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. The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  2. Where is the Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. And Life Goes On (Abbas Kiarostami)
  4. Through The Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
  5. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiradie)
  6. Sincere Heart (Masaki Kobayashi)
  7. Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
  8. A Walk in the Clouds (Alfonso Arau)
  9. Ever Since Eve (Lloyd Bacon)
  10. Fountainhead (Masaki Kobayashi)

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1- I love the way the films of the Dardenne brothers deal with moral dilemmas. Evil is identified clearly, but those swept up in it are considered compassionately, and through this compassion often get another chance at setting their lives back in order. The Kid with a Bike is a gorgeous example of the heart of these filmmakers, a heart completely devoid of saccharine or moralizing, but full of understanding for the troubles people (mostly kids) get into.  

2- I had a chance to rewatch the entire Koker Trilogy by Abbas Kiarostami.  I am a lucky man.

3-It was interesting to watch Stranger by the Lake, Gate of Hell and A Walk in the Clouds in quick succession. All three were bad films with great reputations, and they made for very dissatisfying viewing:  

     a- Stranger by the Lake was hailed as a Hitchcockian Gay thriller. Is there any term that is more incorrectly used than ‘Hitchcockian’?  Just what are people saying when they describe a movie in this way? That it is suspenseful? Then it is clearly the wrong adjective for Stranger by the Lake. A bunch of mostly Gay men cruise a lovely lake all summer long, going off into the nearby woods to have sex.  Then there is a murder which our ‘hero’ witnesses but does not report because he is currently sexually obsessed and involved with the murderer. Why does this film have such a great reputation? Is it because the Gay sex is (very) explicitly portrayed? Is it because it is from a Gay viewpoint? I don’t get it.  Isn’t it a terrible Gay stereotype that Gay men are just sex machines putting themselves in danger to get the next thrill? Is this still how we want to be portrayed? The storytelling and character development are flaccid (pardon the pun). The pace became monotonous.  Even the copious nudity of very handsome men grew tiresome.  On top of it all, it has a non-ending. So after almost two hours of dull exposition, you don’t get a payoff. 

    b- Gate of Hell was the first Japanese film to win a best foreign film Oscar.  That was still an honorary award and not a proper category until a few years after.  The thing that is most often mentioned about it is that the color photography, by Eastman, is stunning.   Well, yeah. But at this point it just looks garish.  The storytelling is sloppy, the acting amateurish.  It was directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, who in the 1920s created what is probably the most experimental (read : insane) film ever to come out of Japan: A Page of Madness. That film, with its narrative innovations, stylized action and general nuttiness make Gate of Hell even more disappointing because you know that the director had a unique vision at one time, and it is nowhere evident here.

    c- My friend Donna called me and begged me to watch A Walk In The Clouds.  She wanted confirmation that it was as horrible as she thought it was.  Well, it kind of was.  Discussing it with her after I watched it, I suggested it was like a Hallmark Channel movie that had greater ambitions, and I think that is basically what the problem is: tonal ambiguity.  A Hallmark Channel film knows what it is: superficial story telling with happy endings, formulaic to the max, with no pretentions to depth.  A Walk In the Clouds has all the shallowness of a Hallmark Channel film, but every once in a while it strikes a note of seriousness – and it never succeeds.  The acting is hopelessly bad.  The fact that Keanu Reeves is the star should set your mind at rest that nothing remotely resembling good acting will be encountered. I was amazed to see that Giancarlo Giannini played the heroine’s Napa Valley Vineyard-owning, extremely short-fused father. He was the Art House Cinema darling in the 70s and 80s. Here, he does nothing but rant about lost values and family honor.  To call the character a cartoon would be kind.  Anthony Quinn is also on hand as the more down-to-earth grandfather/patriarch, but even he can’t escape cartoonism. There is a grape-stomping ceremony that has to be seen to be believed.  How did this film ever get released?

It is a remake of 1940s Italian film which I have never seen.  

4- It was fun to see Ever Since Eve after watching the disappointing Mank.  This was Marion Davies’ last film, and it’s not great but it is fun in a frantic screwball way.   The common rubric about Davies is that she should have stuck to comedy.  True.

5-  I am continuing to work my way through the films of Masaki Kobayashi on the Criterion Channel.  His late great films are yet to come in my viewing.  Sincere Heart was a workaday studio production made in the style of his mentor, but it was sweet enough. Fountainhead  is more in keeping with his later, greater films but it still feels a little rough.

 

 

 

 


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Noir? No, thank you.

Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some, that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose,
Cannot contain their urine: for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.
– Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1

To continue along this line of reasoning, some men there are who love not a Western, some that are mad when they behold an Action Film, and others, when the Musical sings on the screen, cannot contain their urine.  Well, I can contain my urine, but I can no longer abide Film Noir.

It’s been creeping up on me for the last few years, but now my feeling is definitive.  This past year, I’ve read a few of the classic Noir novels (thank you Aaron) and I had already seen most of the major Noir classic films and therefore feel I have enough material to form an opinion.

So, what is my problem with Noir?

What bugs me are the following:

1- The posture of world-weariness and cynicism that is the lifeblood of these works seems artificial to me. One enters into these films knowing that the world will be depicted in dark and hopeless terms.  By the end, everything will go to Hell, because people are horrible/selfish/amoral and all that remains is to see how the particular dystopia of this film will play out. It is a predetermined pessimism which passes for a gnostic understanding of the way the world really works. It seems to be saying “If you don’t agree with this worldview, well, you’re naïve”.  I am not advocating Pollyannism by any means. It is just that this relentless pessimism is as false as unfounded optimism, but this pessimism has the cachet of sophistication and therefore is embraced by those wanting to be sophisticated.

2- Misogyny is rampant in the Noir universe.  The world will go to Hell mostly due the duplicitous machinations of some dame who loves money even more than she loves herself and definitely more than she loves the poor naïve hero.  The femme is always fatale and the poor naïve hero (who, by they way, fancies himself worldly-wise) will always be undone by said female.  In a weird quasi-feminist twist, these women are always smarter than anyone else in the film. But if you are smarter at being evil, is that really admirable?

3- The clutter of most Film Noir plots is aggravating. The storylines are impossibly convoluted. While watching the films you never quite know what is happening.  When it’s over your not sure what happened.  Don’t believe me? Watch The Big Sleep. I suppose the case could be made that we are supposed to identify with the poor naïve hero who is trying to make sense of an incomprehensively malevolent world that is out to get him. Neither he nor we quite understand how or why the world is out to get him, hence the density, i.e., the clutter, of the plot.  This works in Kafka, but Kafka’s malevolent world seems bigger than anything we can understand and therefore becomes mythic.  Here, the malevolent world just seems cliched.  It is a camp experience.  We know how we are going to feel before the film even starts. I suppose one could say that going into a comedy or a musical or historical drama presupposes a certain experience to come.  With Noir, though, we go into it expecting to be shown why the world stinks.  I guess some people like that.

So do I completely write off Noir? No. There are films that are labelled Noir that I love.  Case in point: The Maltese Falcon.  Why do I love this film? Because in many ways, it is  an Anti-Noir.  First of all, the dialogue is often hilarious and many of the characters are so quirky (Joel Cairo, The Fat Man, The Gunsel) that the oppressiveness of the usual Noir world is dissipated.  Most importantly, though, evil is clearly identified and even though up to the last minute we think it will win, it doesn’t. Sam Spade is heroic because he pushes back on the Noir conventions, and gives us a view of what the world should be.

 

Call me what you want……..

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville)
  2. The Report (Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. L’Argent (Robert Bresson)
  4. Judy (Rupert Goold)
  5. The Thick-Walled Room (Masaki Kobayashi)
  6. Beautiful Days (Masaki Kobayashi)
  7. The Underneath (Steven Soderbergh)
  8. Ordinary People (Robert Redford)
  9. Tabu (F.W. Murnau)
  10. The Great Sadness of Zohara (Nina Menkes)

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1- I am really finished with Noir. I will be posting shortly to explain why. Watching Le Cercle Rouge and The Underneath did not help matters.

2- I was glad to watch Abbas Kiarostami’s The Report.  I have greatly admired just about everything I have seen by him. This is a very early work of his.  It is fascinating because it gives us a glimpse of pre-Revolution Iran.  It is a very grim look at marriage and work life. Interesting that Kiarostami’s work is more life-affirming after the Revolution, which is counter-intuitive to what we are led to believe in the West.

3- L’Argent was the first Bresson I ever saw. I saw it in the theater when it first came out and Bresson was still alive.  It is the quintessential Bresson experience. It is austere, morally unambiguous and a brutal film-watching experience.  Wonderful creation.

4-  I always knew that earlier Hollywood films about Hollywood and other entertainment personalities had to be taken with many grains of salt.  Night and Day has even less to do with the life of Cole Porter than Rhapsody in Blue has to do with the life of George Gershwin. I always thought that things would improve, at least as far accuracy was concerned.  Judy could have been made 50 years ago. I doubt that much of what is portrayed really happened, so why make a picture like this? Renee Zellweger does an ok impression of Garland, but there really isn’t much to hold one’s interest since it just seems so fictionalized.  I had exactly the same feeling watching Mank.  A potentially great story with fascinating characters, totally squandered.   Also, I don’t get the vulture-like glee in portraying great artists in their decline, like Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas.  It seems sadistic to me.  These were all great artists at their respective peaks. Why not show that? Focusing on the sordid declines nullifies what made them great and beloved in the first place.  Do I really want to honor Judy Garland because she was irresponsible, and addicted to pills and alcohol? Nope. Let me watch Easter Parade and Meet Me in St. Louis or even The Clock or Judgement in Nuremberg instead.

5- Having access to the Criterion Channel means having access to large parts of great directors’ catalogs.  I thought I would get a little more systematic in my movie viewing and pick at director whose films I have admired and watch all the other films they have available.   I loved the films of Masaki Kobayashi, especially Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion and the unique collection of ghost stories Kwaidan.  I watched two of his early films, The Thick-Walled Room and Beautiful Days. The former is one of those post WWII films that seems to be prevalent in Japan but not in Germany, films that deal with the guilt and corruption of the wartime leadership, and how it affected the little people.  It is a powerful indictment not only of the Japanese military dictatorship, but also of the U.S. occupying forces that worked in collaboration with them after the war. This is quite interesting when you consider that the U.S. censors had total control over what came out of the Japanese film studios for years after the war.  Beautiful Days is a more traditional effort tracing the loves and trials of three couples.  There is still hints of how the war has made their peace-time lives difficult, but it is a much more conventional film.  Still enjoyable, though.

6-  Films about dysfunctional families resonate with me for reasons you can guess. I was so happy to see that Ordinary People  holds up after four decades.  Its portrayal of self-healing and healing through psychotherapy never seems glib.  The performances are wonderful, especially Mary Tyler Moore who was robbed at the Oscars that year.

7- There are films that I know I need to watch as ‘homework’. I don’t think I will necessarily enjoy them, but I think they will make me a better-rounded film viewer.  I had always heard of Tabu and had seen all the other great Murnau films.   I was glad I watched it.  Such a curious movie to come out four years after sound took over Hollywood.  I think it works better as a silent anyway.

8- One of the joys of the Criterion Channel is that they feature films by unknown or forgotten film makers.  The Great Sadness of Zohara is from 1983. It is a bleak, almost silent 39-minute film about a very unhappy (we don’t know why) Orthodox woman in Jerusalem who leaves her community and travels deep into the Arabic world of North Africa.  She is miserable the whole time and she is miserable when she gets back to Jerusalem at the end.   I may check out some of Menkes’ full-length films that Criterion features.  But then again, I might not.  One can only take so much misery.