After the Gold Rush

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The Battle of Algiers on Amazon

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Sorry, Stalin apparently purged any trailers from YouTube)

Buy Ivan The Terrible Part II on Amazon

Wild Strawberries (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Wild Strawberries on Amazon

The General (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The General on Amazon


The ABCs of March 2014 Part Two

Previously on Yes, I Know: A through E

F: Following (1998)

followingChristopher Nolan’s first feature film, shot on weekends during his student days, has the whole Nolan package in a trim 70 minutes: duplicitous characters, fluidity of timeline, twists, turns, double crosses, and one hell of a final reveal.

Shot in gloriously grainy black-and-white 16mm, Following is the tale of Bill (Jeremy Theobald), a young aspiring writer who starts following random strangers, observing them and hopefully gleaning some material for his work. Then one of his targets turns the tables on him – Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional thief and amateur philosopher. Cobb takes Bill under his tutelage, burglarizing apartments and disrupting peoples’ lives, telling Bill “You take it away… you show them what they had.” Bill becomes enamored of this lifestyle, becomes involved with one of their victims – and then, things get complicated.

Like the best of Nolan’s work, it’s essential to pay attention while the story works its Byzantine path toward that amazing conclusion. Events are played out-of-order, and quite often an unexplained occurrence is explained several scenes later (there is an alternate edit on the Criterion disc that places events in chronological order, but it seems like that would be much less fun – less of a discovery tingle, there). It’s to Nolan’s credit that everything makes sense at the wrap-up.

Probably the best comparison in Nolan’s filmography is The Prestige – and that is pretty high praise. If you liked one, you’re going to love the other. Highly recommended.

Following on Amazon

G: Ganja & Hess (1973)

gan_hThis wasn’t originally in the plan I mocked up for MMM, but this was picked as the movie in focus for the next Daily Grindhouse podcast, so I slipped it into the G spot (so to speak) instead of Godfather III. Perhaps the Universe was doing me a solid.

This was produced largely as an answer to blaxploitation movies so popular at the time – it is smart, challenging, at times deliberately abtruse. It is a vampire movie that never uses the word “vampire”. It stars Duane Jones, who everybody knows from Night of the Living Dead, and that, along with this movie, should have had Hollywood hammering at his door because good God, is he incredible. Writer/director/actor Bill Gunn was some sort of certifiable genius, to be sure, whose career never really took off, and the color of his skin likely had a lot to do with that.

Ganja and Hess got a standing ovation at Cannes, and proceeded to go absolutely nowhere in America: there is whole lot of odd stuff with Gunn’s character before he goes bullgoose looney and stabs Jones with an ancient dagger that somehow infects him with vampirism, and even then your typical horror movie tropes are few and far between. Most people expecting Blacula Part II probably left the theater in the first 15 minutes.

Ganja01I’m not going into much detail here, saving it for the podcast (listen early and often, my droogs), but we’re currently looking for a copy of Blood Couple, a version recut into a more traditional horror movie form.

Recommended, but be prepared for a challenge. It’s been written that you’re supposed to connect with Ganja & Hess not with your brain, but with your core instincts – and they’re probably right. We needed a lot more from Gunn and Jones; it wasn’t so much that these men were born too early as that America had its head up its ass for too long.

Ganja & Hess on Amazon

No trailer, but have two minutes of typically beautiful strangeness:

H: Harold & Maude (1971)

harold_and_maude_ver3_xlgHarold (Bud Cort) a twenty-something rich young man obsessed with death, has several pastimes, most notably practicing suicide in an effort to get a rise out of his remote mother (Vivian Pickles). During another hobby – attending funerals – he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79 year-old lady with a contagiously free spirit. She also attends funerals of people she’s never met, but she regards death as only part of a life to be ferociously, and whimsically, lived. This blossoming relationship will change Harold significantly, and shock audiences as the two become lovers.

This is one of the movies on the MMM list that I had already seen, but not since the late 70s. Unsurprisingly, my head’s in a different place some 35 years later, and I noticed some things I had not in my callow youth. Most significantly, the possibility that Maude’s flaunting of the law (“borrowing” cars and in one case almost getting shot by a cop) may not be due to free-wheeling anti-authoritarianism, but the onset of some form of dementia. The hard-edged satire of Harold’s relationships with every other adult in his circle – his mother, psychiatrist, military uncle, various “computer dates” his mother sets up – all seem more than little heavy-handed, but welcome to 1971: this played so well to my generation, it was beyond reproach.

None of this shook my love for the film; if anything, it reminded me how important Hal Ashby’s movies were to me as my tastes and worldview developed, this one and Being There foremost. I settled into it and its Cat Stevens soundtrack (for some reason, over the years I had thought it was Harry Nilsson) like an old, comfortable friend, and finding fresh nuances was delightful. Perhaps the most surprising part was rediscovering how a movie could be simultaneously so challenging and yet so gentle, so black in its humor and yet so sentimental.

Harold & Maude on Amazon

I: Ivan the Terrible, part one (1944)

1944-Ivan-el-terrible-Sergei-M-Eisenstein-espanol-1Well, enough romances, let’s have some blood and thunder. Well. not too much blood and thunder to be found here, but it’s the basis for a lot of it.

Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine worked on retooling the lives of prominent historical Russian figures to better support the Soviet worldview, and for some reason (sarcasm intended) he especially liked Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia for almost forty years, expanded its borders, dragged his country out of the Middle Ages… and killed a whole bunch of people. Sergei Eisenstein. the genius of Russian cinema, undertook the project. It would take three years to shoot, would damn near kill him – he suffered his first heart attack after completing the editing on Part Two, and it certainly killed his career in his native land; Part Two of his epic was banned in Russia until 1958, and the planned third part never lensed.

But we’re here to contemplate the first movie, which is more origin story than anything else, providing the basis for Ivan’s later paranoia and draconian methods. Formerly the Grand Prince of Moscow, he is crowned Tsar of All the Russias at the tender age of 17, and immediately starts making reforms necessary to making Russia an Empire, taxing churches and minimizing the ruling class of Boyars (a flashback demonstrating why Ivan hates the Boyars was excised and placed instead in the reviled Part Two). He puts down a peasant revolt at his own wedding celebration, using only his canny wit, forceful presence, and a timely declaration of war against the Khanate of Kazan.

ivanterHis ultimate triumph over the Khanate is only a small part of the movie – most of it concerns the eddying tides of conspiracy and backbiting around his rule, culminating in the poisoning of his wife by Boyars, which signals the end of his reasonable phase and the beginning of his “Brotherhood of Iron”, a secret army loyal only to him. A brilliant statesman, he retreats to a nearby village and awaits the parade of common folk who beg him to return, one of Eisenstein’s best, most elaborate (and likely most expensive) set-ups.

But that’s the crown jewel in a movie full of tremendous setpieces and striking images. The acting and makeup seem to be still stuck in German Expressionist silent movie mode, but that’s a small thing when presented with such a compelling time capsule – and I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. This part of the saga received a Stalin Prize, which Eisenstein would enjoy for only a year, until the state censors saw its sequel.

Ivan the Terrible on Amazon

No trailer because that would be bourgeois.

J: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

JourneytotheWestConqueringtheDemonsWell, that’s quite a mouthful of a title.

We’re going to go into a couple of autobiographical detours here. First, if you’ve known or read me for any length of time, you know that I loves me some Monkey King. This can be traced back to the deeply strange anime movie Alakazam the Great – deeply weird because the folks involved in dubbing it attempted to Americanize it with great gusto, excising all mention of Buddha or any other Oriental figures. It was based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which is like 3 million pages long, and has been the basis of a lot of movies. One of my favorites is the Japanese Adventures of Super Monkey, of which I have a Canadian blu-ray under the title Monkey MagicDespite my determination to only watch movies I’ve never seen this year, that one gets trotted out frequently.

Secondly: Stephen Chow is a filmmaker I’ve been familiar with for many years. When a mania for Asian movies hit America in the early 90s, Chow’s movies were inevitably swept along, only to be met with confusion. I recall one critic bemoaning “some of the best action sequences in Hong Kong cinema” watered down by “goofy comedy”. I’m just going to point out that criticism was also leveled at Jackie Chan’s movies, then move along. Chow was enamored of word play, and the polytonal nature of the major Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, provided rich opportunities for that – opportunities that did not translate well into English. Still movies like the Royal Tramp series and King of Beggars had their fans… and then Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle hit, and Stephen Chow started clicking with American audiences.

journeywest1So now, here’s a combination of the two: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a “Gathering the Team” type version of the novel, a prequel of sorts, especially if you don’t mind messing with the original source material. I haven’t even read Arthur Whaley’s acclaimed abridged translation, so I’m not in the position to judge.

Our main character is novice demon hunter Zhang (Wen Zhang) whose methods of appealing to demons’ better nature is ineffective, to say the least. Constantly upstaged by the more proactive Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who is increasingly smitten with the young monk, Zhang is advised to seek out the imprisoned Monkey King (Huang Bo) for aid in defeating the Pig Demon, currently running amok and too strong to capture.

There is going to be plenty of goofy comedy, but that long-ago critic was right about Chow’s action sequences: they are amazing, varied and entertaining. Throw in rival demon hunters like Prince Important and the Almighty Foot, and a portrayal of the Monkey King so duplicitous and savage that you finally understand why Buddha stuck him under a mountain for 500 years, and you have one crackerjack Chinese fantasy, no matter how many liberties taken.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Amazon