P: The Phantom Carriage (1921)
I always like to slip in a silent movie or two in these exercises, so why not an acclaimed one? Charlie Chaplin claimed it was the best movie ever made, and Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan. Based on a popular novel of the time by Selma Langerlöf, the basis of the story is a legend that whoever dies last on New Year’s Eve must drive Death’s carriage for the next year, picking up recently deceased souls and delivering them… well, that’s left unsaid, but for this unfortunate Designated Driver, “each day is like a hundred years.”
This story is told to professional wastrel David Holm (played by director Victor Shölström), who nonetheless is spending New Years Eve drinking with his pals, leaving his destitute wife and two children in their hovel, and worst of all, ignoring entreaties to come to the death bed of Sister Edit, a Salvation Army worker who, for some reason, loves Holm (even though he unwittingly gave her the tuberculosis which is killing her). It’s this last bit of heartlessness that gets him into a fight with his two drunken pals, one of whom crashes a jug over his head, and leaves him for dead, as the titular carriage drives up and comes to gather his soul.
To no one’s surprise, the driver is the older reprobate who first told David about the Phantom Carriage, and who blames himself for the younger man’s life going so disastrously off the rails. David is to be the new driver, he is told, but first he has to relive every twist and turn of his wasted existence, a life spent mainly visiting misery on whoever dared try to love and improve him.
The story relies on a lot of heavy melodrama, but it is remarkably compelling and well-presented melodrama; Shölström manages to make Holm a man worth redeeming, even though he spends most of the picture being an unrepentant dickweed. His final realization that he has been one of the most worthless, hateful men alive is truly heartbreaking, and if the denouement seems a little too sugary, a bit too Spielberg – well, as with Spielberg, the emotion is there, too, and only the most cynical or bored viewer will not find themselves transported along.
Best movie ever made? I may disagree, but damn, is it a good one.
Q: Quest for Fire (1981)
1981 was seemingly the year of the cinematic caveman, though this was the only serious offering (the others being Ringo Starr’s Caveman and the first portion of History of the World, Part One). I recall everybody talking about it. It just wasn’t my thing, as it were.
In case you’re like me: This takes place 80,000 years ago, on the cusp between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, when fire was a valuable, essential commodity, and tribes kept firepits going constantly, to keep the valuable element at hand. One tribe loses their home cave – and their fire – in a turf war, and three of the tribesmen (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nicolas Kadi) strike out to find some more. They eventually steal some from a tribe of nomad cannibals, and in doing so, pick up Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a member of a much more advanced tribe who was being kept in the larder. Ika develops a sweet spot for McGill’s Naoh, who does seem to have a bit more on the ball than his fellows. When Ika runs off to her village, Naoh follows, to be perplexed and amazed as he is initiated into their ways… for one thing, they know how to make fire, at will.
A hell of a lot of effort went into this movie – three years of pre-production and funding, one year of shooting – and I really feel like a heel for not liking it more. The different tribes are cleverly designed, the makeup is superb (Oscar-winning, in fact), and there are a lot of nice little touches, my favorite being the fact that Ika knows how to laugh whereas her more brutal traveling companions do not (they do learn, however). But no, not even naked Rae Dawn Chong could get me totally into its camp. I do, however, like that this is Ron Perlman’s first movie, and even as a caveman, all his Ron Perlman-isms are fully formed and intact.
The different caveman languages were created by no less than Anthony Burgess. It seems that on my DVD there is an option for turning on subtitles, but come on. That would be cheating. Even if I do wonder what the hell Ika is chattering about practically the whole movie.
R: The Rules of the Game (1939)
It seems you can’t be a film buff without seeing The Rules of the Game. It somehow became a touchstone, the item with which all film educations begin, or something. Imagine my surprise, when I finally saw it, that it is basically a sex farce.
Most of Rules of the Game takes place during a getaway at a chateau, with the rich gunning down a lot of innocent animals as the proles beat the bushes and finishing up with a grand masquerade and talent show. Every man on the rich side of the line seems to love an Austrian woman, Christine (Nora Gregor) married to the host, the Marquis de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This includes a freshly-minted hero aviator, his friend Octave (director Jean Renoir himself) – who is also the childhood friend of Christine (and who loves her). The Marquis, realizing how much he loves his wife, attempts to disentangle himself from his mistress. Christine, finding out about this long-standing affair, decides to have an affair of her own. All this is mirrored on the domestic side by a roguish new manservant (and former poacher) flirting with Christine’s saucy maid, who is married to the estate’s gameskeeper. It all comes to a climax during the masquerade ball, with blows being exchanged and gun-wielding husbands chasing lovers through the bemused bourgeoisie.
I’m not quite sure if Renoir is attempting a scathing satire of the idle rich in Pre-World War II France, as the form of the sex farce necessitates a certain level of caricature in all the roles. There is drollery aplenty, to be sure, and I certainly enjoyed it; I’m just unsure as to why its position is so elevated.
To be sure, it came that close to being a Lost Movie. A terrible flop at the box office, Renoir kept trimming it down. It was banned in France a month after its release (bad for morale, it seems) and then the Nazis invaded, and they hated it even more, burning all the prints that could be found. Then Allied bombers destroyed the original negatives. Renoir fans managed to find enough pieces of the film to reconstruct it in the 1950s, and Renoir confirms that at present, only one scene is missing, a minor one of his character gossiping. Perhaps the fact that it was unavailable and presumed lost added to its prestige.
Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy it, and would recommend it. I’m just not sure precisely why this is considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
S: Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom
Last year, I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights. I loved them. Pasolini yearned for a time before commercialism, before even love and sex were made mere commodities. Though frequently shocking in their content, they were also just as frequently sweet, sentimental, and honestly earthy. In one of those perverse twists of fortune, they inspired a spate of soft-and-not-so-softcore porn movies dressed up as classic literature; Pasolini’s non-commercialism made commercial.
So it’s small wonder, really, that he then made one of the most angry, confrontational movies of all time.
I really have no truck with movies that only serve as a catalog of atrocities. Likely, the closest I’ve come is Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheikhs, which was enough to convince me that I didn’t need to see any of the others. A Serbian Film, Philosophy of a Knife, any number of low-budget horror movies that revel in sickness, the Guinea Pig movies… hell I’m not even interested in any of the Human Centipede flicks, and I have people swearing by them.
And yet, here I am watching Salo.
The story is taken from the Marquis deSade’s infamous tract of the subtitle’s name, transported to the final days of the fascist regime in Italy (Salo is a town where the fascists had their last stronghold. Pasolini’s own brother was killed there). Four men, representing the power elite, the “Men Who Got Us Into This Mess”: The Duke, The Judge, The Bishop and The President, abduct nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls, and hole up in a villa, determined that there will be no limits to what they can do in their final days. One boy is shot trying to escape; one girl commits suicide the first day. They will be the lucky ones.
Much is made of the rampant nudity, and the frequent sex acts, but those are never seen in any explicit detail. Every agency that has condemned Salo as pornography is missing the point entirely; this movie is not about sex, it is about power, and the horrific misuse of it (“Fascists are the only real anarchists,” The Duke says. “Our power allows us the freedom to do anything.”). Anyone who feels Salo is a turn-on, well… don’t turn your back on them.
Facts never stopped anyone, though. I recall back in the 80s, the local repertory art house, The River Oaks Theater, showed it and was shut down for showing pornography, the management arrested. Yes, a good old-fashioned raid, cheese it the cops, everything. Oh, Texas, I love you, but you will probably never stop embarrassing me.
Pasolini drops some surprises in as we navigate the circles of the movie, inspired by Dante; odd moments of levity, fleeting, very fleeting, moments of beauty… and a whole bunch of horror, unredeemed by any justice or retribution. There is also this: I attempted to read deSade’s book back in college, and there is one thing Pasolini gets absolutely right: after a while deSade just becomes cartoonish and tedious. Supposedly it was a pretty jocular shoot, with the numerous teens having a grand time in their first movie, playing pranks on each other. It wasn’t until the finished movie came out of the editing room that they realized how grim was Salo, how bleak and grueling.
I have now seen enough shit-eating to last me two lifetimes. I can’t recommend it. You’ll know if you’re ready for it or not.
(Also intriguingly: although nobody ever uses the Amazon links I’ve been putting up – still, I’m determined to keep up the experiment – the Associates site will not let me make a link to the Criterion Collection blu-ray disc I viewed. Hm.)
T: Thor – The Dark World
I knew I was going to need something fairly uncomplicated and hopefully ridiculously fun after Salo, and thankfully, for the sake of my mental well-being, The Dark World delivered.
I wasn’t wild about the first Thor – for a movie that took place in three different universes, it still somehow felt very small. Dark World is determined to be epic as hell – starting in pre-Odin Asgardian history, as Odin’s dad fights Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his Dark Elves, who are trying to snuff out all light in all worlds. Malekith loses, and goes into hiding until his Ultimate Weapon can be recovered. Which it is, by Thor’s mortal girlfriend, Jane Foster. Of course.
All our old faves are back, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets more and better screen time; the doomed bond between Thor and Loki is given its best treatment yet, and Jane Foster is elevated above mere damsel in distress status. I still want more Volstagg, but I am always going to want more Volstagg. The thing that both of the Thor movies have excelled at is presenting super science that is indistinguishable from magic – probably to sidestep the thorny concept that the Asgardians are actual gods, and prevent picket lines from sullying a Disney product.
Best of all, Dark World wraps its plot up quite nicely and still has me wanting to see what happens next.
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