The Discreet Bourgeois

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


Leave a comment

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi)
  2. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford)
  3. Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)
  4. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger)
  5. Robinson Crusoe (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Adoption (Marta Meszaros)
  7. Dracula (Tod Browning)
  8. The Boys in the Band (Joe Mantello)
  9. The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi)
  10. Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam)

.

1- I am struck by how genre-bending the modern films of Iran are. This Is Not a Film was made by Jafar Panahi who is currently under a multi-year ban on film-making. Hence the title. Shot on cell phone or on hand-held camera in his own house, this depiction of his mundane life (eating lunch, talking with the garbage man) becomes an extremely moving picture of an artist who cannot stop creating, no matter what the powers-that-be decree. It is fascinating. The scene where he acts out his unproduced screenplay in a stage delineated by masking tape on his carpet is extremely moving.

2- The fact that The Long Voyage Home is a John Ford film starring John Wayne just a year after Stagecoach made it a must-watch for me. Add to this that the cameraman is the legendary Gregg Toland of Citizen Kane only made it more appealing. I had seen it decades ago but didn’t remember much. It looks fantastic, of course, because of Toland’s magical camera work, but the macho high-jinx of the sailors on shore-leave repelled me. Also, the cliché of Irishmen having to get drunk at every opportunity might have been humorous once, but now it is grating and borderline racist. The screenplay is based on four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Yuck.

3- October is the greatest month because it contains the greatest holiday of the year: Halloween. I love Halloween so much. I gorge myself on wonderful, sometimes cheesy horror films for the whole month. I started off this year’s celebration with the wonderfully economical and chilling Village of the Damned. I had forgotten how effective this little movie is. I wish the studio had the wherewithal to make a longer film since the ending seems rushed. But what’s there is cherce. The acting of the twelve diabolical children is stunning. How did the director get these performances out of them? George Sanders is on hand to do his fruity elitist thing, which is always fun. But this is a movie that is all about atmosphere. And all about horror, too. Truly a chilling movie. Great way to start off this year’s Halloween festivities (as if 2020 hasn’t already been Halloween all year!)

4- And talking about a movie that looks great despite its content, I give you The Red Shoes. This is another Technicolor fever dream from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. Nothing is as breathtaking as the reds in this movie. Unfortunately, so much has gone into the mise-en-scene, that the movie as a whole suffers. It really doesn’t make any sense. The characters are cardboard and inconsistent. But you get to see Robert Helpmann chewing up the scene and the legendary Leonide Massine is on hand to lend a bit of nuttiness and authenticity to the proceedings. But watching it is like being really hungry and all you have in the house is Oreos. But man….those reds!

5- I remember seeing Robinson Crusoe in a school auditorium when I was probably nine or ten. I had no idea who Luis Bunuel was then, and today, if I hadn’t seen the credits, I would not have known he was the director. No surreal or outlandish flourishes. Pretty straightforward story-telling. Just finished reading the novel, so I was interested in the movie. It is very good for what it is.

6- Adoption was shown on TCM as part of their Women Make Film series.  They have a documentary series they are showing over 14 weeks, and each week after the documentary runs, they show a few of the films mentioned. This is a rare treat since very few of the films are familiar, even for TCM-heads like me.  Case in point is this powerful Hungarian film.  A single woman involved in an unsatisfying years-long romance is trying to make a connection.  At first she tries with a troubled teenage woman from a local reformatory school.  There are satisfactions in that relationship which lead the woman to her ultimate decision and her great chance at happiness. Is this a woman’s movie? It is made by a woman, yes, and it concerns women. But can you tell that it was a woman who wrote and directed it?  I think perhaps yes.  The cliché in noting the difference between men and women is that men jockey with each other for position, where women use empathy to make connections.  Adoption is almost claustrophobic in its unrelenting use of close-ups.  It this the cinematic equivalent of empathy?  In any event it is an extremely moving film that I would never have heard of if not for TCM.

7- We are so used to thinking of the Universal Studios Dracula as  a horror film classic, that one forgets (or perhaps never knew!) that it was an pretty prosaic adaptation of a great stage success.  Its staginess really shows. Compared to Frankenstein of a year later, it is hardly a movie at all.   

8- For a very closeted, sixteen year old Gay man, going to see the original The Boys in the Band in the movie theater in the 1970s was thrilling.  So thrilling that I completely had no idea what a miserable evening these gentlemen were having.  I hadn’t seen it since, so I was intrigued to see the film version of the recent Broadway revival (the first Broadway mounting of the play, I believe).  The Princh assures me that this version is practically a shot-for-shot twin of the original film, with some performances better, some worse.   I was struck by the decision to keep the action in the original historical time.  No AIDS, no Gay Lib, hardly and Stonewall.  Does it become a period piece? Not exactly. But it is very remote.  Even when I was a callow youth sitting in that Brooklyn theater, I could not understand the self-loathing that seemed to be a given in the play.  The bitchiness didn’t seem to be wit, as in The Women or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but desperate lashing out.   It seems to me that the self-loathing in this new version is centered more on the characters Catholicism than on they’re being Gay.  I still can’t relat. But Matt Bomer is unforgivably handsome.

9- The Criterion Channel has been featuring The Australian New Wave.  The Devil’s Playground is a film that I had missed when it first came out. It is brilliant. The depiction of life in a boy’s Catholic Seminary in the 1950s is fascinating mostly because of the huge scope of characters that it gives us in such loving, or at least penetrating, detail. I think it would be a phenomenal double-bill with Picnic at Hanging Rock.

10- Sunday Too Far Away is apparently a much-loved classic in Australia about the rough-and-tumble life of itinerant sheep-shearers.  See my comments above on the macho high-jinx of The Long Voyage Home and you’ll get a pretty good idea how I feel about this film.

 

 

 

 


3 Comments

Rest In Peace, Pierre Étaix

pierre-etaix

This past Friday we lost Pierre Étaix, one of the great comic filmmakers, and up until recently, was in danger of being completely forgotten.  His entire film catalog, consisting of both short and feature length films made in the 1960s, were barred from distribution for decades due to legal problems.  Luckily, Criterion issued his complete works in a lovely Blu-Ray package three years ago.  It’s hard to think of a similar rescue from the abyss!

Many of the most famous film comedians are referred to as clowns, but Pierre Étaix actually had his comic apprenticeship in circuses.  His elegant physical comedy must have its roots in the circus much as Buster Keaton’s does from the vaudeville circuit. Étaix worked as an apprentice to Jacques Tati.  Pretty impressive comedy credentials.  He even appeared in a small role in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, amazingly enough.

But it is his handful of feature-length and short films that will ensure his place next to Keaton and Chaplin in the comedy Pantheon. Like those two masters from the silent era, Étaix’s genius is all visual.  The deadpan reactions are direct descendants of Keaton, the sweetness and kindness are direct descendants of Chaplin.  His greatest works were created in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière, the screen writer/producer who went to to collaborate with Luis Buñuel on his late masterpieces.

I would suggest you start with the lovely, heartwarming Yoyo. This practically silent gem celebrates being yourself (in this case a circus performer) instead of being who you are forced to be (in this case, a phenomenally rich but lonely young man in a lovely mansion).  The deus-ex-machina of a circus elephant is one of the memorable sight coups (I don’t want to demean it by calling it a sight-gag).

His last film, Land of Milk and Honey, did to his career what Peeping Tom did for the career of Michael Powell: put him on the outs with the money men by seemingly thumbing his nose at the bourgeois tastes of the audiences of 1971.  This is a great shame, because judging from the genius of the few works we have, we can only lament what else we might have had over the forty-plus years since that film’s disastrous release.

So, please, do yourself and the late, great Pierre a favor and see as many of these delightful works as you can.  Here follows a filmography swiped from Wikipedia:

  • Insomnia (1961) Short unreleased
  • Happy Anniversary (1962) Short
  • The Suitor (1962)
  • Yoyo (1965)
  • As Long As You Have Your Health (1966)
  • Le Grand Amour (1969)
  • Land of Milk and Honey (1971) Documentary

 

 

 


3 Comments

The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  2. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper)
  3. A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)
  4. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali)
  5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman)
  8. I Was Born But….. (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. As Long As You Have Your Health (Pierre Étaix)
  10. Baby Face Herrington (Raoul Walsh)
.
1- It is almost a cliché now to hear the films of Douglas Sirk referred to as feminist and subversive.  I agree they are. However, I need to stress that Now Voyager got there before Sirk did.  This film, depicting an unloved and abused child triumphing over adversity by her own inner strength, is astounding for the period.  Sure, Charlotte Vale does get great insight from the psychiatrist played by Claude Raines, but he merely puts her on the right track and gives her the shove she needs.  From then on, it is all her own doing. Yes, there is a love interest, but amazingly, as Charlotte Vane reintegrates her damaged psyche into her life, she finds that she has moved beyond the need for a man to save her. Of course, only Bette Davis could have played this.

2- In the early 50s it would have been hard to predict that Ingmar Bergman would turn into the profound artist of the later 50s and beyond.  So many of his early films are light, slightly risqué comedies of manners.  It is interesting to watch an early film like A Lesson In Love and then compare it to Smiles of a Summer Night. Both star the magnificent Eva Dahlbeck and dapper Gunnar Bjornstrand.  Both deal winkingly with the notion of sexual attraction and fidelity.  The early film is nice but very slight.  The latter is light but profound, evidence that Bergman is broadening his scope.

3- Do I change or do films age badly?  I used to adore The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I even named this blog after it.  Rewatching it proved a bit tedious.  The shaggy-doggedness of it wore thin way before the film ended.  I noticed the same feeling when I rewatched The Exterminating Angel. However, Un Chien Andalou holds up in all its insane and anarchic glory.  Could its short length work in its favor?  Just how long should a shaggy dog run for?What about it, David Lynch?

4- I am rewatching the films of Pierre Étaix in order to write a Have Your Tried  post about him.  Stay tuned. What a delight.

5- TCM continues to be a source of cinematic bounty. No one would accuse Baby Face Herrington of being a classic in any sense of the word, but it gives you a great idea of what a solid B-picture comedy was like in the early 30s.  It was an adaptation of a Broadway play, so you get a glimpse into that world as well. Plus you get an appearance by the always-delightful Una Merkel.  What’s bad about that?

 Una_Merkel_-_still


9 Comments

Silents Are Fun

I was recently talking to a much, much younger work colleague about a movie I saw that I thought he would be interested in.  As I was describing it, he interrupted me and asked if it were in black and white. When I told him it was, he told me to forget it. He just couldn’t possibly watch it. It really threw me. A movie is a movie, I thought. Eventually,  I realized that there are certain art forms that present hurdles to those who are not familiar with them.  Opera is impenetrable to the uninitiated, a point I understand intellectually, but as a 40 year veteran of operamania, it just doesn’t resonate with me emotionally.  It has been so long for me since the conventions of opera and their attendant weirdnesses were new to me, that I find it hard to remember how it was (perhaps) difficult on first exposure.

This made me think of silent films.  Even people who consider themselves cinephiles often have a blind spot for silent. Having been devoted to film even longer than I have been devoted to opera, I get the conventions of silent films that might seem inscrutable or even ludicrous to the uninitiated.  The broader acting styles, the intertitles and the general ancientness of the whole genre require getting used to.  I also realize that the silent films that most people are exposed to are the silents  that are ‘important’,  the ones that are ‘good for you’.  For example, in any film appreciation class, people are forced to watch The Battleship Potemkin or at least the famous Odessa Steps scene.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the silent Soviet stuff. But it is interesting and not necessarily fun, as are most of the silents that people are exposed to.  The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birth of A Nation, Vampyr are all sublime in their own ways, but they aren’t fun, per se.

Realizing this, I decided to draw up a list of five silent films that are guaranteed pleasures to watch and would be a good entrée into a deeper appreciation of the genre:

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

1. Show People (1928) dir. King Vidor.   This delightful comedy tells the story of rich girl from the sticks who has designs on being a great dramatic film actress with the support of her loving but equally clueless father. The beauty of the film is the triumph of comedy, as our heroine realizes what her true forte is.  The film stars Marion Davies, a very talented comic actor who is nowadays unfortunately identified with the very untalented Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane. Davies was Hearst’s mistress much as Alexander was Kane’s, but the similarity ends there.  Davies knew what she was doing. She excelled in light comedy and this film is a good sampling her talents. Plus, for the film buff there are lots of inside jokes about the Hollywood figures of the time.

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

2. Foolish Wives (1922) dir. Erich Von Stroheim.  What lamenters of the silent era lament most is the pinnacle of storytelling art that movies achieved before sound.  Once sounds began, the whole production seemed to be concerned about the placement of the microphone above everything, making a very static art form out of one that was thrilling fluid and visually sophisticated just a few years previously.  It took talkies a few years to catch up.  Foolish Wives represents silent filmmaking at its peak.  The director and star was the mad genius Erich Von Stroheim (see my previous post on his work). Watching this film has all the joys of reading a rich, complex and slightly perverse novel.  Stroheim pushed the limits in set design (building an exact replica of the casino at Monte Carlo on the back lot), story telling and naturalistic acting. It would be years before Hollywood would see a production of this caliber again.  The characters are nuanced, the humor is adult, the relationships are titillating.  Plus it has a terrific story.

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

3. My Best Girl (1927) dir. Sam Taylor.  During the silent era, no actress was more beloved or more powerful than Mary Pickford.  An extraordinarily shrewd business person as well as a magnetic screen presence, Pickford first specialized in heart-wrenching films about put-upon waifs and eventually graduated to adult comedy roles, of which this is among the best. Mary works in a department store with a charming young man who, unbeknownst to her is the boss’s son (the gorgeous Buddy Rodgers, soon to be Mr. Pickford) trying to learn the business from the ground up.  Her family is delightfully dysfunctional and she is trying to hold everything together.  Heaven will protect the working girl!  The perfect light touch of this film might betray the influence of the great Lubitsch.  It is a delight from start to finish.

one week

4. One Week (1920) dir. Buster Keaton.  Comedy is always a good way to ease into a new art form, and the films of Buster Keaton are a sublime way to ease into silent films. The jaw-dropping ingenuity of his visuals are enough to convert anyone. In this short, Keaton and his new bride try to build themselves a do-it-yourself house from a kit, but things gets complicated as his old rival appears intent on making sure nothing goes smoothly for the young couple.

dali_priest_un_chien_andalou2

5. Un Chien Andalou (1929) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.  Nothing before or since has been like this surreal masterpiece. While at the Magritte exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, I realized that one of the things that makes the surrealists so appealing is that, in addition to being really creepy, they are howlingly funny.  It’s all here.  The slit eye, the priests tied to dead donkeys, peripatetic armpit hair, everything that makes the surreal the surreal. Twenty-one minutes of controlled insanity to a rollicking tango and Wagner score.

P.S.  It premiered on my birthday (well  not on my actually birthday but a few decades before.)

So watch these five films and let me know what you think.  Then you’ll be ready for the Soviets, I promise.