The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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Marmees galore

 

1933

1949

2019

 

I had never read Little Women, nor seen any of the film versions.  I have this self-imposed dictum that I should not watch a film version of a novel before I read it.  This applies only to what would be considered classic novels.  I doubt I would feel compelled to read the novel of The Hangoverassuming one existed, before I saw that film, assuming I would see it.

Little Women would require reading.  I had never really been interested before. I thought it would be a dull read and a duller movie watch. However, when I heard that Greta Gerwig was going to direct a version with more great actors than you could shake a stick at, I decided it was time.

As luck would have it, TCM had a series a few months ago, during which they showed back to back versions of the same movies: two Maltese Falcons, two Ben-Hurs, two Christmas Carols, etc.  They showed the 1933 George Cukor and the 1949 Mervyn LeRoy versions of Little Women.  I diligently taped them and held them in reserve as I read the novel for the first time, all in anticipation of when the Gerwig version would hit the theaters.  I am a little obsessive.

The novel was a wonderful read.  It struck me as a quite modern story of strong women wrapped in the garb of Victorian sentimentality.  The Victorian sentimentality fades away pretty quickly as we get involved in these richly drawn characters. It was a treat for me since most 19th Century novels I have read have been English and it was great to see the themes and concerns of a very American novel. The Civil War looms huge in the background without actually appearing in the book.  Women’s roles in society are starting to be figured out. In many ways, it seemed to parallel the frustration women felt after WWII where they were thanked heartily for their contribution to the war effort, but then told to go home and be good homemakers for the returning boys.

After finishing reading the book, I watched the 1933 version in horror. Katharine Hepburn, looking way older and weirder than Jo should look, sucks up the oxygen with her over-the-top caricature of what a strong, independent, smart women should be. She mugs shamelessly. She gallops coltishly.  It is awful.   I think the sound of her braying ‘Christopher Columbus’ will haunt my nightmares forever.  Douglass Montgomery, a forgotten and oddly handsome actor plays a very appealing Laurie, but he is too old.

Anyone who has read the book will agree that the center of gravity is not Jo, but Marmee.  In her quiet wisdom she holds the entire world of the book together. In the Cukor version Spring Byington, whom those of us of a certain age will remember as December Bride, is given very odd direction as Marmee. She is very vulnerable and not the tower of saneness and strength that she is in the book. And Edna May Oliver is on hand to do her schtick as Aunt March. She is just Aunt Betsy Trotwood all over again without the heart.

I suspect that this 1933 version is the version of the book that most people think of when they think of Little Women. I think it even supersedes the novel itself for most people.

Well, that was no fun at all, I thought.

Onto the 1949 version.

This version, like the 1933 version, was an MGM productions  The 1949 version is in color. What struck me even in the credits was that both of these versions were very much alike.  Sure enough, I found out that they were shot from the identical script!.  So, all the limitations of characterization that we found in the 1933 version would be found in this version.

Luckily, we have June Allyson on hand to be a much more appealing Jo.  Her ‘Christopher Columbus’ does not make the skin crawl.  Janet Leigh is a lovely, gracious Meg. Elizabeth Taylor is a well-played but shallow Amy. Margaret O’Brien is predictably precocious and tragic as Beth. For my money she is still the best child actor ever.

I was happy to see that Marmee was to played by Mary Astor, not many years after the legendary mother turn in Meet Me In St. Louis. Here, disappointingly, she is kind of comatose and not the pillar of strength we need.  Peter Lawford attempts callowness as Laurie, but he is too old. He and Allyson play well off each other, though.

Hmmm, I thought. Is it really impossible to have a version that captures the nuance of this book? Will I never see a great Marmee? Will I always want to strangle Jo?

I haven’t see the 1994 Gillian Armstrong version, but the prospect of a Susan Sarandon Marmee and a Christian Bale Laurie hold out great promise. Plus Armstrong’s history of great female characters bodes well.

I finally got to see the Gerwig version a few weeks ago. This was the point of this whole Marmee research project.

It blew me away.  Gerwig’s script is brilliant. She fractures the story so that we shuttle between the end of the story and the beginning.  The Princh refers to it as a ‘March Salad’.

More than a gimmick, this allows her to make resonances between foreshadowing and resolutions in the book.

Also, much more is included that MGM might have found off-putting. These elements give extraordinary depth and allows the movie to be a compliment to and not a caricature of the book.

The character of Amy in particular is given great depth.  We see her burning Jo’s book. We see her falling through the ice. We see her as an artist of some talent who is able to give a dry-eyed assessment of her future as an artist. We see her as an ideal companion for Laurie. We get the feeling that he will always be the hobbledehoy and that she will be the adult. Florence Pugh steals the picture as far as I am concerned.  Timothee Chalamet is physically ideal as Laurie.  Meryl Streep is funny but also terrifying as Aunt March. She reminds us that this rich women is often very destructive in the lives of the March family, and she doesn’t do any real good until she dies.

Saoirse Ronan is poised to be the Meryl Streep of her generation. I am amazed at the way she disappears into every role I have seen her in. Finally, we have a vindication of Jo. She is complex, excruciating, sad, heroic. In short, she is a full person, which is something that neither of the other versions allowed.

In Laura Dern, we also get a vindication of Marmee.  She is a beautiful and in many ways a sexual women. I imagine that Marmee is not much over 40 at the beginning of the novel, and the casting of Dern is brilliant. She is more overtly sexual as the predatory divorce lawyer in Marriage Story but here she is more completely sexual while also being motherly.

What makes the Gerwig version so on-the-mark is what she restores to the work.  Much has been written about the famous quote that Marmee says, apparently for the first time in any film. When Jo tells Marmee that she wants to be more like her and be forgiving and never angry, Marmee replies “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” This is a critical trait of the character that has been missing since it does not fit the MGM ideal of Motherhood, I suppose.

So, praise is due to Gerwig for her restoration of a remarkable novel. Just think what she could do with Persuasion, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch or Cold Comfort Farm! There has been a lot of talk about how she was robbed by not being nominated for Best Director. This is true. However, I will be satisfied if she wins the Oscar for Best Screenplay, because that is where her real genius and gift to us lie.

But, never forget: the Oscars are stupid.  If you need a reminder, read this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Remember nuance?

In my early days of being out, someone I was particularly smitten with suggested that we all go to see Mommie Dearest. I balked. Why would I want to go to see that? In his typically shallow way, he answered “Because it will be campy, and we can goof on it.”  I didn’t go, and pretty soon parted company with that guy and his friends.

What bothered me about the incident? It was that they were going to go to a movie with the pre-formed idea of how they were going to react.  Mommie Dearest is certainly not a deathless piece of cinema and probably deserved mocking of some kind. But what I don’t think any work of art conceived in good faith deserves, is condescension.  Going to a movie with the intention of looking down on it sets up a very ugly paradigm to me, mostly because what the movie is, or at least is trying to be, is irrelevant. What counts is the sense of superiority you are bringing to it. The whole experience is sterile.

One of the ugliest manifestations of the ugly time we live in is the battlelines that are drawn around works of art. One side will be instantly dismissive of a film, for instance, if there is not the proper complement of people of color, or variety of gender, or revisionist history, etc.  The other side is equally dismissive of the fact that these things are being up at all. What you get is two sides lobbing political bombs over the no-man’s-land of the film. The film disappears.

The condescension is there on both sides. If find more insulting than the attitude towards Mommie Dearest all those years ago. The reason is that with the camp attitude at least you are focusing on the film. In this new world of political polarization the film is moot.  The predetermined dissatisfaction of both is what is first and foremost. Once again, the film disappears.

Don’t get me wrong.  Film directors, producers and screenwriters MUST be called out when committing social offenses. Film is too powerful a medium to let bad things slip through.  What I object to is coming to a movie ‘loaded for bear’.

Case in point: Jojo Rabbit.  I have spoken to so many people who won’t see it because ‘the Holocaust is not a topic for a wacky comedy’.   Well, they’re right. Remind me to speak to Mel Brooks about that.  But what gets me is that in almost all cases, they have not seen the film.  If they had, they would realize how this comment doesn’t apply to this film.

Yes, it is wacky in parts but it is also a very touching and very disturbing portrait of a nine-year-old boy who learns to think critically and throws off the received ethos of the people he is surrounded with. I think a problem people have with the film is its tonal shift from slapstick to tragedy.  The tragic in this film is so muted as to be easily passed over.

But I don’t want to have to defend the movie to people who haven’t seen it just because they have a notion about the Holocaust.  Come to think of it, are they saying that I don’t have the proper respect for the Holocaust since I saw the film? Yikes.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
  2. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
  3. All About Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  4. Master of the House (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  5. The Laundromat ( Steven Soderbergh)
  6. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa)
  7. The Merry Frinks (Alfred E. Green)
  8. The Holly and the Ivy (George More O’Ferrall)
  9. A Christmas Carol (Edwin L. Marin)
  10. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau)


The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
  2. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
  3. Mademoiselle Fifi (Mark Robson)
  4. The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
  5. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)
  6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  7. King Kong (Cooper/Schoedsack)
  8. Mad Love (Karl Freund)
  9. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)
  10. Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)

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1- It is exciting to see a director become more and more in command of his art. Lately, every new film by Pedro Almodóvar has struck me as moving and brilliant in a way that that his early films didn’t prepare me for. I literally gasped at the end of Pain and Glory not for any shock, but because of the perfection it revealed.

2- Parasite! Oh man, what a movie. We are living in the Golden Age of a very weird genre: The politically subversive horror comedy.  These aren’t cute horror-lite films. These are full-out out terrifying films that are also hilarious. I am thinking of Parasite, Us and Get Out.  They are all brilliantly executed and scripted and pointedly political. If you have any recommendations for more of these please send them my way.

3- See my post about Jojo Rabbit

4- I am currently enrolled in a class where we will be reading the de Maupassant story of Mademoiselle Fifi.  I have seen the film several times mostly because the producer is my idol Val Lewton. See my post on him here.  This film is one of his few that is not in his usual spooky, gothic, horror mode.  It is a strange film because I think the censors got to it before it was released. I’ll let you know after I read the story.

5- Of course Meryl Streep is amazing in The Iron Lady because Meryl Streep is always amazing. I fear we take her for granted and don’t realize the luck we have to be able to see her in new things all the time.  What struck me as curious is that for the biopic of Margaret Thatcher (perhaps the only one that will be made for a long while) the focus was on her later years and her developing Alzheimer’s and not on the awful things done during her time as Prime Minister. The highlights and broad outlines are given, but they are not the primary focus. Yes….I know I always say you can’t fault a work of art for not being what it isn’t. I just think this was a curious choice.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh)
  2. Official Secrets (Gavin Hood)
  3. House of Strangers (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  4. The Searchers (John Ford)
  5. Ad Astra (James Gray)
  6. Downton Abbey (Michael Engler)
  7. The Girl from 10th Avenue (Alfred E. Green)
  8. Brother John (James Goldstone)
  9. Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson)
  10. Blood on the Devil’s Claw (Piers Haggard)

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1- I was so satisfied with Official Secrets. A good, tight script based on a true event that I had no idea about.  Just the right length, just the right amount of suspense, just the right amount of history.  Well done!

2- I am beginning to thing that All About Eve was an outlier. That is such a work of genius and perfection. Not one false note, exhilarating story telling, acid wit, beautifully drawn characters. So far, every other Mankiewicz has paled.  House of Strangers was really weak. A slightly interesting story, developed in fits and starts, with tons of lacunae. Edward G. Robinson sporting an atrocious Italian accent. Why is it always ok to portray Italian-Americans so stereotypically?

3- Downton Abbey was exactly what you would expect it to be, no more no less. You have to decide for yourself if that is enough.

4- On the plus side, Ad Astra offers a view of the near future that isn’t your cliched dystopian apocalyptic vision.  In all likelihood, the near future will be like today, except with more tech.  The image of stations on the moon seemed interesting in that that they didn’t have a Jetsons air to them.  On the negative side, this is one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in a long time. It is kind of a riff on Heart of Darkness, but without the belly laughs.  But boy, Brad Pitt is aging well.

5- Continuing my exploration of every foot of celluloid that features Bette Davis, I watched The Girl from 10th Avenue. Thank you TCM. These pre-code films just knock me out. It really shows how much more realistic depictions of relationships were in the 20s and 30s and how reality retreated behind a curtain of self-imposed morality once Mr. Hays got his grubby hands on Hollywood.

6- Brother John is always mentioned with reverence when discussing the films of Sidney Poitier.  It sure is unusual. Poitier is playing a character who may or not be an angel or a messiah-like figure heralding the impending apocalypse.  Or maybe not.  The film makers seem skittish about committing.  Is this a facet of this kind of film – don’t confirm anything….keep it all ominous but ambiguous.  I get tired of that kind of fence-sitting.  But this was quite a fun watch.

7- October had the greatest of secular holidays – Halloween.  I celebrate every year by watching as many classic and not-so classic horror films as I can.  This year I kicked off the festivities by watching a sublime one, Isle of the Deadand a not so sublime one, Blood on Satan’s Claw.  The latter dates from early 70s and is surprising for its overt sexuality and unfiltered gore.  Very much in the vein of The Wicker Man. If you like murderous, devil-worshipping adolescents in the forests of 18th Century Olde Englande, this is the film for you!  Isle of The Dead might be the jewel in the crown of the Val Lewton oeuvre.  At 70 minutes it is so taut and the script moves like clockwork.  Superstition and ignorance and bigotry are shown in a way that explains how people cling to them.  And how about a posthumous Oscar for the amazing Helene Thimig, the vorvolaka-obsessed Madame Kira.  She gives the great Boris Karloff a run for his money.

 

 


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You Can’t Escape Me

 

NOTE: If you haven’t yet seen Fanny and Alexander you might want to wait to read this post.  But the question is: why haven’t you seen Fanny and Alexander yet???

 

 

 

Watching Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexanderespecially in the complete, five-hour plus television, is the closest cinematic experience to reading a good, juicy 19th century novel.   Since this is Bergman, though, there is much more than plot and sumptuous scenery.

Bergman is the supreme film psychologist.  I don’t always like what he comes up with, but I can’t think of any other director whose work so plumbs the minds of his characters and lays them bare.

Fanny and Alexander is considered his last film although it was followed by some more television work. I remember at the time of its release the common thread of the critiques was that in his last work Bergman gave us a sprawling, life-affirming, exuberant work that dispelled the tragic world-view of his previous films, much in the way that Verdi’s glorious comedy Falstaff was a reversal of that master’s long string of tragic masterpieces.

Well, yes and no.

First of all, many of Bergman’s previous works do ultimately give us a reason to live, even after, say, playing chess with Death for two hours. Also, many of his previous works are outright comedies.

In Fanny and Alexander there are many depictions of love: familial love, romantic love, sexual love,  love of theater and love of life.  But there are demons that are dealt with, as well.

After leaving the nurturing womb of the Ekdahl family home when their mother remarries, Fanny and Alexander find themselves in a very different world. The austere Lutheran aesthetic of the Bishop’s house stands in unsettling contrast to the Victorian splendor of the Grandmother’s home decorated for Christmas from the first part of the film. The children very quickly find that there will be no comfort in their new life.  Alexander rebels and becomes locked in a struggle for self-determination with his new step-father.

Through the magic ministrations of the loving and mysterious Isak Jacobi, the children are spirited away from the hell of the Bishop’s house and are soon to be united with their loved ones. But not right away, and here is where the psychoanalysis comes in.

The children are taken not to their grandmother’s house, but to Uncle Isak’s strange shop.  There are echoes of the Ekdahl home in that Uncle Isak’s house is also filled to the brim with ‘things’, but not the lovely, ornate Victoriana we find in the grandmother’s place.  Instead, this is a world of magical things, of puppets and costumes. In fact, it seems to be a cross between the two worlds that the children grew up in: the comfort of the Ekdahl home and the other-worldliness of the theater that was also a huge part of their family.

It is important they come here first, because Alexander has healing he has to do. It is not a case of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother being cut out of the evil wolf and living happily after. There is work that needs to be done.

I was always baffled by the long static scene between Alexander and the purportedly mad and dangerous Ismael, Isak’s strange nephew who is locked up in the maze of the paraphernalia of the Jacobi’s magic dwelling.  I didn’t understand why Alexander and his sister could not be brought right back to their grandmother’s after the horrendous ordeal they survived.

This time around it became crystal clear to me what is happening. Before you meet him, Ismael (for some reason played by a Finnish actress – perhaps to add to his strangeness?) is describe as extraordinarily dangerous.  However the man we see is a beautiful, calm, seductive creature.  What is terrifying about him is that as soon as he is alone with Alexander, he can read his deepest thoughts and emotions.  Ismael reveals to us (and perhaps to the boy as well) that Alexander is frightening to Ismael because he is willing a man to die. Of course he means the Bishop and of course we don’t blame Alexander one bit for feeling this way.  But we have the feeling that this revelation and purging of this feeling has to happen before Alexander can return to a healthy, loving Ekdahl world.

The Jacobi shop is a kind of Cognitive Behavior staging area before he can rejoin the world.  He needs to be cleansed of the damage that was done to him.

At then end of the film we see Alexander once again integrated into the world of his grandmother and the theater.  He is cockily walking in the halls munching on box of cookies, the golden prince restored. But as if to counter the relief we feel that Alexander is finally home free, from behind him out of the dark comes a figure, wearing a prominent gold crucifix. It is the Bishop.

He knocks Alexander to the floor.  Alexander peer at him from his prone position, and before the Bishop leaves forever, he turns to Alexander and says, “You can never escape me.”

As a survivor of an abusive childhood this scene resonates with me. Yes, Alexander can move on and enjoy the love that he is surrounded by. However, the hell he went through will always be there.  It won’t overwhelm him, but it will always be a part of his make-up and will always be part of his future, no matter how joyous it will be.

 

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. La Femme du Boulanger (Marcel Pagnol)
  2. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
  3. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz)
  4. Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
  6. Fanny and Alexander – TV version (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. Ready or Not (Bettinelli-Olpin/Gillett)
  8. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick)
  9. Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
  10. Ex-Lady (Robert Florey)

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1- Ready or Not is easily the worst film I have seen in the last 20 years. It never settles on a tone. Are we in a comedy-horror world? Are we in a slasher film world? Are we in some kind of bone-headed ‘eat the rich’ satire? Who knows? All I know is that the violence unleashed on our heroine is one of the most blatant examples of misogyny it was ever my misfortune to see. She survives, yes, but lots of other women in the film don’t and their deaths are all gory and treated comically. I was hoping that this would be in the grand tradition of James Whale’s The Old Dark House. It needs to be flushed down the nearest toilet.

2- I felt compelled to see Once Upon a Time in …. Hollywood (note the pretentious and unexplained ellipsis in the title!). The way it was promoted (‘The Ninth Film From Quentin Tarantino!”) made me fear that it would have everything I hate about his movies and at almost three hours I would be bored out of my mind. Well, actually it was an entertaining enough watch. Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio’s characters are lovable misfits and Tarantino’s by-now trademark of rewriting unpleasant history is prominent in the last 15 minutes of the movie. But what hit me, like in Ready or Not, was the gleeful violence toward women. Yes, these are members of the Manson family, not girl scouts, but is the exuberant beating and torching necessary. At one point, Pitt is bashing the head of a Manson girl repeatedly into a wall phone. At the screening I was at, some idiot 20-year old fanboy was laughing out loud at this. I stood up, got right in his face and screamed ‘ What the FUCK are you laughing at??’ A moment of triumph I will relish the rest of my life.

3- Ah, the magic of Fanny and Alexander. Please see my recent thoughts on this masterpiece.

4- I am less and less convinced of the value of Stanley Kubrick. I thought I would watch Spartacus out of fairness and a sense of completeness. What a bore. What a plodding elephant. I know that Kubrick was brought in after the project started so he didn’t get to his anal attention to whatever his concept was, but man was this dopey.

5- God bless Criterion for issuing another Pagnol masterpiece. First The Marseille Trilogy and now the sublime The Baker’s Wife. All your friends are here! Raimu! Charpin! Alida Rouffe. Even little Maupi. Can I be greedy instead of grateful and ask for more?

6- I have been trying to watch or rewatch all the films of Bette Davis that I can. You can tell what projects she was fired up about and which she wasn’t. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex she seems to be phoning it in. Very over the top and in high-Diva mode. Ex-Lady a much earlier pre-Code wonder obviously engaged her. An accomplished and talented woman who is engaged and very successful in her career is not interested in marriage, but is interested in relationships….to a point. A delight.

7- Blinded by the Light is sweet and engaging. I felt very good after it was over due to the lovely story, appealing hero and the hearty helping of Springsteen. What’s wrong with that?

8- I saw Hope and Glory when it first came out and remembered it fondly. Why haven’t I seen it since then? It is an absolute delight. It is quirky and heart-felt in a way that one the English can do. A warm-hearted, funny film about a family living in London during the blitz. Really!

9- I hadn’t seen The Grapes of Wrath since I read it for the first time last year. I remembered the movie being powerful but after reading the book, I wondered how powerful it really was. The answer is plenty powerful. I was surprised that the labor issues are not toned down. Tom Joad is not a hero, but an Anti-hero extraordinaire. Of course we do not get the bizarre closing shot of Rose Of Sharon suckling a poor Okie with the milk intended for her now dead infant, but that is a minor complaing