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. 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. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo)
  2. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  3. Fort Apache (John Ford)
  4. Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
  5. Macbeth (Orson Welles)
  6. All These Women (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice)
  8. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
  9. Deathdream (Bob Clark)
  10. Ginza Cosmetics (Mikio Naruse)

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1- When I first when crazy for movies, like around the age of 12 or so, I saw Orson Welles’ Macbeth on TV and was bowled over. I was intrigued by the play to begin with, but I had never seen anything like the movie. The ultra-expressionistic lighting and camerawork were thrilling to me. I roundly declared it my favorite movie.  I hadn’t seen it since then, but I had seen the other Welles Shakespeare adaptations (Othello, Chimes At Midnight) and was concerned that my youthful enthusiasm would be a little embarrassing to the adult me. I must say, that for what it is, it is really good.  He kind of massacres the play to make it fit into his vision. Characters are cut, new ones invented but it works.  Very well.  Jeannette Nolan is terrifying as Lady Macbeth.  Roddy McDowell is adorable and callow as the young Malcolm. I wonder how much Kurosawa was influenced by the Welles film when he made Throne of Blood? Perhaps not at all.  Perhaps the two films seem similar because an film version of the play would have to have to have similar atmospherics.

2-  I first got to know Ingmar Bergman when I was about 15 years old. One of the local TV stations would show his films late on Saturday night, hosted by critic Judith Crist. I was enthralled.  I am pretty sure that it was the only time that I saw All These Women.  I don’t know what I made of it then. Probably I thought something like ‘Europeans are very witty about sex and the relations between men and women.  This is probably very funny and when I am older I will understand it’   Well, I am older and it is awful.  I see what he was doing.  It is a sex farce but extremely labored. Smiles of a Summer Night from about 10 years before seems so much more effortless and honest (as well as funnier!) He seems use Fellini’s 8 1/2 as his jumping-off point, but in addition, he has his knife particularly sharpened for the critics. It is extremely tedious.  Hard to believe this is what he chose to make after the harrowing films informally referred to as Bergman’s Trilogy (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence). Talk about a change of pace!

What really struck me is how even with this mediocre film he exerted such an influence on Woody Allen.  The smarmy sex jokes, the frantic farce pace, even the choice of music – a 20s Jazz band version of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, seem to inform the Allen farce style.

3- Rudolph Valentino dressed up in sheik garb is so iconic, that I figured it was probably unnecessary to see the films that the images come from, since they were probably awful. Well I was a little right. The movie, The Son of The Sheik, is a dumb, Arabian-nights piece of fluff but what struck me was the erotic gaze of the camera on Valentino.  He was extremely gorgeous and exuded a real animal sex appeal. Is this the earliest example of a man being objectivized by the camera?  Probably not, but it is maybe the most powerful.

4- I really didn’t like Wes Anderson – then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel and was delighted. But, I thought it was a fluke, its success riding on the wonderful performance of Ralph Fiennes. Wrong.  Moonrise Kingdom completely charmed me, despite my earnestly trying to hate it for the first 20 minutes.  I watched it twice in one day. I wonder what delights Mr. Anderson has in store for us.

5- In Deathdream, a variation on the famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, a distraught mother prays that the notification of her son’s death in Vietnam is an error and that he will return home.  Well, she gets her wish, sorta. I remember this truly horrifying film fondly from my days in NYC when one of the local stations would show horror films late on Saturday night.  Deathdream was a standout among the other kind of awful but fun films that were shown.  What strikes me now is that this was filmed at the height of the anti-war protests.  Could war really turn us into family killing zombies?

6- I really need to write a Have You Tried ….. piece about the great, unjustly unknown in the West Mikio Naruse.  Stay tuned.

 


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Have You Tried The BRD Trilogy?

fassbinder

German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was amazingly prolific – over 40 features and shorts in just 13 years. Between 1979 and 1982 he wrote and directed three films which are probably his masterpieces.  Collectively, they are known as the BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola  and Veronika Voss. At the same time he also produced a gigantic 14-part television series based on the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as two other features.  As I said, amazingly prolific.

The films differ greatly in style, but they have much in common.  They are all set in 1950s Germany during the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (the economic miracle), which saw Germany change from a defeated, humiliated country into a financial and political powerhouse.  They all center on three extraordinary female characters who are interesting in themselves, but also are fascinating in how they become symbols of what Germany was going through.  They all also demonstrate a profound love of Hollywood films of the 1950s, especially the works of Douglas Sirk.

The Marriage of Maria Braun

Arguably the most celebrated of the three films, this was the film that turn Fassbinder from an interesting, quirky local German filmmaker into an internationally acclaimed artist. The story begins toward the end of WWII.  Maria Braun’s husband Hermann has gone off to war and is presumed killed.  As the war ends, Maria’s keen sense of self-preservation leads her into a relationship with an industrialist that teaches her to become a powerful businesswoman. The problem is that Maria is losing her soul in the process.  Much like Germany of the time. What motivates Maria and keeps her moving forward is the hope that Hermann will return.  He represents all that was kind and human and loving from before, and which Maria has suppressed in her ascent.  Much like Germany of the time. The result of her reunion with the idealized husband shows Fassbinder’s most devastating critique of what Germany had become. Romantic from the past, bloodless and mercenary in the present.

In the title role, Hanna Schygulla gives an iconic, endlessly interesting performance.  She was part of Fassbinder’s troupe and he casts her here to supreme effect.

Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun

Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun

Lola

Undeniably evoking the title character of The Blue Angel, Lola also tells the story of seductive, dangerous woman.  However, unlike the character played by Marlene Dietrich, this Lola is clearly depicted as not being motivate by sexual thrall over men, but by a clear-eyed need to be financially independent. Much like Germany of the time. Played by Barbara Sukowa, Fassbinder’s star of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, this Lola, a high-class prostitute and sometime (awful) singer in a local bordello-cum-nightclub, seems to be on a moral collision course when a new government building inspector arrives in town, determined to clean up the corruption that has led to its economic boom. This kind and gentle, Ming dynasty loving man, played heartbreakingly by Armin Mueller-Stahl, seems to evoke the character played by Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel.  But what Fassbinder has in store for both of them is quite different and quite consonant with his socialist critique of postwar Germany and the effect that rampant capitalism has on it.The echoes of Sirk, especially in the lighting and in the subversive undermining of all that the 50s held dear are yet another level of pleasure to be derived from this rich film.

Barbara Sukowa as Lola

Barbara Sukowa as Lola

Veronika Voss

Taking his cue from the noirish atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss tells the story of how a faded film star of the Nazi era who tumbles into the life of a simple sportswriter, and how both there fates are altered not, alas, for the good. The inspiration comes from the legend of UFA star Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide in 1955 under very mysterious circumstances. She may or may not have been Goebbel’s lover. Fassbinder fleshes out this story using it to  continue his exploration of the moral cost of postwar Germany’s denial of and romance for the past.   As played by Rosel Zech, Veronika Voss is evocative of the vampiric Norma Desmond with the sportswriter standing in as a poor man’s version of the William Holden gigolo from the same film.  But she is much more than that.  As the plot unravels, we come to understand that Veronika Voss’s situation might very well be a result of not looking squarely at what happened during the war and, even worse, making it the stuff of a private fairy tale.   Rosel Zech is tremendous.

Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss

Apparently Fassbinder was at work writing a fourth film in this series, when he died at the age of 37.  It was to be a film on the life of Rosa Luxemburg and it was to have starred Jane Fonda.   Imagine!

In any event, we do have these three remarkable films which act as supreme history lessons and lessons in supreme filmmaking.

Please try them and let me know what you think!