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 Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
  2. The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
  3. Rio Grande (John Ford)
  4. Manchester-by-the-Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
  5. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Lothar Mendes)
  6. The Lost Squadron (George Archainbaud)
  7. Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton)
  8. Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti)
  9. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
  10. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

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1- The Birds is one of the films I have seen the most times in my life.  Others include Citizen Kane, Wild Strawberries, All About Eve, Nashville, The Shop Around the Corner and Celine and Julie Go Boating.  They are like little vacations for me to resort towns that I know so well.  Some of these resort towns are creepier than others. All are familiar as home.

2- I remember when the films of the ‘Australian New Wave’ hit New York City in the late 70s/early 80s.  They had the effect on me that the appearance of the French New Wave must have had on my cinephile forebears in the late 60s/early 70s.  Films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, Walkabout, Gallipoli and The Last Wave were young, exciting and sometimes perplexing.  Out of all of these, Picnic at Hanging Rock remains the most meaningful to me.

I hadn’t seen The Last Wave since my first viewing, and always considered it a companion piece to Picnic at Hanging Rock, mostly because they were shown on double bills throughout the 80s.  Seeing The Last Wave again made me realize that it is a lesser film for exactly the reason why Picnic at Hanging Rock is a superior film: ambiguity.  The mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock is never really solved, but you realize that that is not the point of the film.  The point seems to be the effect of disaster on the world.  You would think that the same would be true of The Last WaveI love the foreboding atmospherics and the tantalizing aboriginal hoodoo, but ultimately it is too much about a mystery that never is cleared up and it doesn’t satisfy the way the other film does. Still, it is a great watch.

3- I need to write a piece on John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. The Trilogy consists of Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, in descending order of greatness and complexity. They are all masterpieces. Stay tuned.

4- Manchester-by-the-Sea. The only word for it is ‘magnificent’.  The complex relationships are handled so masterfully and the story is revealed so artfully. I am not a big believer in a movie needing to be ‘realistic’ to be great. Most of the time when filmmakers are reaching for realism, the results are embarrassing. Here, though, I felt that I was spending time with people I knew and understood. Not necessarily liked, mind you. The cumulative effect is devastating.  The buzz before I saw it was that it was incredibly depressing.  Obviously, the people who said this have had no life experience.  Magnificent.

5- I knew that pre-code films were pretty loose with morals and conventions but imagine my surprise when I saw this in The Lost Squadron:

 

6- Regarding Boy Erased and Love, Simon I refer you to my post on movies targeted to a specific audience.  I would be selling both of these short if I were to imply that they don’t appeal to a wider audience than Gay people. But Love, Simon is incredibly sweet and mostly just a Gay rom-com (not that there is anything wrong with that!) and Boy Erased is greater in its ambitions. The portrayal of the characters is nuanced, and transcends stereotypes. Thrillingly so.  Lucas Hedges is amazing, just like he was in Manchester By The Sea.

7- The Shape of Water. Best Picture of the Year? Really? I have long ago given up on the idea of Oscars as the arbiters of anything, but this award really baffles me. Except for The Devil’s Backbone, every Guillermo Del Toro films I have seen collapses under the weight of its own diffuseness and studied weirdness. This is no exception. Please feel free to tell my why I am wrong here.

8- I went crazy for both Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love when they both came out. I also really liked Boogie Nights a lot.  Since then I have felt a huge disconnect with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.  I hate it because I see the attention, intelligence and style that are lavished on these movies, as well as the incredible performances he gets out of his stars. But once again, Phantom Thread left me cold and confused. Not as cold and confused as The Master.  Seeking your opinion here also as to what I might have missed.

 

 

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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 Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Once Upon A Time (Alexander Hall)
  2. Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls)
  3. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
  5. A Doll’s House (Patrick Garland)
  6. Julius Caesar (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  7. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)
  8. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
  9. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese)
  10. Bad Day At Black Rock (John Sturges)

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1- If you are looking for a film that features Cary Grant as well as a dancing caterpillar, then Once Upon A Time is the film for you!

2- Can someone please explain the genius of Max Ophüls to me?  I find his legendary moving camera distracting. I find his films dull. I’ll keep trying but I would certainly appreciate a little help here. Le Plaisir flowed better than most of his films I have seen, but for me they are deadly – mostly because they seem to be wearing ‘high art’ on their sleeves and that is never a good thing.

3- This time around I caught up with some films that I have been trying to get to for years.  I always dodged Sergeant Rutledge because, for some reason, I figured late John Ford would be stodgy John Ford. I should have known better. It is a stirring film. Its dealing with race issues is surprisingly frank and at the same time matter-of-fact.  Quite unusual for a film from 1960 where race was either ignored or served with a sledge-hammer. Ford turns Woody Strode into an icon of virtue to rival what he does with John Wayne. Plus you get to see Billie Burke!

sergeant rutledge

 

How did I miss Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? What a rich script, with dense, surprising characters. It doesn’t have the taint that so many landmark films of the 70s have.  By way of contrast, The Conversation reeks with that taint.  The paranoia, the smarminess, the ugly mise-en-scene, the nihilistic characters – it has them all.  It is indeed brilliant, but I think once was enough for me.

4- All That Heaven Allows  – pure genius

5- Bad Day At Black Rock was recently shown on TCM as part of a Westerns festival.  That was pretty brilliant programming since it is truly a western disguised as a contemporary drama. Good guy rides into town and frees it from the corrupt and sadistic thrall of the bad guy. Plus it features a one-armed Spencer Tracy which makes it required viewing


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Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Yellow Ribbon……….

In the late 1590s, William Shakespeare wrote a series of plays that portray England at the turn of the 15th Century. Richard II, Henry IV parts one & two and Henry V present a world of astonishing scope and detail. The intrigues that end up with the deposition of Richard II and the ascension of Henry IV are portrayed in Richard II,  the only dramatic work of Shakespeare entirely in poetry.  This play functions as a kind of prelude for the huge tapestry of the two Henry IV plays.  In these two works, Shakespeare portrays the entire range of English life.  The court life of Henry IV, who is constantly besieged by rebellion from all over the country by ambitious rivals questioning his claim to the throne, is presented in contrast to the bawdy denizens of the Boar’s Head Inn, Cheapside, where the Prince of Wales is slumming while the country is convulsed in civil wars. Here Sir John Falstaff, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, presides over a vivid group of the lowest of English society.

It is in the remarkable depiction of both high and low characters that the plays achieve their epic feel.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the more Shakespeare details his individual portraits, the wider his canvas becomes. By the time we reach the coronation of Henry V with its devastating repudiation of his earlier, wilder days as embodied by Falstaff, we feel we have been presented with an entire world.

 Henry V rejects Sir John Falstaff

When thinking of film, the one director whose achievement can be termed Shakespearean would be John Ford.  There is so much that these supreme artists have in common.  Both understand the importance of contrasting comedy and tragedy and both can work in either or both genres.  This comic and possibly offensive ‘Look’ sequence in The Searchers relieves the high tragic propulsiveness of the plot.  It is not essential, but it relieves the tension and fleshes out a lighter side of Ethan Edwards, the character in Ford’s oeuvre that most achieves a Lear-like titanic stature

The world of John Ford is filled with the kind of character detail that we see nowhere else but in Shakespeare.  Great care will be lavished on a scene that won’t necessarily further the plot, but will be essential to creating the world being depicted.  Wyatt Earp will get a haircut, the young cadets will go picnicking in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Philadelphia Thursday will try to make her father’s new home in Fort Apache as home-like as possible with objects donated by the other ladies at the fort. This last scene is inconsequential as far as the big picture is concerned, but it affords Ford the chance to show a nascent, decent society developing at what was then thought of as the outer limit of society (although I am sure there are a lot of Native American nations which would balk at this description).

Philadephia Thursday makes a home for her father

I would posit that the three Cavalry films of John Ford occupy the same place in his output as the Henriad does in Shakespeare’s.  In both cases the artists were at the height of their powers. Shakespeare was soon to write his four great tragedies, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Ford was soon to direct his masterpiece The Searchers.

Ford’s Cavalry trilogy is made up of three very loosely connected films. They do not share a continuous plot.  They do not have the same locale. They do not share the same characters although certain names like Tyree and Quincannon appear over and over, sometime played by the same actor, sometimes not. What links these three films is that they tell the stories of various cavalry units at the edges of what was deemed ‘civilization’.  Fort Apache (1947) takes place shortly after Custer’s Last Stand and is a meditation on the foolishness and actual danger of the reckless pursuit of glory. I have written before about She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) in an article comparing it to Malick’s Tree of Life.  In the guise of depicting the last few days prior to the retirement of Nathan Brittles, Yellow Ribbon movingly shows the passage of time and how a new generation inevitably replaces the older. Rio Grande is the working out of a pretty complicated domestic situation involving Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne and their son.  The boy has just graduated from West Point and has been assigned to the outpost under the command of his estranged father, estranged because he burned down his Southern mother’s plantation as part of Sherman’s March To The Sea.  The domestic difficulties become a metaphor for a nation trying to figure out how to be a nation again after the trauma of the Civil War.

When watched together you get as wide a panorama of post-Civil War America as the Shakespeare plays give you of England.  In both works high tragedy is mixed with bawdy low comedy (in both cases usually involving drink).

At the end of the Shakespeare cycle, we know that the world we have just lived in will come to an abrupt end because the warrior savior King Henry V will die young, leaving the kingdom to fall into chaos, giving rise to the devastation of The War Of The Roses.  At the end of each of the films in the Cavalry Trilogy, we have a sense that we are witnessing the end of an era, the end of the exhilarating days of the pioneer. Now it is time for dull civilization to take root and erase the memories of the larger than life characters we have been spending time with.

Do yourself a favor and watch these three films.  Do yourself another favor and read as much Shakespeare as you can.

john ford shakespeare


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini)
  2. The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki)
  3. I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller)
  4. The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir)
  5. Three Women (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. Rio Grande (John Ford)
  7. Went The Day Well? (Michael Balcon)
  8. Spione (Fritz Lang)
  9. Hold Your Man (Sam Wood)
  10. Angel At My Table (Jane Campion)

 

1- I was always reluctant to get on the Sam Fuller bandwagon.  It struck me as one of the excessive enthusiasms of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. In their glee at tearing down French icons, they appeared too eager to praise what seemed like a bargain-counter director of solid B films.  My feelings changed after I saw The Steel Helmet. What a solid, tightly-constructed picture. A comparison to John Ford would be excessive, but there is something similar in the concern for characterization.  I Shot Jesse James  is another satisfying film. The characterization of ‘the coward Bob Ford’ is fascinating and all the more noteworthy as the whole film lasts barely longer than 80 minutes.  I found films like the much-lauded Shock Corridor overwrought, but these two are tremendous.

2- I was lucky to catch a rare screening of Lubitsch’s Three Women at the University of Chicago’s swell new Logan Center for the Arts.  It was part of Professor Tom Gunning’s series ‘Screenings and Pallavers’.  Interesting discussion by one of the grad students explaining how influential this film was in Asia, along with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle – a film I am longing to see, especially since it left a huge impression on Ozu.

3- I think I am done with Aki Kaurismäki.  I grant that his films are powerful and well-made, but they are so relentlessly downbeat and present such an ugly world. I understand Le Havre is different, so maybe I’ll try that before I write him off completely.

4- I am constantly dazzled by John Ford. Like with Shakespeare, I keep asking myself ‘Is it really as good as it seems, or am I thinking it is as good as seems because it is by the great god John Ford?”  The unequivocal answer is ‘It is as good as it seems – if not better’.  I have viewed She Wore A Yellow Ribbon a lot in recent years, and have even written about it  on this blog in relation to Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (of all things!). I remembered Rio Grande fondly, but had not seen it in over 30 years. TCM to the rescue! It is as rich an experience as I thought it was.  The Cavalry Trilogy, three very loosely connected films comprised of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande mark a high point in Ford’s oeuvre and a high point in American Film.  Maureen O’Hara is a shamefully underrated actress.

Maureen O'Hara as Mrs. Kathleen Yorke

Maureen O’Hara as Mrs. Kathleen Yorke

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Daisies (Vera Chytilová)
  2. The Death Kiss (Edwin L. Marin)
  3. The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman)
  4. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
  5. The Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
  6. Boy (Nagisa Oshima)
  7. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
  8. Voyage In Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
  9. The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura)
  10. Upstream (John Ford)

—          (I had a big backlog so please forgive the posting of two ‘last ten’ lists in a row)

1- TCM provided a wonderful service this fall by showing the complete, 15-part documentary The Story of Film by Mark Cousins. What made the broadcast of the series even more satisfying was that TCM complemented it by showing many of the films mentioned in the course of the documentary. Daisies was shown as part of a look at the New Wave all around the world. In the beginning, I was enjoying it tremendously as it appeared to be a slightly earlier, Czech version of my beloved Celine and Julie Go Boating. After about 45 minutes or so, it just became grating. I was glad to have had the chance to see it, though.

2- The Story of a Prostitute , Boy and The Insect Woman were revelations. I have spent a lot of time in the rarefied world of Ozu and Naruse and Mizoguchi. It was very satisfying to watch these films by some of the messier, later Japanese masters. The Story of a Prostitute was particularly dazzling.

3- Watching Boy and The White Ribbon made for a troubling but powerful double feature on child abuse.  I was glad to see a film by Michael Haneke at last. I found The White Ribbon thrillingly beautiful. I am still too chicken to watch Funny Games.

4- Upstream was a once-lost film by John Ford recently found in a New Zealand archive. This silent film was a delightful, light comic story of actors in a boarding house. Is there no end to John Ford’s versatility?


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Book Recommendation

searchersThis book traces the evolution of the classic film from the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured and raised by Comanche, ‘rescued’ by Whites after living and raising children among the Indians for over twenty year. The sad story of Cynthia Ann’s return to ‘civilization’ is followed by the story of her son, Qua’nah, first a renegade among the Comanche, then a shrewd politician deftly negotiating his way between the declining Comanche and the ascending White Man.  Cynthia Ann’s story is fictionalized by Alan Lemay in his novel The Searchers, which was read and turned into the classic film.

Only about one third of the book deals with John Ford and his film. The arc taking us from the ‘true story’ to the film version is the main event here.

The decline of the Comanche makes for very grim reading.

Frankel’s assessment of the film seems to be the latest installment of critical approach to The Searchers. Upon its original release, it was regarded as little more than a John Wayne Western.  The French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema were really the first to elevate it to masterpiece status. Then came the backlash declaring the film to be racist in its depiction of Native Americans. The next pendulum swing seems to be apologist in rationalizing Ethan Edwards’ hatreds.

It seems that Frankel is voicing the latest and, to me at least, most satisfying view of this film: it is undeniably great, brilliant, breathtaking, etc. but at the same time confounding, ambiguous and unsettling.  The same can be said of King Lear. Not bad company to be in.