The Discreet Bourgeois

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


1 Comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Advertisements


4 Comments

You Can’t Escape Me

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Well, yes and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 


1 Comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


9 Comments

Opacity: Virtue or Failing?

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

Nor did Stanley Kubrick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 


1 Comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5 Comments

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

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

.

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

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

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

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


4 Comments

Farewell Machiko-san and Bibi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sayonara, Machiko-san. Farväl, Bibi