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Monthly Archives: January 2012

He Said/She Said Review: The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers
dir: Ti West (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.1
JM rating: 7.5

This “dialogue review” of Ti West’s The Innkeepers, a new haunted hotel horror film, is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. The film opens Friday at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.

MGS: The Innkeepers is a new horror film by the talented young writer/director Ti West. You and I were both fans of his previous movie, the retro-Eighties Satanic possession flick The House of the Devil, and so we opted to check out his latest On Demand. Because The Innkeepers is a true independent production, it had the unusual honor of premiering On Demand more than a month before its theatrical release, something that major Hollywood films won’t do . . . yet. In what other ways do you think The Innkeepers reveals its indie credentials and what do you see as being the strengths and weaknesses of this mode of production?

JM: First of all, I actually never thought about what types of movie were On Demand via Comcast because we rarely rent them, but when I think back we also rented The Human Centipede, so I can definitely see a pattern. To address your question, I knew that it was an indie flick because it defied a lot of conventions that you can almost psychically predict while watching a Hollywood film. First, the set and the story were really simple — just a haunted house and a few characters who you really get to know. To narrow in on the characters, namely the main two inn employees (male and female), there is no overt romance, which always seems to happen when you put two heterosexual characters together of the opposite sex. They have a great silly chemistry and I found my mind wandering to past jobs that I’ve had where I have such a great time with a co-worker that the job seems to melt away. Also, the main character, Claire acts like an actual carefree and down to earth girl and I couldn’t imagine her being any other way in “real life” because her acting was so understated. To jump ahead, I would argue that the ending was the epitome of a true indie film. It was simple and scary — no gimmicks, no scenes that were completely predictable, and slightly ambiguous. A strength of this film is that you have no idea what is going to happen, and you connect so quickly with the characters that they are like your friends and you don’t want them hurt. Another strength is, again, it’s difficult to predict what is going to happen and in most horror films especially I can usually predict every next move because they are so formulaic. A weakness would be, and not so much of this being an indie film but rather of the film itself, that I was slightly confused by the end. It was so simple that I didn’t know if I should keep digging for deeper meaning or just let it be. It reminded me of Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate where the movie is really good, but the end baffles and slightly disappoints me because I don’t know what to think. I’ll be the first to admit that I like my endings to be crystal clear (though I do love The Wrestler, as you know).

MGS: You make some good observations about the characters. Not only did I find it refreshing that Luke and Claire weren’t romantically involved, I think West nailed a very specific type of relationship dynamic between co-workers; Luke and Claire are comfortable around each other, they do a lot of joking around to kill time but they’ve also probably never hung out together outside of work and ultimately don’t know each other that well. And the fact that Claire was a little creeped out by Luke gave their interactions an interesting twist. I loved that she decided to go back to the lobby and potentially contend with the ghost rather than go into his bedroom while he was wearing tighty-whiteys! I felt there was something very real and humorous about that decision.

The last movie we jointly reviewed was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a Hollywood horror film I would like to contrast with The Innkeepers. Dark had a big budget, movie stars and state-of-the-art special effects but I found the script formulaic and the characters one-dimensional. It drove me up the wall that Guy Pearce, one of my favorite actors, was given nothing more to do than cluelessly refute the ever-increasing amount of supernatural evidence piling up around him. I felt the characters in The Inkeepers were much better drawn: the quirky/geeky girl in her early twenties with no real direction in life, the aging hipster/slacker guy looking to make some easy money on the internet, the alcoholic former actress looking to remake her image as a psychic. The actors, of course, deserve a lot of the credit for this. The bond between Luke and Claire suggests to me that there was a lot of rehearsal time between Sara Paxton and Pat Healy. I’d also like to say that I was delighted by Kelly McGillis as the has-been actress. After casting Dee Wallace and Mary Woronov in House of the Devil, I think Ti West is showing an almost Tarantino-like knack for the inspired casting of former stars.

The next aspect of the film I’d like to discuss is the pacing, a unique aspect of West’s style that is controversial – at least judging by internet message boards. Both House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are “slow burn” narratives where nothing explicitly horrific happens until over an hour into each movie. It seems to me that West is taking his cues from early Polanski in this regard; I remember hearing Polanski say that he wanted to lull his audiences into a state of near-boredom for the first 30 minutes of Repulsion so that the shock effects would be more powerful once they finally came. Apparently, this sense of pacing doesn’t work for some modern viewers. What did you think?

JM: I think that the pace of the film is actually what drew me in because I was forced to be ultra-aware of what I was seeing and hearing. I knew that something scary was going to come because after all, it is a horror film and I’ve also seen the previews, but I didn’t know when. During the first half of the movie, I found myself leaning forward and listening as intently as I could because I didn’t want to miss any slight noise or apparition. This technique kept me suspended in a state of trepidation, thus making me hyper aware of what was happening in the film. At certain points, I even held my breath because the sound of my own breathing might cause me to miss out on something important.

With regard to the actors, I was shocked to learn that the actor who played Luke was also in one of my favorite films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as Wilbur, one of the Ford brothers. Talk about a versatile actor. It’s definitely a credit to West that he had the foresight to envision Healy in such a drastically dissimilar role.

We’ve been talking a lot about big budget Hollywood films and indie films, but what about Hollywood horror and indie horror, specifically? To veer slightly off course for a minute, do you think that Hollywood horror films are inherently flawed due to larger budgets and conventional Hollywood formulas and/or influence over creative control? Likewise, what are your thoughts on independent horror? Do you believe that they have any inherent advantages over Hollywood horror?

MGS: I don’t think a horror film, or any genre film for that matter, could be inherently flawed because it happened to be produced in Hollywood. I think you’ll agree with me that a lot of the best horror movies from the late 1960s through the early 1980s were made in Hollywood and boasted big budgets, stars and respectable directors: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, etc. But the cultural climate was very different then. It was an exciting time when filmmakers were still exercising new freedoms for the first time in the wake of the collapse of the old Production Code. It seems to me that most of the Hollywood horror films in recent years either belong to the “torture porn” subgenre or are stale, unnecessary reworkings of movies from that earlier era (with The Exorcist in particular being continually plundered for aspects of its story, themes, visual style and iconography). The only good Hollywood horror films I can even think of from the past decade are Drag Me to Hell and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I think if you’re looking for originality in horror today, you have to look overseas (to Scandinavia and Asia, in particular) or to independent American movies, which brings me back to Ti West.

I think my only problem with West, and this has nothing to do with budgets, is that his work strikes me as perhaps a little too slight in terms of his ideas and his overall ambition. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are small, stylish, well-crafted movies about attractive young women wandering alone through locations that are dark and menacing. I happen to like them but now that I know West can do this, I’d like to see him do something else – perhaps tackle a subject that will tap into more universal fears or resonate through the culture in a more ambitious or uniquely contemporary way. Then and only then will I be able to compare him to Polanski, Friedkin or Kubrick. But West is young and smart and I think he has a bright future ahead of him. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Yes, a short plug for Scandinavian films. I also am beginning to love Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish horror, such as Let the Right One In, Rare Exports and Troll Hunter, for example, and it makes me a little sad that this sort of creativity is missing in films coming out of America right now. I would sum up by saying that I do agree with you in that I am a little dubious of possibly a third movie involving a young, cute lead actress who gets into trouble. It almost makes me think that he maybe has “a thing” for seeing young girls “get theirs,” so to speak. I’d like to see something different since I know that he is capable in other ways, as previously discussed, of subverting the horror norm right now.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Separation (Farhadi)
2. The General (Keaton)
3. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
4. The Artist (Hazanavicius)
5. City Lights (Chaplin)
6. M (Lang)
7. Someone’s Watching Me! (Carpenter)
8. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
9. Starman (Carpenter)
10. The Trial of Joan of Arc (Bresson)


The Top Fifty Directors of All Time

As a companion piece to my list of the fifty best living film directors, which I published last year around this time, today’s post concerns my highly subjective list of the top fifty directors of all time. Below you will find a countdown of my top ten (with commentary on each and a citation of three essential works) as well as a list of forty runners-up (for whom I cite two essential works). As any reader of this blog knows, I love making lists and generating debates concerning all things cinematic. So who doesn’t deserve to be here and who did I egregiously omit? Feel free to comment below!

10. Jean Renoir (France)

Today Jean Renoir is thought of as the quintessential director of “classical” French cinema even though the films he made in the 1930s, the lofty high point of his career, are far wilder than this reputation would suggest. In the twin peaks of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale. He left France during the German occupation and became a U.S. citizen long enough to make at least one masterpiece in Hollywood (The Southerner) and another in India (the striking one-off The River). When Renoir returned to France in the 1950s, he embarked on a sublime trilogy of films centered on the relationship between life and performance that, fittingly, gave a trio of international movie stars some of their very best roles: The Golden Coach (with Anna Magnani), French Cancan (with Jean Gabin) and Elena and Her Men (with Ingrid Bergman).

Essential work: Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937), The Rules of the Game (La Regle de Jeu) (1939), French Cancan (1954)

9. Orson Welles (USA)

Orson Welles was the great synthesizer; in Citizen Kane he self-consciously appropriated techniques from most of the major historical film movements that came before him and wedded them to a revolutionary use of deep focus cinematography. More importantly, he pressed these techniques to the service of an epic story about the life of “one of the biggest” Americans that speaks volumes about the changes undergone by American society from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the second World War. This monumental achievement, coupled with the fact that it was the only time Welles had complete creative control over a movie, virtually guaranteed that his subsequent films would be seen as not living up to the “early promise” of Kane. Fortunately, Welles’ critical stock has risen considerably since his death in 1985 and masterpieces like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight (my personal favorite) and F for Fake, not to mention various unfinished projects, are now more easily seen as part of a highly personal continuum stretching from the early-1940s to the mid-1980s, inside and outside of the Hollywood studio system, and from America to Europe and back again. With each passing year, his body of work looks more estimable for what he did achieve instead of deficient for what he didn’t.

Essential work: Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965)

8. Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Of all the great Japanese directors, Kenji Mizoguchi is the most expressive visual stylist. His hallmarks – elaborate tracking shots (in some films the camera is moving more often than not), chiaroscuro lighting and the subject of the oppression of Japanese women – were already evident as early as the mid-1930s when he made such gems as Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. His first major masterpiece, 1939’s heartbreaking The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, about a wealthy young actor’s illicit affair with his family’s wet nurse, was enough to ensure his immortality. But the best was yet to come; after a handful of relatively safe films made during and immediately after the war, Mizoguchi’s career peaked in the 1950s with an extraordinary series of movies, including The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff and the incredibly atmospheric and unusually poetic ghost story Ugetsu. Each of these films is a period drama, in which an earlier era in Japanese history is painstakingly and authentically recreated, that tackles human suffering with a clear-eyed honesty and compassion that is simply unparalleled in cinema.

Essential work: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953)

7. Roberto Rossellini (Italy)

In the 1940s Roberto Rossellini helped to spearhead the revolutionary Italian Neorealist movement with his socially conscious, documentary-style War Trilogy (consisting of Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then, he shifted gears in the 1950s to make six remarkable melodramas starring his then-wife Ingrid Bergman including Stromboli and Voyage in Italy. These films arguably marked the birth of “cinematic modernism” by eschewing plot in favor of a series of scenes of Bergman wandering a primordial landscape meant to evoke the interior journey of her characters (which would pave the way for both Antonioni’s L’avventura and Godard’s Le Mepris). Finally, in the 1960s and 1970s Rossellini turned to television for a series of de-dramatized, educational films about “great men” throughout history that arguably took the Neorealist aesthetic to its logical extreme. Very few filmmakers have gone through multiple phases as dramatically different as Rossellini. Fewer still have managed to create such groundbreaking work with each distinct chapter in their careers.

Essential work: Stromboli (1950), Voygage in Italy (Viaggio in Italia) (1954), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966)

6. Carl Dreyer (Denmark)

Carl Dreyer was nothing if not exacting. The great Dane proclaimed cinema to be his “only” passion and proved it by making only the kind of films that he really wanted to make. His rigorous/perfectionist style is reflected in the fact that his final five features, as astonishing a run of movies as can be found in any filmography, were released in five separate decades: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964). The evolution of his style over the course of these films is fascinating: from close-ups to long shots, from quick-cutting to long takes, from acting to non-acting, from music to no music. Genre trappings (the melodrama of Joan, the horror of Vampyr) also fade away as Dreyer moves relentlessly inward in pursuit of the capture of various “states of soul.” Equally fascinating is his naturalistic approach to ambiguously supernatural subject matter: a woman who communes with God, vampirism, witchcraft, the resurrection of the flesh and . . . romantic love.

Essential work: Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) (1943), Ordet (1955), Gertrud (1964)

5. F.W. Murnau (Germany/USA)

F.W. Murnau is often referred to as the best director to have only worked in the silent era and for good reason; he was the chief figure of German Expressionism, creating three major masterpieces with Nosferatu (the first and best vampire film), The Last Laugh (a movie with no intertitles but a lot of fluid camerawork) and Faust (a technically virtuosic take on the German folk tale that nearly bankrupted UFA, the studio that produced it), before answering the call of Hollywood where he made three more: Sunrise (a love story about the dichotomy between city and country life featuring highly innovative cinematography), Four Devils (a lost film) and City Girl (an exquisite melodrama that intentionally reverses the iconography of Sunrise). Unhappy with working conditions in both Germany and the U.S., Murnau went to Tahiti for his independently produced final film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. If Fritz Lang was the Tolstoy of German cinema (going “wide” with his ambitious, third-person societal portraits), then Murnau was its Dostoevsky (going “deep” with his take on the highly subjective psychological impressions of the individual).

Essential work: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), City Girl (1930), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

4. Alfred Hitchcock (USA/UK)

Alfred Hitchcock is a rare example of a director who was able to combine a high degree of creative control with a long and prolific career. Beginning in the silent era in England, Hitch successfully adapted to sound, the Hollywood studio system, color, widescreen cinematography and even 3-D. He looked at potential projects as logistical problems that he could utilize the latest technology to solve, frequently breaking new ground along the way. Furthermore, his ostensible “genre pieces” were highly personal in nature, more often than not studies of obsession with an emphasis on the duality of man. The fact that he could make such personal films on such a massive scale, using major stars and the resources of Hollywood, is impressive in the extreme. And his craftsmanship has never been bettered (Andrew Sarris has aptly referred to him as the “supreme technician of the American cinema”); the best of Hitchcock’s suspense sequences (the climactic confrontation between photographer and killer in Rear Window, the crop dusting scene in North By Northwest, the shower murder in Psycho, the final attack in The Birds) are so well planned and executed that they retain their power to thrill, entertain and strike fear in the heart even after many viewings.

Essential work: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)

3. Luis Bunuel (France/Mexico)

Like Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel was one of the most Catholic of all directors. But the theme of guilt that was present in so much of the Englishman’s work was not allowed to so thoroughly infuse the movies of his Spanish counterpart. Instead, Bunuel violently reacted against his upbringing (and against the rising tide of fascism of late 20s/early 30s Europe) with the wildest and most transgressive films of the French Surrealist movement (Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’Or). Following a lengthy stint of not being able to direct, Bunuel resurfaced in the late 1940s as a master of the subversive Mexican melodrama, dropping bombs like Los Olvidados, El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz. After a brief sojourn in his native Spain in the early Sixties, where he made the scandalous, blasphemous masterpiece Viridiana, Bunuel returned to France for what is arguably the greatest last chapter of any director’s career; it was there that he married his distinctive Surrealist sensibility to more polished cinematography and glamorous movie stars, resulting in a series of droll comedies, full of hilarious non-sequiturs and bizarre, dreamlike imagery, that constitute his very best work: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire.

Essential work: Los Olvidados (1950), Viridiana (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie) (1972)

2. Robert Bresson (France)

The relationship between spirit and flesh has never been dramatized on screen as effectively as it has in the work of Robert Bresson because no other filmmaker has used sound and image so precisely to focus on material reality (and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, on the spiritual conditions underlying it). The great French director hit his stride early on with a “prison cycle” of films consisting of The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (the best prison break movie ever), Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (a film so austere it makes Dreyer’s Joan look like a soap opera). Then came Au Hasard, Balthazar, a soul-enchanting masterpiece about the life of a donkey, in which the title character is seen as a barometer for the sins of mankind. In the late 1960s Bresson began working with color, expanding his palette while refining his overall style to an increasingly “essentialist” extreme. Some observers find his late work pessimistic (virtually all of his last movies end in suicide and/or murder). Bresson himself rejected this view, opting for the word “lucid” instead. The redemption is still there if you’re willing to look for it; it’s just buried a little deeper beneath the surface. Robert Bresson more consistently made near-perfect films than any other director with whose work I am familiar.

Essential work: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), L’argent (1983)

1. John Ford (USA)

Simply put, John Ford is the American cinema. A few indelible moments: Shirley Temple singing “Auld Lang Syne” to Victor McLaglen as he lies on his deathbed in Wee Willie Winkie (while an exquisite camera movement slowly eliminates him from the frame). Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, awkwardly dancing with and serenading his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” in The Grapes of Wrath. Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley, looking on from a cemetery in long shot while the love of his life, Maureen O’Hara, exits the church after marrying another man. Fonda again as Marshall Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, leaning back in his chair on a hotel veranda, balancing himself on a post with his boots. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing in the doorway between civilization and wilderness, unsure of whether to enter, in The Searchers. Anne Bancroft’s resignation while committing the ultimate self-sacrifice at the end of 7 Women: “So long, ya bastard.” And, as Johnny Cash once said, lots of other things.

Essential work: How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Runners-Up (listed alphabetically by family name):

11. Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)
Essential work: L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

12. John Cassavetes (USA)
Essential work: A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Love Streams (1984)

13. Charlie Chaplin (USA)
Essential work: City Lights (1931), A King in New York (1958)

14. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
Essential work: Anxiety (Inquietude) (1998), The Strange Case of Angelica (O Estranho Caso de Angélica) (2010)

15. Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Ukraine)
Essential work: Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)

16. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Germany)
Essential work: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf) (1974), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

17. Federico Fellini (Italy)
Essential work: La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963)

18. Louis Feuillade (France)
Essential work: Les Vampires (1915), Tih Minh (1919)

19. Sam Fuller (USA)
Essential work: Park Row (1952), Shock Corridor (1963)

20. Jean-Luc Godard (France/Switzerland)
Essential work: Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963), Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-1998)

21. D.W. Griffith (USA)
Essential work: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924)

22. Howard Hawks (USA)
Essential work: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932), Rio Bravo (1959)

23. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan)
Essential work: Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Three Times (2005)

24. King Hu (Hong Kong/Taiwan)
Essential work: Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971)

25. Shohei Imamura (Japan)
Essential work: Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

26. Buster Keaton (USA)
Essential work: Our Hospitality (1923), The General (1926)

27. Abbas Kiarostami (Iran)
Essential work: The Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (2010)

28. Stanley Kubrick (USA)
Essential work: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

29. Akira Kurosawa (Japan)
Essential work: Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

30. Fritz Lang (Germany/USA)
Essential work: M (1931), The Big Heat (1953)

31. Sergio Leone (Italy/USA)
Essential work: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

32. Ernst Lubitsch (Germany/USA)
Essential work: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Heaven Can Wait (1943)

33. Vincente Minnelli (USA)
Essential work: The Band Wagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958)

34. Mikio Naruse (Japan)
Essential work: Floating Clouds (1955), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

35. Max Ophuls (France/USA)
Essential work: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

36. Yasujiro Ozu (Japan)
Essential work: Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953)

37. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (UK)
Essential work: Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)

38. Nicholas Ray (USA)
Essential work: In a Lonely Place (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)

39. Satyajit Ray (India)
Essential work: Pather Panchali (1955), Charulata (1964)

40. Alain Resnais (France)
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

41. Ousmane Sembene (Senegal)
Essential work: Black Girl (La noire de…) (1966), Moolaade (2004)

42. Douglas Sirk (USA)
Essential work: All That Heaven Allows (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

43. Preston Sturges (USA)
Essential work: The Lady Eve (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

44. Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)
Essential work: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979)

45. Jacques Tati (France)
Essential work: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), Play Time (1967)

46. Dziga Vertov (Russia)
Essential work: Kino-Eye (1924), Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

47. Jean Vigo (France)
Essential work: Zero de Conduite (1933), L’atalante 1934)

48. Luchino Visconti (Italy)
Essential work: Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) (1963)

49. Josef von Sternberg (USA)
Essential work: The Docks of New York (1928), Shanghai Express (1932)

50. Erich von Stroheim (USA)
Essential work: Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1924)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
2. Young Frankenstein (Brooks)
3. Another Year (Leigh)
4. The Jerk (Reiner)
5. Flesh (Ford)
6. Naked (Leigh)
7. Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer)
8. Carnage (Polanski)
9. Claire’s Knee (Rohmer)
10. Gran Torino (Eastwood)


Odds and Ends

A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:

Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3

After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.

Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental

Wallace Beery, living up to his name.

Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old imdb.com reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”

Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.

Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase

I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.

Dylan/Scorsese – Live television

The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.

Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.

Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:

– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.

– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”

– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.

– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.

You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here:

Scorsese tribute


A Silent Soviet Cinema Primer

Today, the silent Soviet cinema is primarily thought of as either the birthplace of “montage editing” (the use of quick cutting to compress time, space or action in a collage-like fashion) or as an era in which the only films made were government-approved Socialist propaganda. The reality of course was far more complex than that. While all of the major Soviet directors of the day (Russians Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and the Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko) believed that editing should form the basis of how movies were made, they each had very different ideas about exactly how and why montage should be employed. Also, while a lot of the most famous Soviet silents (i.e., the ones everyone is forced to watch in film school) are unquestionably propagandistic, to explore them in depth is to realize that the era’s best work is impressively diverse, encompassing comedies, melodramas, adventure serials, science-fiction epics and more. Indeed I have no qualms about calling it one of the great periods in cinema history. The following list of a baker’s dozen titles, limited to one film per director, is consciously meant to underscore the era’s diversity.

The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Kuleshov, 1924)

Lev Kuleshov is best known today as the namesake of the “Kuleshov effect,” the result of an influential editing experiment involving found footage that illustrated how editing can cause viewers to project their own emotions onto a film’s characters. But he was also a damn fine director in his own right as this wacky comedy proves; “Mr. West” is a rich American who travels to the Soviet Union with his faithful sidekick, a cowboy(!) named Jeddy, and discovers to his amazement that the Bolsheviks are not the evil barbarians that the American press had led him to believe. The evenhanded way Kuleshov satirizes both American and Russian stereotypes is impressive, as is the crack comic timing demonstrated by future director Boris Barnet who performs some Buster Keaton-esque slapstick stunts as Jeddy.

Aelita: Queen of Mars (Protazanov, 1924)

This fascinating, early science fiction film tells the story of Los, a Moscow-based scientist who travels to the capitalistic planet Mars, where he leads the enslaved working class in a popular uprising against their totalitarian leader. The Moscow scenes, which comprise most of the film’s running time, are not nearly as fun as the Mars sequences, which feature some charming German Expressionist-influenced sets and costumes. But this is unmissable for fans of the sci-fi genre as it is essentially the missing link between George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (whose depiction of robotic workers was clearly taken from here).

The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom (Zhelyabuzhsky, 1924)

A wealthy American businessman, a lowly but chivalrous office clerk, a lascivious film director and a lovestruck cameraman all find their lives intersecting with the title character, a beautiful street vendor played by the delightful Yuliya Solntseva (Aelita). The use of “web-of-life” plotting and a focus on the every day lives of Muscovites (which includes a mind-blowing self-reflexive strain in a subplot where the cameraman is commissioned to make a movie about “every day” Moscow) mark this unusually ambitious comedy as both a priceless document of its time as well as a film well ahead of its time. Think Robert Altman at his finest without the irony or condescension.

Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

Mother (Pudovkin, 1926)

Like Battleship Potemkin, this documents a failed revolution circa 1905. But, unlike Eisenstein, who presented the Russian people en masse as a kind of collective hero, director Vsevolod Pudovkin chooses to focus his narrative more intimately on a few well-drawn characters in an attempt to put a more human face on the working class struggle. The plot focuses on a conflict between a father and son who find themselves on opposite ends of a factory strike and the mother who is forced to choose sides between them. She eventually picks up the banner of revolution in a memorable ice-floe climax that tips its hat to D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East.

Bed and Sofa (Room, 1927)

Abram Room’s astonishing comic melodrama, about a menage-a-trois between a factory worker, his wife and the friend who comes to stay on their couch, is one of the most ahead-of-its-time films of the entire silent era and a kind of prototype version of Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. After the wife (powerfully played by Lyudmila Semyonova) turns from one man to the other and back again, all three characters eventually settle into a “progressive” living arrangement. Shockingly frank in its depiction of sexuality, abortion and female independence, this is the first movie to which I would steer anyone who believes that Soviet films of the 1920s were merely propaganda.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Shub, 1927)

Esther Shub was the most prominent Soviet female director of the silent era and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is her masterpiece, a documentary that uses found footage to tell the story of the root causes and after effects of the Bolshevik revolution. Shub was a colleague and friend of Dziga Vertov but eschewed his modernist, self-reflexive style in favor of what she termed “editorialized newsreels,” which saw her cut together historical footage (much of it shot prior to 1917 by other hands) with title cards that offer a Marxist interpretation of Russian history from 1913 to 1927. Brilliantly edited, informative and accessible, this is one of the best places to start understanding both the silent Soviet cinema and early 20th century Russian history.

The Girl with the Hatbox (Barnet, 1927)

Directed by the unjustly unknown Boris Barnet, this awesome Hollywood-style romantic comedy tells the story of Natasha, a comely young woman who makes hats for a living and commutes from her rural village to Moscow in order to sell them. She agrees to an altruistic marriage of convenience in order to provide boarding to a homeless college student; ironically, when Natasha comes into possession of a winning lottery ticket worth 25,000 roubles, her “husband” is the one man in her life who is not interested in her fortune. Energetic, witty and fast-paced, this builds to a memorable climax under Barnet’s sure hand.

Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, I find that it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

Turksib (Turin, 1929)

One of the best and least propagandistic documentaries of the silent Soviet cinema is this straightforward account of the building of a railroad across central Asia – stretching all the way from Siberia to Turkestan. The filmmakers show how the railroad is necessary for the transportation of cotton and grain and its construction is presented as a triumphant example of both engineering and the can-do Soviet spirit. This is full of stirring, poetic imagery of nameless figures toiling in a rugged landscape and exerted a massive influence on British documentaries of the early sound era (e.g. Night Mail).

Earth (Dovzhenko, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower, and a series of unforgettable faces, often framed in low-angle close-ups, that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

Salt for Svanetia (Kalatozov, 1930)

Mikhail Kalatozov is best known for his 1964 Russian/Cuban co-production I am Cuba, one of the most amazingly photographed movies ever made. But this early ethnographic documentary, made over thirty years previously, shows that he was always a restless experimenter in search of extraordinary images. The subject of the film is a remote Georgian village whose population is suffering due to a lack of salt. The exciting climax shows how the building of a new road ultimately connects this village to the rest of Soviet civilization, which promises to bring both health benefits as well as intellectual enlightenment (Kalatozov presents the Svan people’s Christianity as Exhibit A that they are a primitive, backwards people.) Like Nanook of the North this may have been mostly “staged” but that does not detract one iota from the film’s beauty and power.

Happiness (Medvedkin, 1935)

A ridiculously funny slapstick comedy about the life of a lazy farmer both before and after the Bolshevik revolution. The farmer (named, appropriately, “Loser”) and his wife, like many Soviet movie characters of the era, are only able to find true happiness in collective farming. Director Aleksandr Medvedkin, who was the subject of Chris Marker’s superb documentary The Last Bolshevik, claimed late in life that the film’s satire was subversively directed at the Bolsheviks and their futile dreams of happiness. Whether that is true or wishful thinking in hindsight, one thing is for sure: Happiness is full of unforgettable comic images – from a spotted horse to nuns wearing see-through habits – and if that can’t demolish Western stereotypes about “Soviet austerity,” nothing can.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. La Collectionneuse (Rohmer)
2. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer)
3. Film Socialisme (Godard)
4. Out 1 (Rivette)
5. Tih Minh (Feuillade)
6. Suzanne’s Career (Rohmer)
7. The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood)
8. Fireworks Wednesday (Farhadi)
9. Tess of the Storm Country (Robertson)
10. The Pearls of the Crown (Guitry)


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