“Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.”
- All This and Heaven, Too (Anton Litvak)
- Joy (David O. Russell)
- The Wedding March (Erich Von Stroheim)
- Manhatta (Charles Sheeler/Paul Strand)
- Grass (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
- Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
- Chang (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
- 3:10 To Yuma (Delmer Daves)
- The Golem (Carl Boese/Paul Wegener)
- My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)
1- All This and Heaven, Too is the perfect example of what was known as a ‘woman’s picture’. Nothing pejorative meant by that. It was a particular genre that was extraordinarily popular at the time. Star-crossed romances, attractive tragic protagonists, luscious scores by Max Steiner. I guess things like the Twilight series are the diminished descendents of these films. Since this starred the great Bette Davis, I was expecting a plot with a little more meat and a tougher heroine. Still, it was fun enough. I don’t get why Charles Boyer was such a sex symbol, but he was. Must have been the French accent.
2- I think that David O. Russell makes movies just for me. I absorb them effortlessly and with great satisfaction. The quirkiness of the plots and characters is never condescending. His stable of actors is immensely appealing. Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle were absolute delights. Joy is also a joy. He might be becoming formulaic, but it is such a tasty formula!
3- Each time I watch a Von Stroheim film, I am amazed that he succeeded in getting it made. The elaborateness of the productions, the penetrating psychology of the characters, the epic scope make you wonder how the studio heads ever agreed to his projects, especially since they were hugely expensive and perhaps not box-office smashes. I hadn’t seen The Wedding March in a long, long time, but it really holds up as an exemplar of what makes a Von Stroheim film so masterful. It is tragic that the second part of the film, The Honeymoon, was lost in a fire in Paris in the Fifties, but there are enough stills and information for us to piece together what the end of this melancholy story would have looked like. The recent discovery of the complete Metropolis makes me take heart that The Honeymoon might be found in some European basement someday. It is not like the missing reels of Greed which were deliberately destroyed by the studio, apparently. This just seems to be a case of neglect. Keeping my fingers crossed. Take a look at my survey of Von Stroheim if you have not already.
4- Bless TCM for their monthly perspectives. This month, they are focusing on documentaries. This gave me the chance to see three short films that I had always heard about but never had the opportunity to see. Manhatta is an astounding 11-minute silent film showing views of New York from highly artistic and interesting camera set-ups. Grass and Chang are the products of Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, the boys who brought us King Kong. Granted, these are not documentaries in the strictest sense as many of the sequences seem staged, but just to imagine the difficulty that this kind of location filming presented in the 1920s makes these films even more amazing. Someone described Chang, set in the jungles of Thailand, as a ‘wild animal snuff film’. Cute, and somewhat accurate. But the anthropological details of the life of these people is so interesting. Grass is absolutely thrilling. It depicts the epic journey of the Bakhtiari people from central Turkey to somewhere in present-day Iran. They are fleeing the dried out fields of Anatolia for the lush grassland of Iran to feed their flocks. Grass equals life here. I was dazzled by the camera work and could not imagine how these epic set-ups were co-ordinated. CGI has truly killed the thrill of this kind of cinema!
5- 3:10 To Yuma should be as regarded and as well known as High Noon. When westerns are great, they are sublime, like The Searchers and Once Upon A Time In The West. When they are very good, they are very, very good, like 3:10 To Yuma. I am talking about the original here, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Don’t know anything about the remake. Like most remakes, I question the wisdom of the whole enterprise. (Probably only John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon was the only necessary and transcendent remake!). When critics talk about the greatness of later westerns, they usually focus on the psychological depictions of the characters. Here, the cat-and-mouse between Ford and Heflin keeps the whole thing taut and involving. And that last shot in the rain is gorgeous.
6- I was glad finally to catch up with The Golem. It was one of the major German Expressionist films that I had not seen. I watched it since it was one of the films covered in the new podcast The Chosen Films created by two friends of mine, Aaron Midler and Rabbi Shoshana Conover. They discuss films from a Jewish perspective and their selections are eclectic. I don’t think this film is as majestic as others of this time (The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari, Metropolis or Faust, but it is fascinating for the weird but not demonizing portrayal of those medieval Jews. See it.
7- The late 70s/early 80s were a heady time for ‘art house’ cinema. Bergman, Fellini and Hitchcock were still active, and we were discovering new corners of the cinematic universe. Most impressive was what was called The Australian New Wave. Fascinating, accomplished films like Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli burst Athena-like, fully-formed and glorious. My Brilliant Career was a film that I saw at the time and liked a lot, but had completely forgotten about. I was glad to catch up with it again and see that it was even more satisfying than I remembered. And Sam Neill is gorgeous.
In an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine is baffled by how boring she found the film of The English Patient. Whenever she expresses her dislike she is met with virulence by the film’s fanatical supporters. She even loses a prospective job when the interviewer finds out that she didn’t like the film.
I have been that way about musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I began hearing about it a while ago. Everyone, I mean everyone, rhapsodized about it. It was life-changing! Never experienced anything in the theater like it! It makes history come alive!
Well, I liked it fine. But I didn’t get transported. My life didn’t change. I even found it a little tedious toward the end.
I had really done my homework, too. I listened to the score a lot before I went. I followed it with the lyrics. As in all shows, there are some really catchy tunes that have become earworms: the opening, My Shot, You’ll Be Back, Helpless, they are all Broadway hits in the great tradition.
It just never came alive for me. I found that expressing this opinion in public, though, was dangerous. ‘Are you nuts?’, one woman screamed at me when I told her that I didn’t much care for it. She then launched into one of the canned responses people have when praising the show: “It is remarkable how this show delivers a lesson on American History to young people in their own language!’ Well, maybe not: We were at a restaurant the night we were seeing the show. We told the waitress that we need the check since we had to be at the theater. She asked which show we were seeing. I told her, and she said, ‘Oh yeah! That’s the show about President Hamilton, right?’ So much for the civics lesson!
Just to show that I am not a dogmatic prig, the next week we saw Porchlight Theater’s wonderful production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first show In The Heights and I loved it. It is in the same hip-hop pop music vein, but I was tremendously moved and deeply involved with the music and the book and the characters. Afterwards, I thought how like Porgy and Bess it was, offering a rich tapestry of characters deeply rooted to a specific time and place. It is a kind of masterpiece.
I don’t get the fervor for Hamilton in the way I don’t get why anyone cares about sports. OK, the Cubs won the series after 108 years. What does that have to do with me.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t judge anyone for loving either sports or Hamilton. It’s just that I seem to be missing a gene that would allow me to appreciate them so I want someone to explain them to me, rationally and unemotionally.
I would love to heaer what it is that you think is so earth-shattering about this show. I liked it fine, but my life is still the same after seeing it.
I guess asking someone to explain why they like something is kind of fruitless, but go ahead and try, please.
- Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
- A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson )
- Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard)
- The Face of Fu Manchu (Don Sharp)
- The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin)
- Rupture & Happy Anniversary – shorts (Pierre Étaix)
- The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
- Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné)
- The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
- The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffel)
1- OK. Let me explain something. For me, Halloween is the greatest secular holiday. It is the one secular holiday seems to be intrinsically tied into a time of year in the way religious holidays seem to be. I look at it as a holiday season which leads up to the great day itself on October 31st. What the season represents to me is the slow decline of the year and the ushering in of the cozy winter. ‘Winter kept us warm’, as T.S. Eliot wrote.
The supernatural images that abound during this time seem to be inoculating us against the lost of summer and fall. By the time November 1st comes around and the ghosts, witches and pumpkins are gone, we are ready for the end of the year. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the like are appropriate totems for this time of year – a time of year where the ‘death’ of the year is becoming more and more prominent. (Fear not, spring always comes – eventually).
I indulge in the season by gorging on horror films. Let me clarify. I am not interested in slasher porn type films. The films I watch have to have an element of the uncanny. A Romantic-age kind of feeling of the world beyond ours intruding in a way that is both thrilling and a bit threatening. Therefore, I have been watching a ton of classic Hammer studio films. Yes, I know. They made hay with being the first of the major film studios to emphasize the gore by filming in lurid color, and they were not above prominently (yet discreetly) showcasing body parts of some of the female actresses – lots of peignoirs here. But what I love is the atmosphere of these films. Much effort is put into having a sturdy and interesting script as well as nifty Victorian spookiness of the proceedings. My husband is baffled by but indulgent of my passion for these films. “But aren’t they pretty low-quality?” he asks. Yes, of course they are, but that is almost the point. They are disposable in a way that most seasonal things are, yet they have a significant point. Yes, I know that there are great horror films. The works of Val Lewton (which I have written about here ) as well as masterpiece like The Bride of Frankenstein, The Phantom Carriage and The Birds are infinitely better than The House That Dripped Blood and The Curse of Frankenstein. However, these are films that can and should be watched all year round. Save the Hammers for the Ghost and Goblin time.
This past Friday we lost Pierre Étaix, one of the great comic filmmakers, and up until recently, was in danger of being completely forgotten. His entire film catalog, consisting of both short and feature length films made in the 1960s, were barred from distribution for decades due to legal problems. Luckily, Criterion issued his complete works in a lovely Blu-Ray package three years ago. It’s hard to think of a similar rescue from the abyss!
Many of the most famous film comedians are referred to as clowns, but Pierre Étaix actually had his comic apprenticeship in circuses. His elegant physical comedy must have its roots in the circus much as Buster Keaton’s does from the vaudeville circuit. Étaix worked as an apprentice to Jacques Tati. Pretty impressive comedy credentials. He even appeared in a small role in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, amazingly enough.
But it is his handful of feature-length and short films that will ensure his place next to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy Pantheon. Like those two masters from the silent era, Étaix’s genius is all visual. The deadpan reactions are direct descendants of Keaton, the sweetness and kindness are direct descendants of Chaplin. His greatest works were created in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, the screen writer/producer who went to to collaborate with Luis Buñuel on his late masterpieces.
I would suggest you start with the lovely, heartwarming Yoyo. This practically silent gem celebrates being yourself (in this case a circus performer) instead of being who you are forced to be (in this case, a phenomenally rich but lonely young man in a lovely mansion). The deus-ex-machina of a circus elephant is one of the memorable sight coups (I don’t want to demean it by calling it a sight-gag).
His last film, Land of Milk and Honey, did to his career what Peeping Tom did for the career of Michael Powell: put him on the outs with the money men by seemingly thumbing his nose at the bourgeois tastes of the audiences of 1971. This is a great shame, because judging from the genius of the few works we have, we can only lament what else we might have had over the forty-plus years since that film’s disastrous release.
So, please, do yourself and the late, great Pierre a favor and see as many of these delightful works as you can. Here follows a filmography swiped from Wikipedia:
- Insomnia (1961) Short unreleased
- Happy Anniversary (1962) Short
- The Suitor (1962)
- Yoyo (1965)
- As Long As You Have Your Health (1966)
- Le Grand Amour (1969)
- Land of Milk and Honey (1971) Documentary
- Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
- The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith)
- Room and a Half (Andrei Khrzhanovsky)
- Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
- I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
- Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
- The Navigator (Donald Crisp/Buster Keaton)
- It’s a Wonderful World (W.S. Van Dyke)
- Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer)
- Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey)
1 – I am often more interested in cinematic technique, i.e., how the filmmaker conveys the plot than in the plot per se. I know Hitchcock felt the same way – see his concept of ‘MacGuffin’. But, with certain filmmakers you just can’t ignore content. The French critics considered Hitchcock the most personal of the personal auteurs. His fetishes and private fears appear all through his oeuvre. One of his great themes, and probably one of his great personal concerns, is the concept of guilt and sin. No one makes the audience feel more complicit in the actions of characters than Hitchcock. We assume their guilt. Remember the scene when Norman Bates is trying to sink the car containing the murdered Janet Leigh in a pond? It stops sinking midway and we all think ‘Oh no! Norman and his mother will be caught now!’ Then the car resumes its downward descent and disappears underwater and we are relieved. Then to our horror we realize ‘We were just rooting for a man abetting a murder committed by his mother!’ Later on, we find out there is much more to be horrified by. Sabotage is a film reeking with the notion of complicity and guilt and, perhaps, original sin. What is it that causes Sylvia Sidney to do what she does at the end? She achieves a makeshift absolution by the mechanics of the plot, but does she really? A terribly unsettling film in so many ways, and in many ways the first ‘Hitchcock film’.
2- I wonder why Room and a Half is not better known. Based on works of the poet Joseph Brodsky, this is a wonderfully inventive fantasy memoir about events that never happened. Apparently, Brodsky never went back to Russia, so this depiction of his reunion with his (possibly dead) parents is all the stuff of imagination. The combination of animation, raucous humor and the depiction of what it must have been like to be an intellectual in the latter days of the Soviet Union are entrancing. There are moments of great lyricism mixed in with great humor. I wish I knew more of his work, since I would probably understand more of the poetic tropes in the film For instance, his dead parents live on in two crows that come to the adult Brodsky. Is this part of his body of work?
This would have been a hit if we still lived in the days of the Art House movie theater.
3- All I can say is that I will be happy to watch Wild Strawberries every few months for the rest of my life.
4- I Confess is widely considered lesser Hitchcock. I had seen it decades ago and didn’t remember much about it. But having just watched Sabotage and The Lodger, I hoped that it would prove to be a pleasant surprise. It didn’t. I think the big flaw is having Montgomery Clift in the lead. He just seems to be in a different movie the whole time. I think that he was probably doing his Method actor thing, but Hitchcock’s plan did not catch what he was doing. Hence, he looks like he is just stumbling around Quebec. Anne Baxter seems very miscast as well. The plot has all the trapping of a classic Hitchcock film, but it never really gets off the ground. I think Hitchcock himself is dismissive of it and seems to blame Clift, too.
5- I am so glad that I finally made time to sit down and watch the complete, three-hour version of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. I always loved his You Can Count On Me, and was amazed to see that Margaret was only his second feature. It was plagued by creative and legal woes and never really had a theatrical run. It is pretty much forgotted but it is a work of profound genius and creativity. More to come on this one.
6- It’s hard to believe that I can actually say, ‘I haven’t seen that movie in over 35 years’, but such is the case with Seven Days In May. It really holds up as an exemplar of cold-war paranoia. It was directed by the master of screen paranoia, John Frankenheimer, who gave us such other delicious, cinematic nightmares as The Manchurian Canditate (yikes!) and Seconds, which has the most terrifying film of any film I have ever seen. OK, the Dutch version of The Vanishing has a worse ending, but Seconds is a very close second.