Another Mess o’ Reviews

100Hey, remember when I said I was extremely busy? That hasn’t changed. Allow me to get on with the dispatches from the Movie Odyssey:

Rififi (1955)

du-rififi-chez-les-hommesThe Hollywood Blacklist keeps showing up in the backstory of movies I watch, with Jules Dassin one of the egregious examples. Like a lot of people in the Depression, he joined the Communist Party and its promise of a brighter future, but quit the party after the Soviet Union signed a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, an unforgivable betrayal for a Jew.  Dassin was sent packing in 1950 after completing the shooting for Night and the City and didn’t direct another movie for four years. Practically penniless in Paris, he shot Rififi on a very low budget, with no stars and production personnel willing to work for lower wages just to observe a well-regarded director at work. The result is one of the first heist movies, and one of the best.

Rififi (we are informed this is French gangster slang for “trouble”) is largely the story of jewel thief Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) freshly out of jail after five years, having taken the rap for his younger protege, Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner), whose wife was pregnant at the time. Jo wants his old mentor to join him in a smash-and-grab job at a high-profile jewelry store. Tony’s response is they are instead going to burgle the jewelry store itself, considered a near-impossible job.

Rififi-1The four man gang then proceed to meticulously map out the store, and the ebb and flow of its neighborhood. The heist, when finally enacted, is the centerpiece of the movie, a half-hour sequence without dialogue or music, incredibly tense and exhilarating. It is almost the perfect crime, but the romantic inclinations of the imported Italian safecracker (director Dassin himself) will doom the entire group.

Dassin’s location shooting on The Naked City (inspired by the legendary New York photographer Weegee) stands him in good stead; the streets around the jewelry store become a character in themself. The loving attention to detail is apparent in the depiction of the seedier side of Paris and the criminal demimonde. Our merry band of thieves is likable, the opposing gang that sniffs out a chance for a big payday is vile, right down to kidnapping Jo the Swede’s young son, turning even Tony’s abused former moll against them.

In many ways, this is the proto-Thief, and well worth watching.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise_vintageDoing something like proclaiming you are going to watch a certain 100 movies doesn’t give you the sort of leeway you normally employ in your movie watching, like the time I watched Head to observe Davy Jones’ passing, or The Ruling Class for Peter O’Toole’s. But when somebody stole F.W. Murnau’s skull, I knew it was time to finally watch Sunrise.

This is Murnau’s first American movie, made directly after Faust. The “Two Humans” of the title are a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor, wearing a bad blonde wig, but not as bad as the one Barbara Stanwyck was forced to wear in Double Indemnity), whose marital bliss is undone when a vacationing Woman From The City (Margaret Livingstone), sweeps the Man off his feet with her sophistication. She convinces him to sell his farm and come to the City with her – after he murders his wife by staging an accidental drowning.

The Man can’t go through with the plan, and winds up pursuing his fearful wife into that City, where they rediscover their love on one adventurous, eventful day – but on the return home, their boat capsizes in a sudden storm, and the wife is swept away.

sunrise-murnau-o-brienLike an earlier, highly-regarded silent, The Phantom Carriage, this is some heavy melodrama, but it’s good melodrama. The extremeness of the melodrama in Sunrise is more than matched and countered by the beautifully well-observed humanity of the middle of the movie, where we see the love of the Man and Woman rekindle itself. We can’t help but be swept along their journey, falling in love with them a little ourselves, which only turns the screws tighter in the storm sequence and its aftermath.

This was the first movie to be released with Fox’s new Movietone process, which makes it the first movie with a prerecorded sync score and sound effects, extremely progressive while it was being made. There are two things that are going to lodge in your mind’s eye when you think over the experience, and both are in the City – not location shooting, but an actual, enormous set built by Murnau, and a huge entertainment complex with an equally huge music hall and restaurant attached. Again, a gigantic set built with all the trickery Murnau had mastered in the German cinema, employing forced perspective, midgets in the background to suggest scope, and a ton of extras.

sunrise-fox2.2Sunrise has risen in critical estimation in recent years, moving into Top 100 Movie lists and even cracking a few Top Tens. Why haven’t more people heard of it, then? A month before Sunrise opened, another movie – The Jazz Singer – opened, and suddenly nobody wanted to watch a silent movie. It was talkies or nothing, and Sunrise was a financial disaster.

Murnau would never again be offered the creative and financial freedom he experienced here, and this is a story we will encounter over and over again.  He would only direct three movies before his untimely death in an auto accident in 1931, and cinema is much lessened for that.

Dreadful picture quality on this trailer, but it does give you some idea of the technical artistry Murnau brought to this picture, which, despite its box office failure, won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture:

Then I watched a couple more movies you won’t hear about until October. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty left. Life is trying to crush me with deadlines (This month – July – is in fact going out with an increasingly grinding bang), so the only thing left to do was to go over to Rick’s and watch movies.

Watership Down (1978)

Movie_poster_watership_downRick had been curious about this movie for some time, having only heard about it. That’s not too surprising; although incredibly popular in England, it sank like a stone in its American release. I had only seen it because it had a midnight showing in my college town. I guess it wasn’t Disney, so it wasn’t worth seeing.

Yeah, it’s not Disney.

Based on the novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down is the tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their warren, foretold by the Cassandra-like prophet bunny, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers). Their leader, Hazel (John Hurt) turns out to be quite adept in his new role, and they eventually, after many adventures, take up residence on a high hill, content until they realize that they have no women, and the new warren will eventually vanish.

wd3Thus begins another thread of the tale where the largest of the fugitive rabbits, Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) infiltrates the warren of General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). If their former warren was a bit of a fascist outfit. Woundwort and his minions are absolute Nazis. Their captive population cannot reproduce because it is too crowded. Bigwig seeks out a feisty doe who has helped other rabbits escape, and a daring nighttime breakout ensues, aided by the errant gull Kehaar (Zero Mostel, in his final film role), and a boat, a man-made object that Hazel’s clever warren has learned to employ.

The story’s not over yet, but that’s for you to experience yourself. As you probably noticed, this is an adventure story where the characters all just happen to be rabbits. Watership Down is held up as a sterling example of how to adapt a novel to screen, rearranging events and deleting others for the sake of the movie’s general flow, while remaining largely faithful. It is also known as the most violent PG movie ever released – there is never any doubts as to the stakes being played for in the rabbits’ quest, and, well, there will be blood. I’m okay with that, a lot of parents with crying children were not. The British Board of Film Classification apparently was still receiving flak every year for giving it a “U” for “Universal” rating, the equivalent of a G.

Watership3-031115This begs the question as to how much about the brutal nature of life should children be shielded from, and for how long. My own childhood is still bright and terrifying with images of animals being slaughtered for the rural dinner table. That’s not an experience a lot of children went through, even in my childhood. In our increasingly urbanized existence, that number is likely even lower.

But we’re here to talk about movies, aren’t we?

watershipdown-01It ain’t Disney. Though it may look like it, with its multi-plane animation and watercolor backgrounds, it ain’t, and really, it’s much better for that. I’m going to go further, and grumble about the misconception that if it’s animated, it must be for kids, and kids alone, a misconception that endures despite all the boobies Ralph Bakshi and the Heavy Metal movies have plastered across movie screens.

Research also dug up this, which again makes the above mistake: the follow-up to Watership Down, also based on a novel by Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs, is a cartoon for children like Salo is a movie for high school history classes.

There was a second movie Rick and I watched, but you’re going to have to wait until October for that one. So we’ll just go on to:

Playtime (1967)

014-playtime-theredlistOur journey through Jacques Tati‘s oeuvre continued with this, generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. After the international success of Mon Oncle (my personal favorite), Tati used his resulting clout to make what would become the most expensive French film to date, about 2.5 million blooming to over 15 million – in 60s currency – over the course of a three-year shoot. This is the sort of movie-making legend where it is tempting to obsess over the production of the movie rather than the film itself.

Tiring of his M. Hulot character, Tati sought to de-emphasize him with more of an ensemble, a tapestry of characters we follow throughout. Hulot spends the first part of the movie trying to have a meeting with an elusive man in an ultra-modern labyrinth of an office building, eventually becoming swept up with a group of businessmen in an international product expo in another building entirely. His fate is shared by Barbara (Barbara Dennek), a pretty young American who wants to see the true Paris, but is swept along with her group of tourists into the same shopping expo.

playtime-main-reviewTati’s usual bemusement with problematic modern technology and consumerism is given full play here, leading up to one of his most complex and lengthy setpieces ever, possibly even in cinema as a whole: a pretentious restaurant called The Royal Garden, which opens even as the workmen are putting the finishing touches on, well, everything. The evening becomes ever more crowded and chaotic – practically every character introduced in the opening scenes shows up – even as the hastily-finished building begins to collapse around its patrons. It is only when the restaurant begins to fall apart, when the pretensions disintegrate, that the space becomes more perversely human, and the people inside begin to genuinely enjoy themselves.

This argument against overly-structured modern life is echoed in Hulot’s perambulations, where he finally meets the man he never managed to at the beginning, but only when that man is out walking his dog in the evening. That we later see the two part jovially at the beginning of the restaurant sequence, their business apparently concluded, is a rare moment of accomplishment for the perpetually unlucky Hulot.

playtime7Tati set out to make a movie where it was impossible to catch all the jokes at one viewing, that the wandering eye would see something in every nook and cranny of the scenes. It’s like those crowded panels of Mad, drawn by Bill Elder when it was still a comic book. You could fill a book with observations on Playtime, and still not be sure you got it all. As ever, the sound effects are practically half the movie: Tati’s soundscape renders every object onscreen alive.

Jacques LeGrange, Tati’s longtime collaborator, had advised Tati to build his own ultramodern office building for the filming, and then sell it afterwards for a profit. Tati did this, but rather than following his friend’s advice, built an entire complex on leased land that ensured his buildings would eventually be razed – before filming was completed. Besides two other natural disasters that stopped filming and required rebuilding, the process of filming was made laboriously slow by Tati himself, who proved to be such a control freak that Stanley Kubrick would have said, “Dude, chill out!”

playtime2Structurally – and trying to append a structure to Playtime is a mug’s game – it is most similar to Jour de Fete, a lengthy, multi-charactered lead-up to a frantic, hilarious third act, then a cooling-down sequence leading to a melancholy, but touching conclusion. It’s the lack of conventional structure – and probably the comparative lack of Hulot – that made the movie tank horrendously on its release, and Tati – in considerable, ruinous debt – saw his life’s work auctioned away. Like Murnau, he would only make two more movies in his life, and both of those were commissioned work for television. Never again would he have the free rein and freedom given him here, and whether or not that is a good or fair thing is not for me to judge.

With Playtime, Tati attempted to take his game to the next level, and produced a movie that is undeniably ahead of its time. The thing is, I don’t think that, even now, the world has yet caught up with Tati.

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

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

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

Faust (1926)

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

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

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

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

Jannings & Murnau

Jannings & Murnau

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

Here, have the first four minutes:

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

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

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

Here, I found an excerpt with the Nyman score:

Triumph of the Will (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metropolis (1927)

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

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

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

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

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

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