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. Guilt Trip (Anne Fletcher)
  2. American Hustle (David O. Russell)
  3. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
  4. An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu)
  5. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
  6. Gate Of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
  7. The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa)
  8. Romance (Clarence Brown)
  9. The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman)
  10. She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman)

1- Sometimes I feel like a big-game hunter when it comes to watching movies. There are films that I track for years but never quite bag.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller was such a movie.  I had been trying to see it ever since I went nuts for Nashville when that masterpiece came out in the 70s.  I finally caught up with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and it made very little impression on me.  I wonder if my viewing of it suffered from the ‘checking it off a list’ mentality? Can one watch too many movies? Possibly.  The Burmese Harp was another title I had been tracking for a long time. I made more of a connection with it than with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and I don’t know why, since it is far from a great film and the consensus is that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a great film.  Perhaps the Altman style hadn’t crystallized yet? Perhaps watching a master hone his craft not as interesting as watching him at the top of his form. I would be interested in hearing pros and cons concerning McCabe & Mrs. Miller .

2- An artist who always seems to be on the top of his form is Yasujiro Ozu.  An Autumn Afternoon  is his final film and it is just beautiful.  It stayed with me for days.

3- The Virgin Spring holds up as well as I hoped it would. I hadn’t seen it in perhaps 20 years and since I have been playing around with a Bergman piece for this blog, I thought it would be good research. It is even more powerful and stunning than I remember.  I was struck by the similarity of this film to Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra, not because of plot or style, but in the brutal single-mindedness of the conception and execution of both works.

4- I wonder how such a stunningly bad movie like Romance could have been made. Greta Garbo was one of the hugest stars of the time, and she had just made a sensational transition from Silents to Talkies just recently with Anna Christie. This looks like it was slapped together from some creaky, mid-Victorian potboiler just to get Garbo in front of the cameras again quickly.  The melodrama is laughable and I am sure it was laughable in 1930.  I am all for melodrama (see my rhapsodies on Sirk) but this was excruciating to watch.  But try it, you might have fun!

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Scene Analysis: The Long Day Closes

So much of film criticism, especially film criticism on blogs, seems concerned with what the film is about rather than how it behaves as a film. Characters are discussed, plausibility of plot is analyzed, all the while treating the movie experience more like a book experience.  While story and plot are integral parts of most traditional movies (and even most non-traditional movies), the most satisfying discussions, for me at least, are discussions that lead to the reason why the particular film under discussion must be viewed as a film and not as a different art form.

This notion of ‘pure cinema’ exists, but the practice is scattered across more conventional films.  Hitchcock worked ‘pure cinema’ components into his movies so seamlessly that we take them for granted.  The attacks in The Birds or the shower scene in Psycho are the most famous examples of works of are that are intrinsically and only cinematic.

This is not to imply that ‘impure cinema’, if there could be such a term, is a lesser art form.  It is just a different art form. A movie adaptation of a book is a perfectly legitimate evening’s entertainment, as are dopey comedies. It is just that these kinds of movies don’t reach the emotional immediacy that ‘pure cinema’ does.  Story often can be an alienating factor, coming between the audience and what the filmmaker has in his or her heart.

A beautiful example of a ‘pure cinema’ moment comes at the climax of Terence Davies’ 1992 The Long Day Closes. The film is an impressionistic portrait of the life of a lonely but much loved young boy in early 1950s Liverpool.  The Beatles haven’t come on the scene yet. Popular culture is not yet Rock and Roll culture. In this magnificent montage, Bud, the protagonist, is once more alone, and he starts to swing on a metal pole that crosses the stairs down to the coal cellar. As he swings higher and higher, the camera tracks to the left and the stairs magically dissolve to a thrilling overhead view of an audience in a local cinema.  The panning continues and the cinema dissolves into an overhead shot of Mass being celebrated.  This gives way to an overhead shot of a boys’ classroom, which brings us back to the stairs down to the coal cellar.

Much has been made of how these three images sum up the life of this lower-class Catholic community: movies, church and school fill the days of these Liverpudlians. What I want to draw your attention to is that it is done without dialogue or narrative.  The only words we hear are snatches of dialogue from Kind Hearts and Coronets, a popular Ealing comedy of the day. This excerpt of dialogue is more  a seasoning than an integral part of the logic of the scene. What is integral is the song that laces the disparate parts of the scene together. The song is Tammy sung by Debbie Reynolds.  Terence Davies, the director, is on record as detesting the Beatles. It seems that to him they mark the break between the popular culture of the 1950s and what came after. This earlier culture seems to be of higher rank to Davies and his choice of this particular song, which is drenched in nostalgia for those of us of a certain age, works beautifully in tying together the visual elements of the scene.

So here we have a magical moment of ‘pure cinema’. We are forever in debt to Criterion for making this and other gems available. Please patronize them.

Enjoy the climactic scene of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes