Quality Continues

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

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

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

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

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Gospel According to St. Matthew at Amazon

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The Honeymoon Killers at Amazon

My Darling Clementine (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy My Darling Clementine at Amazon

After the Gold Rush

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The Battle of Algiers on Amazon

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sorry, Stalin apparently purged any trailers from YouTube)

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


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

By now you know the rap, that members of the Letterboxd community were doing a month-long challenge to watch thirty of the movies in Roger Ebert’s list of Great Movies, and a viewing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to boot. At least that was what I thought; returns to the site find that original Challenge page gone, and only one other list beside mine using the “EbertMay” tag.

Ah well. I watched a lot of good movies. Only two left to finish up the Challenge.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

last_temptation_of_christThis was twenty-five years ago? Good Lord (to turn a phrase).

I didn’t see this at the theaters because a) I’m not a Christian, though raised as one and pretty up on the scriptures – moreso than some professed Christians, apparently; and b) I was on staff of a small regional theater at the time. That theater is doing very well for itself now, but back then we’re talking horrific schedules, day and night, grueling definitely-for-young-people stuff. I can place the movie in that period only because I leaned on Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack heavily for a particularly awesome version of Hamlet we mounted in that time.

Ha ha, you young’uns that were born at the tail-end of the 80s and in the 90s missed quite a to-do, let me tell you. Televangelism, riding so high in the late 70s and early 80s, had suffered through some pretty bad scandals, and Last Temptation proved a very convenient “Hey! Look over here!” distracting target. Protests and picket lines were numerous. Molotov cocktails were thrown inside a Paris theater showing the movie.

There was an interview with Martin Scorsese, the director, that I recall reading. It was memorable because the journalist reported the complicated phone tag, the mysterious directions to a nondescript apartment, where the door was answered by a burly, armed security guard, before he could even get into the same room as Scorsese; that’s how serious the shit had gotten. There are people who still refuse to watch the Academy Award nominee Hugo because Scorsese directed Last Temptation a quarter of a century ago.

None of these people ever bothered to watch this movie, either. Of course.

large_the_last_temptation_of_christ_blu-ray_x09The reason for this rancor is two-fold: the first is right there in the title. On the cross, a young girl appears to Christ (played by Willem Dafoe), who introduces herself as his guardian angel. She reveals the crucifixion was a test, like the time God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son, and just like then, the test has been passed. There is no reason for Jesus to die, and he finds himself free of the cross and nails. He marries Mary Magdalene, has sex with her – this is where the line got drawn – and when she dies, he takes up with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) and sires several children, living as a normal man. This has ramifications, resulting in the ultimate sacking of Jerusalem and Jesus’ discovery that the girl is actually Satan, using a far more sophisticated pitch than he employed when Jesus was fasting in the desert. Jesus denies this last temptation, and finds himself on the cross again, saying, “It is accomplished.”

But never mind that, they showed Jesus getting it on.

The second blow Against All That Is Decent is presenting Jesus as a conflicted man instead of the confident avatar of all that is good and decent, as presented in Vacation Bible Schools.

There is a valid school of theological thought that notes the concept of God evolves as civilization develops; thus we go from a God who heartily endorses wiping out entire tribes to the rather radical concept of the same God preaching love. One scholar goes so far as to posit God pouring a part of Himself into a mortal vessel, to suffer as his creation does, as a sort of apology to those creations, with that apology ultimately taking the form of a slow, agonizing death. Suicide as an act of contrition.

TLToC1The political angle is probably another thorn in the side of fundamentalists (though heaven forfend they should abandon their political activities). An eye-opening book for me (come to think of it, read at about this time) was Michael Baigent’s The Messianic Legacy, which examined Jesus and the disciples in their roles as political activists. Viewing Last Temptation has left me with the desire for a re-read. As Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) says to Jesus after he denies being King of the Jews or any special divinity, “That just makes you another Jewish politician.” Politics is an unfortunate, constant fact of life, even of civilization. How could a Messiah avoid them, especially if one of the roles of the Messiah is to deliver his people from oppression, either secular or spiritual?

We won’t even address the subject of Judas, here removed from the role of Designated Villain to Disciple With The Toughest Job, possibly the most faithful disciple of all. That is the sound of heads exploding in the distance.

The Last Temptation of ChristSo it turns out The Last Temptation of Christ was the Jesus movie I had wanted all my life: it does not ignore the “Son of Man” part of the story, though I can’t say it glories in it, either. Jesus is confused, conflicted, unsure, fearful – all the things a contrite Deity should feel, as He experiences what his creation must deal with on a daily basis. If the Scriptures are to be believed, Jesus was at least half human, and that is the half that most doctrine studiously ignores. You hardly ever hear about the Cursing of the Fig Tree, for instance, which was a pretty human moment, no matter how many attempts to turn it into an example of the power of prayer.

So did it convert me? No. But then I don’t really believe that was the purpose behind it. Scorcese said he had always wanted to make a Jesus movie, and when the original production was cancelled by Paramount, he persevered. Universal finally green-lighted it, with a truncated shooting schedule and a budget fully half of what Paramount had agreed to – and at that, Scorsese had to agree to make a “Commercial” movie in exchange (Universal got Cape Fear out of the deal, so it was pretty good investment, overall). This was a passion production (you should forgive the double meaning) for Scorsese and many of the personnel (like Barbara Hershey, who had given Scorsese a copy of the book back during Boxcar Bertha), and it shows.

So the angry True Believers can keep themselves warm with their protest signs and their molotov cocktails. I’ve got my Jesus, and I am perfectly okay with him.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Poster - Bride of Frankenstein, The_07So a little more tampering in God’s domain. I definitely took it easy on myself for the last movie in the Challenge, finally pulling out that Universal Monsters Blu-Ray set again.

After the incredibly successful Frankenstein, director James Whale spent the next four years scrupulously refusing to do a sequel, until he was promised artistic freedom. The result is one of the best horror films ever made.

After an odd little vignette that has Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) telling Byron that the end of her novel was not the end of the story (and also has Byron referring to the Monster itself as Frankenstein, Universal Pictures buying into and perpetuating that little bit of cultural mangling), Bride literally begins at the end of the first movie, the burning of the windmill with the Monster inside. Much as Baron Frankenstein survives, so does the Monster, falling through the burning floor into a flooded chamber.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762045-1600-1246So the Monster roams the countryside, and he’s more than a little put-off with his treatment, made worse when he rescues a shepherdess from drowning and, naturally, it is assumed he’s attacking her. It’s perfectly obvious that Whale’s sympathies lie with the misunderstood monster, and it’s never more clear than the famous scene where the Monster finds the blind hermit, drawn by the smells of food and beguiled by the music of his violin. This sequence is genuinely touching, both the hermit and the Monster reduced to tears of gratitude for deliverance from their loneliness.

Concurrent to that, Victor Frankenstein has renounced tempering in God’s domain and is trying to finally get married and leave Gothicland, when he is visited by one of his old teachers, Dr. Septimus Praetorius (a silky smooth and utterly charming Ernest Thesinger), who has been conducting his own experiments in life creation: a series of homunculi living in jars. He wants Frankenstein’s aid in creating something more substantial, an actual, life-sized human being. The younger scientist, having recently survived one such creation, refuses.

Stills-bride-of-frankenstein-19762095-1546-1133The Monster, never having a surplus of luck, gets rousted from the hermit’s cabin (by an interfering John Carradine, no less), gets captured, escapes (killing several villagers, whom everybody’s getting sick of, anyway) and takes refuge in a huge mausoleum, where he is discovered by a grave-robbing Praetorius. Realizing that he has found a perfect lever to move the intractable Frankenstein, Praetorius promises the Monster that he will make a friend for him – a woman, to be his bride.

Bride is the very rare sequel that betters its predecessor, by not only giving the audience more of the same, but also expanding intelligently on the themes of the first. Karloff himself felt that the hermit teaching the Monster to speak was a mistake, and to be sure, all the power of the original movie derives from his astonishing, mute performance. But as the Monster becomes more adult, as it were,speaking in simple sentences and continually brutalized by a world uninterested in understanding his plight, we are also watching his corruption; manipulated by Praetorius, he finally becomes the villain the world expected, though at the end, consumed by sorrow and despair, he does try to set things right by the only means he knows, or has been allowed to learn: by destruction.

the-bride-of-frankensteinMention must definitely be made of the Bride, also played by Elsa Lanchester. A striking figure, moving like a clockwork robot, due to Pretorius’ artificial brain, the five foot Lanchester stands on stilts concealed beneath her flowing robes to bring her to seven feet. As archly pointed out in Gods and Monsters, not only have the mad scientists dressed her, but they’ve done her hair, now cascading upwards over a wire mesh foundation. Lanchester modeled her performance, the startled hissing at the Monster’s appearance, on wild swans. For all its brevity, it is one of the most unique, memorable performances of the universal Classic Monster series.

The Bride is also the only Classic Monster to achieve her fame without killing anybody. Not that she ever really had the chance…

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

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community spent 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.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

mulholland-drive-poster-_2David Lynch has been called a lot of things, but probably the most succinct is challenging. Here, though, We have a movie that is adapted from a failed TV pilot, so the viewer feels secure that at least it’s going to be as comprehensible as Twin Peaks, right?

That’s if the viewer has forgotten how weird Twin Peaks could get.

Naive small town girl Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in LA to spend a few weeks at her aunt’s apartment, hoping to break into show biz (the aunt is out-of-town on a movie shoot). What she finds in the apartment is an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Herring), pulling the name off a Rita Hayworth movie poster. We know that Rita was on a limousine on the titular street and she was apparently the victim of some set-up robbery when the limo was smashed into by drag-racing teens – Rita, however, doesn’t even remember that. When the girls search her purse for ID, they find many thousands of dollars and an odd key that fits a triangular lock – and so the Scooby-Doo sleuthing begins, with the girls not totally unaware that there are men searching for Rita, not the least of which is the most inept hit man in the history of the universe (Mark Pellegrino).

mulholland_drive_snap_2In the course of the first part of the movie, most of the Strange with a capital “S” is provided by movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who suddenly finds a shadowy organization demands the star of his next movie be a certain actress – “This is the girl” – and when he refuses, his entire world – personal, financial and artistic – is jerked out from under him. The organization is apparently run by familiar face Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place), but Kesher meets with a fellow apparently above even him, known only as The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), who wears a ten-gallon hat and no eyebrows.

Keep in mind I’m telling you the normal stuff. I haven’t gone into the spirit of death and horror who lives behind a Denny’s, or the eerily recurring red lampshade, or other Lynchian touches. At the two hour mark in a two-and-a-half hour movie, the girls go to a club in the middle of the night – Club Silencio (“No hay banda! There is no band! All this is… a tape recording!”) at which point we go full-on Lynch, and just when we think the plot has gone circular, it has turned into a damned Spirograph.

mulholland-drive-2001-to-2-gThe major portion of Mulholland Dr was supposed to form part of the third season of Twin Peaks, featuring Audrey Horne miraculously surviving the explosion in the Season Two finale and getting shuttled off to Los Angeles to find… well, you know by now. Knowing this doesn’t really help, since it leaves you wondering what would have been the outcome in that case, and then you start wondering if Season Three would have ever revealed why Josie Packard’s soul was trapped in the knob of that bedside table. Which doesn’t really aid any analysis of Mulholland Dr, but watching Lynch movies opens up some really odd brain connections.

I think we can conclude that the Audrey Horne version of the story would omit the R-rated lesbian sex scenes between Watts and Harring, not to mention the denouement of the last half-hour, which would fuel a fair number of discussions at movie nights. What I like about these accessible dreamscapes by Lynch is that on some level, you absolutely cannot intellectualize what is going on, you can only intuit it, engage with it on a primal level. This is a hypnotic, mesmerizing movie, genuinely suspenseful, often hilarious, ultimately puzzling. So yeah, I enjoyed it.

I am also fascinated by Lynch’s ability to wring existential terror out of a Roy Orbison song – this is twice that I know of. That, and if Lynch ever decided to do a serious full-on horror movie, we would all be screwed.

Dark City (1998)

darkcity1If there is a general upside to this determination I seem to have to watch movies on MY terms, not other peoples’, it’s that I missed out on Dark City the first time around.

I thought Dark City would make a good follow-up to Mullholland Dr., and I was right, as the movie begins with John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakening with amnesia, in an apartment with a murdered woman. A phone call tells him “they” are coming for him and he must run. “They” are indeed after him, a trio of cadaverous men in black overcoats and fedoras, and who can seemingly make people sleep at will. Murdoch, of course, tries to piece together who he is, and what’s going on, but that last one is a tall order: at midnight, everybody in the city goes to sleep, and the men in black – and there are a lot more than three – change the world, making buildings grow like plants, changing people’s personalities.

dc08There is one non-blackclad doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) who seems to be collaborating with these mystery people, but is also fearfully trying to get in touch with Murdoch. A police inspector (William Hurt) is pursuing Murdoch for serial murder – the previous investigating officer has apparently gone mad and left the force.  The Inspector is working with Murdoch’s wife (Jennifer Connelly). And one of the Men In Black (Richard O’Brien) is injected with Murdoch’s memories in a desperate attempt to track him down – desperate because Murdoch is showing signs of possessing the same world-changing powers as they.

First, we’re going to agree this is a hell of a good cast. Second, we are going to stand dumbfounded that this is actual thoughtful science-fiction, not some other genre script gussied up with sci-fi exteriors. Third, we’re going to find out that the studio did their best to kill it.

Well, not kill it, but damage it. This is where my stubborn refusal to drink from the trough at the same time as many comes in handy. “Thoughtful” movies being poison, and people stupid, uncomprehending animals, director Alex Proyas was convinced to tack a voiceover onto the movie’s beginning, which spelled out the movie’s plot. The plot I spent an enjoyable 111 minutes watching unspool.

Good God, I would have been pissed. There is nothing that turns me against a movie faster than having it treat me like an idiot. Fortunately, I only know of this voiceover through Ebert’s review; the Director’s Cut does away with it entirely. That’s the only version that exists in my universe because that is a good movie.

Cat People (1942)

CatPeopleHS-BAnother busy day, time to call in the 73 minute Cat People.

A chance meeting at the zoo between engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and immigrant artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) leads to romance and marriage. There is one snag: Irena’s Serbian hometown is supposedly home to people that turn into great cats when their passions are inflamed. Though these weird people were supposedly eliminated in the Middle Ages, Irena believes in them strongly enough that she will not even allow her new husband to kiss her. The frustrated Oliver slowly awakes to the fact that his longtime pal at the office, Alice (Jane Randolph) carries a torch for him, and is not so adverse to the kissing stuff. The major problem there: jealousy is also a passion, and Irena begins stalking the two.

This was the first of the low-budget horror movies produced by Val Lewton at RKO, directed by Jacques Tourneur; these movies are rightly considered classics, but the modern horror fan is not going to have much patience with Cat People, at the very least. Tourneur is playing a game of ambiguity here. Is Irena truly a supernatural being, or just a very neurotic young woman on the verge of a violent breakdown? It was that approach that got Tourneur replaced barely four days into shooting , and Lewton went all the way to the studio head to get him reinstated. The Supervisor that fired Tourneur, though, is responsible for an actual panther showing up in one scene, removing all ambiguity and novelty. Those suspense scenes that remain untampered with are justly considered classic and Paul Schrader had no problem lifting them for his far more explicit 1982 version.

Cat-People-1942-SimonIt would have been nice to see Cat People as originally conceived (and The Wolf Man, and a host of others), but it’s worthwhile to watch any of the Lewton films and consider that here are people who worked on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons now working on horror movies.  The budgets may have shrunk, but the talent had not.

Speaking of which, definitely check out William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) for the same reasons: good movie, lots of Kane  alumni, and Simone Simon as the living personification of sex. Oh, and Walter Huston as a particularly fine devil.

Rashomon (1950)

rashomon_sp2Coming into the home stretch on the Challenge, it gets a little wearying, so I opted for some comfort food. Besides it had been… well, I was about to say 30 years since I had last seen Rashomon, but that is too damn depressing.

Three men take shelter from the pouring rain in a burnt-out city  gate: a monk (Minoru Chiaki), a wood chopper (Takashi Shimura) and a Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda). The first two men are very disturbed, having testified at an inquest earlier that day, and they relate to the Commoner what transpired.

The Woodcutter had found the dead body of a samurai in the woods. The notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune)  had been captured with the dead man’s horse and some of his effects. He confesses to tricking the samurai (Masyuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) into the woods, overpowering the man, raping the woman, and eventually killing the samurai in a duel at the woman’s insistence.

All well and good, except the wife, found hiding in a temple, tells an entirely different story. When the dead man tells his story, via a medium, it is different from the other two. There is yet another version of the story, lurking about, but it is best you discover it for yourself.

rashomon-sliceKurosawa makes some intriguing stylistic choices (making the viewer the judge in the inquest scenes) and pulls some camera moves that would be appropriated throughout the ages in his forest scenes. This is a movie so ingrained in our cultural purview that The Simpsons can make reference to it with impunity. It also marked Kurosawa’s full-blown introduction to the international cinema scene, and my God, the movies that were to come.

The oddest hangover for this is a desire to once more see the 1964 Western version of this, The Outrage, which I have seen only once during a seemingly accidental showing on TCM years ago.  Based on Fay and Michael Kanin’s play version, it stars Paul Newman as the Bandit, Laurence Harvey as the Husband, and Claire Bloom as the wife. The three guys in what is now a train station? Howard deSilva as a Prospector, William Shatner as the Priest, and Edward G. Robinson as “The Con Man”.  I recall it having some entertaining differences from the Kurosawa version, and besides: I collect Kurosawa rip-offs.

(Turn on Closed Captioning for English subtitles)

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

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.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

487303-1020-aOne of the things I went into this challenge swearing was that I was going to source every movie from my collection, local library system, or Netflix, and then I proceeded to immediately violate that vow. I had long meant to break my fast of non-documentary Werner Herzog, and there had been a box set of all the movies he had made with Klaus Kinski, put out by Anchor Bay in the 00’s. This monumental temptation combined with it being at its lowest price ever on Amazon – somewhere in the $25 range – tipped over into scheduling two of his most famous works for the month.

Aguirre takes place during Gonzalo Pizarro’s disastrous expedition to the Amazon River to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado. He did this by trekking his army – of soldiers and lots of Indian slaves – over the Andes mountains, and that is where the movie begins, with seemingly hundreds of people in period costumes (including two women) carefully picking their way down a mountain path, burdened by baggage and equipment. There is no trickery involved, no matte paintings or CGI, that is a bunch of people literally climbing down a mountain. This seems to be a prime indicator of how Herzog works.

Once at the immense river, Pizarro decides to send a party on rafts to see if they can find any indication of El Dorado within a week. He places Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Aguirre (Kinski) his second. Against Pizarro’s better judgement, Ursua’s wife Inez (Helena Rojo) and Aguirre’s daughter Flores (Cecelia Rivera) are allowed to accompany them.

vlcsnap-2010-09-17-23h10m40s196The raft-borne party is almost immediately in trouble, encountering rapids that leave one raft trapped in an eddy against a cliff wall, and this is where the true power of Herzog’s approach is revealed: those are his actual actors on the rafts, in the rapids, and his actual cameras. Though you can never claim the movie employs a documentary approach, there is a visceral, fearsome quality to the footage that cannot be matched.

aguirrecut_55258Things get worse: the trapped raft is slaughtered in the night by unseen Indians. The Amazon rises fifteen feet, carrying away the original rafts and drowning much of the shoreline, denying the new rafts any but the rarest opportunity to make landfall. Rather than turn back as ordered, Aguirre leads a mutiny, intending to claim the city of gold not for Spain, but himself. Cannibals are encountered. An increasingly creaky and ill-kept cannon is employed. Starvation, fever, and sudden death by arrow, dart and spear become the norm, until the totally insane Aguirre finds himself master of a raft populated by corpses and monkeys.

Starvation and fever are probably apt terms for the grueling movie shoot. This is the movie that gave rise to the legend of Herzog pulling a gun on Kinski to keep him from walking off the set (if you can truly refer to these shooting locations as “sets”). Kinksi himself provides some pretty top-notch madness in his portrayal, his body seemingly becoming as contorted as his mind as the picture progresses. Though I never really got over the novelty of hearing Spanish conquistadors speaking German, the rest of the cast scurries to keep up with Kinski, and the ensemble is remarkable, not only in their acting but their stamina.

Mere summaries of the plot of Aguirre cannot match the visceral punch of the movie itself. This truly is a movie that must be seen, on its own terms, to truly appreciate. The money for that box set was damned well spent.

The trailer’s dubbed, but it is a very good dub:

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

l_83946_a0aafffeIt was almost impossible to not follow up Aguirre with Fitzcarraldo, as Herzog and Kinski return to Peru for another grueling historical adventure. This time we’re in the early 20th century and Kinski Is Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (called Fitzcarraldo because the natives can’t pronounce “Fitzgerald”), a man who’s bankrupted himself attempting to build a Trans-Andean railroad. His main dream, though, is to build an opera house in this Peruvean rubber boom town, and since he can convince none of the rubber barons to put their money into this, he must become a rubber baron himself.

After a meeting with the most sympathetic of the barons, Fitzcarraldo has a daring plan: there is a section of the rain forest that is so far unexploited because of treacherous rapids. He aims to get to this unspoiled region by actually porting his 300-ton second-hand steamship over the narrowest isthmus between two rivers, a plan so daring that even the mechanic, a spy for the rubber baron, is impressed and joins in whole-heartedly. Clearing the jungle from the proposed path and actually moving the ship overland is only possible because the feared Jivaro natives, impressed by the boat, Fitzcarraldo’s immaculate white suits, and his phonograph records of Caruso, feel the boat is a holy vessel on a mission to purge evil spirits.

fitzcarraldo-posterFitzcarraldo is almost three hours long, but it’s one of those movies where it doesn’t feel like three hours, but at the end, you are exhausted and feel like you’ve been on that trip down the river yourself. True to form, Herzog doesn’t cheat with miniatures on that impossible portage – that is a real damn ship being dragged up an impossible slope, something engineers warned against. There is a part of Les Blank’s documentary on the making of the movie, Burden of Dreams, that shows a scene where one of the cables snaps during filming, and it’s quite likely that Kinski himself as well as other actors could have been decapitated or otherwise maimed. This is lunatic filmmaking at its finest, and the scenes of the ship slowly moving uphill invoke an incredible amount of tension in the viewer that would be impossible with models or CGI.

The movie also has lush scenery to spare and several shots that must have been ravishing on a big screen. Jason Robards at one point had the title role, but fell ill and was forbidden by his doctor to return to the production. Apparently Jack Nicholson at one point was the replacement, but felt the production was too insane, even for him. So it fell to Kinski, Herzog’s “best fiend”, and it has to be admitted that he brings to the role an injured vulnerability that plays well against the character’s seemingly unrealistic optimism. The experience would have been markedly different with the either of the earlier two actors.

And now I have got got got to see Burden of Dreams. I only know of that one scene through Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

beyond_the_valley_of_the_dollsThis was one of the conditions of the Challenge: watch 30 movies from Ebert’s Great Movies, and also this movie, which, while it was not on the list, was actually written by Roger Ebert.

The movie version of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls made money, so a sequel was inevitable; Susann herself wrote one, but Fox didn’t like it. The conditions of the contract gave them the right to make the sequel, with or without Susann, so somehow it fell into the lap of Russ Meyer, leading to the disclaimer at the very beginning that this is not a sequel to Valley of the Dolls.

As Ebert points out on his commentary track on the DVD, Meyer wasn’t all that interested in making sex movies; his primary interests were melodrama and comedy, something that is apparent to anyone who ever watched more than one of his movies. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers melodrama in great dollops. Meyer and Ebert found Valley to be the tale of young innocents in the showbiz trade having their lives wrecked by sex and drugs, but it was sadly lacking in rock and roll. Ergo, Beyond is the tale of a female rock trio who move to LA, hit it big and immediately life gets complicated and melodramatic.

MPW-68199The screenplay is nothing special, outside of a few quotes that have become memorable camp classics. What Beyond does best is remind us of just how good a filmmaker Russ Meyer actually was – those montages over the rock songs of the Carrie Nations are superbly done, and actually progress the story. There is a backstage scene after one of their gigs that could have been crowded and sloppy, but instead clearly establishes every major character arc and relationship – it is really a small master class in managing such scenes.

Quite a bit is made of the blood-soaked ending, inspired by the Manson Family killings while Meyer and Ebert were still formulating the movie. You can see how actually conservative are the underpinnings of the story when the dead include the lesbian and the one character to have an abortion; but in case you missed it, the voice of Marvin Miller will appear at the end to recap what lessons you should have learned.

The acting is often as ripe as the dialogue, but that just serves to cement that everything here is of a piece. The Carrie Nations consists of two Playmates and a model, and they do just fine. John Lazar as quick-tongued promoter Z-Man is given all the best lines and delivers them with a quicksilver panache that makes you wonder why the hell you haven’t seen more of him in the intervening years. David Gurian, as the band’s unsophisticated manager, deserves some kind of acting award for making it look like having sex with (future Mrs. Russ Meyer) Edy Williams was a chore.

There is absolutely no use pretending Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is anything but trash. But as entertaining, well-made trash, it has very few real competitors.

El Topo (1970)

tumblr_m5z5m5q5cR1qzhoqfo1_1280It was either sheer perversity or sheer traditionalism that made me hit “Play” on El Topo at midnight. This is the movie that single-handedly started the Midnight Movie phenomenon, a phenomenon that even hit my teenage Texas town, which had a large college population. My midnight movies usually ran to Amicus double features or an amazing night with all four Beatles movies in a row, but their ancestry can be traced to El Topo, John and Yoko, and Beatles manager Allen Klein, who is the Abkco Films you see at the very beginning.

El Topo begins as an existential Western, with the title gunslinger (director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) traveling the desert with his naked 7 year-old son, dispensing harsh justice to a murderous villain called The Colonel and his bandits. He leaves his son with a group of rescued monks and heads into the desert to face the Four Masters that reside there. He defeats them by trickery, which exacts a large cost on his psyche when he realizes exactly what he has become, and what he has destroyed. At this point we are not even halfway through the movie; the rest tells of his redemption by helping a group of crippled outcasts escape from their underground prison.

El_TopoLike The Holy Mountain – a Jodorowsky movie I much prefer – a spare synopsis is not going to even begin to replicate the experience of actually seeing the movie. Jodorowsky’s imagery is not as outlandish here, but it is still lush and plentiful. A small town massacred by the Colonel, where there is so much blood in the streets it looks like rain puddles. The grave of the first Master becomes a beehive. The third master lives in a corral of rabbits, who start keeling over dead as El Topo approaches. A church where the worship service is composed of the congregation playing Russian Roulette. It goes on and on to a dizzying, violent end that makes a little more sense than The Holy Mountain, but only a little.

2013 is a pretty good year for Jodorowsky. His first movie in 23 years, The Dance of Reality is poised for release, a documentary about his aborted attempt to make the movie version of Dune has done well at Cannes. But all this serves to point up that the man has only made 9 movies in his life, and not for lack of trying. I have only seen three of those movies, and those were enough to convince me that this paucity of Jodorowsky movies is a damn crime against humanity.

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

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.

Vertigo (1958)

vertigoVertigo, unfortunately, fell victim to what I call First Steak Syndrome.

That requires some explanation. Like a lot of people my age, my brain was scarred as a youth by The National Lampoon, when it was a magazine easily available on newsstands. A continuing feature was the Foto Funnies, which were lame jokes in a six-grid photo layout, which was always an excuse to show a topless model with alarmingly large breasts. The pertinent one involved the guy in bed with her (the set was almost always a bed) talking about how, if a person had never eaten a steak, but had been told all their life how incredible a steak was, how good it tasted, when that person finally had a steak, the result would inevitably be disappointment, because the steak had been so built up all their lives. The punchline was the pendulous model saying, “Not until I’m married,” but that’s not the important part. The important part is the lifelong build-up.

And this has happened to me several times in my seemingly endless catch-up on the Movies I Should Have Been Watching All This Time But Haven’t. When I watch a movie that has been praised so unanimously that it is impossible to watch it tabula rasa, that your viewing begins on the first frame with the weight of expectation pitched unnaturally high. Vertigo is, alas, one of those. It was first recommended to me highly in college, but that was when it was unavailable in any form; finally it was released again in 1984 with four other Hitchcocks that had been in rights limbo. It is heavily referenced in two of my favorite discoveries from last year, Chris Marker’s La jetee and Sans soleil. It replaced Citizen Kane as the #1 movie of all time in the Sight and Sound Critic’s Poll last year, for God’s sake. Yet I am immune to its charms.

That likely also has something to do with my own relationship with Hitchcock: I’m not a big fan. There is something about his movies that distance me from the events on the screen, even as I note the craftsmanship. The one Hitchcock movie I positively adore is Psycho, and small wonder, as it is his version of a B movie, my poison of choice. So, as I watch Vertigo unspool, I am appreciative of the technique, I note that Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock were made for each other, and don’t care much beyond that.

?????????????????I guess I should say that Vertigo is the story of police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), who is recovering from a nasty incident involving a chase across tenement rooftops that left a uniformed officer dead and Scottie with acrophobia and a sense of vertigo whenever heights are involved. His leave of absence is interrupted by an old school chum who begs him to follow his increasingly erratic wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by her ancestor, a woman who committed suicide a hundred years before. Of course, the two fall in love before she plunges to her death off the bell tower of an old Spanish mission, Scottie unable to stop her because of his crushing fear of heights. Then, after six months in a mental ward, Scottie sees a woman on the street who looks uncannily like his lost love…

Vertigo is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who can count in their credits Diabolique and Eyes Without A Face. Unlike either of those, Vertigo rests on a conspiracy that ultimately fails because one of the conspirators makes two very stupid mistakes – well, three, really – leading to the final reveal. As a study in obsession, it is queasily great. As a mystery, not so much so.

It flopped badly when it premiered in ’58 (and is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece – sound familiar?), and a lot of blame over the years has been placed on Stewart’s shoulders. At age 50, he was thought to be too old to be playing a romantic lead to an actress literally half his age (again – sound familiar?). Hitchcock later said he thought Kim Novak was miscast (he had wanted Vera Miles), but truthfully, Novak is fine, essaying a difficult role very well.

The Conversation (1974)

resize_imageThe Conversation is another character study about an unpleasant character. Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert who is neurotically protective of his own privacy. As the movie opens, he is engaged in his latest job, taping the conversation of a young couple during lunchtime in a busy park. Obviously thinking they have a safe place to talk, they are blissfully unaware of the three hypersensitive microphones with sniper scopes trained on them or the man with a shopping bag and a hearing aid tailing them.

As Caul mixes these four sources to provide the clearest version of their conversation, he becomes aware that the two are having an affair, and they are fearful of the woman’s husband, almost certainly Harry’s client. Harry’s claim to fame is an impossible surveillance he somehow managed in New York several years previous, taping a conversation under such guarded circumstances that it led to a bloodbath in a corrupt union, and the torture/murder of an entire family. Haunted by his culpability, however tenuous, to that crime, the already troubled Caul begins to fear that history will repeat itself, the two lovers will be murdered, and it will once again be his fault.

The-Conversation-1The Conversation is as post-Watergate as a movie can come. Harry’s evolving paranoia is well pricked-on by Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and grimy early 70s design. The titular conversation itself was shot with several different line readings, so the actual performance changes as Harry’s attitude toward it does. Coppola has said that movies like this and his earlier The Rain People were the sort of movies he wanted to spend his life making; the fact that this would mean living in a world without The Godfather movies or Apocalypse Now puts one in the unfortunate position of being glad he didn’t get his wish. Even with a lower budget and smaller scope, the cinematography here is highly detailed and enveloping: in that first aerial shot of the crowded park, you look exactly where Coppola wants.

Gene Hackman picks this as a personal favorite among all his roles, and he does an uncomfortably good job of portraying a shabby man with a shabby soul. The cast constantly surprises, with Teri Garr, a very young Harrison Ford (in a role that was supposed to be small, but Ford so impressed Coppola he expanded it), Robert Duvall, and that Rosetta Stone of 70s cinema, John Cazale.

A bit of a tough nut to crack, but very worthwhile.

Chinatown (1974)

film-noir-chinatown-1974-movie-poster-via-professormortis-wordpressThanks to HBO, I had seen the last five minutes of Chinatown many times. It was time to catch up on the other two hours and five minutes. Besides, I had a crime thing going on.

In 1937 Los Angeles, private detective Jake Gittes is hired to investigate the possible infidelity of city water engineer Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling, who played Ham in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze, and yes, I was distracted by that bit of trivia). Gittes finds it, then is surprised to find out that the woman who hired him was not Mrs. Mulwray – that would be Faye Dunaway – and when Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy involving two very important parts of LA life – water and land.

People argue over whether Chinatown is neo-noir or just plain noir, so ably does it imitate the truly American genre from the 40s, but come now – the movie is so far removed from The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity that it’s clearly a new, meaner generation of that beast. Simple human greed is always a factor in noir, but here the greed is magnified a thousandfold, the corruption on a massive, government level. Director Roman Polanski trades in dark, venetian blind-lit rooms for sun-burned Los Angeles streets and parched orchards. Previously hinted-at sexual crimes, buried in Hayes Code-constricted noir is extremely – and famously – overt here.

Generally speaking, I don’t have a good relationship with the Polanski movies I’ve seen, but Chinatown is a seriously good movie. This is the movie that elevated Jack Nicholson to a romantic lead, and Faye Dunaway just keeps cropping up in these Great Movies, doesn’t she? There’s probably a reason for that.

Easy Rider (1969)

MPW-23917I didn’t feel like yet another crime movie, so I went with more Nicholson.

Though Easy Rider isn’t truly a Nicholson movie. What it is is a remarkable bellwether in American cinema. The third-grossing movie of the year (behind Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy), it kicked off the New Hollywood with a vengeance. Like that other surprise counter-culture hit, Bonnie and Clyde, it also borrows a lot from the French New Wave.

There’s not much plot in Easy Rider, but there is a hell of a lot of earnestness. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (director Dennis Hopper) make a small fortune smuggling cocaine in motorcycle batteries. They buy new bikes and set out to find America, or at least make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up alcoholic ACLU lawyer George (Nicholson), and introduce him to marijuana. They pick up two hookers in the Big Easy and have an acid trip in a cemetery.  Everybody gets killed by rednecks. The end.

2077615734_0f6ef42587It’s an odd and interesting trip, so very different from the TV version, Then Came Bronson, just one of the many attempts to cash in Easy Rider‘s commercial success.I’m intrigued at how, without much in the way of visual effects, the trip sequence in the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery so accurately captures the LSD experience.

None of these guys were exactly strangers to Hollywood at this point, but this movie definitely – and most certainly in Nicholson’s case – brought them from the ranks of small roles and day players on TV shows to the ranks of actual Movie Stars, and not just in B pictures. Again, like Bonnie and Clyde, actual locals take many of the roles, but you can also catch young Karen Black, Toni Basil, and Luke Askew for once not playing a lunatic. Fonda is his usual straight-shooting dreamer, and Hopper has the courage to make his balancing role a paranoid jerk.

And if nothing else, Easy Rider has some arrestingly beautiful scenery played against THE BEST DAMNED MOVIE SOUNDTRACK EVER.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that roughly between Network and Some Like It Hot in our last installment, I hit a day where I was called into work a City Council meeting to cover for a co-worker, and I had to employ my second cheat: Ebert had written about three Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoons, and I watched them in the waning hours of that Wednesday. They are What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. All successfully subvert the usual template of Looney Tunes shorts, and are well-deserving of the respect shown them. There are copies available on YouTube, but are of such abysmal quality, I’m not even going to try linking them here.

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

As I write this, it is Sunday morning of the Memorial Day weekend. I was up until 3am last night, watching movies, yet here I am, awake. Even if I stay up until bleary-eyed, apparently all I still get is five hours sleep, at most. Man, getting older is awesome. Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been jammed with work and watching movies for the Roger Ebert Great Movies Challenge on Letterboxd.com. Enough to keep me from writing about anything except the latest Crapfest, so let’s use this lack of sleep to clear some of that out.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs was inevitable, I was up against a scheduling problem one Saturday; I had my weekly Show that evening, which took up the portion of the day I usually employ as movie-watching time; there was no real possibility of watching a movie after The Show, my usual dodge, as the following day was Mother’s Day, and we were driving to visit my Mom, and I needed to try to get more than my usual five hours sleep. It was time to employ my first cheat, which was to drop one of the movies from my list that I did not have a burning desire to watch just yet, and substitute Un Chien Andalou, only 16 minutes long, and, at the time, available on Netflix Instant. A legendary collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien is one surreal image after another – the only criterion was both men had to agree before something was added. Any description or review of the short is going to wind up being a laundry list of that imagery, much of which is deliberately shocking – it was several viewings before I could watch that eyeball-slicing scene – and definitely memorable.

The most remarkable thing that can be said about Un Chien Andalou is that, although the imagery is deliberately random, and there is absolutely no underlying story, the mind still tries to rationalize that nonexistent story, organizing and creating symbolism where there is none. That’s actually highly entertaining and a triumph for Dada.

It may not currently be available on Netflix, but there’s always YouTube:

Network (1976)

network_posterWhen that weekend finally wound down, I was able to – finally – watch Network in its entirety, and that turned out to be a bracing experience.

Network news anchor Howard Beale is going through a slow-motion nervous breakdown when he is fired from his position for flagging ratings. When he announces he will commit suicide on the air, of course, ratings spike, so Howard keeps his job for a little while, until that spike diminishes. But when his breakdown goes full-blown, and he busts into his news set wearing only a raincoat and pajamas, and soaking wet, urges the viewers to shout out their windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – and people across the country do – a star is born.

Network is startlingly prescient about a number of things, some deliberately so. Writer Paddy Chayefsky heard about a multinational corporation jockeying to buy ABC, and realized that such a sale would be the death knell for broadcast news departments as they stood at the time: money-losing, but regarded as a necessary prestige product. Corporations don’t understand that, and news departments suddenly had to become profit centers. This hadn’t happened yet in ’76, but it was on the way.

Another bit of prophecy that Chayefsky probably hoped was too outlandish to come true is contained in one old-school executive refusing to give airtime to “a raving lunatic” and being told to sit down and shut up. At that moment, the modern viewer should be able to name at least three raving lunatics being given airtime just tonight. Ambitious executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) crafts a new form of newscast which will seem all too familiar today as “infotainment”, the only problem being that Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet don’t go broad enough to full visualize the mess that is modern journalism.

7041084_origOne thing that will also strike the viewer is that Network is largely built on monologues and soliloquies, usually the province of live theater. Paddy Chayefsky also wrote quite a bit for the stage, and it shows here. I don’t mind, coming from a theatrical background myself. Hell, there should be more monologues, if they’re the quality of the speeches delivered here. The writing is so good in these that Beatrice Straight – playing William Holden’s long-suffering wife – won a Best Supporting Oscar for her sole extended scene in the movie.

There are some problems, of course. My major one is Chayefsky once more presenting us with a female character with daddy issues to explain why a young actress winds up in bed with an actor twice her age. He did this in 71’s The Hospital between Diana Rigg and George C. Scott, and here it is again in Network. Whether this is Chayefsky cracking wise about these pairings being insisted upon at the studio level (you shouldn’t have to think too hard to think of a half-dozen similar mismatches in movies), or wish-fulfillment on the writer’s part, I don’t know.

But I was serious about wanting more monologues.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

MPW-78322And speaking of problems…

Everybody loves Some Like It Hot. I certainly did on my first viewing, when I was probably about 10 years old. Billy Wilder, last seen in this project as the director of the solid Double Indemnity was an amazing comedy director, and this movie is pretty much rightfully considered a classic. Yet, in my second viewing, its charms were lost on me.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two down-on-their-luck musicians in Chicago in the 30s. When their luck dips even lower, causing them to be eyewitnesses at a St. Valentines Day-style massacre, they take the only escape route open to them, masquerading as women in an all-girl band journeying to a gig in Florida. The singer for the band, incidentally, is Marilyn Monroe.

The whole thing is farce, of course, and if you don’t appreciate a good farce, something is wrong with your soul. Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe are all at the top of their game here. So what exactly is wrong with my soul that Some Like It Hot leaves me cold?

Oddly, a lot seems to do with Marilyn Monroe. The lady is gorgeous, the camera loves her, and stories about her neuroses on set are many; Wilder manages to use all these, and Monroe’s character has her share of problems, and seems extremely vulnerable. After having a girl-to-girl talk with her, in his disguise as Josephine, and finding out exactly what sort of guy Marilyn is looking for, Curtis slips into yet another disguise as exactly the sort of guy she’s looking for – rich, but bookish. This intertwines with a truly delectable Joe E. Brown pursuing Lemmon’s female persona – Lemmon grudgingly keeping the billionaire Brown busy while Curtis uses his yacht to seduce Monroe. It’s a farce, folks, it all makes sense because it happens so quickly.

Here’s the thing, though: Curtis is obviously the opposite of rich. His course of action – even though it involves getting Monroe to actually seduce him, rather than vice versa – is doomed to heartbreak from the outset. And as I’ve mentioned, Monroe feels very vulnerable in her role as Sugar Kane Kowalski, so I don’t want to see her hurt.  Inevitably, she is, and Curtis feeling like a dick about it doesn’t help.

Lemmon+Some+Like+it+HotOne of the most interesting aspects of the movie is Lemmon’s character becoming perhaps a little too comfortable in his role as a woman, even to the point of being ecstatic when Brown asks for his/her hand in marriage. It’s 1959, though, so we don’t get to explore this in any way except as wacky comedy. Jack Lemmon was one of America’s finest actors, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling this off so well.

One of the reasons I like Wilder so much is that he was not afraid of meta humor. Curtis’ rich playboy persona talks like Cary Grant, and a damned good impression, at that. Lemmon practically shrieks at him, “Where did you get that phony accent? Nobody talks like that!” (Cary Grant apparently agreed; when he saw they movie he claimed, “I don’t talk like that!”). George Raft, playing head bad guy Spats Columbo, snatches a coin being tossed in the air from a gunsel, sneering, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?”

Yeah, I have my favorite little bits, and I’m put in the odd position of recommending something I really didn’t like that much. It’s good enough that I may be wrong. Joe E. Brown is a goddamn gem. And that dress Marilyn is sewn into is just unfair.

The Hustler (1961)

el_buscavidas_1961_8…is another movie I can’t say I particularly enjoyed… but then, I’m not even sure I was supposed to enjoy it.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark who one character points out “Shoots good, but shoots lucky.” The match of his young life is against another legend, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a marathon that at its peak sees Eddie triumphant… but his hubris kicks in and he eventually loses everything to the more experienced, systematic Fats, and more importantly, to Fats’ manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott).

Most people think this movie is all about this match and ultimately the return bout; this is likely due to most of the promotional material, and the charisma of Jackie Gleason. Gleason only has about 20 minutes of screen time, though; most of the movie is Eddie rebounding from this loss, his inability to get any pool action going thanks to Gordon’s network, and a growing relationship with fragile alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie); they begin by simply using each other, but definite feelings begin to grow through time and shared experiences, like Eddie having his thumbs broken by Gordon’s thugs.

Gordon turns out to be the snake in this broken Garden of Eden, eventually taking Eddie under his wing and trying to exploit his skills. Turns out Eddie loves pool more than he loves Sarah, and Gordon does what he can to take Sarah out of the picture, to eliminate that distraction, with tragic results. That breaks Gordon hold over Eddie, and produces the final tempering of character that will make the hustler unbeatable.

It’s a character study of some pretty unfortunate characters, but the truly astounding thing is, it gives equal weight to its major characters; this is fully Sarah’s story as much as it is Eddie’s. Were this movie made today, it’s doubtful it would remain so. Piper Laurie is amazing in the role; it was after this movie that she took a 15-year sabbatical from acting to concentrate on her family, returning in 1976 and Carrie. This was  no doubt the right decision for her to make, but watch her performance in The Hustler and then reflect on what we missed out on in that 15 years.

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

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.

Double Indemnity (1944)

double-indemnity-1All the various pieces of film-noir intersect in a perfect specimen of the genre, creating Venetian blind lighting motifs that would be appropriated over and over again into the next century.

Fred MacMurray was convinced by director Billy Wilder to take leave of his usual light comedy roles to play Walter Neff, a highly successful insurance salesman who runs afoul of Phyllis Dietrichsen (Barbara Stanwyck in a horribly cheap blonde wig), an unhappy housewife who desperately wants to be rid of her loveless oil executive husband. Once these two finish playing bedroom games, Neff manages to get Dietrichsen insured for double indemnity in case of accidental death, then carefully rigs the murder, using his knowledge of insurance scams to commit the perfect crime.

Unfortunately, Neff’s best friend is insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a Sherlock of Statistics who at first figures the death is just bad luck for the insurance company, then homes in on the one tiny inconsistency in Neff’s plot. Keyes has a blind spot toward his old friend, Neff, and believes someone else is her accomplice – but the salesman watches in dread as that blind spot shrinks and his relationship with Phyllis starts to sour and curdle, and they begin to turn on each other.

double-indemnity-1944-movie-screenshot-495pxDouble Indemnity quite simply does everything right, from a beginning that grabs the viewer (and gives a perfect reason for Neff to spend the rest of the movie narrating his own downfall) straight through a twisted story that never strays from the logical – at least insofar as anything concerning human emotions can be – to a wholly satisfying end. MacMurray probably surprised the hell out of everybody. Stanwyck already had a reputation as a solid, versatile actress, and this movie established her as the Dark Lady of film-noir for many years, proving that the right actress can even overcome a director’s horrible choice of wigs. But the real standout for me is Edward G. Robinson, taking a step down from his usual starring roles to play Keyes, in his own way the hard-boiled detective of the story. Robinson has several dynamite speeches that he delivers perfectly, rapid-fire. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler made sure to be on the set when Robinson did those.

It amazes me that Hollywood made two James M. Cain novels with similar themes – unbridled lust and adultery lead to murder – under the  restrictive Hayes Code.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

birth_of_a_nation_CHoly shit, people. Just holy shit.

I’ve been warned enough times about Birth of a Nation. But it still winds up in reference books, still on Ebert’s list, because it is a remarkable technical and artistic achievement a mere 20 years after the exhibition of the first motion picture. It undeniably kicked off serious American cinema. It possesses a stature worthy of reckoning, but also an unfortunate message.

Right up front you get a warning with the title card “The Birth of a Nation (Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman)”. The first hour and a half tells the tale of two families, the Stonemans and the Camerons, whose sons are great friends (and whose eldest boys quite fancy the daughters on the opposite sides). The Stoneman family hail from the North, the Camerons own a cotton plantation in the South. Then the Civil War hits, and of course the boys wind up facing each other on the battlefield. The youngest die, the two elders survive. Lincoln pardons Cameron from an unjust execution when Miss Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and mother Cameron beg for his life. Gish refers to him as “The Great Heart”.

Lincoln’s assassination is fully and well-staged in a recreation of Ford’s Theater (but out in the open air, for lighting purposes). The Camerons read of his death and sadly look up from the newspaper, stating, “Our best friend has died. What will happen to us now?” If you’re slightly dubious of that being the actual reaction of defeated Southerners, just wait.

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915As I’ve said, that first 90 minutes is a good enough retelling of the period before and during the Civil War, but I wasn’t smitten with it when it was called Gone With the Wind, either. Then the second half of movie starts with a card that reads “This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” In other words, We are about to get racist, but we are not racist.

Stoneman takes over after Lincoln is assassinated, and while he does not hang the Southern leaders, as he had previously advocated, he does go full-bore into making sure the freed slaves of the South become fully equal to the white citizens. This takes the form of whites being turned from the polls and blacks being bribed to elect rascals and carpetbaggers to the local government. My God, you can just hear current political talking points being freshly minted. Stoneman’s choice to head up the Reconstruction is a villainous (of course) mulatto named Simon Lynch, who secretly aims to establish his own Black Empire, and not incidentally marry Lillian Gish against her will.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, 1915Luckily, at the two-hour mark, the elder Cameron son has established the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and it is these brave sheet-beclad horsemen who rout the Black Apocalypse that Lynch has created (to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”, no less), save Lillian Gish from Lynch’s vile mixed-race clutches, and, at the end, keep the Negros in their homes during the next election.

That last hour is a total mindfuck to rival The Holy Mountain or Holy Motors, let me tell you. Ideally, you try to cast yourself in the same mindset of a person watching the movie contemporaneously, and you just can’t. You can’t erase the image of blacks on the legislature floor leering at white women in the balcony when intermarriage is legalized. You can’t forget Gus the Rogue Negro (obviously a white man in blackface, as are any actors who come into contact with white actresses), stalking the teenaged Cameron girl, who leaps from a cliff rather than endure his touch. And it is really hard to forget sweet little Lillian Gish telling her Klan boyfriend, “Kill one for me!”

Birth of a Nation is culturally important, but it’s nightmarish. It may be even more culturally important, for just that reason.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

el_puente_sobre_el_rio_kwai_1957_7My decompression from The Birth of a Nation involved some more twisted ethics, but ethics that were slightly easier to relate to.

Based on a true story, it involves a platoon of captured British soldiers sent to a WWII Japanese labor camp in Siam, where they are supposed to, you guessed it, build a railroad bridge over the Kwai river. Our main conflict comes from the insistence of the camp’s commandant, Major Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) that the British officers also work alongside the enlisted men, which Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) rightly points out is a violation of the Geneva Convention. This insolence gets Nicholson thrown in The Oven, and his officers in The Punishment Hut until they give in to Saito’s demands. The soldiers, meanwhile, keep sabotaging the construction while the officers bake in the sun. I should mention that the American prisoner who actually starts the movie, Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the jungle, though nearly dying three times in the attempt.

Nicholson is made of incredibly stern stuff, and Saito finally finds an excuse to accede to his wishes under the auspices of a Japanese holiday. Once Nicholson sees what a wreck the bridge is, and what a rabble his men have become during his imprisonment, he decides that the best thing to do, to return discipline to his ranks and to show the Japanese what a British soldier can do, by God, is to build the bridge, and build it well. Saito, desperate to finish the bridge by his deadline, agrees, even conscripting his own men to construction work under the British officers, several of whom had built similar bridge in India.Nicholson becomes ever more obsessed (though in a genteel way) with the bridge’s completion, unaware that Shears has been basically blackmailed to make an unwilling journey back to the camp to blow up the bridge.

bridgeontheriverkwaiBridge gets fascinatingly complex in its character’s motivations; Saito sinking slowly into depression as his enemy does what he could not, to the point of planning seppuku after the bridge’s christening; Nicholson’s slow metamorphosis to slave driver, finally, ironically, putting his officers on the work force, and eventually even injured and sick men from the dispensary; and Sears, more or less forced – genteely, you gotta love the Brits – into the commando force and finding himself voluntarily risking his life once in the field.

William Holden always had an appealing vulnerability under his gruff handsomeness, and honestly should have been the only actor considered to play Shears (that didn’t stop them from offering it to Bogart, Grant, and Olivier). Like Fred MacMurray, Alec Guinness was, to this point, mainly known as a comedy star. The role of Nicholson had been offered to Charles Laughton (!), Ronald Coleman, Ralph Richardson, James Mason… the musical chairs even extended to directors. Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks… only eventually David Lean. The two screenwriters were Michael Wilson and Carl Foremen, both Blacklisted. It is amazing that this movie exists at all, much less turned out to be the masterpiece it is.

Research finds the story a bit more interesting, though less cinematic. The real Major Saito was apparently a much more enlightened gentleman, negotiating with his charges for their work duties. In fact, the real-life version of Colonel Nicholson testified on his behalf at a war crimes tribunal! Two bridges were made, both were bombed by Allied forces, but the sturdier one was repaired, and much like Nicholson’s dream, is still being used today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

11160955_oriEventually, I had to run up against another movie I just couldn’t love, though lots of people do.

Thief of Bagdad is an Alexander Korda production, impossible to trace to one director, as Korda kept switching them in and out like drill bits. It’s an Arabian Nights fairy tale concerning a kindly ruler, Ahmed (John Justin), who befriends the title character, Abu (Sabu) when he is deposed by the evil vizier, the sorcerer Jafar (Conrad Veidt). Both men are in love with the princess (June Duprez) of a neighboring city, and when magically blinding Ahmed and turning Abu into a dog doesn’t work, Jafar shipwrecks them with a summoned storm. At which point things get weird.

Abu finds a genie (Rex Ingram) who flies him to the top of the world to steal a jewel called The All-Seeing Eye, which works like a magic TV, allowing him to locate Ahmed. The treacherous genie then sends Ahmed to Bagdad and execution, and strands  Abu on top of a mountain, As luck would have it, Abu’s destruction of the Eye of the World in a rage unlocks the gate to the Land of Legends, where the Thief gets the tools he need to rescue his friend.

2510033843_e3031446e3I don’t expect fantasy movies to necessarily be tightly constructed, but Thief’s plot feels sadly thrown together – I really missed my three act structure. The movie’s harried production – it had to move from its British studio during the Blitz into America – along with the directoral musical chairs works against it. But if I was somewhat bemused by the movie’s fevered insistence to cram nearly all the fantastical elements into the final third, it was fun to watch it while pretending to be a young Ray Harryhausen and see the inspiration for the green men and the six-armed goddess in Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

And Rex Ingram is a fine genie. Conrad Veidt excelled at playing villains with a soul, and Jafar, who would be able to hypnotize the Princess into loving him, but knows this would be a hollow victory, qualifies. The relatively new Technicolor process gets a real workout, and we see the first instance of the blue-screen technology that would enable traveling mattes for years to come, and the matte lines that would plague visual effects artists for the next fifty years.

There were more Arabian Nights-style movies over the years, but none matched the scope and fancy of Thief of Bagdad until that young Harryhausen fellow in the theater started making his own movies. For that, if nothing else, Thief of Bagdad gets props.

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

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.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Poster - Rio Bravo_01Earlier this year, in the course of another challenge, I said that The Searchers is likely the Ultimate Western. That’s the sort of generalization that gives you pause, once you’ve made it, over and over again, as you think of other movies that might fit that position just as well. Its scope is not as broad, but that’s also a strength for Rio Bravo, the Other Ultimate Western.

This was director Howard Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus following the critical and box office failure of Land of the Pharaohs. He had some things to prove to a lot of people, not least of all himself, and the result is a movie that is so darned good he took some its best parts and re-used them again seven years later in El Dorado.

Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) locks up Joe Burdette (an astonishingly young – and thin – Claude Akins), the younger brother of the local ruthless cattle baron, for murder. This prompts big brother to seal up the town and start importing gunslingers to free Joe before the federal Marshall arrives in six days. Chance recruits his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) an alcoholic struggling to regain his sobriety and self-respect, and eventually Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a preternaturally calm and competent young gun. He’s already got cantankerous cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan, sans teeth) overseeing the jail with a shotgun and an unending stream of invective.

rio_bravoInto this siege situation Hawks also drops Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a peripatetic gambler who chooses to settle in Rio Bravo when she takes a shine to the Sheriff. Dickinson here is lucky to get the role of a typical Hawks woman, preferring the company of men to her own sex, easily the equal of any of them. Wayne the actor seems honestly uncomfortable with the idea of a love affair with a woman who is almost literally half his age, and that somehow makes The Duke adorable. But this movie also marks an important turning point in his career – Wayne is obviously no longer a young man, and here begins the line of movies dealing with that fact, through the 60s and eventually into True Grit and Rooster Cogburn.

Martin and Nelson seem like stunt casting, and that may be true in Nelson’s case, at the height of his popularity in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but Martin definitely worked hard for the role. It benefited his acting chops considerably when Hawks wouldn’t let him get away with his usual nightclub drunk schtick – Martin sinks his teeth into the uglier, pathetic parts of drying out, and when he finally gets his mojo back, it is a triumphant, memorable moment.

It’s easy to fantasize that you can pick and choose between the casts of this and El Dorado and swap out Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, James Caan for Ricky Nelson… but truthfully, both movies are just fine the way they are.

The Big Sleep (1946)

el_sueno_eterno_1946_2It’s really ideal when you can follow a Hawks movie with a Hawks movie.

Humphrey by-God Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, prototypical private eye. He’s hired by the aging and slowly dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his final role) to clear up the matter of some gambling debts and possible blackmail against one or both of his wild daughters (the elder of whom is Lauren Bacall). Of course, since this is from a Raymond Chandler novel, nothing is as simple as it first seems.

Rather famously, The Big Sleep was held over from its original release date to A) clear out Warner Brothers’ inventory of war movies when World War II ended earlier than Warner had scheduled; and B) to punch up Lauren Bacall’s character, reshooting several scenes and adding others a year after the original shooting had wrapped.  1944’s To Have and Have Not was a tremendous hit thanks in large part to the Hawksian chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (and obvious sexual heat, needless to say).

But you don’t monkey with the structure of a complex plot like Chandler’s without paying a price, and The Big Sleep‘s gets pretty muddled to accommodate the new dynamics. I was thankful I’d gone out of my way to see the more linear 1978 version with Robert Mitchum a couple of years back, it helped anchor me through the turmoil.

Still, it’s a good ride. Past the banter betwixt its two stars, you could spot this as a Hawks movie by the incidental characters: Marlowe keeps running into charming, attractive women doing their jobs – in one case, a normally male job like a cabbie – doing them well, and with enough smarts and sass to impress Marlowe. probably past their time in the story (were it not for Bacall, if you catch my drift). Lucky goddamn Marlowe.

Beat the Devil (1953)

large_tmtx7hDqcZGYyQ8H76I7ZKOumgmI didn’t have another Hawks movie on tap, so instead I went for more Bogart.

Beat the Devil is an odd bird, and most people don’t seem to know what to make of it. You have a collection of four rogues headed by Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, and they’ve thrown in with Bogart to purchase some land in Africa that they suspect is rich in Uranium. This setup is complicated by the fact that they are marooned in Italy while their steamer is repaired or the captain sobers up – “More than a day, less than a fortnight.” Also complicating matters is a British couple, the Chelms: the stuffy husband and the brilliant but talkative wife (Jennifer Jones), who has an overactive imagination that leads the rogues down all sorts of false assumptive trails.

That isn’t complicated enough? Bogart and Jones fall in love, and oh, didn’t I mention Bogart is married to Gina Lollobrigida? Gina is an ardent Anglophile who falls for Mr. Chelm.

It gets even more complicated than that, but this is another movie that depends on the joy of discovery, so let me just leave it at that. This is a stellar spoof of adventure movies with foreign no-goodniks in pursuit of atomic gold, and honestly, the only thing missing is Sydney Greenstreet, who had retired in 1949, suffering from diabetes and Bright’s Disease (which had plagued him through most of his movie career). Robert Morley rises suitably to the occasion, however.

Matters weren’t helped by the movie posters proclaiming “The Bold Adventure That Beats them All!” “Adventure At Its Boldest! Bogart At His Best!” Nobody went into Beat The Devil expecting an hour and a half of banter so dry you could make a martini with it (Truman Capote is a credited writer). Everybody plays it deadly serious, making it even more hilarious. Bogart is smart enough to just lean back and let chaos reign around him. And did I mention the director was John Huston? Yeah, this nestles between Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick.

Beat the Devil is definitely an odd creature. Enjoyable, as long as you know what sort of movie you’re going to get. Have a nice three-minute clip from early on…

Stagecoach (1939)

Poster - Stagecoach (1939)_03Out of Hawks and Bogey, I might as well bookend this with more John Wayne, right?

Stagecoach marks a number of notable firsts. It’s John Ford’s first movie shot in Monument Valley, and the first of a long line of collaborations with John Wayne. Wayne had, by this time, made a slew of B-Westerns. That worked against him in the casting process, but when Gary Cooper wanted too much money, Ford finally got Wayne.

Stagecoach takes a basic dramatic premise and plays it for all its worth: Throw a bunch of disparate characters in an enclosed space, put that space in danger, and let events play out. The title coach is making a regularly scheduled run, complicated by the presence of Geronimo on the warpath. The cast includes an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) being  exiled from the town, and ditto a “fallen woman”, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose crimes are never elaborated upon, since it’s still 1939. There is also a woman trying desperately to meet up with her Cavalry officer husband, a roguish gambler who takes her under protective wing (John Carradine, superb as ever), a banker running away with a mining company’s payroll (it’s also still the Great Depression, so boo hiss at the Banker), and a whiskey salesman whose sample case is going to be decimated by the doctor. And then they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne) on the way. He’s escaped prison to avenge the murder of his family by the Plummer Brothers, and unfortunately for him, the Sheriff is riding shotgun on the coach.

That’s quite a cast, and I didn’t even mention Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. At this far remove, it is interesting to note that of this solid, often powerhouse group, Claire Trevor was at the time the box office draw.

stagemovieThe group dynamics shift throughout the journey, especially when the promised cavalry escorts keep getting called away to chase Geronimo. The scalawag Banker and the Officer’s Wife (and therefore The Gambler) want to keep pushing on, despite the danger – though the group is forced to shelter in place when the sickly wife is found to be pregnant and the doctor has to go into hyper-sober-up to get her through a difficult delivery, aided by the prostitute. During all this, the guileless and somewhat naive Ringo Kid falls for Dallas, thinking her just another lady; when they eventually arrive at their destination he’ll find out different, and it won’t matter.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to even outline the complexities of character and plot breezed through by Stagecoach in a mere 96 minutes. Viewing an extra on the Criterion DVD, a video essay by Ted Gallagher about Ford’s visual style, you find out how Ford threw exposition and character development simply by where he chose to point the camera in any given scene, and you realize that you are dealing with a director working several degrees above most of us. Tremendously humbling.

There are many, many reasons to watch Stagecoach, but I’m going to instead leave you with another first: the hat John Wayne wears as the Ringo Kid, he would wear in many another Western; its final appearance is as the beat-to-shit hat Chance wears in Rio Bravo, after the which the Duke finally retired it and kept it under glass in his house.

I love it when we can circle back like that.