What I’m less certain about is how safe it really was for people opposed to Hitler to air their views back then. None of the characters go so far as to deliver anti-Nazi speeches in the town square, but among themselves they express their political feelings with surprising freedom. A character like the social worker who shows open sympathy for the doomed Reds…well, I’m just not sure how long she would’ve stayed on the street, even in ’33. Communist propaganda is probably heavier in Axe than any of the other DEFA films I’ve seen, but at least it’s confined to the one or two scenes in which the butcher’s neighbors discuss the execution of the Reds primarily as a blow against “the workers”. Even with its symbolic shadings the film is mainly a character study, and a bully one at that.

axe of wandsbek1

Was hast du im Krieg gemacht, Pappi?

September 18, 2013

I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology.  It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.

Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.

What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise.


The Gleiwitz Case

“Lamerica” (1994)

February 19, 2013

I think Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica is pretty damn great, but I may be inherently biased toward any movie which has De Sica’s heart and that crowded, millenial World Cinema vibe, and which manages to be an unsentimental road/buddy-movie to boot. In fact, it’s not too weird to say that Lamerica is what Midnight Run might have looked like if Francesco Rosi had directed it.

It’s set in Albania just after the Commies lost power in ’91 and the country was on its ass. A slick Italian swindler, planning to set up a shell company so he can abscond with the government grant, picks as his front an old man who’s been a political prisoner for so long—50 years—that he’s mute and half-mad. The swindler assigns a young helper, little more than a thug, to babysit the old man and make sure he shows up to sign the necessary papers as CEO of the fake company. But the old man toddles off when the kid isn’t looking, the kid chases after him, and they’re soon stuck out in the countryside, at the mercy of each other and Albania’s cratered economy.

Because I’m an incurious dumb-ass I’d had no idea that the relationship between Italy and Albania was this complex, but it’s been a problem for centuries. During the war Italy occupied and then annexed Albania, I knew that much, and Albania still has a love-hate fascination with Italy since it’s the closest model for Western democracy and luxuries. (A recurring image in Lamerica: clusters of Albanians taking in, and transfixed by, cheap Italian TV shows.) The picture’s style is naturalistic, though its portrait of a society still reeling from the Hoxha regime is so creepy that I at least hope it’s been heightened. The barely reformed prison in which we first see the old man makes the Midnight Express prison look like a Holiday Inn, and there’s a hair-raising scene in which a pack of street urchins attach themselves to the old man like half-pint barnacles and manipulate him with predatory grace into an old bunker to roll him. This is a world in which even a simple lift in a lorry involves being jostled along with 75 other men, and when near the movie’s end the young hero finally finds a bed to rest on, it doesn’t matter that it’s nothing more than a filthy cot—we’re exhausted along with him.



January 16, 2013

Kick it off with Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 Inferno. Robert Ryan is a tycoon who breaks his leg in the California desert; his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and a business associate, who are having an affair, decide to leave him for dead; Ryan, who inherited his wealth and is thus “untested”, decides to prove his scrappiness by crawling out of the desert and taking his revenge. It’s not an easy movie to categorize. It’s definitely noir-spiced, but it’s also a modern Western, it has a concentrated Bressonian quality during Ryan’s efforts to fashion a rope, and it was shot in dazzling Technicolor and 3-D—the latter most obvious during a fistfight in which the combatants make a point of tossing lanterns and chairs directly at the camera. Most striking is the tone of Ryan’s stream-of-consciousness narration during his ordeal: it’s quiet and good-humored, not at all the rage-fueled monologue you’d expect from Robert Ryan in that situation. (Ryan would have had a lock on The Hulk if they’d been making Avengers pictures in his time.) Fleming and her swain are also down to earth—not caricatures of lecherous evil—and the ending ties things up is a satisfying way, with a zinger for a closing line.


James Benning’s Landscape Suicide is split up into separate but equal looks at two murder cases, one which is draped in infamy (Ed Gein), the other (a high-school student’s status-envy knifing of a classmate) only relatively famous. The two parts structurally mirror each other, with meditative shots of the locales of the killings and their environs (the snow-sludgy Wisconsin prairies, the malls and suburbs of California) sprinkled between re-creations of the killers’ police house confessions and staged material that provides a tonal commentary on the events. (In the section about the teenager, a young woman is seen talking on a phone in her bedroom while “Memory” from Cats plays—in its entirety—just loud enough to drown out her words, but we see her going through a gamut of emotions, including one bit of speed-acting in which she completely loses her shit one moment only to start laughing merrily the next.) There’s a lot of remarkable acting here, but I was really floored by Rhonda Bell, who, though barely moving a muscle in the 15 or 20 minutes she’s onscreen, expresses so many shades of apprehensiveness, regret and cluelessness that it’s mind-boggling.

Gervaise is Rene Clement’s adaptation of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir about the mother of the character Jean Gabin played in Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. Humaine’s web is woven around the idea that both of Gabin’s parents were drunks (and depressives), and that people’s inherent inability to grow past their parents’ shortcomings seals their fate. I read ahead of time that Gervaise made a splash because of its direct approach to poverty and alcoholism, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. From the opening scene on it’s just the most doom-laden thing imaginable. Gervaise (the character) doesn’t really go off the deep end until the very end—she keeps fighting her fate, and fighting it, but it’s all working against her. How fucked up is it? Well, in one scene Gervaise’s husband comes home drunk and passes out on the bed, and when we see him he’s clearly vomited all over himself and the pillow next to him; their little girl Nana runs into the shot and instinctively touches her father, then recoils—and wipes her hand on a dry patch on his pants, before running out of the room. (Nana will grow up to be a prostitute; Renoir also filmed her story.)


Essential Killing maintains its dream-like tone even during its fairly convincing imagining of the rendition process (including waterboarding). Neither of the two name stars—Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner—has so much as a single line of dialog in the entire picture (without it ever feeling mannered or monotonous), and Gallo must’ve gone through some real hell running barefoot through Norwegian forests at 30 below zero. It’s a political movie only to the extent that it’s impossible not to notice that the occupying forces, although unnamed, all speak English in American accents, or that the country Gallo’s originally captured in looks just like Afghanistan, or that with his long beard he looks just like a Taliban; mostly it’s just a Rogue Male type narrative about a man on the run in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances. In any case it’s a wonder that a 72-year old director could come up with this much energy, but it’s also only Skolimowski’s second movie since he took a 17-year break from filmmaking to devote to painting. I’m happy for him and everything—he’s always said painting was his first love—but it hurts to think what we missed out on in the meantime.

Essential Killing is intelligently tasteful, as Skolimowski’s movies always are. (He’s particularly strong on endings, and this one’s no exception.) He co-wrote the script with a fellow Pole yet the chatter among the GIs is fluid and believable—a lot more so than the cartoony bluster the characters spout in Platoon or The Hurt Locker.


Red Beard has some nice qualities but Kurosawa lays on the humanist stuff so thickly that it’s all congealed by the end. Most critics call this film the end of his middle period because, among other things, it was his last movie with Mifune, but it feels more like the beginning of the Dodeskaden/Dersu Uzulu period—everything’s a little more schematic and blunter. Mifune got top billing because of who he was, but it feels like he’s barely onscreen, and it’s a 3-hour movie. A long 3-hour movie.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan is clunky, unmotivated and chockful of bad acting, but a fun 84-minute ride nevertheless. Melville made it in between Bob le Flambeur and Leon Morin, Priest, and if you don’t count Un Flic it’s the only one of his movies that’s undeniably worse than the one that came before. When the French delegate to the U.N. misses a vote and can’t be found anywhere, a French reporter and an unscrupulous alcoholic photographer start scouring Manhattan over one night looking for him. There’s no great mystery, the guy just croaked at his mistress’ apartment, so the movie is really an excuse for Melville to indulge his love for America—and for NY in particular. The hunt takes the pair to the Mercury Theater (in mid-play), Capitol Records (a jazz song played in full), a strip-club “in darkest Brooklyn” (the African-American dancer obligingly strips on camera) and, again and again, Times Square. (Flower Drum Song was on Broadway; Separate Tables was in the theaters.) The city looks great in both natural lighting and high contrast B&W; in places it looks as good as it does in Manhattan or Sweet Smell of Success. Melville himself, droll as all hell, does a creditable job as the reporter. (The bad acting I mentioned above is courtesy of the female secondary players, who compensate by with their fabulous looks. Melville’s eye for the female form was sharper than Kubrick’s.) The best work comes from Pierre Grasset as the shitheel shutterbug who’s cashing in on other people’s misery. You can smell how jaded he is.


Christian Carion’s Farewell is one good spy flick. Great characters, acting, writing, the whole shmear; it even made me tense and I never get tense in movies anymore. Despite the prominence of his mug in the ads, Dafoe is barely in it—the real star is director Emir Kusturica, who resembles John C. Reilly’s face screwed onto Brendan Gleeson’s body. Farewell offers a credible take on what Moscow streetlife and social gatherings must’ve been like during the Cold War, and scenes that usually drive me nuts—wives nagging their husbands about their dangerous work, guys telling their bosses “I’m the one taking the heat so you have to back me up here!”—are done just right. It’s “based on a true story” and it was based on some French book, but this thing alleges that the Kremlin had the drawings for the space shuttle, our nuclear codes, and even the White House’s digicodes and food delivery schedule. Bonus:  Fred Ward doing a good-enough Ronald Reagan imitation. There’s even a scene of him and David Soul discussing the shift in perspective at the end of Liberty Valance.

Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! is so good—and smart—and funny—that it hurts. It’s about a woman in East Berlin who goes into a coma a month before the Wall fell. She was an ardent German socialist and party member, and when, after reunification, she comes out of her coma, the doctors warn her son that any shock might kill her. So begins an extremely funny masquerade, as the son goes to increasingly elaborate pains to explain such capitalist intrusions as the giant Coca-Cola banner across the street, and recruits his Gareth Keenan-like buddy to help him create nightly “newscasts” reporting on the fictional tidal waves of unemployment and drug addiction sweeping through West Germany. Through all this the movie keeps quietly churning toward its real subject, which has to do with a long-buried family secret. But, man, it’s just so rich. In one scene the mother, feeling her oats, sneaks out of the house and onto the street, only to be greeted by strange, un-Communist graffiti—a swastika, a penis—and other alien sights. Becker hasn’t made another feature since then (2003) but supposedly has something in the works now. In the meantime, though…wow.


Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds – A traveling salesman meets a young pregnant woman who’s on her way home despite knowing that her family is going to disown her when they find out the news. The baby’s father has fled to god knows where, so the girl convinces the salesman to make a quick appearance, posing as her husband, so her family will take her in. This leads to a Hail the Conquering Hero-type escalation of lies, mostly comic in nature, but the mood changes radically in the final 15 minutes, when you realize how much the experience has meant to the salesman. The final scene is shot through with the same kind of life-wrecking regret that Peter Riegert finds at the end of Local Hero. All this is especially surprising considering the movie came out in ’42—I’m quite sure the values on display here won’t be found in any German films from that year. (Four Steps was remade in ’95 as A Walk in the Clouds, with Keanu Reeves and Anthony Quinn. I’m passing on that version, though.)


Guy Debord’s last movie, the palindromically titled In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (or We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire), is an essay about a society making war on itself, equal parts spleen, egotism, egalitarianism, and pessimistic cultural history. It’s a collage of photos and film scraps, with a great many aerial views of Paris, advertisements, water-level views of Venice (which Debord, like Pound, seemed to see as a cultural utopia), photos of himself and unidentified friends, and long quotations from French and American commercial films. (The only two I recognized were Children of Paradise and The Longest Day.) In a long opening passage (which he begins by labeling his audience idiots, sheep, zombies, etc.) he goes after the young professional class leading comfy, empty lives (it came out in ’78)–obvious-sounding stuff but in his hands both damning and fascinating. The narration—I’m  not sure if it was Debord himself reading it—struck some surprisingly emotional notes for the author of The Society of the Spectacle. It’s something I’d be careful about recommending to people, but I sure am glad I saw it.


And finally, two good noirs—strike that. Make that, one good one, and one that’s really good. They Won’t Believe Me has the big-name stars—Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, and Robert Young (at his very best) as a guy who keeps tripping over the dick he can’t keep in his pants. Great women characters, especially Hayward’s greedy slut who gains some substance as the picture goes on.

City That Never Sleeps was a little Republic picture with such an unwieldy plot that it’s virtually indescribable. A Chicago cop, played by Gig Young, wants to quit both his job and his wife so he can take up with a burlesque dancer. He falls in with a shady lawyer and an increasingly crazed gangster–Edward Arnold and William Talman respectively. (Talman played the perpetual chump Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, but only after turning in a bunch of wonderfully psycho performances in various noirs, including my beloved Crashout.) Lots of location shooting around Chicago, including a gripping nighttime foot-chase down the El and two men going to Fist City alongside the third rail. The best scene, though, focuses on a secondary character, a washed-up actor who’s been reduced to dancing around as a “mechanical man” in the burlesque house’s show-window. The scene where, while still wearing the Tin Man’s makeup, he tries to entice the stripper with his pathetic fantasies of the far-off places he’d take her to approaches Touch of Evil-levels of insanity, and the movie’s denouement is set in motion when he sheds a single telltale tear.


“The Gospel According to Matthew”

January 7, 2013

it’s too bad Gorge Lucas is not aliv e becuase the specil effects in this movvie are BAD. The man with lepresy looks like he had makeup on and when Jeesus “walks upon the water” it obviously double exposure and does not look real AT ALL. This is also a very TALKY movie. I do not believe Jeesus was booring. Also, you ccan tell that Peter Pasterini is some kind of Commuist because of the inflamatory things that Jeesus says. In the Bible, fro instance, he throws MONEYCHANGERS out of the temple. I am not a Bibblical scholar and do not know what a moneychanger is, but in this movie Jeesus chases some hard-working merchants away, whidh is DEFINTIELY not in the Bible! Jesus was not a Angry Man! The Crucifiction scene touched me, though. I begna to cry when Mary got upset and so I give this movie 1 out of 4 stars.



Urm…naturally, I kid. But I did recently watch A Futura Memoria, a feature length biography of Pasolini that focuses more on his intellectual evolution than on who he knew or slept with. (It doesn’t even get to his film career until it’s more than halfway over.) The Italian intellectuals in this thing sure are different than our intellectuals–their dumbest one doesn’t sound dumb or phony at all, and even the government minister who was part of the effort to persecute Pasolini throughout his adult life states his reasons for it in really cogent ways. Some of the more famous talking heads include Moravia, Laura Betti (the actress who played Sutherland’s fucked-up wife in 1900 and who wrote a book about Pasolini and the government), and Franco Citti, who starred in Accatone (and who played the bodyguard who doesn’t betray Michael Corleone in The Godfather), along with various writers, politicians, boyfriends, etc., each of whom still seem awed by Pasolini’s genius and contradictions.

Late in his life, disillusioned by what he called the “homologation” of modern life (basically, the homogenization of culture due to rampant consumerism), he split with the Italian student movement, writing a famous essay which took the side of the cops because they represented the last ends of the peasant class while the students represented a new middle-class to be overcome. He became an admirer of Rudi Dutschke, the German student leader whose ideas owed a lot to Gramsci, and the filmmakers interview one of Dutschke’s friends who knew Pasolini well. The guy finally says he wishes he could talk to the kid who killed Pasolini and, bang, suddenly the film crew, along with the German guy, is standing on the spot where the murder occurred talking to the killer, who’d already finished out his sentence. The guy’s quite forthcoming about what happened that night, but the interviewers don’t ask him the one thing I’ve always wondered: Did he know who Pasolini was when he ran him over with his own car?

Great as it is, this doc is actually just a bonus feature for a separate documentary, Sopralluoghi in Palestina, which Pasolini himself made while scouting locations for The Gospel According to Matthew. It sort of foreshadows the homologation line of thought in the sense that Pasolini originally wanted to shoot Matthew in Palestine and Israel, but had to abandon the idea because the land was too built up, too developed and modernized, while the locals who he’d need as extras were too Arabic looking. The doc covers the process of him coming to that conclusion, and it’s really kind of a road picture which follows the path of Pasolini and a Catholic priest who was familiar with the Holy Lands. The priest–a pot-bellied, balding, bespectacled frump on the outside–turned out to be an excellent choice: a man of substance. When Pasolini realizes he has to change his strategy, the priest gives him the best advice in the world, telling him to finish his trip while soaking up the atmosphere of the Holy Land and letting it ferment into something personal that the film would spill out of. Which is exactly what Pasolini did… (He wound up shooting it in Sicily and Morocco.)

Also, I just stumbled across this little encounter, which I had no idea even existed. It’s actually a damn good interview, and Pasolini reads an Italian translation of Canto LXXXI very, very beautifully towards the end, though the translation in the subtitles is for shit. Here’s the original text…

“Maîtresse” (1976)

November 14, 2012

Tonight it was Maîtresse, Barbet Schroeder’s love story between a simple petty thief (Gérard Depardieu) and a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). It’s an interesting movie, blending the two halves of the couple’s lives so equally that their innocent country jaunts are casually juxtaposed with graphic (and apparently real) acts of S&M, including a spanking severe enough to break the skin and Ogier nailing a man’s penis to a board. (England gave the film an 18+ rating, but mainly because it shows the bared genitals of both sexes.) That easy juxtaposition is rather the point since the movie is about Depardieu’s attempt to get his head around what the love of his life does for a living, and things are balanced enough that you don’t get hung up on the sex acts; by the ending, I kid you not, I was fixating more on the beautiful rubber corsets and masks that Karl Lagerfeld designed for Ogier and her clients, and on the black marble dungeon that serves as her workplace. (The movie also has 2-3 shots which, in context, are breathtaking little visual feasts.) If Maîtresse has a flaw, it’s that the couple’s romance—the “upstairs” part of the movie—comes across as a tad literal, mundane even. I wouldn’t have minded if Schroeder had gotten as weird with his story-line as he did with his sex scenes, but perhaps he felt enough was enough.

“A Hen in the Wind” (1948)

October 22, 2012

Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind isn’t as famous as some of his other stuff, but taken as poetry it’s one of his most perfect ones. The story’s a simple one: an impoverished young woman is waiting for her husband to come home from the war. She lives in a slum with their young son, and when the kid gets sick, her only way of raising money for his hospital bill is by working as a prostitute for a night. The kid recovers, the husband eventually comes home, and one day the occasion of his asking a simple question brings out the truth. The rest of the movie is about him reaching a place where he—and she, too, for that matter—can forgive her for what happened that night. A dark but mostly unstated masochism chews at both characters in the last half of the movie, and one of the things which makes A Hen in the Wind feel so real is the husband’s intellectual impulse to forgive his wife before his emotions are ready to let him do so. It’s just the kind of insight into human nature I wish today’s movies had more of.

There are three or four passages that are just mind-blowing. When Tokiko is coming to terms with the fact that she’s got to sell herself to get the money, Ozu expresses her mental journey by cross-cutting between close-ups of her looking into a mirror and then her reflection staring back at her/us, her face deepening with emotion on every cut. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a character’s reflecting on a matter be literalized this way or, for that matter, a scene knitted together from a single face reacting to itself.

In another scene the heartbroken husband spills his guts out to a friend. The two men are sitting in a bar, and across the street, just out of focus, is a dancehall whose windows are filled with couples slow-dancing. As the husband talks about his inability to let go of what his wife did, the blurry dancers—a vision of the licentiousness that he’s projecting onto her—seem to envelope his head like a swarm of slow-moving gnats. When he does finally come back down to earth, the couple comes together in a tight conciliatory clinch, and the camera closes in on the husband’s back as Tokiko’s hands wrap around it, her fingers meshing and then tilting ever so slightly upward, as if in prayer. (It brought to mind Fredo’s white-knuckled fingers digging into Michael’s back in The Godfather Part II.) And on a simpler, gut-punch level, Tokiko at one point takes such a hellacious head-first spill down a flight of stairs that it’s a wonder it didn’t kill the actress Kinuyo Tanaka.

All of this action is relieved by some of Ozu’s mesmerizing montages, this time of daily life in Tokyo’s industrial slums. A fleet 84 minutes, it’s up there with Passing Fancy, The Only Son, and my other favorites of his work.

another log on the fire

September 18, 2012

The Blue Dahlia isn’t terrible but it is disappointing—it’s got Raymond Chandler’s only produced original screenplay, a great cast, and a couple of sterling fistfights, but what starts out like a killer noir winds up a pedestrian whodunnit. The weird thing is that the back of the DVD case contains a little box with big bold letters reading “A MUST-HAVE MOVIE – HAROLD J. STONE’S FIRST FILM”, which made me think “Wow, Harold J. Stone. I don’t think I care even one little bit”.

Harold J. Stone

Then, when I was checking the running time at IMDb, this piece of trivia caught my eye:

Some sources erroneously include Harold J. Stone in an undetermined, uncredited minor role; Stone does not appear in this film in any capacity. At the time it was filmed (in Hollywood), he was in New York City appearing on the stage in a prominent role in “A Bell for Adano” (1944-1945).

I find this mystifying. Somebody actually studied Harold J. Stone’s movements enough to know where he was when a particular movie he wasn’t even in was being shot, and then took the trouble to correct this pesky rumor which no doubt comes up every time the man’s name is mentioned. As it is, Harold J. Stone’s mother could’ve pulled her dress up over her head in The Blue Dahlia and it wouldn’t have interested me. The film does have some interesting trivia associated with it, though, and I’d recommend it just for Howard Da Silva, playing yet another one of his silky, sleazy killers. That man was brilliant, and the blacklist cut him down in his prime.

Not Harold J. Stone

“The Mortal Storm” (1940)

August 22, 2012

This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.

The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.

Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race),  and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.

It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow.  [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]

“The Leech Woman” (1960)

August 12, 2012

This Universal cheapie was surprising—my guess is that feminist critics know it well. Colleen Gray is a middle-aged woman married to a younger doctor who’s got his ants in his pants because the missus is showing her age. Suffice it to say that they get their hands on a rejuvenation spice that needs to be activated by the serum from human pineal glands, which is extracted via a ring with a fancy little hook on it. Gray sacrifices her shit-heel husband first, but since the potion needs to be replenished in order for her to stay young, she quickly works her way through a handful of other victims. The movie’s interesting partly because it makes her culpable in her own predicament—she’s as repulsed by her aging as her husband is—and the scenes where her husband is belittling her actually have a sting to them. (They also carry an added layer because at 38 Gray was old, if only by Hollywood standards; it had been a no doubt fast 12 years since Nightmare Alley, where Tyrone Power had traded in a fading Joan Blondell for her.) There’s also a trip to Africa, which bears a surprising topographical resemblance to the San Gabriel Mountains, but the movie’s progressiveness stops with the feminist stuff: the natives all speak fluent ooga-booga.

“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960)

August 5, 2012

Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs sucked me in with its second or third line: “Bars in the daytime are like women without makeup”. Truly great study of a bar hostess in the Ginza who’s trying to become independent—preferably as owner of her own bar, though the more realistic possibility of marrying one of her customers is constantly dangled before her. Hostesses weren’t required to sleep with their “clients”, but the businessmen kept coming back with the understanding that a certain amount of mauling would take place; the movie, through a dozen or so detailed secondary characters, puts forth just about every type of both customer and hostess imaginable. It’s also striking because Naruse, who at 55 was the veteran of scores of movies, was still fresh both stylistically and temperamentally. The film reeks of what feels like a young man’s knowledge of bar life, beginning with the title cards which contain small graphic illustrations of barroom interiors; combined with the quiet jazz xylophone score the tone resembles the cool chicness of Mad Men. When a Woman also contains a couple of rueful post-coital scenes that could’ve been shot yesterday, and in one passage the hostess (the deceptively innocent-looking, fantastically talented Hideko Takamine), having just been dealt one bad hand too many, gets bombed in her own bar; her ensuing tantrum is one of the truest bits of sad drunken foolishness I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not too much to call it a Japanese Nights of Cabiria.

“Petersen” (1974)

July 26, 2012

It starts out like a goofy sex romp, but it’s really about a footballer who, catching glimmers of a bigger world out there, quits the game and enrolls in university to better himself.  He’s still a magnetic lug, though, so being married with a couple of kids doesn’t stop him from having an affair with one of his lecturers and tucking into other bits on the side. By the end, the Sexual Revolution, people’s fickleness and his own working class roots have all risen up to bite him; he’s left with his tiny electrical business and his optimism. An early entry in the Australian renaissance of the ’70s, it’s not as great as what was to come, but it’s likable and human and very entertaining—kind of an Aussie Five Easy Pieces that doesn’t crap on its characters. With the great Jack Thompson, Wendy Hughes, Jacki Weaver and Arthur Dignam. (The Australian ratings board sure works differently than the MPAA. The movie has 3-4 scenes showing full frontal nudity, a shot of Thompson playing with Weaver’s naked snatch, a nasty rape scene, and a lot of simulated sex that looks pretty damn real, yet it’s rated 18+ for “Medium level violence”. Period.)

“Margaret” (2011)

July 16, 2012

I spent 5½ hours this weekend watching both the theatrical and extended versions of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s emotional epic about a high-school student who’s partly responsible for a fatal street accident, and then innocently—or at least spontaneously—lies to the police about what happened. It’s a detailed, unpredictable work with several brilliant moments, along with a handful of misjudged scenes and a couple of ideas left hanging in midair. Still, Lonergan was talking about something real.

Margaret is mostly about our need for a perspective, or a state of consciousness, that’s viable in today’s world. The task has always been a prickly one, but now, when things sometimes feels like they really are verging on the apocalyptic (and whose perils we’re all, to one degree or another, responsible for creating), dealing with reality while not denying our feelings about it is fast becoming a critical skill. The accident precipitating Lisa’s crisis occurs perhaps 15 minutes into the movie—just enough time to establish her as pampered and headstrong—and the film’s best stretch comes in its immediate aftermath, when she tries to continue her usual routine with the tragedy percolating just behind her eyes. Eventually her guilt and confusion cause her to act out (and lash out) in a number of directions—at her well-meaning but distracted mother, as well as at the cops, her teachers and friends. (Anna Paquin’s eruptions are remarkable for the subtle variations she rings on them based on which party Lisa is dealing with at the time.) As she tries to find the right scale for her distress, her search is mirrored by life around her: a mockingly light play which her mother is starring in, a classmate whose self-righteousness is a match for her own, and ultimately by a  glowing performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. The latter may be a register too high for anyone’s sense of humility to stay healthy, but the opera winds up offering Lisa the toehold that she desperately needs.

Margaret’s free-floating anxiety is part of the global, inclusive consciousness that’s relatively new to movies—the cinema of Haneke and Akin and Iñárritu. Though it contains a running argument about the Jews, the Arabs and American meddling in the Middle East, it’s less about 9/11 than the fabric of modern life, particularly in New York City, whose inhabitants have always been peculiarly attuned to what their neighbors were doing, and whose lives really became enmeshed in the wake of the attacks. Margaret’s signature image is the crowd shot—a horde of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, or a line of taxis stretching to the horizon at twilight—that give us some idea of the multiplicity of perspectives and options available both to Lisa and to us. Which road is the right one? What Margaret does well is dramatize how sticky that question has finally become. Finding a path that’s coherent, comfortable and morally righteous, all at the same time…? Well, we should just forget it, for clearly it can’t be done. And yet no other choice is presenting itself—not to Lisa, and certainly not to us.

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