May try to make this a weekly feature, Sunday night, of things noticed while dubbing movies and watching bits and pieces of them, but not really the whole movie. For this week, one of these movies is about filthy people who’ve defined their souls by what they’re willing to do for money. The other is THE WAGES OF FEAR:
THE WAGES OF FEAR (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France, 1953) — Saw the beginning and the end of this one. A chivalrous director would feel uncomfortable telling a woman to act in the first reel like Vera Clouzot does, i.e., like a bitch in heat. (Sorry, but not taking that back … that’s how she’s acting.) A man asking his own wife to act that way? Ick. They say Clouzot was the French Hitchcock and when it comes to women (see also here), I guess there too. Sorta like I said about HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, the utterly heartless ending of FEAR works as well as it does because of the context of the other films surrounding it — endings like this didn’t happen in 50s Hollywood thrillers, which gives this one an oomph that an identical ending today wouldn’t. Occupies a special place in my memory because it’s one of the few foreign films I’ve ever watched with my parents and had them enjoy as much as I did (my father at least apparently had seen it years ago).
THE LADY EVE (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941) — I wished Henry Fonda had made more comedies, as I like him better as a clueless Sturges male being eaten up by scheming Barbara Stanwyck than the goody-good-good he usually played. Like Graham Greene noted, Sturges knows that in the sort of movie, we identify with the schemers, especially when they’re as classy and well-bred and attractive as Stanwyck and Coburn. The scene of Jean’s directing the other women’s attempts to get Hopsie’s attention while looking in her own compact mirror is a metacinematic joy. And Sturges skates right up to the line again … “they all want Pike’s Pale, the Ale that Won for Yale / Well, tell em they can go to Ha-arvard.”
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS (Terry Gilliam, Britain/Canada, 2009) — 3
Maybe it’s time for me to give up on Gilliam. What is there to say about a director whose sensibility you so fundamentally don’t share that you’ve not seen his two reputed masterworks (BRAZIL and TIME BANDITS) and don’t feel guilty about it? I’ve seen most of Gilliam’s feature films from MUNCHAUSEN on, and I don’t really care for any of it — and largely for the same reason. They all feel overdone, overstuffed and manic — fundamentally undisciplined works of wretched excess. Gilliam needs to be reined in, and so giving him money to make an “imaginarium” movie was, predictably, an invitation to indulge his worst tendency — to self-indulgent, curlicued elephantaisis.
His Monty Python animation works in that context, because a few seconds of gesture, of cutaway, of sudden subversive commentary. And it was surrounded by the Python troupe. But it’s never worked for 90 consecutive minutes as the whole show and I can’t imagine doing so. Scenes of someone being picked up by a jellyfish arm, flying through the air and then being dropped onto a gigantic thumbtack — it sounds great in conception, I suspect it looks great on the storyboards. On the screen in PARNASSUS, it comes across as leaden, slow and totally lacking in the lightning-fast whimsy that made the Python cut-ins so awesome. We’re expected to *admire* this stuff?
It’s all supposedly about whimsy and fairy tales and fantasy… but the only whimsy in this latest bit of mythopoetic rambling is Tom Waits as (predictably) the Devil, the one character who can be allowed a nose-thumbing (or mouth-taping gesture) in the middle of all this grandiosity. There’s some parallel about a bet for 12 disciples or garnering 5 souls or somesuch; the savior is not the Savior, but someone who “doesn’t want to rule the world but wants the world to rule itself” (“o, come off it,” vjm’s eyes roll). There’s some role played by an immortality bet and a looking glass that allows people to realize their fantasies, there are sappy-parody songs about “we are the children of the world” and the line “it’s a child, not a choice” (wonder if Gilliam knows the resonance of that line). The devil gives an apple to a couple of nuns at the end. And a lot of other stuff is thrown against the wall, reminding me of SOUTHLAND TALES. (That’s not a good comparison, BTW.) At one point in my notes I have written down”to the extent I can understand this, I don’t give a [crap] about it.”
Which is a shame because Gilliam is obviously talented and has ideas. And his career has frequently been snake-bit. There’s no good time for a man of Ledgers age to die, of course, but Christopher Nolan has Ledger’s work entirely in the can, while Gilliam has to scramble. It also makes the first view of Ledger (hanging by the neck) a bit icky; inevitably, the story structure involving Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as fantasy behind-the-glass versions of Ledger (fine though all three men are) comes across as a forced contrivance, like shooting “Bela Lugosi” from behind.
I don’t think there’s any way around it. I saw POLICE, ADJECTIVE again last night and cannot even describe it in any way that doesn’t make it sound like a boring reductio ad absurdum of the slow, grind-you-down European art film. Very few plot points, all spun out way beyond their possible narrative interest, not much suspense or danger for a policier — you’re watching somebody perform a job that mostly consists of watching other people.
And yet, I liked POLICE, ADJECTIVE a lot, both on first and second viewing. Both when I didn’t know exactly what was coming and when I did. But I can’t defend the film against the flat claim (shut up, gemko) that “it’s boring.” Yes, it is, and not just in the tautological sense that any movie, even the most rock-em-sock-em action flick, is boring if it doesn’t engage you (the sense in which I would say NINE or FIGHTING are boring). POLICE, ADJECTIVE is boring in the sense that it’s not trying to entertain you or promise … heck, I just started to parrot the following sentence that Stanley Kauffmann composed in his rapturous first review of L’AVVENTURA.
The first 10 minutes make it clear that this is the work of a discerning, troubled, uniquely gifted artist who speaks to us through the refined center of his art. We make “like” this film, but those first 10 minutes indicate that liking is not the primary point. We “like” Maurice Chevalier but do we “like” Wozzeck or No Exit? If so, all the better, but we know from the start that it is irrelevant to their effective being.
This is not to say that L’Avventura is an unpleasant or uninteresting experience: simply that it does not come out of the wings like a chorus girl with a grin on her face to make a hit fast.
Kauffmann doesn’t use the word “boring,” but we all know what he’s getting at. And in that sense I can formulate an acknowledgement that POLICE, ADJECTIVE is “objectively boring” even though I personally found it gripping. It took me several repeat viewings to really feel like I was getting a grasp on Antonioni’s 60s films, though for a variety of reasons, in a way unlike how I’m pretty confident that I entirely got POLICE, ADJECTIVE on first view (I don’t have tremendously much to add to my Toronto capsule).
THE GREAT McGINTY (Preston Sturges, USA, 1940) – 8
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) – 10
I swear it was a pure coincidence that last night, the night of the political impossible (“a tea bagging centerfold” won a US Senate seat from Massachusetts as a Republican), I happened to have a Preston Sturges tape next in the queue to be dubbed. And on it were his two explicitly political movies, both about men with dubious pasts who become unlikely politicians.
When I say “explicitly political,” I should clarify. They’re the two where politics plays a major surface role in the plot, but neither could serve any possible partisan or ideological angle. From Sturges’s portrayal of vote fraud by ACORN in big-city machines, a statewide “reform” party, graft in stimulus public-works projects, and community organizers urban populism, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that Dan McGinty is a Democrat and audiences at the time probably knew that. But Sturges mentions no parties and there never makes any implication that Chicago the city would be less corrupt under the other party or some other faction of that party. Or that McGinty would be a better mayor/governor if he had more ideological committment. Indeed … SPOILER (highlight text to see) … McGinty’s downfall comes when he tries to be honest, to become his own man independent of the machine. One could even cynically suggest that the moral is “if you’re a crook, you must remain a crook” … /SPOILER.
But to me what makes McGINTY very funny and HERO even funnier, even today, is precisely that strikethru-function jokes aside, politics isn’t really what they’re about. Political satires generally date badly because they usually assume a shared topical frame of reference between film-maker and audience. By definition, that will be gone very quickly (who, after all, other than political junkies or people 75 or older would get a joke now about a Scandinavian accent and Wendell Willkie). McGINTY is about the rise and decline (or decline and rise, depending) of a bum, defined as much by marital love as political success. Indeed … WARNING: Incoming Wack Comparison … I kept thinking last night about the Dardenne brothers’ LORNA’S SILENCE, which is also about a person who enters into a fake marriage for mercenary reasons but then grows to really love that person and suffers for having done so. The key “turnaround” dramatic scene in both films is even the same — the husband and wife for the first time in physical union, shown to the degree the content codes of the times allowed. That’s just the skeleton of both movies, which have practically nothing else in common, and McGINTY is told through the conventions of comedy and so the ending has a different tone. But still …
As the grades imply, I think HERO is the better film — Sturges’s direction is surer, his pacing more frenetic and his ensemble company “better oiled.” I have long considered HERO to be Sturges’s masterpiece. Indeed, it has inspired me to always be generous around military men in bars (I dunno why … it’s not like really good things happen to Eddie Bracken as a result). HERO is the story of a 4-F from a long line of Marine heroes who gets roped into pretending to be a Marine hero of Guadalcanal. By the end, he’s been drafted into city politics, to run against Everett *Noble* — a gassy windbag who is maybe Sturges’s funniest creation. Overall, HERO is the funniest of Sturges’s movies in part because you laughed twice at every joke. At every joke and gag and line, there’s the laugh itself and then the amazed internal chuckle that Sturges was able to get away with this in 1944. Suggesting that small-town America could be easily fooled by stories of heroism, and even in the end wanted to be fooled? Portraying homefront politics as not affected by the war, except in the mouth of the venal Noble? And NOBODY in the movies ever suggested that Marines, even if only part of the time, were anything less than statue-burnished heroes (they’re the ones who rope Bracken into the ruse and then nurse it along; one is a bit psycho; another is an open playa; they get into trouble from gambling).
Even though the Vietnam War produced an orgy of self-hatred in American movies that has never truly left them, this much gentler, much less ill-intentioned, not even arguably “anti-war” movie still comes across as bracingly subversive fun. Indeed, it may well be that HERO plays so well today precisely because of the post-Vietnam turn. It shows that it was once possible to make fun of Marines, middle America and the mom-and-apple-pie muthos (not that the people of the time ever doubted it — “Willie and Joe,” for example, ran in Stars and Stripes) without turning against them.
Before Big Hollywood gave Sonny the space to rebut Ben Shapiro’s execrable post about the Top 10 Most Overrated Directors of All Time — the site’s editor-in-chief weighed in. But not on the correct side.
John Nolte aka Dirty Harry defended the Shapiro piece (saying “Bravo!” and “I loved” it), which was a disappointment. Again, not so much because he defended it (one would hardly expect an editor to turn against his own writer in a public forum), but because of the way he defended it — with the most unconservative arguments in the book. Here is the essential excerpt. Continue reading
And thanks to the people who linked to it — Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door Online; Sonny Bunch in the midst of his own very sensible rebuttal post at Big Hollywood; and Sonny again at his own group blog Conventional Folly.
I realize now that Twittering is pointless in a way — you can put it out there, but it won’t stay up for long (huh-huh, huh-huh). So I’m henceforth gonna be not shy at all about putting up blog posts that either duplicate my Twitter storms or just flesh out a Tweet. These are some of the films I’ve seen for the first time recently:
Over the weekend, I updated all the site’s ancillary pages — Screening Log, 2009 Top 10 and Past Top 10s — to reflect recent viewing. The 2009 Top 10 still won’t be official for a couple of weeks though (have a couple of screeners to see and a couple of movies to catch up on).
As should be obvious from the screening log, I’ve spent a lot of time recently watching old movies on video. What’s been going on for the past year is a major space-saving(?) project. I’m in the midst of transferring to DVD my entire taped-off-the-air VHS collection. I started taping movies off the air around 1988 and I have since built a collection of more than 400 tapes and probably about 900 movies. I’m about 60 percent of the way through and hope to have it done by 2011. I can’t dub my purchased VHS tapes (about 200) because my dubbing machine refuses to touch anything with Copyguard, so I will continue to have VHS. And I dunno what I’m gonna do with my old tapes though — doubt there’s much of a market for VHS (unlike vinyl records, there’s no possible argument for its aesthetic superiority). But if anyone wants anything …
Anyhoo … so with my VHS-to-DVD copier constantly running, I’ve been sucked into a lot of movies. Just in the past week, I realized that I’ve practically memorized THE THIRD MAN and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, that Pauline Kael was correct in citing THE GOLDEN COACH as Anna Magnani’s greatest performance (she’s both lustily ferile and sunnily comic), and that Joseph Losey’s opening scenes in THE CONCRETE JUNGLE of a snitch returning to jail are among the purest distillation of dread this side of Alfred “most overrated ever” Hitchcock (though Losey fumbles things a bit with awkward use of a then-chic jazz score).
I also watched scenes and bits from pictures, which I didn’t put on the Screening Log because something called away or I was tired or for whatever reason didn’t watch the whole film. And these were some of the reactions I had:
When I got home, I read the Hitchcock essay that I referred to in my last post. It was a piece written for Movieline by Joe Queenan and reprinted in his book “If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble.”¹ I knew I had to wait to quote an excerpt from his essay as a separate post, because he made the point I wanted to make so much funnier than I could.
His point about Hitchcock, contra Ben Shapiro’s claim that he started with good premises but had no follow-through, is … well … the exact opposite. That Hitch began with ludicrous premises and made great films out of them. Here is Queenan, a wonderful film critic as humorists go:
It’s hard to look at SPELLBOUND today without chortling at its pop Freudianism, and the same is true of VERTIGO, REBECCA, NOTORIOUS and SUSPICION, all of which are wonderful motion pictures whose abiding appeal is not diminished by the fact that they are, at heart, really quite ridiculous stories.
Look at his subject matter. Most serious moviemakers will move heaven and earth to get to the point in their careers where they can film the important works of Western literature; JANE EYRE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, MADAME BOVARY, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Hitchcock started out with writers like Daphne DuMaurier and worked his way down. His dalliances with the masters were few, far between and futile
bad books were what Hitchcock made good movies from. Hitchcock was always and forever in the alchemy business, taking what the English call “penny dreadfuls” — heavily plotted, convoluted thrillers — and turning them into visual masterpieces
one aspect of Hitchcock’s movies that has not received sufficient critical attention is the fundamentally idiotic nature of his stories. If you were Ingrid Bergman and your boss, the head of the Green Manor loony bin, told you he was stepping down and handing over the reins to a famous psychoanalyst no one had ever met or even seen a photograph of, wouldn’t you find that a bit strange? … If you were a comely young woman who had just spent 15 minutes chatting with the decidedly quirky Norman Bates, would you then strip to your black slip and brassiere and take a shower? If you were a timid dumpling being slowly driven insane by a psychotic housekeeper with overtly lesbian tendencies, mightn’t it have occurred to you to corner Laurence Olivier and say “Look, honey, if it’s all the same to you, couldn’t we just can that bitch?” … No, it’s all quite mad, isn’t it; and yet, so devilishly clever. Hitchcock simply had no equal in making the most absurd plot lines seem plausible, perhaps even realistic.
¹ Blurbed by Dave Barry: “If you’re a fan of informed viciousness — and who isn’t — you will love this book.”
My (unfortunately) former colleague Sonny Bunch ruined my day with this tweet:
When it’s said that the right isn’t to be trusted re: movies, it’s because Big Hollywood publishes things like this http://bit.ly/6C1Xs3
… which will take you to the invaluable Andrew Breitbart site, and to an essay by Ben Shapiro that I can only call the most puerile piece of neener-neener adolescent contrarianism I have ever read. (Sonny was no less hostile, calling it “the single stupidest list I’ve ever seen“; his Twitter feed suggests we may see his rebuttal at Big Hollywood soon.) It’s also a credit to Big Hollywood’s readers that the reaction in the combox has been overwhelmingly negative, and with a suitable amount of vitriol.
Shapiro’s list is the 10 Most Over-rated Directors of All Time. And he picks some sacred cows, the two most sacred probably coming at the end:
10. Ridley Scott …
9. Michael Mann …
8. David Lean …
7. Darren Aronofsky …
6. Mike Nichols …
5. David Lynch …
4. Quentin Tarantino …
3. Woody Allen …
2. Martin Scorsese …
1. Alfred Hitchcock …
I submitted a few vacuum-packed paragraphs for National Review on Eric Rohmer, the recently dead French master who has been my favorite living director since at least the death of Ingmar Bergman. NRO published them here at The Corner — a 300-word request for which I initially submitted 850, and trimmed it back myself to the 530 you see that keeps at least one or two examples. In the couple of days since Rohmer’s death, I’ve also watched CLAIRE’S KNEE and THE BAKERY GIRL OF MONCEAU (both part of Criterion’s fawesome Six Moral Tales DVD box set).
The thing about CLAIRE’S KNEE that just gets deeper every time is the way it plays with its own textuality, and even anticipates and auto-critiques and/or subverts a certain shallow understanding of Rohmer’s own films. So many of Rohmer’s films place characters on holiday, in a French resort, a St. Tropez villa, a symbolic vineyard, or even lunch at an odd time of the day — the ideal time for a romantic fling, the characters self-consciously realize and proceed to map out accordingly. CLAIRE’S KNEE set in a gorgeous by a lake on August vacation, and the artist Aurora thinks to set up a “vacances-romance” between Jerome and strong-headed ingenue Laura. But things really don’t really work out, even though Jerome is willing to play his part. The film, among much else, is about the storytelling process and the way people apply it to their lives, both with foresight and retrospect — which are incompatible with each other and not what “really” happened, but how people teleologically shape their biographies. Consider also how Jerome gets his fantasy of caressing Claire’s knee (initially in a brilliantly funny way), but he hasn’t done the good deed he congratulates himself for doing at the end, because he saw something that wasn’t what he thought it was (to be more precise would be spoilerific).
As for MONCEAU, it may be the ideal introduction to Rohmer — it just requires a 23-minute investment, but, astonishingly considering it’s at the start of his career, it’s a near-perfect (and perfectly representative) slice of Rohmer’s style and themes. It was shot on 16mm for practically no money, but Rohmer gave it self-consciousness and depth through a near-constant voiceover (think GOODFELLAS — in that one way only) that both explains and undermines the main character’s actions, and indicates how much of his actions are through-the-looking-glass romantic game-playing, predicated on staying one step ahead of what he thinks the bakery girl is thinking or going to do. Rohmer used voiceover a great deal in his Moral Tales, and though he used it less in his later works, he found ways to have his characters openly discourse on their thoughts instead. But the literary style, the self-consciousness, the understated-but-precise and often lovely pictorial quality, the perfect editing and framing — it’s all there from MONCEAU on.
I began as somewhat of a Rohmer skeptic — early 90s “exhausting the canon”-phase VHS viewings of CLAIRE’S KNEE and MY NIGHT WITH MAUD frankly did not do much for me and I never obliged to look beyond what are still probably his two most highly-regarded films. But I got turned around, first by the successful 1999 US theatrical run of AN AUTUMN TALE and then a 2001 retrospective where I saw about 8 or 10 of his films and loved them all. And his THE LADY AND THE DUKE at the 2001 Toronto festival removed all doubts and confirmed what I had just sensed, that Rohmer’s skepticism toward modernity went beyond soulcraft but even extended as far as dubiety towards the French Revolution — the worst event in human history, I’d say. From Grace Elliott’s sympathetic mouth we hear all the criticisms of the Revolution that Anglo-American conservatives make to this day. And in the name of the classical virtues and approach. Indeed, Rohmer’s period films all have the common quality of seeming to have been made in a pre-Enlightenment world where the cinema somehow existed — ASTREA AND CELADON and PERCEVAL both are deliberately performed in a period “style” as well as being set in the (even-more-distant) pasts. And Rohmer’s political pictures weren’t confined to THE LADY AND THE DUKE, as I may have implied for NRO. His little-seen TRIPLE AGENT shows anti-Communist Russian exiles being steamrolled by History, including the Popular Front victory in France. Unfortunately, his political satire THE TREE, THE MAYOR AND THE MEDIATHEQUE reputedly critical of local-government socialism, remains virtually unseeable to Anglophones. It’s never been released with English-subtitles anywhere in the world to my knowledge — hint, hint (and anyone who tells me I’m wrong on the factual point and how to take advantage of said error becomes my new best friend).
On the day of Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral, Billy Wilder said to fellow director William Wyler, just to break the silence, “No more Lubitsch.” And Wyler responded, “Worse than that — no more Lubitsch films.”
No more Rohmer films.