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. Tel Aviv on Fire (Sameh Zoabi)
  2. Welcome, Mr. Marshall (Luis Garcia Berlanga)
  3. Musidora, the Tenth Muse (Patrick Cazals)
  4. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
  5. Zazie Dans Le Métro (Louis Malle)
  6. Arrebato (Ivan Zulueta)
  7. Steamboat Round the Bend (John Ford)
  8. Million Dollar Legs (Edward Cline)
  9. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway)
  10. Bernie (Richard Linklater)

1- Glad to see that my original assessment of Tel Aviv on Fire is my current one, too. Wickedly funny and so cleverly plotted

2- Welcome, Mr. Marshall is the second film that I watched by Berlanga. I imagine that Franco’s powers had seriously diminished or he was just not interested in persecuting artists by the time this film came out. A decade or so earlier, he would have been jailed or worse. This is an ‘international’ satire in the vein of The Mouse That Roared but much funnier. U.S. aid seems to have been regarded as a windfall for the people of this tiny town and their preparations to convince the visiting Americans for what they believe to be the inevitable showing of dollars is hilarious, and not nearly as cruel as it might have been. I am looking forward to seeing more Berlanga. He’s like later Bunuel but minus some of the surreal nuttiness.

3- I hadn’t seen Last Year in Marienbad since the days of art house cinemas back when I lived in New York. Criterion Channel started featuring it last month as a tribute to the ineffable, ethereal Delphine Seyrig. I was happy to just watch it without trying to figure out what it was ‘about’. Probably it is impossible to know what it was about. The screen play is by Alain Robbe-Grillet – ’nuff said. But it looks spectacular. It is a very hypnotic film. It occurred to me that it would make a great double-bill with Carnival of Souls

4- I realize I am constitutionally unfit to pass judgement on Zazie Dans Le Métro:

A) it is based on a novel which is written in a playful language reminiscent of Joyce. Malle has said that he wanted to fill the film with cinematic games the way Queneau filled the book with linguistic games. My French is not good enough to appreciate the later and I got very tired of the former.

B) Slapstick exhausts me. It makes me very impatient and it NEVER amuses me. This is all the movie is – relentless slapstick.

C) It stars the most annoying child actor I have ever experienced.

But you may love it.

5- Peter Ibbetson is nothing short of a travesty. It is based on a very strange, romantic fantasy novel by George Du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather). The book is compelling in its imagination. The movie jettisons most of the fantasy and what romance is left is like a left-over turkey sandwich. It looks like this was a prestige project. Henry Hathaway was a big director. Gary Cooper was Gary Cooper and Ann Harding is a great, sadly neglected actress of the time. It should have been at least good. One wonders why a studio would invest so much capital to film such a potent fantasy novel, then cut the novel off at the knees. It’s sad, because no one will ever try to film it again. Paging Masterpiece Theatre?

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Places in the Heart (Robert Benton)
  2. The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch)
  3. A Matter of Life & Death (Powell/Pressburger)
  4. Going Attractions (April Wright)
  5. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi)
  6. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
  7. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  8. Je Tu Il Elle (Chantal Akerman)
  9. The Phantom of the Monastery (Fernando de Fuentes)
  10. Miracles of Thursday (Luis Garcia Berlanga)

1- Places In The Heart is such a lovely, heartfelt film. It almost reaches the heights of a play by Horton Foote. I remembered it fondly and am glad it has aged so well. I am always draw to a story of a group of misfits who band together and make a strong “family”.

2- Thank you TCM for your series of silent Ernst Lubitsch films. What a wonderful opportunity to see the films that got him to be invited to Hollywood in the Twenties. The Doll was made in Germany and has that ‘between the wars” polish we expect from UFA productions. This is a particularly wacky story of an extremely shy and soon to be extremely rich aristocrat who is pressured into marriage even though he is terrified of women. A pretty classic trope of the time. He eventually falls in love with an automaton (who is really a live woman – don’t ask) because he feels ‘safe’ around her. There are wacky monks and forbidding uncles. But the show is stolen by Ossi Oswalda, an unfairly neglected brilliant comedian who plays the woman/doll and had starred in other Lubitsch works of the time. She also played the uproarious Oyster Princess. She is hilarious

Ossi Oswalda

3- Going Attractions is an efficient documentary outlining the history of the American movie going in general, and the history of the great movie palaces in specific. For Chicagoans there is a fair amount of information and footage about the history and restauration of the Uptown Theater. Whenever it is finally finished, it will once again be one of the greatest theatrical venues in the country.

4- My admiration for the great Iranian directors grows exponentially with each film I see. I admire Kiarostami but I love Panahi. Crimson Gold is another wonderful example of Panahi’s pushing the boundaries of traditional narrative. He even cast an actual schizophrenic depressive to play the very troubled main character. This blurring of reality is what makes Panahi’s films so stimulating. This would be a wonderful double-bill with The Mirror.

5- I am not sure what to say about Power of the Dog. It is unrelentingly bleak and I think that is part of what earned it so much acclaim. People feel good about feeling miserable watching a movie. I was surprised to see how reductive it was regarding the hinted-at Gay themes. I expected more of Jane Campion than another outing into the Celluloid Closet.

6- After Life is probably a masterpiece. I had only seen one other Kore-eda film, the magnificent Still Walking. After Life is more epic. It was interesting to watch it soon after reviewing A Matter of Life and Death. The two visions of the Hereafter couldn’t be more different. The main difference is that in the Powell/Pressburger we are never quite sure if the afterlife being shown is real or a figment of the hero’s imagination. In After Life there is no question that it is real and it is reminiscent of the world depicted in Beetlejuice – bureaucratic and messy.

The gimmick of the film, that each person who has crossed over has a week to choose one memory from their entire life to take with them into eternity. While not quite a MacGuffin, it becomes less and less the center of interest as we get to know the recently arrived as well as the functionaries of the after life. It is a supremely movie and delicate film. I need to see everything by Kore-eda.

7- How do you discuss a film that rigorously defies being engaging and is intentionally thwarting any sense of audience involvement? I guess the way to engage it is just to watch it and not try to make it “mean” anything. Je Tu Il Elle is comprised of three short, endless ‘acts’. The first and longest takes place in a bare room with a woman who is writing letters, eating sugar from a bag and rearranging her furniture. The second depicts the ride that the woman hitched with a truckdriver. He talks incessantly. She gives him an unerotic handjob and they eat a meal at a diner and watch an episode of Cannon. The last has the woman visiting another woman who might have been a previous lover. She has the lover bring her food and drink and then they engage in an explicit but also unerotic sex. Then our heroine leaves.

Experimental art is difficult to warm up to, because so much seems to be about the artists’ closely held intentions with the work. I can’t really say how Chantal Akerman wanted us to engage with this film. It is very curious that only a year or so later, she made her masterpiece Jeanne Dielmann. It is more that three times as long as Je Tu Il Elle, and even more rigorous, but the experience is completely indifferent. We watch a woman go through her days and get to know her monotonous routine intimately, so much so that when the routine starts to vary slightly, we are filled with foreboding. The end of the film is overwhelming. Was Akerman more intent on creating something that was experimental while also being engaging? Was the fact that the latter film stars riveting actress Delphine Seyrig what gives the audience more to engage with? I am not sure but I know that I will rewatch Jeanne Dielmann any time. I feel that once was enough for Je Tu Il Elle. I don’t believe that Akerman would have had a problem with this.

8- Marin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project has saved many wonderful films from oblivion, and many of them can be seen on the Criterion Channel. The Phantom of the Monastery is such a treasure. From 1930s Mexico, it has all the delicious atmospherics of the best of the Universal horror films, plus a healthy serving of implied sex thrown in. Extremely enjoyable, especially if you are a fan of atmospheric horror as I am.

9- In the introduction to one of her science fiction Shikasta novels, Doris Lessing wrote that the young people of today don’t appreciate what a gift it is to have so much in print, and that when she was younger there were many things that were just not available. I feel the same thing regarding film and today’s younger generation. They live in a blessed time where just about everything is available with the click of a key. One of the glories of this rich cinematic time is the Criterion Channel. Whole oeuvres of heretofore unfamiliar directors are curated and presented in beautiful editions often with fascinating extras. I have never heard of Luis Garcia Berlanga and there are a slew of his films on Criterion. He was a wicked satirist that really pushed the envelope in Franco’s Spain. I have only seen one of his films so far but I intend to see as many as I can lay my eyes on.

Thursday of Miracles is a wonderfully tight comedy that I am sure got him into a lot of hot water with the Church and the Franco government. But it is not hard to see a through-thread from Bunuel to Berlanga to Almodóvar. That is about as high praise as I can give.

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
  2. June Night (Per Lindberg)
  3. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding)
  4. The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch)
  5. Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey)
  6. The Street of Love and Hope (Nagisa Oshima)
  7. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desireee Akhavan)
  8. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner)
  10. The King (David Michôd)

1- I have been studying the Turkish language for a while and have been watching Turkish series on Netflix for practice and fun.  Mustang is the first Turkish film I watched, courtesy of the Criterion Channel.  Very absorbing film which reminded me of The Virgin Suicides. Five orphan sisters are subject to suffocating restrictions by their guardians: their grandmother and extremely awful uncle.  It was interesting to see the five different responses to the oppression. Some submit and destroy themselves.  Others become empowered and save themselves.  Apparently the director wrote the screenplay based on her and her sisters’ own story. 

2- In anticipation of the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s remake, the Criterion Channel was featuring the original Nightmare Alley. Have I mentioned that I don’t care for Film Noir? This is one of the noiriest of noirs.  You do get to see Tyrone Power play a bad man for a change, but the grimness is unrelenting.  It is good to know, though, that there always seems to be opening for geeks in carnivals.

3- It is interesting to see Ingrid Bergman in a film from her native Sweden before she became the quintessential Hollywood star. June Night is not a masterpiece by any means. It is most comparable to a Hollywood ‘women’s picture”.  That said, it is interesting to see how much more frankly sexuality was dealt with in Europe at a time when the Hays code had already put a stranglehold on Hollywood’s forms of expression.

4- TCM was showing a bunch of Ernst Lubitsch films including several silents which he made in Europe before settling in the US.  The Oyster Princess is one of the nuttier films you will ever see and totally enjoyable with a title character that makes Becky Sharp look like Mother Teresa.

5-  Yeah, yeah. It’s a Wonderful Life. For your faithful blogger it wouldn’t be Christmas without at least one viewing of Christmas in Connecticut. Funny, sexy and cozy. Plus you get S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Szakal and Una O’Connor!

6- After reveling in the sublime masterpieces of Naruse, Uzo and Mizoguchi, I have been exploring the later, grittier, perversely funny and upsetting films of Nagisa Oshima.  The Street of Love and Hope, as my sister-in-law says, has neither.  Just a very bleak yet fascinating look at the economic hardship of Japan after WWII.

7- The Miseducation of Cameron Post is another film depicting gay conversion camps. While none of the films I have seen on this topic present these places in a good light, this one presented the people who run this particular camp and very tortured, sad individuals. Great performance from John Gallagher, Jr. as a councilor who has been ‘cured’ and a terrifyingly restrained performance by the underappreciated Jennifer Ehle as the not quite Nurse Ratched who runs the joint. For a more nuanced take on this theme I recommend Boy Erased.

8- It had been at least 35 years since I saw Andrei Rublev. I loved it at the time.  It was the first Tarkovsky  I had ever seen.  Since then, I have seen all his films.  They are sui generis, Andrei Rublev especially so. Only the Medieval films of Ingmar Bergman give you a sense of living in the time.  Andrei Rublev is all over the place and some of it is heavy slogging, but the last section about the casting of a bell stands on its own as magnificent and fascinating.

9- I have been leading a Shakespeare seminar and we just finished reading Henry V. I had rewatched the Branagh and Olivier versions.  I had heard of The King and was curious since it was not a film of the Shakespeare text but it did tell roughly the same story.  A tamer, more sagacious Falstaff, an ineffectual, diseased Henry IV, an even more supercilious Dauphin. They are all here, along with the beautiful, spidery Timothee Chalamet playing Hal/Henry V.   It is a curious film.  Quite involving, but you wonder what they were thinking when they made it. It seems that they took pains to show that this was not a Shakespeare adaptation, yet so many bits of the script only make sense if you know the Shakespeare (I’m looking at you, tennis balls!)

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)
  2. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
  3. Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa)
  4. Henry V (Laurence Olivier)
  5. Fantastic Planet (René Laloux)
  6. Trouble In Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
  7. Z (Costa-Gavras)
  8. The Dybbuk (Michal Waszynski)
  9. The Double Life of Vèronique (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  10. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)

1- Horton Foote is the greatest playwright America has produced. Don’t talk to me about O’Neill or Kushner or Tennessee Williams. Foote’s plays are masterpieces of understatement with a seething core of emotion below the surface. Tender Mercies is a gorgeous character study of a very simple, very complicated man, portrayed beautifully by Robert Duvall. The scene when Lenny Van Dohlen and his friends pull up to the gas station has all the trapping of a gang encounter. But no, these men are unbearably sweet and are great admirers of the Duvall character, a successful country musician who has fallen on hard times. The switch that Foote plays invites us deeply into his world of kindness and tender mercies.

2- For a comparison of the Branagh and Olivier versions of Henry V see this

3- I just don’t know what to make of Akira Kurosawa’s last few films. They are incredibly sentimental and not showing any of the majesty and genius we expect from most of his movies. Madadayo is his last film and it is a sort-of Japanese Goodbye Mr. Chips, with all the ominous sentimentality that would imply. I found it really hard to get through. It is based on the life of a educator and very popular Japanese author. Perhaps I would have been more involved if had been familiar with his work.

4- I had Fantastic Planet on my radar for decades. It was an interesting, loopy watch. For me, though, so much of science fiction is about surrendering yourself to a complicated, constructed world. Generally, I find that tiresome.

5- When considering a masterpiece of comedy like Trouble In Paradise, the cliché is “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” I am never satisfied with that. If ‘they’ made them like that once, why can’t ‘they’ make them again? Thinking about this after watching Trouble In Paradise again, it occurred to me that the culprit is the Production Code implemented by the studios as a pre-emptive strike to show that moviegoing public that Hollywood was not as depraved as right-wing groups were imputing. Before 1934, a sophisticated sex farce like Trouble In Paradise was made by American studios all the time. There was a great thriving of European artists. The puritanical Hays code shut that down for decades. When sex was finally allowed to be seen overtly in films again, it was in a prurient fashion in the 60s and 70s. The adult depictions of relations between men and women was now almost adolescent in its self-congratulatory ‘liberation’ of those decades. Sophistication was gone. More to come on this topic.

6- Z is a terrific political thriller that holds up beautiful after five decades. It is so refreshing to see an unapologetically left-wing film. And even though he was a disgusting Anti-Semite, the score by Mikis Theodorakis is a classic.

7- I thought I had seen The Dybbuk years ago, but nothing in it seemed familiar. I thought it was fascinating but I understand how it could be difficult for certain audiences in the way opera or Kabuki are. What we get to see is how the Yiddish theater of the time looked. Like opera and Kabuki, it is stylized and very little of it is naturalistic. There is a thought that it was influenced by German Expressionism, but I don’t see it. It is a creepy business and I am glad to have had the chance to see it again.

8- I was bowled over by Three Colors. I thought that it was time to go back and rewatch The Double Life Of Veronique. It was the first Kieślowski film I ever saw. At the time of first viewing, I was left baffled and cold. I am sorry to say that this time around I had the same feeling. Please tell me why you love this film. I am really interested. It looks stunning and Irene Jacob is glorious, just as she was in Red. But I just don’t know how to go about getting into this film. Help!

9- I was tremendously moved by Weekend by Andrew Haigh. I was glad too see his 45 Years. It has many of the attributes of the earlier film, especially its close examination of the relation between to people. In Weekend the couple meet during the film and face a very uncertain future by the end of said weekend. In 45 Years we spend time with a couple who have been together for, well, 45 years. They dialogue in both films is terse but laden with emotion. Two icons of 60s British cinema, Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling are brilliant.

Charlotte Rampling then and now


Once more unto the breach…Henry V vs Henry V

In preparation for teaching a class on Henry V, I rewatched both the 1944 version by Laurence Olivier and the 1989 by Kenneth Branagh. The forty-five years’ difference is evidenced not only in technology, but in approaches to filmmaking and Shakespeare.

The legend is that Winston Churchill approached Olivier to make the film to boost the sagging morale of the English people during the end of World War II. I have read this several times and believe it to be true but it still puzzles me. Filming a Shakespeare play for the general public seems suspect to me. Probably a more traditional historical drama like Fire Over England with Flora Robson doing it up as Queen Elizabeth I would have been a more effective choice.

Elizabeth I’s great speech at Tilbury (Flora Robson)

I doubt that any Shakespeare film would ever be a popular entertainment, the exception being Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The popularity of that film probably relied more on the gorgeousness of the young cast more than the gorgeousness of the iambic pentameter.

Olivia Hussey and Len Whiting

So what are the differences between the two versions of Henry V?

1- Approaches to acting:

In 1944 a typical audience member would only have experienced Shakespeare on the stage or on the radio. In both cases, the oratory is what was first and foremost. My friend Martin Seay said in reference to Hitchcock’s Rebecca that Joan Fontaine was a brilliant film actress in a film and Olivier was a brilliant stage actor in a film. What he meant was that film actors know how to scale back their acting for the camera. People who are mostly stage actors seem always to be declaiming, especially in early films. The two readings of St. Crispin Day speeches are vastly difference. Olivier declaims the speech in his beautifully modulated voice, even brings out the pentameter theatrically in words like ‘remembered’. And he rises in pitch until the climax of the speech. Branagh is more modulated. His volume throughout the speech varies. He seems to choke on “we few, we happy few” (as well he should). It doesn’t hurt that the climax of his speech is supported and perhaps overwhelmed by the beautiful anthem-like score of Patrick Doyle.

2- Approaches to the Text:

I always found Henry V an odd choice for Churchill to request. It deals with the Hundred Years War, a brutal conflict between England and France. When Churchill commissioned the film, France was England’s great ally and the Allied powers were engage in a bloody war to extricate them from Nazi rule. The parallel seems imply that the evil French of the Shakespeare play are a gloss for the Nazis of the film’s production time. It seems counter-intuitive to me. To see a better, clearer use of medieval European history as propaganda against Nazi Germany, see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The French court is turned into a bunch of clowns. The King is fearful and dithering. The Dauphin’s arrogance is stretched to the point of caricature. But the conundrum is that they are still the French and how are we supposed to hate them in the film when hundreds of the English army are dying for their freedom. Making them into cartoons to me is a failed solution.

Even though the play has the feeling of a historical pageant, there is lots of nuance in the portrayal of the King. The Olivier version jettisons Henry’s more objectionable qualities. Gone is the cat-and-mouse execution scene against the three traitors at Southampton. Gone is the speech before the walls of Harfleur where Henry vows to rape the city’s virgin and impale the city’s babies on pikes if the governors of the city do not surrender. In both cases, the horror of Henry’s anger is edited out and all that remain of lip-service to the notion of mercy to one’s enemy.

The much lauded recreation of a performance in the Globe in the beginning of the Olivier film is fascinating, but along with the historical accuracy of the performance, much of the opening is inexplicably turning into farce, especially in the scenes with the Archbishops of Ely and Canterbury. When a real comic character like Pistol arrives he pales in comparison to the Laurel and Hardy antics of the churchmen. That can’t have been Shakespeare’s intention.

3- Falstaff.

Even though Branagh’s version is more complete and more faithful to the text of the play he, like Olivier, can’t seem to resist inserting the Fat Knight in his film. Shakespeare’s scene recounting the death of Falstaff is moving and seems to put a full stop on the character. It almost seems as if Shakespeare is saying, “OK you want more Falstaff? This is all you are going to get because we have the battle of Agincourt to set up!” I bet the vast majority of the films viewers don’t realize that Falstaff never appears in Henry V. In both cases I think the lily is substantially gilded.

So, which is the better of the two films? It is not for me to say since they seem to be conceived as two very distinct things. Watch them both and let me know what you think.

It might be interesting to do a side by side comparison of both directors’ Hamlet films. Also, Olivier appeared in but did not direct a very early version of As You Like It. Branagh directed but did not appear in a 1990s version of the same play. That might be interesting to look into, as well

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Mummy (Karl Freund)
  2. From Hell (The Hughes Brothers)
  3. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey)
  4. Ma Vie en Rose (Alain Berliner)
  5. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)
  6. The Meliés Mystery (Eric Lange)
  7. I Will Buy You (Masaki Kobayashi)
  8. The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young)
  9. I Surrender Dear (Mack Sennett)
  10. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

1- I was very pleased with From Hell. Just a little gruesome, but it is about Jack The Ripper, so it could have been more gruesome than it was. What made it so good was incredible acting and a really interesting script. Of all the ‘solutions’ to the Ripper mystery, the one posed here seems very plausible, i.e., it has the least logic holes. The way Lucille Ball’s beauty seemed to clash with her comedic genius, at least at the beginning of her career, so too does the beauty of Johnny Depp seem to preclude the gallery of quirky characters that he always seems to play. He is sooooo good at this. His Scotland Yard forensic detective in this film might be his best role.

2- It wouldn’t be Hallowe’en without watching Carnival of Souls. I realizes that its pleasures are very personal for me, evoking pleasing nostalgia for mid-70s New York City Saturday night TV horror movies. It is more than that, though. Its spookiness is so odd-ball so as almost not to be spooky at all. It is more of a danse macabre, with all the eroticism that is associated with that. What is more inexplicably ominous than the Saltair pavilion that haunts our heroine’s nightmares and daymares?

3- Ma Vie en Rose confused me. It seemed to be telling you that this will be a feel-good story about a middle-class French family whose seven-year-old son has decided to be a girl. The cartoonish reaction of the BCBG neighbors was to be expected, but the cruelty of the poor kid’s mother came out of left field, was incredibly hurtful and then dropped by the end in a ‘everybody is happy now” ending. I guess this was one of the first modern films to deal explicitly with gender fluidity somewhat sympathetically, but since there was not really a template for that sort of theme, the film sort of has to find its own way in telling the story while making sure that everyone remains sympathetic. Doesn’t work. The kid is amazing though.

4- I always find anime tedious, but I was interested in Millennium Actress since it was purported to be a fictionalized story based on the life of Setsuko Hara, often referred to as the Garbo of Japanese film because she walked away from it all at the height of her success and disappeared from the public eye entirely. The animation is stunning, especially considering it was all handdrawn (I believe). But is that enough? For more about Setsuko Hara see this.

5- The Meliés Mystery is a interesting documentary telling the story of Georges Melies (today best known from the Scorcese films Hugo). The classic trope is to say that all film can either trace itself back to the realism of the Lumiere Brothers or the fantasy of Melies. This documentary taught me that in many ways Melies was responsible for both genres. The first part is biographical and ends with Melies destroying all of his films in despair because he had been forgotten by the new generation, and was regarded as passé. For years his work was believed lost. The second part is about his rehabilitation, starting with the the French government awarding him the Legion of Honor a few years before he died. It them moves on to tell about detective work that went into finding a majority of his films in archives and basements all around the world..

6- Masaki Kobayashi is a director whose entire catalogue I am trying to get to know. I was blown away by his big three (Kwaidan, Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion). It has been interesting seeing his lesser known work. I Will Buy You is a terrific nest-of-vipers story about the duplicitous world of high-stakes Japanese baseball scouts. The film that this most reminded me of was The Sweet Smell of Success, but perhaps this film is nastier. It was fun to see the usually sweet and adorable Keiji Sada playing a cutthroat scout.

7- Is there any more perverse film than The Housemaid? Yes, Salo is more explicit/pornographic and Caligula is simply depraved, but man oh man, The Housemaid is off the rails. On the Criterion Channel there is an informative interview with Bong Joon Ho, director of Parasite. He explains that for the current generation of Korean directors, The Housemaid was the start of it all. The combination of horror and biting social satire is all there. The film was so successful in what it set out to do, that the woman who plays the eponymous housemaid could not get work in another film because her portrayal so successfully repulsed the audiences of the time. It was her first and last role.

8- I Surrender Dear is a musical short starring Bing Crosby in a ridiculous story but featuring some swell songs, including one of my favorites, Out of Nowhere. But the whole think is beyond silly.

9- Weekend deserves its own post. Hopefully I will get to that soon

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
  2. The Wolf Man (George Wagner)
  3. The Invisible Man (James Whale)
  4. Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava)
  5. Creature From the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold)
  6. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo)
  7. The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise)
  8. Bedlam (Mark Robson)
  9. Horror Hotel (John Moxey)
  10. Zodiac (David Fincher)

Halloween is upon us and in my house that means an orgy of classic (and not-so-classic) horror film viewing. This year The Criterion Channel is featuring a slew of Universal Horror films from the 30s, 40s and 50s. I have been working my way through them, and supplementing my viewing with goodies from my own DVD collection. Forget what they say about Christmas. Halloween is ‘the most wonderful time of the year”.

Back in 2013 I wrote this, which might shed a little light on my classic horror film obsession.

1- The Universal horror films I watched ranged from the sublime (The Bride of Frankenstein) to the ridiculous (The Creature From The Black Lagoon). This time around I really came down on the side of the auteurists since I noticed that pedestrian creators create pedestrian creations, and artists with a clear vision and signature create works of art. The Wolf Man is just fine as your typical lycanthropic adventure. It is even fun when Maria Ouspenskaya shows up to intone her famous couplet:

       “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night

         may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and Autumn moon is bright.”

And on top of it, Bela Lugosi is her son!   But the film is a mess.  It takes place supposedly in England but hardly anyone has an English accent, especially Lon Chaney, Jr. who plays the lunkhead of a wolfman.

2- What a difference the two James Whale films I watched were. Along with the spookiness, Whale provides a very quirky sense of humor to The Invisible Man, especially as Claude Rains (in an unseen US film debut – he is invisible until the last moments) goes more and more bonkers.  I remember The Old Dark House being both spooky and quite funny.

3- I had never seen a giallo before, and Blood and Black Lace is enough for now.  I quite enjoyed especially the over-the-topness of the whole proceedings.  I could have done without the gruesome violence.  But the film is gorgeous (and lurid) to look at.

4- The Creature of the Black Lagoon was curated by Criterion in their Halloween Universal Horror film series.  The glory days of universal horror were long over by the time this turkey was filmed.  It looks like a cheap episode of Gilligan’s Island but without the Howells.

5- In the midst of all this horror, I re-watched The Rules of The Game.  It is still astounding every time.  This time around it made me think of in its sonic and visual density.  I need to go back and watch that again.

6- Japanese horror is both gruesome and gorgeously elegant. Kuroneko is a good example of what I mean.  A horrifying but tragic story that is absolutely stunning to look at.

7- Genre actors don’t get the love they deserve.  Who ever thinks of John Wayne as on of America’s greatest actors, but he is. Rewatching Bedlam and The Body Snatcher made me realize that Boris Karloff is an incredible actor.   Each villain is nuanced.  No one does ‘evil behind a smiling face’ better.

8- I was leery to watch Zodiac. I had heard how upsetting Se7en was, and was afraid I was in for more of the same.  There were some rough scenes – it is about a notorious serial killer after all!

But the script is so smart and so fascinating. And kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.  Can those boys act.

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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)


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!’


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.