A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part five

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Vertigo (1958)

vertigoVertigo, unfortunately, fell victim to what I call First Steak Syndrome.

That requires some explanation. Like a lot of people my age, my brain was scarred as a youth by The National Lampoon, when it was a magazine easily available on newsstands. A continuing feature was the Foto Funnies, which were lame jokes in a six-grid photo layout, which was always an excuse to show a topless model with alarmingly large breasts. The pertinent one involved the guy in bed with her (the set was almost always a bed) talking about how, if a person had never eaten a steak, but had been told all their life how incredible a steak was, how good it tasted, when that person finally had a steak, the result would inevitably be disappointment, because the steak had been so built up all their lives. The punchline was the pendulous model saying, “Not until I’m married,” but that’s not the important part. The important part is the lifelong build-up.

And this has happened to me several times in my seemingly endless catch-up on the Movies I Should Have Been Watching All This Time But Haven’t. When I watch a movie that has been praised so unanimously that it is impossible to watch it tabula rasa, that your viewing begins on the first frame with the weight of expectation pitched unnaturally high. Vertigo is, alas, one of those. It was first recommended to me highly in college, but that was when it was unavailable in any form; finally it was released again in 1984 with four other Hitchcocks that had been in rights limbo. It is heavily referenced in two of my favorite discoveries from last year, Chris Marker’s La jetee and Sans soleil. It replaced Citizen Kane as the #1 movie of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll last year, for God’s sake. Yet I am immune to its charms.

That likely also has something to do with my own relationship with Hitchcock: I’m not a big fan. There is something about his movies that distance me from the events on the screen, even as I note the craftsmanship. The one Hitchcock movie I positively adore is Psycho, and small wonder, as it is his version of a B movie, my poison of choice. So, as I watch Vertigo unspool, I am appreciative of the technique, I note that Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock were made for each other, and don’t care much beyond that.

?????????????????I guess I should say that Vertigo is the story of police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who is recovering from a nasty incident involving a chase across tenement rooftops that left a uniformed officer dead and Scottie with acrophobia and a sense of vertigo whenever heights are involved. His leave of absence is interrupted by an old school chum who begs him to follow his increasingly erratic wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by her ancestor, a woman who committed suicide a hundred years before. Of course, the two fall in love before she plunges to her death off the bell tower of an old Spanish mission, Scottie unable to stop her because of his crushing fear of heights. Then, after six months in a mental ward, Scottie sees a woman on the street who looks uncannily like his lost love…

Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who can count in their credits Diabolique and Eyes Without A Face. Unlike either of those, Vertigo rests on a conspiracy that ultimately fails because one of the conspirators makes two very stupid mistakes – well, three, really – leading to the final reveal. As a study in obsession, it is queasily great. As a mystery, not so much so.

It flopped badly when it premiered in ’58 (and is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece – sound familiar?), and a lot of blame over the years has been placed on Stewart’s shoulders. At age 50, he was thought to be too old to be playing a romantic lead to an actress literally half his age (again – sound familiar?). Hitchcock later said he thought Kim Novak was miscast (he had wanted Vera Miles), but truthfully, Novak is fine, essaying a difficult role very well.

The Conversation (1974)

resize_imageThe Conversation is another character study about an unpleasant character. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who is neurotically protective of his own privacy. As the movie opens, he is engaged in his latest job, taping the conversation of a young couple during lunchtime in a busy park. Obviously thinking they have a safe place to talk, they are blissfully unaware of the three hypersensitive microphones with sniper scopes trained on them or the man with a shopping bag and a hearing aid tailing them.

As Caul mixes these four sources to provide the clearest version of their conversation, he becomes aware that the two are having an affair, and they are fearful of the woman’s husband, almost certainly Harry’s client. Harry’s claim to fame is an impossible surveillance he somehow managed in New York several years previous, taping a conversation under such guarded circumstances that it led to a bloodbath in a corrupt union, and the torture/murder of an entire family. Haunted by his culpability, however tenuous, to that crime, the already troubled Caul begins to fear that history will repeat itself, the two lovers will be murdered, and it will once again be his fault.

The-Conversation-1The Conversation is as post-Watergate as a movie can come. Harry’s evolving paranoia is well pricked-on by Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and grimy early 70s design. The titular conversation itself was shot with several different line readings, so the actual performance changes as Harry’s attitude toward it does. Coppola has said that movies like this and his earlier The Rain People were the sort of movies he wanted to spend his life making; the fact that this would mean living in a world without The Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now puts one in the unfortunate position of being glad he didn’t get his wish. Even with a lower budget and smaller scope, the cinematography here is highly detailed and enveloping: in that first aerial shot of the crowded park, you look exactly where Coppola wants.

Gene Hackman picks this as a personal favorite among all his roles, and he does an uncomfortably good job of portraying a shabby man with a shabby soul. The cast constantly surprises, with Teri Garr, a very young Harrison Ford (in a role that was supposed to be small, but Ford so impressed Coppola he expanded it), Robert Duvall, and that Rosetta Stone of 70s cinema, John Cazale.

A bit of a tough nut to crack, but very worthwhile.

Chinatown (1974)

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressThanks to HBO, I had seen the last five minutes of Chinatown many times. It was time to catch up on the other two hours and five minutes. Besides, I had a crime thing going on.

In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate the possible infidelity of city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling, who played Ham in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, and yes, I was distracted by that bit of trivia). Gittes finds it, then is surprised to find out that the woman who hired him was not Mrs. Mulwray – that would be Faye Dunaway – and when Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy involving two very important parts of LA life – water and land.

People argue over whether Chinatown is neo-noir or just plain noir, so ably does it imitate the truly American genre from the 40s, but come now – the movie is so far removed from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity that it’s clearly a new, meaner generation of that beast. Simple human greed is always a factor in noir, but here the greed is magnified a thousandfold, the corruption on a massive, government level. Director Roman Polanski trades in dark, venetian blind-lit rooms for sun-burned Los Angeles streets and parched orchards. Previously hinted-at sexual crimes, buried in Hayes Code-constricted noir is extremely – and famously – overt here.

Generally speaking, I don’t have a good relationship with the Polanski movies I’ve seen, but Chinatown is a seriously good movie. This is the movie that elevated Jack Nicholson to a romantic lead, and Faye Dunaway just keeps cropping up in these Great Movies, doesn’t she? There’s probably a reason for that.

Easy Rider (1969)

MPW-23917I didn’t feel like yet another crime movie, so I went with more Nicholson.

Though Easy Rider isn’t truly a Nicholson movie. What it is is a remarkable bellwether in American cinema. The third-grossing movie of the year (behind Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy), it kicked off the New Hollywood with a vengeance. Like that other surprise counter-culture hit, Bonnie and Clyde, it also borrows a lot from the French New Wave.

There’s not much plot in Easy Rider, but there is a hell of a lot of earnestness. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) make a small fortune smuggling cocaine in motorcycle batteries. They buy new bikes and set out to find America, or at least make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up alcoholic ACLU lawyer George (Nicholson), and introduce him to marijuana. They pick up two hookers in the Big Easy and have an acid trip in a cemetery.  Everybody gets killed by rednecks. The end.

2077615734_0f6ef42587It’s an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued at how, without much in the way of visual effects, the trip sequence in the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery so accurately captures the LSD experience.

None of these guys were exactly strangers to Hollywood at this point, but this movie definitely – and most certainly in Nicholson’s case – brought them from the ranks of small roles and day players on TV shows to the ranks of actual Movie Stars, and not just in B pictures. Again, like Bonnie and Clyde, actual locals take many of the roles, but you can also catch young Karen Black, Toni Basil, and Luke Askew for once not playing a lunatic. Fonda is his usual straight-shooting dreamer, and Hopper has the courage to make his balancing role a paranoid jerk.

And if nothing else, Easy Rider has some arrestingly beautiful scenery played against THE BEST DAMNED MOVIE SOUNDTRACK EVER.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that roughly between Network and Some Like It Hot in our last installment, I hit a day where I was called into work a City Council meeting to cover for a co-worker, and I had to employ my second cheat: Ebert had written about three Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoons, and I watched them in the waning hours of that Wednesday. They are What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. All successfully subvert the usual template of Looney Tunes shorts, and are well-deserving of the respect shown them. There are copies available on YouTube, but are of such abysmal quality, I’m not even going to try linking them here.

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part four

As I write this, it is Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. I was up until 3am last night, watching movies, yet here I am, awake. Even if I stay up until bleary-eyed, apparently all I still get is five hours sleep, at most. Man, getting older is awesome. Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been jammed with work and watching movies for the Roger Ebert Great Movies Challenge on Letterboxd.com. Enough to keep me from writing about anything except the latest Crapfest, so let’s use this lack of sleep to clear some of that out.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs was inevitable, I was up against a scheduling problem one Saturday; I had my weekly Show that evening, which took up the portion of the day I usually employ as movie-watching time; there was no real possibility of watching a movie after The Show, my usual dodge, as the following day was Mother’s Day, and we were driving to visit my Mom, and I needed to try to get more than my usual five hours sleep. It was time to employ my first cheat, which was to drop one of the movies from my list that I did not have a burning desire to watch just yet, and substitute Un Chien Andalou, only 16 minutes long, and, at the time, available on Netflix Instant. A legendary collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien is one surreal image after another – the only criterion was both men had to agree before something was added. Any description or review of the short is going to wind up being a laundry list of that imagery, much of which is deliberately shocking – it was several viewings before I could watch that eyeball-slicing scene – and definitely memorable.

The most remarkable thing that can be said about Un Chien Andalou is that, although the imagery is deliberately random, and there is absolutely no underlying story, the mind still tries to rationalize that nonexistent story, organizing and creating symbolism where there is none. That’s actually highly entertaining and a triumph for Dada.

It may not currently be available on Netflix, but there’s always YouTube:

Network (1976)

network_posterWhen that weekend finally wound down, I was able to – finally – watch Network in its entirety, and that turned out to be a bracing experience.

Network news anchor Howard Beale is going through a slow-motion nervous breakdown when he is fired from his position for flagging ratings. When he announces he will commit suicide on the air, of course, ratings spike, so Howard keeps his job for a little while, until that spike diminishes. But when his breakdown goes full-blown, and he busts into his news set wearing only a raincoat and pajamas, and soaking wet, urges the viewers to shout out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – and people across the country do – a star is born.

Network is startlingly prescient about a number of things, some deliberately so. Writer Paddy Chayefsky heard about a multinational corporation jockeying to buy ABC, and realized that such a sale would be the death knell for broadcast news departments as they stood at the time: money-losing, but regarded as a necessary prestige product. Corporations don’t understand that, and news departments suddenly had to become profit centers. This hadn’t happened yet in ’76, but it was on the way.

Another bit of prophecy that Chayefsky probably hoped was too outlandish to come true is contained in one old-school executive refusing to give airtime to “a raving lunatic” and being told to sit down and shut up. At that moment, the modern viewer should be able to name at least three raving lunatics being given airtime just tonight. Ambitious executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) crafts a new form of newscast which will seem all too familiar today as “infotainment”, the only problem being that Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet don’t go broad enough to full visualize the mess that is modern journalism.

7041084_origOne thing that will also strike the viewer is that Network is largely built on monologues and soliloquies, usually the province of live theater. Paddy Chayefsky also wrote quite a bit for the stage, and it shows here. I don’t mind, coming from a theatrical background myself. Hell, there should be more monologues, if they’re the quality of the speeches delivered here. The writing is so good in these that Beatrice Straight – playing William Holden’s long-suffering wife – won a Best Supporting Oscar for her sole extended scene in the movie.

There are some problems, of course. My major one is Chayefsky once more presenting us with a female character with daddy issues to explain why a young actress winds up in bed with an actor twice her age. He did this in 71’s The Hospital between Diana Rigg and George C. Scott, and here it is again in Network. Whether this is Chayefsky cracking wise about these pairings being insisted upon at the studio level (you shouldn’t have to think too hard to think of a half-dozen similar mismatches in movies), or wish-fulfillment on the writer’s part, I don’t know.

But I was serious about wanting more monologues.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

MPW-78322And speaking of problems…

Everybody loves Some Like It Hot. I certainly did on my first viewing, when I was probably about 10 years old. Billy Wilder, last seen in this project as the director of the solid Double Indemnity was an amazing comedy director, and this movie is pretty much rightfully considered a classic. Yet, in my second viewing, its charms were lost on me.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down-on-their-luck musicians in Chicago in the 30s. When their luck dips even lower, causing them to be eyewitnesses at a St. Valentines Day-style massacre, they take the only escape route open to them, masquerading as women in an all-girl band journeying to a gig in Florida. The singer for the band, incidentally, is Marilyn Monroe.

The whole thing is farce, of course, and if you don’t appreciate a good farce, something is wrong with your soul. Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe are all at the top of their game here. So what exactly is wrong with my soul that Some Like It Hot leaves me cold?

Oddly, a lot seems to do with Marilyn Monroe. The lady is gorgeous, the camera loves her, and stories about her neuroses on set are many; Wilder manages to use all these, and Monroe’s character has her share of problems, and seems extremely vulnerable. After having a girl-to-girl talk with her, in his disguise as Josephine, and finding out exactly what sort of guy Marilyn is looking for, Curtis slips into yet another disguise as exactly the sort of guy she’s looking for – rich, but bookish. This intertwines with a truly delectable Joe E. Brown pursuing Lemmon’s female persona – Lemmon grudgingly keeping the billionaire Brown busy while Curtis uses his yacht to seduce Monroe. It’s a farce, folks, it all makes sense because it happens so quickly.

Here’s the thing, though: Curtis is obviously the opposite of rich. His course of action – even though it involves getting Monroe to actually seduce him, rather than vice versa – is doomed to heartbreak from the outset. And as I’ve mentioned, Monroe feels very vulnerable in her role as Sugar Kane Kowalski, so I don’t want to see her hurt.  Inevitably, she is, and Curtis feeling like a dick about it doesn’t help.

Lemmon+Some+Like+it+HotOne of the most interesting aspects of the movie is Lemmon’s character becoming perhaps a little too comfortable in his role as a woman, even to the point of being ecstatic when Brown asks for his/her hand in marriage. It’s 1959, though, so we don’t get to explore this in any way except as wacky comedy. Jack Lemmon was one of America’s finest actors, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling this off so well.

One of the reasons I like Wilder so much is that he was not afraid of meta humor. Curtis’ rich playboy persona talks like Cary Grant, and a damned good impression, at that. Lemmon practically shrieks at him, “Where did you get that phony accent? Nobody talks like that!” (Cary Grant apparently agreed; when he saw they movie he claimed, “I don’t talk like that!”). George Raft, playing head bad guy Spats Columbo, snatches a coin being tossed in the air from a gunsel, sneering, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?”

Yeah, I have my favorite little bits, and I’m put in the odd position of recommending something I really didn’t like that much. It’s good enough that I may be wrong. Joe E. Brown is a goddamn gem. And that dress Marilyn is sewn into is just unfair.

The Hustler (1961)

el_buscavidas_1961_8…is another movie I can’t say I particularly enjoyed… but then, I’m not even sure I was supposed to enjoy it.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark who one character points out “Shoots good, but shoots lucky.” The match of his young life is against another legend, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a marathon that at its peak sees Eddie triumphant… but his hubris kicks in and he eventually loses everything to the more experienced, systematic Fats, and more importantly, to Fats’ manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott).

Most people think this movie is all about this match and ultimately the return bout; this is likely due to most of the promotional material, and the charisma of Jackie Gleason. Gleason only has about 20 minutes of screen time, though; most of the movie is Eddie rebounding from this loss, his inability to get any pool action going thanks to Gordon’s network, and a growing relationship with fragile alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie); they begin by simply using each other, but definite feelings begin to grow through time and shared experiences, like Eddie having his thumbs broken by Gordon’s thugs.

Gordon turns out to be the snake in this broken Garden of Eden, eventually taking Eddie under his wing and trying to exploit his skills. Turns out Eddie loves pool more than he loves Sarah, and Gordon does what he can to take Sarah out of the picture, to eliminate that distraction, with tragic results. That breaks Gordon hold over Eddie, and produces the final tempering of character that will make the hustler unbeatable.

It’s a character study of some pretty unfortunate characters, but the truly astounding thing is, it gives equal weight to its major characters; this is fully Sarah’s story as much as it is Eddie’s. Were this movie made today, it’s doubtful it would remain so. Piper Laurie is amazing in the role; it was after this movie that she took a 15-year sabbatical from acting to concentrate on her family, returning in 1976 and Carrie. This was  no doubt the right decision for her to make, but watch her performance in The Hustler and then reflect on what we missed out on in that 15 years.

A Break for Crap

Trying to prove that we didn’t actually need to sully a holiday with this month’s Crapfest was perhaps ill-considered. The Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, but not the holiday weekend itself? Well, perhaps it was best to not to mess with anyone’s plans for a three-day weekend. I did not necessarily feel that way Monday morning, though, when I appeared to be suffering from a lack of sleep and some sort of snack hangover.

But I really need my bimonthly Crapfest. Need it badly. Especially this month, consumed by the end of the school year and the Roger Ebert Great Movies Challenge. Like finding that incredibly rare rude Disneyworld employee, Crapfest was a welcome oasis amongst all that oppressive quality.

When I arrived, host Dave was running Varan the Unbelievable off his hard drive, because he’s a tech-head who does things like that. (I may work in video, but that doesn’t mean I like to run cable through walls. Dave does, and my hat is off to him for doing it well) As more people arrived, the conversation grew lively, and Dave’s media player dutifully moved on to the next digital file, the original Earth vs The Spider. How lively was the conversation? It was twenty minutes before we realized the soundtrack was in Spanish. Aieee! Aranya grosso no bueno!

starcrash_poster_01This was taken as a clue that we should start the festivities, and for some reason it usually falls to me to choose the first movie. Maybe it is because I generally try to be a nice guy and come up with something at least entertaining (Things was an exception). Maybe because Dave feels that, therefore, his choice in the second slot will seem even more horrible by comparison. Or it will give him a chance to determine how badly he needs to hurt me in return.

But I had discovered a couple of fests ago, that one of our newbs, Erik, was fairly knowledgeable in the ways of le cinema bad, yet had never seen Starcrash. Neither had the other FNG, Mark. This is what we refer to in the trade as a moral imperative, and so we old-timers settled in for a re-watch.

I feel I have to explain Starcrash, even though, if you are reading this blog, chances are it’s unnecessary. Starcrash is an Italian attempt to capitalize on the success of Star Wars, at a time when Star Wars had not yet opened in Europe. So all Luigi Cozzi had to go on was photos, possibly some imported trailers. It’s pretty obvious that lacking the thing he was imitating, he had to fall back on Euro science fiction movies like Barbarella, Antonio Margheriti’s Gamma I flicks, and, for some reason, Jason and the Argonauts. The cast is Caroline Munro, Marjoe Gortner, Joe Spinell, David Hasselhoff and Christopher Plummer. And a police robot who talks like a Southern sheriff. If you have not yet seen it, all this should have convinced you to rush right out and find it now.

Erik was gobsmacked. “This is horrible,” he said, amazed. I think he may be a bit unaware of the depths we regularlysubject ourselves to at Crapfest – one day he will realize what a sweet, sweet gift we gave to him that day.

ultraman120607um5It was time to cook up dinner, and I filled the time with a couple of episodes of Ultraman (this would be the 1966 series). I showed the episode with the pearl-eating monster because A) Science Patrol token girl Akiko is really upset that the monster is eating all those lovely pearls; B) Science Patrol gets rid of the monster by literally shoving a rocket up its ass and blasting it into space; C) meaning Ultraman is unneeded, but he shows up anyway. We needed a second episode, and chose “The Rambunctious One from Space” at random, hoping it would be some manner of space biker, not realizing that such weirdness wouldn’t be showing up until the sentai shows started rolling out in the late 70s. No, it’s just another giant monster, or what they refer to in Japan as “Tuesday”.

Dave had been inferring for some time that I wasn’t drunk enough to watch his selection yet. Not that this was ominous, or anything.

Well, yes, yes it was. Because he had decided to show Nukie.

nukie-movie-poster-1988-1020693623Nukie is an E.T. rip-off made 6 or 7 years after the fact and (deservedly) more obscure than Mac and Me. Apparently of South African origin (with lots of German names, to boot), it didn’t even hit VHS in the US until 1993. I remained blissfully unaware of it until  Stomp Tokyo’s 2000 review, and I spent the intervening years not exactly avoiding it, but not seeking it out either. I’m sure that in my inevitable war crimes trial, the day I spent helping the visiting Chris Holland paw through boxes of VHS tapes at my then-favorite used movie store for copies of Nukie that he could inflict on innocent people will be entered in evidence.

So. There is a sort of cartoon comet zooming all over Earth while we hear the voices of two aliens, Nukie and Neeko, argue about how they shouldn’t be doing this. Something goes wrong and Nukie crash lands in Africa, while Neeko touches down in America, where he is promptly captured by the Space Foundation and routinely tortured by scientists. Nukie befriends a couple of outcast native children, and in general tries to find out where this “America” person who is holding Neeko can be found – by asking animals.

Nukie and Neeko have a psychic link, which means that whenever Nukie is finally about to get to sleep, Neeko will get poked and start screaming “NUUUUUUKIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” in his head, and that also we in the audience will likewise scream “NUUUUUUKIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” when bored, which was often. Before they can take off to space again, they have to be together, you see. Never mind that we see Nukie turn into a cartoon comet and loop around the Moon once.

936full-nukie-photoThen, in the village where all sorts of skullduggery is afoot, none of it particularly coherent, a chimpanzee wearing a shirt starts talking. This is enough to make us stop screaming “NUUUUUUKIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!” and discuss whether the humans onscreen could hear the chimp or not; in the following scene, Nukie is talking to other primates (the aliens can speak any language once they hear enough of it), but the whole subject of talking monkeys was introduced before this sequence… Then Neeko helps the Space Foundation computer achieve sentience. Well, it actually already sentient, since it can hypnotize aliens and humans – somehow – and laugh like a mad scientist. Neeko just helps it become a better person.

Your star power in Nukie is limited to Glynis Johns as a nun in the Village of Problems (looks like things went to hell for the Banks family after Mary Poppins left, if Mrs. Banks joined a nunnery and is working in Africa), and Steve Railsback as the least effective field agent for a Space Foundation ever – although it has to be admitted that he flies Neeko to Nukie in his helicopter – apparently overnight, from America to Africa! – so the two can get the hell off this mudball and we can put this whole dismal exercise behind us.

The best part of the whole ordeal was Rick fervently making his case that if Dave had chosen Nukie, he had no moral high ground to claim in his steadfast resistance to Rick’s dream entry, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. I think he may have had a point, there.

No, wait – the best part was where Dave, as we entered the subjective fifth hour of Nukie, began to moan in his chair, “What have I done?” like Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Crap.

candy-stripe-nursesHigh ground or no, Dave put on The Yesterday Machine to “give people a chance to go to the bathroom”. Fifteen minutes later, no one had gone to the bathroom and the damned thing was still playing. Unwilling to sit through a 35-minute explanation of how time travel works again, I held a straw poll of the contents of my Crapfest Bag of Tricks and the clear winner was a return to the original fare of the first Crapfests, a New World drive-in programmer by the name of Candy Stripe Nurses.

There are three stories at play in Candy Stripe Nurses as our nubile young not-really nurses try to change the world via nude scenes. More than ever, you can sense Roger Corman with one of those accountant visors and a stop watch nudging the director and murmuring, “I can’t help but notice there hasn’t been any nudity for 7 minutes.” Not fooling – in one of those instances, where there was no way to stop the plot for naked flesh, it was provided by streakers at a basketball game. Not as ideally salacious as you’d want, a bit heavy on the socially-conscious story elements… but at least it wasn’t Nukie. And as is the case with these movies, when you’re not waiting for the next nude scene, you’re waiting to see where Dick Miller will crop up.

Let’s take a moment to thank Joe Dante for cutting together this completely NSFW trailer:

(By the way, whichever of you guys tried to correct me on the director of Candy Stripe Nurses – you were right, it was Allan Holeb. I just got hung up on seeing Barbara Peeters’ name as Second Unit Director. I was wrong.)

Exorcist_II_Heretic_02There was some sort of problem with Erik’s portable hard drive, so while Dave took it to the back room to diagnose, he ominously said to me, “Figure out what’s next.” I didn’t do the straw poll again. I simply opened the vintage Warner Brothers snapper case and inserted Exorcist II: The Heretic. Enough of this weak-ass stuff. People had been demanding The Heretic for some time.

Mark was a bit apprehensive, unsure if this was truly riff material. Pshaw, said I, and ho boy, was I right. I’m pretty sure there was some exposition going on, but it was drowned out by multiple, simultaneous bad Richard Burton impersonations, which continued for the next two hours. Drunk jokes were the standard fare, but I was astounded and delighted by the variation and lack of repetition. I am especially fond of the section where we switched to using booze as a motivator. “Okay, Mr. Burton, for this scene we’ve put a bottle of scotch on top of this mountain, and… OH GOD ROLL THE CAMERAS! ROLL THEM NOW!!!”

In case you’ve never had the pleasure: Burton is Father Lamont, another exorcist who is having a crisis of faith, yet is sent by the Church to investigate the death of Father Merrin in the first movie. He meets up with the now teenaged Regan, and things sort of fall apart from there. The original audience started laughing the movie out of the theaters with the first sequence involving The Synchronizer, a device that “syncs people up” using biofeedback, a strobe light, and a deep pulsing note.  It allows people to share a hypnotic trance and experience each other’s dreams, or something. That sequence is actually pretty effective, if you can get past the dubious science.

Anyway, the best part, past the Richard Burton jokes, is the Ennio Morricone score, which I still have on the original vinyl. Enjoy Ennio rocking out on the trailer:

Actually, the best part was realizing that I was watching the original ending on this disc; Warner tried several different endings to deflect audience derision when the movie opened, and when I saw it, it was the ending where Burton died battling the demon Pazuzu. Offscreen, of course, no need to actually bring him back to shoot new footage. It was shoddy work, and though the original ending is rather ridiculous, it is obviously part of the same movie I just spent two hours scratching my head through.

By then it was midnight, and we had jobs to get to in the morning. We woke Alan up and sent him home. (“Why couldn’t I have nodded off during Nukie? Why?!?”) We also swore undying vengeance against Dave. Which will make the next Crapfest all the more… interesting.

Here’s my Letterboxd profile just prior to this Crapfest:

Freeman Williams ’s profile • Letterboxd


And here it is after, Can you spot the difference?:

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Never mind, it’s back to this, now:

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A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part three

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Double Indemnity (1944)

double-indemnity-1All the various pieces of film-noir intersect in a perfect specimen of the genre, creating Venetian blind lighting motifs that would be appropriated over and over again into the next century.

Fred MacMurray was convinced by director Billy Wilder to take leave of his usual light comedy roles to play Walter Neff, a highly successful insurance salesman who runs afoul of Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck in a horribly cheap blonde wig), an unhappy housewife who desperately wants to be rid of her loveless oil executive husband. Once these two finish playing bedroom games, Neff manages to get Dietrichsen insured for double indemnity in case of accidental death, then carefully rigs the murder, using his knowledge of insurance scams to commit the perfect crime.

Unfortunately, Neff’s best friend is insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a Sherlock of Statistics who at first figures the death is just bad luck for the insurance company, then homes in on the one tiny inconsistency in Neff’s plot. Keyes has a blind spot toward his old friend, Neff, and believes someone else is her accomplice – but the salesman watches in dread as that blind spot shrinks and his relationship with Phyllis starts to sour and curdle, and they begin to turn on each other.

double-indemnity-1944-movie-screenshot-495pxDouble Indemnity quite simply does everything right, from a beginning that grabs the viewer (and gives a perfect reason for Neff to spend the rest of the movie narrating his own downfall) straight through a twisted story that never strays from the logical – at least insofar as anything concerning human emotions can be – to a wholly satisfying end. MacMurray probably surprised the hell out of everybody. Stanwyck already had a reputation as a solid, versatile actress, and this movie established her as the Dark Lady of film-noir for many years, proving that the right actress can even overcome a director’s horrible choice of wigs. But the real standout for me is Edward G. Robinson, taking a step down from his usual starring roles to play Keyes, in his own way the hard-boiled detective of the story. Robinson has several dynamite speeches that he delivers perfectly, rapid-fire. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler made sure to be on the set when Robinson did those.

It amazes me that Hollywood made two James M. Cain novels with similar themes – unbridled lust and adultery lead to murder – under the  restrictive Hayes Code.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

birth_of_a_nation_CHoly shit, people. Just holy shit.

I’ve been warned enough times about Birth of a Nation. But it still winds up in reference books, still on Ebert’s list, because it is a remarkable technical and artistic achievement a mere 20 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture. It undeniably kicked off serious American cinema. It possesses a stature worthy of reckoning, but also an unfortunate message.

Right up front you get a warning with the title card “The Birth of a Nation (Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman)”. The first hour and a half tells the tale of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose sons are great friends (and whose eldest boys quite fancy the daughters on the opposite sides). The Stoneman family hail from the North, the Camerons own a cotton plantation in the South. Then the Civil War hits, and of course the boys wind up facing each other on the battlefield. The youngest die, the two elders survive. Lincoln pardons Cameron from an unjust execution when Miss Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and mother Cameron beg for his life. Gish refers to him as “The Great Heart”.

Lincoln’s assassination is fully and well-staged in a recreation of Ford’s Theater (but out in the open air, for lighting purposes). The Camerons read of his death and sadly look up from the newspaper, stating, “Our best friend has died. What will happen to us now?” If you’re slightly dubious of that being the actual reaction of defeated Southerners, just wait.

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915As I’ve said, that first 90 minutes is a good enough retelling of the period before and during the Civil War, but I wasn’t smitten with it when it was called Gone With the Wind, either. Then the second half of movie starts with a card that reads “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” In other words, We are about to get racist, but we are not racist.

Stoneman takes over after Lincoln is assassinated, and while he does not hang the Southern leaders, as he had previously advocated, he does go full-bore into making sure the freed slaves of the South become fully equal to the white citizens. This takes the form of whites being turned from the polls and blacks being bribed to elect rascals and carpetbaggers to the local government. My God, you can just hear current political talking points being freshly minted. Stoneman’s choice to head up the Reconstruction is a villainous (of course) mulatto named Simon Lynch, who secretly aims to establish his own Black Empire, and not incidentally marry Lillian Gish against her will.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, 1915Luckily, at the two-hour mark, the elder Cameron son has established the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it is these brave sheet-beclad horsemen who rout the Black Apocalypse that Lynch has created (to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, no less), save Lillian Gish from Lynch’s vile mixed-race clutches, and, at the end, keep the Negros in their homes during the next election.

That last hour is a total mindfuck to rival The Holy Mountain or Holy Motors, let me tell you. Ideally, you try to cast yourself in the same mindset of a person watching the movie contemporaneously, and you just can’t. You can’t erase the image of blacks on the legislature floor leering at white women in the balcony when intermarriage is legalized. You can’t forget Gus the Rogue Negro (obviously a white man in blackface, as are any actors who come into contact with white actresses), stalking the teenaged Cameron girl, who leaps from a cliff rather than endure his touch. And it is really hard to forget sweet little Lillian Gish telling her Klan boyfriend, “Kill one for me!”

Birth of a Nation is culturally important, but it’s nightmarish. It may be even more culturally important, for just that reason.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

el_puente_sobre_el_rio_kwai_1957_7My decompression from The Birth of a Nation involved some more twisted ethics, but ethics that were slightly easier to relate to.

Based on a true story, it involves a platoon of captured British soldiers sent to a WWII Japanese labor camp in Siam, where they are supposed to, you guessed it, build a railroad bridge over the Kwai river. Our main conflict comes from the insistence of the camp’s commandant, Major Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that the British officers also work alongside the enlisted men, which Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) rightly points out is a violation of the Geneva Convention. This insolence gets Nicholson thrown in The Oven, and his officers in The Punishment Hut until they give in to Saito’s demands. The soldiers, meanwhile, keep sabotaging the construction while the officers bake in the sun. I should mention that the American prisoner who actually starts the movie, Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the jungle, though nearly dying three times in the attempt.

Nicholson is made of incredibly stern stuff, and Saito finally finds an excuse to accede to his wishes under the auspices of a Japanese holiday. Once Nicholson sees what a wreck the bridge is, and what a rabble his men have become during his imprisonment, he decides that the best thing to do, to return discipline to his ranks and to show the Japanese what a British soldier can do, by God, is to build the bridge, and build it well. Saito, desperate to finish the bridge by his deadline, agrees, even conscripting his own men to construction work under the British officers, several of whom had built similar bridge in India.Nicholson becomes ever more obsessed (though in a genteel way) with the bridge’s completion, unaware that Shears has been basically blackmailed to make an unwilling journey back to the camp to blow up the bridge.

bridgeontheriverkwaiBridge gets fascinatingly complex in its character’s motivations; Saito sinking slowly into depression as his enemy does what he could not, to the point of planning seppuku after the bridge’s christening; Nicholson’s slow metamorphosis to slave driver, finally, ironically, putting his officers on the work force, and eventually even injured and sick men from the dispensary; and Sears, more or less forced – genteely, you gotta love the Brits – into the commando force and finding himself voluntarily risking his life once in the field.

William Holden always had an appealing vulnerability under his gruff handsomeness, and honestly should have been the only actor considered to play Shears (that didn’t stop them from offering it to Bogart, Grant, and Olivier). Like Fred MacMurray, Alec Guinness was, to this point, mainly known as a comedy star. The role of Nicholson had been offered to Charles Laughton (!), Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, James Mason… the musical chairs even extended to directors. Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks… only eventually David Lean. The two screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foremen, both Blacklisted. It is amazing that this movie exists at all, much less turned out to be the masterpiece it is.

Research finds the story a bit more interesting, though less cinematic. The real Major Saito was apparently a much more enlightened gentleman, negotiating with his charges for their work duties. In fact, the real-life version of Colonel Nicholson testified on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal! Two bridges were made, both were bombed by Allied forces, but the sturdier one was repaired, and much like Nicholson’s dream, is still being used today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

11160955_oriEventually, I had to run up against another movie I just couldn’t love, though lots of people do.

Thief of Bagdad is an Alexander Korda production, impossible to trace to one director, as Korda kept switching them in and out like drill bits. It’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale concerning a kindly ruler, Ahmed (John Justin), who befriends the title character, Abu (Sabu) when he is deposed by the evil vizier, the sorcerer Jafar (Conrad Veidt). Both men are in love with the princess (June Duprez) of a neighboring city, and when magically blinding Ahmed and turning Abu into a dog doesn’t work, Jafar shipwrecks them with a summoned storm. At which point things get weird.

Abu finds a genie (Rex Ingram) who flies him to the top of the world to steal a jewel called The All-Seeing Eye, which works like a magic TV, allowing him to locate Ahmed. The treacherous genie then sends Ahmed to Bagdad and execution, and strands  Abu on top of a mountain, As luck would have it, Abu’s destruction of the Eye of the World in a rage unlocks the gate to the Land of Legends, where the Thief gets the tools he need to rescue his friend.

2510033843_e3031446e3I don’t expect fantasy movies to necessarily be tightly constructed, but Thief’s plot feels sadly thrown together – I really missed my three act structure. The movie’s harried production – it had to move from its British studio during the Blitz into America – along with the directoral musical chairs works against it. But if I was somewhat bemused by the movie’s fevered insistence to cram nearly all the fantastical elements into the final third, it was fun to watch it while pretending to be a young Ray Harryhausen and see the inspiration for the green men and the six-armed goddess in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

And Rex Ingram is a fine genie. Conrad Veidt excelled at playing villains with a soul, and Jafar, who would be able to hypnotize the Princess into loving him, but knows this would be a hollow victory, qualifies. The relatively new Technicolor process gets a real workout, and we see the first instance of the blue-screen technology that would enable traveling mattes for years to come, and the matte lines that would plague visual effects artists for the next fifty years.

There were more Arabian Nights-style movies over the years, but none matched the scope and fancy of Thief of Bagdad until that young Harryhausen fellow in the theater started making his own movies. For that, if nothing else, Thief of Bagdad gets props.

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part two

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Poster - Rio Bravo_01Earlier this year, in the course of another challenge, I said that The Searchers is likely the Ultimate Western. That’s the sort of generalization that gives you pause, once you’ve made it, over and over again, as you think of other movies that might fit that position just as well. Its scope is not as broad, but that’s also a strength for Rio Bravo, the Other Ultimate Western.

This was director Howard Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus following the critical and box office failure of Land of the Pharaohs. He had some things to prove to a lot of people, not least of all himself, and the result is a movie that is so darned good he took some its best parts and re-used them again seven years later in El Dorado.

Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) locks up Joe Burdette (an astonishingly young – and thin – Claude Akins), the younger brother of the local ruthless cattle baron, for murder. This prompts big brother to seal up the town and start importing gunslingers to free Joe before the federal Marshall arrives in six days. Chance recruits his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) an alcoholic struggling to regain his sobriety and self-respect, and eventually Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a preternaturally calm and competent young gun. He’s already got cantankerous cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan, sans teeth) overseeing the jail with a shotgun and an unending stream of invective.

rio_bravoInto this siege situation Hawks also drops Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a peripatetic gambler who chooses to settle in Rio Bravo when she takes a shine to the Sheriff. Dickinson here is lucky to get the role of a typical Hawks woman, preferring the company of men to her own sex, easily the equal of any of them. Wayne the actor seems honestly uncomfortable with the idea of a love affair with a woman who is almost literally half his age, and that somehow makes The Duke adorable. But this movie also marks an important turning point in his career – Wayne is obviously no longer a young man, and here begins the line of movies dealing with that fact, through the 60s and eventually into True Grit and Rooster Cogburn.

Martin and Nelson seem like stunt casting, and that may be true in Nelson’s case, at the height of his popularity in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but Martin definitely worked hard for the role. It benefited his acting chops considerably when Hawks wouldn’t let him get away with his usual nightclub drunk schtick – Martin sinks his teeth into the uglier, pathetic parts of drying out, and when he finally gets his mojo back, it is a triumphant, memorable moment.

It’s easy to fantasize that you can pick and choose between the casts of this and El Dorado and swap out Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, James Caan for Ricky Nelson… but truthfully, both movies are just fine the way they are.

The Big Sleep (1946)

el_sueno_eterno_1946_2It’s really ideal when you can follow a Hawks movie with a Hawks movie.

Humphrey by-God Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, prototypical private eye. He’s hired by the aging and slowly dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his final role) to clear up the matter of some gambling debts and possible blackmail against one or both of his wild daughters (the elder of whom is Lauren Bacall). Of course, since this is from a Raymond Chandler novel, nothing is as simple as it first seems.

Rather famously, The Big Sleep was held over from its original release date to A) clear out Warner Brothers’ inventory of war movies when World War II ended earlier than Warner had scheduled; and B) to punch up Lauren Bacall’s character, reshooting several scenes and adding others a year after the original shooting had wrapped.  1944’s To Have and Have Not was a tremendous hit thanks in large part to the Hawksian chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (and obvious sexual heat, needless to say).

But you don’t monkey with the structure of a complex plot like Chandler’s without paying a price, and The Big Sleep‘s gets pretty muddled to accommodate the new dynamics. I was thankful I’d gone out of my way to see the more linear 1978 version with Robert Mitchum a couple of years back, it helped anchor me through the turmoil.

Still, it’s a good ride. Past the banter betwixt its two stars, you could spot this as a Hawks movie by the incidental characters: Marlowe keeps running into charming, attractive women doing their jobs – in one case, a normally male job like a cabbie – doing them well, and with enough smarts and sass to impress Marlowe. probably past their time in the story (were it not for Bacall, if you catch my drift). Lucky goddamn Marlowe.

Beat the Devil (1953)

large_tmtx7hDqcZGYyQ8H76I7ZKOumgmI didn’t have another Hawks movie on tap, so instead I went for more Bogart.

Beat the Devil is an odd bird, and most people don’t seem to know what to make of it. You have a collection of four rogues headed by Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, and they’ve thrown in with Bogart to purchase some land in Africa that they suspect is rich in Uranium. This setup is complicated by the fact that they are marooned in Italy while their steamer is repaired or the captain sobers up – “More than a day, less than a fortnight.” Also complicating matters is a British couple, the Chelms: the stuffy husband and the brilliant but talkative wife (Jennifer Jones), who has an overactive imagination that leads the rogues down all sorts of false assumptive trails.

That isn’t complicated enough? Bogart and Jones fall in love, and oh, didn’t I mention Bogart is married to Gina Lollobrigida? Gina is an ardent Anglophile who falls for Mr. Chelm.

It gets even more complicated than that, but this is another movie that depends on the joy of discovery, so let me just leave it at that. This is a stellar spoof of adventure movies with foreign no-goodniks in pursuit of atomic gold, and honestly, the only thing missing is Sydney Greenstreet, who had retired in 1949, suffering from diabetes and Bright’s Disease (which had plagued him through most of his movie career). Robert Morley rises suitably to the occasion, however.

Matters weren’t helped by the movie posters proclaiming “The Bold Adventure That Beats them All!” “Adventure At Its Boldest! Bogart At His Best!” Nobody went into Beat The Devil expecting an hour and a half of banter so dry you could make a martini with it (Truman Capote is a credited writer). Everybody plays it deadly serious, making it even more hilarious. Bogart is smart enough to just lean back and let chaos reign around him. And did I mention the director was John Huston? Yeah, this nestles between Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick.

Beat the Devil is definitely an odd creature. Enjoyable, as long as you know what sort of movie you’re going to get. Have a nice three-minute clip from early on…

Stagecoach (1939)

Poster - Stagecoach (1939)_03Out of Hawks and Bogey, I might as well bookend this with more John Wayne, right?

Stagecoach marks a number of notable firsts. It’s John Ford’s first movie shot in Monument Valley, and the first of a long line of collaborations with John Wayne. Wayne had, by this time, made a slew of B-Westerns. That worked against him in the casting process, but when Gary Cooper wanted too much money, Ford finally got Wayne.

Stagecoach takes a basic dramatic premise and plays it for all its worth: Throw a bunch of disparate characters in an enclosed space, put that space in danger, and let events play out. The title coach is making a regularly scheduled run, complicated by the presence of Geronimo on the warpath. The cast includes an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) being  exiled from the town, and ditto a “fallen woman”, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose crimes are never elaborated upon, since it’s still 1939. There is also a woman trying desperately to meet up with her Cavalry officer husband, a roguish gambler who takes her under protective wing (John Carradine, superb as ever), a banker running away with a mining company’s payroll (it’s also still the Great Depression, so boo hiss at the Banker), and a whiskey salesman whose sample case is going to be decimated by the doctor. And then they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne) on the way. He’s escaped prison to avenge the murder of his family by the Plummer Brothers, and unfortunately for him, the Sheriff is riding shotgun on the coach.

That’s quite a cast, and I didn’t even mention Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. At this far remove, it is interesting to note that of this solid, often powerhouse group, Claire Trevor was at the time the box office draw.

stagemovieThe group dynamics shift throughout the journey, especially when the promised cavalry escorts keep getting called away to chase Geronimo. The scalawag Banker and the Officer’s Wife (and therefore The Gambler) want to keep pushing on, despite the danger – though the group is forced to shelter in place when the sickly wife is found to be pregnant and the doctor has to go into hyper-sober-up to get her through a difficult delivery, aided by the prostitute. During all this, the guileless and somewhat naive Ringo Kid falls for Dallas, thinking her just another lady; when they eventually arrive at their destination he’ll find out different, and it won’t matter.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to even outline the complexities of character and plot breezed through by Stagecoach in a mere 96 minutes. Viewing an extra on the Criterion DVD, a video essay by Ted Gallagher about Ford’s visual style, you find out how Ford threw exposition and character development simply by where he chose to point the camera in any given scene, and you realize that you are dealing with a director working several degrees above most of us. Tremendously humbling.

There are many, many reasons to watch Stagecoach, but I’m going to instead leave you with another first: the hat John Wayne wears as the Ringo Kid, he would wear in many another Western; its final appearance is as the beat-to-shit hat Chance wears in Rio Bravo, after the which the Duke finally retired it and kept it under glass in his house.

I love it when we can circle back like that.

A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part one

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

With the certain knowledge that I have to work the occasional evening, I started early, trying to get a buffer going.

Faust (1926)

Faust-PosterLike any good horror nerd, I was familiar with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror, but remained sadly ignorant of his other works. After the phenomenal success of The Last Laugh, Murnau was given carte blanche for his next project, and the result was Faust, at the time the most expensive movie ever produced in Germany… until Metropolis, which we’ll get to later.

Based on various tales in German folklore, but most especially on Goethe’s play, Faust employs a setup well-known to readers of the Book of Job: Satan makes a bet with an archangel that he can corrupt Faust, a decent and devout man of learning. The Devil, of course, is a big cheater and sets loose the Black Death in Faust’s village. When he cannot cure the disease, Faust in desperation tries a ritual in one of his ancient books, summoning the Devil in the form of Mephisto.

3242077879-1Mephisto is an excellent marketer, offering Faust first a free trial day of unlimited power, then finagling to have the day end when the aged Faust, newly imbued with youth, is about to bed The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Needless to say, Hell has a new customer. Eventually Faust returns to his home town, and falls in love with the shy maiden Gretchen. Of course, Mephisto put his powers to use, and being a demon, manages to frame Faust for murder and totally destroy Gretchen’s life. The demon has forgotten about the power of love, however, which prevails no matter how much misfortune he piles upon it.

The imagery in the first act of Faust is stunning, puppets representing War, Pestilence and Famine on demon horses riding in the sky, Satan nestling  Faust’s village in enormous bat wings.  Moreover, the acting is surprisingly subtle for a silent movie. I had initially thought young and old Faust were played by two different actors, but no, that is Gösta Ekman in both roles. Emil Jannings already had a stellar career in movies when he starred in The Last Laugh, and as Satan and Mephisto, he is not only terrific, he is also obviously having the time of his life. Though Murnau wanted Lillian Gish for the role of Gretchen, he eventually cast a stand-in named Camilla Horn, launching a career that would last into the 90s.

Jannings & Murnau

Jannings & Murnau

This is, in short, a marvelous movie, leaving Nosferatu in the dust. We’ll leave this for a moment, but we’ll find it a bit of a touchstone.

Here, have the first four minutes:

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

man_with_movie_camera_poster_3Nothing less than the great-grandfather of Koyaanisqatsi. Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his brother attempt to break down the linearity of boring old story-centered cinema with this document of  “a day in the life of a city”. Shot over three years in (actually) three cities – Moscow, Odessa and Kiev – the movie uses a dizzying variety of techniques, dutch angles, double exposures, time-lapse, even some stop-motion animation, and some very innovative editing to sweep the viewer away and shake him up, with no stories or context to distract from the images. All in 63 minutes.

I watched the Kino International version on Netflix Instant, which employs a soundtrack composed by Michael Nyman in 2002. The original score was apparently as experimental as the movie itself, featuring voices, orchestra instruments, and an electric buzzer or two, rather reminding me of some John Cage pieces. Nyman’s score is dynamic and forceful, feeling a little Glassian at moments, cementing Man With A Movie Camera‘s relationship to the Godfrey Reggio’s later Qatsi movies.

Here, I found an excerpt with the Nyman score:

Triumph of the Will (1935)

triumph-of-the-will-movie-poster-1934-1020198741Back to the Germans. This is the fairly infamous documentary of the 1934 Congress of the Nazi Party held in Nuremburg. It is rightfully held up as one of the first and one of the best propaganda films ever made. It is also one of the best documentaries.

Given total support by the Party, director Leni Riefenstahl controlled a crew of almost 200 people, 40 of which were cameramen. Trenches were dug, tracks were laid, special cranes were constructed, all so Leni could get the shots she needed. Some speeches were re-shot later, but overall, it is a testament to her abilities that there are huge, amazing crowd scenes – the congress was attended by 700,000 people – and yet, in only one instance, could I see one of those many cameras.

Triumph is only six minutes shy of two hours, and it can, fact, eventually get boring – damn, but fascists love their parades – but the final rally is amazing. The best part, for me, is seeing the uncut footage of Hitler’s closing speech. We’ve seen this footage excerpted so many times in various programs, that it’s quite refreshing to see it intact, and to witness those little moments when Hitler steps back from the podium to let the crowd roar, and you see Hitler – not the icon, not the image, but the man – you see Hitler, eyes toward his speech, silently contemplating, listening to the crowd, and thinking to himself, “Yes, that was quite good, wasn’t it?”

Reifenstahl’s techniques are still being used almost a century later; this movie is certainly worth a look, for many reasons. Like Man With A Movie Camera, its major value, outside their many innovations, is as a time capsule, a slice of a particular time and place, preserved for all time.

Reifenstahl also actively lobbied for the role of Gretchen in Faust. Who knows what might have happened had she gotten it?

Here’s that final speech, with some overblown music added:

Metropolis (1927)

metropolis-poster…and back to the silents. You’re allowed a bit of cheating in the Ebert Challenge (no more than 10 re-watches), but I’m not even sure this qualifies – it has been years since I’ve seen Metropolis, but this was certainly the first time I’d seen  the restored version.

In a sentence I am really growing weary of typing, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a dismal flop on first release, and it’s running time was scissored down over and over again. Restoration had variable success until the beginning of the 21st century, when a chance mention led to the discovery of a 16mm print of the original in Argentina. It had apparently been bought by a South American company for distribution at its first viewing, and somewhere in the 20th century it had been transferred to 16mm when the nitrate 35mm print became too unstable. But it had 25 minutes of the missing 30 in somewhat salvageable condition.

Kino’s edition looks astoundingly good; the insertion of the recovered footage perforce must stick out like an over-exposed, streaky sore thumb, but even that is helpful in gauging what exactly has been returned, allowing the viewer to piece together the reasoning behind the edits. An entire subplot involving “The Thin Man”, a spy sent after young Federson by his father, as the young man becomes increasingly infatuated with the under-city of the Workers, and their Messiah, Maria.

metropolis05Still missing is the scene in mad scientist Rotwang’s house, where the elder Federson struggles with his old rival and frees Maria from his clutches; this is now explained in an intertitle card. I seem to recall in my first viewing only seeing Maria running from the house, with no explanation of how she escaped.

My major realization in seeing this, so hard upon the heels of Faust, is how much more I appreciated Murnau over Lang, and I had long treasured Lang. But Murnau’s work is full of subtlety and human moments. Lang is far more interested in melodrama and grand, sweeping motions. As my friend Mark Konecny pointed out, for better or worse, Lang was the future of cinema, and kept making movies until 1960. Most of them were pretty darned good. Murnau worked more slowly, and only made three sound movies before his untimely death in a traffic accident in 1931.

So once again I get to end one of these with a “what if-?” or an “if only-” and hustle myself back to my viewing chair. It’s high time I watched some American fare.