Sunday, November 29, 2009


It is remarkable how a movie can give you almost exactly what you expect, with few if any surprises and still be completely delightful. So it is with The Blind Side (2009) a film of decent sentiment and a refreshing reticence that both mirrors the character's own proclivities and prevents the film from becoming bathetic or self-congratulatory.

There's this thing my sister does when a really good part of a movie is coming. You know, the part where Jimmy Stewart tells off the villain, or Harpo destroys the stuffed shirts or the con men trick the crooked bank president. She drums on her lap very rapidly, sometimes accompanying with a sotto voce "goody goody goody." I know exactly what she means. The anticipation of delight sometimes outweighs the moment of pleasure itself. And one doesn't have to have seen the film before to know when the good bit is coming. In The Blind Side, there is the moment when Michael returns to football practice after a stern but clarifying talk with his adoptive mother (played by Sandra Bullock). You know now he understands what he has to do. And in case we weren't sure, the film slows down and the music begins a low thrumming rhythm. And although nothing that follows is remotely surprising, it is oh, so satisfying, as Michael begins to demolish every tackler in sight.

The film has an odd shape and each of the three acts feels quite separate from each other. And I am sure people are going to comment that the only Black social or family life seen is broken or degenerate. Only individual black characters are allowed dignity or accomplishment--they apparently can't be trusted in groups. That problem may be built into the story, but I am surprised it does not seem to have been addressed by the filmmakers.

You'll see the term "tearjerker" tossed around in connection with this movie--people are bound to make comparisons with Remember The Titans and others of that ilk. But what is remarkable is the film's reluctance to jerk tears. Oh, they may come, but not due to any manipulation. Led by Ms. Bullock's extremely focused, detailed and disciplined performance, the film never begs, never pleads for its characters. It allows them to earn the emotional responses, just as Michael's true-life family and mentors made sure he earned his rewards. Well done.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

River journey

You probably think you've already seen Trouble The Water, a 2008 documentary inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina. If not literally seen it before, you may feel, as I did, so surfeited by images of that catastrophe, as to have "Katrina fatigue."

Get over it. This is not a re-working of Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke. It does not provide a general survey of the events, nor does it dive into the politics, as Lee's lengthier film does. This sly film is about more serious business. It is nothing less than the spiritual journey of its protagonist, Kimberly Rivers Roberts (pictured here).

At the film's start, we see her sassy and confident, ready to document the big event to come, possibly as grist for her own creative mill, as she is an aspiring rapper. Then events overwhelm her and her family and then she and her husband Scott, who seems to be one notch above street hustler begin to accept responsibility for their own situation, and then, for others. Kimberly, who was just 24 at the story's beginning becomes the central figure in her family, and then begins to build a larger family around here, drawing in others in need. The end of the film does not offer a solution, but it does provide catharsis, as Scott learns to help others rebuild with the help of a willing employer, and Kimberly transforms her ordeal into the stuff of art, as we see her listening to the mix of her new rap.

We may weep for the New Orleans that will never return, but we rejoice for these two strong young people who have found their own strength in this formative experience.

I haven't said much about this from a filmmaking perspective--the film does integrate original footage, news footage and Kimberly's own Hi-8 material in a very wise way, using dry humor and sly irony instead of the sledgehammer polemics one might expect. It is perhaps the best edited documentary I have seen in several years (and documentaries are all about editing).

Sexless sex

W.C. Handy wrote a song at the turn of the century called "Loveless Love" that remains so contemporary:
Oh love oh love oh loveless love
Has said our hearts are goldiess gold
From milkless milk and silkless silk
We are growing used to soul-less souls.
Stephen Frears, who ought to know better, attempted with Chéri (2009) to make a sexless sex film. The story is of a man who falls in love with a whore (and vice versa). There are only two ways to go with this story. Either the man is a fool, and you have a dark comedy like The Blue Angel or Never on Sunday; or else the man has a good reason for falling in love, in which case he is driven by sensuality which must be depicted, if your story is going to make any sense. But if you are too reticent about the scenes which form the heart of this relationship, then the film is going to crater in the center--which is just what Chéri does. The male lead seemed to be completely willing to doff his kit at all times, so I must attribute some of the film's modesty to Michelle Pfeiffer, who is still very very beautiful.

I had hopes for the movie. Frears had fun with sexy material in Mrs. Henderson Presents and the rest of his resumé is even more impressive. There is Christopher Hampton screenplay, some rollicking narration read jovially by Mr. Frears himself, and wonderful production and costume design. But the film has no apparent story, and I am reminded of the original play script of Room Service (best known for the Marx Bros. film version) in which the director envisions an ideal theater of the future (I am paraphrasing here): "No actors, no audience! Just scenery and critics!"

Alas, it is not enough.

Un-shaggy dog story

I want to take a moment to praise the brilliant Frozen River which I saw last year before I began this blog. This very low-budget independent film is a riveting character study of people living at or near the edge, driven by female characters and female creators behind the camera. Add it to your Netflix queue.

I want to say this so that no one will interpret my dismissal of Wendy and Lucy (2008) as an anti-feminist or anti-indie film screed. It's just that there seem to be a lot of reviews which suggest that if you make a film about a young woman with few or no resources and a loveable dog, you should love it. Make no mistake. This film could have been an Academy Award winner for Best Short Subject. It has enough story for 35 or 40 minutes. But at 75 minutes, it is riddled with excruciating shots of nothing much happening (an extra reading a book, an empty street) during which we are supposed to think about...I don't know, what the heck?

Nothing to see here, folks, keep moving.


We think of Italians as the great romantics, but in the last 120 years they have fostered two important movements toward realism in art. One was the verismo movement in opera, which was intended to bring the lives of ordinary people onto the opera stage. Today, the greatest verismo operas (which are among the most popular operas in the repertory) La Boheme, Cavalliera Rusticana and Pagliacci seem highly romanticized to us, but they seemed like documentaries to their audiences in the 1890's.

Then from the terrible rubble of World War II, Italian neo-realism brought the reality of that existence onto the screen. Again, the films seemed terribly gritty, emphasized by the lack of movie stars and the downbeat endings. But to look at Bicycle Thieves today, which I did recently with my Film Studies class, one is struck by the deliberateness of the cinematography, the care of the staging and mise en scene and most emphatically by the beauty of the musical score by Alessandro Cicognini (pictured here). It is completely artificial, in the sense of being full of artifice, nothing like The Third Man's source music, but it perfectly expresses the inner life of the characters. And the idiom is not that of post-War concert music, but that of verismo opera.

I was disappointed to be unable to find a modern audio recording of it readily available in the US--I will keep looking--and very intriguted to learn that it was used as a temp track for some scenes during the editing of Star Wars: A New Hope. Next time you see Bicycle Thieves, see if you don't want to sing along with that gorgeous melody. Bravo Cicognini!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Clooney provocateur

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) can boast a rare accomplishment in film. It made me laugh aloud. I watch a lot of comedy, and I worship at the altar of Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. On the other hand, I can sit stony faced through any number of Will Farrell, Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey films. (Actually, most of those are likely to darken my mood, as they are such feeble excuses for humor.) But TMWSAG trades in a type of humor that I thought had vanished with the early 1980s. I can best describe it as political-metaphysical slapstick wrapped in a shaggy dog story. It was good to see it back. It mixes loopiness with straight-down-the-middle gags in a way that I thought Peter Sellers had taken with him when he died. (Doctor Strangelove is the greatest example of this type of film, and one of my candidates for Top 5 all-time films.)

But what struck me in thinking about how this nice little movie got made (although it has four major movie stars, it was released not by a major, or the independent division of a major, but by Overture Films) is the degree to which George Clooney has built his career on edgy politically-oriented films. Well, edgy for a mainstream performer.

It began with the brilliant and dark Three Kings, which was a risk for everyone involved. Since then there's been Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which has a certain rhyming quality with TMWSAG), Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and Michael Clayton. These may not be radical calls for revolution, but this clearly is a man who is unafraid to say there is something wrong with our world.

I wish there were more like him, especially if they made funny movies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Opened up

Odd, considering how long I've been involved with theater, that I have never seen Strindberg's Miss Julie on stage. So my first encounter with this landmark play is by way of the landmark film Fröken Julie (1951), adapted and directed by Alf Sjöberg. This film is one of the prime examples of "opening up" a play, a process to which Alfred Hitchcock objected strenuously.

Whereas conventional Hollywood wisdomis that to film a play literally would be too static, lacking the variety of setting and situation one expects from the film medium. Hitchcock maintained that one of the chief virtues of a play was the effort which the author had expended in compressing the events into a single location and span of time. By opening up the play, that is varying the locations and breaking up the timeline, Hitchcock asserted that the adapter dissipated the energy of the work. He observed those strictures in his films of Rope and Dial M For Murder in particular.

Sjöberg clearly had no such qualms. The play is comprised of three characters confined to a single setting, the kitchen of a baronial estate. As if to mark the fingerprints of the sister medium, that setting in the film is theatrically over-lit. But the rest of the film is far more interesting. The dreams, fantasies and recollections by the two principal characters are shown to us, blow-by-blow. I have not seen the straightforward 1999 filming by Mike Figgis, but it is hard to imagine how these lengthy monologues could be made cinematic. Sjöberg, on the other hand, roams freely about to show these scenes, and they give the film an expressionistic panache that allows oxygen into the story.

Oddly, one of the most effective devices is the presentation of multiple planes in time in a single plane of space. An example is seen above--Julie remembers her mother carrying her as we see the two figures pass behind her. In a moment, their paths will cross with that of her fiancee, years later (but years earlier than Julie's present recollection) presenting her with the gift of a caged bird. When used in an American Film Theater or other "canned theater" production, it seems phony, a clumsy use of a theater device in an alien medium. Somehow, in Miss Julie it seems both daring and graceful. Odd.

But with all this oxygen permitted in, one wonders how far Sjöberg has strayed from Strindberg's concept. Clearly, Strindberg wanted to box Julie into tighter and tighter spaces, given the limited choices available to her and the foreclosure of those choices made by her own neurosis and poor judgment.

So, by the rules of adaptation, is this a good film because it brings the story alive in a way a literal rendering might not? Or is it a bad adaptation because it has played so freely with elemental aspects of the author's conception?

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Story" is right

My friends and family would probably be surprised to learn there was any Hollywood musical I hadn't seen at some point. But somehow The Jolson Story (1946) has eluded me until now. I don't feel deprived.
I grew up in the tail end of the entertainment era one might term "Showbiz." Yes, I know there is still an entertainment business, but that's not what's meant by Showbiz. Showbiz is Variety using terms like "boffo." It's nostalgia about vaudeville and burlesque; it's ancient troupers hauling out their musty old routines on The Ed Sullivan Show. It's broken-down comics swapping old bits at the Carnegie Deli, or, earlier, the original Lindy's. It's Broadway when opening night was the same for the audience and critics and they were all in tuxedos. It's the disdain for art, and celebration of "anything for a laugh." At it's best, it was Jimmy Durante, an entertainer whose act was based entirely on projection of his personality. Durante had talent, but he never needed material, because he was his own material. Today, Liza Minelli represents the last ruined vestige of that world, by virtue of heritage and her own predilictions.
And Al Jolson was monarch of the lost kingdom of Showbiz, called the "World's Greatest Entertainer" and not just by himself. Walter Kerr, for my money the best theater writer of the 20th century confirmed that title. But to me, Jolson's charisma never translated to film. He just seems to be trying to hard.
So in that way, his film biography serves him well. It also tries too hard. It tries to peddle the following:
(a) Jolson was just a lovable brash guy, not a psychotic who hated for anyone else to get attention so much, that when he was in his dressing room and another performer was getting applause, he had to turn on the water so he couldn't hear it; a monster who drove one wife to drink and the other one away.
(b) There's nothing better than showbiz--all that medicine, politics, law, science, all other noble pursuits are just for people who can't cut it in showbiz.
(c) Jolson, like all other entertainers is surrounded by a small group of adoring friends and advisors, including his own worshipful parents.
(d) Jewish entertainers, indeed all ethnic entertainers, would be better off as white-bread Anglo-looking performers like Larry Parks, who plays the title role.
(e) Blackface is a harmless old category of entertainment which should NOT be discussed, just accepted, got it?
(f) Ruby Keeler, a sawed-off Irish woman who tap-danced like someone about to fall over, is actually named Julie Benson and can be believably portrayed by the lanky, graceful redhead Evelyn Keyes. (This one is particularly ridiculous--ALL of the audience in 1946 must have known Jolson was married to Keeler--she was a movie star in the 30's.)
(g) Musicals do not need plot, or indeed any narrative thrust. Audiences will accept any old swill as long as there is a familiar song every once in a while. I suppose it made sense to swipe the plot of Jolson's most famous vehicle, The Jazz Singer, as a structure for his life story--young man torn between cantorial singing and pop singing, but even this cheesy movie gives up on that tired old plotline after the first 40 minutes or so.
(h) The 40s look and feel just like the 20s, except some of the girls had funny hats.
(i) Oh yeah, Al Jolson discovered jazz. Personally, I cannot describe the relationship between Jolson and jazz. Maybe there was some playing in the same room where he was once. But syncopated pop music is not jazz, no matter what they thought back in 1922.
In short, this movie has almost nothing to do with the real facts or even the texture of its purported subject's life, and it reveals far more about mid-1940s America than it does about Jolson.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cinematography in animation

Between the time Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) was released this past spring and today, 3D has gone from being the hope of the future of film to a possible fizzle, given the lukewarm reaction to the recent release of A Christmas Carol. I didn't see MvA in 3D, so I can't comment on that aspect, but I suspect that a film that relied utterly on 3D for audience success would constitute rather thin gruel. I am still not convinced that the most important thing about story-telling is the representation of spatial environments. Novels and plays have been doing pretty well without them. (Yes, plays are in 3D, but unless you are seated on the stage, you experience them as a 2D event.)

The film is the usual underdog story, albeit very funny with some first-rate voice acting. It also sports some feminism utterly appropriate to children's developing minds, and I am sure I would have enjoyed watching this with my daughter when she was a kid--she was bonkers for this kind of feisty self-realizing heroine.

What I found most interesting was a behind-the-scenes feature which, in a couple of shots, showed one filmmaker holding something like a camera, "pointing" it at the virtual environment and manipulating its viewpoint just like a live-action camera. Animation has long simulated the live-action camera with pans and zoom-ins, and short focal lengths have been a feature for at least the last 20 years. (The camera eye has a small area it can keep in focus compared to the human eye--cartoons have learned to simulate this flaw in order to be more "convincing.") And animation has been simulating the hand-held look a long time; but until now that required advance planning and careful execution. Now it appears that handheld and other freeform modes of cinematography can be created in animation in real-time, "on the fly." This can only increase the naturalness and expressiveness of the form.

Forever young

He's still got it. Showed James Dean's astonishing first lead performance in East of Eden (1955) in the Film Studies class and Dean still exerts his power, especially among a group of young people, still wrestling with the issues that deviled Dean's characters. I have no doubt that should he be reincarnated this year, still age 24, he would be a star all over. His acting, though it represents a certain generation of the Strasberg Method is so personally applied that he never really had imitators. Some dismiss him as a Brando imitator himself, but Brando still fit the mold of the cool professional actor, delving deeper than his predecessors and with an astonishingly invisible technique. Dean is an actor, too, but he appears to have been caught on camera by accident--ready to run and hide at any moment, filled with quirks and sudden apparently involuntary movements. Instead of displaying pride of craft, Dean seems embarrassed to be put on show and eager to run from the limelight. Except when his characters are attention-seeking.

This is the first time I really paid attention to the conclusion of the film, which is sheer perfection. The father is on his deathbed, the "good son" run away, the "bad son" not knowing what he should do. The cliche would have been the tearful reconciliation, followed by the father's hand losing its grip as his head turns away, the music swelling to indicate his death. But that death is not arrived at in the sequence. The father has had a paralyzing stroke, and he finally asks the son, Cal, to do something for him--to dismiss the obnoxious professional nurse and take care of the father himself. At that moment, the father permits the boy to become a man, and, at a single stroke (no pun intended), healing begins. This would be an invitation for overacting, but Julie Harris, Raymond Massey and James Dean all underplay, almost for the first time in the film and it is superb.

Flag down: 15 yards for illegal use of legs

I programmed The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney as a legless criminal mastermind as part of our Film Studies unit on acting. I had wanted to show The Unknown if only for the brilliant long take in which Chaney's character realizes he has had his arms lopped off for nothing. His reaction, laughter--which grows increasingly bitter and irrational as it goes on for an unnaturally long time, went a long way to convincing me of Chaney's brilliance as an actor beyond his bag of make-up tricks.

But I couldn't get my hands on a copy to show in the slot I wanted, so I thought it would be interesting to see The Penalty at long last, since still images from it were long familiar to me. Chaney's character is so evil that he gleefully poses for a bust of Satan. According to Chaney biographer Michael Blake, he gives one of his key performances in this film.

Honestly, as an admirer of Chaney, once he figured out how to tie his legs up and walk around on his knees, Chaney seemed to consider himself done. The rest of the performance is nothing but cheap-jack melodramatic sneering. Then, at the end, when he gets his brain fixed so he is no longer evil (seriously, that is the plot), and is a nice man, but has to go to jail anyway (that is The Penalty), he makes very sincere saintly looking faces. There is nothing in this film to convince students that there is anything to film acting other than mugging. This is absolutely the last time I schedule any film sight unseen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sleeper in a motel

It was about time Steve Zahn graduated from goofy-sidekick-in-overdone-action-film, becoming an offbeat leading man in Management (2008).

Jennifer Aniston is to be commended for helping this movie get on. (She is credited as an executive producer, which I presume she received in exchange for lending her name recognition to a project which showcases her co-star, almost to her detriment.)

I do want to caution you, knowledgeable filmgoer: you think you have seen this film before, but I don't think you have. For one thing, the one who seems the most awkward and socially inept winds up teaching the other one how to relate to people and how to have a relationship.

Writer-director Stephen Belber has worked mostly in theater, which seems to have taught him to dodge the cliches. You'll guess what Woody Harrleson's aggressive character is likely to do, and you'll be wrong. You'll guess how Aniston's character will react to Zahn's persistence, and you'll be somewhat right but mostly wrong. And I think you'll be surprised at how touched you are at the end. A romantic comedy for people who dislike romcoms.

I thought Groucho was a liberal

I know this is a movie blog, and not a political blog, but this is one of my favorite movies and movie clips in the world. Now I realize it's not just silly entertainment; Groucho was simply channeling an anti-Obama Congressman 80 years ahead of time (Ignore the 13-second credit thing at the beginning):

Still looking for the clip where Groucho shouts "Get off my lawn, you darn kids!"

It's all in the hands, my boy

Viewed the Howard Hawks pre-screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) for the sake of John Barrymore's performance to establish a baseline of pre-motion picture stage acting. It is pretty safe to say that while Barrymore had a bit of a silent movie career, by the time talkies came in, he knew he could revert to his old stage ham techniques.

So what are those techniques? Well, for one, he moves to quickly. His eyes pop open and suddenly squint at a rapid pace. His eyebrows seem to be engaging in some sort of race from the ridge of his nose up to his hairline and back again. But most of all there's those hands. They may have been graceful and expressive on stage, but on film they resemble the kind of "sawing the air" that Hamlet complained about.

Of course, he's terribly enjoyable in this film, but because the film uses him as a representative of his bygone generation, and challenges him to exhibit his techniques in the most ridiculous light. Here, he's in on the joke. Later in his career, he seemed to become the joke.

My students noted that Carol Lombard's voice is very high and squeaky and difficult to understand. That remained a problem with her at least through My Man Godfrey (1936), but I can't recall any such difficulty in To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Maybe life with Clark Gable lowered a woman's voice...


Let's try some titles: "Einstein: Patent Clerk of Destiny"; "Ulysses Grant: The Drygoods Store Years"; "Chuck Norris: Just Another Skinny Wimp." You want to see any of those? Me neither. Sure, those biopics in which we see the historic figure taking those steps which will prepare them for greatness are interesting, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a nonentity who later is known for some remarkable achievement, but during the course of the film itself is and remains a virtual non-entity.

In Coco Before Chanel (2009), Coco is not a complete non-entity, because she is, of course, Audrey Tautou, who cannot help being beguiling any more than Yao Ming can wake up tomorrow being short. But this film only gives us the Chanel to be sporadically. In those brief spurts when she is expressing her ideas of style, either in word or in actual dress, the film perks up and is exciting. The rest of the film reflects the French obsession about who is or is not going to bed with home, and it is all too dreary to describe. That Chanel was the long-time mistress of a boring man makes for a long time boring movie. Perversely, in the last few minutes we see the fully-formed Coco Chanel supervising an exciting fashion show, as if the filmmakers were saying, "Look we could have made an engaging, stimulating movie. But we are French and we do not do that sort of thing. We would rather have people sitting around being boring."

Perhaps the idea was that, as Chanel introduced the uncorseted woman, the woman without the strictly confined shape in favor of a looser, more shapeless design, they decided to make a shapeless movie.

The other annoying part of the movie is that for the first ten minutes there was scarcely any establishing, master shot. It is all in either medium close or close-up, as if they were expecting that no one would see this in the theater, and they just might as well shoot it for TV. I found myself physically moving my head from side to side looking at the screen, just trying to figure out what was going on. I have no idea of what the purpose of that was.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Never send an Australian to do an Englishman's job

Best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stephan Elliott is an Australian filmmaker whose films turn up at odd intervals with very little common thread among them. Given that he had not had a theatrical release in 9 years, I am curious why he should have applied one of his sporadic efforts to a 1925 Noel Coward play which has not had a major revival recently, and most of which Elliott chose to jettison in making his adaptation. I'm referring to Easy Virtue (2008), which gives us the old, old story of the unacceptably modern daughter-in-law who offends the traditional family. Coward's play was a melodrama, written before he became famous as a wit; Elliott has chosen to adapt the film as if it had been written later, as a comedy.

Many of the structural changes are improvements. But the problem is one of consistent tone. If you are going to comedy of manners, especially English manners, precision is required. You've got to hit it spot on. Are your villains going to openly display their contempt, or cloak it in mock-courtesy? In Kristin Scott-Thomas's performance, the mother constantly vacillates between fake sweetness and an outright rudeness highly unlikely among the English upper class.

It suggests a tone-deafness that may be attributable to Elliott's non-Englishness. Australian society has its classes, but it does not have the fine and subtle distinctions, nor the practice of dissembling hostility. Ozzies tend to say what they mean right out, manners be damned, which makes this film confused and confusing.

Nonetheless, Jessica Biel looks absolutely splendid in long white evening gowns, and my wife believes that ALL films should end with the heroine running off with Colin Firth.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kids will always take things too far

Under the self-imposed rules of this blog, I have to write about every feature film I see. I saw Crank 2: High Voltage.

You gotta have some regard for a film that points out that its own premise is implausible in the very first sequence. (Actually, I would have used the word "ridiculous.") But where the first film had cheeky humor and what was then new-style digital imagery and editing, this film, in a misguided attempt ramps up the cruelty and the "yecch" factor with a number of body mutilations that completely vitiate any attempts at humor.

Presumably, if you look up "pointless sequel" in Wikipedia you will see the picture posted above. I hope they're done with Crank movies now.


It is understandable that after an overwhelming and savage experience such as fighting the Second World War that people would need to explain to themselves what happened and how it happened. Those WWII tropes remained a major part of filmmaking right through the early 1970's, when our image of war began to be primarily shaped by the Vietnam experience.

It's easy to miss this when the film does not directly address war, such as in the semi-Western They Came To Cordura (1959). I say "semi-", because it is also a war film, set in the milieu of the Pancho Villa war of 1916. Based on what was probably a Very Important Novel with lots of Symbols, it aspires to meditate on the causes, consequences and nature of heroism. So many people did things in the war that would have been unthinkable in any other circumstance, heroic and unheroic, that the effort to reconcile those things occupied them for decades after.

For most of its running time, Cordura does its job well. Simply put, it tells the story of the effort to bring several Medal of Honor nominees from the middle of the desert to a railroad junction where they can be sent to Washington to be celebrated. Problem is, these guys are only situational heroes, and full-time mediocrities and scalawags. And Gary Cooper, as the man assigned to identify and transport them, suffers under the label of cowardice. So this is one of those Westerns in which the West represents a land before civilization, and characters are sent out onto a blasted moonscape to find out who they really are.

If only they didn't talk about it so much--because the actions, the visuals, the compositions, make the point so well. But one of the marks of an "adult" Western was that it explained itself, over and over. That can be ignored--but then the film loses the very quality it seeks to explore--courage. It has been building up to a brilliant climax--Cooper has undertaken a dangerous, self-sacrificing task in order to save one of these lowlifes, without help from any of the others. He is apparently dragged to a painful death.

Then one character spies their destination. All set for beautiful cosmic irony. Then...Coop's hand twitches and he gets up, and I suppose eventually he is All Better. What a shame. Someone should build a website entirely of movies that are terrific until the last ten minutes, then blow it badly.

And Rita Hayworth looks and acts spectacularly well. Back then, at 41, she was considered over the hill. What fools!

Thinking makes it so

Our Film Studies class looks at Hitchcock's long-take film Rope (1948) as an object lesson in what could happen if you dispense with editing as a filmmaking tool, and rely entirely on mise-en-scene. (Film teachers take note, the film fits in either unit.)

Much has been written on how many cuts are actually in the film and the various technical challenges in its making, and you can find those elsewhere on the internet or in those funny stacks of attached papers called books; I can add nothing original to that corpus.

What surprises me each year is how this 80-minute gabfest grips my 16-to-18 year-old students without gunshots, car chases, kung fu or--wait for it--MTV-style editing. (The use of the term "MTV-style editing" is a reliable bellwether for identifying cranky old curmudgeons who want things, including aesthetics, to stay as they are. Such persons are so deeply unaware of the natural order of the universe as to be beneath contempt.)

I read recently that the film may have been inspired by a 1939 live broadcast of the play on which it is based, and I confess shamefacedly that it never occurred to me before that the film feels a lot like a live television play. Paradoxically, a live play would make use of more varied camera angles and would be able to cut in close-ups, as live TV plays employed three or more cameras which could constantly vary perspectives. Rope is more ascetic still, using a single camera. Close-ups must be simulated by dollying in or having an object brought to the foreground. None of the associative power of what Hitchcock himself called "pure cinema" (mostly meaning editing) can be brought to bear.

And still Hitchcock, rightly called the master of suspense, teases out the tiny bit of information that he has to dispense at such an engaging pace, that the film plays. It shouldn't--in fact Hitchcock considered it a failure--but it plays. One student in my class named it one of his all-time favorite films and planned to get his own copy. I can say that it does bear repeated viewing and study. The film has some corny acting and some of the intended "high style" small talk is tedious. But the power of narrative, and the ability of subtext to keep that narrative going draws the audience in. (The screenplay was by playwright Arthur Laurents, who reportedly instructed later collaborator Stephen Sondheim in the use of subtext.)

And perhaps when narrative is moving forward in a smooth, unimpeded manner we become so unaware of editing, that we are equally unaware when there is no editing. Perhaps.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Primitivism: an aesthetic or just primitive?

As our classroom Halloween observation in Film Studies, we looked at the infamous Freaks (1932), a film meant to be a horror film by its financiers, but which is largely a sympathetic character study with a grotesque climax spliced on to its story.

Director Tod Browning's initial impulse seems to have been both purely sympathetic and very humane. He seems not to have cared much about constructing a story at all. (The story was based on a story by the author of the source material for Browning's Lon Chaney film The Unknown.) Like a backstage musical, this story seems to have been merely a pretext. It appears that Browning simply wanted to put these outcasts on film as they were, without pretense. He strips this show business story of all its show business trappings--we never see anyone performing or on display until the final climactic shot. And although film historians believe that Browning never fully adjusted to sound film, this film would not have a fraction of the power it has if it were silent. Silent films all proceeded from a strange, nether-world of fantasy. Nothing is real in a world where blows never land, explosions don't shatter the eardrums, shouts never startle. All silent film is a fever dream.

But the strength of Freaks is that it is not a dream, at least until its truncated horrific ending. Until then, Browning doesn't even seem to be interested in entertaining us. Instead he brings us into an inverted world in which the freakish are normal and the "normal" people strive to be accepted by them (some for good reasons, some for greed). To this end, Browning's simple aesthetic--without camera moves, transitions, score music, special effects or even post-production work of any significance seems well suited. Here they are, Browning seems to say, just as they are, unadorned. Do not be horrified. Just see them.

Or it could be that this is just one of those films from the first era of talkies which is irredeemably primitive--bad sound, static or shaky camera, cheap sets, scratchy prints, and its simplicity is an accident of film history, just the way the freaks themselves were once called accidents of nature.

Quick, and quiet and clean he was

Re-watched Sweeney Todd (2007) to celebrate Halloween. I find horror films unrewarding after the first viewing, whereas a good musical brings new enjoyment each time. One of the delights of the musical, or any other tightly packed genre (westerns, films noir, screwball comedy) is that it is like a good wine, the finer qualities of which are slowly revealed as you let it roll on the tongue.

When the film was released, musical theater buffs like me all noted the extent of the cuts in the original work (plus some re-orderings) and felt those missing numbers like phantom limbs. Now, watching it a bit more objectively, I see the clear and clean purpose of those cuts and observe how swiftly and efficiently it moves from point to point, making Sweeney's descent into hell oh-so-inevitable. There is never time for him to stop and reflect, which is, I believe, implicit in the play, which lingers over the turning points. As much as Sondheim rejects Brecht as a model, he has certain Brechtian proclivities, most notably the rejection of straightforward representationalism and the employment of dialectic, or as Sondheim presents it, ambiguity. But you can't have ambiguity without choices, choices over which the play must dally for the audience to savor.

The film is more of a locomotive, and I think rightly so. We the audience are helpless in the face of a movie. (Theoretically, we could interrupt a play in the live theater--we don't, but we could, and many playwrights have had fun with that possibility.) We can do nothing to impede its progress. Even if we stop watching, or turn off the video device, the movie exists, fixed, its characters' fates forever sealed. And so, on film, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett gallup toward their doom. We lose a bit of the glee that the play exhibited, but I am coming to prefer Helena Bonham-Carter's shrug to Angela Lansbury's (on-stage) knee-slapping. And Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin is superb, even a little vulnerable, as is his wont, compared with the cardboard mean-old-man-villain of the stage production. Let's not even start with the perfection of Sasha Baron Cohen. Why isn't he making those movies Peter Sellers used to do, where he plays three or four different people?

And finally, there's the music. It's so right. Do not watch this movie except with decent sound reproduction--stereo at least, external speakers if at all possible. The music department (orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani) outdid themselves.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A harmless Chaney is a toothless Chaney

Lon Chaney's films occupy an aesthetic space that doesn't exist in film anymore. He made popular entertainments based on solid acting and a disinclination to pander to the audience. If the stories veer into the sentimental, that was what Chaney sincerely desired.

He is most famous for his characterizations which amounted to disguises, and his role in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) is no exception. (And yes, that cheesy song with the lyrics, "Even though your heart is breaking/Laugh, Clown" that turned up in 1930's cartoons was written to publicize this movie.) But though he disguised himself, there were common qualities to all his characters--strong romantic desire, a penchant for self-sacrifice, and, in the best of films, menace--or at least power--held in check. Writer William Goldman describes in his book The Season how Burt Lancaster and George C. Scott suggested that power and menace, even in a meeting. There is always the sense in a good Chaney film that whatever he's doing right now, he could choose to do something much, much worse.

But not in Laugh, Clown. It's the literally pathetic story of the clown who raises a little girl and falls in love with her, but she loves the other fellow, so he nobly steps aside, which somewhat relieves the story from its inherent skeeviness. But throughout, he is completely harmless. He is not going to strangle the handsome young fellow, or whack him over the head, or cut off his limbs or do anything interesting. And Chaney not being weird and twisted, is just another sentimental old ham from the 1920's. I cannot imagine he would have the reputation he has today, 80+ years later if the body of his work were no edgier than this pablum.

When is a dream really like a dream?

It is the hoariest old cliche that films are dreams. I don't know about you, but my dreams don't have neat three-act structures, perfectly scripted dialogue and elegant production design, like your typical Hollywood product. They're usually a chaotic collage of the flotsam found in my brain. Cowards Bend The Knee (2003) is the first movie I've ever seen that actually looks the way I think I dream (sometimes).

Let's be straight with this, though. It's not clear that Cowards (by cult filmmaker Guy Maddin) is even a movie. It began as an art installation, in ten peepshows, now manifested as chapters. The films are primarily monochrome, shot in out-of-focus silent, 8-millimeter, with a vague continuity and jump cuts and repetitions galore. You can search the internet to read about the plot, which was not comprehensible to me until I listened to the comment track, and which ultimately did not affect my opinion of the movie.

I used to like the fever dreams I had when I was a kid. They are some of the few dreams I can recall. I think I could even control or direct them. I remember that many parts were in grainy black-and-white (perhaps influenced by the cheap prints of Charlie Chaplin films that were shown incessantly on TV in my childhood), that the motion was jumpy and choppy and that many parts repeated and others were complete non sequiturs. Could Guy Maddin have gotten into my head? Not sure I want to see any of this other films, but I'm glad I saw this one. It was short, too (61 minutes).

Johnny No-Trump

I want to keep this short. It's hard enough to get people to view and appreciate silent films without a stiff like this making things harder. I watched The Ace of Hearts (1921) by way of getting to more of the work of Lon Chaney. You could describe this as Anarchists in Love. It's the usual Chaney triangle where he doesn't get the girl (surprise!) In this one they took the 75-minute running time of the film and packed all of 8 minutes worth of story. Nothing happens over and over and over and everyone pulls a face to show how they feel about it. With so many interesting Lon Chaney films lost, why did this one have to survive?

All dressed up with no place to go

As I have mentioned, I continue to survey as many film noir or neo-noir films as I can, and so I only recently caught up with Devil In A Blue Dress (1995) which, as it was based on the first of a series of hard-boiled detective novels by Walter Mosley, was intended to be the first of a series of films based on those novels.

You know those detective stories which consist of telling the investigator to go somewhere and ask about such-and-such (even though neither you nor the character knows that means) and they go there and somebody tells him about this-and-that (which has no discernible connection to such-and-such) and then he goes to the other place where somebody beats him up for reasons which are never explained and then a character from the first sequence strolls in the door and throws the hero a towel and explains know that kind of story?

You can pull that off if at last it is not only all explained, but it has some significance. Like in Chinatown where a small group of corrupt men run everything and you have to decide what you're going to do about it. Or in Detour or The Killers where you have to decide whether you resist your fate or go out and meet it. The point is, it's all about something.

Yeah, they skipped that part in this film. Denzel looks good in a fedora and he keeps going from place to place and picks up clues and beatings, and in the end...they find out whodunit. Like the episode of a TV show. Not like a film noir movie. Not even close.