The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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Sleepy Hollow – a neglected masterpiece

I love the films of Tim Burton. He is enough of an auteur to warm the heart of the least caheriste among us.  If those mid-century film-critics, many of whom went on to be directors in their own right, revered films by directors whose personal style was immediately evident, they would have to look no further than Burton. There is no mistaking whose vision is behind masterpieces like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride and such noble failures as Alice In Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows. I haven’t seen his Batman films nor his Planet of the Apes, so I can’t categorize them, but I will be happy to watch them someday.

Sleepy Hollow is one of his best and most typically Burtonesque.  I fear it is somewhat forgotten now, so this post is sleeve-tug to remind you about it.

Earlier in the year, I made a mental note to revisit Sleepy Hollow as part of my personal Hallowe’en horrorfest. I had seen it when it came out. I remembered really liking it, but didn’t remember much about it outside of the fantastic Burton atmospherics.  When I mentioned to a few people that I was going to rewatch this, the reaction was always the same: “Oh (pregnant, thoughtful pause) that was really good.”

And it was.

Like many Burton adaptations, the plot of the film has next to nothing to do with the original Washington Irving story. Character names and location are about all that survive.   What does survive is the gothic creepiness.

The atmosphere of 17th Century Dutch upstate New York is gorgeous.  The settings and costumes in this film are more subdued than in other Burton features, where they tend to be more Rococo.

The quirkiest element of the film is figure of Ichabod Crane, played by Burton stalwart, Johnny Depp.  Crane is no longer the awkward gangly schoolteacher of the Washington Irving story.  Here he is an expert detective coming to the town of Sleepy Hollow from New York City, determined to prove that his new ‘scientific’ methods will be able to solve a series of ghastly murders (read: beheadings) that have plagued the town.  His superiors in New York are only to happy to get this pest off their hands and to send him to the Boondocks, which he is equally unwanted.

Gradually, his quirkiness and unorthodox methods yield results.

Adding to the atmospherics and ghastly fun is (who else?) Christopher Walken as the murderous Headless Horseman.

But wait!  There’s more!   The great Miranda Richardson is on hand as the embodiment of (*spoiler alert*) cold-blooded revenge.

 

Please watch this if you haven’t seen it, or if you haven’t seen it in a while.  It is so satisfying and Johnny Depp is so quirky and so pretty and a damn fine actor.

While you are it, have a look at a completely different Tim Burton masterpiece, Big Eyes.  

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Host (Bong Joon Ho)
  2. Nosferatu (Werner Herzog)
  3. La Promesse (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  4. The Mirror (Jafar Panahi)
  5. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
  6. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)
  7. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  8. Foreign Letters (Ela Thier)
  9. Un Carnet du Bal (Julien Duvivier)
  10. Hotel du Nord (Marcel Carné)

1- Ever since I saw Parasite, I have been thinking about going back to rewatch the only other film of his I had seen, The Host.  I wondered if the naming of the later film was a sly reference to his other huge international hit.  Not sure.  I must say that The Host was as good as I remembered it. It isn’t as rich as Parasite.  There is the same raucous action, but the political edge is not as keen. I think that Parasite was conceived more politically than The Host. The only discernible political thread in the latter is the not-so-subtle suggestion of how America is destroying Korean culture and environment.  I guess that is pretty political after all!

2- I loved the films of Werner Herzog and saw them all when they premiered in the US.  I remember particularly loving Nosferatu. It really holds up well.  It is a very respectful and knowledgeable remake of the famous Murnau silent from the 20s.  Everything works in this updating.  The tone of silent films, from the mise-en-scene to the acting is a beautiful homage to the earlier style.  I had feared that I would now find Klaus Kinski’s acting of the title role too over-the-top.  It isn’t. It is just gorgeous.  Kudos to Isabelle Adjani at the beginning of her film career for channeling every heroine of every Expressionist horror film. 

3- La Promesse  is my third film by the Dardenne brothers.  Another stunning experience.  Much is made of Bresson’s moral constructs in his films.  They are also wonderful but the morality of these Dardenne films is at a much more visceral level.  I found La Promesse  powerful in the way that it makes the viewer complicit in the ethical dilemma, a teenage boy who is helping his unscrupulous father in his shady operation to exploit illegal immigrants in their Belgian town.  Just like the end of Young Ahmed, the resolution of La Promesse comes out of nowhere, but is inevitable and powerful.

4- My excitement of discovering Iranian films is comparable to the excitement I felt when I first discovered the range and depth of Japanese film. So far I have only watched films by Kiarostami and Panahi. I am sure other wonders await me.  The Mirror is another tour-de-force of meta-cinema. I will not divulge the plot nor the meta-ness of the film.  Suffice it to say that I watched the entire movie shaking my head saying to myself ‘It can’t be this brilliant”. I was wrong. It was that brilliant. 

5- The Criterion Channel curates films by theme and one of the themes this month was Women Directors. They suggested many films that I had never heard of. One of them was Bluebeard by Catherine Breillat. I suppose you could label it as a feminist retelling of the Perrault fairy tale, but I would hope that Breillat wouldn’t want her work pigeon-holed like that. It is a very odd film and the fairy-taleness of it is also quite odd and upsetting. I must say I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I am up for her version of Sleeping Beauty just yet.

6- Coincidentally, that other source of my cinema addiction, Turner Classic Movies, is showing a series called Women Make Film, shown in conjunction with Mark Cousin’s 14-part documentary of the same name. The documentary borders on annoying but TCM they are showing many of the films that are discussed in the documentary, and that is where the gold is. The films are from all over the world and from all eras. Some are great. Then there is Foreign Letters. Yes, it was made by a woman, an Israeli émigré to the US. The problem with it is that is seems like a student project and is not very interesting. It is very YA and I never liked YA stuff, even when I was YA. Who knows? It might be great. Just not my cup of falafel.

7- I had always thought of Julien Duvivier as typical of the classic French directors that the Cahier du Cinema brats were rebelling against. Well, of course we can have both the French New Wave and what came before it. We realize that now (at least I realize that now). But, I can honestly say that Un Carnet du Bal ages better than just about any of the nouvelle vague creations I can think of. But why choose? Un Carnet du Bal is the French equivalent of an MGM ‘tradition of quality’ production. A sprawling story, beautifully appointed and featuring many of the great French stars of the day. Think a Gallic Grand Hotel. Not only do you have the legendary Harry Baur, but you get Fernandel as well as my holy Raimu.

8- How fortuitous to watch Hotel du Nord right after seeing Un Carnet Du Bal. Both date from about the same time, and both feature the same richness of plot and character. Hotel du Nord is by Marcel Carné, famous for the epic Children of Paradise. This film is on a smaller scale, but is as lush with a wide variety of characters and subplots. It is linked to Un Carnet Du Bal by the presence of the the enigmatic Louis Jouvet. Carné’s style is often called ‘poetic realism’. I am not sure what that means, but there is a combination of the gritty quotidian daytime world and the dreamlike night world. Arletty is on hand to lend the proceedings earthy humor a few years before her legendary appearance as Garance in Children of Paradise

8- How fortuitous to watch Hotel du Nord right after seeing Un Carnet Du Bal. Both date from about the same time, and both feature the same richness of plot and character. Hotel du Nord is by Marcel Carné, famous for the epic Children of Paradise. This film is on a smaller scale, but is lush with a wide variety of characters and subplots. It is linked to Un Carnet Du Bal by the presence of the the enigmatic Louis Jouvet. Carné’s style is often called ‘poetic realism’. I am not sure what that means, but there is a combination of the gritty quotidian daytime world and the dreamlike night world. Arletty is on hand to lend the proceedings earthy humor a few years before her legendary appearance as Garance in Children of Paradise. Her pronouncing the word ‘Atmosphere’ in her rebuke of Louis Jouvet is worth the price of admission.

On a personal note, when I was in Paris in 2018, my dear friend Lil took me to the Canal St. Martin and sure enough, the Hotel du Nord is there on the banks of this impressive canal!

 


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I Love Musicals But I Hate Musicals

In the wonderful meta-musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a man simply called ‘Man In Chair’ is playing one of his favorite LPs for the audience, the original cast album of the (fictitious) 1927 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. As he narrates the action, the musical comes to life in his dreary New York apartment with characters making all kinds of surprising entrances, like from his refrigerator or up through the floor.

After the intermission, he informs us that he has to go to the bathroom. He puts on the second side of the LP, which begins with the entr’acte,  and leaves. The stage fills with characters that look like a nutty cross between The King and I and the opera Turandot. While the audience is trying to figure out just what is going on, the Man in Chair rushes back onstage in a panic.  Apparently his cleaning lady mixed up his LPs and instead of the second act of The Drowsy Chaperone, we are hearing/watching a number from a musical of the same era called A Message from a Nightingale.  Man in Chair gives us a mocking precis of its plot which hits every White Man’s Burden cliché, with an American Lady coming to China to civilize the emperor and eventually help him build The Great Wall.  Man in Chair groans and rolls his eyes.  But then, he flips over the LP, scans the song list and then says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”

This perfectly encapsulates my feeling about most musicals.  When I was a kid, I listened incessantly to Original Cast Albums of classics like Oklahoma and Carousel, as well contemporary (at the time) shows like Pippin and Company.  I loved musicals, even though I had seen very few live.  I had seen a lot of movie musicals, but they were on TV, riddled with commercials and I was just waiting for the next song.  But I loved those LPs.

As I got older and saw many musicals live, I got the sinking feeling that there was something wrong.  The experience in the theater was never as great as listening to the LP at home. I blamed myself for not concentrating enough on the show while in the theater.  When I would go home and listen the albums again, I was back in heaven.

This was especially true of the Sondheim musicals.

What was the problem? It was not that people suddenly burst into song.  I liked the artificiality of that, and it is part of the deal.

It came down to one thing: the book.

Most of the time the book weighed down what was so transcendent in the score.  This was particularly true of the ‘serious’ musicals, like West Side StorySouth Pacific and the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.

What did seem to work were the ‘musical comedies’, the shows with the farcical plots.  Guys and Dolls is perfection, and you can tell it is because you love the linking dialogue as much as when the numbers are performed.  Other examples of this are She Loves Me, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady (mostly thanks to GBS), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Bye Bye Birdie.

I think any of these shows would work pretty well if they were just mounted with the dialogue and none of the music.  It is because the books are light and fast-moving, and most importantly, they don’t take themselves so seriously.

But imagine having to sit through South Pacific without “Some Enchanted Evening”.  Yikes.

Since the majority of musical lovers only know the objects of their love through Original Cast Albums, they have a skewed view of the enterprise in question.

I worship the scores of Stephen Sondheim.  I play them all the time. But sitting through them in the theater is often a nihilistic experience.  There is so much bile being spilled, even in the comedies, that the songs become earthbound.

Unfortunately, movie musicals highlight this problem.  The ones made by MGM in the 1950s that everyone lauds are so elephantine that every element of joy is crushed.  Compare the ghastly On The Town film to the OCR. Show Boat is so overinflated that it sinks.

Just as on stage, the musical comedies are what seem to fare best on the screen. Kiss Me Kate is mostly a joy (thank you Ann Miller). Also, it seems that musicals created for the screen work much better than those lugubrious adaptations of original stage hits.  Singin’ in the Rain is always a pleasure.  Meet Me In St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, the Astaire/Rodgers musicals are all original and all delightful.

So, you’re off the hook next time a friend asks if you want to go to see A Little Night Music, but you must listen to the cast recording as much as you can. As the man says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”