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. Another Part Of The Forest (Michael Gordon)
  2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (John Ford)
  3. Angst Essen Seele Aus (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  4. Night Nurse (William Wellman)
  5. Love is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  6. Fort Apache (John Ford)
  7. Conflagration (Enjo) (Kon Ichikawa)
  8. The Prowler (Joseph Losey)
  9. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
  10. Stormy Weather (Andrew L. Stone)

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1) Another Part Of The Forest was a prequel that Lillian Hellman wrote to her more famous and much, much better play The Little Foxes. The play tries to be ‘How the Hubbards got that way’, but after a while you feel that Hellman is revisiting these characters with no real intent.  The film version is minor indeed compared to the towering Bette Davis film version of The Little Foxes.

Question: The title seems to come from stage directions in either A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It.  Beats me why. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

2) What fun to see Stormy Weather.  It’s not much more an excuse to showcase a ton of great black musical performers. The numbers are strung together with the flimsiest of plots, but you get to see Fats Waller doing his stride-piano thing, you get to see a mind-blowing routine by the Nicholas Brothers, you get to see the gorgeous Lena Horne sing the title song, among other treasures.  You get to see the star, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, without Shirley Temple.  There is a very curious vaudeville comedy routine where Robinson and his costar put on blackface.  Black artists in blackface flips the whole controversy of the performing style on its head.  Or does it?

3) It is very illuminating to watch a first work by a great director, and then a later work from the period where that artist hits his stride.  Love Is Colder Than Death is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature and for me it was longer than death.  It seemed completely derivative of the worst posturing of the French New Wave with its disaffected heros and treacherous amoral heroines. However, Angst Essen Seele Aus is a masterpiece.  Derivative also from the works of Douglas Sirk, the film uses its sources merely as a starting point.  It is beautifully moving and very much a Fassbinder film. I give the title in German since it is hard to give an accurate rendition in English. It conveys the broken German of the hero in his most poignant moment of the film: he tells his love how fear is consuming his soul.  It is a heartbreaking scene and transcendent in the way the best of Sirk is.

4) Will you just watch Night Nurse already?!? It is the best example I know of the loose moral universe that Pre-Code Hollywood showed so well. It is scary and funny and sexy.  Clark Gable (without the moustache) is truly a monster.  Barbara Stanwyck is glorious as always.  Joan Blondell is on hand to provide the olive in this perfect gin-heavy martini.

5) Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I cogitate over the conflicting world views of the Western (including Fort ApacheThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Naked Spur) and Film Noir.

 

 

 


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The King of the Monsters

 

I never really got the idea of ‘camp’.  Watching something that you know is ‘bad’ in order to get pleasure out of reveling in its badness seems smug to me. The classic Japanese monster movies (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, etc.), were obviously low-quality. Surely no one was watching them for any other reason than the camp pleasure. The special effects looked cheap, even by the standards of 1950s sci-fi.  But when I was younger I loved watching these movies even though I thought I knew how bad they were supposed to be.  But my nascent camp posture was always circumvented by pure enjoyment.  So, when TCM  showed Godzilla (Gojira or ゴジラ in the original Japanese) I thought I would give it fifteen minutes of my time to see if I could relive some of that pleasure I once got.  I was surprised at what I found.

Knowing more about history now than I did then, the whole thing seemed like a complicated riff on WWII, the Bomb and both Japan’s and America’s roles in the conflict.

And this is not a stretch to make this thesis fit the film.  When you see Godzilla trampling through Tokyo, it is impossible not to imagine the Allied destruction of the city. The black and white photography of destruction and chaos look like WWII newsreels.

Remember, this film came out less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war in the Pacific. The traumas of that time were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of the Japanese.  The economic rebound was still not in full swing. Many parts of the country were still devastated. The emotional impact of these scenes must have been profound.

 

Along with his expert trampling, Godzilla also destroys the city with his breath of fire. No doubt this was a traumatic memory for the original audience, most of whom had seen the city completely destroyed by fire bombing.

The attempts of the Japanese military to destroy the monster have clear echoes of the Kamikaze pilots.

The ‘oxygen destroy’ that is used to end the monster’s terrifying rampage sounds very much like splitting the atom, that the process sounds like the Hail Mary pass that the Atom Bombs were to bring the war to an end.

The argument for ‘oxygen destroyer’ similar to is very similar to the rational for the Manhattan Project : pure science drives the research for and creation of the bomb, even though all the scientists must have been aware of its destructive potential. Serizawa is ultimately more noble than the Americans since he realizes that it must be used, but he destroys all the plans and himself to ensure that it will never be used again.  Is this a casual (or not so casual) indictment of the U.S’s continued advancement of nuclear arms?

There are other more thoughtful Japanese films centered on the dropping of the Bombs and its aftermath.  Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear from 1955 depicts a businessman who slowly drives himself insane with his obsession of protecting his family from what he believes is an inevitable second nuclear attack.  Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) is a harrowing depiction of the delayed effects of the bombs.  Both of these films are richer and more nuanced than Gojira, but for pure visceral trauma, The King of the Monsters still has it, tacky rubber suit or no tacky rubber suit.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari (Robert Wiene)
  2. Nashville (Robert Altman)
  3. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
  4. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  5. The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened (Lonny Price)
  6. Mifune: The Last Samurai (Steven Okazaki)
  7. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
  8. La Regle du Jeu (Jean Renoir)
  9. Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
  10. Gojira (Godzilla) (Ishiro Honda)

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1- Director Amy Heckerling was the Guest Programmer on TCM this month, and one of her picks was The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari. While introducing it, she said one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time: ‘It seems there was a shortage of right angles in Germany after World War I.’  I now officially love this woman.

2- It is interesting to have seen Nashville and La La Land so close together.  Nashville is certainly not a musical in the general sense, but it is emblematic of how songs arise in movies since the end of the great era of musicals (roughly 1932 through 1965).  These songs are performances of the characters.  Some are deliciously terrible and some are very moving.  But in no case, does a character break into song in a dramatic situation, with a song which highlights his or her emotion.  That was the trope of the classic age of musicals.  The plot would hit a dramatic point (or a comic point) and suddenly the character or characters would be singing, as if the music could elevate the dialogue to a level that mere speaking couldn’t.   La La Land is a throwback to this style of song.  Much has been said about how the success of this film will usher in a flood of such musicals. I am dubious.  It has been too long since this sort of musical was common fare.  Audiences are too used to either the way Nashville introduces songs or they are used to the Cabaret style where the songs are isolated moments which are outside of the narrative reality of the film – often the depiction of a performance.  I hope that someone talented enough to be able to convince modern audiences that burst-into-song musicals are not ridiculous, but we’ll see……

3- The more I see of the French New Wave, the more I love Ingmar Bergman.  I don’t have much use for this exuberant, youth-oriented genre.  I find it very sloppy and tiresome.  It does not age well. I always had it in my mind that The 400 Blows was an exception.  I just found it tedious to get through, although Antoine Doinel is fun to spend time with.

4- Crimson Peak is a terrible movie that, as you are watching it, you think is a great movie. It has fantastic production values, super actors and a somewhat intriguing script….at least in the beginning. It soon peters out.  I felt the same way about Pan’s Labyrinth.  Heresy, I know

5- Look for a post about Gojira shortly

6- I guess it is still problematic to revere a pantheon of great films, but it is my experience that there are films that on repeated viewing become even more dazzling.  Surely this is a mark of greatness.   La Regle du Jeu and The Magnificent Ambersons are so stuffed with genius that I watch them drop-jawed


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. All This and Heaven, Too (Anton Litvak)
  2. Joy (David O. Russell)
  3. The Wedding March (Erich Von Stroheim)
  4. Manhatta (Charles Sheeler/Paul Strand)
  5. Grass (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  6. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
  7. Chang (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  8. 3:10 To Yuma (Delmer Daves)
  9. The Golem (Carl Boese/Paul Wegener)
  10. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)

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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.

sam-neill

 


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My Shot

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.