Saturday, January 30, 2010

City Girl

City Girl, 1930
Dir: F.W. Murnau

Really, really good objectively speaking. I mean, Murnau, who would be dead a year from when this was made, with only 3 Hollywood films under his belt (Sunrise, the lost 4 Devils, and this), was clearly at the top of his game here. It's really hard to miss that Murnau is poetry and realism combined. Subjectively though, it's occasionally boring (Murnau had wanted to call it "Our Daily Bread" but was overruled by producers) and hard to plod through. But that there are things that catch your eye is what made Murnau a genius. He was one of the first directors who knew intrinsically what should be a given for cinema: it is not what is being filmed but how one films it that is all that matters.

The film pulls from Sunrise’s parable-simple use of country/city dichotomies and the naïve/savvy characters associated with them to tell a simple, starkly simple really, story of a young farmer (Charles Farrel) bringing home to his farm his new wife (Mary Duncan), a waitress from the city he met while on a trip to sell his father’s crop. At home, economic disappointment and bitterness in the family patriarch (David Torrence) turns him against his son but most especially against his son's “waitress” wife-of-the-city, and the boy simply isn’t strong enough to stand up to him. Ideals and poems dreamt, punctured, contested, and won: Sunrise all over again on a third the budget, right? Probably, but what City Girl lacks in scope and allegorical grandeur Murnau more than makes up for in focus and beauty. I mean seriously, the lantern light, the grain, the shadows. Amazing.

All that being said, if the film as a whole doesn't really work (for me), it has plenty of moments that are powerfully visual Murnau:

The loneliness of life in the city as you see the light of a passing elevated train sputter across Duncan’s face and her tiny potted plant in her cramped apartment.

The gleeful run of the young married couple across the family’s wheat field upon their arrival.

The evocative screendoors and angles of the small family house that seems to open up to the nighttime loneliness of the surrounding farmland. An appropriate shot for the master of light and mood.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart, 2009
Dir: Scott Cooper

I'm drunk, eating mac and cheese, and trying not to be too harsh on Crazy Heart, which is genuinely conceived but infinitely frustrating (fuck that). It was pretty alright until Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) loses Buddy (the star of the movie?) and he decides he's gotta clean up his life. Pah-leaze. Missed connection with adult child, bad habits that are hard to break, relationship that can never really happen. Yeah dudez, I know that The Wrestler (2008) was kinda good (not to mention ended on a much more impacting note), but just retelling it in a washed up country star was annoying beyond my imagination. Wandering cameras going nowhere offset some pretty beautiful plains shots, so I can't really be ecstatic about the technical parts of the film. Connor you turddick, Jeff Bridges was incradible. He was, but as soon as the missing child thing happened he became a fucking cliche (if not before then too). "Maggie G. has floppy boobs." That's what my friend said during the middle of the film and I kept thinking about it. Colin Farrell was an absolute chucklehead and perfect as the phony Nashville star. It might have been the most poignant thing about the film, considering how close to home it must of hit for tons of "real" country fans dying to see this bad boy. Bad Blake should have been dead at the end, that's all I know.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

3 Ford Westerns

I must say first of all that I am woefully lacking in having seen any John Ford films (besides clips or not really remembering them from a young age), who is probably one of the most celebrated American directors of all time. Luckily for this blog, he made a lot of Westerns, so I'm sure they'll get their due. After watching these three films, it's easy to see why his brand of cinema is wholly embraced by Hollywood today, and yet completely misinterpreted. A true successor to him nowadays might be found in someone like Martin Scorcese, but then again, not really.

Stagecoach, 1939
Dir: John Ford

The film that made John Wayne famous is not as dated as some make it out to be, but can be a bit rough at some points. Ford, still in black and white, can be seen visually at this point in his career as very much an acolyte to someone like Murnau, who deeply impressed him when he came to Hollywood in the late 20s. Watching this you can make out the subtle poetry of craftsmanship that Ford's fans have championed, but the subtle character growths only happen in about half the characters while the others are basically cartoons (the stagecoach driver and, after some really interestingly vague close-up shots at the beginning, the banker). There had been Westerns that succeeded as both art and entertainment before Stagecoach, but none had been so seamless in their melding of art and western thrills. The stunts during the Indian chase were state of the art, and if you were bored of the film until then, the mood and tension that Ford builds at the end is amazingly intense.


My Darling Clementine, 1946
Dir: John Ford

A true Western masterpiece, My Darling Clementine is more subtle and complex than most films ever hope to be. I'm not sure what everyone's thoughts are on Henry Fonda (mine being very neutral from the little that I've seen), but he is another actor whose lack of movement and verbosity make him a fantastic Western male lead. The Wyatt Earp tale has been told a millions times, but I've never seen one quite like this (so chill out Tombstone), focused on building up the myth while internally tearing it down. Honda as Earp can do no wrong (obviously), but his true desires and intensity are hard to figure out, especially after the murder of his brothers and the arrival of Clementine. Victor Mature is equally enigmatic as Doc Holliday, the arrival of his ex-flame Clementine ruining his plans of cutting a swath across the West before Consumption kills him. The biggest surprise for me has to Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton, whose nastiness and general lack of ethics (thieving, rustling, shooting people in the back) can be down right shocking. It's his first performance that I've actually enjoyed. The final showdown at the OK Corral is pretty much perfect, and the influences seen in Ford's greatest foreign champion, Kurosawa, are pretty evident. Did Old Man Clanton actually reach for his gun at the end? Gray. And then the ending, with the great civilizing force of the Earps moving on, Clem staying to be a schoolmarm and Doc fulfilling his self-destructive destiny, what is that kiss/handshake at the end? I say it's more than meets the eye. I haven't seen that many Henry Fonda performances, but this must be his finest.


The Searchers, 1956
Dir: John Ford

More deep and ruggedly restless than any other Western I've ever seen, The Searchers is a much copied and rarely equaled film in it's epic landscape vistas and poetic heartache. John Wayne is never comically over the top (never great though), and his Ethan Edwards is broiled with inner turmoil. When he comes back home after years of being gone, the signs of his loner status are all over the place, and yet his passionate and longing brotherly forehead kisses make you wonder whether he is in love with his brother's wife (or if there was ever any history there). Ethan also harbors a bitter hatred of Indians (though he knows their lore and language well) and trusts no one but himself. This film is in many ways one of the sharpest American films on racism and its mechanism. Obviously the attack of the US Army against a native Comanche village is shown as genocide. Other characters never really get as fleshed out as Ethan (Martin, an eighth Cherokee who travel with Ethan in their search, being the closest), and there is that awful stock comic character that really stinks (nowhere to be found in My Darling Clementine). Scar may seem terrible at first, what with an Indian having blue eyes and all, but that's not really the point. Henry Brandon actually gives a subdued and subtle performance as an Indian chief trying to keep his people safe while preserving their way of life, which just happens to involve murder raids on homesteaders. The panoramic vista looking out from the frontier cabin onto the open west is really what the film is all about, though. The longing, lost restlessness of the "old West", something that was there but only really ever existed in peoples' minds. Ethan is the embodiment of all of that. Real, and yet nothing that can be a part of real life. Something perfectly captured by the alt-reality of cinema. The iconic last shot is proof of that. It is no accident that The Searchers was made by the master who re-established the Western, and then here created the first end-time Western.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Tall T

The Tall T, 1957
Dir: Budd Boetticher
January 20, 2010

While looking around for something to do after I finish Murnau (only 2 films left!), I realized that for at least one of the "series" that I do, I don't want it to be just one director. I like that, and thinking about things that they continually use in their films is interesting, but I want to change it a little bit. The Hawks and Truffaut series will continue, if anyone cares, so don't worry about that. So, since I've been doing a few, I'm going to start a Western series. I'm not sure if this makes anyone else excited, but I am. In my search for a place to start, I was looking through "best Western" lists, and I found some stuff that looks semi-interesting. Budd Boetticher made a series of "B" Westerns in the 50s with Randolph Scott, which many people classify as "psychological" Westerns. So right there, it's looking good. This particular film caught my eye because it is based on a short story by a famous author. Yup, the author is Elmore Leonard, and the short story is "The Captives".

(Boone not really being with the others)

The Tall T is a lean (77 minutes), taut, and remarkable film because it really expresses a lot of the thoughts that I've been having about film in general lately, and particularly the Westerns that I've watched recently. It's a subtle, character driven film that really throws any kind of driving narrative in the wind, to the point that near the beginning of the film, where it starts wandering a little, I was like, "Where the fuck is this going?" Don't worry though. It goes to the most awesome place ever, way more awesome than even The Big Sky (1952). As an ex-"ramrod", Brennan (Scott) is living a rather lonely life working his own homestead. There are a few episodes in the beginning setting up the the film that may seem hokey and annoying, but seriously, there is no bullshit involved (explained later), and it sets up an important aspect of Brennan's character. It's the calm before the proverbial storm, setting up "normal" Western cliches that will be shattered later. Once he loses his "ride" and meets up with the stagecoach, the film kicks into gear.

(The landscape is it's own character)

The stagecoach party gets to the Way Station, visited earlier before, to drop off Brennan. Things aren't the same though. Three villains are waiting, plotting...well a heist, I guess, but just fucking mayhem seems like a better term. Right away, all the characters are sorted. Richard Boone's turn as the "brains of the operation" has to been one of the greatest villains in any Western I've seen, given that his sympathies lie more in becoming a man like Brennan, rather than the wayward youths whom he rides with. Scott does not want to kill Boone, but stoically acknowledges what is certainly forthcoming. Henry Silva as "Chink" is absolutely awesome. A pure sociopath with no moral compass, Chink is the trigger-finger and impatient whirlwind who doesn't mind any killing. Just watch his face in any background, or his body language. It's incredible. Then there's Skip Homeier as Billy Jack, a naive, impressionable lost soul who eventually gets his by trying too hard to be a "good 'ol boy" outlaw. Even these henchmen reveal added, fascinating dimensions to their characterizations. Their desperate dreams and goals are revealed, only for them to remind us later that they killed an innocent old man, a young boy and they plan to kill again. On the other side we have Brennan, the passive, calm Cowboy who is what every Western leading man should be. Along with him is Arthur Honnicutt as the grizzled sidekick who can never be, and the couple in the stagecoach, Maureen O'Sullivan and John Hubbard. Hubbard's character is, surprisingly, a standard stock coward, and not really developed as perfectly as everyone else in the film, but his performance is key for O'Sullivan, who must overcome the fact that a man married her for money and not for love. The sexual tension between O’Sullivan and Scott inexorably builds as they are forced to sleep together in the ramshackle hut while planning their survival.

("I'm for shootin' 'em now.")

As inevitable as the ending is, it still rings true, not only for the emotional dread that pervades the scene, but the fact that it never really has to happen (I mean in the film it has to happen, but something about the strange, "lost brothers" relationship that Boone and Scott have makes you think that it could have happened a different way). Randolph Scott, I must say, is the Western star I've been looking for.

(Mortal enemies or kindred spirits?)

Boetticher plays with many things the whole film: he gives you things that you now are going to happen, but doesn't necessarily show them to you or give them to you the way you think they should play out in a Western. The deaths at the Way Station, for example, are never shown, and one particular death, which can only be grisly, is only hinted at. Heinz Roemheld’s music is particularly useful in supporting this activity. The music is ambiguous, playful and not interested in cueing the viewer to emotion, mood, or impending events. Reading an article on the series of Westerns Boetticher made in the 50s known as "Ranown", it's hard to pick up some of the things that the director wants you to, especially if you don't know what to look for. Rick Thompson, in an article for Senses of Cinema, had this to say on Boetticher and this film (reading this helped me a lot): "The Tall T, along with the others in the cycle, it must be said, are films for connoisseurs, for viewers interested in Westerns and familiar with the genre’s history, traditions, iconography, themes, plots and gestures. The Tall T is not parodic, or ironic in the current sense, or self-referential, or self-conscious, or subverting, or postmodern (nor pretentious or sentimental, either), but everything in it is conscious, considered, thought out, condensed and precise. The filmmakers (including the actors) are creative minimalists: they spin more out of very limited resources – simple plot, few characters, few locations, few events, with the only spectacle being the bleak, grand desert and mountains of Lone Pine (and only one interior – a cave)." Maybe this film is not for a Western beginner, as stupid as that sounds, but it is sure worth the viewing for the great craftsmanship and thought that went into making it. Even with all that academic stuff, I still had a great time while not being entirely sure what I was looking for.


(The lonesome man of the West)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Big Sky

The Big Sky, 1952
Dir: Howard Hawks
January 18, 2010

I'm skipping a couple of Hawks films in between Red River (1948) and this for a few reasons, but mostly because they are comedies which are probably super screwy. Another is that this is a Western, and can actually correlate somewhat to that review. I might do one of those combined reviews for the others, maybe not. I'll have to see if I can stomach the first one. The Big Sky is a frontier Western, focusing more on the Pacific Northwest, particularly in what I assume is Montana ("Big Sky Country"). I have a lot of half-formed logic in my reviews, and to say something like "I hate Kurt Douglas because he just pisses me off" might appear, or maybe it already has. There is no real logic behind it; it's just sort of instinctual. I seriously did not think he could act well. As Jim Deakins, a man heading West who gets involved with frontiersmen and Indian traders, Douglas slips right into the Hawksian bravura and risk taking ballsyness that blew my hair back during another great Hawks film, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). I think that most of it has to with The Big Sky being an ensemble piece, and Douglas' part doesn't demand the screen time which might make you groan or get a Douglas overload. And at the end, Douglas doesn't get what he gets in almost every other film he is in. To say the least, I was flabbergasted.

I think that I like this more than Red River because it actually feels like a Howard Hawks film, while also being a pretty good Western. This is a rousing, good-time adventure tale with two Hawksian buddies making their way through the untamed wild. Deakins meets Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) in the wilderness, and right away, Boone punches Jim in the face twice because he thinks that Jim is "following him." The are so many of these strange outbursts of violence and manliness throughout the film, and they pretty much sum up Hawks' feelings on untamable masculinity, which of course is why they are in such an untamable place. From there they go on to meet up with Boone's uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt) in St. Louis, who tells them about a plan to go trade with the elusive Blackfoot Indians somewhere up the Missouri River. That's all that you really need to know about the plot, besides the fact that the traveling party also has a Blackfoot princess (Elizabeth Threatt) as a little insurance.

Of course, both of the buddies fall for her, even though the true relationship of the film is obviously the one they have with each other. At the same time, the greedy, evil owners of a fur company try everything to stop them, but Hawks presents all this in relaxed episodes rather than a constantly thrusting plot. It's a fleshed out tale that relies on it's characters, rather than the plot. To that end, Douglas is always smiling, despite the fact that he's constantly getting wounded and injured. In one scene, he has his finger amputated, but the mood is comical. Martin's character is interesting in that he's a loose cannon ("Sick 'em, Boone!") and a racist ("What you do that for?" "Nothin'. I just hate Injuns.") seething with hate, and yet is starting to realize that he's never going to be able to survive in the wilderness unless he turns into something closer to his uncle, a true frontiersman who can communicate with the Indians and even sympathize with them. And of course there is Teal Eye, the princess, who he is starting to warm up to despite the friction that exists between them (and the language barrier).

The one part of the film that is sort of bizarre is the message that Hawks is trying to tell about the vast wilderness itself. Hawks luxuriates in a kind of utopian vision of unspoiled America, and the rich, black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan received an Oscar nomination. I doubt that Hawks really thought about the impact White expansion had on Indians and the "Land" in depth, but there are definitely a few lines in the film that meditate on the future that Indians will have in America and also a few that are sympathetic towards the reasons behind their hostile actions. At the same time, there is also a ton of racist stuff that borders on comical instead of just trying to "tell it like it was." I think my favorite of these has to be Poor Devil (Hank Worden), the retarded Blackfoot drunk who the party meets a little ways up the Missouri. He is an embarrassment to Teal Eye in that he is always demanding whiskey and is known to be a "little touched in the head." A little bit of modern prejudice slipping in? Probably. Poor Devil will make you laugh though you probably know you aren't supposed to nowadays. The yuks were pretty intentional in the 50s.

This is most certainly not a typical Plains Western, but it is a Hawks film, and it should be good enough for anyone who enjoys French fur trappers, the Frontier, or classic American cinema.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


Faust, 1926
Dir: F.W. Murnau
January 17, 2010

You know the story right? A deal with the devil. Whether it's Goethe or Marlowe, everyone knows the scope. The atmosphere of the tale is perfect for the someone like Murnau, who always had a knack for the more fantastical aspects of the subconscious; where the real world and the dream world dovetail. It gets a little held up in melodrama towards the middle, but so what. That's what people wanted, so it was probably thrown in by producers. This is a complete vision for Murnau. One of the greatest acts of production design I've ever seen. Every shot, every model, every set, every costume, every lighting setup is absolutely unified in creating a tangible, visionary work of dread. A picture review seems appropriate for this type of film:

The demons in Murnau's nightmares become the Legions of the Dead. Exprssionism at it's best.

Angels vs. demons. So much better than Angels and Demons.

One of the most memorable shots of the silent cinema; Mephisto (Emil Jannings), spreading his wings over a small town in Germany, in what has to be one of the finest special effects shots ever conceived.

Faust (Gosta Ekman) knows about planets and alchemy. Not curing plague or resisting temptation.

I went down to the summon the devil... me make out.

Young Faust (Ekman) thinking about how the plodding middle part really isn't that good. Unhelpfully, the Devil finds this hilarious.

More paintorial composition from Murnau. Gretchen's (Camilla Horn) only crime is to cach the eye of Faust, who taints all with the Devil's corruption. Horn replaced Murnau's first choice female lead, original movie babe Lillian Gish.

Can this much pleading save her? Faust answers the call...

...only to be burned with his beloved on a pre-Joan of Arc (1928) pyre. But that's the power...the power of love...but is that enough?

Yes. Yes it is. "I'm a winner. The film's a winner. But you,'re just a loser. Look how much higher my cross is than your stupid blood contract."


"You didn't read this, did you?"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Murnau, Truffaut and a Hawks 1948 Double

So I've been watching a lot and not writing anything (or not wanting to really), but here's some more on the list of the directors that I'm working through. I hate the feeling that I have to write something, but I look at this blog as also somewhat of a viewing log.

Herr Tartuffe, 1925
Dir: F.W. Murnau

Maybe the first instance of a "film within a film", this is not as visually striking as many as Murnau's other films, being that it was adapted from a play, and the chamber-drama itself unfolds pretty predictably (Oh, so he really isn't religious is he?), and that itself parallels the the "framing" story's plainess as well (Poison?!!?). There are a couple of really interesting things here though, such as many static shots that Murnau presents based on paintings that he enjoys (paritcularlly by master of "light", like Rembrant). It's a usage he has done before, and will use again in Sunrise (1927). There is also a very risque use of the "male gaze", maybe overt enough to be called a lustful gaze. Emil Jannings as the nefariuos Herr is not nearly as enjoyable as he has proven he can be.


Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board), 1970
Dir: Francois Truffaut

Back to Doinel, which is good. Bed and Board (or maybe Bored) is about the domestic space of young couples. Antoine (JP Leaud) and Christine (Claude Jade) are now a young married couple trying to get by while staying in love. Needless to say, once baby Alphonse comes, Antoine finds himself needing to break out (the scene where he takes an axe to his apartment wall for an addition; or is it for an escape?). I really wasn’t prepared for Doinel to be a married man. But it seemed to be a way for him to create needed order and structure. Truffaut's direction reflects this, being much more formal than the spontaneous and messy Stolen Kisses. He is, however, obviously still very dependent upon a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity, much to the frustration of his wife. She needs him to be a man, a husband, a father, but he is still very much the child from 400 Blows. But we like that about Doinel, despite the fact that he leaves behind one broken relationship after another, as if that were the norm, and as if it won’t potentially leave him sad and lonely in the end. Eternal adolescence is his fantasy, and yet he seems, by the end, to be truly lost about the fact that the guy at the end of Stolen Kisses was right. He is a "temporary person."


Red River, 1948
Dir: Howard Hawks

So, I was tricked. This was filmed in black and white, but the upload on Netflix for streaming is in color. And like all colorizations, it's all bleached out. I won't stay angry for too long at that, cause we're talkin' Westerns y'all! Westerns were one of those "watch with Dad" genres for me growing up, so I'm surprised that I never saw this. Granted, they tended to be more light fare stuff, but given the "classic" status this has in Western canons, I was surprised, but I probably haven't seen a lot of "important" Westerns because my Dad really doesn't care about that stuff (and for that matter, neither do I, because most of those things are wrong). But the biggest reason why I'm surprised is because John Wayne is in this, and the Duke made a few appearances at the Smith household (and yes, I've probably seen The Alamo (1960) about 10 times). Red River is about a cattle drive, and Hawks, this being his first Western, is front and center trying to put forth his ideas on what he thinks about the genre, and also manages a few moments that can be connected back to his earlier films. Wayne actually might be the most intersting character, a desperate cattle man trying to be manly among men and going a little bonkers. Well, his character has a dark turn out on the plains, which is what Westerns should be about, so I'd just say that the character is written well. No one else is particualrly stellar, though Montgomery Clift, who is the young gun, makes a strong, but rather one dimensional debut. His showdown with John Ireland's Cherry Valance is beefed up at the beginning and seemingly forgotten, which is disappointing. It was always in the back of my mind, considering that the Clift vs. Wayne duel that supplants it was only gonna end one way, particularly after the women element was introduced. The ending really is silly enough, but Joanne Dru can't help but drive it further into the dirt with her atrocious acting. I don't think that should stop you from watching this though. In fact, it's a good place to start if you want to get into Westerns. There is a lot of strong writing and decent acting.


A Song is Born, 1948
Dir: Howard Hawks

A remake of his own Ball of Fire (1941), Hawks shot this in technicolor while also retaining Gregg Toland. But by remake, I mean like Gus Van Sant's Psycho. It's a pretty pointless exercise actually, except for the music, which features some excellent swing and Louis Armstrong.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, 1946
Dir: Howard Hawks
January 12, 2010

I'm not sure if any of my countless throngs of readers have a Top 5 list for Film Noir, or if this is on it, but this will bump one out for sure, maybe even slide into the Number 1 spot. From the opening shot during the title sequence of the silhouettes of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall smoking, you know what the score is. It's so weird and slightly off, but at the same time really funny and tightly written. There are some things that annoyed me a little bit, like towards the end they start telling the audience exactly what is going on a little bit too much, but that doesn't stop this from being absolute dynamite. The story doesn't entirely matter that much (though it is sleazy in a good way); it's what the characters do in it and how Hawks, under tight restrictions from censorship, uses innuendo and symbolism to convey his messages. That is what CINEMA is. To tell a story visually without actually saying it. Watch Bogey fuck this book store chick. You may not think that's what he's doing, but he is. How about maybe just talking about it? If you watch for things like this, there everywhere in the film. Hawks' direction, the Bogey/Bacall dynamic in a great film and the overall experience of just watching this put a smile on my face. The Big Sleep is all class.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mississippi Mermaid

La sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid), 1969
Dir: Francois Truffaut
January 11, 2010

As soon as this film started to play itself out, I knew I wasn't going to be that into it any more. It's strange, because it kind of turns into a "love on the run" film in the end, but even that didn't have me too interested. I'm pretty sure that Truffaut wrote the script to this after watching Vertigo (1958) one too many times. The psycho-sexual games and wordplay get sort of ridiculous at times, and many of the scenes (like when Catherine Deneuve changes her clothes in the time it takes JP Belmondo to get to their apartment upstairs from when he rings the doorbell) seem straight out of the head of a child, but that's Truffaut for you. There's a ton of Hitchcock elements to this, and again, Truffaut does some better than others. Belmondo's fever dream in this is actually one of the best of these that I've seen. I was actually sort of enjoying this at the beginning, where Belmondo's lonely Tobacco factory owner on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean puts an ad in a newspaper looking for a wife. After corresponding with a woman for a while, one shows up (Deneuve), but it's not the woman in the picture he has been sent. He falls for her excuses, but we know that something's not right. That's weird enough, right? He gets played for a sucker, and then the film shifts to France. All the right ingredients are there for a nasty little film on self-destructive obsession, with the two main characters getting back together and getting in trouble, but then there's all that stuff about finding true love. Belmondo, though he tried to be Bogart in Breathless (1960), seems to me more of a French answer to Brando. I mean, he's not the best actor ever, but his presence on the screen is worth having him in your film. Deneuve has had finer moments too, but seeing her naked is worth it if you ask me.
The problem with Mississippi Mermaid is that despite all of it's advantages at times it veers too close to melodramatic parody when Truffaut wants it to be taken seriously.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Last Laugh

Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), 1924
Dir: F.W. Murnau
January 9, 2010

Without the cop-out ending that the suits made him put in at the end, which he tries to explain with the only title card in the entire film (yes, only one!), this would definitely would have been the first true masterpiece that Murnau could claim to his singular vision. Nosferatu (1922) will have it's place because of the stark imagery that has made it famous, but it really can't compete with The Last Laugh's technical flair or it's sophisticated melodrama. Certainly not the first use of a moving camera, but the way that Murnau uses point-of-view shots, tracking shots, and light, must have been absolutely crazy to see for audiences in 1924. The opening shot, which simulates the p-o-v of someone coming down an elevator looking out glass windows, is just the tip of the iceberg. Just watch the scene where the main character is drunk. Hand held camera a-la 1924?!!? An aging hotel porter (Emil Jannings), who has the respect of his family and the poor tenement he lives in for his occupation, is demoted by the hotel manager to a bathroom attendant because he is getting too old. The result is one of great shame and loss, not just for the man but for his family, and his new job is the source of derision and laughter from the people who once had his respect. These seemingly exaggerated scenes, where people are sniggering and calling to each other throughout the tenement, which is exacerbated in his mind by Murnau, belie a certain national identity that must have hit home pretty hard in Germany, especially the porter's attachment to the uniform which is taken away from him. The reference of Prussia's militaristic culture and the foreshadowing of the rise of Nazism is not intentional, I think, but just a result of Muranu's inherent Germanness. The fact that he goes back to the hotel at night and steals the uniform back, and then deceitfully wears it home even though he no longer has that privilege speaks volumes on how people view rank and occupation there. It gets to the point where the porter is so ashamed that he even goes back the next night to hand the uniform back in, and ends up down in the bathroom, seemingly left to ponder the rest of his miserable life despite the best efforts of a sympathetic nightwatchman. This is where the title card appears, and Murnau basically says that this is where he would have liked to have ended the film, but the "author" was inexplicably kinder to the character (and, in Murnau's mind, not realistic). We find out that the ex-porter/washroom attendant has inherited a vast fortune, and he is living it up with his friend the nightwatchman at the hotel. It's devastatingly subversive (and painfully sad) because it's tacked on and spurious. Even in this deeply upsetting moment for Murnau, he was able to tack on some meaning to that ending. It was the 20s, the Great War was over, and money was starting to dominate culture over military power, especailly in Germany where wealth was becoming more skewed because of inflation. That doesn't stop it from being a completely unnecessary epilogue. But seriously, don't let it stop you from seeing this. Even if it's not the masterpiece it's supposed to be, it's pretty important for all the technical innovations that are still being used today.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not, 1944
Dir: Howard Hawks
January 6, 2010

This is a really good film, but the Bogey love, while certainly being warranted, seems like it's playing off the success of Casablanca (1942) a little too much. Well, maybe it's just that I thought this was going to a be noir, and it's not really. It's in that romance/adventure vein that Hawks works so well in, but I'm not sure that this is at the top of that heap. The set-up is like a lot of Hawks films, with Americans in a foreign place being very American, and the WWII element gives this a little more spice. Boat-captain Harry Morgan (Bogart) is in Martinique giving fishing tours to wealthy clients when the French government falls and Vichy thugs move in to take control. After losing his money source to some local political trouble, Harry agrees to help some pro-Free French people smuggle some people onto the island for some needed cash, but he wants to "mind his own business" at the same time. Can he!?! We got dragged into the war, remember? Along the way, he comes across a petty thief (Lauren Bacall) who is in Martinique because she has run out of money coming back from Brazil. Things start off bristly, as Morgan catches her picking his client's pocket and starts calling her "Slim." The male/female banter is some of the sharpest in any film, and with a script partially written by William Faulkner in his "soul-selling" days along with an Ernest Hemingway story (changed to better adapt to the screen), those things a pretty much a given. Bogart (44) and Bacall (19) had an affair during the shooting of the film, and the chemistry is evident on the screen. Needless to say, because of the relationship, Bacall became a bonafide star, and the film became hugely popular and a part of pop culture (I'm sorry. I just love these old cartoons. I mean, who doesn't?). Hawks was so upset and jealous about the budding relationship that he had affairs with never-meant-to-be starlet Delores Moran, who has a small part, and a script girl, but who knows what they were supposed make the two lovebirds feel, or how that is relevant to anything. I just think it's funny that that is how he took out all his rage. The set musical pieces, like in a lot Hawks' films, are pretty awesome, and like in Ball of Fire (1941), he got another Pop star involved, Hoagy Carmichael, this time as the fictional piano-man Cricket in the Hotel bar where many of the scenes take place. I may sound like a broken record when I say that the mise-en-scene in Hawks' films is always interesting, but it always is, and they always seem to relate back to other films, which is why Auteurists are fascinated with Hawks, who was always gracious but perplexed when Europeans, especially Frenchies like Truffaut, Godard and Rivette wrote deep, analytical pieces about his work. Take the scene where, after being interrogated, Bogey and Bacall go into the "local" bar where African drums can be heard and a Caribbean dance is taking place. This scene happens in a lot of Hawks films, but could be about any culture/and or place, with the bemused Americans taking in everything. It's exaggerated of course, in that slightly offensive/cinematic way. What is that line anyway? Syd Hickox's cinematography is great, especially when Hawks employs the fog out on the ocean or during all those great bar scenes. All this great stuff; so what's the problem right? Well, a lot of the supporting cast is just so-so if you ask me. Walter Brennan, who is a Hawks regular and was a favorite of his for that buddy/comedy role, plays a "rummy" who is always tanked and looking for another drink. He won three supporting actor Oscars for doing this sort-of bumbling fool physical comedy schtick, but I can never figure out whether he's funny or really annoying. The villains, especially Dan Seymour as the unctuous heavy Gestapo man Renard, who has a pretty cheesy fake french accent, are kind of dumb. So I wasn't all that interested in any of the tension or suspense that the film built up towards the end. The Casablanca similarities are pretty tedious actually, and I wouldn't rate that film anymore than a 3.5 as well so it irks me a little bit that people call that and this a "masterpiece", but I understand why films like this are loved. I think my biggest problem was that by the end I was getting bored, and the ending itself is not that cool. The film has nothing but the Bogart/Bacall dynamic going for it, which is phenomenal, but unlike Only Angels Have Wings (1939), which is the same sort of film, but not really at all, there is nothing else going on underneath. That film had the light-toned banter too, but also the great plot and the darker tones reverberating through it. Not that I think Hawks ever really gave a shit about any of that stuff, but the way that he made films allowed for the possibility. This is a fun, cinematic piece, but I don't think that it's the classic everyone says it is.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Stolen Kisses

Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses), 1968
Dir: Francois Truffaut
January 3, 2010

So after trying his hand at Hitchcock, Truffaut goes back to the character that jump-started his career in the first place, Antoine Doinel. In 400 Blows (1959), Antoine was a neglected kid who started to get into trouble and ended up in Juvi. In Antoine and Collette (1962), his first love at 17 rejects him for an older guy.
With only a slight backdrop of the political unrest in France in 1968 running a current through the film, Doinel is now a military drop-out, dishonorably discharged from the Army and released to a future of petty jobs (hotel clerk, private investigator, shoe boy, TV repairman) and awkward romantic yearnings, in effect, the same boy we saw stealing a typewriter in 1959, only older, and more curious. It’s obvious that Truffaut feels for the character (and J-P Leaud, who is used much differently here than in Godard’s Masculin Feminin two years earlier, but that’s more about the differences in the directors at this point in their careers than anything) a certain kinship, guiding the boy through humiliation (calling an older woman he is infatuated with "Mr." and then running away) and sexual experimentation (having one night stand with same woman, who is his client's wife) with a tender gaze that only hints at the New Wave’s, and it's successors (uh, Rushmore (1998) anyone?), penchant for ironic realism. The film can kind of get caught up in Truffaut's love of cinema cliches, like the romantic slapstick of a terrible private eye (seriously, if you've seen that show on HBO, "Bored to Death," with Max Fischer and Zack Gaf, you know now exactly where they got the idea) or the need for the sinister stalker (who doesn't end up being so sinister), but that rarely gets in the way of the fact that it flows with the true rhythms of life; that people do stupid things, horrible things, and occasionally good things. Antoine tries really hard to get back with Christine (Claude Jade), his flame before the army, but still will visit a prostitute from time to time (and not be too pleased when they refuse to kiss or won't take off their sweaters). He tries to play it cool with her, but eventually he tries to forcibly make-out with her, and like Collette was when he was 17, she does not dig it. We later see Christine giving her parents excuses and sneaking out the back when Antoine comes calling. Once he becomes infatuated with the older woman (Delphine Seyrig, the "extraordinary woman" in the pic below), he stops coming to see her, so a clearly "playing hard to get" Christine wonders what went wrong, and goes seeking out Antoine. He totally cold shoulders her, and tells her that he "does not admire her." So after the affair (which causes him to get fired, his third time in the film), he ends up as a TV Repairman. Christine breaks her TV on purpose, and when he comes to fix it, though somewhat annoyed that he was the one sent there, they end up in bed together. This all sets up this stunning ending, where the newly engaged couple are walking in the park, and are approached by the sinister stalker who has been watching Christine throughout, who, rather than do something, well, sinister, professes his love for her. He describes his love as "definitive" and unlike the "temporary" love of "temporary people." When he walks away, Christine explains that the man must be mad. Antoine, recognizing similarities in much of his own previous behavior, admits, "He must be". Woah. How good is that? I seriously love these messy coming-of-age stories, especially when Truffaut is in complete control. This doesn't leave you with the devastating freeze-frame that 400 Blows did, but it's similar noncommittal ending leaves Antoine in the only place he can be; yearning, awkward, in between.