Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)

Alfred Hitchcock deplored movies that amounted to “pictures of people talking.” He considered the making of a film containing little action and structured around conversations to be the worst crime a filmmaker could commit. The irony that a work such as NOTORIOUS (1946) essentially fits that description and remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, was apparently lost on the master director. Hitch’s assessment can also be shot down with a viewing of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), a film that is not just a talk fest, but one of the most fascinating and riveting cinematic treats of the 1980s. If the conversation is bright and intriguing… It is with these possibilities in mind that I viewed BEFORE SUNRISE (1995). This very wordy (but never verbose), one hundred minute long acting exercise follows the conversations between a young American named Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Celine, played by Julie Delpy) as they spend a day and night traversing the breathtaking landscape of Vienna in the late Spring.

Jessie (his real name is James but his friends call him Jessie – perhaps because he shoots from the hip), first encounters Celine on a Vienna bound train as they travel through Europe. He is just “traveling around.” She is returning from Hungary where she was visiting her Grandmother, and plans to take the train to Paris. The first shot of the film is a clue that they will be together – at least temporarily: The parallel rails of a train track as the locomotive speeds on its way. Celine and Jessie meet when she changes her seat to avoid a bickering couple (Andrea Eckert and Hanno Poschl). This is another clue: BEFORE SUNRISE will be about relationships, especially the conflicting personalities of men and women. One of the first lines in their conversation will be about conversations, with Celine remarking, “As couples grow older they lose their ability to hear each other.” It seems men lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds and women lose touch with the lower pitched end of the spectrum. While she is referring to a literal loss, her statement could also be interpreted along figurative or symbolic lines, as we recall the arguing couple.

Later, as they ride a tram through Vienna, the subject turns to sex and love. When the couple play a version of twenty questions, Jessie asks about her first sexual attraction. Celine asks if he has ever been in love. This is the eternal divide with women interested in love and men forever obsessed with sex.

The film could also be read as an exploration of the differences between Europeans and Americans. She is cosmopolitan and speaks several languages (including English) while he is a self-described “crude American” who has only mastered English. Celine is preoccupied with stories of her Grandmother and sees herself as an elderly and wise woman (though she is only in her mid twenties.) Jessie thinks of himself as a very young boy and it is laid out clearly: Europe, the older, wiser partner and America the young snot nosed kid, will always be in conflict. Jessie plays the ignorant, ugly American joke to the hilt. When Celine points out the Danube from atop a ferris wheel, he jokes “That’s the river, right?” And he is genuinely cynical. Encountering a fortune-teller on the street, the grandmotherly woman (Erni Mangold) reads Celine’s palm, eliciting disdain from Jessie. Celine, of course, believes in the woman, partially perhaps, because of her respect for the aged. Jessie will have none of it. Affecting a Romany accent, he recreates what he feels a truthful palmist would tell a disappointed old lady. “You’re life will be a tedious collection of hours with no new passions.”

But Celine is falling for him. AS they happen upon an impoverished street poet (Dominik Castell) who asks the couple to suggest a word he will use in a poem (in exchange for a small donation), Celine picks a uniquely American one:”Milkshake.” The poem he creates on the spot is all about relationships and ends with the query “Don’t you know me by now?”

Stopping in a pub, they play pinball while once again discussing love. Both seem to take out some suppressed anger on the machine. Hitting the button with more and more intensity as they take turns, there is a sense of barely subdued violence and perhaps, sexual tension. Jessie: Love is for people afraid to be alone. There’s nothing more selfish!” Later, after leaving the pub, he reveals a paranoid streak when he states, “On some level women don’t mind the idea of destroying a man.” Celine is more philosophical, saying “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”

There is ample discussion about God and the deeper meaning of existence. An emotionally pointed scene has the couple visiting a cemetery. The countless black crucifixes that decorate the landscape of the grounds remind us of comments Jessie made earlier about reincarnation, in which he states his belief that the million or so souls that populated the world at the beginning have splintered into the six or seven billion that exist today. The crosses stretch to the horizon and we are struck by the universality of human existence.

We see the couple working together in a revelatory scene in yet another pub. Jessie talks the bartender (Hayman Maria Buttinger) into giving him a bottle of wine (the broke American is now the panhandler), while Celine steals wine glasses from under the preoccupied barkeeper’s nose. In an isolated park the two share the wine, and apparently sex, but not before much discussion as to whether the latter is a good idea. Jessie, of course, thinks it’s a great one, eventually having his way with Celine.

As morning beckons, Celine and Jessie end up on a deserted street dancing to harpsichord music played by a man in a nearby apartment (Wolfgang Gluxam), just as they danced the night before to “Yakety Sax” at an amusement park. The crude red neck American song has given way to the elegant strains of European classical music. Celine and Jessie have each given up a piece of themselves for the relationship.

At the train station that morning, they agree to meet again “six months from last night.” Originally they intended to keep their evening together a one night affair – something to remember for the rest of their lives – but emotions got the better of them – even the love leery American. In what appears to be a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, Linklatter closes his film with shots of all the places the couple visited during the previous night. Each location is now empty (Ozu frequently ends a scene on a shot of an empty room – creating a feeling of melancholy), except for an old man in the town square and an elderly woman in the park where the couple indulged in the pilfered wine and much debated sexual coupling. No matter our experiences in life, we often end up old and alone. Perhaps it will be a mistake for the two to meet again. I may view the sequels that followed to find out Celine and Jessie’s ultimate opinion of their decision. The continuing conversation would be an interesting one on which to eavesdrop.

CREDITS: Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. WITH: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert, Hanno Poschl, Erin Mangold,Dominik Castell, Hayman Maria Buttinger and Wolfgang Gluxam.

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July 24, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, film directors, film drama, films set in Austria, independent film | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953)

Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

fast, cheap & out of control (1997)

Errol morris’ existential documentary “fast, cheap & out of control” (1997) often has the feel of a fellini movie – with its big top scenes and nino rota style music score by caleb sampson.  But if the “circus of life” attitude is prevalent throughout, it is tempered by a somewhat somber mood concerning the human condition.  Somber, perhaps because there is a belief held by some of those interviewed for the film, in the inevitable decline of humanity.  Maybe this is the reason the films’s title and the names of the principal humans involved are all presented in lower case letters.   Well, maybe…

Fast, cheap & out of control, examines the lives and work of four men, all of whom are involved in vocations that are admirably unique.  They are, in order of their first appearances in the film, dave hoover, a wild animal trainer, george mendonca, a topiary gardener, ray mendez, and expert on the naked mole rat and rodney brooks, a robot maker.  Emerging from the exploration of these wildly disparate careers, is the theme of life, human and animal, real and artificial. 

Mendez and brooks began their careers with a fascination for insects – brooks for how they moved and mendez particularly interested in their societal structures.    Brooks as a young man loved to build computers, then became enthralled with the world of robots.  Even after entering a career as a robot maker, he was startled to see one of his creations actually move.  He was responsible for the movement, after all, but was never-the-less intoxicated by the belief that he somehow created a form of life. 

George mendonca, it could be said, is a creator of life as well – specializing in huge animals sculpted from bushes.  A haunting shot, near the start of the film, features a giraffe seen from a low angle, darkened skies pouring down rain.  Stunningly photographed by robert richardson, the “green animal” seems just in time to board Noah’s ark.  This may be seen by some as a strangely apocalyptic image for such a beautiful film, but as we will see, an appropriate one. 

If the men seem exceptionally nerdy, human bonding is seen as essential as told in the story of dave hoover’s developing relationship with a childhood heroe –  lion tamer and “B” picture star, Clyde Beatty.  First introduced to lion taming by beatty’s films, hoover later met his idol in the air force and the two became friends. 

Although all four of these intriguing gentleman are given roughly equal screen time, it soon becomes clear that the circus milieu of hoover’s profession will act as the major metaphor.  As a microcosm of life, it is rarely surpassed.  Fellini was well aware of this and so is errol morris.  Every variety of humans is found here, as well as a startling array of animals.  Morris frequently places commentary by all four subjects over circus footage.  We see images of balancing acts – a man balancing a glass of water on his forehead, dogs balancing on a spinning wheel and women atop large rubber balls.  Life, it would appear is seen by the filmmaker as, indeed, a balancing act – for man and beast alike.  As hoover and mendez attest, we learn by trial and error.  Hoover even had a near death experience in his act, when a lion’s claw got tangled in the band of his wristwatch.  The lesson learned by hoover?  Never wear a watch again – at least not while dealing with man-eating animals.   

According to rodney brooks, evolution is as important in the creation of robots, as he feels it is in man’s.  “Inside the human brain is a reptile brain.  Inside a reptile brain is a fish brain.”  All life is connected – even artificial life, which he sees as an evolutionary extension of man – and the final exalting level of man’s journey.  In a surreal piece of stock footage, we see a man walking a robot on a leash.  The leash won’t be necessary for long.  But george mendonca has a conflicting view, explaining in-depth why hand shears are superior to electric shears.  It is the human touch that makes them so effective. 

Despite this, man is always learning.  As rodney brooks points out, “I seek to understand life by building something lifelike.”  And ray mendez explains that people come to his mole rat exhibits to “find themselves in another social animal, to find common ground.”  And much common ground there is.  Mendez discusses how mole rats are always able to “find the alien in their midst”, sensing by smell (these weird little animals like to roll around in their own feces and urine) which rat may be a newcomer, and behaving with the mandatory scorn.  Hoover feels lions are very conscious beings, always “scheming” , he reports.  Mendez believes the source of stability for all living things is the fear of death.  It keeps us, for the most part, in line.  But there are differences as well.  He states that mole rats are forced to separate the sick and dying from the heard.  By contrast, when the chips are down, humans “culturally let everybody die.”  There is an undeniable air of the poetic, as morris follows these words with a shot of empty shoes at the foot of a circus net. 

The title is explained when brooks discusses a theory that thousands of tiny robots could be used to explore other planets.  Such robots would be “fast, cheap and out of control,”  With many robots, the loss of one or two would be less damaging to the mission.  These comments are accompanied by shots of World War II paratroopers leaping from planes, and are followed by mendez describing how “soldiers” protect the mole rat nest. 

As with all forms of life, keeping animal sculptures (and the plants that form them) alive is a constant battle.  There are heavy storms that weigh them down and, of course, insects.  It may all begin and end with insects – or insect like robots. 

A final note of philosophy comes from ray mendez: “Only in captivity can an animal get to reach old age.”  This may say more about the human condition than anything else in the film.  Eventually,  death is the ultimate fate of all living things, except perhaps, those that are artificially created.  As rodney brooks suggests, all carbon based forms of life may be on their way out.  Stock footage from old clyde beatty serials, shows volcanoes erupting and earthquakes rattling the planet.  After this we are shown a circus clown being chased by a skeleton.  But there is hope for the continued existence of mankind, according to morris, who uses footage of beatty emerging from the ruins with a small boy and other examples of trembling humanity.

The final image is of george mendonca, umbrella in hand, walking through his topiary garden as a steady rain falls on him and his creations.  Errol morris may believe, not in the decline of man, but in what he would probably refer to as man’s proper place in the chain of life.   This is not an apocalyptic rain after all, but rather one conducive to life – in all its forms.

CREDITS: Directed by errol morris. Photographed by robert richardson. Music by caleb sampson. With: dave hoover, george mendonca, ray mendez, rodney brooks.            

April 23, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, documentary, film directors | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HEAD (1968)

Premiering during one of America’ most violent years, HEAD (1968) is an interesting time warp experience for modern audiences.  If the film’s preoccupation with the Vietnam war seems inordinate, it must be remembered that in 1968 the nation was embroiled in one of the most traumatic experiences of its existence.  Director/writer Bob Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) made HEAD two years before their breakthrough with the ant-establishment classic FIVE EASY PIECES.  Their annoyance –  if not outright anger –  with the manipulative powers of the media, especially television, is palpable in the film.  Also angry are “The Monkees”.  There is a double irony here in that the bubble gum pop band was created especially for TV and that the members were assembled for that medium by none other than Bob Rafelson.  It is an irony not lost on anyone involved, as the movie amply demonstrates.

HEAD begins with an extreme close-up of a red ribbon, which could also stand in for a stripe of the American flag.  The red symbolizes the blood shed in Vietnam in particular and America’s fascination with violence in general – at least as Rafelson and Nicholson see it.  The ribbon is to be cut as part of a ceremony marking the opening of a bridge.  Suddenly (well, not too suddenly, considering how the ribbon cutting drags on) Micky Dolenz sprints across the bridge –  breaking the ribbon – followed by the other Monkees.  They are – in no particular order of importance – Mike Nesmith, David Jones and Peter Tork.  Micky jumps off the bridge leading to several psychedelic minutes of cavorting with mermaids.  Ahhh, freedom…the yearning of all disaffected youth.  A few moments later, the band members perform a song as they appear in tiny TV screens that pop up, one after another, with each line of the ditty.  The song (and the visualization) is all about the bands manufactured status – a gentle self mocking.  The bit ends with the first of the pic’s many war related images: A Viet Cong prisoner being assassinated by his South Vietnamese captor.  This newsreel footage provides a jarring moment and is followed by a close-up of a  teen aged girl screaming – for “the Monkees”.  We immediately know where the film is going, and the rest of HEAD pretty much chugs along on this same track – a series of black out sketches on how the media exploit both tragedy and the public’s need for escapism, leading to TV fare such as “The Monkees”.  The lads are next seen in war trenches where they are assaulted by an American football player in full athletic regalia.  America’s fascination with violence carries over to our sports as well.  The scene ends with the athlete running headfirst into the wall of the trench, knocking himself unconscious, and the filmmakers’ attitude toward the futility of war is made obvious.  

Consumerism is a bi-product of the media and we are treated to several scenes of anti-consumerism, including a desert set one in which Mickey blows up a Coca-Cola machine with a tank.    

After a western sketch (what is more violent than the settling of the West?), the film takes us to a diner where a waitress asks David, “Are you trying to change your image?”  Very possibly, as he is listed in the credits as “David”  Jones, rather than the name with which he had previously been associated – “Davy”.  Despite claims in the opening song, it seems that changing the images of the “monkees” is very much the intent.  Out with the bubble headed pop stars, in with the serious social satirists.  Even if they satirize themselves and their own brand. 

Along the way  several movies are spoofed, including GOLDEN BOY and HUMORESQUE, and the band members express displeasure with the phoniness of show business, as well as their own “plastic” reputations.  Early on, the boys in the band are transformed into mannequins just as they are mauled by a hysterical mob of teen-aged girls. 

A running gag throughout the film has our guys trapped in a giant “black box” as  the hold television has on them – and us – is all encompassing.  In perhaps a dig at many 60’s rock stars’ reliance on Indian Gurus for inspiration and enlightenment, Peter is visited by a Swami who asks “Who is to say what is real or vividly imagined?”  A good question, considering the media obsessed culture of 1968 and today.  At once mocked and begrudgingly respected by Rafelson and Nicholson, this Guru comes up with one of the central ideas of the film: appearance verses reality.  Show biz is fake but the horrors of war are real.  Perhaps the attempt at image transformation  for the “Monkees” will fall just short of succeeding.  As if to inform them of their ultimate insignificance, Frank Zappa arrives to ironically state: “The youth of America count on you to show them the way.” 

The film ends where it began, with the boys jumping off that bridge.  But it was all for not, as they wind up once again trapped in the black box.  This time the box has a picture tube like window, revealing the Monkees to be submerged in water as though floating helplessly in a fish bowl.  Appropriate…Unfortunately, nothing in HEAD is even remotely funny.  With all the imagination and energy expended it should be.  But there are cute cameos by media personalities of the era and just before, as if to point out the arbitrary and fleeting nature of celebrity.  We are obsessed with the famous, but the turnover rate is high.   Among the now (and at the time) almost forgotten "stars" appearing are Annette Funicello, Victor Mature and boxer Sonny Liston. 

CREDITS: Directed by Bob Rafelson.  Written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson.  Director of Photography Michel Hugo.  Music by Ken Thorne.  Songs by The Monkees.

With The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, David Jones and Peter Tork), Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Rona Barrett

 

  

         

April 2, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

To quote Don Ameche, “Things change.”  For all our stiff-necked opposition, progress, for better or worse, is inevitable.  Transformation, whether of a society or of an individual, is at the heart of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), Orson Welles’ follow up to CITIZEN KANE.  Though wrestled away from Welles by studio bosses and eventually mangled and truncated, AMBERSONS manages to be a worthy successor to his cinematically adventurous and dramatically astounding debut.

In late nineteenth century Indiana, Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), the daughter of a wealthy businessman known as “the Major” (Richard Bennett), secretly loves Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) but marries the milquetoast (and much safer) Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway).  They have a son George who is, to say the least, incorrigible in his youth.  He grows to adulthood (here portrayed by Tim Holt) as nothing more than a slacker, in the modern vernacular, and he scoffs at innovation in general and Eugene especially, who is fascinated by the prospects of “a new type of horseless carriage” or automobile, in other words.  Eugene invests his money in bringing the idea to fruition.  He meets with great success and his fortunes rise dramatically even as the Amberson’s falter.

A film about change, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is filled with amazing cinematic transitions.  The most impressive of which are found in the famous “sleigh ride” scene, as Eugene desperately tries to crank start his new car.  Welles and his editor, Robert Wise, cut from the image and sound of the crank to shots of a sleigh hurrying along the winter landscape, jingling sleigh bells filling the country air.  Over and over they cross-cut these visual and audio effects, more and more quickly each time, until the car finally starts, its motor drowning out the sound of the bells.  This  symbolic victory of modern technology over the old ways will not be an easy one, however:  The car soon stalls, and the horse-drawn sleigh runs wild causing its occupants, George and Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter as Eugene’s daughter) to tumble onto the snowy banks.  Like the runaway progress that will later be illustrated in the film, nature can be wild and dangerous as well.  Eventually, all the main characters pile into Eugene’s car and drive off shakily into the future.  The scene ends with a bucolic “iris out”, a quaint silent movie technique, and is followed by another startling transition: Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s  grim, forbidding music we fade into a shot of the Minafer’s front door opening to usher in mourners.  Wilbur has died.  This is the most somber and oppressive scene in the film.  Wordless, all is told by images – and Herrmann’s music.  Coming after the electricity of the sleigh ride/auto scene, it is all the more effective.  The old ways are truly dying.  As Eugene says earlier in the film “Times aren’t gone, they’re dead.  There are no times but new times.”

To Booth Tarkington’s genteel novel of changing times, Orson Welles brings a Santa’s sack full of expressionism and energy.  Like much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, Welles’ film has many scenes set on or around staircases.  Staircases, of course were a favorite motif of German expressionist directors, and here as in those earlier films, the winding stairs seem to represent the ups and downs, the fortunes of each individual life’s journey.  A key scene set on stairs involves George’s first encounter with Lucy, a woman he will soon love.  They are seated on the steps, he on the left side of the screen with Lucy opposite him.  A bannister post rises up between them and reaches, with its ornamentation, to the top of the frame, splitting the image in two.  The old-fashioned opulence of the Ambersons lifestyle as represented by the staircase post, will come between them.  His lack of willingness to change is one of George’s identifying characteristics.  Another revelatory scene on this same set occurs when Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead – in a wonderful turn as a sexually repressed biddy) confronts George with her belief that Isabel has loved Eugene all along, even while married to Wilbur.  Other moments are shot from the stairs or are photographed from the viewpoint of a child peering through the slats of the bannister.

Eugene’s words that changes brought by the automobile to society may not be all positive, are treated by Welles as prophecy.  As the film progresses and Eugene’s business flourishes, the sounds of car engines and horns become overwhelming, even when the noisy machines are not shown.  This is especially notable as George and Lucy walk along a city street, discussing the changing fortunes of the Ambersons.   Later, it seems ironic in the extreme when George is hit and nearly killed by a car.  But by this time he has proven himself to be a better man than we may have expected.  While the vanishing wealth and subsequent accident suggest that George Amberson Minafer has “finally gotten his comeuppance” (as the townspeople had wished) his behavior in the face of it is surprising.  He decides to look for a job in a high paying but dangerous profession so as to provide Fanny with a comfortable existence.  His transition from nere-do-well to practical man is complete.  Throughout the film neighbors refer to George as “Mr. Amberson” suggesting the dominance the Amberson wealth has over him.  We have the feeling at the film’s conclusion that he will finally be correctly addressed as “Mr. Minafer”.

After the accident, Lucy visits George in the hospital and it is suggested that the full-blown romance he has always yearned for may become a reality.  The rise of the modern automobile based society has been a mixed blessing as Eugene (and Welles) had predicted.  It nearly lead to George’s death but it was also responsible for true love blooming – and the blossoming of a new age.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS represents Orson Welles at his near best.  While CITIZEN KANE and TOUCH OF EVIL are the ultimate expressions of his talent, AMBERSONS contains many of his hallmarks: From the moody photography of Stanley Cortez, here doing his best to outshine Gregg Toland, to the elegant camera movements and “lightning mixes” of sound and images.  And, of course, there is the Welles stock company of players, many with him since his radio days.  These include Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorhead and Erskine Sanford.

Welles claims forty-five minutes was cut from the film by meddling studio executives.  What idiots these bunglers were.  The “suits” haunted Welles throughout his career and one is left to wonder “what might have been?”, for Orson Welles’ larger body of work, and for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in particular.

CREDITS:  Written and Directed by Orson Welles, from the novel by Booth Tarkington.  Photographed by Stanley Cortez.  Edited by Robert Wise.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  Starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Erskine Sanford.

October 7, 2012 Posted by | American Film, expressionism, film directors, film editors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

There is an interesting spiritual tension running throughout Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).  It is one, not so much of good versus evil, but of innocence verses cynicism.  As this unique film set during the depression begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a large sum of money, stolen in a bank robbery, with his two small children.  The police closing in, he instructs son John (Billy Chapin) to hide the money in a safe place.  Also closing in is Ben’s former cellmate, The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  Powell will do anything to get his hands on the bank loot.  Ben is later hanged for a killing committed during the robbery, giving Powell an opportunity to worm (and I do mean “worm”) his way into Ben’s shattered family.  It is here that we see the most profound example of innocence and cynicism as Ben’s daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is immediately enamored of this ravenous wolf while John is filled with suspicion for the monster who will soon become his stepfather.  Also taken with Powell is the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).  She, along with most of the town adores this Bible quoting character.  In fact most everyone in this small town quotes scripture fanatically.  Along with this religiosity comes an almost pathological hatred of sexuality, especially of the feminine sort.  As an old lady proudly remarks of her sex life with her husband of forty years: “I just lie there and think about my canning!”  Powell also warns Willa on their wedding night that there will be no sexual relations, as a woman’s body is made solely for making babies and he has no interest in having  children.  Willa later states “My whole body is quivering with goodness!”  This, of course, presents another tension: One between human nature and the harsh standards set by fanaticism.  The sexual tension in the film is beautifully illustrated as Powell, seething with self-righteous hatred for female sexuality and the temptations it imposes on men, watches a stripper perform in a nightclub.  To our surprise (the film was made in 1955, after all) Powell’s switch blade suddenly pokes through his pants pocket.  A phallic image so blatant, it must have caused the censor spasms of anxiety way back when. 

As Willa realizes that Powell is only after money, the crazed preacher kills her in a scene so brilliantly stylized, it guarantees Laughton’s status as a master filmmaker in this, his only film as director.  (Also unforgettable are the shots of Willa’s corpse and car submerged in a lake, the water causing her hair to wave as though being blown by the wind on a summer drive.)  The couple’s bedroom is designed and lit to resemble a church and Robert Mitchum gives a chilling performance as he stares out a large window, his right hand raised to God.  His wife is in bed, her hands folded over her chest as though in a casket.  She knows her husband only wants the money but amazingly still believes he was sent by God to deliver her from her sins.  But she does know…Again the switch blade comes out – this time to finally sacrifice a woman who is abhorrent in Powell’s mind.  All this twisted religion is presented by Laughton and screenwriter James Agee as a crutch as is the alcohol abuse presented in the film.  This is apparent in the depiction of “Uncle Birdie” (James Gleason) an elderly friend of John’s.  He is the only character in the film with no interest in religion, but when he spies Willa’s body in the lake, he indulges in booze and mumbles in a drunken haze “I swear on..the book…”  Even this proud man reaches for a Bible and strong drink in times of trouble. 

The aforementioned tensions – between sexuality and religion, innocence and cynicism – are magnificently illustrated in Powell’s tatoos.  “Love” on the one hand and “hate” on the other, these elements of existence are forever intertwined as Powell demonstrates by linking his fingers together.  But there is another tension or conflict in the film and in life:  That of false or twisted religion and the real thing.  The false is represented by Powell and the hypocritical towns people who gather as a lynch mob when the preacher is finally arrested for Willa’s murder.  Earlier in the film, at one of Powell’s religious  revivals, torches throw shadows on the walls that remind us of burning KKK crosses.  The real deal is represented by an elderly woman, Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes in abandoned children and rescues John and Pearl when they flee from their homicidal stepfather.  Children, as presented here, are the ultimate innocents, and they must be brought up right.  The first shot of Miss Cooper’s kids has them suddenly standing up in a garden, coming into frame as though they sprang out of the ground. 

The conflict between the two approaches to faith is demonstrated as Miss Cooper, waiting for the inevitable confrontation with Powell, joins in a hymn Powell is singing outside her window.  The two will forever be interlocked like love and hate. 

There is an interesting depiction of animals in the film.  Like the humans around them, they can be either victim or victimizer.  Cooper watches an owl kill a rabbit and remarks “It’s a hard world for little things.”  After she shoots a menacing Powell, the maniac minister screams out like a stuck hog, a bestial moment for a wild animal.  It is a comical moment as well, which confused me the first time I saw the film…Then I remembered the animal references.  Miss Cooper is one of God’s “little things” indeed – fragile and gentle for the most part – but she has the true faith in the true God by her side…and a loaded gun. 

The villainous preacher would become a rank stereotype in future films and TV shows, but Charles Laughton was somewhat of a trailblazer.  If this trail was subsequently beaten down and worn out Laughton was not to blame, as he seemed, at least with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, to greatly admire genuine religious convictions and ideals.

CREDITS: Directed by Charles Laughton.  Written by James Agee.  Based on the novel by Davis Grubb.  Photography by Stanley Cortez.  Music by Walter Schumann.  With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, James Gleason, Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden.

July 12, 2012 Posted by | American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

FULL FRONTAL (2002)

FULL FRONTAL (2002) is one of several Steven Soderbergh digital video experiments, the most famous of which is the 2005 work BUBBLE.  The former is concerned with a lot of things, from Hollywood’s depiction of the sexuality of black men to a more severe form of fascism – as a theater group prepares a satirical low-budget play about Hitler.  But ultimately it seems to be an exploration of the relationship or conflict between art and reality.  Several of  the characters in FULL FRONTAL are actors involved in the creation of a film called RENDEZVOUS, which tells the story of a film journalist falling in love with a black movie star.  The actors who star in this film within a film (Julia Roberts is “Catherine” who portrays “Francesca”  and Blair Underwood is “Nicholas” acting the part of “Calvin”) are among the unhappy people preparing to attend a party for a movie producer (David Duchovny) who ends up committing suicide the day of the gathering.  The screenwriter of RENDEZVOUS, Carl (David Hyde Pierce) is involved in a failing marriage to Lee (Catherine Keener), a successful business woman who is having an affair with Nicholas. 

An engaging moment from RENDEZVOUS has Calvin reciting a rap poem about Hollywood’s fear of black male sexuality, and when an interracial sexual encounter between Lee and Nicholas occurs, Soderbergh shoots it in a distorted blur, implying that Americans in general are not ready for such things.  (He may be selling us short, considering the mixed racial identity of our current President). 

In FULL FRONTAL’s sharpest scene, Lee tosses around a balloon globe with her employees, demanding they name all the countries in Africa.  This presses the African/black theme further while simultaneously reminding us of Chaplin balancing that globe in THE GREAT DICTATOR.  Could Soderbergh be commenting on what he feels are the fascistic aspects of big business?   Another Hitler knock off (Nicky Katt) amuses us in the experimental play “The Sound And The Furher”, scenes of which periodically pop up in FULL FRONTAL

The scenes of the daily interactions between all these disparate characters are cunningly shot on home digital video, while the scenes from RENDEZVOUS are filmed on glossy 35 millimeter film stock.  The glamorous Hollywood images are contrasted with the drab reality of everyday life as depicted in the digital footage.  However, even those “realistic”  images, as the last shot of the film reminds us, turn out to be artifice: The creations of  skilled story tellers – director Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough.  Film (and video by inference) is fake, in spight of or perhaps because of  the efforts put into its presentation.  FULL FRONTAL is ostensibly a piece of cinema verite, but the director (as he had planned all along) eventually throws up his hands implying that capturing reality on film or video is impossible.  And what about the reality of Soderbergh’s pronouncements on race and big business?

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.  Written by Coleman Hough.  Director of Photography: Peter Andrews.  With David Duchovny, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood and Nicky Katt

June 10, 2012 Posted by | American Film, film directors, independent film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

TIM BURTON’S DARK SHADOWS

With skin as pale as in any of his other collaborations with Tim Burton, Johnny Depp revisits a piece of 1970’s Gothic camp in DARK SHADOWS (2012).  As vampire Barnabas Collins, he sports a none to subtle pair of fangs yet gums his way through the performance.  This is not to say that his performance is bad-it isn’t at all-but he just seems to be coasting here.   It is as if he has taken an easy part with a proven director and is relaxing on-screen.  As a result, the film is fun but nothing spectacular, and that is probably as intended.  This film lightly entertains right from its eighteenth century prologue, through to its eye-opening conclusion. 

The early scenes present Barnabas as the young son of a wealthy Maine family who is involved in a tryst with a young domestic, Angelique (Eva Green) at the Collins mansion.  But this beautiful maid happens to be a witch and when spurned by her lover takes the inconsiderate action of turning him into a vampire.  Locked in a coffin for 200 years, he is unearthed in 1972, providing infinite opportunities for fish out of water jokes.  Some of them-well most of them-are pretty funny, especially a hilarious scene of dope smoking hippies, with a twist I never saw coming. 

Aside from the comedy, the plotting and characters follow the TV series closely.  Operating a fishery that is in competition with the Collin’s cannery, is Angelique, and she is still hot for Barnabas.  He, however, is prepared to give his heart to the comely Josette (Bella Heathcote).  Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer-even better preserved than Barnabas) is the matriarch of the Collins clan.  Her family’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) is busy giving Barnabas blood transfusions in order to cure his vampirism.  There is another twist here, and Dr. Hoffman promptly performs oral sex on the vampire, who returns the favor by sucking her blood.  All of this is approached by Burton with his usual macabre wit and intriguing visual touches, particularly in the depiction of Dr Hoffman’s demise. 

Explicit in the film is the theme of the American food industry as being corrupt and malevolent.  In the prologue, Barnabas describes Angelique as discovering the proper name of the Devil himself.   The woman reads a book on witchcraft featuring the name “Mephistopheles” emblazoned in Gothic type, the “M” baring a startling resemblance to the “Golden Arches” of the McDonald’s logo.  On the table at which the Collins family has breakfast, a Wheaties box is prominently displayed.  Since the athlete featured on the package is O.J. Simpson, Burton’s attitudinal proclivities are obvious. 

Tim Burton probably set the film in the early 1970s partly because that is when the original TV show was aired.  But there may be another reason: It was the height of the “mod”  era, with mini skirts, lava lamps, psychedelic posters and the introduction of freewheeling attitudes toward sex and feminism.  There was probably never another time contrasting so perfectly with the eighteenth century. 

Not as perversely jolly as BEETLEJUICE or as thrilling as BATMAN, DARK SHADOWS is never the less an acceptably effective piece of Grand Guignol and occasional cheekiness that is a worthy addition to Tim Burton’s impressive cannon.

Directed by Tim Burton.  Written by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August.  Based on characters created by Dan Curtis.  Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.  Music by Danny Elfman.  With Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and Bella Heathcote.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | American Film, Dan Curtis, film directors, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer, Tim Burton | , , | 1 Comment

Talmage Cooley’s DIMMER

There are a couple of reasons why Talmage Cooley’s DIMMER (2005) is the shortest film to which I have ever dedicated an entire column.  For one, most short films simply do not contain enough material to accommodate a review.  And most significantly, DIMMER is a work so rich and soulful that it can be analyzed in print and still leave viewers with hours of discussion ahead of them. 

From the very first image – a young blind man pointing a pistol directly at the camera – DIMMER takes aim at the expectations of the audience.  This amazing documentary follows four blind youths, who seem to be in their late teens or early twenties, as they traverse the ruins of Buffalo, New York.  These men destroy our illusions of what it means to be blind as they undertake activities from playing catch (though not very successfully) to riding bikes.  The latter moment is captured in cheeky fashion by director Cooley who shows the young people cycling in the pitch black of a northern New York night.  In such situations we are all equal.  One of the group discusses the ease with which sightless people can engage in fist fights with the sighted.  “Landing punches” is easy he assures us, just listen for the breathing.  Well, easy for him. 

The film’s main focus is Mike Cieslinksi, who became blind as a baby and now has artificial eyes.  He wanders the city talking with his estranged girlfriend on his cell phone.  His pain is palpable as he tries to bring about reconciliation.  A broken heart is the same in blackness or in the bright light of day. 

For a film ostensibly about blindness DIMMER is a work rife with sensory excitement.  The cinematography provided by Jim Wall is revelatory in its explicit black and white textures.  The sounds as well overwhelm us: The foul language used by the cast to express themselves.  Distant trains rumble along.  The echoing of sticks and rods banged against empty oil drums.  The winds ceaseless mourning.  The creepy Hitchcockian bird cries that follow us around.  And especially the roar of Niagara Falls.  We wonder what it would be like to experience these sounds as the blind hear them – so much more haunting and intense.  After experiencing life through these young men, it makes sense when Mike comments on his lost love: “I’m blind so I don’t judge by looks, but that bitch was ugly!”

Several times throughout the film the screen goes black, leaving us in total darkness.  For just a brief moment here and there, we can imagine what blindness must be like.  But then the lights come back on… for us.

CREDITS: Directed by Talmage Cooley.  Cinematography by Jim Wall.  Edited by Crandall Miller.  Sound by Brian Blackburn, Michael Fitzpatrick and Lustmord.  Produced by Talmage Cooley, Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti.  Music by INTERPOL.

July 28, 2010 Posted by | American Film, documentary, film directors, independent film | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alfred Hitchcock’s final days

Alfred Hitchcock is confined to his bed, sitting up only occasionally to take a soothing sip of cool water from a glass he keeps on the nightstand.  He leans back again and waits…It is April 1980 and a few weeks earlier he could get around-a little- with the aid of a walker, and a stiff belt of Vodka.  His home at Bellagio Road has been his cage for the last few months-a private trap like the ones Norman Bates and Marion Crane found themselves in some twenty years before.  Traps like so many of the characters from his films endured.  It seems that the story from his youth-that famously claustrophobic one, the one that played itself out over and over in Hitchcock’s nightmares (filmic and otherwise)-will be with him to the end: Hitchcock, the boy, no more than five, locked in a jail cell by a London Policemen at the urging of the child’s father, William.  “This is what we do to naughty little boys”.  The policemen’s words, so scarring, so traumatic, so…well in fact, no one will ever know how much of the story is true and how much is Hitchcock exagerating-the years piling onto his fragile psyche.  Maybe the young Alfred-his parents called him “Fred”, later he would be known to the world as “Hitch”-was simply the recipient of a stern talking to by the cop about some long forgotten infraction.  Whatever happened that day so many years ago, it helped mold Hitch’s professional career from the start in the 1920s untill the very last film.  But it is 1980 now and he has given up all pretense of remaining the great director. 

He closed his office at Universal studios in late 1979, a few months after dismissing his last collaborator screenwriter David Freeman.  The two men would never see the screenplay they created-the spy thriller, THE SHORT NIGHT-become a film.  Perhaps Hitch knew it would never reach the screen, all along.  The director invented scenes for the script so outrageous that one is left to wonder…grotesque scenes of graphic masturbation engaged in by the male and female lead characters.  And worse-Hitchcock became obsessed with the idea that the film’s hero should, along the way, commit rape.  This last idea is the reason his first writer on THE SHORT NIGHT, Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FAMILY PLOT), left the project in disgust.  How, he wondered, could the audience be expected to root for such a despicable character?  It can’t  be argued that such ideas were the result of encroaching senility.  Hitchcock included a suggestion of masturbation in a never produced screenplay of 1967, called “Kaleidoscope”.  And Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) rapes his wife, Marnie (Tippy Hedren) in the 1964 film of the same name.  Patrick McGilligan points out in his impressive bio, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, A LIFE IN DARKNESS AND LIGHT, that Freeman became convinced the filmmaker always had a Dionysian streak.  A streak that after nearly 80 years of life, could no longer be suppressed.  Not that it ever was completely.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s strict Roman Catholic upbringing was like a cap on a well that loosened more and more as he grew older.  The geyser is finally bursting forth in his final years.  He has left behind the subtlety that served him so well in his films-especially the earlier ones.  His loneliness and horror now are too intense.  His wife of 53 years, Alma, is no longer much company since being incapacitated by a stroke in 1972.  He gets a few visitors.  Old collaborators such as Norman Lloyd, who was so chilling falling from the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR.  Hume Cronyn (unforgettable as Herbie Hawkins in SHADOW OF A DOUBT) shows up one last time and Hitch becomes inconsolable as they discuss the past.  He knows this will be their last meeting.  Then there are the ugly outbursts of anger, as the once great director screams in rage at nonplussed visitors.  He makes it quite clear that he wants to be left alone.  Soon, he will get his wish.  But it is he who abandoned them. 

He has lost interest in everything.  He has ceased his private screenings of recent and classic films.  Even his cherished vodka no longer holds any magic for him.  It has been replaced by that glass of water.  Hitchcock, confined to his bed with various ailments (kidney, heart etc.), but nothing that could be considered truly fatal, seems to be willfully bringing about his own death.  He waits…and perhaps dwells on the past.  The heady successes of his film career.  His unspoken heroics during WW II, when he helped pay the way for British war orphans to be resettled in the U.S. and Canada.  Thoughts of his mother, Emma, whom he so adored.  Of course he thinks of Alma, a filmmaker herself.  She co-wrote many of  his early films and shared her life, as well as her art with him.  Then there is his only child, Patricia, who appeared in several of his movies.  She has always been a good daughter, one to make a father proud.  And England, his beloved homeland, where he began in silent films as a title card designer and had his first thrilling successes as a director.  There will always be an England-if not an Alfred Hitchcock.  Barely cognizant now, perhaps he has shadowed memories of those triumphs that came too late in life to be savored fully: His AFI life achievement award ceremony in March 1979-and his Knighthood-it is Sir Alfred now.  Coming as it did just a few months ago in early 1980, the honor seems a wasted, empty gesture.  And he dwells on something he can never forget: That jail cell…the one that left him with a life long fear of the police, and a need to trap his characters and the world, in a vice grip of suspense, anxiety and fear. 

Find out about the BFI’s efforts to restore early Hitchcock films and what you can do to help at: Rescue the Hitchcock 9

RELATED POST: Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (1927)

July 18, 2010 Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville Hitchcock, American Film, British film, film directors, Hume Cronyn, NormanLloyd, Patricia Hitchcock | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments