The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Angel (Ernst Lubitsch)
  2. George Washington (David Gordon Green)
  3. 101 Night of Simon Cinema (Agnés Varda)
  4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy)
  5. The Shadow Within (Yoshitaro Nomura)
  6. Tales of the Golden Geisha (Juzo Itami)
  7. The Raven (Lew Landers)
  8. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
  9. The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton)
  10. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)

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1- October is here. Hurrah. The end of that ghastly season summer and the lead-up to the best holiday of the year: Hallowe’en. In my house this has always been celebrating by gorging on classic horror. I am not interested in slasher porn and I am not interested in seeing beautiful teenagers trapped in a house or a forest or a cabin with a maniac who is picking them off one by one. I want classic horror with a tinge of romance. Not lovey-dovey romance, but atmospheric romance. See this post I wrote a few years back for a clearer explanation of what makes me happy at this time of year.

Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I have had easy access to the early Universal Horror films from the 30s. I had seen The Black Cat decades ago and remembered that it was a Art Deco fever dream, but I had forgotten how nutty and truly scary the plot is. Devil Worship, Necrophilia, a fantastically ‘modern’ castle built over a mass grave on the site of a notorious WWI prison. What else do you need? Oh, yes…..also Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Bela has an intense case of ailurophobia which doesn’t do much for the plot but ties it into the ‘immortal Edgar Allan Poe’ story that gives the film its title and not much else. It does check all the horror romance prerequisites: Mitteleuropa locale? Check? Longing for dead love mysteriously brought back to life? Check. Karloff? Check? Lugosi? Check? Bach Toccata and Fugue in D, the theme song of so much Universal Horror? Check. It is an enjoyable nutty and creepy production. Not quite sure what the point of it all was. But you get to see the very handsome David Manners.

2- You don’t need me to tell you that The Bride of Frankenstein is a masterpiece, but you do need me to remind you that it is quite a funny film. Karloff is not given his due as an actor.

3- The Raven is a Universal horror film I had never heard of. It is another film that is ‘inspired by the immortal Edgar Allan Poe’, but there is nothing in evidence about the film except for the title. We do get a taste of the Pit and the Pendulum and the Cask of Amantillado, for good measure. But this movie is an absolute mess and just perfect for this time of year.

4- A greater masterpiece than The Bride of Frankenstein and most other movies is The Island of Lost Souls. It was a treat to watch this on the Criterion Channel with the commentary on. It was fascinating to hear the trouble this film had with the censors, being banned outright in many countries. The main controversy doesn’t seem to be the graphically shown vivisection or the human/animal breeding experiments. It was the line that Charles Laughton says with his amazing delivery, “Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?” It is also has a twisted apology of the theory of evolution. Apparently H.G. Wells hated the film as it had missed the point of his novel. Meanwhile, who reads the book anymore, where the movie has achieved cult status.

More on horror as the month wears on

5- There are lots of examples of perfection among the films of Ernst Lubitsch but there are also lots of misses. Angel is a miss, even though it stars a luminous Marlene Dietrich. I guess the main problem for me is that apparently in the 30s Melvyn Douglas was an irresistable leading man, and I just don’t get it. I sense zero chemistry between him and Dietrich and, for that matter, zero chemistry between him and Garbo in Ninotchka and The Two-Faced Woman.

6- 101 Night of Simon Cinema is a delightful confection from Agnes Varda made to celebrate 100 years of film history. Michel Piccoli plays the eponymous M. Cinema, and the film references, either visually or verbally, just about every film you can think of. Every single French actor you can think of makes a nutty cameo, as well as many Americans (“Wait, is that really Robert Deniro speaking French?”) Highly recommended to all art-house cinema nerds who will have a ball catching all the references. For the rest of humanity it may be a big ball of confusion. I had a GREAT time watching it and laughed out loud several times.

7- George Washington is a film I had been meaning to catch up with. It was an independent film sensation when it came out about two decades ago. I found it…..well, I don’t know. It kept me interested in its depiction of poor disaffected pre-teens in North Carolina. But…..but….. There is an unsettling moral relativity that is never addressed. This is a hallmark of Independent film, it seems, and it seems to pass for philosophical profundity, but I think it is just laziness. Glad I saw it, though.

8- I didn’t remember anything in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg watching it this time, but I had a nagging suspicion that I remembered not liking it. Well, I still don’t like it. I think it is dull and the conceit of the sung-through score gets tiresome since there are only one or two memorable tunes. The leads look great but the entire thing seems to be a rip-off of the great Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy.

9- Tales of the Golden Geisha (which has a more explicit title in Japanese) is by the team that brought us the delightful Tampopo. This film is a little delightful, but overstays its welcome

10- I watched The Shadow Within as a prelude to the Hallowe’en horror film lovefest. It is a tight little horror mystery with a scary kid. You can see the resolution coming from miles away, but it was still quite satisfying. Those Japanese sure can make an elegant horror film.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. A Running Jump (Mike Leigh)
  2. Incoherence (Bong Joon Ho)
  3. Girl Shy (Newmeyer/Taylor)
  4. Jacquot de Nantes (Agnés Varda)
  5. The Stranger (Satyajit Ray)
  6. The Erl King (Marie Louise Iribe)
  7. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
  8. The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
  9. An Enemy of the People (Satyajit Ray)
  10. Le Coup de Berger (Jacques Rivette)

1- Mike Leigh, I will watch anything you direct. Even a silly 30-minute short like A Running Jump. It is a frantic little comedy and I guess the thing to appreciate is how deftly Leigh keeps all the plates spinning. Not quite sure what the point was, but I loved spending time with these wacky, somewhat unsavory characters. They delighted me. But, poor Gary!

2- Like A Running Jump, Incoherence is a short film by a master, Bong Joon Ho, director of The Host and Parasite. Where the Mike Leigh is of fairly recent vintage, Incoherence was, I understand a student project. Even so, it is masterfully done and contains the social critique we have come to expect from this master.

3- What a delight to spend some time in the world of Harold Lloyd. Not as sentimental as Chaplin, not as cosmic as Keaton, Lloyd is the third pillar of comedy in the silent era. In many ways his films are most easily digested.

4- Jacques Demy had wanted to make a film about his childhood during the war in Nantes. When he finally was ready to make it, he was too ill. His wife, Agnes Varda, made it under his supervision and you can see it is a labor of love. You can also see how it is a different film from that which Demy might have made on his own. The documentarian side of Varda is present in the interviews she does with Demy, which are sprinkled through out the film. Also, there is a wonderful device which I am not sure is a product of Demy or Varda. When a scene from Demy’s childhood as presented in the movie is a direct influence of scene in a later Demy movie, after the Jacquot de Nantes scene, there is a right pointing arrow, the Demy film scene is shown, followed by a left-pointing arrow returning us to Jacquot de Nantes. It is a neat and very cinematic device, that doesn’t need any elaboration in the film. A very sweet film about someone who seemed to be pretty sweet himself and who was smart enough to be the life partner of Agnes Varda.

5- Sometimes what is known about a film colors the way it is viewed. The Stranger is the film that Satyajit Ray made just before he died. The convention is to view this as a valedictory work much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But, we know Shakespeare had his hand in several plays after The Tempest, so it seems too pat a critical trick to explain it as Shakespeare’s ‘farewell to the stage’. I think the same is true for The Stranger. Undoubtedly, Ray was very ill during its creation, but whether it is his ‘farewell to film’ or not, I am not so sure. What I am sure of, is that it is one in a long line of masterpieces stretching from his early Apu Trilogy through the 60s, 70s and 80s. It is rare that any artist has created so many essential masterpieces.

6- The Criterion Channel has wonderful selections that you would never see anywhere else and would never think to look for. The Erl King by Marie Louise Iribe is a good example. This must have been one of the earliest French sound films. I don’t know much about Iribe. She died quite young but was first known as an actress who appeared in many of the serials by Louis Feuillade. This short (45 minutes) film definitely shows the influence of Melies in its trick photography. It is based on the story of the Schubert song based on a famous poem by Goethe. The song is an absolutely taut knock-out at just over three minutes. It is a tour-de-force for the singer who must give three distinct personalities to the father, son and Erl King in a very short time while the music literally gallops to a shocking conclusion. The problem with the film is that it stretches this drama out to the point that all fear is dissipated. Lots of fairies appearing in billowing costumes and a creepy Erl King snarking around, all leading up to a weird scene in a church. I was glad to have seen it. It is amazing what is out there.

If you dont know the Schubert song, please watch this performance by the great German Lied singer, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau:

7- The Secret of the Grain is a Palme D’or winner and depicts the lives of Tunisian immigrants and their friends and family in the port city of Sete. What makes this film so appealing is that it shows the Tunisians as part of the community they live in without highlighting their otherness. Rituals like cooking and Sunday afternoon lunches are filmed with an almost uncomfortable close-up that inserts the viewer into the action. You are at the dinner table. Exposition comes not from the director but from conversation which is leisurely filmed. This is the the director of Blue is the Warmest Color. I can’t wait to see that.

8- An Enemy of the People is one of the last films by the great Satyajit Ray. I don’t know the Ibsen play, but from what I have read, it seems to be a pretty straightforward adaptation of the work into an Indian setting. It seems that the film might end on a more optimistic note that the Ibsen does, but I am fine with that. I know that Ray was quite ill in his last years. This might be why his last films like this one and The Stranger are made up of mostly indoor scenes with very little camera work. The film is still powerful despite this ‘limitation’

9- After a traumatic three days when the Criterion Channel wasn’t working properly, I was back in business. The first thing I watched was Le Coup de Berger by Jacques Rivette. The title is from chess and means fool’s mate. This is a delightful almost Feydeau-like farce of sexual mores and marital deceit. Rivette’s playfulness is front and center even in this early work which predates his first feature-length film. Look quick and you can see a very young François Truffaut as a party guest.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima)
  2. Hands Across The Table (Mitchell Leisen)
  3. The Rocking Horse Winner (Anthony Pellisier)
  4. Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman)
  5. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuaron)
  6. Vagabond (Agnés Varda)
  7. In This Our Life (John Huston)
  8. Here’s to the Young Lady (Keisuke Kinoshita)
  9. Freud (John Huston)
  10. The Trial of Joan of Arc (Robert Bresson)

1 – The films of Nagisa Oshima define the term ‘pushing the envelope’. The Ceremony depicts an aristocratic family in post-war Japan. Despite their sense of hauteur and privilege, this family is a seething cesspool of every type of vice imaginable. I know that Oshima is using this family’s perversity to comment on the moral bankruptcy of Japan during and after the Allied occupation. I just wish I knew more about that. The film really succeeds as a family horror story, but it would be so much richer if I understood the political points Oshima is making.

2-Having thoroughly enjoyed Midnight and Easy Living last week, I looked forward to Hands Across The Table as an antidote to the creepiness of The Ceremony. It was pretty disappointing. Kind of a screwball mess that doesn’t really gel, despite the presence of the screwball goddess, Carole Lombard. I guess the caddish, selfish millionaire of Fred MacMurray really ruined the picture for me. Ralph Bellamy would have been much better for her to wind up with. Why is Bellamy always second fiddle in these comedies? He seems like such a solid fella. Maybe that’s what is being satirized?

3- Super impressed with The Rocking Horse Winner. I have never read the D.H.Lawrence story on which it is based, but I understand that it is a faithful adaptation. Though not as scary as in The Ceremony, we have another example of how a toxic family destroys innocence. It is taut and stunning to look at.

4- Sometimes knowing who the director of a film is raises expectations of what a film will contain. Golden Eighties by the great Chantal Akerman is pretty much a musical set in a hair salon and a clothing store in a Parisian shopping mall. The music is great, as is the choreography. There is a fantastic quartet of male singers commenting on the action in a most delightful way. Plus we get Delphine Seyrig (who was Jeanne Dielmann for Akerman some 10 years before). I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read criticism afterwards identifying Akerman’s hallmark feminism, anti-capitalism, contemplation of Holocaust survival, etc. I just didn’t see it. Were the reviews looking for this because it was an Akerman film?
I once wrote up a long interview with a famous (fictitious) Hollywood director who surveys his career with a famous film critic. At one point she brings up the three productions of Shakespeare’s plays that he put together for Wesleyan. The director laughs to himself. “I did it mostly for the money and I had fun working with the students. I had no agenda beyond that. But you should have read what the auteurists wrote about it, twisting themselves into pretzels convincing themselves that these little TV productions had all the motifs of my ‘serious’ work. It was just a job, for God’s sake!’

Seyrig

5- I had avoided watching Y Tu Mamá También. I am not sure why, because it is terrific. Cuaron is a master. After Roma he can do no wrong in my book. I read Y Tu Mamá También an indictment of male sexuality and of machismo. I am not sure if that is the general impression people have of this film, but I don’t know what else you can come away with.

6- Thanks to the Criterion Channel, I am belatedly relishing the films of Varda. I watched Le Bonheur two times in as many weeks. This time I watched what might be her most highly regarded film, Vagabond. It is a powerful but quite cagey film. I can’t imagine that Varda intends us to sympathize with her leading character. She is extremely unpleasant, exhibiting all the worst traits of adolescence unchecked. Yet something brought her to this tragic point. The question is: Is it from within herself, from society or both? I am leaning towards ‘herself’ because almost every encounter we see has people acting with kindness and help toward her. That is, until she alienates or insults them. We never get much of her backstory. She remains enigmatic and, to me at least, repulsive. But the film is magnificent. There is a wonderful ‘extra’ on the Criterion Channel explaining how Varda uses tracking shots in a very deliberate way to underscore the route to self-destruction the character is taking. It is brilliant.

7- Of course I watched In This Our Life because it starred Bette Davis, ’nuff said about the why. But it really is a kind of awful film. As much as I love her, Davis chews the scenery shamelessly. The understated and powerful performance of Olivia De Haviland really steals the picture, despite all of Davis’ flailing. It is hard to believe that this was the next movie John Huston made after his first film, the masterpiece The Maltese Falcon. What a work of art that is. Humor, suspense, drama, sex, everything is held in perfect balance until that final line. It was fun to watch Freud again after seeing this potboiler. Huston had his auteur hat on here, and channeled every German Expressionist trope he could think of to tell the story of Sigmund Freud. And it works beautifully.

There seems to be a convention of presenting the practices of psychology of the films of the late 60s/early 70. They are almost always in sharp black and white and they are present with many of the characteristics of horror films. I am thinking of Lilith, David and Lisa, Shock Corridor and The Three Faces of Eve. All of these movies present the story with the diction of a horror film. (Well, I guess Shock Corridor is a horror film.) To do this is contradictory, because on one hand the movies seem to be patting themselves on the back for presenting these illnesses sympathetically, but on the other hand, just in case you are getting too comfortable, we’ll make it a little scary. Later films like Ordinary People seem to have abandoned the need for horror.

8- Here’s to the Young Lady is a very early Setsuko Hara film (not horror film) so is therefore worth watching. But Kinoshite is not Ozu, under whose guidance we have seen Hara at her most brilliant. Kinoshite’s films are to be more sentimental which could explain his great popularity. Japanese Capra? Not that bad.
But still, you get to see the adorable Keiji Sada, who died tragically young.

Keiji Sada

9 – The Trial of Joan of Arc is Robert Bresson’s film of the same material as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Bresson mostly uses the transcripts of Joan’s trial for his script. It looks so much like the Dreyer film but without the overwhelming emotion. Two completely different yet wonderful takes on the same shameful historical incident.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Rite (Ingmar Bergman)
  3. Lilith (Robert Rossen)
  4. Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti)
  5. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)
  6. The Balcony (Joseph Strick)
  7. Midnight (Mitchell Leisen)
  8. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
  9. Le Bonheur (Agnés Varda)
  10. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)

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1- Shame and The Rite exemplify two sides of Ingmar Bergman’s work. Shame is a brutal analysis of a marriage going through an impossibly difficult situation. A war has broken out and our couple are in the middle of it, not understanding what either side really wants. But the war is the the Macguffin. The real point of the movie is watching Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow’s characters adapt to and be broken by the the situation. It is harrowing to go through, but one thing it is not – obscure. I can’t say the same for The Rite. Created for Swedish television, it is full of inchoate gestures and obscure symbolism – the things that often mar some of Bergman’s work from the late 60s/early 70. It was only about 75 minutes long, but even at that length it was tedious. I have no idea what the point was. I welcome anyone’s input on this.

2- Lilith dates from the early 60s, a time when a lot of ‘adult-themed’ films were being made. Usually this is code for ‘sex’, but in the case of Lilith it is more mental illness porn. It is from the same period as David and Lisa, but that dip into life in a mental asylum was filled with scientifically dispassionate observation as well as a whole lot of sympathy for the main, troubled characters. It is great to see Jean Seberg in one of her very few film roles and it is a role that shows what a great actress she was. Warren Beatty is way out of his league, but he is pretty enough to look at. Peter Fonda kind of steal the picture as young man pining away for the dangerous Lilith.

3- The Leopard has been on my radar for decades. I read the novel by Lampedusa over 30 years ago and I still remember it as being impressive in its description of a man who’s way of life is changing, or perhaps has already changed. I imagined the film would be a sumptuous visual telling of this moving story. No dice. I am realizing that to my taste Luchino Visconti doesn’t make movies but make bloated operas disguised as movies. I love opera and I love movies, so what is the problem? The problem is that at over three hours, The Leopard is excruciatingly dull. Sumptuous to look at, but not a bit engaging. Burt Lancaster’s performance is hard to judge, since he is dubbed into Italian. The same thing with Alain Delon. Claudia Cardinale is speaking Italian, of course, but in true Italian film fashion she is also post-dubbed. The whole dialogue issue puts even more distance between the audience and the film. In the past few years I have watched The Leopard, Senso and Rocco and His Brothers. I found them all dull. At least Rocco had an engaging story. I wish I could have seen some of Visconti’s legendary opera productions at La Scala. I bet that would have been more his metier!

4- The Criterion Channel has been featuring the films of Mitchell Leisen this month. Despite his wonderful first name, I kind of had Leisen filed away in my cinematic brain as a poor man’s Lubitsch. I was so wrong. I had seen both Easy Living and Midnight years and years ago. The former I remembered loving and the latter I though was a solid B. Well, they are both A++ in my book now. In Easy Living he is working with a brilliant script by soon-to-be director Preston Sturges. I am so glas that Leisen directed this wonder. You can see how he reined in Sturges’ more slapstick and outrageous tendencies and he winds up with a near-perfect comedy. Plus you have Jean Arthur on board, everyone’s secret favorite comedy star. Plus I never realized how handsome the young Ray Milland was.

With Midnight we are in Lubitsch territory, not surprising since the script is by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, two of Lubitsch’s greatest collaborators. Mary Astor and Claudette Colbert are delightful in what seems like a drive run for The Palm Beach Story to be made in a few years. Delightful.

5- One of the delights of the Criterion Channel (are you tired of hearing me say that?) is that interesting films that you didn’t even know existed are there for the viewing. The Balcony by Jean Genet was turned into a film by Joseph Strick who is probably most famous for making a film of Ulysses. Really. I would love to know that story behind the making of this. The cast is incredible: Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee and Leonard Nimoy, for God’s sake. There is also a feeling of the forbidden in this work. Genet was a theater revolutionary, but I think that the play must have been tidied up for the film, although I found a lot of it kind of shocking. I wonder if Querelle by Fassbinder is any good? I bet Fassbinder did not water anything down!

6- Wong Kar-wai has his own grammar book for making films. Unlike other more pretentious directors, his film grammar is the only way his films could be made. Form is truly following function here. Happy Together is as gorgeous as any other of his films I have seen, but perhaps more emotionally devastating than even In The Mood for Love. The shifts from monochrome to color, the slowed-down jerky camera work, it all is organically coming from what the movie has to show you. I love that it is an examination of a Gay relationship, but that is not the main point. Dysfunction can happen no matter what the sexual identities are. I need to watch more Wong Kar-wai


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Quadrille (Sacha Guitry)
  2. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
  3. Female Trouble (John Waters)
  4. Gojira (Godzilla) (Ishiro Honda)
  5. Le Bonheur (Anges Varda)
  6. Late Chrysanthemums (Mikio Naruse)
  7. Street Without End (Mikio Naruse)
  8. Effi Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  9. Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  10. Chloé in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer)

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1- I have to say that I found Yi Yi quite dull and hard to get through. I felt that same way about his other film A Brighter Summer Day. I feel particularly bad about that since A Brighter Summer Day is often cited on ‘The Best’ lists of various kinds. I think my problem with that film (and I admit I didn’t finish watching it…yet) is that it is an examination of ‘youth gone bad’. I find that topic pretty tedious. Yi Yi is about a very unhappy family. I wished I could have loved it. I was hoping it would have been a Taiwanese Tokyo Story, but that is an unfair expectation for any film

2- I had never seen any of the early, super-raunchy films of John Waters. They were being featured on the Criterion Channel and the completist in me watched Female Trouble. It is just what you think it will be. Divine is divine, the raunch is quite over the top but it is so much fun, disgusting fun assuredly, but fun. Not to everyone’s taste, not even sure if it was to my taste, but I am glad I watched it. I was amused for 2 hours, but the last image was quite upsetting. I don’t feel the need to visit any of the other early stuff anytime soon. I would like to watch Serial Mom again. That was hilarious.

3- For thoughts on Godzilla, please see this.

4- I usually don’t read about movies that I don’t know before I see them.  For some reason I read a little about Le Bonheur by Agnes Varda.  The article described it as the most horrifying ending of any film the author had scene.  I’m glad I had that heads-up because the ending and indeed most of the film, while perhaps not horrifying, is definitely upsetting. The trick is that the entire film is shot beautifully, on lazy beautiful summer days in France, with lazy beautiful people.  But just scratch the surface! Yowza.  I am showing this to my film group soon.  Looking forward to their reaction.  Yes, I think Varda was a genius and I am woefully behind getting to know her films. That will be corrected forthwith.

5- Late Chrysanthemums  has everything that makes a film by Naruse wonderful.  Dispassionate but penetrating psychological portraits, understated sadness and a beautiful complicated performance by Haruko Sugimura, one of my Goddesses of the Criterion Universe.

6- It has been great having the Criterion Channel to catch up with directors I have loved but whose work I haven’t seen in years.  Rainer Werner Fassbinder was amazing prolific and sometimes uneven, but when he was on fire he was on fire.  I am amazed at the range of his works.  Early, annoying experimental or epater le bourgeois stuff gives way to extraordinarly rich works commenting on German history and German present.  Effi Briest is based on the novel by the great German social critic, Theodor Fontane.  Even though this is seems to be a ‘costume drama’ don’t be fooled.  The social critique is lacerating. It is gorgeously filmed by Michael Ballhaus, who had a long career in Hollywood working with Scorsese among others. Plus it stars another of the Criterion Goddesses, Hanna Schygulla.  What more do you need?

6Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven (or better translated as Mother Kuster’s Trip to Heaven) is another wicked masterpiece of social criticism and no one comes out unscathed: the Capitalists, The Communists, The Anarchists, they  are all ineffectual and self-important.  Anchoring all this hostility is the presence of Mother Kusters played by the great Fassbinder regular, Brigitte Mira. Mira played the ‘Jane Wyman’ roles in Ali:Fear Eats The Soul, Fassbinder’s spin on All That Heaven Allows by his idol, Douglas Sirk.  In this churning world of bitterness, Mutter Kusters is the ‘great-souled man’, just by being her simple self.  There are two endings to the film, apparently.  The first is a sudden, nasty, violent ending communicated only in title cards. The second, which was only intended for US consumption, is funny, sad, sweet and ultimately light-hearted ‘happy end’.  I would like to think that this was Fassbinder’s preferred ending.

Brigitte Mira

7-Chloé in the Afternoon is the last of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. It seems to be a discourse on adultery and it raises an interesting question of when adultery becomes adultery.  The adulterous couple spend most of the film rationalizing that what they are doing is not morally wrong because they keep redefining what they are doing.  I won’t spoil the ending but I would love to hear what you think Rohmer is positing at the end.


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24 Frames by Abbas Kiarostami

I always get nervous when I hear the phrase ‘experimental film’. What I hear is ‘self-indulgent and boring’ Many experimental films are whims of the director/writer and represent very personal feelings and images that the general audience will find it almost impossible to decipher or relate to.

This week I watched two of Jean Cocteau’s experimental Orphic films: The Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus. Both were filled with beautiful images, as you would expect from Cocteau, but they were also filled with lots of mumbo-jumbo about the task of the artist and the time/space continuum….I think. Worth watching for sure, but I don’t think worth revisiting.

I also watched 24 Frames by Abbas Kiarostami. Experimental yes, but Kiarostami outlines the experiment very clearly in the opening of the film, so we are never lost. The experiment is to take 24 pictures (A famous Breughel painting and 23 photos taken by Kiarostami), and show what might happen two minutes before and two minutes after the static image.

I imagine that he chose 24 because of film being shown at 24 frames a second. Thus. the film explodes 1 second of film time into a full-length movie. Interesting concept, I thought.

I watched the first few ‘frames’ (the Breughel and a photo of a winter landscape) trying to get my bearings. I felt this could be a slog. Then I had the idea to set a timer for two minutes and as each frame started, I would also start the timer. When the timer sounded, I would know that that I was at the original image that was being expanded. I would see clearly how Kiarostami’s imagination was working. Watching it this way might sound tedious, but actually it allowed me to be part of the experiment and follow Kiarostami’s imagination and he gave life to the static images.

Not to everyone’s taste, I guess, but I had fun


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. À nous la liberté (René Clair)
  2. Paris qui dort (René Clair)
  3. Boudu sauvé des eaux (Jean Renoir)
  4. Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda)
  5. Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)
  6. The Testament of Orpheus (Jean Cocteau)
  7. No Man of Her Own (Wesley Ruggles)
  8. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
  9. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. Mahler (Ken Russell)

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1- This time around I found À nous la liberté not a lot of fun, even though it is regarded as a classic comedy. It is kind of a French version of what Chaplin would have done if he had really went wild in his silent days with his left-leaning politics. Being rich is as much of a prison as being in prison. I had much with Paris qui dort, which is sometimes referred to as The Crazy Ray. A mad scientist creates a ray that puts everyone in Paris to sleep for several days, except for our main characters. Wackiness ensues.

2- Double Suicide is one of many Japanese films that takes its story from Kabuki theater. What makes this film unique is the ‘realism’ of the set often turns into the artifice of the Kabuki stage, while retaining the naturalness of contemporary acting. Fascinating to watch. Most films like this go for one extreme or the other. Shinoda mixes both well.

3- The Godfather was my birthday viewing gift to myself this year. ‘Nuff said!

4- For thoughts on 24 Frames, Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus please see this.

5- I love Gustav Mahler. He is a quasi-god to me. This Ken Russell movie, which I had seen years ago and remembered liking, had me shaking my head in disbelief. It starts out in a straight-forward fashion, telling the story of the great composer’s last train ride to Vienna with flashbacks to his childhood and other earlier memories. This is fine. But he seems to lose control of himself and the Russellisms come like a sledge hammer. Do we gain anything by the fantasy scene of Mahler’s conversion to Catholicism being presided over and being lauded by Cosima Wagner, Richard Wagner’s widow and notorious Anti-Semite? The scene takes place in a barren landscape and Cosima is dressed as a Nazi Domintrix complete with swastika on her butt. The climax of this is her forcing Mahler to bite into a pig’s head. Really.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Akira Kurosawa)
  2. An Actor’s Revenge (Kon Ichikawa)
  3. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)
  4. Le Poison (Sacha Guitry)
  5. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
  6. Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
  7. The Ruling Class (Peter Medak)
  8. Pigs and Battleships (Shohei Imamura)
  9. Paris Belongs to Us (Jacques Rivette)
  10. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

1- The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is a good example of a Japanese film that is firmly rooted in Kabuki theater. This is a famous Kabuki piece that Kurosawa turned into a very entertaining one-hour film. He introduced a ‘clown’ figure into the traditional story and depending on how you feel about clowns, you will love or deplore the addition. It is a very early Kurosawa film and it is fun to see future huge stars at the beginning of their careers. Masayuki Mori, soon to be a romantic lead, and Takeshi Shimura, who appeared in every Kurosawa film until he died, have nice bit parts.

2- Long before people were talking about gender being fluid An Actor’s Revenge hit the screen. The story of an onnagata (Kabuki male actor who specializes in playing women’s roles) is hell-bent on avenging his parents’ death caused by three very bad men. The whole notion of the correctness of revenge is obliquely dealt with. The gender blurring is dealt with head-on. This is a film that should be studied in every queer, women’s studies or philosophy class. Quite a mean picture with stunning compositions and camera work.

3- As I watched La Chienne I kept thinking I had seen it before. I hadn’t but I had seen Scarlet Street, an American remake by Fritz Lang. The American version is not half as gritty as the French original. The French version is quite brutal. The milieu of Montmartre in the 1930s has the same cachet as Los Angeles of film noir. Once again I was struck by what an amazing actor Michel Simon was. He was as unlikely a star as Marie Dressler and just about as beloved.

4- Treat yourself to watching a film by Sacha Guitry. Le Poison has the added bonus of a performance by Michel Simon. A delightfully wicked and pretty amoral little film. Great fun

5- It was very sad for me to watch Amarcord. My first viewing in 1973 was magical. This time I was bored and found it a sloppy, sexist mess. One would think there was nothing else to women but breasts and posteriors.

6- Pasolini is a troubling figure and Mamma Roma is a troubling film.

7- The Ruling Class is another film that I hadn’t seen since it premiered almost 50 years ago. I remembered thinking it was a sophisticated black comedy when I was an adolescent, and had a pretty limited idea of what sophisticated was. Now, it is still kind of outre and slightly funny but it goes on way too long for the one joke, and it is often quite nasty.

8- When I was first getting to know Japanese film, I concentrated on the ‘Golden Era’ films from the 30s, 40s and 50s, learning the works of the masters like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse. I would check out films from the 60s and later occasionally, but their roughness and violence were really jarring for me after the serenity of the ‘masterpieces’. Lately, though, I have been exploring the works of later masters and I am really impressed. Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships is a great example of this later era. It shows a post-WWII Japan with aimless youth drifting towards crime and violence. But, where in the US such a film would have either a moralizing tone or a social message telling us to pity these poor kids, Imamura just lays it all out in a frantic two-hour plus tragedy that is slapstick at the same time. The pigs get most of the laughs. I really need to watch more Imamura. The cynicism and lack of pontification is so appealing.

9- Very few films have meant more to me over the years than Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. Unfortunately, none of his other films have the same magic that Celine and Julie has, no matter how many times I watch it. The other films I’ve seen of his are multi-hour, difficult mind-games that never seem to be worth the effort. I always had Paris Belongs to Us tucked away in my brain as something to watch when I felt up to it. It was his first feature film, so I figured it would be more approachable than the later experimental films since his improvisational style might have been held in check in trying to get his first film out the door. Well, I was partially right. It is a tight two and a half hour long puzzle, but it doesn’t seem to be about the puzzle as much as his later films are. Our entry into the world is a young woman who has become friendly with a group of typical 1950 Parisian intellectuals. There seems to be an unimaginable, unexplainable mystery surrounding this group and many of them wind up dead. Suicide? Murder? International espionage? Who know? Josef K. would be very at home in this world. I did make it through the whole thing, but I won’t be returning anytime soon, whereas I plan to watch Celine and Julie Go Boating again on my birthday for the ten millionth time. Lucky me


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. A Kid for Two Farthings (Carol Reed)
  2. Le Courbeau (Henri-George Clouzot)
  3. The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
  4. War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)
  5. A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris)
  6. Three Daughters (Satyajit Ray)
  7. Pather Panchli (Satyajit Ray)
  8. Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
  9. The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray)
  10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges)

1- A Kid For Three Farthings is a minor film by Carol Reed, who gave us The Third Man and Odd Man Out (and Oliver!). It is a sweet and kind of troubling story about a very young boy living with his mother (Celia Johnson) in apost WWII London Jewish neighborhood. Judaism is not overt here, except for some characters’ accents. Plus the title seems be derived from the Passover song Chad Gadya.

2- I saw Le Courbeau years ago and remembered it fondly as a taut thriller that was at the same time an indictment of civil betrayal in Vichy France. This time around I found the plot confusing. Maybe I was tired when I watched it. Great, creepy atmosphere though.

3- I have been watching a lot of films by Satyajit Ray to celebrate that master’s 100th birthday on May 2, 2021. Three Daughters is one of his earliest efforts. The film is in serious need of restoration, as even the usually pristine Criterion Channel was very beat-up. It is an omnibus film created to celebrate the 100th of Rabindranath Tagore and it depicts three of his stories. Tagore is a wonderful writer and was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is legendary in India and should be legendary everywhere. He wrote the poem of the Indian national anthem. The three stories are not related in subject, character or genre. I am still not sure why it is called Three Daughters as there is not a father in sight.

Rabindranath Tagore

4- Regarding War and Peace, please see this post

5- I enjoyed A Brief History of Time , but I was disappointed because I still don’t understand the Theory of Relativity.

6- As part of my little Satyajit Ray festival, I re-watched his legendary Apu Trilogy, consisting of Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). It is astounding to realized that Pather Panchali was his first feature. The images are ravishing, the stories are heartbreaking, the tone is so sure. I found this time around that Pather Panchali was the most beautiful looking of the three, and that the trilogy grows in emotional power up until the heartbreaking yet heartwarming end of Apur Sansar. Maybe I need to write a post just about Ray. But don’t wait for me. Watch any of his films, NOW!

Apu as a child, teenager and young adult

7- It must have been exhausting to be Betty Hutton. She is one of those performers, like Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters, who are always coming at you full bore and they are going to entertain you whether you want to be entertained or not, damn it! Of all of her performances I have seen, her turn as Trudy Kockenlocker (really!) in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the most reined in. Still, I got tired watching her. She even riled up poor Eddie Bracken. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is the screwballiest of Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies, and like so many of them, the logic and energy peter out before the film is actually finished. I’ll admit that I am not sure what is happening for the last half of the film, but that is OK. I was really in the mood for zany, and it more that satisfied in that regard. Plus Sturges stalward William Demarest is on hand being sublime, and there is a wonderfully hilarious turn by Diana Lynn as the 14-year-old voice of reason in this mad world. For the best depiction of a screwball universe, though, please see The Palm Beach Story.

Trudy Kockenlocker


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The Soviet War and Peace

The norm in discussing a film is to refer to it as the director’s film. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Of course, this nomenclature is a product of the auteur theory of film criticism that has held sway for decades.

I am choosing not to refer to the topic at hand as Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, for as much as he was at the helm of this mind-bogglingly enormous, multi-year production, it was the Soviet government that was the true auteur.

This is not to minimize what Bondarchuk did. Not only was he practically an army general directing forces never seen in a film before or since, but he cast himself as Pierre Bezukhov, one of the most familiar and beloved characters in Russian literature and often regarded as Tolstoy’s mouthpiece in the book.

There was a cold war on, and the Soviet Union wanted to show that they could make an epic bigger and better than anyone (read: The US) had made before. Cleopatra had been released a few years earlier. It was enormous, perhaps the most expensive film made in the US up until that point, and it was a critical and box office failure. The notoriety of the backstage shenanigans of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton raised expectations for the film, which ultimately disappointed. The Kremlin must have smelled blood in the water.

The Red Army was put at Bondarchuk’s command, to impersonate Napoleon’s Grand Army as well as the Russian Imperial forces. The Hermitage was opened for lavish ballroom scenes and priceless artifacts were taken from that legendary museum to be used as set decorations. Nothing was spared.

I saw the complete film over several weekends when I was a teenager. I had to cross Brooklyn to a neighborhood I didn’t know. I could have been going to Moscow for all I knew. The film was released in a much shorter version than is currently available and it was dubbed into English. I didn’t care. I was blown away. As a kid with cultural pretentions, I knew that a new film of War and Peace was something to take seriously. I remember being choked up at the end of the final part.

So how does it hold up today more than fifty years after it was released?

Well……it is very Soviet in many different ways. It is enormous and stunning visually, but often vulgarly ostentatious. It seems to be saying, “OK USA, let’s see you create a scene like Natasha’s first ball. The burning of Atlanta? Hah. Look at our battle of Borodino.

Borodino

In an oddly positive take on Soviet style, Bondarchuk often abandons naturalism and flings his camera all over the place, making one think of the Soviet experimental films of the 20s. It is something you don’t expect, and it is certainly nothing you would see in a classic Hollywood epic of the time. It did balance out the classic epicness of the work.

A few years before this film was made, there was a US production of War and Peace directed by King Vidor starring Henry Fonda as Pierre (what?), Mel Ferrer as Bolkonsky and Audrey Hepburn. As expected, the film was roundly denounce in the USSR, home of Tolstoy.

In the role of Natasha, Bondarchuk must have had Audrey Hepburn in mind when he cast Lyudmilla Saveleva. Like Hepburn, she was a former dancer with a gamine air. The problem with her performance is that it is too big. It struck me that she was acting in the way that she might have emoted Giselle. She doesn’t seem to be acting for the camera. She seems to be acting to the balconies of a theater.

Lyudmilla Saveleva

The Byronic, tragic Andrei Bolkonsky is played by Vyacheslav Tichonov. He is brooding enough, but also quite wooden. None of the soul-searching of the character comes through.

Vyacheslav Tichonov

So, I am really glad to have seen this again. It is unique in the annals of film and it is a monster to be reckoned with.

Go reckon.