mavieI’m not sure exactly when it was that I decided I wanted a Pug. I had always been a big fan of the squashed-face breeds, ever since a childhood encounter with a terrifying-looking but incredibly friendly and good-natured English Bulldog. I decided I always wanted to keep something around that was uglier than me. Wait, I think it was actually during my first viewing of Dune, when I started noticing little details to distract me from my Frank Herbert-fan dismay. During a battle scene, noticing people not only carrying weapons but Pugs, because in a life-or-death fight, you must always save the Imperial Ugly Dogs.

But purebreeds are expensive, and I was warned away from them because of the health problems inherent due to excessive in-breeding over the centuries. I gave up on the idea. Then in 2002, my wife, Lisa, was in a conference with one of her students’ mother, and the lady had to take a phone call. She listened to the other end of the line a moment, and said, “No.” Then a bit later, “No. My kids already have enough animals. I don’t want a Pug.” And Lisa said, “Wait a minute.”

Lisa and MavisSo the Pug’s current parents brought her over to check out the house and us. They were moving to a place that did not allow animals, and they were hoping to get her into a nice house with a backyard where she could play, or else they would have to surrender her to a shelter. We’re nice people, and my son, Max, at that time age 4, thought she was greatest thing ever. So the transfer was made, hands were shaken, and we were given food, treats and toys. I am told her mother managed to hold it together and didn’t start crying until they got a block away.

At the time, she was called Clover, because she was born on St. Patrick’s Day. Lisa thought that was a horrible name, and re-christened her Mavis, which was later lengthened to Mavis Louise, because that is how my wife rolls (It was later shortened to “May-May”, because that is also how she rolls).

There was a period of adjustment, to be sure. Mavis kept running away, the first few weeks, looking for what she knew were her real parents, and I would have to chase her down, sometimes a block or two away. But as time passed, she realized this was where the food was, and where the love was, and we started the second phase of our relationship. This was aided immeasurably by Mavis meeting our then-neighbor’s dog, a little white furry foo-foo piece of fluff, and the two became pals immediately. They even dug a hole under the fence so they could visit each other. Fortunately the neighbor thought that was grand.

Halloween Mermaid; She liked it better when she found out how much attention it got her

Halloween Mermaid; She liked it better when she found out how much attention it got her

Pugs are very sweet-natured and incredibly energetic. They are known as being a lot of dog in a small package. Our house is two stories, and the first floor is arranged in a circle around the staircase, living room into kitchen into dining room into living room, and whenever anyone new came in – or heck, even anyone familiar – Mavis would get so excited she would run around the circle, sometimes twice, before she exploded with joy, or something.

I walked her every morning before work, and she would constantly strain at the end of the leash, practically choking herself with her collar, because we weren’t getting there fast enough. I bought a harness to fasten around her sturdy chest, and one of those extendable leashes. I used to laugh at how adept she got at stepping into that harness.

Mavis was the very essence of a lap dog. Whenever I settled down to watch a movie, she would leap into my lap, get settled, and soon be snoring contentedly. Pug snores also belie their relatively small size. Every living thing in the house at that time snored, so she fit right in. I didn’t mention to my wife that her snores sounded just like Mavis’, because I’m not an idiot. Max took Mavis into his bedroom every night. He didn’t seem to mind the snoring. Swear to God, kids can sleep through anything.

sleepy palsMy niece gave me one of those magnets you can put on the back of your car, that said “My Pug Is Smarter Than Your Honor Student”. I put it on my car to humor her, but that was far from the truth. Mavis was the sweetest, most loving creature on the face of the Earth, but she was dumber than a box of rocks. That huge head held a brain that was, I am certain, perfectly smooth. I didn’t care. I’m a fairly intelligent guy, and smarts just lead to unhappiness and woe. My Pug-dog was relentlessly happy, and we lived to see that Pug grin.

santa pugYears passed. We got older, and so did she. She wasn’t able to jump up into my lap anymore, so I gladly lifted her up. More and more often, she wanted to end her walk early, and sometimes I had to carry her home. Eventually she grew to prefer just going out into the backyard, doing her business, and barking at the local squirrels.

lap dogsMy sister-in-law lives in the woods of West Texas on the Dry Frio River, with a bunch of strays she has adopted. One week my wife brought home Brownie, a mutt who was the smallest of the pack, and was getting bullied and starved by the others. Brownie was a traumatized little dog, and didn’t trust Mavis; but Mavis only wanted to make friends and play. Eventually she won Brownie over. The dark side to that was that Max took over Brownie as his dog, and started taking her into his bedroom at night instead of Mavis, who could no longer jump into, or safely jump down from, his bed.

profileI felt for my poor little Pug but Lisa didn’t want her in the bedroom, and since I eject the cats from said bedroom every night (I have a thing about things walking on me at night, ie., I tend to scream and hurl them across the room), I couldn’t really complain. We set a bed in the upstairs hallway for her, and by God she would laboriously climb up that stairway every night to be close to us in her sleep.

The trip down the stairs was getting more and treacherous, too. I would try to be downstairs when she attempted it, because the final three steps always resulted in a blind scramble, and stumble, and crashing into the wall. Her eyesight had begun to fail, too; too often I felt the heartbreak of watching her run into a wall or door. She didn’t always make it to the pee pad we laid out for her upstairs, or perhaps she couldn’t find it, or perhaps she didn’t care that much any more. Lisa lobbied to keep her in the kitchen, with its more easily cleaned tile floor, and I was forced to admit she was right.

pug wrasslinWe set up baby gates at the two doors. Mavis adjusted to this quickly enough. One of the gates was next to the back door, so it was easy to let her and Brownie out to do their business and romp and do whatever it is dogs like to do. Mostly sun themselves until it gets too hot, which doesn’t take too long in Houston.  She usually found her way back and scratched at the door to be let in.

Then, one day, while I held the screen door open for Brownie and Mavis to go out, it happened: Mavis slipped, and lay on the concrete slab outside the door, convulsing. I scooped her up off the rough concrete and moved her over to the grass. She peed all over me in transit, but I hardly noticed. I laid her on the grass and stroked her head, thinking, God if this is it, please make it as painless as possible. After a few minutes she sat up, then stood up and waddled across the yard to smell the flowers.

old pugA couple of days later, Max was home because they were testing at his school, and it wasn’t his day to test. Mavis had another seizure, and Brownie started howling, and Max reasonably enough freaked out and called his mother, who called me. I was already leaving work. I got home and Max was sitting with her; she was in her bed, and seemed alright, but over the last few weeks her breathing had become more labored. As someone with no appreciable nose myself, I can tell you that breathing is a chore anyway, but this was something new, and more difficult. She had been spending more and more time in her bed, only lying down to sleep. The rest of the time she sat up, because breathing was easier.

I relieved Max and sat with her for an hour until she went to sleep. I went upstairs to get a little sleep, because I had a meeting to cover that night. That seemed to be it for the seizures – that we witnessed, anyway – but I cleaned up a couple of pools of urine that were streaked with blood. One night Lisa slept over at a friend’s house because she had just moved and her dogs were still in the kennel, so she needed company. I had a bit of surprise the next morning when I got up, and there, sleeping in the bedroom across from the master, was a certain grizzled old pug-dog.

I gently picked her up and carried her downstairs. One of the baby gates had fallen over – on top of her bed – and she had climbed up the long, impossibly long staircase, just like old times, to be near us. She started struggling to be put down, because she didn’t like to be held too long anymore – I think it made breathing even more difficult.

The next week work was ridiculous – I had my morning hours, then running support at City meetings in the evening. The Wednesday night City Council meeting was a real corker, moved to a larger venue so angry citizens could complain about – well, let’s just say it was Classic Not In My Back Yard and leave it at that. My call time was 5pm. The meeting adjourned at 3:06am the next morning, and equipment still needed to be broken down and transported back to home base. It was almost 5am before I got home.

Needless to say, I slept in. When I got up and went to work, Mavis was in the kitchen, not in her bed, but lying on the floor under the dishwasher. That wasn’t too uncommon; it was right under an air-conditioning vent, and Pugs are notoriously hot little dogs. I petted her and went to work for a truncated day.

When I came back, she was still, there, and I realized what this actually was.

I quickly changed out of my work clothes and ran back to her, sitting down on the floor next to her. I grabbed a handful of paper towels on my way, because the tears were already coming, and I knew there were going to be a lot more.  I didn’t try to move her, I didn’t want to make things worse. I just sat there, crying and stroking her, telling her how much I loved her, how beautiful she was, how she was Daddy’s Pretty Girl, and it was okay if she had to leave, she didn’t have to stay if it was too hard. Eventually, Lisa and Max came home from school, and found us there. Max tenderly touched her back, Lisa stroked her head and said, “May-May?” and she moved her head once, and stopped breathing.

She was just hanging on to say goodbye to everybody.

my chair nowI’m not sure how long I sat there, my hand on her cooling back, still stroking it as if she could feel it in the Beyond. Finally, I got up. Lisa borrowed a shovel from our neighbor and the three of us started digging a hole in the back yard.

It’s good to have physical labor to do at a time like this. I was able to think about something else as we cut through roots and dug out discarded brick and rebar from the previous owner’s failed attempt at a herb garden. Finally it was deep enough, and Lisa wrapped Mavis in a tea towel – “Blue, to match her eyes” – and brought her out, because I couldn’t. Seeing those poor, gray lifeless legs as she carried her across the yard really brought home the finality of all this. She laid Mavis in the grave. I tossed a handful of dirt into it, and my family followed suit. We took turns filling in the grave, then we held hands while Lisa said a few words, because, again… I couldn’t.

While Max cleaned off the shovel to return it to the neighbor, I went upstairs, closed my office door, and gave myself up to the wracking sobs I couldn’t before. When I finally came downstairs, Lisa was cleaning the kitchen. It looked so empty without a little sausage-shaped dog with a curly tail, sitting in her bed, or maybe sidling over while I was cooking to see if I could spare some chicken, or hamburger. I usually could. I put the baby gates in the garage. They weren’t needed anymore.

sunbathThey say that dogs were put on the Earth to teach us that unconditional love exists, and to show us what it looks like. Mavis was part of my life, a part of my family for 12 years. Max can’t really remember a time without her.  I miss her. I miss her reedy little bark, I miss her smile, I miss her stench when she went too long without a bath, I miss her snoring, I miss her sneezing, I miss that bizarre sound, between a bark and a howl, that she made when I came home too late at night. I miss her sitting at the top of the stairs, looking down into the living room, trying to look like the Hound of the Baskervilles but failing because she was a lovable little pug dog with a goofy face. I miss going into the kitchen and having her immediately start hoovering and snurfling around while I misquoted a line from the show that Lisa and I met during, saying “Pug dog, you are hideously in the way.”

I miss my May-May. I miss her so much.

It will get better. I know it will. Well, at least, it will get easier. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a beloved animal, and probably not the last. But I should only live so long to know this love and sorrow again, and – what would be better – to love as much as a certain little squashed-face dog, who stole my heart and took a little piece, just the tiniest little piece, but such a painful piece – of my heart with her. That would be an accomplishment.
Rest well, Pugnacious. I’ll see you in heaven.

 Daddys Pretty GirlMavis Louise Williams
aka Daddy’s Pretty Girl


“I’m dainty. Daddy said so.”


Talk Among Yourselves

Last week was rough. This week is going to be rougher.

My third job (of four, because as we all know I am a taker) is audio support of the televised city meetings on the local Municipal channel – what I refer to as doing my part for the transparency of government. Two such meetings blew up last week, and the debris is landing this week. For the School Board, a literal turf war over whether or not to spend the remaining money from a bond on synthetic turf for the stadium. City Council is getting involved (this is one of the very few Municipal School Districts in the nation).

City Council is also going to receive part two of public acrimony from a Planning and Zoning meeting last week; citizens are outraged that a light industrial building is going up near their neighborhood. I’d often heard of the phenomenon of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), but this was my first opportunity to witness it. Two and a half hours of talking in circles, threats (I love people threatening to “vote out” a board manned by appointees), and shouting down people trying to defend themselves. It was the opposite of fun.

So the Mayor declared that the City Council meeting that would have the final say on this would be moved to a larger venue, meaning that our crew would have to set up cameras and all the other necessary equipment, and another day of my week vanished.

Spanish_Godzilla_2014_PosterI had another post prepared, which went into much more detail about my woebegone life, but you know what? Nobody wants to hear that crap. I didn’t get to watch any movies last week, and I won’t be able to watch any this week (miracles may happen. Who knows?). But I did get to watch Godzilla today, so I’m in a good mood. I’m dumping the longer, downer version of this post and moving on.

I hope you have a better week than me, unmarred by political infighting and mobs with torches and pitchforks. If you’re at all interested in giant monster movies or disaster movies, go see Godzilla – I really feel it is the best Godzilla movie since the very first one.

See you on the other side, amigos.

Quality Continues

I suppose, if you take a look at my works (ye mighty, and tremble), you might think that all I watch are bad movies. After all, I wrote for many years a site called The Bad Movie Report (hello, Web 1.0, if not.05). That part of my branding grew so ingrained that when I tried to write about something I thought was good, the e-mails would come in “How dare you even talk about [redacted] it’s not a bad movie!” Small wonder I eventually walked away. I’m claustrophobic; I don’t like being boxed in.

Just like everyone else, I enjoy a good movie. I just disagree at times about what constitutes a “good movie”.

This means there are holes in my education. Some -perhaps more than I would care to admit – are due to my pushing back against popular opinion. I don’t trust the masses. They can be kind of stupid. A lot more is due to availability. I can’t just turn on Netflix and watch Godard’s Breathless or Murnau’s The Last Laugh – I have to actively seek it out, find it, and probably pay for it, before I can even think of watching it.

So several years back, I started educating myself. I’m not getting any younger, and there are movies I heard about all my life, and have just never gotten around to seeing. I tried keeping lists of Movies I Will By God Be Watching This Year, and those didn’t really pan out. They’re still stuck on top of this page, if you want to see my failure. It’s just best for me to set aside a month and say, this month. The good stuff. I find Roger Ebert’s essays on The Great Movies a rock-solid starting place. Let us continue:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

stmattI had been looking forward to this for some time, ever since experiencing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life movies (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights). Having then experienced Pasolini’s controversial Salo, It seemed proper to finally indulge that desire. As Sean Frost pointed out, it’s not every director that has the guts to handle De Sade and the New Testament.

Here’s the thing: I had been led to believe that this was a fairly politicized version of Jesus, and given Pasolini’s personal views, I really expected such. But there really isn’t that much of it in evidence here: there is a special emphasis on Jesus’ speeches to the masses between the triumphant procession of Palm Sunday and Passover, where he is really socking it to the Pharisees and generally sealing his eventual fate, and therefore, the redemption of Mankind. It seems a pretty traditional movie version of the accepted text.

But here’s the other thing: I’m not entirely sure I trust the print I saw.

1964 Il Vangelo Set shotThe version that was available to me was on Amazon’s video service, and as a Prime member I had access to the movie for free. There are two things about that version that marred my experience: the first was a transparent watermark in the corner for Film Chest, which I was eventually almost able to ignore. The other thing, far more damaging, was that it was dubbed in English.

Yes, I have been completely spoiled by the Criterion Collection.

My suspicious nature concludes that anything could have been substituted in the dubbing process. I also sort of doubt my own little paranoid conspiracy theory, but the dub job does the movie absolutely no favors. Flavorless, flat and rushed, it’s like listening to the English dub of Speed Racer, but without the charm.

03_top10jesusfilmsThere’s still a lot to like in the movie, however. Pasolini was able to do amazing things with a period piece on a limited budget, bits of Italy and Morocco standing in for the Holy Lands, embracing a low-level, unflashy aesthetic that adds significantly to the realism. He also has an eye for the most remarkable faces for the camera to dwell upon, sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful, always real and honest.

I really did want my political Jesus, though. I wanted a movie version of Baigent, Lee and Lincoln’s The Messianic Legacy. Frustrated Gnostic that I am, I still feel Judas is getting a raw deal. But possibly Pasolini, lapsed Catholic though he was, still could not bring himself to totally smash some icons.

Buy Gospel According to St. Matthew at Amazon

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Honeymoon KillersYou know what? It is suddenly a week since I wrote that last part. When I said I couldn’t possibly do a formal Movie Challenge, a movie a night for a month, I was being way more prophetic that I thought possible.

The next flick I watched was The Honeymoon Killers, which is not on Ebert’s list, but it is in the Criterion Collection. It was my turn to pick a movie for the Daily Grindhouse podcast, and after two incredibly mediocre movies, we were ready for something better. It was a calculated risk on my part, because I’d never seen Honeymoon Killers, but I did know my first exposure to it was via one of Danny Peary’s Cult Movie books, so that seemed a fair indicator.

We were supposed to record last Wednesday, but Joe Cosby’s work had shifted into Hell Mode, so it was just going to be me and Jon Abrams. Then Jon’s workplace turned on him, and the podcast world doesn’t need an audio version of this blog. So it got delayed.

Les tueurs de la lune de mielThat is the shorthand version of last week. Crisis and exhaustion were the watchwords of the day, and when I managed to wind up in my easy chair, I didn’t have the energy for anything more involved than one of the many true crime shows on Netflix.

Speaking of true crime: The Honeymoon Killers is based on a true story – yeah, I know, we’ve heard that before – of a murder case from the late 40s to early 50s. TV show producer Warren Steibel and opera composer Leonard Kastle both hated the movie Bonnie & Clyde, feeling it was “too glamorous”, with even bloody violence given artistic merit. Steibel, wanting to branch out into movie production, managed to get $150,000 together – still peanuts, in 1969 – and convinced Kastle, the only writer he knew, to do the screenplay.

Kastle puts together a pretty good chronicle of the relationship between suave con man Ray Fernandez and overweight nurse Martha Beck, although all he had to go on was trial records and newspaper clippings. Kastle loved filmmakers like Goddard, Truffaut and Pasolini, and constructed the story like one of their neo-realist movies. The effect is a sort of documentary verisimilitude, a low-level reality, aided by the black-and-white photography (which also glosses over the fact that they could not afford to do a true period piece).

Sem7peli2The center of the story is the unlikely romance between Ray and Martha, and how Martha’s jealousy interferes with Ray’s studied predatory gigolo procedures, and eventually leads to murder. That build-up leads to pretty horrific murder scenes that would be considered fairly tame these days, but have an added punch thanks to the relatively staid events leading up to them. Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler are perfectly cast, and carry the movie effortlessly.

Kastle, who eventually took over direction after two others didn’t work out (and one was a young Martin Scorsese), may be taking his cues from European directors (and does a great job – his visual storytelling is efficient but elegant), but he also seems to derive some inspiration from the 1967 In Cold Blood, another piece of true-crime cinema with a black-and-white, documentary approach. Though in Kastle’s case, it was more a matter of financial necessity, which he then proceeded to exploit, and exploit very well. There are simply some things you can do with black-and-white that is impossible with color film.

Well, I had meant to save my babbling for the podcast, but I guess this is rehearsal, eh?

Buy The Honeymoon Killers at Amazon

My Darling Clementine (1946)

mcWqxj75qltyh85d4O7EJ6FYzsfOne thing I learned about The Honeymoon Killers was just how much Kastle shortened and in a lot of cases, actually whitewashed the story: Martha Beck’s backstory was particularly heartbreaking, and the two were accused of over twenty murders, not just the four we witnessed. Well, Hollywood, and all that. The necessities of fiction, of telling a good story.

Then how to address John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, the tale of the legendary Shootout at the OK Corral, where damned near nothing is true?

First of all, none of that is John Ford’s fault. The script is largely based on Stuart Lake’s posthumous biography of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which in true Shootist style, is a collection of bunkum. The 1939 movie of the same name gets it just as wrong, if not wronger. To be sure, there is still a deal of controversy among historians about what exactly went down at the OK Corral, but we can be pretty sure that whatever it actually was, it wasn’t very photogenic.

54.57-foxIn this particular alternate universe, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers are driving a herd of cattle west, and not doing a particularly good job of it. While the three oldest, Wyatt, Morgan (Ward Bond) and Virgil (Tom Holt) head into Tombstone to get a shave and a beer, the Clanton gang, led by Walter Brennan, rustle the cattle and kill the youngest Earp, James (a baby-faced Don Garner). The Earps take jobs as lawmen in Tombstone, at least until they can track down their brother’s murderers. Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) runs a saloon in town, and he and Wyatt strike up an uneasy friendship, strained all the more when Doc’s old girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs) finally tracks Doc down, and Wyatt takes a liking to her.

Holliday, rather famously, is dying from consumption, and tries to send Clementine packing, egged on by his current girlfriend, a fiery saloon girl with the unlikely name of Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). Chihuahua’s fecklessness will eventually provide Wyatt with the piece of evidence he needs that the Clantons were responsible for James’ death, but that also gets her a bullet in the back from Billy Clanton (John Ireland). After that, it’s only a matter of time until everybody winds up at the OK Corral slinging lead.

My Darling Clementine (1946)This is Fonda and Ford’s first movie together after their tours of duty in World War II, and there is a tinge of melancholy and loss over the proceedings not evident in their pre-War work. Ford still works the atmosphere and period textures like few other directors ever managed, and some of the lighting effects in the nighttime scenes are spectacular – easily the best being the scene in which Holliday must operate on the wounded Chihuahua in the empty saloon, the improvised operating table illuminated by every oil lamp in the joint, surrounded by the deep black forms of people standing by, unable to help.

That’s also a bit indicative of the post-War Ford spinning his wheels a bit, though; the scene is directly lifted from his earlier Stagecoach, right down to the drunken doctor calling upon nearly forgotten skills for emergency surgery, assisted by his patient’s hated rival. An earlier scene with Fonda delivering a monologue over James’ grave is also reminiscent of a similar scene in Young Mr. Lincoln.

martinsYou really sort of expect Tombstone to have been mysteriously relocated to Monument Valley – this is a John Ford Western, after all. The liberties taken with history only get more fanciful from there. Virgil was the Marshal in Tombstone, with Morgan, James and Wyatt occasionally pitching in to help. James, Virgil and, yes, Wyatt, were all married when they moved to boomtown Tombstone – dreadful sorry, Clementine. Holliday’s friendship with Wyatt went back several years before Tombstone, and unlike here and Frontier Marshal, he survived the Shootout. There were two Clantons present, and four other suspected rustlers, and only Billy Clanton and two brothers, the McLaurys, died.

Hell, these days we’re told the Shootout actually happened down the street from the OK Corral.

The lead-up to the Shootout is a great deal more complex than Clementine would have us believe, but the messy details of reality would only get in the way of a good story. It’s intriguing to consider that the version we’ve had on TV and in theaters for the past 65 years was trimmed of nearly 30 minutes by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, according to his own sensibilities and some preview audiences that necessitated retakes months after the movie wrapped. A nearly complete version of Ford’s version was actually discovered at UCLA in ’94. It’s not necessarily better, either, just… different.

Anyway, I think I now really need to watch something in color.

Buy My Darling Clementine at Amazon

After the Gold Rush

Nobody can say "They don't build statues to critics" anymore.

Nobody can say “They don’t build statues to critics” anymore.

It was a little over a year ago that we lost Roger Ebert. Not only did the man popularize film criticism in a way the common jerk on the street could understand – no fancy French words or obscure buzz phrases for him, his critiques were always couched in plain, understandable English – toward the end of his life he became an outspoken voice for tolerance and social justice, in a time of his life when cancer had stolen his actual voice.

Shortly after his death, someone at the Letterboxd site suggested a movie challenge, watching one of the movies from Ebert’s essays on “The Great Movies” each night in May, along with Ebert’s sole screenplay credit, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I thought this was a swell idea. Letterboxd, if you’re a member, will tell you what percentage of a given list you’ve seen, and I blush to admit I had only seen a quarter of the movies on Ebert’s list. I’m now up to a little more over a third.

This challenge hasn’t passed into tradition; no one seems to be doing it this month. That’s okay. My schedule is what could politely be called berserk, and there’s no way I’m getting in a movie a night in May. But after the horrific one-two punch of Heated Vengeance followed by Boardinghouse, closely followed by Alien Zone/House of the Dead, I am more than ready for a transfusion of quality. A heavy transfusion.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

BATTLE OF ALGIERS ARG_thumb[4]Whoa, almost too heavy.

This is Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie about the Muslim liberation movement in French Algeria, made a mere three years after Algeria was given its independence. Though based on the memoirs of one of its leaders, Yacef Saadi (who plays himself in the movie – he’s the one who kinda looks like Robert Forster), Battle feels surprisingly even-handed. Oh, the film’s sympathies are definitely with the Algerians, but it also makes it plain there are bloody hands on both sides of the equation.

Shot in a style one almost immediately feels is documentary, handheld cameras shooting in grainy black-and-white, constantly flirting with going out of focus, the movie, with quick efficiency. tells us visually that the Algerians live under Apartheid circumstances – the colonial French population lives in a clean, modern section of the city, while the natives – in the famous Casbah, where stereotyped lovers tried to take their ladies for decades – are in a crowded slum. The first bomb is laid in the Casbah by rogue French authorities in reprisal for a series of police assassinations, and things proceed to get far worse from there.

womenThe most powerful segment involves three women abandoning their concealing Muslim robes, donning makeup and cutting their hair so they can pass for French women, gliding with ease through the military checkpoints, and deliver the bombs in their purses. Each woman, upon reaching their target, spends a few minutes, not only to allay suspicions, but to look at the people – men, women, children – they know they are about to murder. The film is always frank about the human toll on both sides.

Three bombs in one day brings in a platoon of paratroopers, led by the charismatic Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), himself a former French Resistance fighter, and well-versed in the ways of insurgency; and without irony, he proceeds to use that knowledge to slowly take apart the Liberation Front.

tortureIt’s telling that Mathieu never uses the word “torture” to describe what happens to the insurgents they arrest, it’s always simply “interrogation”. It’s even more telling that the torture scenes were cut out for US release. It’s most telling of all that in 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon held a screening for officers and civilian support dealing with the situation in Iraq as “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.

At one point, the head of the Liberation Front states that all their efforts are toward provoking a popular uprising in the city; without that, the idea of independence is doomed. Mathieu succeeds in crushing the Front, but that popular uprising nonetheless happens in a couple of years, and we are told three years after that, came Independence at last.

And three years after that came The Battle of Algiers. There is a reason the Pentagon showed it, and probably still does. It remains completely and horrifically relevant and current, nearly half a century later.

Buy The Battle of Algiers on Amazon

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)

600full-ivan-the-terrible,-part-2-posterSeems I felt a bit political here, hm?

I had watched the 1944 Part I for the letter I in my alphabetical March Movie Madness. Much as Joseph Stalin loved the first one, he hated this one, forever killing the third movie in the proposed trilogy, and insuring this part would not be released until 1958. Apparently, he felt Sergei Eisenstein had not sufficiently mythologized Tsar Ivan, or more to the point, he saw too much of himself on the screen.

The last movie ended with Ivan’s brilliant political ploy of leaving Moscow, causing the populace to journey to him and beg for his return. He begins planning ways to get rid of the embedded ruling class, the Boyars, culminating in giving his “loyal dog”, the head of his feudal secret police, free rein to take care of traitors, resulting in the beheading of three Boyars, then Ivan’s doffing of his fur hat and emotionally crying, “Too few!” (No, no need for Stalin to be upset)

Ivan’s old friend, now the Bishop of Moscow (and not coincidentally, relation to the three dead Boyars), vows to “crush Ivan with the full weight of the Church!” Fat chance, as his theatrical shenanigans only gets him arrested. Take that, Church, enemy of Russian Unity!

ivan2This all culminates in an assassination plot ramrodded by Ivan’s literally poisonous aunt, who wants her dull-witted son Vladimir on the throne. The plot with the aunt has been simmering since Part I, so it was nice that Eisenstein at least managed to wrap up that storyline before Stalin pulled the plug. Really, the story was just starting to percolate. Stupid Stalin. Guess I need to read a book to see how things turned out.

Just like Part I, the acting is still rooted in declamatory silent German Expressionism (I joked that maybe what Stalin hated was the constant close-ups) but this is all part of the layered, painterly technique that Eisenstein brings to the screen. It is a rare frame indeed that could not simply be cut from the film, framed, and IVAN_rosenbaum_still_1_video_stillhung on the wall of a museum. Two sequences are in BiColor, a process using only red and blue to produce – well, a fairly disorienting aspect, fitting in its first use at a wild party, not so much for the final shot where Ivan proclaims death to all enemies of Russian Unity. Then, of course, there’s the magnificent score by Sergei Prokofiev.

Very hard to go wrong with personnel like that. Watch it today and stick it to Socialism.

(Sorry, Stalin apparently purged any trailers from YouTube)

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Wild Strawberries (1957)

2855041_detAfter the heaviness of Battle of Algiers and Ivan the Terrible, I needed to switch gears, and here I made a mistake. The mistake was certainly not in watching an Ingmar Bergman movie; Bergman is one of the constant delights of my late-in-life attempt to educate myself in film, so delightful I find myself rationing  him out, like precious water in a drifting life raft. No, my mistake was in thinking Wild Strawberries was listed in Ebert’s Great Movies. Several other Bergman flicks are, but it was still a bad assumption on my part. But having now watched it, I can only theorize that’s because Ebert was taken from us before he could write about it. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Wild Strawberries‘ story, though, concerns Isak Borg (Swedish film legend Victor Sjöström), who at 78 years of age, is being given an Emeritus degree for his 50 years of outstanding service in Medicine. Borg himself admits that he has found it easier over the years to avoid the entanglement of relationships, and is distant even from his only son, himself a successful doctor. He lives with a Great Dane and a housekeeper, Agda (Julien Kindahl) who has put up with him for 40 years.

Wild-Strawberries-wallpaperThe day before the ceremony, Borg elects to drive there instead of flying, much to the consternation of Agda. He will be accompanied by his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who has been a houseguest for several weeks. Marianne and Borg tolerate each other, really; we find that Marianne thinks him a cruel and selfish man, hiding behind “old world manners and charm”. Along the way, they will pick up three student hitch-hikers, more or less led by Sara (Bibi Andersson), a pipe-smoking young firebrand and her two satellites, Anders and Viktor, one planning to be a minister, one an intellectual atheist, and both in love with her. Borg and Marianne both enjoy the company of the teenagers and their brash, youthful interplay.

Eventually, after a brief visit to Borg’s mother – who at 96 years of age, makes Isak seem downright warm – Marianne confesses to Borg the reason she had been staying with him, and not her husband Evald (Gunnar Björstrand). She is pregnant, and Evald is adamantly against becoming a father, feeling the world is a terrible place and there is no use bringing another wretch into it to suffer. Moreover, Evald is more than ready to die himself, just to get it over with.

cheekyvirginDuring the journey, Borg has been plagued by dreams and visions of his childhood more real than his present life, and is shocked that his son’s outlook on life is so very bleak; he himself, thanks to the dreams, memories, and company of the three hitch-hikers, has just come to realize that he has been more dead than alive, and in a series of final scenes after his ceremony – with the hitch-hikers, with the now-reconciled Evald and Marianne, even in apologizing to Agda for his behavior that morning (in a beautiful, truthful moment, she looks at him and says, “Do you feel alright?”), Borg begins, in small but significant ways, to once again live his life.

It is one of the most radiant, emotionally satisfying film conclusions I have seen in a long time. The fact that Bergeman produced both this and The Seventh Seal in the same year takes my breath away. Highest possible recommendation.

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The General (1926)

8691I find the real problem with watching a Bergman film is that I immediately want to watch another one. But, like I said, rationing. (I’ll also mention I don’t do “binge-watching”, either) So, late Saturday night after a particularly grueling show, I judged it time for Buster Keaton.

The General is one of Keaton’s best-known movies, and there are several reasons for this: it’s a genuine masterpiece, copyrights lapsed so there were horrible public domain tapes of it everywhere, and last, but oh certainly not least, it is that close to being a serious action movie.

Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer in 1861, who loves only two things: his locomotive, The General, and sweet Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). The Civil War breaks out, and Johnnie eagerly tries to enlist, but his skill as an engineer is too valuable to risk him on the battlefield, and he is turned down. Annabelle thinks this is due to cowardice, and walks out on him. (So many of these comedies depend on people simply not talking to each other…)

the-generalA year later, a group of Union spies steal the General (and kidnap Annabelle, as much by accident as anything else) and proceed to drive it to Northern lines, sabotaging rail and telegraph along the way. Keaton is in hot pursuit in another locomotive, and finds himself stranded in enemy territory. He finds out about a planned Union attack, and must rescue his sweetheart, retrieve the General and make it back home to warn the Confederates about the impending invasion.

The General can be split into five acts, with the second and fourth being the extremely complicated and exciting chase scenes, first with Keaton as the pursuer, then as the pursued. These are so full of creative uses of the now-almost-arcane rail system technology and their idiosyncrasies, they are quite educational. Keaton was an incredible athlete, and The General has some his most impressive and probably dangerous stunts, on a moving train – it’s small wonder that Jackie Chan singles him out as an inspiration.

tumblr_lsj0uvZpIQ1qbhnrvo1_500The General also has an impressive budget for the time, with a version of Marietta, Georgia being built in Oregon (where there were still small-gauge tracks that could accommodate the antique engines being used), and 500 Oregon Guardsmen playing both armies in the conflict, filmed marching one way, then changing uniforms and marching in the other direction. One of the best setpieces has the oblivious Keaton chopping wood in the coal car, while behind him whizzes past first a retreating Confederate army, then an advancing Union.

Then comes the impressive fifth act, when the two armies meet at a gorge and the pursuing Union train collapses the bridge Keaton has sabotaged – the most expensive stunt in silent film history, and done without telling any of the onlookers or extras – their surprise and shock is quite unfeigned. (The engine also stayed at the bottom of the gorge until World War II, when it was salvaged for scrap)

Well, those durned Union troops are driven off, especially when confronted with Keaton’s comic mayhem, and Keaton finally gets his army post, a Lieutenant’s rank, and the girl. Though why she made her love dependent on his willingness to get killed or maimed is puzzling, as is his love for her. Ah, well, we’ll just close the file on a very satisfying movie, and not trouble ourselves with niggling little details like rooting for the underdog Confederates (nary a slave nor plantation in sight to complicate things), or that the circumstances here inevitably lead into Birth of A Nation and the Ku Klux Klan. No, we’re simply going to enjoy a good movie, and not let politics ruin that.

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The Gold Rush (1925)

goldrushIt is a hard, and odd thing to admit – but up until this point, I had never seen a complete Chaplin movie.

Bizarre, isn’t it? I’ve seen plenty of clips over the course of my life, but never even a complete two-reeler, much less his feature-length work. It just never happened.

So here I am, watching what is arguably his most popular feature (a lot of people, Chaplin included, would argue for the more sentimental City Lights, but I ain’t there yet), if not his most profitable, a reputation bolstered by a re-release in the 40s, re-edited and with a new narrative track. That was also supposedly Chaplin’s favored version,  but rebel that I am, I watched the original, silent version. Come to think of it, I’ve never watched any of Lucas’ bowdlerized versions of the Star Wars movies, either.

chaplin-gold-rush-1925-grangerThe first thing that is going to hit you upside the head is the fact that Chaplin was a serious filmmaker. I mean, that goes without saying, right? But the casual viewer enters the movie without realizing just how serious. After a intercard setting up the historical context of the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1898 – “historical” is a bit much, since we’re talking less than 30 years before – we have a shot of hundreds of people making their way up to a narrow mountain pass. Supposedly populated by boxcars of hobos shipped in from Sacramento, this is the sort of practical shot that you can imagine a young Werner Herzog seeing in a darkened theater and thinking, “Ja, this is what I want to do with my life!”

After this, we’re getting into more typical comedy territory, as Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character – in this iteration, “The Lone Prospector” – waddles along mountain precipices, unknowingly followed by a huge black bear, and eventually stranded in a cabin during a horrific blizzard with fellow prospector Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) and the villainous Black Larsen (Tom Murray). Chaplin, intrigued by horror stories of the Donner Party, plays their isolation and hunger pangs for maximum comedy, resulting in two classic bits – one, mined for years thereafter by Looney Tunes, where Big Jim hallucinates that Chaplin is an enormous chicken, and the other, where the Tramp boils and eats his shoe. That such an act of desperation is successfully played for laughs is indicative of the heights of Chaplin’s talent.

thegoldrush-2Eventually, the Tramp hits the boom town and sells his useless prospecting tools. This is where he is going to meet his -and Chaplin’s – eventual lady love, Georgia (Georgia Hale), whose every appearance is presaged by a card with lovely typography announcing “GEORGIA!” Never mind that the lady is a prostitute in the local saloon. Such things were not spelled out, even in pre-code Hollywood, and like John Wayne’s naive Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the guileless Tramp only sees a beautiful woman, where others see a commodity.

Chaplin – like all the great clowns – believed in comedy leavened with a generous portion of pathos, and the Tramp’s smitten love for Georgia provides all the pathos he needs. The Gold Rush has one of Chaplin’s signature bits, what has come to be known as “The Dance of the Rolls”, when the Tramp, unable to speak how rapturously happy he is to be in the adoring presence of his lady love on New Year’s Eve, instead demonstrates his joy with a spontaneous dance number using two rolls on forks as legs. How serious is Chaplin about his clowning? Look carefully – You’ll see him counting time.

The pathos comes when he realizes this is all a dream – Georgia and her fellow working girls have forgotten the date they casually set with the funny little man and are partying hard at the saloon. And even then, as th Tramp looks in the bar window in an attempt to see his feckless love, there is a sequence where the bar patrons sing “Auld Lang Syne” and the camera picks up close-ups from the crowd, faces we have never seen before, and will never see again, united in that song, and with such a mixture of melancholy, regret and hope that it is incredibly affecting.

goldrush cameraIncidentally, the Tramp doesn’t see Georgia because she, her friends, and her brute of a boyfriend have gone to his cabin “To have some fun with the funny little man”. Georgia feels no small pang of sorrow when she discovers the remnants of the party the Tramp worked so hard to put together, but that doesn’t stop her from carrying on with the brute, culminating in a scene where said brute passes a note confessing her rather bewildering love for the douchebag to the Tramp, resulting in a scene that would have been painful beyond bearing had Big Jim not arrived and carried off the Tramp to help find the “mountain of gold” he found and lost during the blizzard.

In point of fact, Chaplin excised the whole passing of the love note sub-plot from the re-issued version, and that is probably a wise thing. Georgia had already rebuked Brutus the scene before, and her confession of love to him really complicates the eventual romantic denouement we know is inevitable.

The_gold_rush_15No, Chaplin has whisked us away for one more classic comedy setup: he and Big Jim wind up once more at Black Larsen’s cabin, the one landmark Big Jim can count on to find his missing claim. A violent windstorm actually moves the cabin during the night, depositing it on a precipice and causing it to see-saw as its occupants wake and move around. It’s probably the first time a set was built on gimbals to tilt so wildly, and the sequence has some pioneering miniature work involving the cabin and even a tiny, articulated Chaplin. Again, it’s a set-up that is going to be utilized over and over again in the coming years.

As luck would have it, the cabin’s precarious position is just outside Big Jim’s strike, so at the end of the movie we have the delight of seeing the Tramp in rich man clothes (though old habits die hard, and he still scrambles to pick up a discarded cigar butt). While he and the equally opulent Big Jim are interviewed and photographed on the deck of a cruise ship, we find out that GEORGIA! is also a passenger, setting up their final meet and romantic clench, which in the context of the ’25 version, feels rote and unearned. The older, wiser Chaplin set it up better in the later re-issue. Still, there are few better things than to follow a sympathetic character in a rags-to-riches story and see him get the girl, unless it would be to also see the brute boyfriend get eaten by a bear.

goldrush3I watch The Gold Rush not entirely tabula rasa; there was a series on PBS in the 80s called The Unknown Chaplin, which I avidly devoured. In it was shown a treasure trove of Chaplin’s outtakes, which served as a marvelous examination of how the man worked. He used the studio as a sketchpad, basically, working scenes over and over with variations to see which  played best, which produced the best laughs. It’s estimated that his first feature, The Kid, had a shot-to-print ratio of somewhere around 55:1. It’s a small wonder then, that The Gold Rush was one of the most expensive silent features ever made – but then again, as one of the most profitable, it proved a risk well worth taking. After this would come The Circus, and then the coming of sound, with which Chaplin would have something of a problematic relationship.

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