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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Last (Grouchy) Thoughts on Oscar

Even though I voted against it in my Oscar pool, I kept secretly hoping all night that The Social Network might somehow win Best Picture, especially after Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scored an upset win for their excellent original score. But as soon as Tom Hooper’s name was called for Best Director, the game was over and I realized why “the Facebook movie” never really had a chance – its main rival, The King’s Speech, was a middlebrow entertainment that plays like a virtual checklist of Oscar’s favorite qualities: true story, period piece (set against the beginning of the second World War no less), a cast of British acting royalty and a main character who overcomes a physical handicap (especially since Colin Firth didn’t, as my friend David Hanley points out, go “full retard”).

Lovers of The Social Network can take solace knowing that the list of movies that have never won Best Picture Academy Awards is more illustrious than the list of those that have. Like many great American films before it, David Fincher’s zeitgeist movie was too edgy, too hip, too relevant. Or as Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker might say: “Winning Best Picture isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Losing Best Picture.” Fans of David Fincher who don’t agree shouldn’t worry though. The man will win an Oscar someday, probably fifteen years from now for a film that isn’t as brilliant or innovative as Zodiac or The Social Network.

P.S. – A big thank you to Judi Marcin for throwing the best Oscar party ever. You deserve a little gold statue.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
2. L’atalante (Vigo)
3. Grand Illusion (Renoir)
4. An Affair to Remember (McCarey)
5. Half Moon (Ghobadi)
6. The Bride Wore Red (Arzner)
7. L’amour Fou (Rivette)
8. Devil (Dowdle)
9. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
10. The Tracker (de Heer)


Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do With It

This Sunday night I will, as is my custom, watch the Academy Awards ceremony live on television. This is a ritual that some of my more serious-minded cinephile friends don’t understand. The Oscars, I tell them, are a night of good trashy fun, which is more than what I feel most Hollywood movies these days are capable of providing. And the Oscars do have a long and colorful history, stretching all the way back to 1927, which makes them more meaningful and interesting than any other awards show. The winners, of course, are chosen more for political reasons than anything else; for instance, if Annette Bening wins Best Actress for The Kids Are All Right, as some pundits are predicting, it will be less for her fine performance (the best thing about that overrated film) than because she’s been nominated several times before and hasn’t yet won. As Clint Eastwood said in the multiple Oscar-winning Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

But while I don’t believe the Oscars represent any legitimate measure of artistic validation for the winners (have you seen Cimarron lately? Or for that matter Dances with Wolves?), there have been rare occasions when the Best Picture winners truly were the best American films released during a given calendar year. It has become common for movie buffs to make lists of “alternative Oscars” – titles frequently trotted out include such perennial hindsight favorites as Sunrise (1927), City Lights (1931), Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), Vertigo (1958), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Goodfellas (1990). It is less common to hear discussion about how Oscar sometimes gets it right. So below is a list of what I consider the top ten best Best Picture winners. In other words, these are films that I believe really did deserve the honor:

10. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930)

He may have wound down his career by indifferently presiding over Rat Pack vehicles but Lewis Milestone also made two of the best American movies of the early sound era – the Al Jolson-starring musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and this powerful anti-war film based on the celebrated novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The battle scenes are astonishing, even by today’s standards, and the movie’s final symbolic image (a soldier cut down by sniper fire while reaching out to touch a butterfly) captures the futility of war better than most entire war films.

9. The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)

Billy Wilder’s last great movie is this acerbic comedy about a lowly office worker who unexpectedly finds himself climbing the corporate ladder after letting his superiors use his apartment to conduct their extramarital affairs. The witty screenplay, courtesy of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is chockfull of memorable lines, which are delivered by a pitch-perfect cast including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. “Shut up and deal.”

8. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a great work of art that is also a cultural phenomenon. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors, hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the sequel but not me.

7. An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951)

Some of the greatest tunes from the Gershwin songbook are strung together to form the backbone of this original MGM movie musical, one of the high water marks of the entire genre; Gene Kelly is the titular character, an American expatriate painter caught between the wealthy, older benefactress who loves him and the young ingenue with whom he is smitten. Vincente Minnelli’s direction is a model of colorful, expressive, intelligent mise-en-scene, nowhere more apparent than in the justifiably famous ballet sequence climax. The dancing of course is phenomenal.

6. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

5. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950)

Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz crafted the ultimate backstabbing, backstage drama with this tale of the rivalry between aging Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis in her finest performance) and devious young upstart Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). As with The Apartment, the real star here is the razor-sharp wit of Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, one of the greatest ever written: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

4. Going My Way (McCarey, 1944)

Sentimental without being mawkish, this beautiful film tells the story of a youthful, liberal priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who is transferred to an inner-city parish where his methods conflict with those of curmudgeonly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Directed with a deft touch by the great Leo McCarey, who proves that Bing Crosby, a million miles away from the persona of his Road pictures, really could act. And if the scene where Fitzgibbon is reunited with his old Irish mother doesn’t make you cry, then I don’t want to know you.

3. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.


Remembering Altman

This Sunday would have been the 85th birthday of Robert Altman.

Did any filmmaker embody the concept of the Hollywood auteur in the post-studio system era as well as Robert Altman? By the time he finally hit his stride as a maverick, independently minded director of irreverent comedies in the early 1970s, Altman was old enough to be the father of most of the members of the “film school generation” (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al.) with whom he enjoyed a friendly competition; but if any American director could be said to own the ’70s, I think it was the older, non-film school educated, Colonel Sanders look-alike whose movies, more so than those of his younger contemporaries, were the product of an idiosyncratic but fully formed artistic personality.

Altman cut his teeth working on genre television shows in the 1960s – he directed episodes of the western Bonanza and the war show Combat! among others, which is important to keep in mind when considering the perversely revisionist genre films Altman ultimately became best known for. (In the 1970s in particular it almost seemed as if he was checking genres off a list: “You think you know what a western is? Well, here’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller!”) Working in television had also been a good way for Altman to try out different techniques involving the employment of sound and image; for instance, it’s where he first began to experiment with the dense, multilayered soundtracks that would become one of his most important hallmarks as a movie director.

In the late 1960s Altman made the leap from television to motion pictures. After a couple of films that were not particularly noteworthy, he made a movie in 1970 that became a phenomenon and changed his life forever. M*A*S*H was a dark, ostensibly period comedy about the Korean war that functioned as a thinly veiled commentary on the then-raging war in Vietnam. It was an unexpected critical and commercial success, winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival before becoming enormously popular with American audiences, especially young people and members of the counterculture. And like a lot of works of art that seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the zeitgeist, the success of M*A*S*H bought Altman an unusual degree of creative freedom for the next several years. It was also the first film to feature all of the signature themes and stylistic traits for which he would become famous. These included:

– an irreverent, anti-authoritarian point of view
– a perverse, humorously revisionist take on genre
– a dense soundtrack with multilayered, overlapping dialogue
– a close collaboration with actors in which he encouraged them to deviate from the script and improvise their dialogue.

During his first wave of popularity in the early 1970s, Altman made the two films that I consider his very best: McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and The Long Goodbye in 1973. Both attempt to explicitly and self-consciously revise the rules of their given genres. McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye are so extreme in terms of how Altman subverts the conventions of the western and the private eye film respectively (and puts his own unique spin on them in the process), that the movies, in spite of earning cult followings, remain divisive whenever they are screened to this day; in classes where I’ve shown both movies, I’ve observed it’s not uncommon for students to love one film but not be able to stand the other. (Another respect in which Altman is unique: even among his diehard fans there is little consensus over which films constitute his best and worst work.)

To understand how Altman subverts genre convention, look first to the cinematography. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an amazingly photographed color film, courtesy of the great Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. McCabe intentionally frustrates expectations of what the visual style of a western movie should be. In contrast to the high-key lighting and bright primary colors of the horse operas from Hollywood’s golden age, everything in McCabe looks drab, muddy and brown. This color scheme, combined with the film’s snowy locations and excellent Leonard Cohen soundtrack, gives it the feel of a melancholy tone poem. And the sound design can likewise be described as “muddy”; one of the film’s most contentious aspects is a notorious sound mix that, to the chagrin of many viewers, features an abundance of scenes where people mumble indistinctly to each other in taverns and whorehouses. But as any of the film’s supporters will tell you, the sheer audacity of this muddiness is part of its perverse charm.

McCabe can also be classified as a genre-subverting “anti-western” in that it presents two big movie stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, in as unglamorous a light as possible. Beatty in particular was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time and Altman intentionally obscured his handsome features behind a bushy beard, gold tooth and omnipresent derby. The unromanticized look of frontier life extends to the supporting cast as well; Beatty’s title character is an entrepreneur who, at the film’s beginning, arrives in the small town of Presbyterian Church and tries to make his fortune by opening a low-rent brothel. Altman clearly takes great delight in presenting McCabe’s small town whores as earthy and plain, the polar opposite of the glamorous western prostitute typified by Claire Trevor in John Ford’s Stagecoach. While Altman’s portrayal is probably closer to the reality of prostitutes in 19th century America, it is also important to recognize that he never condescends to these characters. On the contrary, he seems to have great affection for all of them and takes pains to present them as real people, as evidenced by scenes where we witness them during downtime – singing, goofing off in a communal bath, baking a birthday cake, etc.

The aspect in which Altman most obviously turns western conventions on their head is in his presentation of the western hero. It is obvious to the viewer early on that John McCabe is a coward and a bullshit artist who hides behind a lot of big talk. There is a delicious irony in that the other characters in the film, the townspeople of Presbyterian Church, mistake him for a famous gunfighter who happens to have the same last name. Throughout the movie Altman milks this irony for all it is worth and uses it to set up an action climax that delivers a spectacular payoff – a snowbound shootout that sees McCabe attempting to become the man he has so far only pretended to be. The end result is something rich, complex and that rewards repeat viewings.

If charges of sacrilege have been leveled at The Long Goodbye more often than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, it’s probably less because of the way Altman undermines movie conventions in the later film than because of the way he dared to tweak aspects of its beloved source novel. Raymond Chandler published The Long Goodbye, his sixth novel featuring legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe as protagonist, in 1953 when the film noir movement was still in full swing. Marlowe had been portrayed on screen no less than three times in the previous decade by high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and, Chandler’s favorite, Dick Powell. It is somewhat surprising then that The Long Goodbye wasn’t brought to the screen until Altman’s unconventional adaptation twenty years later, long after the original noir cycle had ended. But that’s precisely Altman’s point: taking the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hardboiled private eye of the late forties/early fifties and transporting him to the health conscious Los Angeles of the early ’70s. Finding humor in this outrageous juxtaposition is essential to appreciating Altman’s film.

Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond. While it features a more conventional color palette than McCabe (fitting given the film’s contemporary southern California locations), it is no less visually striking. A technique first used in McCabe that Altman and Zsigmond perfect in The Long Goodbye is “post-flashing” – exposing the camera negative to a small amount of light before processing it. This gives the finished film a hazy, dreamy, slightly overexposed quality, which Altman likened to the look of faded postcards. It is as far from the stark, black and white cinematography of film noir as Elliot Gould’s nebbishy portrayal of Marlowe is from that of his tough guy predecessors.

And yet both of these aspects are of a piece with Altman’s overall vision. The Los Angeles he portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything – except for the one brand of cat food that Philip Marlowe desperately needs. The tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food. This absurd but crucial scene establishes the theme of betrayal vs. loyalty that will predominate for the rest of the film. It is only when Marlowe informs his friend Terry Lennox “I even lost my cat” during the film’s unexpectedly shocking climax (and thus brings the story full circle) that we are likely to realize how deadly serious Altman has taken his morality tale all along.

After The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman would go on to make many other movies. There would be triumphs as well as fallow periods but, like the song says, he always did it his way. When he fell out of favor in Hollywood, which happened more than once, he would simply scale back his ambitions. The most dramatic example of this would be the entire decade of the 1980s, which were devoted to small projects like filmed plays and T.V. movies following the box office disappointment of the underrated Popeye. But Altman was a dreamer and a schemer, always waiting for the opportunity to realize his next mad folly. Thankfully, his story ends on a note of redemption as the success of The Player in 1992, much like that of M*A*S*H in 1970, allowed him to realize many more personal projects until his death in 2006 – including such late career highlights as Short Cuts, Kansas City, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion. The American cinema won’t see his like again.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bashu, the Little Stranger (Beizai)
2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
3. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
4. All About Eve (Mankiewicz)
5. Sunrise (Murnau)
6. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
7. Sunrise (Murnau)
8. M (Lang)
9. The Wild Party (Arzner)
10. Eyes Without a Face (Franju)


Cinephilia in the Internet Age

On the latest episode of Roger Ebert’s excellent new television show “Ebert Presents At the Movies” (a reboot of his earlier, long running “At the Movies” show), co-hosts Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky each named five films that made them critics. Among the picks of the Chicago-based Vishnevetsky was Jean-Luc Godard’s massive eight part video opus Histoire(s) du Cinema. Not only did Vishnevetsky speak wisely and well about a work of art that more than one critic has referred to as the Finnegans Wake of the cinema, lucky viewers got to see a few ravishing clips of Godard’s monumentally important but deeply obscure work.

At the end of the segment Vishnevetsky slyly noted that while Histoire(s) du Cinema was not available on home video, it could be found “on the internet.” That a film critic on a nationally syndicated movie review show could recommend a work as formally innovative and intellectually audacious as Histoire(s) du Cinema, which must be illegally downloaded to be seen to boot (not that Godard cares about such things), is a good indication of the sea change that has recently occurred in American movie culture. It also offers further proof (if any more is necessary) that, contrary to all of the premature speculation about the “death” of either cinema or cinephilia, world cinema has actually entered a golden age approaching a realization of the “universal language” that Fritz Lang enthusiastically spoke about in the 1920s.

Coincidentally, only a few days before this episode of “Ebert Presents” aired, I illegally downloaded, for the first time, two movies I have been wanting to see for decades: Jacques Rivette’s legendary improvisational epics L’amour Fou and Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. Neither title has ever been officially released on home video in any format and neither has played theatrically anywhere near where I’ve lived. While the picture and sound quality of both titles is sorely lacking on the digital files on my computer, the greatness of the films somehow still manages to come through (to paraphrase something Godard once said about watching The Searchers on television decades ago). Is it an ideal way to view movies that were originally shot on film and intended for theatrical distribution? Of course not. But I am now able to see at least a facsimile of these films that may have otherwise eluded me indefinitely.

And, contrary to what some believe, the digital downloading of movies will not be the death of theatrical projection any more than home video has been. If given the opportunity, I will still jump at the chance to see Rivette’s movies projected, just as I recently shelled out money to see Polanski’s Repulsion in 35mm even though I already own Criterion’s superb blu-ray. Pronouncements of the death of cinema usually come from older critics who are lamenting the death of the specific means of how movies were distributed and exhibited when they first encountered and fell in love with the medium; in essence, they are lamenting nothing more than the loss of their own youth. As someone who rents movies regularly from two sources (Netflix and Facets), regularly purchases blu-rays and regularly goes to the movie theater, I see downloading as just another means of being able to experience cinema. I doubt that the primal experience of strangers congregating in the dark to see movies on a large screen will ever be completely replaced, even if those movies are eventually no longer seen via celluloid projection.

Another byproduct of cinephilia in the digital age: I have also not been experiencing Rivette’s endurance tests in a single viewing the way they were originally intended to be seen (L’amour Fou is four and a half hours long and Out 1 is more than twice that length). Instead, I’ve been watching them in bite-sized chunks, a few minutes here and there on my laptop during downtime between going to work and, of course, watching other movies.

The “Ebert Presents” segment on Histoire(s) du Cinema can viewed here:

http://www.ebertpresents.com/movies/histoires-du-cinema/videos/60


Vigo’s Valentine

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s post concerns one of my favorite cinematic love stories – Jean Vigo’s L’atalante from 1934.

Jean Vigo was the James Dean of movie directors: he lived fast, he died young (of tuberculosis at 29), and he left – if not a beautiful corpse – then at least a beautiful body of work. This includes three short films (A Propos de Nice, Taris – Roi de l’eau and Zero de Conduite) and one feature, L’atalante. All of this work was done in a span of just five years, from 1929 to 1934, and constitutes a total running time of less than three hours. Yet Vigo’s status as a cinematic immortal is ensured – in large part due to L’atalante, one of the most ecstatic hymns to romantic love ever to grace the silver screen.

L’atalante opens with the marriage of a young couple in a provincial French town: Jean (Jean Daste) is the well-traveled captain of the barge L’atalante, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a naïve young woman who has always lived with her parents and knows nothing of the world outside of their hometown. Since the couple has barely had the chance to get acquainted, their relationship will be tested as they travel down the Seine river from Le Havre to Paris on an expedient honeymoon/cargo delivery trip. The other central character in this romantic drama is the most unforgettable – Pere Jules (character actor Michel Simon in a legendary performance), an eccentric, heavily tattooed, cat-loving first mate, whose conversations with Juliette provoke the first tensions in the newlyweds’ marriage. This foreshadows the more serious rift that will occur when the barge arrives in Paris and Juliette runs off, seduced by the City of Light.

L’atalante is often considered a work of “Poetic Realism,” a loosely defined movement of French films from the 1930s that took the poetic innovations of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Impressionism and wedded them to the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking (the “invisible” style of Hollywood), thereby making them more accessible to mainstream audiences. The key filmmakers of Poetic Realism include Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier. But even among this esteemed company, Vigo was a man apart, a visual poet who attempted to stuff his movies with as many rhapsodic and lyrical passages as possible.

Examples of some of the intoxicating imagery from L’atalante: early in the film, Juliette tells Jean she had seen a vision of him before they ever met by plunging her face into water – thus knowing he would be her “true love.” After she runs away, Jean falls into despair. But mindful of her story, he jumps into a canal and, in a series of sumptuously photographed underwater images, sees Juliette in her wedding dress superimposed everywhere around him. Later, Juliette and Jean spend their first night as a married couple apart. As they lie in separate beds in different parts of town, Vigo makes us feel their painful romantic longing by intercutting between overhead shots of the two of them. Not only is the framing and positioning of the actors similar in each shot, Vigo boldly lights both locations in a similarly stylized way: a mirrorball effect with tiny dots of shadow falling on each character. Then, in an exquisite series of shots, Jean and Juliette begin to slowly kiss and caress their own bodies, their movements eroticized by Vigo’s use of dissolves and slow motion cinematography.

Once seen, the sadness of this separated couple will never be forgotten. Because of the painful nature of their conflict, which is predicated on Jean’s jealousy and quick temper, their eventual reunion is made all the sweeter. Fittingly, it is Jules who finds Juliette and leads her back to the barge. When she and Jean see each other, they embrace so passionately that they collapse together on the floor. It is our final image of them before Vigo cuts to an overhead shot of L’atalante sailing down the mighty, eternally flowing Seine. This sublime juxtaposition, which occurs as Maurice Jaubert’s memorable, poignant score reaches a crescendo on the soundtrack, is worthy of Frank Borzage in its suggestion of love as a transcendental force.

Much of the credit for the film’s intense beauty belongs to Boris Kaufman, the talented Russian cinematographer who was also the brother of Dziga-Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (creators of Man with the Movie Camera). Boris went on to an illustrious career in Hollywood, eventually winning an Oscar for his work on On the Waterfront in 1954. But he always retained a special place in his heart for the work he did with Jean Vigo, going so far as to describe their relationship as “cinematic paradise.” This is a phrase that could apply not only to what went on behind the camera but to what they managed to capture in front of it as well.

The only Region 1 DVD of L’atalante was released by New Yorker Video in 2003 and is now out of print. It is rumored that the film will be released in new Blu-ray and DVD editions by the Criterion Collection later this year.


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