V: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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valerie posterSuch an odd, strange, lovely movie. This feature by Jaromil Jireš was the last gasp of the Czech New Wave, an absurdist movement which also gave us animator Jan Švankmajer and Miloš Forman. I say “last gasp” because the Soviet government put the kibosh on arty-time films around the time of its release.

Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is a 13 year-old girl living with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová). Their village is, that week, playing host to both a company of actors and a group of missionaries, one of whom is Grandmother’s old flame, a predatory priest. That set-up is only the background for a hallucinatory, episodic fairy tale with vampires, were-weasels, witch hunts, and magical earrings.

968full-valerie-and-her-week-of-wonders-screenshotValerie has just experienced menarche (an initial image of red currant juice dripping on a snow white daisy is typical of the lush metaphors that run rampant), and much of what she encounters in the trim 77 minutes can be interpreted as a child’s view of adult desire – mysterious, bizarre, and not a little frightening. The arrival of Grandmother’s old boyfriend – the priest who attempts to molest Valerie – causes her to turn to yet another old boyfriend, the Polecat, who turns her into a youthful red-haired vampire. The priest will also try to silence Valerie on the matter of his attempted molestation by denouncing her as a witch and burning her at the stake, something our plucky heroine survives with aplomb and nose-thumbing.

valerie2Any attempt to take this literally is going to make your eyes cross and frustrate you. Just rest secure in the knowledge that as the threads of the fairy tale begin to come together at the end, the images that were so threatening and ominous before become more welcoming and even attractive as Valerie becomes more comfortable and understanding of her incipient womanhood. It is an unusual movie; the Soviet countries produced quite a few wonderful and gorgeous fairy tale movies in the 60s and 70s, simply because glorifying local folklore was seen as beneficial to nationalism, and such movies were less likely to encounter much in the way of censorship. Valerie, however, is trying to do something more than recount old stories.

jaroslavaschallerovalaska14The Criterion blu-ray has an alternate soundtrack, a “folk psych” score by a gathering of musicians calling themselves “The Valerie Project”. It’s score only, no dialogue – but I was reading subtitles anyway, and I thought “Sure, why not.” It’s an interesting addendum, but the most surprising thing is it allowed me to make an unusual connection: while I was watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders with this newer music, I kept flashing back to the short films of Maya Deren I had encountered early on, back in high school, especially Meshes of the Afternoon. I still have my laserdisc of her shorts. The amazing, layered imagery, the dreamy, rather creepy, but undeniably lovely ambiance – that’s all here in Valerie. It made me feel that if she had made a feature in color, it might have looked and felt like this.

And if you know what I’m talking about, you know if you want to see this movie, or not.

Buy Valerie & Her Week of Wonders on Amazon


K: Kwaidan (1964)

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220px-KwaidanposterjapaneseKwaidan is an archaic version of the Japanese word Kaidan which, in its simplest translation, can be understood to mean “ghost stories”, but its meaning is actually more subtly complex than that: and that is a fair metaphor for director Masaki Kobayashi’s film of the same name. The title also derives from Lafcadio Hearne’s 1904 book of folklore, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, though the four stories translated to cinema are actually from two of his collections.

Each story is presented with no connecting arc, with perhaps the only concession to their prose origins the occasional bit of voice narration (the deeper translation of kaidan alludes to the stories’ origins as oral tradition, anyway).

kwaidan 11In The Black Hair, an impoverished samurai leaves his faithful, patient wife to marry a noblewoman and rise to a profitable post; that marriage is an unhappy one, and the samurai torments himself with memories of the woman he treated so badly. Years later, he returns to his old house, to find it in poor repair, except for the rooms where his wife works her loom. She is radiantly happy to welcome him back into her life. This would be a happy ending, except the samurai wakes up the next morning to discover he has been sleeping next to the rotting corpse of his wife, who died of a broken heart years before.

kwaidan-08c-webThis is followed by The Woman of the Snow, which begins with two woodcutters caught in a blizzard. They seek what shelter they can in the shed of a boatman, but that night a ghost enters the shed, and her breath causes the older woodcutter to immediately freeze to death in his sleep. She spares the younger man, on the promise that he never tell anyone what he has seen, ever. A year later, the surviving woodcutter meets a young woman travelling on the road, alone, and they fall in love. Yes, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie fans, you should be recognizing this tale, though the ending here is much more bittersweet, though no less tragic.

kwaidan-hoichiAfter an Intermission, the movie resumes with probably its most famous sequence, Hoichi the Earless, which is the tale of a young blind biwa player living in a temple. His performance of the song cycle telling of a sea battle that was the death of an entire clan is so good, he is called upon by the spirits of that clan to perform it repeatedly at a nearby graveyard. Being blind, Hoichi thinks he is performing in a grand castle; these nocturnal performances are slowly killing him, and to save his life, the monks paint prayer sutras all over his body to protect him. They neglect, however, to paint them on his ears for some reason, and, well, the title itself is a massive spoiler.

kwaidanThe final story, In a Cup of Tea, was excised for American audiences, to bring the movie under three hours, I suppose. It’s a fragment, an unfinished story in Hearn’s collection, regarding a samurai who keeps seeing a man’s face in a cup of tea, and when he drinks it, finds himself bedevilled by the ghostly man and his equally ghostly retainers. Kobayashi supplies an ending, which is an appropriate button for the movie.

What none of these synopses will prepare you for is the unearthly, fabulous beauty of Kwaidan. This movie was made for blu-ray, as it is an unending buffet of visual delights. The skies of Woman of the Snow seems pulled from a painter’s easels, full of eyes watching the plight of the villagers beneath. Hoichi begins with the song of the sea battle, a massive painting of the event intercut with the actual battle, like figures from the painting come to life. It is a movie unto itself, and it is breathtakingly gorgeous.

Kwaidan-1964Coming off the success of Harakiri, Kobayashi made the most expensive movie in Japanese history, supplanting The Seven Samurai. 350 million Yen is the figure given; the sound stages are massive, and the control this gives Kobayashi over the picture is not wasted. Roger Ebert called it “one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen,” and there is no way I could possibly improve over that simple statement.

eye in the skyAmazing, beautiful, surprisingly humanistic. Revisiting this movie years after my first viewing was one of the smartest things I have done this year.

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I: I Married a Witch (1942)

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I_Married_a_Witch_posterYou know, this is sort of the perfect Halloween movie, if you’re not into hardcore scary stuff. Its touch is light, its outlook humorous, it’s well-made and imaginative; it is the very definition of a frothy confection.

So why does it leave me so cold?

There’s a good old-fashioned Puritan witch-burning at the beginning (though yes, I know, the Puritans never burned a witch, they hanged them), interrupted for an intermission so a hawker can sell bags of popcorn with an anti-witch charm in each bag. That’s funny stuff right there. Nathaniel Wooley (Frederic March) reveals that the condemned witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake, eventually) has cursed him and his descendants to rotten marriages for eternity. Thereafter, we have a montage of Wooley’s descendants and the various forms of marital hell, including one who enlists in the Civil War to avoid his vase-throwing wife (“Running off to war – like a coward!”). This is also funny stuff.

I’m still not laughing. This mystifies me.

tumblr_mv0bgajJP71sodq76o1_1280The oak tree planted over the ashes of Jennifer and her sorcerer father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway – again, eventually) is struck by lightning, releasing their spirits to commit mischief once again, though only as two plumes of smoke, for the moment. Daniel absently criticizes Jennifer’s curse, stating, “Marrying the wrong woman is painful – but more painful is falling in love with the right woman he cannot have.” Jennifer then proceeds to incarnate herself again and make sure the current Wooley (March again) falls in love with her. That shouldn’t be too hard, given the implication in the opening scenes that Lake is naked under that mink coat she keeps losing, and Wooley’s current fiancee is harridan-in-training Estelle (Susan Hayward, magnificent as usual). Wooley is a leading gubernatorial candidate, and has lots and lots to lose.

imarriedawitch252852529The plot complicates from there, with spells flying everywhere, Jennifer accidentally drinking the love potion meant for Wooley, and her sudden love for the object of her curse drawing her into conflict with her father, who is still rather peeved about that whole execution thing.

I think my mood was all wrong the night I watched this. It’s well-made, it’s fun. I just couldn’t get into it.

Maybe, like doomed individuals in more serious movies, I know too much. Frederic March and Veronica Lake hated each other, though it never really shows onscreen. Some place the blame for this squarely in March’s court, but Lake arrived on set with her own set of baggage – Joel McCrea was up for the lead, but turned it down because he didn’t want to work with her again after Sullivan’s Travels.

Come on, this is as Halloween as it gets.

Come on, this is as Halloween as it gets.

Maybe the movie is as cursed as it hero – producer Preston Sturges (whose touch is still evident, I feel) quit because of “creative differences” with director Rene Clair. Co-star Robert Benchley, who plays Wooley’s best friend Dudley (who also seems to be in charge of finishing his distracted friend’s drinks) would be dead in three years of cirrhosis of the liver. Lake’s marquee value wouldn’t last much longer than that.

But no, I don’t think it’s any of that. I think the circumstances of life – both my own and the growing garbage fire that is the world at large as I write this in mid-July – I think that is why I couldn’t slip into the comforting, charming world of I Married a Witch. May your experience with it be better.

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Medium Cool (1969)

medium cool posterSo I see a lot of people had the brilliant idea to watch Medium Cool this Summer. Something about the looming Republican Convention, I’m sure. There are also a lot of people saying 2016 is 1968 all over again. It isn’t, though there are parallels.

There is unrest. There is seemingly unending domestic violence. There is change in the air, some hope (myself included). All these are playing into that hot-take cauldron proclaiming a carbon copy of 1968. No wonder so many are investigating this intriguing snapshot of that time.

First of all, Haskell Wexler is a name to respect among cameramen and cinematographers. Go look at that IMDb entry, and find out why so many were sad when he passed away just after Christmas last year. Now consider that in 1968, he felt ready to direct a feature film, and that film was nearly The Concrete Wilderness, the story of a transplanted Appalachian boy raising pigeons in the slums of Chicago. The remnants of that story are still evident in Medium Cool, but what we really get is a story about Haskell Wexler.

mc1Robert Forster is John Cassellis, a cameraman for the news department of a local station. We meet him as he’s filming a dead woman at the site of a recent car wreck, along with his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz). As they pack up their gear, John says to Gus, “Better call an ambulance.” Despite that questionable intro, we soon find that John has something of a conscience, along with some misgivings about his trade. He tries to follow the story of a black cabbie turning in a lost bag containing ten thousand dollars, against the wishes of his news director. And the day he finds out – to his dismay – that his footage has been routinely turned over to the police and the FBI so they can scope out radical elements, he’s also fired.

watching-tvJohn has also, by sheer accident and misunderstanding, met Harold (Harold Blankenship), the aforementioned boy, and his mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). A romance begins to blossom – there’s something in Eileen that John doesn’t see in his current flame, the nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill). Eventually, John gets another gig jobbing in as a cameraman during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention; he doesn’t realize that Harold, seeing his mother getting intimate with John, has run away and is basically bumming around Grant Park until it’s safe to go home. Eileen, still wearing her yellow party dress from the night before, is similarly roaming the streets trying to find him – as the protests around the Convention begin to move toward the riots that would dominate the media that Summer.

Medium-Cool-Chicago-RiotThis is probably the most famous aspect of Medium Cool, that Wexler and his cameramen (only one or two, past Wexler himself), are actually in the streets filming, and Verna Bloom is right there, wandering around in character, occasionally in harm’s way, as cops in riot gear and National Guardsmen in barbed-wire festooned jeeps get into position. There’s also footage of Forster in the Convention, as in the background we hear things starting to go to shit on the floor. This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, with everybody on their game. It gets especially tense as you realize that is most definitely Verna Bloom in there, evidencing brass balls the size of Gibraltar, getting those shots. Wexler apparently tried to get her to go home as the situation intensified, and she refused.

One of the most referenced shots involves Wexler, as a National Guardsman – tired of being on camera, perhaps – lobs a tear gas grenade at his feet. As the gas drifts up, you see the camera shakily moving back, and you hear someone say, “Watch out Haskell – it’s real!” Wexler says the line was added in post production, but that it was pretty much what was going through his mind as the first sting of the gas hit him (The shot is in the Criterion Three Reasons clip, below).

Medium Cool1On the other hand, in a shot that was meant to provoke a reaction, Bloom cuts through a line of Guardsman and addresses their commander – in character, telling him she’s looking for her son. The commander waves her through, and even points the way toward someone who might be able to help her.

I referred to the movie as “a snapshot”, because the Convention footage doesn’t have the only message Wexler wants to convey; after the car wreck opening we have a sequence at a party where people are hotly discussing the role of news media, and the increasing danger and resentment they face. Later, in a post-coital talk, Ruth asks a question about Mondo Cane that I also asked when I first saw it at 10 years of age (which sort of explains a lot about me, I guess). John’s attempt to follow up on the cabbie story leads to a discussion of the black experience, circa 1968. John and Gus go on other stories before John’s fall, including the riot training of the same National Guardsmen we’ll see in Chicago, and Resurrection Town near the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, soon after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Resurrection TownThere’s more, more more. A slow pan around a hotel kitchen as we hear Robert Kennedy’s last speech, and if you lived through that time, you know exactly what is coming, and you feel your pulse rate quicken. Mass media critiquing over a TV special containing footage of King’s greatest speeches, about media being complicit in a week-long catharsis so regular business can resume. There is more that was excised, some of which is excerpted in a documentary about the making of Medium Cool called (appropriately) Look Out Haskell, It’s Real involving the politicization of Eileen with a real-life speech by the Rev. Jessie Jackson (Jackson still crops up in the Resurrection Town footage).

GasJonathan Haze was a line producer (yes, that Jonathan Haze, Little Shop of Horrors and a bunch of others), and had connections with the local activists, so Haskell knew where to set up the next day for protest footage. (If you look quick, you can catch footage of Wexler and Haze being treated for tear gas exposure during the riot footage) Even then, there’s a counter-balancing sequence in which John takes Eileen to a go-go, where even in her yellow dress she is quite the fish out of water. There’s a band playing what the subtitles assure us is “Psychedelic rock”, though what is actually playing – out of sync, which makes the strobing and quick-cutting even more discombobluating – is The Mothers of Inventions’ “Go to San Francisco”, which has Zappa singing “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet/Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street”.

In a few minutes, though, we’ll be separating the phonies from the real revolutionaries. The real ones will the ones that are bleeding. And they are a diverse lot, not the cartoon hippies Zappa is satirizing.

Medium Cool is a startling blend of the real and unreal, until the viewer reaches a point where one is not quite sure which is which – until the third act, when the reality becomes undeniable – and then that controversial final scene, echoing the beginning, where we are challenged once more to define for ourselves what is real and what is not. And that is a thread that runs through the movie, even though Wexler claimed he had never read Marshall McLuhan – the necessity of the viewer, while taking in the imagery of a “cool medium” like TV, to rise above the simple, non-interactive nature of that medium, to inquire, to judge, to determine what about it is real, if anything.

It may not be 1968 all over, but that central message is more important than ever.

 Buy Medium Cool on Amazon





American vs Italian Weirdness

There’s nothing wrong with watching good movies. But every now and then, you just need something weird, am I right?

It’s great, though, when that something also turns out to be good.

AafinalposterLet’s start with The American Astronaut, since I’ve been pestered about that one. I used my standard method of hapless examination of Cory McAbee‘s oeuvre, ie., backwards, by watching Stingray Sam first. Episodic, experimental, and entertaining – you should get on that. His first feature-length film, though, is what we’re here to talk about, and those three adjectives still apply, and a lot more.

The Astronaut of the title is Sam Curtis (McAbee), an independent trader whose latest job is delivering a cat to a saloon for asteroid miners on Ceres. In return he is given a “Real Live Girl”, which looks like a beat-up suitcase with a small door in the end. If you open the door, a flickering light is seen, and jazzy music plays. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks. Then he asks to use the restroom, but is cautioned: “Be careful. It’s a real toilet.”

Now, be prepared to leave even that minimal amount of normalcy behind.

Sam is going to meet with his old friend, the fruit-smuggling Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) and hatch a scheme whereby he will trade the Real Live Girl to the head of the Jupiter Mining Colony for the morale-boosting Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Greg Russell Cook) – whom Sam had delivered years earlier. He will then take the Boy to the women of Venus, whose sole male finally died after years of service. In exchange for the Boy, he will get the corpse, whose family on Earth is offering a large reward for his return.

But first, a dance contest.

spacemen_fullThe major problem? Sam is being pursued by his nemesis Professor Hess, a birthday-obsessed serial killer who will disintegrate anyone Sam comes in contact with – he only kills people he has no problem with, and is pursuing Sam so he can forgive him and therefore kill him. While hiding from Hess, Sam and the Boy take cover in a barn built in space by silver miners, and pick up another passenger, a guy raised in space in a hydraulic suit so his body wouldn’t atrophy like the miners’. Then on to Venus and its population of women dressed in antebellum dresses, where a plan begins to form in our hero’s head.

So. The American Astronaut is a lo-fi science fiction space western that feels like it was made by David Lynch, and he also decided to make it a musical. A rock musical. That ought to tell you right there if you want to watch it. And even if you don’t, you should. It may seem an odd and haphazard movie, but the design and execution tell a different story. The fact that the most affecting song is given to Hess after a massacre tells of a much deeper story being told.

AmericanAstronautLet me come back to the production design in a bit. I’ll just close out this section by saying that I always find Cory McAbee so handsome and so winning onscreen, that I’m always surprised that we haven’t seen more of him in more mainstream flicks; then again, I’m glad he is where he is, doing what he is. He’s a national treasure, he is, unique and intriguing.

Because the other end to this weirdness is Fellini Satyricon. Now this is a notoriously loose adaptation of Petronius’ novel of the same name, of which only fragments survive anyway. What we have today is pieces of books 15, 16, and 17, so this is like trying to make a movie out of issues 276, 277 and 278 of The  Fantastic Four when you only have a few panels and an ad for G-I-ANT MONSTERS! out of each.

SATYRICONPOSTERSo what we have is a series of episodes in the life of young scholar Encolpius (Martin Potter) who is vying with his friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) for the love of a young boy, Giton (Max Born).  (IMDb Trivia states that Fellini chose foreigners for these roles because “there are no Italian homosexuals”, which must have come as a shock to Pier Paolo Pasolini and his posse). This will involve a trip to the theater (Ascyltus sold the boy to a prominent actor), a walk through a brothel once the boy is reclaimed, and then Giton decides to leave with Ascyltus anyway, the tramp, prompting a falling-out between the two old friends and an earthquake.

Encolpius will tag along to a lavish banquet (the movie’s longest scene, not coincidentally the largest surviving fragment), then get scooped up by the slave trader Lichas (Alain Cuny), who will be so smitten by Encolpius that he marries him, but then the Emperor is assassinated and things change and Encolpius fights the Minotaur and holy crap.

Satyricon banquetThis really might be the ultimate Fellini movie, as you spend over two hours thinking, “Yep, that’s Fellini.” Lush, often overwhelming imagery, combined with the most remarkable faces you will ever find committed to film. This is a non-stop examination of decadence and debauchery in the era of Nero and it is never less than hypnotic and mesmerizing. You can, in fact, trace the roots of Pasolini’s masterpieces in the Trilogy of Life directly here (witness the dramatization of a Greek fable as the banquet dies down).

009-fellini-satyricon-theredlistNot a little of this engagement of the viewer is due to the fact that it is so strange. Though we try to frame ancient cultures in our own experience, that approach does not take into consideration that two thousand years ago, these people were shaped by entirely different societal norms and technologies than us; the distant past would probably seem unspeakably weird to us, and Fellini plays this concept for all it’s worth. He even went to pains to make the dubbing a little off, to keep us even more off-kilter (I was reading subtitles, so that never registered on me).

The American AstronautNow contrast this to the production design of American Astronaut (I told you we’d get back here), where the future may actually be too familiar. This is not only necessary for making low-budget science-fiction space western rock musicals, it also makes sense: taking bits of home out with you into space. Of course the saloon on a mining asteroid would look like a cheap dive bar in a strip center. Of course Sam’s spaceship looks like an efficiency apartment, with a single bed, a bookshelf, wallpaper, and crap that needs to be quickly battened down for landings. Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have called during my viewing to inform me that there weren’t really barns in space, but let’s also realize that space travel is going to be a lengthy process, that it would be nice to have someone to talk to during it, and you would more than likely make up songs to sing while you wait to finally get there.

These movies are at two opposite ends of the weirdness dial, different in approach and each offering up their own menus of delights and amazements.When you get right down to it, movies like this are why I started watching movies in general: they are directories of the possible, made possible by genius, talent and a little bit of madness.

Buy The American Astronaut on Amazon (OOP- brace your wallet!)

Buy Fellini Satyricon on Amazon

Singing Spies in a Stormy French Field (featuring James Brown)

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)

220px-VisiteursdusoirMarcel Carné is a French film director best known for his acknowledged masterpiece, Children of Paradise, which I will get to eventually this year, but I had long been intrigued by his previous movie, Les Visiteurs du Soir (English title The Devil’s Envoys), not only because of my interest in the fantasy genre but because somehow I had never frickin’ heard of it. Given how much film text I had read over the years, how was this even possible?

Towards the end of the 15th century, two minstrels ride into the castle of the recently-widowed Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledeux), who is celebrating the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anne (Marie Déa) to the rather brutish Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are the envoys of the title, whose mission is to spread despair throughout the world. To this end they will use magic and their own beauty and wit to seduce the members of the wedding, and then suddenly leave their victims, bereft and heartbroken. This plan runs aground when the flawed Gilles – who doesn’t mind using his powers for an occasional good deed – confronted with Anne’s immaculately pure heart, falls in love with her and forsakes his mission.

06-alain-cuny-theredlistDominique works overtime seducing both the Barons, and the Devil himself (Jules Berry) arrives on the scene, disguised as a traveller seeking shelter from a sudden storm. By asking seemingly innocent questions, he sees to it that Gilles is imprisoned and the two Barons will duel to the death over Dominique – but then he, too, becomes infatuated with Anne’s incorruptible heart and love for Gilles, and must find a way to undermine it and make Anne his own.

visiteurs-du-soir-1942-03-gThis is a bit of a departure for Carné, who along with Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were the main proponents of the somewhat nebulous Poetic Realism movement in French cinema. The major reason for this, though, is unmistakeable: the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Declining to work for the German-controlled Continental Films, Carné, after several abortive projects, teamed with independent producer André Paulve. To avoid censorship, they decided on a purely escapist feature, set in the past, with no political content. The production shuttled between studios in Paris to the Free Zone in the South for the exteriors, which must have been difficult for the several Jewish crew members, working under aliases.

les-visiteurs-du-soirThe result was that Les Visiteurs du Soir was a rousing success in France, who really needed their escapist fare (and though Carné denied it, there were still whispers of political allegory). There would be several more medieval fantasies released to French screens in the coming years, arguably leading up to that form’s ne plus ultra, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946.

Les Visiteurs is a charming distraction in this day and age, well-acted and shot, with Jules Berry a definite standout as the chatty, fun-loving Devil. Not a bad way to spend an evening, at all.

Break out your dictionaires:

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A Field in England (2013)

A FIELD IN ENGLAND POSTER A3-1So why not then journey to another black-and-white fantasia of a time long gone, where mysterious forces play out against hapless human subjects?

During the 17th century English Civil War, three deserters from the battlefield (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) fall in with another seeming deserter named Cutler (Ryan Pope), who, under the guise of taking them to a nearby alehouse, feeds them soup heavy with psilocybin mushrooms. This is a means of taking them hostage for his master, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who feels there is a treasure in this Field, and he needs people to find it and dig it up. Complicating matters is one of the deserters, Trower (Barratt) is seeking out O’Neil for stealing papers from their master – and Trower refused to eat the mushrooms.

A072_C001_1001IEThat’s the basic plot there. Now, what actually happens in A Field in England is open to interpretation. This is the work of prolific director Ben Wheatley, whose Kill List I found unique, daring and quite striking. He is challenging without being obscure; I find his work genuinely refreshing, and sometimes a little annoying. There is a lot of bizarre stuff to parse in A Field in England, some of it I’m not quite certain we’re ever supposed to understand, like the tendency of Glover’s character, Friend, to die and come back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. How much of the bizarre action in the film is due to the characters’ ingestion of hallucinogens, and how much is due to strange magicks that are unleashed? If Trower hasn’t indulged in the mushrooms, why does he keep having visions of a “bad planet” set to unleash its wrath upon them? It begs for an immediate second viewing, if not a third.

A_Field_In_England_review_featured_photo_galleryBorn of an idea (while Wheatley was travelling by train) to make a movie using a single field as a setting, and shot in only 12 days, Field is one of those technical exercises that bears unexpected dividends, and makes one look forward to whatever the director comes up with next (spoiler: it’s High Rise, and he has the chops to actually do J.G. Ballard justice).

Buy A Field in England on Amazon

Spies (1928)

poster1I continue to work my way through Fritz Lang’s silent days in the Weimar Republic. His previous film, the legendary Metropolis, nearly bankrupted the studio UFA (current estimates place the cost, adjusted for inflation, at 200 million dollars!), and for a time they considered releasing Lang from his contract. Instead, they placed severe budgetary restrictions on his next production, which yielded Spies.

I guess I don’t have to tell you that the movie is about spies, huh? The German secret service is having a bad time of it, with assassinations and stolen secret papers aplenty. This is the work of one mastermind running an efficient and widespread organization: Haghi (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge, once more playing a supervillain with a penchant for disguises). The good guys put their best man on the job, Agent 326 (Willie Fritsch), countered by one of Haghi’s best, Sonya Baranilkova (Gerda Marus). The major problem: 326 and Sonya fall in love.

haghiSpies‘ storyline is much more complicated with that, with additional plots concerning a secret treaty with the Japanese and the duplicity of an army Colonel; but the main thrust of the movie is that star-crossed romance and the increasingly jealous Haghi’s attempts to kill 326.

The climax of the movie, with cops and 326’s organization raiding the bank that houses Haghi’s organization, desperately seeking the secret entrance while the kidnapped Sonya and 326’s assistant Franz (Paul Höbiger) are fighting for their lives, is suitably suspenseful and exciting. The rest… not so much, though there are high points. My personal favorite is one of Sonya and 326’s dates, people in black tie formal at dinner tables arrayed around a boxing ring. Once one pugilist is knocked out, an orchestra strikes up and the patrons rise to dance around the ring. Weimar Germany, everybody!

No, the real problem isn’t that Haghi is a brilliant strategist – which he is – but that his opponents are such ninnies. Even the worst threat, Agent 326, is reduced to an idiot by love. Jerry Lewis would have had a better chance against Haghi. CONTROL, on its Maxwell Smart-est day, would at least have been trying. It’s just infuriating. The fact that is likely an accurate portrait of government bureaucracy is even more infuriating.

fritschStill, Spies was a resounding financial success. Willie Fritsch was an inspired bit of casting, being mainly known for playboy roles in light comedy. His against-type leading man turns in this, and Lang’s next movie, Woman in the Moon, ensured a long career for him. Making her film debut was Gerda Marus (also in Woman in the Moon), a stage actress.  Her casting is notable for her eventual placement in Lang’s heart, ending his troubled marriage with Thea von Harbou, who had written Lang’s most ambitious movies. (Admittedly, the fact that von Harbou would become an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party didn’t help. Lang was, after all, Jewish) Our three main actors are all quite remarkable in a pretty scattered film – the American version cut out all extraneous plotlines and got it down to a runtime of a little over 70 minutes – from two and half hours!

IMG_20160405_232926It should also be mentioned that the financial success of Spies ultimately worked against UFA, as Woman in Space saw Lang, flush with popular success, back to his old budget-busting ways. But that’s a movie for another time.

Now witness some divine overacting and great editing in the first two minutes:

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin-in-the-rainIt is no secret that I generally despise musicals. Don’t hate the music per se, I just have my doubts about inserting it into a story. This has been pointed out – with some truth, no doubt – that this is due to my absolute lack of talent in the singing and dancing arts. I will wrestle you two falls out of three in the realm of Shakespeare, motherfucker, but ask me to carry a tune or do more than the simplest dance step, and I’m out of the running.

(Yet I will admit no small amount of fondness for 1776. I am a mass of controversies.)

But if I am going to continue my self-education in the ways of cinema, I am going to have to face up to this genre. Singin’ in the Rain is held up as sheer perfection by many musical fans, so I marked it as a gateway into such things, and the fact that I found the DVD for 99 cents in a Library Sale helped, too. Then my frequent partner in cinema exploration, Rick, mentioned he had picked up the restored blu-ray, and if you are going to watch a Technicolor movie, you should make sure your eyes are taking in all the angstroms they possibly can.

001-Singin-in-the-Rain-1952-Don-Lina-and-Cosmo-at-Movie-PremiereThe movie starts out with a recap of the career of matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who with his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) journey from vaudeville entertainers to silent pictures. Lockwood manages to parlay a stand-in for stunt work to leading man roles while Cosmo plays mood music during filming. Running from a pack of pre-Beatlemania clothes-ripping fans, Lockwood encounters Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who is so unimpressed with him that he has to immediately fall in love with her. The Big Twist is this is all in 1927, and a little movie called The Jazz Singer is about to change movies for good.

singin-in-the-rain-movie-still-660x330A lot of our plot, such as it is, is going to involve Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a pretty amazing Jean Hagen), hyped by the press to be a Burton-Taylor pair, except that Lockwood can’t stand her. Another problem is that Lamont has a voice like chalk squealing across a Brooklyn blackboard. An advance screening of their new romantic epic, The Dueling Cavalier, is a laughable disaster, at least partially due to the horrific on-set sound recording (“They need to invent ADR,” I muttered).

That evening, Brown and Seldon cheer up Lockwood by brainstorming that the actor should return to his roots and The Dueling Cavalier should become The Dancing Cavalier. After singing “Good Morning” to celebrate, Cosmo also invents ADR by figuring out that Kathy could dub in Lamont’s lines and songs in the new footage.

aieeeeThis will be the plot major thereon, trying to keep the secret of her new voice from Lamont and the repercussions when the plan is blown by a treacherous (and lamentably under-used) Rita Moreno (as “Zelda Zanders, The Zip Girl”). My major problem, as usual, is the damned musical numbers. I expect the number when Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy, no problem. “Good Morning” is a little harder to accept, as its impetus is the discovery that our three heroes have talked until after midnight. And worst of all is “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a number everybody loves but I always refer to as “Try Too Hard”. It’s there because Kelly rightfully thought that O’Connor deserved a solo number, but it feels incredibly shoe-horned in. Then you feel bad because you discover that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and filming the number put him in bed for three days. And then when he came, back, he found out somebody hadn’t checked the gate after his last take and he had to do it all over again.

singing-in-the-rain-5Even fans seem to have a problem with the big “Broadway Ballet” number (better known to us heathens as “Gotta Dance!”), because it has literally nothing to do with the movie’s story. It’s not a problem I share, because it has no reason to be there – it is so obviously something that Kelly wanted to do, they just stopped pretending and let him do it. Though at the end of the sequence – which is supposedly Lockwood describing it to the studio’s head (Millard Mitchell) – I did get to say, “Okay, Cosmo, now you’d better invent Technicolor, too.” It’s a great, dazzling number, costing almost $600,000 to produce, but my God! What is it doing there?

singin-in-the-rain-blu-rayNow “Singin’ in the Rain” is itself the direct opposite, the song and dance growing naturally out of the preceding scene. It’s become Kelly’s iconic number, all the more amazing because he did it while sick as a dog, with a fever somewhere south of 101 degrees. This movie really tried to kill its stars – Debbie Reynolds tap-danced until her feet bled. Literally. And Kelly still insulted her dance skills and re-dubbed all her taps himself.

O-Conner-Reynolds-and-Kelly-in-Singin-in-the-RainFor a movie with a lot of meta-textual jokes about Hollywood – when Kathy rescues Lockwood from his fans, she’s driving Andy Hardy’s jalopy – the most incredibly meta-textual stuff comes from behind the scenes. The best one involves Kathy’s re-dubbing of Lina Lamont’s lines in The Dancing Cavalier. The lines are actually being delivered by Jean Hagen herself in her natural voice, so it’s Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen. Then you find out that all of Debbie’s songs were actually sung by Betty Noyes, and you start wondering who Incepted you while you were sleeping.

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There are only two songs written specifically for this movie – the aforementioned “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” (“Singin’ in the Rain”? Written in 1929), causing some to point to it as the first of the jukebox musicals, which rather ignores the next movie I was going to watch.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy_weather_xlg“Stormy Weather”, the song, was written in 1933, before you ask. The movie is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who actually did lead a pretty interesting one. Only the broadest brush strokes are used in the first 45 minutes or so, as Robinson reads the current Theatre World  magazine, a “Special Edition Celebrating the Magnificent Contribution of the Colored Race to the Entertainment of the World During the Past Twenty-Five Years”, and telling the neighborhood children all the following flashbacks.

…Starting with his return from service in World War I, and his meeting with the fictitious singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a dance for the returning troops. The following bits with Robinson working as a waiter at a bar run by Ada Brown with a band led by Fats Waller is necessary story folderol, as Robinson had a good career in vaudeville before joining the Army, but it provides a re-meet cute with Selina, who follows him after he’s fired for being too good in one show to another show on Broadway (in the 20s, there a brief vogue for all-black revues there). Their romance deepens, but Robinson wants a marriage and children, and Selina does not. She heads off to Paris to become a big star, and Robinson heads to Hollywood. They don’t mention for what, but we’ll get to that later.

horne-robinson-stormy-weather-1943Then who should drive up in his convertible than Cab Calloway, inviting Robinson to attend a show he’s throwing that night “for the troops.” “For the troops? I’ll be there!” And who should be at that show than Selina Rogers, singing the title song and having totally changed her mind about married life. She and Robinson have one more number, and then Cab takes us out with “Jumpin’ Jive” and an appearance by the Nicolas Brothers that will make all your joints and muscles ache just watching it.

lena and cabJukebox musical it is; Fats Waller – of course – does “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Cab does another standard, “Geechy Joe”. There are, in fact, something like 20 musical numbers in a movie that is barely 70 minutes long. And this is not a B-movie rushed out by 20th Century Fox, either, this has prime talent behind the lens as well as in front, and a fair amount of money invested in big production numbers (though certainly not to the dizzying heights of MGM nearly a decade later for Singin’ in the Rain – the Broadway Ballet alone probably cost as much as five Stormy Weathers). That is amazing considering that in most of his other movies, Robinson is in standalone scenes so they could easily be edited out in the South. Hell, his best-known roles – in four Shirley Temple movies, where he served not only as Temple’s friend but her dance instructor – were similarly cut. Fox knew this wasn’t going to play in half of the country.

Screen-shot-2010-10-15-at-6.57.30-PMA major reason for its existence is in evidence from the first and last sequences – Robinson’s service and the proud introduction of “Cab Calloway Jr.” (actually Robert Felder), in uniform and ready to ship out for WWII. “I wish I had a son like him!” exclaims Robinson. As sure as the seal on the closing title urges you to Buy Liberty Bonds on your way out, this was telling the African-Americans in the audience that they were needed for the War Effort, and for the length of this movie, at least, Hollywood was behind them.

In 2001, Stormy Weather was enrolled in the National Film Registry, for a number of good reasons. It’s one of the few (only three I can think of right now) studio movies of the period with an all-black cast, and certainly the only one where the characters seem like actual human beings, with real desires, goals, and foibles.

stormy-weather-bill-robinson-lena-horne-1943You can’t say that race doesn’t exist in Stormy Weather, as it doesn’t shy from the minstrel show realities of Robinson’s early career. It’s pretty significant, and not a little subversive, that when a blackface comedy routine in that Broadway show is presented (and you should be wincing at the sight of two black men smearing burnt cork on their faces), there is no reaction from the audience until the curtain closes on it. It’s a pretty clever routine, too, lightning fast lines delivered at a staggering pace, and their disintegrating car deserved some applause – but nope. Silence. That’s a pretty sharp commentary right there.

fatsThis is Fats Waller’s final film appearance – he died too young of pneumonia just five months later. There’s also some typical Hollywood jiggery-pokery with the Robinson /Horne romance, too, since he’s 40 years her elder here. Doesn’t matter that much, though – once the man starts dancing, he’s ageless. This movie serves as a tribute to so much happy, seemingly effortless, pure talent that we should all be thankful it has survived so we can enjoy it today.

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That should have been my last movie for this round (this has gone on long enough, hasn’t it?), but then an impromptu Internet poll determined I should watch one more, and it was a fairly fortuitous choice:

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

"First Annual". Right.

“First Annual”. Right.

Now this is a literal jukebox movie. Who the hell needs a story, anyway?

But the story is pretty interesting: After The Beatles’ landmark appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, this concert and film was put together by Bill Sargent, who had developed a technology he called Electronovision. An early bid to develop high-definition TV, the cameras sent a then-walloping 800 lines of video at 25 fps to tape, creating an image that could yield a reasonably good picture when transferred to 35mm and projected; it had been used once before for a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, that made the rounds of non-New York theaters. It was used to record this concert, and then only a handful of times, the most notable being a production of Harlow starring Carol Lynley.

Oh, but what a concert. Opening with Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” (I’m going to digress here to point out that another media landmark, the supposed Country Music icon Hee-Haw, also opened with “Johnny B. Goode”, though performed by Buck Owens), and then Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers alternate for a while, then the Miracles (hi, Smokey!), Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean (who also play hosts), The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (hi Diana!), The Barbarians, James Brown and His Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.

Hai, Smokey

Hai, Smokey

That is two hours of incredible music, recorded and mixed live on the fly, apparently cut down from a five hour event (we are spared equipment moving and the like). This is pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, and I sat there with a dopey look on my face.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

I had only thought I had seen The T.A.M.I. Show before; what I had actually seen was a mashup with a later, similar event called The Big TNT Show that had some of The T.A.M.I. Show cut in to be released as This Was Rock. It turned out that Burton had all the Electronovision versions of Hamlet pulled, and somebody in The Beach Boys organization decided that their performance needed to be pulled from all prints. That didn’t quite happen, fortunately, which is why these days we can watch Brian Wilson singing with The Beach Boys, something that would not happen again for 19 years; this was only a few months before his nervous breakdown.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-14h39m35s495There’s other little festive things, too: the pack-in book for the DVD infers that assistant choreographer Toni Basil only appears in the opening credit montage, but I’m pretty sure I spotted her among the dancers (who are doing some OMG get-me-some-oxygen gyrations that would have impressed The Nicolas Brothers with their freneticism) but truthfully, I was looking for another dancer in the lineup, and I finally got a good look at her during the Supremes’ number: hai, Teri Garr!

Ladies & gentlemen - The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

Ladies & gentlemen – The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

If I have time to watch it again, I need to try to get a better look at that backup band, too: that is the legendary Wrecking Crew, which at the time included future stars like Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell.

Another telling bit concerns the last two acts: James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Sargent wanted The Stones to close the show, probably because they were the closest thing to The Beatles he could afford. The Stones didn’t want to follow Brown, and Brown wanted to close the show. Hell, everybody realized that Brown tamishow-2should have closed, except Sargent. So Brown proceeds to make The Stones wish they had never come to America with a set that threatens to melt your TV set. The Stones rise to the challenge, throwing in a bit more footwork than usual in their first song, “Around and Around”, but it doesn’t matter to the screaming teens; the two acts are really for different audiences, and in that one night, both audiences are there, and they are enjoying the hell out of each others’ music.

1315169718That’s the other big cultural landmark that happened in 1964: The Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, outlawing discrimination and segregation. The thing is, The T.A.M.I. Show is an accurate depiction of the radio of my youth; we didn’t care about the color of the music, we cared about its quality, and I heard an astounding variety of music on my little transistor. Modern radio, categorized and pre-boxed and yes, segregated cannot compare, and we are honestly less for that.

Which makes me more glad than ever that Shout Factory has finally managed to put it out on home video, Beach Boys and all.

Please be advised I will not be held responsible for this video melting your computer monitor. Please! Please!

Buy The T.A.M.I. Show on Amazon – it’s currently dirt cheap

Hopefully you’ve now have enough of me for a while. I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my Villain Blogathon entry, and as usual, I rue my choice and the work I have cut out for myself. See you in a couple.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The_Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_(1928)_English_PosterI must have known on some level that this movie existed, surely. Joan of Arc has been an inspiration for centuries, an inspiration for plays, books, movies, even songs by Leonard Cohen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But this movie by Carl Theodor Dreyer was assumed essentially lost for years, and as a silent movie released after 1927’s The Jazz Singer – a fate it shares with another excellent silent, Murnau’s Sunrise – it’s a movie that seemed shamefully ignored by all but those much-maligned cultural elite, or people who came upon it by accident, like composer Richard Einhorn, whose composition Voices of Light has accompanied the movie on most DVDs of recent vintage. Once again, I will cite Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey for convincing me this was a unique picture that deserved seeking out. The Criterion Collection seemed to agree, and it was with something approaching religious ecstasy that I found their DVD during a trip to Half-Price Books.

Maria Falconetti

Maria Falconetti in a performance for the ages.

Dreyer’s research, taking over a year, was meticulous, as was his vision; transcripts of Joan’s trial were examined (a scribe is visible in almost all the interrogation scenes), apocryphal stories either merged into the script or discarded (one small detail – when Joan signs the confession disavowing her holy visions, she follows her name with a small cross – a practice she supposedly used for dispatches to tell her soldiers the contents of the message were false, to confuse the enemy. Never referred to in the movie, it demonstrates how deep Dreyer’s study went).

joan2The Passion of Joan of Arc is famously – or infamously, depending on where you are on the timeline – composed almost entirely of close-ups. If, as Ingmar Bergman once said, “The human face is the great subject of cinema,” this movie is Exhibit A: our constant nearness to Joan’s suffering, the intractable remorselessness of the Church inquisitors, the martial brutality of the English occupiers – and then the transcendent serenity of Joan when she recants her confession, insuring her execution for heresy. She is finally allowed the holy sacraments, even if they are the last rites, and then we also made to feel the regret of her Church persecutors, and the fury of the French crowds as they witness her martyrdom.

Oh, and that's Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

Oh, and that’s Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

"Excommunicate whoever did those windows!"

“Excommunicate whoever did those windows!”

The riot following her death is instructive on many levels; as befits a sequence pitting a mob against a troop of soldiers, the close-up strategy is largely abandoned for a thrilling sequence that is no less affecting than the preceding hour and forty minutes of close-up emotion. It’s also our first real opportunity to see bits of the massive village set constructed for the movie, the most extensive and expensive in European cinema at the time. Evidence of this set only exists in photos taken at the time, because you certainly don’t get a decent look at it in the course of the movie. And one does desire to see the whole thing, as Dreyer’s insistence on reproducing this period exactly extends to odd design choices, most notably in small things we do get to see, like oddly shaped windows in the background of many shots – replicated from contemporary drawings, when artists had not quite figured out the whole perspective thing.

la-la-ca-1010-joan-of-arc-004-Some silent film directors played music while shooting their movies, to create a proper mood, but Dreyer preferred silence to coax honest emotion from his actors (this extends even to a lack of makeup!), and may indeed have wanted Passion to unspool in silence, in the dark (this never happened, and Dreyer was not particularly impressed by the music that did accompany its first, disastrous showings). To harken back to my first paragraph, Richard Einhorn’s Voice of Light on the Criterion disc provides such an amazing accompaniment for the film that I have to disagree with the director on this point. As I write this, another artist has presented, locally, a new score based on medieval music for Passion. My first thought was, “Why bother? It’s been done,” but that is not a worthy question for any creative endeavor. If that was a question that should ever be asked, we would have no new productions of Shakespeare. Nor would The Passion of Joan of Arc even have been made, as a more traditional version of the story, with the expected military pomp and action, Saint Joan the Maid was being produced at the same time, and that after six other movies and shorts dating back to 1900. As I said, Joan is an extremely inspirational character.

passion_joanAs I also said earlier, The Passion of Joan of Arc was essentially lost. The original version of Passion fell victim to that bane of nitrate film, a fire, and Dreyer had to cobble together a version made of takes he had originally rejected, and that was the version the world knew for years (and that version was further cut by Church and government censors, to boot). Then, remarkably, a print of Dreyer’s original version was found in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981. How that print journeyed to this place in 1928 and how it then survived a half-century of benign neglect is an argument in favor of divine intervention, or at least how fate can look after us, even when we are our own worst enemies.

Here’s a sequence with that Voices of Light goodness:

And here’s a more modern take on a trailer:

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