The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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Opacity: Virtue or Failing?

I was discussing Mulholland Drive with Katia Mitova, one of the most incisive critical minds I know.  I was questioning the merit of a work that was loaded down with nothing but red herrings. She said, ‘That only works one time.  You can’t make a career out of it.’  if the gimmick of misdirection is the total substance of a work, then it is a game and nothing you need to visit more than once. Unfortunately, David Lynch has not followed Katia’s advice.

Nor did Stanley Kubrick.

I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey since I saw it at its theatrical run at the Loew’s Kings, the magnificent movie palace on Flatbush Avenue.  My father fell asleep almost immediately as was his wont.  I sat respectfully, knowing, even at the age of 13, that this was something important which deserved my undivided attention and adulation.

Over the decades I have seen it rise from the purview of nerdy Star Trek loving kids like me, to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all times, even earning a secure place in the Sight + Sound every-ten-year poll of the ten greatest films of all times.

But 50 years later my feelings about it are quite different.  The opacity of the symbolism annoys me more than it excited by in 1968. As a teenager and budding pretentious intellect, I could argue with friends for hours about what the monolith ‘means’. what the light-show ‘means, what the Star Child ‘means’.  Now I am less entranced.

I believe when symbols are invoked, they have to meet you halfway.  If there is no way of beginning to fathom the creator’s intention, is it fair on the audience? I don’t think so. One school of thought for this sort of thing is that if the work seems impenetrable, let it just wash over you and you get what you can.  To which I say, ‘Rubbish’.

Another problem with 2001 is that it keeps changing what it is.  Is it an anthropological meditation on the rise of society and murder via the device of uncuddly chimps? (cf. the ridiculous dinosaurs of Tree of Life?).

Then it becomes a space mystery in the not-distant future. Something troubling has been found in a settlement on the moon and a team of international scientists.  They don’t know what it is but they won’t release information because they don’t want to freak out the people of earth with a possible clue to origin of life (or something like that).

The third act takes place some 10 months later and this is the famous battle of wills between the two astronauts and the malevolent (or is he just hyper-responsible) computer system HAL-9000.

The two astronauts are so gorgeous in different ways, that they almost seem symbolic.  Keir Dullea has a Nordic, almost other-worldly beauty and Gary Lockwood, a more visceral All-American appeal.

These are men who know each other well and are extremely accomplished.  Their performances show men who are the best at what they do and who have also spent hours of mind-numbing boredom together.

HAL decides that the men are no longer responsible enough to manage the mission and he rebels. And just when you think it will be a classic sci-fi man vs. machine trope, it becomes a muddled and dull psychedelic light-show that goes on for too long.  Just in case you might feel that this is all arbitrary, the monolith shows up again in an aged Keir Dullea’s Louis Quatorze bedroom, just to ensure that it is all arbitrary. And then the Star Child.

I don’t want facile plots and sledge-hammer symbolism, but some elucidation should come from the creator.  The opacity of the film was exciting for a teenager teething on his first critical analysis of a film, but as an adult, it is just tiresome.

 

 

 

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
  2. Marius (Alexander Korda)
  3. Fanny (Marc Allegret)
  4. César (Marcel Pagnol)
  5. Tab Hunter Confidential (Jeffrey Schwarz)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
  7. Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
  8. Juarez (William Dieterle)
  9. Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel)
  10. Faithless (Harry Beaumont)

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1- I found The Last Black Man in San Francisco absolute torture to sit through.  A muddled story, a muddled message, clumsy filmmaking. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

2- Please see my post about Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy.  Seeing it again is always nourishing.

3- I had hoped that Tab Hunter Confidential would have had a little more bite to it, kind of like Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Instead it was a pleasant two hour biography of what seems like a very sweet guy who was able to overcome the difficulties of being Gay in 1950s Hollywood.  Nothing wrong with that.

4- Continuing my rewatching of Bette Davis films, I recently watched Juarez and Dark Victory.  Juarez seems to have been conceived as a showcase for Paul Muni in the title role.  Muni was considered one of the impeachable actors of the time, playing a string of historical figures.  Now he seems like a bit of a shameless scenery chewer.  It is a shame that he has such prominence, because two of the great actresses of the 1930s, Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard, are eclipsed by Muni’s hamminess.  Davis does well with a Lucia di Lammermoor-like mad scene, but I wish the movie were Empress Carlotta rather than Juarez.  

Dark Victory is unadulterated soap opera.  That’s fine with me, but it is not as ecstatic as it could be.  Compare this to the magnificence of Now, Voyager. It pales.

5- In this time of social distress and baseness and general unkindness, it is wonderful to encounter Babette’s Feast again.  I hadn’t seen it since it was in theaters and it holds up magnificently.  This is due to the beautiful Isak Dinesen (Karin Blixen) story it is based on.  So kind, so loving, so transcendent. Babette’s actions are somewhere on the Maimonides’ ladder of charity. It is a special case, I think. Doing a charity for someone who doesn’t realize what they need and thereby transforming the world.  How often do we see that in popular culture today?

6- I saw that Faithless was going to be shown on TCM and I recorded it mostly because I had never seen Tallulah Bankhead in a movie, besides Lifeboat by Hitchcock.  This looked like it was more typical of what she was famous for. A tale of a high-society dame who falls in love with a humble wage-earner in the Depression.  I thought it was going to be a frothy sex comedy, but pretty soon both characters go bust and it becomes a surprisingly deep and disturbing probing of life in the Depression. It would be a wonderful double-bill with Heroes For Sale (q.v.).   The films about the Depression made during the Depression are among the most powerful of Hollywood products.  It is interesting to me that this era has been completely ignored by current Hollywood.  Too ‘depressing’ I guess.

7- 2001.  See my recent post and please feel free to tell me why I am wrong.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
  3. The Boy With Green Hair (Joseph Losey)
  4. Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
  5. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
  6. Late Night (Nisha Garatra)
  7. Yesterday (Danny Boyle)
  8. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)
  9. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
  10. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)

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1- What an odd movie The Boy With Green Hair is. Is it a plea for compassion for people who are different? I’m not sure.

2- I’ve been watching a lot of much-seen favorites and I enjoy each of them as if it were only the 100th time I was watching it as opposed to the zillionth. The Shop Around the Corner, Rashomon, When a Woman Ascends The Stairs, Citizen Kane and The Birds. I’ll be back, old friends.

3- It was interesting to see Yesterday and Rocketman within a week of each other. Both are in keeping with the ‘jukebox’ style of musical that is so prevalent: A slim story is built around a song catalog of a group or singer. What is good and different about Rocketman is that the story is Elton John’s biography and the songs, instead of being depictions of concert performances, grow out of the action, as in classic Broadway musicals. It’s fun to see his mom or neighbors burst into one of his hits, but the lyrics of the song always pertain to what is happening at that point of the biography.

The two things in Yesterday‘s favor are a) The Beatles’ catalog is greater than just about anyone else’s and b) the story is sweet and clever with enough fun twists to keep you engaged. I know that this movie has had a lot of harsh criticism, but I spent a lovely afternoon with it. And what is so bad about being regaled with Beatles’ tunes from She Loves You to The Long and Winding Road?


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Farewell Machiko-san and Bibi

This spring, in short succession, we lost to absolute icons of what used to be known as Art House Cinema.

This term has lost currency since everything seems to be given equal weight now, and people who take film and literature seriously seem to balk at the notion of a canon of great works. I am not here to argue the pros and cons of canon-making, but I am here to say that Art House Cinema as a concept comes from an era quite obsessed with canon-making. The auteuristes cast a long shadow.

Art House is hard to define, but it is like The Great American Songbook – you know what belongs in it but it would be hard-pressed to define why. Simply stated, it consists of European and Asian cinema made between the beginning of the sound era until the mid-seventies. The most prominent directors were the usual suspects: Fellini, Bergman, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa, Ray, Rossellini, Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Dreyer, etc.

The faces of Art House, especially to the nerdy teenager from Brooklyn haunting the ‘art houses’ of Manhattan in the Seventies, were actors who were from beyond this earthly sphere. Anna Karina, Monica Vitti, Setsuko Hara, Liv Ullmann, Marcello Mastroianni, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Toshiro Mifune, Giulietta Massina.

In the spring of this year, two of those immortals passed on to the great Art House in the sky, Machiko Kyo and Bibi Andersson.

Kyo was the focal point of the first Japanese films to have an impact in the West. Her most famous role is as the wife in that great meditation on truth and reality, Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa

In actuality, she plays three roles in this film as the character’s persona shifts in each retelling of what happened on that day in the forest clearing. She deftly morphs from ethereal Japanese noble wife to lust-driven woman and each change is true.

Her other most notable appearance is as the tragic Lady Wakasa in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari.

When we finally find out Lady Wakasa’s secret, the revelation has been subtly prepared for us by Kyo’s modulated performance. Machiko Kyo appeared in one American film, The Teahouse of the August Moon under the possibly offensive name of Lotus Blossom.

Besides these ethereal characters, she appeared as the international diamond thief Black Lizard in the hilariously ridiculous film of the same name. She was in many other films of great quality, appearing as a prostitute in Mizoguchi’s last film Streets of Shame, as a feisty actress in Ozu’s remake of Floating Weeds and the love interest in The Gates of Hell.

Bibi Andersson was one of the women who made the cinema of Ingmar Bergman the overwhelming oeuvre that it is. In all his films, it is the fascinating women who draw us into the turbulent world of Lutheran doubt as well as clever sex farce. Bibi Andersson stands out to me as her roles were the most varied.

In Wild Strawberries, for me an indispensable film that I have seen at least 8,000 times, Andersson plays the double role of Sara, the protagonist’s long-lost love from the turn of the century, as well as Sara, the teenager who is very much a girl of ‘today’.

It is satisfying to compare the variety in this performance to the variety of Machiko Kyo’s role in Rashomon. Both reveal actresses of great technique and complexity.

I only know of Andersson’s work with Ingmar Bergman, but within that context what a rich array of characters she created! I think of the needy, sexualized nurse Sister Alma in Persona. She is the epitome of naivete and goodness as Mia, the travelling player and wife of the equally naive and good juggler Jof in The Seventh Seal. Her love for this holy fool is palpable and because she believes in his visions we do, as well.

Sayonara, Machiko-san. Farväl, Bibi


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Herbert Langer, Filmmaker (excerpt)

Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by Testaccio Press to ask if I wanted to preview their forthcoming book of interviews Herbert Langer, Filmmaker.  I was amazed that anyone of consequence had noticed my little blog, let alone think that I had anything to contribute to this important enterprise.  The proof copy arrived in March.  It is wonderful.  I was embarrassed that up until this point, I have absolutely no mention of Langer’s work, even though I am a great admirer, as I imagine anyone who reads these posts is.

I gave my effusive feedback to Testaccio Press and with a modicum of chutzpah I asked if they would mind if I posted some selections on this blog.  Understandably, they didn’t want me to use any of the interview material but they were happy to allow me to reprint the introduction by film critic and film historian Iris Walker.

The book is scheduled to come out late Fall 2019.  You’ll love it.

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Herbert Langer, Filmmaker
Introduction
– By Iris Walker

When I heard of the death this morning of the director Herbert Langer, I remembered a particular car ride with him. We were in a limo provided by the American Film Federation that was taking us from his home in the Hudson River Valley down to the Archer Brookstone Theater. It was November 25, 1991, and the Federation was finally acknowledging him with their Living Legend Award Retrospective.

“I’m glad for their sake they didn’t wait much longer,” he quipped mordantly, ‘otherwise they probably would have had to find someone else.”

We both laughed at the time, since his longevity hardly seemed in danger. Indeed, of the giants of his generation of filmmakers, he was one of the few still actively involved in the world of cinema. Welles, Hitchcock, Huston were all gone. But Langer seemed to be thriving.

He had recently published The History of Cinema, the Cinema of History, his exhaustive survey of American film. That remarkable achievement behind him, he had finally agreed to the Federation’s request to mount a tribute to him. The original request had come as long ago as 1978, when he was involved in the Wesleyan Shakespeare Trilogy. His refusal to delay what was perceived as a case of cinema pro bono work in order to help the committee prepare for the tribute was not taken kindly by the Federation.

They waited another 10 years before the next offer was made.  I was on the committee during that time and I will confess it was no small task to muster enthusiasm for Langer. He fit no easily classifiable genre. He was not an innovative technician like Welles. For all his penetrating observation of cinema as Zeitgeist in the History, his work seems curiously remote from the times in which they were created. Plus, he didn’t fit into any easily digested nostalgia group.

The committee at that time was evenly split between the old guard auterists and what would soon be recognized as the Generation-X sensibility, those putting forth the conviction that if it isn’t of their time it is bogus (to use their overused adjective), and if it is, what is the big deal anyway? The lamentable influx of this group was yet another example of a liberal arts group shooting themselves in the foot in order to be perceived as both relevant and as offending no one.

As Chair of the Committee, I wielded some power over this incompatible group. I insisted, under pain of banishment, that all twelve of them attend a showing of Retribution I scheduled at the Federation’s screening room. I was astounded that only two of the twelve has seen it before.

The screening had a curious result. As that remarkable, unclassifiable film unreeled, the group was utterly silent. There wasn’t even sniggering at Paulette Goddard’s valiant struggle with the pseudo-Biblical language. When it was over, the reaction in the auteurist camp was predictable. A quick scrambling to find clear cases of the Langer signature in the work, drawing makeshift connections with Don Juan’s Last Night. Some fleeting observations fingering influences as far flung as Flaherty (!) and Murnau. Once the ten-minute pigeon-holing was done, the old guard was quiet.

Then Brian Castle, bless his jaded, little 26-year-old soul, broke the silence. “Man,’ he said, ‘where the hell did that come from? I mean, what was that? Iris, can I borrow a copy?” I knew then the Tribute was just a matter of time: the strange atmospherics of Retribution had worked their charms on the most blasé of our members.

Unfortunately, within five days of contacting Langer, he slipped on the ice in front of his home, breaking his arm and five ribs. Knowing that it would be useless and inappropriate to try to mount a tribute for such a completist artist without his full cooperation, we postponed it until we could be assured of his complete participation.

So here we were, finally, after almost fourteen years of trying, in a limo headed toward the Brookstone.

I got to know Langer quite well during the six months of research and compilation leading up to the tribute. Many nights were spent at his house in Irvington over Chinese take-out, listening to the stories of his career. He was never sentimental or morbid.

For that reason, the sudden sullenness after his joke on his mortality struck me as something odd. Were the years catching up with him? Did that somber tilt of the head betray a darker side that he hadn’t let out previously?

“What’s wrong, Herbert?”

“Oh, Iris, it’s nothing. Well, no, it is something. They are going to show that clip from the end of Don Juan at the climax of Castle’s speech.”

‘That clip’, as he so cavalierly described it, is, of course, the legendary final scene of the Don as his is dragged down to Hell. The astounding two minute and forty-seven seconds tight long-take of Dale Hunt’s beautiful, tortured face had permanently altered the way films have ended since it first appeared in 1942.

“But Herbert, of course they are going to show it. It is your single most famous image.”

He looked at me, sighed one of his famous Yiddish-inflected sighs, smiled at me and said, “The camera should have been two feet back.”

I was stunned. A whole world of perceptions turned over in me. That shot, indeed, Don Juan’s Last Night in its totality is generally regarded as a perfect piece of art, complete and absolutely finished. Yet, here was the creator telling me that it fell short of the masterpiece he was aiming for. It was Wagner saying Tristan und Isolde ended on the wrong chord. It was Tolstoy saying Anna Karenina was too long. It was Monet saying that the waterlilies should have been more yellow.

But, suddenly, I was able to see it, too. The shot was more detailed, the devils and flames in the background more apparent. The head shot of Hunt replaced by a torso shot, the open shirt revealing that sensuous neck and chest.

He was right. It was better. But – what if he had shot it half a foot closer, with the incredible intensity heightened even more?

As if he read my thoughts, he said, “Iris, nothing is ever finished.”

As I watched the clip after Brian’s tribute speech, I thought of this. I knew that it wasn’t the accomplishments but the endless creativity of Herbert Langer that was being fêted that evening.

– Iris Walker, February 25, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Third Man….Noir or Not?

A few months ago I rewatched The Third Man. Around the same time I was involved in a lot of discussions on the pros and cons of Film Noir. I started wondering if The Third Man was an example of the genre.

The argument for this is simply the look of the film. It’s hard to think of another movie that is so shadowy and ominous looking. Look at these two shots:

 

We could easily be in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. The palette is gray and grayer. The look feeds the paranoia and confusion of the story. However as the story unravels and the mysteries are solved, we leave L.A. and move firmly into Greenland, the waggish name given to the landscape of the novels of Grahame Green. Great ruminations on morality and guilt ensue. In the end, it is very clear who is evil and who is good…..sort of. That distinction immediately takes it out of the running of being a classic noir.

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of noir is its flagrant misogyny. In The Third Man, however, the moral center, the figure of compassion and pity, the figure of love is Anna, beautifully played by Alida Valli. I read somewhere that the amazing long take at the end of the film when we see Anna approaching from a vanishing point in the distance and finally passing Holly Martins can be considered one of the great scenes of moral rejection in all of cinema. Having such a moral figure, as misguided as she might be, lifts The Third Man out of the morass of conventional film noir.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Secrets of Women (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Princess from the Moon (Kon Ichikawa)
  3. Brother (Kon Ichikawa)
  4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
  5. All is True (Kenneth Branagh)
  6. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  7. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
  8. The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston)
  9. The End of the Affair (Edward Dmytryk)
  10. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

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1- Early Ingmar Bergman can be very disconcerting, but so can later Ingmar Bergman. In both cases you are waiting for the sparks of genius. In the later works you sometimes have to sift through a ton of murky symbolism to find it. In the earlier films, you have to sift through a genius finding his voice and making some cringeworthy art along the way. Secrets of Women (or Waiting Women as the Swedish title is better translated) is firmly in the early camp. It is a bunch of vignettes strung together around a flimsy story. Some of the sequences are good, especially the most famous one about jaded married couple Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjornstrand getting stuck in an elevator. There is a pretty bad sequence taking place in Paris (this is the 1950s after all) that is way too arty for its own good.

2- TCM has a weekly feature late night on Sundays called TCM Imports which showcases foreign-language films. Quite often they will have a double bill of the same director. A few weeks ago they showed two by Kon Ichikawa back to back. They showed Brother from 1960 and The Princess from the Moon from the 1980s. The former was a classic ‘story of today’ depicting the cruelty of a dysfunctional family and was good enough. The latter was just insane. Obviously Ichikawa had seen and studied Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind very closely. What starts out as a classic rendering of a fairy-tale of a mysterious girl who fell from the moon, quickly winds up in Spielbergland down to the exact kind of spaceship as seen in CE3K. This is one nutty movie and, alas, one of the last appearances of Toshiro Mifune.

3- I know I am supposed to be enraptured by the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, but they bore me to tears. Day of Wrath even has sex and I find it dull. Yes, The Passion of Joan of Arc is genius and I seem to remember being swept away by Ordet, but the others….yikes. Gertrude – yikes.

4- The Red Badge of Courage and The End of the Affair are excellent specimens of how to adapt and how not to adapt great works of literature. The Red Badge of Courage apparently has as thwarted a production history as The Magnificent Ambersons. It was originally twice as long as the current version and in its entirety it was supposed to be the greatest war film ever made. I can definitely see that. The screenplay really captures the ambiguity of the wonderful Crane novel. The acting is uniformly super.

The End of the Affair is another story. I had just finished reading the Grahame Green novel and years earlier I had seen the beautiful Neal Jordan adaptation. This version was from the 1950s and I don’t know what the screenwriters were reading but nothing of Green’s ruminations on sex, and God and sin survive. Plus Van Johnson (!) is perhaps the best example of miscasting I can think of!