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:
— For the first time ever, I cried at the end of L’AVVENTURA. It’s as close as secular existential gloom will ever get to the joy(?) of God’s grace in Confession. Gabriele Ferzetti has been caught cheating just days after starting an affair with Monica Vitti. They’re together outside the ruins of a church and both break down him in shamed tears. But she has already forgiven him, simply because they only have each other in a communion of shared hopelessness. Here it is on YouTube
— I saw bits and pieces of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON and heard even more from the next room. I watched carefully the scene of Napoleon at sea intercut with the revolution’s assembly turning on the Girondists, Napoleon accepting the revolution’s leadership, and the final “Polyvision” entry into Italy. I need to see the whole movie, plus Gance’s other work (I know I have LA ROUE and I think I have J’ACCUSE), but Gance looks like the fawesomest silent director. He had a kinetic style quite unlike anything else in the silent era, coming close to the raw energy of a rave party or slamdance. The camera moves, but in a propulsive, fast way (not the smooth tracks of a Murnau, e.g.) but never loses coherence within a scene or avoids closeups or keeping people in the frame; Gance’s editing is just as quick and rhythmic and brutal; there’s also superimpositions of multiple images and visual metaphors like a guillotine dropping while the assembly is buffeted by the winds of history. The effect is an even faster-paced Eisenstein. (Polyvision was a mistake though, at least in terms of trying to create an artificial widescreen … you can see the seams at the edge of each frame). Carmine Coppola’s score is a bit repetitive (“La Marseillaise” is a great tune, but not half-a-dozen times), but it clearly is in awe of NAPOLEON as the Great Man. Coppola’s score is boldly, extravagantly Romantic in its heroic idolization of the man whom Hegel, upon seeing him ride through Jena, called “the World Soul astride a single horse reaching across the world to rule it.” Indeed, I wondered how much of the “Gance’s NAPOLEON is fascist” talk in the 80s and 90s was really a reaction to Coppola’s thundering score.
— The start of Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS hooked me again. I don’t know why it has such a bad reputation. Of course it’s talky, but it’s basically a thinly veiled Communist “show trial” in which atheist science reduces, represses, silences and hegemonizes religious experience. You can’t “dramatize the ideas” in a trial scene because the speeches ARE the drama. It was a theme clearly dear to Tarkovsky’s heart, and central to his ouevre and this film as well. Note how, in the clip below, the atheist interrogators look into the camera, addressing their reductive pettifogging to the auteur and to the audience; meanwhile Burton the astronaut, trying to explain the inexplicable, never does that. He is always looking somewhere off camera, knowing that this is not communicable.
— Is it really the case that Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were once looked down on as trashing the genre (I have Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert trashing them at the time, so I guess they were …). But going through A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS … it seemed to me like the Platonic Form of the Western, only with more sweat, more brutality and fewer star glamor-makeup saloon girls like Linda Darnell in MY DARLING CLEMETINE. Then I fastforwarded through Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (which I already owned on DVD) but when I realized it was a full-screen print all the way through, I couldn’t resist slowing down to watch the final three-way showdown, which gave the world the term “Mexican Standoff.” Just to see how bad it would be. The cutting rhythm obviously still works; the closeups of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach don’t suffer too much (though it does hurt the framing and overstrains image resolution a bit); and details like the sudden appearance of the spade right at the very start still come across. But … well … geometrically, it’s simply impossible to get the spacing of the cemetery and the three men. Just imagine this scene with about 40% of the image chopped off the sides … and weep
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