Playing Catch-Up

Well here we are at the end of the year. I have three more work-related obligations to get nailed down, and then I am an indolent layabout through the rest of the year (alright, more of an indolent layabout. Fine.). Trust me, if I could, I would knock out those three things bang bang bang, but – as you know – such things are dependent on time-space coordinates and other people. So here I am, in between bursts of housekeeping and letter writing, biding my time.

So let me waste some of yours.

I watched some movies, when I wasn’t working or madly re-writing my post on The Seven Samurai. Let’s talk about those.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

lastposterThere are Bucket List movies, and then there are… I guess you could call them Pail List movies? Movies you don’t have to see before you die, but you’ve heard some halfway decent things about them, and maybe you might want to look them up sometime? I honestly don’t remember this having much of a theatrical release, but I do remember it being reviewed in Creem magazine, of all places, which is probably what placed it on the… Pail List. Anyway, during one of Warner Archive’s sales, I picked it up.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, was a victim of a hit-and-run homicide a year previous. Green invites several of his colleagues – all of whom were at the party leading up to the incident – on a week-long voyage on his yacht, during which they will play a devious scavenger-hunt game of his own devising. The yacht, incidentally, is named Sheila.

All of the participants are variously down on their luck in the star-maker machinery, and the cast is pretty amazing – Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane. Green is an exceptionally clever, but sadistic asshole, and his guests must play along to curry his favor, with the hope of some payout or work at the end, even if they are unsure as to what the ultimate purpose of his game may be… but that ultimate purpose is put into question when Green himself winds up dead.

The-Last-of-Sheila-Cast-Herbert-Ross-1973The Last of Sheila feels like an NBC Mystery Movie of the same vintage, without a continuing detective character. The dialogue is lot more sardonic and the twists and turns a bit more clever, thanks to a script by… Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins?!?! The plot becomes pretty byzantine, and I think at least one ball is dropped, but the script is so agile I can’t be sure unless I watch the movie again, and therein lies a problem.

For the first time in my fairly long relationship with Warner Archive, I got a lemon of a disc. My blu-ray player choked on the layer change (which occurs just at the point that Green’s murder is discovered) and I had to use the chapter stop to get to the scene afterwards. I don’t think I missed that much, as there are several flashbacks when the surviving party members make with the detectin’, but I can’t be sure.

Also, the spoiler in the box back copy wasn’t cool, guys. It wasn’t subtle at all.

The Green Pastures (1936)

green pasturesWarner Archive, though, remains one of my favorite boutique labels, because without them, I would never have the opportunity to see cultural oddities like this. The Green Pastures was based on a highly successful play by Marc Connelly (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930!), which was in turn based on a short story collection called “Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun”. The framing story takes place in a black Sunday School in the Depression South, where a parson discusses the Bible with the children – the vast majority of the movie is a recreation of the high points of the Old Testament in the children’s minds.

Despite Warner’s disclaimer at the very beginning that The Green Pastures is “a product of its time”, there are a lot of folk who would turn their back on this movie almost immediately. The very first of the biblical scenes, taking place in a heaven presented as an eternal fish fry with endless ten-cent cigars is going to provoke a lot of eye-rolling and face-palming. But then Rex Ingram shows up as “De Lawd” and the proceedings suddenly become less childlike and more reverent.

The Green Pastures takes us from the creation of Man (appropriately, Adam is also played by Ingram), through Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Flight from Egypt, ending up at last with the Crucifixion – and the theology gets surprisingly complex. The simplistic, childlike approach will continue throughout, as Noah (a marvelous pre-Rochester turn by Eddie Anderson) is beleaguered by dice-throwing gangsters; Moses is given the power of “a trickster” by De Lawd to confront a Pharaoh surrounded by secret societies and lodges straight out of  the more cartoonish Laurel and Hardy movies. It’s the Porgy and Bess version of the Scriptures, and it is quite something to see.

But as I said, the theology gets complex. De Lawd is constantly disappointed and puzzled by his creation, especially after wiping nearly all of them out once, and they still insist on going bad; eventually De Lawd turns his back on Man and falls into depression, much to the dismay of the assembled angels. The biggest surprise (to me) is that Jesus does crop up at the very end, but not as the Son of God; instead, in God’s darkest hour of despair, he appears as a sign that Man is capable of Getting It Right, and De Lawd returns to his previous, beatific happiness.

the-green-pasturesSay what you will, this is one of the very, very few studio films with an all-black cast, and a lot of actors get to shine in something beside Stepin Fetchit comic relief roles. Rex Ingram, in particular, only got to shine a few times – here, and in the 1938 Huckleberry Finn as Jim, and The Thief of Bagdad as the sardonic genie. Apparently, the original plan was to have Al Jolson play the role in blackface, which is as wrong-headed and idiotic an idea as I can possibly imagine. This movie would have actually deserved all the opprobrium leveled against it for the wrong reasons (Paul Robeson was also offered the role, which would have been amazing, but he turned it down). Ingram is a winning blend of serenity, gravitas, and quiet power – one literally cannot conceive of the movie without his presence.

But the most telling thing in Warner Archive’s package is the trailer: nearly four minutes of Dick Powell and Marc Connelly telling us how great and important a movie it is. No blacks are ever shown except in a long shot., at a safe remove from the audience.

The Swimmer (1968)

the swimmerSo how best to follow that up than with the whitest movie I have ever seen?

Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who decides that he will get home by swimming through a man-made river of swimming pools in a suburban enclave of wealth and privilege. Where exactly Merrill is coming from as he dives into the first pool is never revealed, another piece in the puzzle that is The Swimmer – we only know that the people are delighted to see him, and he has been away for a while.

As I said, this is a puzzle, and we are going to be given more pieces as the picture progresses. Merrill has been gone for at least a year, yes, and we find out that he was fired unceremoniously from his high-powered job at an “agency”. As he gets closer to his destination, he journeys from the land of the truly rich to the nouveau riche and finally into the land of the working schlubs (his last pool is the local municipal pool, with many rules and too much chlorine); resentment at his presence at scorn at his fallen status grows, even as his constant references to his happy marriage and loving children begin to take on the flavor of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This leads to a gut-punch of a surprise – though not entirely unexpected – ending.

film-aspect-ratio-levelsThis is the Death of The American Dream as Twilight Zone episode, though Rod Serling would have put more of a keener edge on it, more of a stark moral. In the (as usual) exhaustive and informative extras on the Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray, we find that the production was a troubled one, and star Lancaster, who apparently felt this was one of his best roles, later said that the movie really needed a Fellini (or more likely, his pal Visconti) to actually pull it off well. This is a possibility – there is a level of grotesquerie that is lacking a sense of commitment in this story.

Director Frank Perry’s previous success was his first movie, the equally oddball love story David and Lisa. He would go on to more successful pictures like Diary of a Mad HousewifeRancho Deluxe and Mommie Dearest, but his doom was probably ensured when producer Sam Spiegel got Burt Lancaster for the lead (after being turned down by William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott). Lancaster was eager for the role, learning to swim from Olympic coach Bob Horn (reportedly, Lancaster was afraid of water before this movie), and undergoing a strenuous physical regimen that slimmed him down while still producing twenty pounds of muscle. Critics may not have liked the movie, but they all praised the star’s physique.

He also started directing the movie behind Perry’s back.

The-Swimmer-1968-Movie-2The most famous instance of this is in Joan River’s debut scene, as a woman who encounters Merrill during the aforementioned nouveau riche Binswanger’s pool party (where no one is using the pool for swimming except Merrill). The scene lasts perhaps three minutes, and took seven days to film, Rivers attempting to follow both men’s direction. Eventually, Perry was fired from the director’s chair, and Lancaster prevailed upon his friend, Sydney Pollack, to re-shoot one sequence completely, and to add several more scenes.

The actual best scene – well, my favorite, anyway – involves Merrill hitching a ride in a limo to one exceptionally rich mansion, and finding to his surprise that the chauffeur is not “Steve”, and manages to have a complete conversation with the replacement without once asking his name. Bernie Hamilton is the replacement, only the second black we will see in the movie – the first being a bartender at a party – and his terse, restrained and resigned scene with Lancaster speaks volumes about how he feels about his place in this world. That one scene calls bullshit on the rest of the movie most effectively and efficiently.

the-swimmer-1968-790x587Still, the most effective condemnation of all this is in the extras – and I must admit that this may only be due to my jaundiced eye. There are many, many interviews, of course, but the ones I am concentrating on are with Joan Rivers and Janet Landgard, who plays Julie, a young girl who confesses to a childhood crush on Merrill that the man proceeds to totally misinterpret, giving us an early glimpse into his mental problems. Landgard had a continuing role(s) on The Donna Reed Show and this was her theatrical debut, an absolutely perfect avatar of a young blonde suburban girl, just entering into womanhood. She had since left Hollywood and was working at something awesome like managing scientific bases in the Antarctic (so numerous are the extras I don’t have time to scan back and verify that, but it was impressive enough to make me say, “Good on you!”). Rivers, of course, went on and became quite the enduring presence in Lala Land.

Both ladies’ interview segments are interspersed with clips from the movie. Both women have changed significantly in the intervening years, of course. The difference is that Landgard allowed herself to age, while Rivers, ever mindful of Hollywood, has had her face plasticized and botoxed to near-immobility – probably the best indictment of the lifestyle The Swimmer was trying, however unsuccessful ultimately, to condemn.

The Magic Flute (1975)

magic fluteOkay, one more before I put this to bed.

This is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. I am going to freely admit that opera is one of those art forms I just do not get, but if there is one thing I have developed in these last few years of cinematic horizon-broadening, it is a deep love for Bergman, and the trust this engendered. This was a dream project for him, so I surrendered myself to Bergman’s dream, and did not regret it one bit.

The Magic Flute isn’t pure opera, it’s a form of it called Songspiele, which incorporates spoken dialogue. Bergman attempted to duplicate the theatrical experience, right down to having a facsimile of the original 1791 theater built in a studio of the Swedish Film Institute. The overture is illustrated with the expectant faces of the audience.

My lack of operatic knowledge worked soundly in my favor. I went into this knowing nothing about the opera, so every plot twist, every character beat and nuance was completely new to me. Tamino, a handsome prince lost in a strange land, if tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter,  Pamina, from the evil sorcerer, Sarastro. He will be assisted by the fowler, Papageno, who wants nothing more than a girlfriend. The Queen gives Tamino the Magic Flute of the title, and Papageno a set of magic bells.

Film_71w_MagicFlute_originalThe major twist (spoilers for an 18th century opera, dude) is that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is no sorcerer, but a respected holy man hoping to not only free Pamina from the evil influence of her mother, but also deliver all mankind from evil. Tamino, he feels, will prove to the active agent of this change, but only if he can survive the ordeals suffered by every member of Sarastro’s priesthood, and an ultimate test that he will face along with Pamina and the power of the Flute.

Bergman’s staging is magical – there are occasional glimpses of backstage activities, and the sets fluidly expand to impossible vistas as the story progresses, moving back and forth between the physical confines of an actual theater and the larger expanses of the imagination. The Magic Flute also gives me something I had not been aware I craved in the few operas I have attended: intimacy, in the form of canny close-ups and camera moves.

The Magic Flute has some notoriously difficult passages; Mozart wrote these for singers he knew and their particular strengths. The singers here – some of the best Sweden had to offer – tackle the music with relish, and as the first TV movie recorded in stereo sound, the presentation is quite luscious.

Here’s an example of the playful staging, with Papageno’s entrance and first song:

That’s a high point to leave you on, here. Hopefully, back soon with more blathering, because I’ve certainly watched more movies.


L: The Last House on the Left (1972) + The Virgin Spring (1960)

Hubrisween 3 BlackClick ^^ for Hubrisween Central, here for our Letterboxd page.

This is another of those “I knew I was going to have to deal with this movie someday” posts.

last_house_on_the_left_poster_01Yes, I managed to live through almost a half century without watching The Last House on the Left, despite it being pointed to as a milestone in horror movies. There are two reasons for this. The first, and I suppose major, reason is I don’t like movies like this. Yes, I love horror movies. But I prefer my fright films on the fantastic side; give me literal monsters, not human ones. So the period of my life when nothing but slasher movies were being made was a particularly tough one.

The second reason: a close childhood friend – and we had bonded over the fact that he was the only other person in my small town as obsessed by horror movies as I – had managed to see it despite its R rating, and before much furor had built up over it. He proceeded to describe the movie to me in gleeful detail, editing out every scene that did not include death, humiliation, debauchery, terror or gore.

So I felt like I had already seen it.

Wes__07-2smaller_cropAs I write this, it’s only been a couple of weeks since we lost director Wes Craven to brain cancer. The outpouring of grief and admiration from his fellows and fans was nice to see; after all, as Ken Lowery pointed out on Twitter, “It’s not everybody who gets to set the zeitgeist for his genre three times.” I liked and respected his movies (Nightmare on Elm Street, after all, put the fantastic into slasher films), but again – I hadn’t seen his first two (Yeah, Hills Have Eyes, also. Psycho hillbillies, Not a favorite subgenre, Texas Chainsaw notwithstanding). Immediately after Craven died, lots of people were watching his movies. Last House on the Left  I had slotted into Hubrisween almost a year ago, and it was also in my 100 Films challenge.

So now I’ve seen it.

hqdefaultIt’s Mari Collingwood’s 17th birthday, and she is going to a concert with her friend from the wrong side of the tracks, Phyllis (your designated victims are played by Sandra Peabody – under the assumed name of Sandra Cassell – and Lucy Grantham, respectively). Mari’s dad, a doctor, is worried about the concert taking place in the seedy part of town, but it’s okay, because that’s where Phyllis lives, right?

The Collingwoods live out in the country, incidentally. And we are given a preview of the generally sleazy tendencies of the upcoming movie when the grandfatherly rural mailman refers to Mari as “The prettiest piece I’ve ever seen.” And oh, yeah, there’s something wrong with the phone. That might be significant later.

imagesThe two girls hit the seedy part of town we’ve heard so much about, and try to score some grass from an equally seedy looking guy. Unfortunately, this guy is Junior (Mark Sheffler), the son of escaped convict Krug Stillo (David Hess), whom Exposition Radio had earlier informed us is so bad he hooked his son on heroin just to further control him. Junior takes them upstairs to where Krug, his moll Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and associate Weasel (Fred Lincoln) are hiding out. And before you can say “fresh meat”, the two girls find themselves the hostages of some pretty bad people.

The gang is going to take the girls in their trunk as they head over the border into Canada, but their car breaks down, and the girls are taken into the woods for what passes for fun and games among creeps. There is an effective moment when the tied and gagged Mari realizes the car broke down next to the mailbox outside her house.

tumblr_mr5azxK9pX1r4ro7yo1_500Thereafter follows the portion of the movie that got Last House declared a Video Nasty in England and incurred most of the projection booth censorship by shocked projectionists and nervous theater owners with scissors. We’ll start out with various forms of humiliation, including forced lesbian sex, but it isn’t until Phyllis tries to escape – and almost succeeds – that things turn really bad, She is stabbed, disemboweled, and generally hacked to pieces. Then, blood-soaked and in a frenzy, the killers return to where Mari has been desperately trying to convince Junior to run away with her. Mari is raped, and as she staggers away in shock, is shot in the back.

We are now little more than halfway through the movie.

MV5BMzEwMTEzNzY3Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTM0MDU5NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Krug and company clean up, change clothes, and go to that house across the road to call for someone to fix their car. The Collingwoods feed them dinner and invite them to use the guest room and the missing Mari’s room, until the phone is fixed in the morning. Junior is in withdrawal, and while Mom is checking on him, she notices he is wearing the necklace Dad gave Mari for her birthday. She then finds their bloody clothes, and rousting Dad from bed, they head out into the woods and find Mari’s body.

And then they turn into avenging angels. Rather bloody avenging angels. With a predilection toward booby traps (which would serve the director well in Nightmare on Elm Street).

20130706-190636Wes Craven said he was trying to say something about violence when he made Last House. Given that the movie is still regarded as a non-stop assault, he may have made that point. There are many times where the camera is expected to cut away, and it doesn’t. Some of that is due to the fact that the only filmmaking Craven had done to this point was documentary, and he went with what he knew; scenes are done in long takes, rarely employing a tripod, so the atrocities are presented to the viewer like the evening news, unbroken by edits. It lends an immediacy to the horror that can’t be over-emphasized. The filmmakers also only knew the rough basics of how to make stage blood, and the stuff they came up with looks disturbingly like the real thing.

What my childhood friend didn’t tell me about, though, what he didn’t feel was special enough, can be broken up into two classes. The first is the comic cops, a Sheriff and Deputy (Marshall Anker and Martin Kove, oddly enough), who suddenly realize that the broken-down car they saw outside the Collingwood’s is the Krug getaway car, but they run out of gas while racing back to the scene. Mari and Phyllis’s desecration and murder is intercut with supposedly comic sequences of these two trying to hitch a ride. It’s supposed to add more tension to the girls’ plight, but generally just makes one question the filmmaker’s judgement.

1972_last_houseThe second thing omitted might have made me more interested in watching Last House, and it’s the Littler Things, things that could get lost in the bloody wash. First, the script is actually pretty clever, and often witty – really. Second, Craven is quite aware that even barbaric tribes are concerned with their own: witness Weasel’s cry of “Sadie! Are you all right?” when the escaping Phyllis smacks her on the head with a rock, abandoning his pursuit to check on her. And finally, after Mari’s rape, as the girl slowly pulls her clothes on and wanders off in shock – Krug, Sadie and Weasel looking everywhere but at her, finally at each other, realizing they have just thrown away the last shreds of humanity they might have harbored, and that is not cause for celebration.

That is what gives Last House on the Left  its claim to being an important movie. The ultimate message that violence not only damages the victim, but also the aggressor, in ways beyond blood and bone. Mari’s parents get their revenge, certainly, but at similar violence to their humanity.

Most people don’t want to know about that, though. They want to see rapin’ and killin’.

VirginSpringThe052013LCIt eventually came out that the source material for Last House on the Left was an Ingmar Bergman movie, fer cryin’ out loud, The Virgin Spring (Academy Award Winner, Best Foreign Language Film, 1960, no less). So once again I hie myself to The Criterion Collection.

The first difference you’re going to note is the story is set in medieval times; paganism is being supplanted by Christianity. Phyllis, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, is now Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), a pregnant girl adopted by the family of Töve (Max Von Sydow), a successful farmer and ardent Christian, though perhaps not as ardent as his wife, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), who burns herself with candles on “the day of our Lord’s suffering”.

3148928099_9b7d0c54feIngeri opens the movie by praying to Odin to strike down her foster sister, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is currently oversleeping on the day she is supposed to take candles to the local church for the Virgin Mary. Karin is the opposite of Ingeri in every way: blonde, chaste, spoiled. She puts on her finest garments and heads to the church, with a reluctant and bitter Ingeri in tow.

At a river crossing, Ingeri begins to be fearful of the vengeance she had called down on Karin, and stays behind, only to be freaked out again by a fellow Odin worhipper when he begins showing her the remains of his last sacrifice. So Karin is alone when she runs into three wandering sheepherders, known only as Thin, Mute, and The Boy, which is a good descriptor of them (Axel Düberg, Tor Isedal, and Ove Porath). Beguiled by Thin’s use of a mouth harp, Karin talks with them for a while, then offers to share her lunch with them. They’re not much interested in saying grace with her, though.

hqdefault (1)As the lunch goes on and Karin brags about her family and their farm, the herdsmen start getting closer and closer, and Karin begins to realize she’s in trouble, but way too late. In fact, one of the most heartbreaking parts of this segment is that she shifts into hyper-nice, trying to distract the two older herdsmen from their obvious intent, but to no avail.

Karin’s rape is, once again, the part that got scissored for years and years. It is not explicit in any way, but it is ugly and horrifying. Bergman argued that it should be ugly and horrifying, that to cover its brutish offensiveness by discreetly cutting away would not only lessen the impact, but would, in effect, let the audience off the hook emotionally. That sigh of relief would diminish the character’s suffering. Honestly, rape needs to be seen for the horrific crime it is, not a mere plot device.

Immediately afterward is the same scene as in Last House, as the two herdsmen realize the monstrousness of what they’ve done (Craven knew what was important, and what was necessary to carry over to his version). Karin wanders first toward the camera, then back, before the mute herdsman beats her to death with a club. There’s another shocked moment, then the two herdsmen strip the clothes off her body and run off, telling The Boy to watch the herd until they come back. Eventually, overcome with horror, The Boy will try to throw some dirt over her body, as snow begins to fall.

MAX VON SYDOW, BIRGITTA PETTERSSON, AXEL DUBERG, TOR ISEDAL, ALLAN EDWALL, OVE PORATH, GUDRUN BROST, TOR BORONG & LEIF FORSTENBERG Film 'THE VIRGIN SPRING' (1960) Directed By JACQUES TOURNEUR 08/02/1960 CTS60903 Allstar/CINETEXT/TARTAN VIDEO **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film or TV programme.

That night, Töve receives three visitors to his manor house: it’s the three herdsmen, claiming to be workers travelling south for warmer weather and work. Töve tells them to come in from the cold, and feeds them. The Boy, terrified, is the only one who recognizes the grace they say over their meal is the same said by the girl the two men murdered. Töve, ever the good Christian, tells them there will be work at his farm soon, and goes to bed.

vlcsnap-2015-09-13-23h07m49s320Marta checks in on her guests when she hears the boy cry out; another guest – a beggar – tells her the mute one struck the boy. As she leaves, Thin tries to sell her a silk shift he says belonged to his dead sister. Marta recognizes it as Karin’s, and the absolute stillness of Valberg’s acting in this scene is a gut punch. She takes the shift, saying she’ll have to talk to her husband about a proper reward for it, and leaves, not giving in to emotion until she has left the room. Then she locks the door behind her and wakes Töve.

Töve digs through a chest of clothing and recovers his sword. He goes out to prepare for what he must do, and finds Ingeri hiding under the stairs. The poor girl had witnessed what happened to Karin, and is convinced that her prayers to Odin were the cause. (In the original cut of Last House, when Mari’s body was found, she was still supposed to be clinging to life, long enough to finger Krug and company for the crime. You can still see her moving and breathing in that scene) She begs Töve to kill her for that transgression. He tells her to get up and help him get ready.

virginspringHe forsakes the sword for the “butcher’s knife” and walks quietly into the main room, where the killers are still sleeping. Marta follows, locking the door silently behind her. Töve opens the men’s bags, finding more and more of Karin’s clothing. Then he wakes them up and kills them, one by one. It’s not the climax of Last House with a chainsaw and a switchblade, but it is cringe-making as the two men try to defend themselves but are no match for a wrathful father. Töve then, in an Old Testament rage, grabs The Boy, who had run to Marta in terror, and smashes him against a wall, killing him instantly.

This is pretty much where Last House ends, with mother and father covered in blood, the comedy cops finally arriving and horrified, and the living protagonists with a thousand yard stare. Bergman, however, gives us Töve’s despair at what he’s done, the search for Karin’s body, Töve’s talk with God about how He allowed this to happen, and his own determination that he must atone for his wrath and murders by building a church of rock and mortar on the spot where Karin was killed. He raises Karin’s body, and a spring begins to flow from the spot, as this is based on an ancient Swedish ballad, and that is how it ends.

In the overall sweepstakes of my favor, The Virgin Spring has the clear edge, technically and presentation-wise. But that’s a mug’s game, really; Bergman had been making movies for fourteen years, and The Virgin Spring was his 26th. It’s not totally an apple-to-oranges comparison, but it’s close. I find in considering and analyzing it, my overall opinion of Last House on the Left has actually improved. That said, I know which movie I would watch again, given a choice.

You’ve probably seen The Last House on the Left,  you’re not a general movie layabout like myself. Now watch how one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century handles that last scene. No subtitles necessary.

Buy Last House on the Left on Amazon
Buy The Virgin Spring on Amazon

Comin’ On Like A… MEGA POST!

100June 16, 2015

So if you watch TV at all, you might be aware that, as I write this, Tropical Storm Bill has made landfall somewhere south of me in Texas, an event that the local media has been trumpeting as if it were the vengeful return of Hurricane Ike, attended by flesh-eating zombies, who were themselves on fire. Grocery stores were emptied out, schools were closed, and I couldn’t go to work. Couldn’t even work on this blog, because my Verizon DSL craps out when it rains. Even the infinitesimal amount of precipitation I’ve gotten so far.

Well, this is what word processors are for, yes? Eventually my Internet has to come back. Eventually my teenage son has to stop barging into my office, demanding I reset “the router” “just in case that might help.” I’ve stopped correcting him that the router and the modem are separate creatures. I just grumble and do it.

In the course of all this madness, as I fall farther and farther behind in everything else, I might as well say, hey, I watched some movies.

THE-INNOCENTS-1961For instance, I watched The Innocents for the first time in, ooooh, maybe 50 years? I didn’t like it back then, but, you know, I was just a kid and all that. I bring entirely new sensibilities to the table. Surely now I will experience it as the classic it truly is!

Nope. I’m going to have to admit that most ghost stories simply do not do it for me, no matter how well made they are, and make no mistake – The Innocents is a well-made movie. Deborah Kerr, as a first-time governess who finds herself in a battle for her charges’ souls against the ghosts of two former servants, felt this was her best role. That’s quite possible. As a child I did not care for the downbeat ending. As an adult I appreciate that Kerr and director Jack Clayton leave the possibility open that this ghost business may all be in the governess’ troubled mind.

Or, if you're Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Or, if you’re Amurrican, you saw this movie.

Well, on then to stuff I appreciated more. Last week we lost a bunch of cool people, the biggest splash belonging to Sir Christopher Lee. I’ve said many times I found him to be an actor of limited range, but he had more presence and gravitas than ten normal actors, and when you put him in the right role, damn but he was unstoppable. One of those right roles was the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, Hammer’s movie version of the Dennis Wheatley novel of the same name (the credits remind us it is a “classic novel”).

Richelieu, along with his two-fisted pal Rex (Leon Green) are determined to free the son of their deceased comrade, Simon (Patrick Mower) from the insidious control of Mocata (Charles Gray at his villainous best), a Satanist of incredible power. Fortunately for the good guys, de Richelieu is himself knowledgeable in the ways of magic, and is  able to protect his friends – if just barely – from the black magic onslaught that comes. The story meanders a bit, but there’s hypnotism, spirit mediums, giant spiders, the Angel of Death and Satan Himself (a guy with a goat’s head. It’s 1968, after all, and for that, it’s not bad).

There’s a fair amount of action and derring-do – I seem to remember the novel having a lot more, but then, I read it uhhhh forty-something years ago. A lot of movies about Satanism are pretty dull, but this is not one of them. It really needs a quality video release in the U.S., but I say that about most Hammer movies.


70s, you have so much to answer for.

Then I went to Rick’s for our monthly watching of movies. We had our three movies all picked out, and our pattern of late was two acknowledged classics and one lamentable piece of crap, usually sandwiched between the two classics as a palette cleanser. This time we decided to forego the “shit sandwich” model and start with the non-classic: in this case, the recently-revived Supersoul Brother, which goes by an *ahem* much vulgar title in actuality.

This is the star vehicle for Wildman Steve, a minor league Rudy Ray Moore (who was himself in Petey Wheatstraw as a character named Steve), who plays a wino -named Steve – picked by two thugs to be the guinea pig for a super-strength potion they’ve bankrolled to the tune of six thousand dollars (geddit? Geddit?). The plan is for Steve to carry out a safe from a jewelry store, then the hoods will plug him and make off with the diamonds. They figure this will be a mercy because, unknown to Steve, the formula will kill him in six days. Well, the formula also makes him bulletproof, so he makes off with the diamonds and tries to find an antidote.

supersoul6bigNow that is almost the plot to a decent movie. Unfortunately, this is a Wildman Steve movie, which means it’s a Dolemite movie without the budget, wit or charm.

I’m going let that statement sink in on you for a while. As Rick so very succinctly put it, “This movie makes you re-calibrate your opinion of the Dolemite movies.”

I managed one intentional laugh during the movie. There is also one point during which we said, “You know, this was an okay movie until these white women showed up,” so there are degrees of bad. Predictably, although a derelict wino, Steve has no problem getting women into bed. The mad scientist, Doctor Dippy (Peter Conrad) has a girlfriend played by the magically named Wild Savage, who seemingly took acting lessons from Dolores Fuller, but again, without the budget, wit or charm of an Ed Wood movie.

vlcsnap-2015-04-15-19h33m18s228This was directed by Miami filmmaker Rene Martinez, Jr., whose other big claim to fame is The Guy From Harlem, which, dammit, I own, so someday I have to watch it. At one point we spotted a triple-beam scale in Dr. Dippy’s office and Rick said, “That’s how they measured out the payroll every week.”

Vinegar Syndrome’s DVD is mainly clear and deceptively beautiful, but it has enough missing frames and streaking to really bring home the seedy grindhouse experience. I can’t recommend it, but I also cannot wait to force it on my friends.

Well, I see Everything is Terrible has edited it down to two minutes. Be aware this only gives you the smallest inkling of it’s… uh… quality:

So to soothe our bruised sensibilities, we slipped in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

The_Great_Dictator-335887708-largeChaplin’s first all-sound movie still has stretches of silent comedy (or scenes that would play as well silently), but suffers from some tonal problems. It’s the tale of a Jewish barber who spends years in a hospital, suffering amnesia from injuries in a World War I-style war between the countries of Tomania and Bacteria. Thus he misses the rise of dictator Adenoid Hynkel, his Double Cross party, and his anti-Jewish agenda. Both men are played by Chaplin.

Chaplin’s Hitler manque is justly famous – he spent hours watching footage of Hitler and knows exactly how to puncture the dictator, right down to his adjutants, rechristened Herring (Billy Gilbert) and Garbitsch (Henry Daniell). The Hynkel scenes are so exacting, so precise, that the parallel storyline with the barber seem scattered and happenstance – the Barber isn’t even given a name – until the two switch places, more by accident than anything.

Charlie-Chaplin-in-The-Gr-004It was, in fact, a matter of some curiosity to me that nobody notices the two men are identical. In retrospect, that is absolutely the right way to approach it; as one of the Juden, the Barber is considered by the stormtroopers to be subhuman, and therefore no notice is given to him as a person; it isn’t until the Barber escapes from a concentration camp and is found in a stolen uniform that it is assumed he is Hynkel, just as Der Fooey, taking a pre-invasion vacation in an Alpine costume, is mistaken for a common man.

This is all leading up to the Barber giving a speech when everyone assumes he is Hynkel, to celebrate his conquering of another fictional country; the speech is, instead, one advocating peace and brotherhood, and you have no doubt had it posted to your various timelines more than once, captioned as “The Greatest Speech Ever Made” (and here it is with some Hans Zimmer music, for  extra chills):

Please note that this speech is also one of the pieces of evidence given for branding Chaplin a Communist. Why? Because fuck the world, that’s why.

As I said, I don’t feel the two storylines mesh ideally, but who cares when the two resulting movies are this good? Chaplin was very nervous about his first talkie, so much so that the movie pretty much ruined his relationship with Paulette Goddard, radiant as always as the Barber’s girlfriend, Hannah. He needed not have worried so much, even if in later years he had misgivings about taking a relatively lighthearted approach when the true horrors of Nazi Germany began to come to light. But The Great Dictator had such value as a propaganda tool in the early days of World War II, it cannot be discarded as misguided. Hell, it’s even recorded that Hitler himself had a copy smuggled in so he could watch it. Apparently he did so twice.

mononcle-posterSo, excellent movie, even though I could not, in all conscience, give it the full five stars. Unlike the movie which ended our evening, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.

Several years back, when I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and needed to start experiencing a higher quality of film, this is precisely the sort of movie I suspected I was missing out on. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about it, as the examination of even one of the many wonderful bits of imagery that run throughout the movie leads to the temptation to talk about all of them.

But let’s try. In the introduction to Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, one of the many plot threads concerned a young boy, whose businessman father was too occupied with important phone calls to pay attention to his son (much less enjoy his own vacation), who began to emulate Hulot. In Mon Oncle, Tati makes that connection a familial one.

Mononcle houseGerard (Alain Becourt) is the son of the Arpels; Mr. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola) is the manager of a successful plastic hose company; Mrs. Arpel (Adrienne Servantie) busies herself with caring for their ultra-modern and extremely ugly house. Hulot (Tati, as always) is Madame Arpel’s brother, living in a strange apartment building requiring an almost Escher-like path to get to his room, at the very top. Hulot lives in a older, rundown suburb that might as well be the rustic village in Jour de Fête; the heartbeat of life there is much slower and more erratic than in the contained and regimented world of the Arpels.

hqdefaultThus, Gerard looks forward to his outings with his uncle – they promise and provide more adventure and actual living than in his nightmare Tex Avery Home of the Future (at one point the Arpels quite literally become prisoners of their own technology). The Arpels, of course, keep trying to cram Hulot into the pegboard of their lives – Arpel gets him a job in the plastics factory (which goes about as well as you’d expect), while his sister attempts to set him up with their next-door neighbor, a bizarre scarecrow given to wearing Andean rugs as a cape.

Mon_Oncle_Hulot_Arpel-Large1Tati isn’t really against the modernity of the Arpel’s house, he’s more against the fact that it’s a house to be shown, not a house to be lived in – there is not a single comfortable chair in the joint, they are all plastic monstrosities that theoretically double as pieces of art. Even then, Tati is never truly vicious in his portrayal of the nouveau riche couple. Even when the father, tired of his son’s admiration for Hulot, packs him off to the provinces – a rather downbeat ending, in my estimation – Tati manages to wring a bit of sweetness from the proceedings, a reconciliation between father and son that shows the father may not have been totally despising his brother-in-law all this time.

Wow, we just hit 2000 words on this, but I managed to be kind of brief about Mon Oncle, so let’s try to get one more movie in here, continuing the comedy vein with Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night.

smiles-of-a-summer-night-movie-poster-1955-1020235556This was the movie that made Bergman’s bones, make no mistake. He was terribly depressed, and his producer telling him if his next picture didn’t make some money, they wouldn’t be letting him make any more probably didn’t help. Then they entered Smiles into Cannes without telling him, it was a major hit, and suddenly they had to let him make his dream project, The Seventh Seal, which cemented the whole “genius” thing for him. Smiles also inspired Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but that’s not as much fun as imagining he based Sweeney Todd on Bloodthirsty Butchers.

Smiles is one of those mannered comedies about relationships concerning six couples, most of whom are entangled with the wrong people, and the conniving actress who gathers them all at a country estate so that everybody can get with the right person. Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrad is Egermann, a middle-aged lawyer married to a 20 year old girl, who is still a virgin (also, his depressive adult son, the same age as the bride, is in love with her). The conniving actress is Egermann’s former mistress, who may have had his illegitimate son (which is a surprise to Egermann). She is currently the mistress of Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, a martinet who would allow his own wife to have affairs, if that just didn’t make him so jealous.

smileshaAnd just to add a little spice to the proceedings, there’s the child bride’s saucy maid, played by Harriet Andersson (who blew me away so completely in Through a Glass Darkly), who is herself looking for love. Bergman had apparently been having a love affair with Andersson prior to this movie, but it was over by this point – another reason for his profound depression during shooting.

It’s a complex plot, but Bergman keeps a bunch of balls in the air and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion. The main thrust of the story is that men are are a bunch of idiots and women can make them do anything they want, and I’d argue with that if I could. I was confused through the opening half of Smiles, because Egermann’s relation with his second wife – who he finally admits loves him more like a father than a mate – bears more than a slight resemblance to the life of Moliere, the French playwright who lends much inspiration to this script.

charlottefredrik360Moliere was similarly married to a much younger woman, even more unhappily than Egermann. Back when I was an actor, I played Moliere in a repertory project that alternated Mikail Bulgakov’s biographical The Cabal of Hypocrites with The Imaginary Invalid. In preparation, I read Bulgakov’s excellent biography of Moliere, along with the playwright’s works, and the most revelatory experience was reading The School for Wives, which is about… an older man married to a much younger woman. The final scene is basically a duel of romantic pronouncements between Moliere’s character and his wife’s younger lover. Contemporary reviews of the play mention Moliere’s hilarious puncturing of overwrought romantic plays and their actors in that scene, but knowing the man’s life, you are struck by how easily it could be played as bleakest tragedy, without changing a single word.

There’s quite a bit of that vibe in the opening act of Smiles of a Summer Night. By the third act, I was pretty certain it was a comedy, though, largely thanks to Andersson’s maid and her earthy major domo boyfriend, played by another repertory company member , Åke Fridell. And if nothing else, I liked it a whole lot more than the similarly-themed Rules of the Game.

It’s now June 22, and I have written 2725 words. Good God, I have work to do. Here, take this.

Through A Glass Darkly (1961)

100I’ve been told all my life how good Ingmar Bergman movies are. It’s practically a joke; no, it’s more than that, his movies were of such a quality that it was expected jokes about Bergman movies would be understood. I don’t think that, culturally, this is quite so true, anymore.

But that’s beside the point. I’ve just watched Through A Glass Darkly and I am blown away all over again.

b70-16549This is the first movie of a film trilogy which is apparently called, with admirable economy, The Ingmar Bergman Film Trilogy, consisting of this, Winter Light and The Silence. With my usual ass-backwards methodology, I watched Winter Light a year ago, because I was still in the honeymoon phase of my man-crush on Gunnar Björnstrand from The Seventh Seal, and I couldn’t resist the idea of watching him play a priest who had lost his faith. Was this an error? Have I sacrificed an arc that runs through this trilogy? I have no idea, I haven’t watched The Silence yet.

Through-a-Glass-Darkly-1961-movie-Ingmar-Bergman-2-450x315Speaking of admirable economy, Through A Glass Darkly eschews the larger population of most of Bergman’s other films, and rests its story on only four characters: David, a writer (Björnstrand), his adult daughter, Karin (Harriet Andersson) and teenage son, Minus (Lars Passgård), and Karin’s husband, Martin (Max von Sydow). All four are having a bit of a holiday in an old, isolated farmhouse on the coast.

From a very simple beginning, things begins to complexify: David is a very remote father, frequently traveling, ostensibly for his novels, and there is a fair amount of resentment that he’s about to set out again. Minus wishes only that he could speak with his father, but the few opportunities that present themselves fall into the typical, stilted, jokey conversations that any boy growing into manhood will find only too familiar. Martin is a medical doctor, which is a good thing because what will hang over the entire movie is Karin’s “illness”, often alluded to, never named.

through_a_glass_darkly_rgbKarin is schizophrenic. She has just returned from a lengthy stay in a hospital; she refers lightly to electro-shock therapy. While David and Martin are alone, Martin confides to her father that Karin’s situation is incurable; a cure is not totally unheard of, but the best he can hope for is longer stretches of normalcy between episodes. At the beginning of one such episode, Karin finds and reads her father’s diary. In the honesty writers practice with themselves, by themselves, David talks about her incurable state and his temptation – which he rightly feels is horrific – to write about her condition and deterioration.

The attempt to function as a normal family under this stress is heartbreaking. During a boat trip to get supplies, the two men have it out in civil discourse. Martin feels David has failed as a father, and David agrees – he also admits to a suicide attempt just prior to returning to his family, which failed only because the car he was driving seized up inches from a precipice. This incident has driven him back to Karin and Minus, his love for them now drawn in sharp relief, even if it is a love he has no idea how to demonstrate.

ThroughGlass01While they are gone, Karin has another episode, and in the lucidity that follows, reconciles with her father somewhat and decides that she should now return to the hospital forever, tired of pretending or even hoping that normalcy is a possibility. “You can’t live in two worlds. You have to choose one.” But the worst is yet to come, and every man in her family can only witness helplessly her madness.

It takes true master storytellers to relate a compelling story that consists largely of people talking in rooms, and Bergman certainly qualifies. Each of the men is excellent in their roles, but there is no doubt that this movie belongs to Harriet Andersson, with her stunning portrayal of Karin. She plays out the entirety of human emotion in her performance, and her schizophrenic episodes, never overplayed, have the terrible ring of truth. The fact that she not only holds her own against von Sydow and Björnstrand, but carries the whole picture with their able support, cannot be overstated.

tumblr_lb4idlm4Ab1qzzxybo1_500Additional praise must be given for cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in his second outing with Bergman. The black and white palette of Glass is incredibly varied, and the austere landscape and textures of the farmhouse and other settings are so precise, so gorgeously detailed, it is as if Ansel Adams had decided to take up a movie camera, it is that astonishing. I am told that Bergman was truly impressed by Nykvist’s outdoor photography on The Virgin Spring; I’m scheduled to watch that later in the year, I’ll let you know.

To hear me talk about it, one would think that Through A Glass Darkly is depressing – it’s not. It’s frequently harrowing, but as the movie ends – simply, with no Fin or end credits – the feeling is one of exhilaration. The exhilaration that comes of spending an hour and a half in a room with people who are very good at their jobs, and being privileged to see that work.


The Questionable Joys of 1963

Something that’s kind of odd, but not even that surprising: Usually WordPress intercepts 30-40 spambot comments on this blog in any given day. In the days since I published my piece on the death of my beloved pug-dog Mavis, that has dropped to three or less a day. Even the bots realize there’s little return in inserting your online casino ads under a sad story. I didn’t know they paid that much attention.

But now I’m imagining a bunch of sad spambots sitting around morosely, playing mumbledy-peg or solitaire to fill in their idle hours. I guess I really should give them something to try to post under.

NattvardsgästernaAfter the hell of that week, when I finally elected to watch a movie, I was of two minds: escapist fare, or something that had been on my Watchlist forever, and was one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light,  which is the exact opposite of “light escapist fare”. Also, by “forever” I mean “since I watched The Seventh Seal last year and decided to fall in love with Gunnar Björnstrand, who played the squire, Jöns.

Björnstrand here plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a Lutheran church in a small fishing town. As the movie opens, Ericsson is presiding over a service for a congregation of eight, including a deacon, the hunchbacked sexton, and Ericsson’s former mistress, who is an atheist. Only five of the eight take communion.

BergmWintlight1This is going to be a rough day for Ericsson. He is coming down with a cold – his fever is increasing, and he still has to fill in for communion at another church later that afternoon. His mistress is pressuring him to get married, and two of the people at the sparse service, the Perssons, a fisherman (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife (Gunnel Lindblom) visit him afterwards. Persson has been consumed of late with fear after reading about the Red Chinese developing nuclear capabilities. The sensationalist article he read stated that the Chinese are raised from infancy to know nothing but hate, and he is crushed by knowledge of sure, ultimate doom.

The former mistress, Marta (Ingrid Thulin) flits in and out of the morning, fussing over Ericsson’s health. While waiting for Persson to return for a private conversation, Ericsson reads a letter Marta wrote him, and here we have but one of many reasons Bergman was considered a master: the letter is not delivered to us as a voiceover, but a single close-up, nearly six minutes long, of Thulin speaking the contents of the letter directly to the camera. Like Ericsson, we are trapped in the room with it, and Thulin’s delivery (and needless to say, Bergman’s writing) is so good our minds never wander, as Marta details what went wrong with their relationship, their mutual complicity in its dissolution, and why they should get married and take care of each other. Drained, Ericsson falls into a fitful sleep at his desk until Persson arrives.

3150738673_bb1767d8fcEricsson gets right down to matters. “How long have you thought about killing yourself?” But as the conferences goes on, the pastor finds his own spiritual gas tank long exhausted, and he can find no comfort to offer the fisherman, only his own misgivings about the very existence of God, a disjoint that began when he was unable to reconcile things he saw during the Spanish Civil War with his concept of the Almighty. Persson, discomforted by this outburst from a clergyman, excuses himself and leaves.

Marta is still waiting for him in the sanctuary. “Now I’m free,” he tells her, but Marta’s relief that he finally agrees with her views on God is cut short by another member of that wan congregation arriving to tell Ericsson that Persson has blown his brains out down by the river.

winter-lightThe day is far from finished with Ericsson. He will sit with Persson’s body until the morgue arrives to claim it. He will deliver the sad news to Persson’s pregnant widow and three children. He will, once and for all, tell Marta how he feels about their relationship, the bookend to her earlier letter, but delivered face-to-face; and he will preside over that evening communion, a service for the only person in the church- Marta the atheist, praying for the ability to understand and somehow get through to Ericsson.

So yeah, Winter Light can be used as Exhibit A in the cultural cliché that “Swedish movies are depressing”.

The film’s title in its native Swedish, Nattvardgästerna, translates to “The Communicants”, a clever title of double meanings; not only are our main characters involved in one of the loneliest sacraments ever performed, but each has their own problems with communication, a very common thread in Bergman films, alongside another: a protagonist so obsessed with finding proof of his own personal version of God, he is blind to every other possibility of God’s nature and existence.

3150738027_0757f99d03The English title, Winter Light, is also brilliantly multi-faceted. The lush detail of Bergman’s earlier movies is here stripped away, and Sven Nykvist, behind the camera of what I think is only his third Bergman film, emphasizes the isolation and bleakness of life under the gray winter skies. There is one literally radiant moment, after Persson takes his leave of the distraught pastor, and in the window behind Ericsson, the sun very briefly breaks through the clouds as the clergyman has a moment of clarity about his relationship to a God that may not even be there. This leads to the “I’m free” moment, but the clouds close again, the news of Persson’s suicide is delivered, and uncertainty again takes hold.

If there is any shred of optimism to be found in Winter Light, it is in the person of the sexton, Algot, played by Allan Edwall. As Ericsson ponders whether or not to hold the Communion service in a nearly-deserted church, Algot asks him about his reading of the Gospels, and how he feels the emphasis on Jesus’ physical suffering is misguided, as he himself has suffered physical pain all his life and is no saint. Algot feels that Christ’s keener suffering must have been the fear that his teachings were misunderstood, that he was truly forsaken. “He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.”

image.aspThese are words that must touch Ericsson, and touch him deeply. He makes the decision to hold the service, because no matter what, there must be Communion. There must be duty.

So I say watch the movie, but be prepared for what it is: a stark portrait that may serve as a mirror when you least expect it.

Buy Winter Light at Amazon

So after such an effervescent, frothy confection, you’d think I’d go for a comedy or a movie where things go boom, but no, I still had a commitment to quality in May (oh, I had such plans for the month!), so my next stop was Akira Kurosawa’s  High and Low.

220px-HIGH_AND_LOW_JP_I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks – hell, The Seven Samurai was the movie that drew me into my love for film, at 13 or 14 years of age. But those are such a small part of the man’s output, I’m doing him a great disservice. Perhaps I started at the top with Ikiru, but I still have a long trail to walk. There are worse problems.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful executive who, on the verge of a risky corporate takeover, is plunged into a dilemma: a kidnapper, attempting to abduct his son, has instead gotten his chauffeur’s child. The kidnapper doesn’t care, he still demands thirty million yen for the boy’s release. The dilemma is that Gondo is mortgaged to the hilt for the takeover, and if he uses that money for the ransom, instead of the controlling stock of the shoe company where he works, he will be ruined financially.

That is the moral quandry that drives the first act of High and Low, and the phrase “first act” has never been more appropriate. Shot almost entirely in Gondo’s spacious living room, with a hilltop vista of Yokohama, Kurosawa rather famously rehearsed and blocked this segment like a stage play, and shot it in long takes. It’s fascinating to watch how this allows Kurosawa to manipulate the negative space around the embattled businessman as he steadfastly refuses to be destroyed for a child that is not even his own. His bubble of isolation expands and contracts, it is violated by his wife and the poor, bereft chauffeur. Eventually, he decides to do the right thing and pay the ransom, and the bubble collapses.

highandlowThe second act lets us out into the world, as Gondo performs a complicated drop of two briefcases stuffed with money, and the police do what they can to identify the people involved. Settle in for the third act, which is a very good police procedural – the cops trying to recover the money before Gondo defaults on his loans, and falls from the grace of his hilltop house.

High and Low is based one of the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, aka the prolific Evan Hunter, King’s Ransom. I enjoy those novels, and the source material shows through in the characterization of the cops. Tatsuya Nakadai makes for a cracking Steve Carella analog as the leader of the task force trying to help Gondo. The police are thoroughly professional and prepared; they arrive dressed as delivery men in case Gondo’s house is being watched, and it is. In fact, when the kidnapper calls to ask why Gondo’s curtains are closed, the cop immediately dive to the floor and behind furniture so the curtains can be opened.

high-and-lowSo yeah, I like watching Dragnet re-runs, I like the 87th Precinct novels, and the closest I get to binge watching are the Investigate Discovery murder investigation shows on Netflix. Some folks find this part of High and Low boring; I find it compelling.

High and Low definitely lives up to its title, starting at Gondo’s spacious house and descending slowly into the slums of Yokohama and finally a hellish venue the cops only call “Drug Alley”. It also charts the similar fall of Gondo, who loses his house and worldly possessions, yes, but also begins to rise again. The kidnapper, a medical student living in a slum, whose window has a direct line-of-sight to the Gondo house, seems to have no motivation outside humiliating Gondo – which ultimately fails, because the court of public opinion has found great sympathy for the executive, leaving the young nihilist with nothing but a scream of rage and fear as he is taken away to be executed.

jszptgI can sure pick the uplifting movies, can’t I?

Buy High and Low 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)

Buy Ivan The Terrible Part II on Amazon

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.

Buy Wild Strawberries on Amazon

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.

Buy The General on Amazon


The Seventh Seal (1957)

7th sealIn my quest to fill the many holes I had in my film education, I don’t think I’d yet approached anything so iconic as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The movie is so well-known that The Simpsons makes jokes about it at leisure, the chess game with death is imitated and riffed upon (at some length in one of my favorite movies, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the back of the Criterion blu-ray extols it as “…one of the benchmark imports of America’s 1950s art house heyday, pushing cinema’s boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.”


I think, like a lot of people, I was expecting a grim vista, an allegory of Man’s search for meaning and God in the midst of the Black Death. Well, there is a fair amount of that. What I was not expecting, given the movie’s reputation, was the sweep of emotions, the comedy, the rapid switching of audience allegiances with the characters.

In other words, I was expecting good, but I wasn’t expecting something that would swing in on my Top Ten and start bashing other movies out of the way, like Aragorn and Gimli on the bridge to Helm’s Deep.

(Was that last reference nerdy enough? I worry sometimes.)

Sure, Bergman starts us right off with the chess game with Death. Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is sleeping on a rocky beach, along with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrad). Up crops Death (“I’ve been at your side for a while.” “I know.”) and Block, since his chess board is curiously already out and set up, proposes the chess game.  What I didn’t know, in my filmic ignorance, is that the chess game is ongoing throughout the movie; Block has a reprieve so long as he manages to hold checkmate at bay, or wins.

The-Seventh-SealBlock has just returned from a decade spent in the Crusades, a decade during which his faith has taken a severe beating, and his life’s course has become a quest to qualify if God actually exists, or not. He has been through such horrors that he requires physical proof, even resorting to asking a condemned witch how he, too, could see the Devil, because he has some questions for Old Scratch. These are, of course, questions that will not be answered – even Death is not forthcoming on the subject. The fact that he has returned to his home country to find an ever-spreading plague isn’t helping his demeanor any.

That I had expected. What I was not expecting was to become so involved with the character of the Squire. Jöns has similarly lost whatever faith he had, saying “Our crusade was such madness only a real idealist could have thought it up.” His is not the way of questioning; he has come to believe that all that remains after death is emptiness, and moves through life with more of an air of acceptance, of proactivity, as it were. If there are any examples of what would one consider knightly duties, saving a young woman from a rapist, or putting a scoundrel down, it’s Jöns that does it. It is beneath Block. Jöns has his bad moments – he’s far from perfect or even heroic – but he remains my favorite.

1Then we begin spending some time with a traveling troupe of actors: a family of three, Jof (Nils Poppe), the juggler who sees visions like the Virgin Mary walking the toddler Jesus; Mia his wife (Bibi Andersson) and Mikael, his one year-old son; and Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark), who is more than a bit of a rogue.

Now, I was getting into the travels of Block and Jöns, and found myself a little impatient with the juggler sequences. Was this going to pay off? I should have know better. Of course it was going to pay off.

Block, Jöns, and the girl he rescued (Gunnel Lindblom) wind up at the same village where the jugglers are doing a show – which will be interrupted by the Flagellants, a group of people going about the countryside, singing hymns, carrying lifesized crucifixes, and haranguing everyone that they’re going to die because God thinks they suck and generally killing any hope for the actors passing the tip hat. Also, Jonas runs off with the local blacksmith’s wife, which is going to propel the plot for a while.

There will be a point where Block and Jöns join the jugglers – Jonas is still MIA with the wife – and they share a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk, while Jof plays his lute. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting, and Block speaks of how the memory of that afternoon will sustain him. It’s a beautiful moment, made all the more poignant as one realizes that if Block was truly looking for the existence of God, it was never more obvious in that moment of peace on a sunny hillside.

There is a scene of almost Shakespearean comedy in the local tavern, where the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) is sobbing into his ale over his lost wife. He and Jöns have a back-and-forth scene about all the things that are wrong with women, and why he is better off without her, and each one just makes the blacksmith sob harder. Later, when Block, Jöns and Plog are escorting the jugglers through a scary wood, and they find Jonas and the wife walking about, there is another marvelous scene where Plog and the actor trade insults, with only a little help to the slower blacksmith by Jöns.

flagellantsLater, camped in the woods, Jof, with his talent for visions, is the only one that can see who Block is playing chess with, and quietly gathers his family and sneaks out of the camp. Block sees this, and remembering that Death has said some things about the trip through the woods with typical Death-style foreshadowing, knocks over some of the chess pieces to distract Death while the actors escape. It is one of the most knightly things we have seen him do, but it will cost him. Shortly after, Death wins the match.

I hope I haven’t said too much, as I leave you here, still ten minutes before the end of the movie. As with all movies that I like, or love, I want you to experience it for yourself. And probably the greatest recommendation I can make is that, while writing this, I have been urgently seized with the need to watch it again. Fabulous filmmaking, all the more remarkable considering Bergman was using equipment left over from World War II, and filming in a very small studio – apparently it is possible to see apartment lights in the background of one nighttime shot – and still produced a movie, that while epic in subject matter, still manages to feel small, intimate, and wholly believable.

At the very least, I haven’t spilled any plot points the trailer didn’t:

(You might want to hit the YouTube logo and watch it on their site – I couldn’t find one where the burned-in subtitles didn’t turn to mud)