The Discreet Bourgeois

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


1 Comment

Wonderful insight into “It’s a Wonderful Life “

When I first started this blog I hoped that it would give rise to interesting discussion. For the most part, though, it’s just been me yapping. That is why I’m so happy to post the following response to my post on It’s a Wonderful Life, from my good friend DeDe… reprinted with her permission:

I’d like to put in a defense of the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I’d argue that it is a happy ending, but it’s not a fairy-tale ending. George has had to learn to put away childish things.   
George has been haunted his entire life by his failure to achieve his “dreams.”  But who’s to say that his dreams, actualized, would have satisfied him?  It’s easier for George to live in his head than to live in the real world.  
In fact, while fixating on his dreams, George sees everything in his life—the family business, his marriage, his children, the town—as an albatross around his neck.  In a way, he’s a loner who wants nothing of attachments—so much so that he failed to appreciate what he actually had:  an adoring wife, a beautiful family, good friends, and a life well lived.  
So does the film advocate subordinating the needs of the individual to those of the community?  I suppose an argument can be made for that. But I think that the film argues that there is no such opposition:  the individual supports the community, and the community supports the individual. In the words of the recently promoted Clarence:  “No man is a failure who has friends.”
And for what it’s worth, I do see George traveling the world eventually—perhaps with the entire family in tow, perhaps with Mary only, post-retirement.  But he will be happy. 


Leave a comment

Gods & Goddesses of the Criterion Universe – Part Two

1- Raimu (born Jules Auguste Muraire 1883-1946)

No less a person than Orson Welles called him ‘The greatest actor who ever lived.” Best known for the films of his fellow genius of the Midi, Marcel Pagnol, Raimu created some of the most unforgettable comic and touching characters in all of film history. His Cesar in the Marseille Trilogy is a titanically hilarious, life-affirming creation. Just watch any of the wonderful card game scenes and you will understand what I mean. Other brilliant performances include The Baker’s Wife and Angele, both by Pagnol, as well as Un Carnet de Bal by Julien Duvier.

2- Takashi Shimura (1905 – 1982)

While Toshiro Mifune is the most recognized of actor in the films of Akira Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura has appeared in every major Kurosawa film from 1944 until his death. And what a range of characters he plays! The old man who has received a fatal diagnosis and tries to find one thing to make his life worth remembering in Ikiru. The Woodcutter, the most reliable eyewitness (?), in Rashomon. Perhaps most famously he played the leader of the Seven Samurai. Watch any Kurosawa film, and you will find him as the center of gravity. He also does a memorable turn in Kobayashi’s wonderful collection of ghost stories Kwaidan, in which he plays the head priest of the temple where Hoichi the Earless has his strange encounter with ghosts of the past.

3- Bibi Andersson (1935 – 2019)

One of the incredible performers in Ingmar Bergman’s close-knit troupe of actors, Bibi Andersson radiates a clean-scrubbed innocence but also a powerful sexuality in the characters she played. Perhaps her best work is her tour-de-force performance in Wild Strawberries as Sara the protagonist’s lost love from his turn-of-century youth as well as Sara the hip teenager of ‘today’ hitchhiking with two boys to Italy to whom the now-aged protagonist and his daughter-in-law give a lift during their eventful trip from Uppsala to Lund. Memorable also in Persona and The Seven Seal, she also made a late-career appearance in Babette’s Feast.

4- Nikolai Cherkasov (1903 – 1966)

The star of Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic sound films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan The Terrible. Wikipedia tells us that he was Stalin’s favorite actor. Not hard to believe when as Alexander Nevsky he plays a medieval Cincinnatus-like prince summoned to save Russia from the incursion of the Teutonic knights (read: Nazis). This is a heroic larger-than-life performance. Cherkasov gets a greater chance to show his acting chops in Ivan The Terrible, in which he goes from the handsome, virile first Tsar of Russian in the first part, to the paranoid, decrepit shell of that Tsar in the second. See the range in the two pictures above.


4 Comments

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Three Colors : Blue (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  2. Three Colors : White (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  3. Three Colors : Red (Krysztof Kieślowski)
  4. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock)
  5. La Haine (Mathieu Kassowitz)
  6. 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
  7. Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
  8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe)
  9. King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh)
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)

.
1- What a joy to watch the entire Three Colors trilogy again! I even revised my original assessment to be even more enthusiastic, especially about White. See my original review with additional comments here.

2- Marnie. Yikes. See my thoughts here.

3- La Haine had been on my radar for a while. 25 years to be precise. I finally caught up with it, and I wonder if time hasn’t dealt unkindly with it. It has a very restless 90s camera style that indicates grittiness but now looks a bit dated.  The story is quite aimless, but I am sure that was intentional to underline the aimlessness of these unemployed young men living in a banlieue just outside of Paris. The choice of having a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian as the friends/protagonists seems very 2020, but must have been unusual in 1995.  The gang members are as intimidating as The Sharks and The Jets. Who would have thought that the cutie-pie who starred in Amelie would have turned out such a gritty film for his directorial debut?

4- One of the joys of the Criterion Channel is that I have been able to get to know the works of the great Iranian directors Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. For someone like me who loves to analyze structure and who appreciates a good metafictional turn, these films have been fantastic. 3 Faces is one of the many films Panahi has made since he was officially silenced by the Iranian government and given a ban of 20 years before he could start filming again.  Not sure how he does it, but this ‘illegal’ film was shown at Cannes.  Maybe it is just a feint on the part of the Iranian government, or maybe Panahi has just too great a stature on the international film circuit, that it would be counterproductive for the government to do anything more to enforce the ban. Thank god they don’t because this film as well as This Is Not A Filmboth made under the ban, are two of the most satisfying films I have seen all year.

5- Beau Travail. Well, it is a riff on Billy Budd with the homoerotic element brought to the fore, or maybe not.  I had seen it when it came out and didn’t care for it very much, despite the male pulchritude on display.  It is more of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad in the desert than anything else.   It seems to be brave about the male on male gaze, but to what point? I don’t know.  I found it hard to sit through a second time.

6- I saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  when it premiered on Broadway in the 80s and it had no effect on me.  Since then, August Wilson has become a sacred cow, so I need to tread carefully when I say that I think that the play is pretty poorly constructed.  The linking, random, jokey conversations that the musicians have to pass the time are really enjoyable but when the big arias about “RACE” come up, they jarringly intrude on the proceedings. Everyone is saying that this film version is just a filmed play to which I say a) “It isn’t and b) “Why is that a negative?”  This is Chadwick Boseman’s last performance and I found it over the top. I fear that he will be lionized the way James Dean was lionized, both dying beautiful and young.

7- Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who I feel is making movies just for me. They hit me exactly in the right way.  I ‘get’ them perfectly.  I loved Contagion and Side Effects and I really loved King of the Hill.   I had seen it when it came out and loved it.  It holds up beautifully.  Jesse Bradford gives one of the best child actor performances I know of.  The period evocation is wonderful. It feels as if you have a window into that time and not that you are watching a studio reconstruction of 1933 St. Louis.  Please watch this. It is a beautiful, beautiful movie.  The closest thing I can compare it to is To Kill A Mockingbird, although King of the Hill is less epic.

8- In deference to the great Fern, I voluntarily watched It’s A Wonderful Life again this Christmas Eve. It was on network TV complete with a million commercial interruptions.  This was the way I first saw it in 1979 and the only alternative was to watch it on Amazon Prime in a colorized version. Anathema.

When I first saw this movie it was before it was elevated to its current unshakeable status as ‘The Greatest Christmas Movie of All Times.”  It was just another movie from the 40s and I was enchanted by it.  On second and third viewing I became aware that the film profoundly depressed me.  There is a weird dichotomy at the end of the movie.  In a rush of overwhelming love and friendship, the good citizens of Bedford Falls perform a Christmas miracle of sorts and collect the $8,000 dollars which will prevent our hero from going bust and to jail, and worse, being in thrall to the ludicrously evil Mr. Potter.

I know that this is supposed to be the quintessential ‘happy end’ but at that point in the movie, I still have an awful taste in my mouth from the fantasy scene that preceded it. In essence, the town of Bedford Falls would have become a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah if George Bailey had never lived.  And yet…. and yet… when he lives it only is saved from that fate by having every single one of George’s dreams crushed and everyone else he knows, go on to wonderful things.

I think that people love it because of what they think it is saying, but if you actually look at what it says, YIKES.

 


1 Comment

Marnie….Oy vey iz mir

!!! WARNING: ATYPICAL INVECTIVE TO FOLLOW !!!

I have always felt that The Birds was the last masterpiece of Alfred Hitchcock. From that point on, the quality of his work decreased and the tedium increased. However, I was discussing Marnie recently and the conversation made me think that I was too harsh in my assessment, even though I had seen it several times and never came away amazed by anything in it.

I had the opportunity to watch it again and now I can say with perfect confidence that it is a bad, bad film.  Perhaps future viewings will change my mind, but I doubt it.  In fact, I doubt there will be future viewings.

What is wrong with it?

Where do I start?

1- Technical Problems:

a- The set gimmicks of Hitchcock always stand out as poorly executed and distracting from the rest of the movie.  I am thinking of the ‘vertiginous’ zoom in/out of the stair case in Vertigo, for example.  In Marnie, the red filter that tells us that Marnie is having one of her sexual hysteria panic attacks triggered by that color are laughable and laid on with a sledgehammer.  I know that Hitchcock is lauded, and rightly so, for his use of ‘pure cinema’, i.e., emotion and information transmitted by purely visual means, but this is so clumsy. And I don’t think it is just a matter of less sophisticated special effects in 1964.

b- The process shots are extremely hokey.  Is this be because they don’t work as well in color as in black & white?  Maybe. The process shots of the riders during the hunt are phony looking and I do not think it is because we are now used to CGI ‘realism’ in special effects.  It is hard to imagine why a perfectionist like Hitchcock okayed them. ‘Tippi’ Hedren looks like she is on a carousel and not on a fox hunt. The action is out of sync with the process shot background and ruins the illusion of horseback riding rather than creating it.  This b&w shot looks somewhat better than the color image in the film, but you can see what I mean.


c- So many scenes end awkwardly.  Often a character finishes speaking, but instead of a fade out, the camera just hangs on the character, and you think, “Nu? Is there more to this scene?”, and then the fade comes and the next scene begins.  I don’t get it.  What was the editor thinking? What is supposed to be the effect? Or is it, as I fear, more sloppiness and proof positive that Hitchcock lost interest in the project midway through and was not concerned any longer with turning out a typically perfect product?

 

2- Acting

a- Perhaps the greatest liability in the film is ‘Tippi’ Hedren.  She already seemed out of her league in The Birds. I am sure we could think of any number of actresses of the time who would have been a better Melanie Daniels, especially when she is in confrontation with the juggernaut of Jessica Tandy as Mitch Brenner’s needy mom. But somehow, in The Birds her weaknesses are not detrimental to the whole enterprise.  Her iciness and model-like behavior seems in keeping with a the portrayal of a troubled rich girl.

In Marnieher inexperience sinks the whole enterprise.  An actor’s greatest asset, even more than his or her physical presence,  is a powerful and communicative voice. This is what can rivet an audience and what can direct them to feel the way he or she feels.
Hedren just does not have that voice.  Hers is highly pitched and when she forces it into dramatic expression, it sounds like Minnie Mouse.  I blame Hitchcock. She should never have been cast in a role that needs so much dramatic nuance. Diane Baker, who plays the devious Lil in the film, would have been so much more effective in the role. It is like watching Guys and Dolls listening to Brando sing Luck be a Lady, knowing all too well that Sinatra is on the set NOT singing Luck be a Lady.

Sean Connery also brings his share of problems to the film.  Yes, he is gorgeous.  I heard that Hedren complained to Hitchcock that it would be hard to play frigid opposite such a hunk.   But for all that, there is very little chemistry between them.  This time around I was really distracted by Connery’s Scottish accent.  The way he goes in and out of the accent is another indication of lack of supervision at the top.

 

3- Psychology

At the end of Psychothe psychologist, played by Simon Oakland, gives a tidy explanation of what happened in poor, murderous Norman Bates’ mind to give rise to so many horrors.  While the explanation is plausible, I always felt that it was filmed and played with a laugh up its sleeve.  I can’t put my finger on it, but I always find the end of Psycho kind of humorous.  The comic relief, icky though it is, that we needed after such unrelieved tension.

The amateur analyzing of Marnie by Sean Connery’s character is even ickier.  He claims to have had an interest in zoology and the way he traps and experiments on Marnie seem very zoological and not very medicinal. It certainly goes way beyond the medical dictum of ‘Do No Harm’.

Much psychologizing in films of the 60s and earlier seem to imply that if we could just find the one thing that made this character go nuts, we could cure him or her.  Once the memory of having to kiss her dead grandmother at the wake in The Three Faces of Eve is recovered, all the multiple personalities magically disappear. When Gregory Peck in Spellbound finally recalls how he accidentally caused his little brother’s death, he is cured.

And so in Marnie, a visit to her awful mom’s dockside house revives once and for all a nightmarish memory that turned the young Marnie into a frigid, thieving, duplicitous woman, we assume that she is cured.  It’s just too neat.

The bottom line here is  that if you think you would like to watch Marniedo yourself a favor and watch The Birds again.

 

 


Leave a comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
  2. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
  3. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. Lenny (Bob Fosse)
  5. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
  6. The Traveler (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. The Coward (Satyajit Ray)
  8. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
  9. Dos Monjes (Juan Bustillo Oro)
  10. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)

1- If there is such a thing as a Thanksgiving movie, Broadway Danny Rose is it.  I think it might be Woody Allen’s most successful comedy, and that is because it is mostly kind.  Danny Rose is almost a holy fool. His goodness radiates out, and even though he is mistreated worst by those who owe him the most, eventually his kindness makes a difference in the world. There is none of the smarminess that we find in later Allen films, although the scene where he and Mia Farrow are tied up together seems pretty icky.   There are still the Italian caricatures that he is so fond of, but in all fairness he has a lot of Jewish caricatures as well. The jokes are wonderful.  The world of seedy New York is lovingly drawn.  Is it the 60s? The 70s? The 80s? I can’t tell.  The Greek Chorus of old Jewish Standup comics in the Deli that are narrating and commenting on ‘the best Danny Rose story’ are the heart of this movie.  The way they describe how hard it is to get a gig now is heartbreaking but they take it with a joke.  There is only one comic line that falls flat.  Let me know if you know which line I mean.

2- I am done with Jean Vigo.  I watched all his works again on the Criterion Channel. It only amounts to about 200 minutes, since he died so young, but they all bore the life out of me.  I find them tedious and pretentious.  Much noise is made about how revolutionary L’atalante is. I don’t see it.  It bores me. It may be my fault, but I have watched it four times, so the blame can’t entirely lie with me.  I think it is a bit of the James Dean syndrome.  Vigo died at the age of 29, with only one feature and a few shorts to his name.  Like James Dean, perhaps his talent has been overappreciated because there is so little of it available and what exists is flashy. Please tell me why you think I may be wrong.

3- My one great truth about Hitchcock is that his movies are not about what you think they are about.  The Birds is not about a series of unexplained bird attacks.  It is about the unresolved tension in the relationships between Melanie Daniels, Mitch Brenner and his mother, Lydia Brenner, with his sister Cathy thrown in the mix for fun.  Vertigo is not about Madeline Elster’s real identity. It is about the power of erotic self-destruction.  Rear Window is not about what happened to Mrs. Thorvald. It is about the struggle for the upper hand in the relationship between Jeff and Lisa (spoiler alert: it ends in a temporary draw).  And so, Psycho is not about the shower scene and what leads up to it. I am not really sure what it is about, but I have a feeling it is, in a perverse way, about the empowerment of women.  Marion steals the money to fix a situation that her lover seems incapable of fixing.  Lila ‘solves’ the mystery when all the men around her bungle it.  Even Mrs. Bates wins out at the end.   There is an extraordinary amount to male objectivizing for a movie of this time.   When we first see John Gavin in the hotel room, he is present as a sex object, even more  than Marion is.  Anthony Perkins is stunningly beautiful and so endearing as Norman Bates, that the end should always come as a shock even though, sixty years later, we know what it is.  The cliché is that Hitchcock was awful for women.  I think Psycho should make us reassess that thinking.

4- I missed seeing Lenny when it first came out and I was glad to watch it now.  I don’t know if Fosse was being more objective than the normal assessment vis-a-vis Lenny Bruce, but the comic comes off more as a dangerous and self-destructive figure than the shining exemplar of First Amendment rights. It is hard to pity his downward spiral, because as brilliant as he is, he is just MEAN. Dustin Hoffman is spectacular, yes, but Valerie Perrine. Wow.

5- Man, I LOVED The Tenant when it first came out.  I dragged all my friends to see it. I don’t think it has aged as well as the film it seems most closely linked to: Rosemary’s Baby. Apparently these two films plus Repulsion are a loose trilogy.  Rosemary’s Baby wins hands down.

6- The Traveler is Abbas Kiarostami’s first full-length feature, and as such it is solid.  I love movies that show kids to be rotten and not living in some kind of Edenic childhood paradise.  This boy is absolutely amoral and selfish.  Nowhere close to Kiarostami’s later works of genius, but worth a watch for sure.

7- I watched The Coward the day after the great Soumitra Chatterjee died.  He starred in a ton of Satyajit Ray, most famously making his film debut as Apu in the last film of the trilogy.  The Coward is a small film, but like every other Ray film I have seen, it is deeply satisfying. 

8- I am not sure what drew the great Terence Davies to Sunset Song. It is gorgeous to look at and involving, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming emotional impact of his masterpieces. The next film he made, A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson, has all the hallmarks of a Davies masterpiece.

9- If The Cabinet of Doctor Calegari and Rashomon got married, moved to 1930s Mexico and had a baby, it would be Dos Monjes. Expressionism and Mexican Romanticism.  The scenes in the monastery remind me of Ivan The Terrible weirdness.  And the multivalent story telling must have seems so fresh coming some 20 years before  Rashomon.  It thrills me that such sui-generis films exist that I never heard of. What else is out there to discover?

10- After watching a ton of Kiarostami films, I went back to The Taste of Cherry, often cited as his masterpiece. I didn’t get it when I saw it 15 years ago.  Having much more context now, I get it but I still don’t love it the way I love The Koker Trilogy and Close-up. It’s probably more my fault that Kiarostami’s.  This time around, I totally got the pacing and the extreme long takes, things which bored me before.