Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu)
2. Solaris (Tarkovsky)
3. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Stern/Sundberg)
4. Midnight in Paris (Allen)
5. Late Autumn (Ozu)
6. Shoeshine (de Sica)
7. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer)
8. True Grit (Coens)
9. Gran Torino (Eastwood)
10. The Terrorizers (Yang)


Andrei Tarkovsky’s Blu-Tinted Memories

“Unfortunately the science fiction element in Solaris was too prominent and became a distraction. The rockets and space stations — required by Lem’s novel — were interesting to construct; but it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.”

– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

“Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story.”

– Dr. Snaut in Solaris

Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, the first of the maverick director’s films to receive an HD upgrade and thus a cause for celebration. Not only is the Criterion Collection’s release a splendid looking and sounding disc, it represents a real improvement over its earlier SD counterpart in ways both subtle and obvious. The most crucial difference, and the one that should have all Tarkovsky acolytes readily willing to “double dip” for the Blu-ray, is that some of the film’s black-and-white sequences have now been restored to their original blue-tinting following Tarkovsky’s wishes. This reason alone justifies upgrading one’s version of Solaris but there are other areas of improvement cinephiles will be thankful for as well.

Based on the celebrated novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris tells the futuristic story of Russian cosmonaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), assigned by the government to investigate the strange goings-on in a space station that is orbiting the title planet; one of the scientists aboard the station has mysteriously disappeared, one has committed suicide and the others have begun to experience visual and aural hallucinations. Kelvin’s job is to make a report on the mental health of the remaining two scientists but upon arriving he too begins succumbing to inexplicable visions, such as the mysterious reappearance of Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his deceased wife who had committed suicide ten years before the film’s narrative proper begins. Eventually, Kelvin realizes that the mysterious Solaris Ocean has the power to make manifest the innermost thoughts of anyone who comes near it. The very concrete nature of these hallucinations (Kelvin is capable of contacting Hari physically and his fellow scientists share his hallucinations of her) allow Tarkovsky to ask the philosophical question of what the value would be of interacting with a person conjured up by one’s own id – if one also knew deep down that, no matter how seemingly empirically verifiable, the person in question was not in fact “real.” The question becomes trickier as the plot progresses because the longer Hari exists as a hallucination, the more she appears capable of developing her own independent consciousness.

Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow is a key reference point in Solaris:

This description probably makes Solaris sound more action-packed than it is. The film clocks in at two hours and forty-seven minutes and unfolds at a languid (some would say glacial) pace as Tarkovsky often lets shots tick past the two-minute mark before cutting. Unusual for science fiction, he also continually references classical works of art from the Venus de Milo and Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow to Faust and Don Quixote to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bach. Finally, there is an intentional dearth of the sort of “special effects” one typically associates with the genre, although Tarkovsky’s crew built elaborate sets for the space station interiors. But even this last aspect was apparently too much for the great director, whose monk-like sense of artistic purity led him to rue having to acknowledge these relatively modest genre trappings. This is probably why he later referred to Solaris as the weakest of his films, barely giving it a mention in his essential memoir Sculpting in Time. I would argue however that Tarkovsky was dead wrong; I find Solaris the perfect balance of big budget filmmaking and big ideas, resulting in an uncommonly soul-stirring exploration of the “inner space” of memory and conscience. The film’s dirge-like rhythms and supernatural cinematography (all misty landscapes and roiling ocean surfaces) as well as the riddle-like plot (here is a movie that demands and rewards multiple viewings!) contribute to the awesome hypnotic power that Tarkovsky could generate in his very best work. I also personally find it infinitely preferable to his last two films, the shot-in-Italy Nostalghia and the shot-in-Sweden The Sacrifice, where he was essentially handcuffed into making the films of a tourist (in the former case a semi-autobiographical film about a Russian artist in exile, in the latter an Ingmar Bergman imitation).

As for the aforementioned blue-tinted black-and-white shots, Tarkovsky uses them primarily for flashback sequences, or at least scenes meant to recall the past, such as the scene where Kelvin attempts to eradicate memories by burning documents and photographs associated with his past before leaving Earth. However, as the film progresses and Tarkovsky begins to blur the lines between past and present, reality and fantasy, memory and imagination, these “blue shots” begin to intrude at seemingly random intervals. (A true cinematic poet, Tarkovsky would never carry out a system of color-coding that could be understood entirely in logical, intellectual terms.) But the blue-tinting serves another crucial function that was lost in Criterion’s earlier non-blue-tinted DVD transfer: it makes explicit the connection between the memories and fantasies of Kelvin and the similarly tinted images that appear on the space station’s video monitors. Memories and fantasies are like films, Tarkovsky seems to be saying, capable of being watched and rewatched forever in the movie theaters of our minds.

Tarkovsky predicts the advent of the 60-inch widescreen television:

Criterion created this new HD transfer from a 35mm low-contrast print struck directly from the original negative and it looks astonishingly good (as one would expect coming from this label). The Blu-ray makes a commendable leap forward over previous home video editions in terms of its film-like properties including a nice sheen of grain that no doubt accurately represents the film’s theatrically projected look. While Tarkovsky’s color films all share a relatively soft and moody palette, the colors on this Blu-ray “pop” in a way that they never have on home video until now. The audio is likewise improved with Bach’s “Choral Prelude in F Minor” sounding particularly robust and pleasing on the lossless mono track. One can only hope that Criterion will soon see fit to present Andrei Roublev, Tarkovsky’s greatest film, with the same loving treatment.

Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan

Bob Dylan turns 70 years old today. To commemorate, this post concerns Todd Haynes’ wild Dylan biopic I’m Not There, a film that has been an object of fascination for me since its release in 2007. Not a straightforward retelling of the musician’s career in the generic mold of other recent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Haynes instead concocts a fantasia where six different actors (of various ages, races and genders) portray a different aspect of the life and/or music of the ever-mercurial Dylan. Although I would rate it somewhat less highly now than when I first saw it, it still irks me that film critics and Dylan fans alike have derided the film as willfully perverse or, worse, something designed to “make no sense.” If anything, I’m Not There is a film that makes too much sense; every aesthetic decision seems rationalized on an intellectual level – usually by tracing it back to a song, album or another movie – which lends the film an academic flavor that is occasionally off-putting. Nonetheless, few American films of recent years have been as formally audacious as Haynes’ movie, and its more off-the-wall experimental aspects are arguably perfectly suited to chronicling an artist whose work has been as revolutionary as Dylan’s has been.

What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain). Rather than integrate these notes into a formal essay, I’m keeping them fragmentary in nature, which I hope is fitting given the kaleidoscopic nature of the film:

I’m Not There has a unique mirrored structure. It seems to me that large chunks of the beginning of the film are consciously mirrored by large chunks of the ending. I would even go so far as to say that the Jude Quinn segment (in which Cate Blanchett notoriously plays the “Dylan” of 1965/1966) is the literal center of the movie, with the narrative strands that come before and after it falling on opposite sides of the “mirror”:

– The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.

– It also begins with Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor playing “Dylan” as a Woody Guthrie wannabe) hopping a train and ends with Billy (Richard Gere as “Dylan”-as-Billy-the-Kid) hopping a train.

– Near the beginning, a faux documentary segment of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale as “Dylan” the protest singer) is clearly mirrored by the faux documentary segment towards the end of Pastor John (Bale as the same character but now a born again Christian 25 years later). Haynes’ masterstroke is having Bale appear in both segments since those two seemingly disparate eras in Dylan’s career are actually unified in several interesting ways – most notably in the impression Dylan gave in interviews during those times that he actually did, for once, “have the answers” and in the way his sense of humor, usually one of his strong suits, appears to have deserted him.

– The depiction in the first half of the movie of the relationship between Robbie and Claire (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mr. and Mrs. “Dylan”) focuses primarily on when they first met and things were good and mirrors their estrangement and divorce in the film’s second half. There are also two sex scenes between these characters, one in each half of the film (à la A History of Violence).

– My favorite symmetry might be Gorgeous George, the famous wrestler, telling Woody “Secrets are for keeping” in the beginning, which echoes Billy’s line to Homer at the end: “God save the secrets.”

Although there is obviously a lot of intercutting between the various stories, I think Haynes structured the movie somewhat like this:

1. Woody
2. Jack Rollins
3. Robbie Clark’s marriage
4. Jude Quinn
5. Robbie Clark’s divorce
6. Pastor John
7. Billy

For me, the real power of the film lies in its depictions of the characters of Woody and Billy and the implied transition from one to the other. Woody is a “fake,” trying to convince everyone who he is and what he’s done, and Billy is completely “authentic”, inhabiting a mystical folk music world of his own design. I think this speaks volumes about the irony of how people have responded to Dylan’s career over the decades; the young Dylan was a charming and talented bullshit artist while the Dylan of today is one of the last living links to authentic folk and blues music. It reminds me of something I read in a newspaper review of a Dylan concert in Nashville a few years ago. The writer said that the long-haired Dylan of 1966 was almost run out-of-town when he showed up to record Blonde on Blonde but locals embrace the Dylan of today when he returns for embodying the true spirit of country music (“he used to hang out with Johnny Cash, don’t you know?”).

A few more things I noticed:

– The hobos that Woody meets when we first see him hopping a freight train (listed as “Hobo Joe” and “Hobo Moe” in the credits) are the same hobos he says good-bye to before going to the hospital to visit the real Woody Guthrie. This slyly implies that what happens to young Woody on the road – his playing the blues with Old Man Arvin, being menaced by the scary hobos, being swallowed by the whale, charming the rich white southern family – are just more tall tales that Woody is telling Moe and Joe.

– Woody tells Mrs. Arvin that he is from Stockton, California. At the end of the movie we learn this is where the Gateway Church is also located.

– Billy the Kid wakes at three different points in the movie: once at the beginning, once towards the end when his dog is barking and his story begins proper and finally at the end when he wakes up on the train and finds the guitar.

I’m Not There features almost as many references to movies from the late ’50’s through the early ’70’s as it does to Dylan’s music.

Here is a list of notable references:

– Woody’s punning dialogue with the hobos about “composite” and “compost heap” is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. When Woody says “It’s lonesome roads we shall walk,” he’s probably referring to the protagonist of that movie (Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes”) as well as Dylan’s song “Paths of Victory.”

– In terms of composition and editing, the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are heavily influenced by Godard’s films of the mid-’60’s: the scene where they buy a motorcycle is reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. The overhead shots of her cooking and cleaning are reminiscent of La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. More specifically, the shot where a camera circles around the face of a statue during the “Visions of Johanna” sequence is identical to several shots in Le Mepris. Later, Ledger’s voice over narration about Gainsbourg’s disappointment in his movie Grain of Sand is an almost exact quote from Masculin Feminin.

– In terms of style, the Richard Gere sequences are very similar to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. This is particularly true of the color scheme (earth tones) and use of the zoom lens.

– One of the movie’s best throwaway jokes is a nod to The Graduate. We see a montage of different characters addressing Richard Gere under different pseudonyms. The last one, a bellhop, calls him “Mr. Gladstone.” This is the name Dustin Hoffman used when checking into a hotel to rendezvous with Ann Bancroft.

– The Beatles being chased by a screaming mob is an obvious allusion to the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. More obscure is a reference made to Petulia, another film by the same director Richard Lester; both movies contain shots of elderly party-goers in neck braces and wheelchairs.

– The Jude Quinn sequences are highly reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Specific visual quotations include the shot of Blanchett as a human balloon and the entire garden party sequence.

– Woody dresses up as Charlie Chaplin in the town of “Riddle.” Woody’s quoting of the song “Lo and Behold” (“This is chicken town!”) might also be a specific reference to the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin’s starving friend sees him as a giant chicken.

– Also in “Riddle,” the scene where a family is loading a jalopy with furniture is straight out of John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath (a favorite of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan).

– An overhead shot of people holding umbrellas on a sidewalk is a visual quote from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I still don’t know why Billy has a female dog named Henry though.

From the Minx Archives: Jeremy Quinn Essay

Volume 2 in the “From the Minx Archives” series is an essay I commissioned about the film for the now-defunct website from my good friend Jeremy Quinn. Jeremy played a bit part in The Minx as “The Bartender,” a role he reprised in my short At Last, Okemah! and which I hope he will continue to reprise in future projects. (This could be considered typecasting as Jeremy is the sommelier for Webster’s Wine Bar on the north side of Chicago. He also maintains the fantastic Webster’s wine blog.)

The Minx: An Exploration Into the Surface

It is productive to view the character of the ‘Minx’ – who is not, after all, ‘Linnea Chiang’ – as enzymatic, a pure catalyst for reactions in which she does not participate. Linnea comments on why she becomes the Minx only once (rather weakly, and in a tone implying that she would be the last to know): ‘I feel the deepest part of me come alive’. At her ‘deepest’, we’re invited to think, Linnea Chiang is no longer recognizable as Linnea Chiang at all, and it is here where she seeks to see herself reflected.

As Harry Lime might say, people are ultimately unknowable, for knowledge is a very partial thing: it’s merely a tool, valid for certain tasks and useless for others. The Minx as enzyme brings this limited nature of knowledge to light; seeking explanations for her, each character confronts the narrow scope of their own perspective. The film is very deliberate as it presents the Minx as an obstacle to understanding – most so, perhaps, in an early set of humorous cross-cuts between Rollo and Jeremy, who, as they confidently direct their respective agents to discover quite different, even opposite, ‘truths’ about the Minx, highlight the incapacity of any such success to fully describe the Minx at all, not even as ‘a flesh-and-blood human being’. Joe ‘gets’ her as a common criminal, yet breaks down at the Robin Hood angle; the news media can understand ‘daring acts’, but has a tough time conceding her femininity; Edgar digs puppy love with a tough tobacconist, but can’t jive with the thief who won’t turn herself in to marry him. The players on the screen (and also we, the viewers) may comprehend her so far, but no farther. There is no compromise to her mystery, and that’s the chief joy of the film. Both Linnea and the Minx are as inscrutable at the end as at the beginning. There is no private confession, no sticky psychology, no tearful history and no reasoned motivation. It’s all surface.

The Halloween party is the film’s centerpiece. Its gathering drift and off-center framing distills the sweet and off-balance tone of the entire film. One has the sense that it could go on forever. Earlier, Linnea paraphrases Cervantes, stating that ‘life is a series of masks, and death strips them all to leave us equal in the grave’; to that observation, this party scene, with every character costumed, in what increasingly strikes one as a ‘parade of life’, serves as a fine parallel. Virginia Woolf has spoken of a certain shade of meaning which, at any time, for no reason, “decends on people, making them symbolical, making them representative”, and it’s this quality of symbol which the filmmaker, with wry humor, explores; very much through Linnea, who, via the Minx, herself explores the ‘representative identity’ as another available way of being.

– Jeremy Quinn, 2007

The Magic of Mizo

The great Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi was born on this day in 1898. His masterpiece Ugetsu is my favorite movie to show in Intro to Film classes to exemplify Japan’s astonishingly rich post-World War II period. It shares a rotating slot with Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Mizoguchi’s own Sansho the Bailiff.

Akira Kurosawa is the most famous Japanese — nay Asian — director of all time. This is in part because his Rashomon won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 1951 (then as now one of the top three most prestigious film festivals in the world), thus opening up the floodgates for international companies to acquire then-exotic Japanese movies and distribute them widely in the West for the very first time. Abetting Kurosawa’s fame was the fact that he made his movies, especially his samurai films, in a style that was arguably already familiar to Western audiences. Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, for instance, would be unthinkable without the classic Hollywood westerns of the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, these chambara classics in turn ended up being massively influential on American and European westerns in the 1960s. And that kind of give-and-take is how the language of cinema evolves.

Ironically (or not depending on how you look at it), Kurosawa was a relative newbie when he made his international breakthrough; he had only started directing during the second World War. The other high-profile Japanese directors of the country’s post-war boom years (Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keinosuke Tinugasa, etc.) had been around since the silent era. Of these elder statesmen, all of whose films were to a greater or lesser extent “more Japanese” than Kurosawa’s, Mizoguchi enjoyed the greatest international success. From 1952 through 1954, he won an unprecedented three Best Director prizes in three consecutive years at the Venice International Film Festival for his late period masterpieces The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. Of these, my favorite is Ugetsu, a unique war movie/melodrama/ghost story hybrid.

Although many of Mizoguchi’s most celebrated films fall into the same “jidai-geki” (or period drama) genre as those of Kurosawa, the approaches of the two directors could not be more different. Where Kurosawa’s period movies tended to be swiftly paced, action-oriented samurai pictures focusing almost exclusively on male characters, Mizoguchi’s are closer to melodrama, with a particular focus on the suffering of women throughout Japan’s tumultuous political history. The other chief difference between the two is in their approach to visual style. Where Kurosawa favors pan shots with a telephoto lens and brisk cutting (including a unique signature use of “wipe” transitions), Mizoguchi’s films unfold at a slower pace but with no less of a flamboyant approach to the image; the cutting is certainly slower in Mizoguchi but the camera is almost constantly moving. In Ugetsu approximately 70% of the shots are crane shots, the most logistically difficult type of camera movement to execute but one that allows the camera to move seemingly anywhere. “The pictures should roll out like scrolls,” Mizoguchi informed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa before shooting began.

The title Ugetsu (or Ugetsu Monogatari as it is known in Japan) literally translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” an appropriately poetic title for this most poetic of movies. The film draws on three short stories, Akinari Ueda’s “The House in the Thicket” and “A Serpent’s Lust” and Guy de Maupassant’s “How He Got the Legion of Honor,” to tell the story of the sentimental education of two peasants who attempt to become war profiteers in late 16th century Japan: Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who plans on selling his wares to soldiers in a civil war-torn domain. His neighbor, Tobei (Eitarô Ozawa), accompanies him to assist in transporting and selling the pottery but has the underlying motive of becoming a great samurai warrior. Both men abandon their wives but with the intention of returning home someday covered in wealth and fame. As is typical of Mizoguchi, the plight of the abandoned women, one of whom is murdered by starving soldiers and one of whom is forced into prostitution, is just as important as that of their male counterparts.

Ugetsu is a film known for its extraordinary “set pieces,” individual sequences that, in their lyricism and beauty, rank with the most evocative and richly detailed passages in all of cinema. One such episode is the famous “phantom boat” sequence, where all four protagonists travel from their hometown of Nakanogo across Lake Biwa by boat to reach the marketplace in Nagahama. (Since Tobei’s wife Ohama is the daughter of a boatman, she is the one who pilots the boat across the lake.) The ghostly atmosphere of this scene, which involved seamlessly blending shooting on location with shooting in a giant water tank inside of Daiei Studios, is achieved through Mizoguchi’s magical mise-en-scene; the low-key lighting, dense fog and elaborate tracking shots combine to create flowing, painterly images that are spellbinding in their intensity. Greatly adding to this hypnotic quality is a spare soundtrack, on which we hear the singing of Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) accompanied by the sound of a simple, non-diegetic metronomic drumbeat. In the middle of the lake, another boat emerges from the fog. It contains a lone passenger, whom our protagonists initially mistake for a ghost. The man reassures them in a whisper that he is not an apparition but a dying man whose boat was overtaken by pirates who inflicted his mortal wounds. He warns them to return home and then promptly dies. Genjuro and Tobei say prayers for the man as they push the boat away and continue on their journey. The steady drumbeat continues. The men will soon abandon their wives. Mizoguchi has foreshadowed the true supernatural occurrences that will be forthcoming in Ugetsu.

In Nagahama, Genjuro and Tobei split up. They both ironically achieve their dreams: Tobei attains the status of a great warrior almost by accident and Genjuro’s pottery business becomes phenomenally successful through the patronage of a single client — the aristocratic but mysterious Lady Wakasa. This latter plot thread leads to my favorite scene: after she convinces him to deliver his wares to her mansion in person, Lady Wakasa seduces Genjuro and persuades him to marry her (in spite of the fact that he is already married). Initially drunk on his good fortune (as well as what one presumes is incredible sex), Genjuro’s elation soon turns to skepticism and eventually fear as he realizes his new bride is actually a ghost. Late one evening, Lady Wakasa asks Genjuro to return with her to her “native land.” He refuses, telling her of his other wife and child and his desire to return to his true home. Lady Wakasa attempts to touch Genjuro but recoils in horror; a Buddhist priest who knew of the Lady’s true identity has painted protective prayers all over Genjuro’s body. She tells him to wash off the offending characters but Genjuro draws his sword, swinging it wildly about as he exits the manor for good.

What is remarkable about this sequence isn’t what happens on a narrative level but rather the spooky mood that Mizoguchi is able to so effectively conjure through his total mastery of film form. The interior of Lady Wakasa’s manor is lit by pronounced chiaroscuro (the conscious interplay of light and shadow), which becomes increasingly dark as Genjuro slices the illuminating candles with his sword. The lighting here resembles nothing so much as the deliberate artifice of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. And, as in a film by Murnau, the crane-mounted camera constantly follows the movement of the characters throughout the scene, not only laterally but vertically as well. Finally, all of this action unfolds to the accompaniment of a creepy, dissonant musical score (credited to three composers: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki and Ichirô Saitô), featuring eclectic arrangements involving instruments both Japanese and Western (dig that wailing saxophone!).

But none of these individual set pieces would matter if the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Mizoguchi manages to string these scenes together like pearls on a necklace as the underlying themes (greed, the folly of ambition, the suffering of civilians during wartime) coalesce in the film’s sublime resolution; Tobei the newly-anointed samurai meets his wife Ohama as a newly-indoctrinated prostitute in a brothel. Both characters, overwhelmed by a complex combination of relief, shame, happiness and grief, return home and vow to start over. Genjuro likewise returns home to find his wife and child gone. In a legendary shot, Mizoguchi’s camera circumscribes a 360-degree pan around the tiny hut, beginning with an empty room but ending on Genjuro’s wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) where no character had stood before. Delighted to be reunited with his family, Genjuro falls asleep with his infant son in his arms. The next morning however, Genjuro awakes to the realization that, while his son is safe and sound, his wife died some time ago and the Miyagi he saw only hours earlier is now too a ghost. Like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Tobei and Genjuro are now sadder but wiser men.

Ugetsu is available from the Criterion Collection in an excellent standard DVD edition. But a film with cinematography of this magnitude deserves a Blu-ray upgrade.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Horse Soldiers (Ford)
2. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro)
3. Offside (Panahi)
4. The Other Side of the Mirror (Lerner)
5. Hangmen Also Die (Lang)
6. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro)
7. The Indian Tomb (Lang)
8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Herzog)
9. Zodiac (Fincher)
10. Ravenous (Bird)

A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential titles from Hollywood’s studio system era that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1948 – 1959.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Universal, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.

All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox, 1950)

The career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, universally acknowledged as a brilliant screenwriter but still underrated as a director, hit a dizzying career peak with this backstage drama, a witty and highly literate bitch-fest. A ruthlessly ambitious young actress (Anne Baxter) insinuates herself into the life of her idol, a legendary theatrical actress experiencing a mid-life crisis (Bette Davis, magnificent in a role that undoubtedly hit close to home). The whole ensemble cast is perfect including both of the leads, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, George Sanders as an acid-tongued theater critic.

Park Row (Fuller, United Artists, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, MGM, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

The Band Wagon (Minnelli, MGM, 1953)

Speaking of which . . . my own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

The Naked Spur (Mann, MGM, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, United Artists, 1955)

A bizarre confluence of talented people came together in 1955 to bring to the screen this one of a kind masterpiece – a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and a gothic horror film. This includes Davis Grubb, who provided the pure Americana source novel, film critic-turned-screenwriter James Agee, veteran British actor Charles Laughton (directing for the first only time), and Robert Mitchum, playing way outside of himself as the psychotic preacher of the title. The luminescent cinematography is courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons).

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, Universal, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

Bigger Than Life (Ray, 20th Century Fox, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

The Searchers (Ford, Warner Brothers, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, Columbia, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

Some Like It Hot (Wilder, United Artists, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

Teaching the Teachers

This summer I will be teaching a session at Facets Multimedia’s Summer Film Institute, a unique and intensive week-long film camp for teachers. The topic of my day long seminar is “Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom: How to Teach Classic Hollywood Movies”. (This subject is near and dear to my heart as it has become one of my missions in life to turn young people on to classic film.) During the day-long session I will be screening Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as well as clips from various other movies from Hollywood’s golden age and discussing what exactly makes them “classics”. The Film Institute is aimed at high school teachers and affords the opportunity to earn 30 CPDUs although anyone is welcome to attend. My session will occur on Friday, July 29th. More information can be found here.

A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Moolaade (Sembene)
2. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
3. Chungking Express (Wong)
4. The Tiger of Eschnapur (Lang)
5. Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker)
6. Chungking Express (Wong)
7. Let’s See Copia Conforme (Bufo)
8. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
9. A Double Tour (Chabrol)
10. Une Chambre en Ville (Demy)

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