Monthly Archives: June 2012

Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts on the three different movies I’ve seen in the past three days at the same Evanston multiplex.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.9

Although I still haven’t caught up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom is easily my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. While Anderson’s singular gifts as both writer and director are undeniable, there is something about the progression of his career, a tendency towards increasingly arch stylization, that has rubbed me the wrong way. Candy-box color cinematography and ostentatious set design may have always been important ingredients in the Anderson universe but it’s been a while since his impeccable sense of style has been balanced by anything as emotionally raw as Olivia Williams asking “How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me?” Instead, we’ve gotten an overuse of Bill Murray at his smuggest, a grating sense of whimsy, a distasteful sense of class privilege, an egregious showing off of a bitchin’ record collection, and an approach to both composition and the direction of actors that occasionally resembles those science fair exhibits where butterflies are pinned to a styrofoam board. While Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t correct all of these problems for this Anderson agnostic, I’m happy to report that it does have a genuinely poetic feeling for the emotions of childhood, including an appealingly pervasive and piercing sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the picture postcard exteriors. And while I could’ve done without some of the film’s more over the top elements (the flood, the lightning strike, the threat of lobotomy, etc.) there’s no denying that the lead child actors are amazing and that their odyssey at its most stirring takes on some of the hypnotic quality of The Night of the Hunter. Also admirable is how Anderson has created a scenario where his too-hip, classic rock “deep cuts” would finally sound appropriate, and yet he goes and loads up the soundtrack with Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams Sr. instead.

The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – Theatrical viewing


Hmmmm. The Searchers or Madagascar 3? Decisions, decisions!

Teaching John Wayne is a funny thing. Two days ago I took a class to see a one day only screening of a new digital restoration of The Searchers at the Century 12 theatre in Evanston, easily the single best viewing of the movie I’ve ever had. While discussing it with my students afterwards, I was reminded yet again how, in spite of the fact that it is considered by cinephiles to be the quintessential Wayne performance, the quintessential John Ford film, the quintessential western, it just doesn’t play as well to the uninitiated. It is indeed the Wayne-starring movie that has consistently ranked the lowest when I ask my students to rate the films we’ve watched in class at the end of each semester on a scale from 1 – 10. (The Searchers is currently rated 6.8 on my “student tomato-meter,” followed by, in ascending order, Stagecoach with a 7.2, Fort Apache with a 7.5, Rio Bravo with an 8.0 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an 8.3)

What I’ve come to realize from this is that everyone who’s never seen a John Wayne performance has preconceptions about who Wayne is. The Duke vehicles that play the best are therefore the ones that run counter to their expectations. Students expect Wayne to be a stern, moralistic, patriarchal authority figure – someone who is essentially like their fathers or grandfathers, but probably more of an asshole. When they encounter the Wayne of Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo, what they find is someone graceful, super-relaxed and easily likable (Manny Farber’s great line about Wayne’s “hipster sense of how to sit in a chair” is apropos here). This of course is the true Wayne persona, the way he comes across in most films. When my students see The Searchers, which ironically is a very different type of performance for Wayne, it somehow conforms more closely to their negative preconceptions; they are offended by the racist, borderline-crazy Ethan Edwards, with his barely concealed rage towards Native Americans, because they cannot imagine a difference between Wayne and Edwards, nor, for that matter, between John Ford and Edwards. The idea that Ford is viewing Edwards from a critical distance, that the character is meant to be something other than a pure “hero” is difficult for many first time viewers to fathom.

Nonetheless, I relished this particular screening, which made visible many details that had always previously eluded me (even after dozens of viewings that include watching the superb Warner Bros. blu-ray on my 42 inch home television screen), such as the initials “C.S.A.” on Ethan’s belt buckle. That Ethan would be wearing this article of clothing, advertising the “Confederate States of America” three years after the Civil War ended, is a fascinating detail that speaks volumes about his character.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.2

Woody Allen follows up the great Midnight in Paris with another winning, though lighter and frothier, tourist’s-eye-view-of-Europe concoction. The omnibus nature of this Roman holiday deliberately recalls the European anthology films that were popular in American arthouses during Allen’s formative years (including such quintessentially Italian movies as Vittorio de Sica’s Gold of Naples). And while the format is somewhat limiting when combined with Allen’s inherent weaknesses as a writer/director (some of the one-dimensional characterizations found in Paris that seemed excusable by that film’s deft sense of expedient storytelling are actually harder to take in the more bite-sized episodes on display here), Rome‘s frequently hilarious one-liners and general sense of good-spirited fun make this nothing less than a nice, refreshing summer entertainment. The best of the four stories, by far, involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who revisits, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, his younger self in the person of Jesse Eisenberg. Among the rest of the cast, Roberto Benigni is, as usual, about as welcome as a fart in church, which is fortunately more than compensated for by Penelope Cruz as a voluptuous hooker in a skin-tight red dress. Watching the Spanish Cruz playing a hot-blooded Italian is not only delightful but also fitting: no contemporary Italian actresses come as close as she does to inheriting the throne of Sophia Loren.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
2. The Searchers (Ford)
3. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
4. Citizen Kane (Welles)
5. Chinatown (Polanski)
6. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
7. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
8. Aliens (Cameron)
9. Eraserhead (Lynch)
10. The Lady Eve (Sturges)


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Union Station

A lot of classic American movies – from F.W. Murnau’s City Girl to Howard Hawks’ Scarface to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot – take place either partially or entirely in Chicago but the majority of them were unfortunately shot on Hollywood studio backlots. More often than not, filmmakers wanting to depict my fair city during Hollywood’s golden age had to settle for recreating the city’s Board of Trade, tenements, diners and outdoor ‘El’ Station entrances on elaborate sets. As I mentioned in an earlier post, motion picture production in Chicago did pick up significantly in the film noir boom years of the post-WWII era. One terrific example that I recently stumbled across for the first time is Paramount’s Union Station from 1950, a tense little crime thriller starring the great duo of William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald. Although set in Chicago, most of it was shot in Hollywood with Los Angeles’ iconic Union Station standing in for the title location in the Windy City. (The film actually contains such a deft use of L.A. locations that it is prominently featured in Thom Andersen’s brilliant “gray market” documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself.) However, at least some prominent location work took place in Chicago; the movie’s first third features an exciting daylight chase between cops and kidnappers on the Chicago Transit Authority’s now-defunct Stockyard Branch Line and the the final action climax takes place in the Chicago Tunnel Company’s underground railroad tunnels. Anyone interested in seeing “old Chicago” on film can’t afford to pass up Union Station for these two scenes alone. Fortunately, there’s plenty else to recommend the movie too.

The primary virtues of Union Station are its efficiency, tightness and speed. Directed by former ace cinematographer Rudolph Mate (who once upon a time was Carl Theodore Dreyer’s D.P. of choice), this noir gem is expertly shot and paced and, as a piece of storytelling, does not contain an ounce of flab. As a director, Mate may not have been a great artist but he was a very good craftsman and, God knows, Hollywood has always needed those too. Union Station starts on a train and it fittingly also moves like one: Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson), a secretary commuting home from work via rail, spies two suspicious-looking men, one of whom appears to be wearing a gun. Anticipating the CTA’s “If you see something, say something” ad campaign by about sixty years, Joyce reports her concern to a skeptical train conductor, who turns the matter over to railroad cop William Calhoun (Holden). Calhoun also has misgivings but because he is clearly the best and most dedicated railroad cop on earth, he soon finds out that the suspicious men are at the center of a kidnapping plot involving the blind teenage daughter of Joyce’s boss, local millionaire Henry Murchison. Calhoun soon finds himself teaming up with a local cop named Inspector Donnelly (Fitzgerald) in order to apprehend the kidnappers and return the girl safely to her father – all within a briskly paced 80 minutes.

Barry Fitzgerald, William Holden and the “Venetian blind effect”:

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a film was only as good as its villain and Union Station has a memorably nasty baddie at its core: Joe Beacom (Lyle Bettger), the lead kidnapper, is a sadist who takes delight in tormenting the terrified blind girl in his clutches and also has no qualms about shooting his own girlfriend (the great character actress Jan Sterling) when she gets in his way. But the cops in Union Station can be pretty nasty too; Calhoun and Donnelly recklessly break into one suspect’s apartment and, in order to get pressing information from another, completely disregard his civil liberties by threatening to throw him in front of an oncoming train – more than twenty years before Dirty Harry. Through parallel editing, this allows director Mate to generate suspense about what will happen when these characters eventually do collide in the memorable underground tunnel climax. Fortunately, although Joyce is young and attractive and sticks around until the end of the film in order to help the police, there is no real sense that she and Calhoun are going get together romantically (as would unquestionably happen if the film were to be remade today). Union Station is too much of a work of termite art par excellence to allow itself to be saddled with a superfluous love subplot.

There is, however, one scene where the movie slows down just long enough to allow us to get to know the lead characters a bit better. Calhoun and Donnelly retire to the latter’s home for a drink and conversation the night before the final showdown with Beacom. (Since Barry Fitzgerald was Hollywood’s favorite drunken leprechaun, such an alcoholic detour is pretty much a foregone conclusion from the film’s beginning.) As Donnelly adroitly prepares hot rum toddies, Calhoun informs him, “I’m a cop twenty four hours a day. All I care about is my railroad station.” Donnelly’s sensible reply is, “A good cop has to be working full time but a man has to be careful he doesn’t become all cop.” It is a quiet, touching scene, the only one in the movie that is not there expressly to move the plot forward and yet somehow it makes the entire movie.

If you decide to watch Union Station and feel like enjoying a hot toddy along with Chicago’s finest, here is what appears to be Inspector Donnelly’s recipe:

– a shot of rum
– 1 teaspoon of sugar
– hot water to taste
– one clove
– a cinnamon stick

Union Station is available on DVD in a serviceable edition from Olive films. Thanks to David Hanley for bringing this “Chicago film” to my attention.

Chicago Plays Itself in Union Station:

Death in the Stockyards:

The Chicago Tunnel Company’s Underground Railroad Tunnels:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
2. The Proposition (Hillcoat)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein)
5. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
6. Audition (Miike)
7. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
8. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)
9. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
10. The Woman in Black (Watkins)


Blu Grapes

Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexico mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico.

And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In addition to the obvious musical delight that Steinbeck takes in the sound of the place names listed in the quote above, the fact that he names so damn many of them serves another purpose, which is to give the reader a sense of how epic the journey is that the characters in the novel have undertaken. The names of those places trace the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to the supposed promise land (thank God, at last) of California. The sheer number of those place names and the fact that they’re all connected by Highway 66 gives the reader a sense of what life was like on the road in the 1930s (twenty years before Jack Kerouac). It is pure Americana, pure Steinbeck and, when that prose is translated into images, it is also pure John Ford.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in the spring of 1939. Shortly thereafter, Daryl Zanuck, Vice President in Charge of Production at Twentieth Century Fox, bought the rights and, incredibly, production of the film wrapped in November of that same year, about six months after the novel was published. (Needless to say, things got done a little quicker in Hollywood back in those days.) It was a courageous decision for Zanuck to produce Grapes; the novel was instantly controversial upon publication. It was banned and burned in various places around the United States and this controversy carried over to the film’s production: the California Chamber of Commerce and the Agricultural Council of California called for a boycott of all Fox films upon hearing that Zanuck was making an adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. When Zanuck sent a second unit director on the road to shoot semi-documentary footage of the Joad’s jalopy out on the highway, they used a dummy title, Highway 66, so that no one would know what they were really shooting.

Another potential obstacle for Zanuck was Chase National Bank, which was the primary stockholder of Twentieth Century Fox. This is because The Grapes of Wrath took an explicitly pro-labor, anti-capital stance. If there are villains in The Grapes of Wrath, they are the banking interests who are responsible for kicking the farmers off their land, which is what sets the plot in motion. That these bankers are faceless and unseen is part of the point Steinbeck (and, in the movie version, John Ford) are trying to make about capital. There’s a powerful scene early in the film where a poor farmer, Muley Graves (John Qualen), confronts a bank representative who tells him that his farm will be reposessed. The bank employee points out that he’s just doing what he’s been ordered to do and that he’s being paid by someone hundreds of miles away. “Then who do we shoot?,” Muley asks in frustration.

Many of the top brass at Twentieth Century Fox didn’t think these sort of sentiments were going to fly with Winthrop Aldrich, the President of Chase National. Shortly after purchasing the rights to the book, Zanuck had a meeting with Aldrich about an unrelated matter and, out of the blue, Aldrich said, “I hear you’ve bought the rights to The Grapes of Wrath. My wife just finished reading it and she’s crazy about it. I can’t wait to see what kind of movie it’s going to be.” But Zanuck was feeling pressure from all sides; it wasn’t until after Steinbeck had sold the movie rights that he found out about the studio’s ties to Chase National. The novelist then set up a meeting with the mogul and told him, “If I had known your studio was controlled by a large bank, I would’ve never sold you the rights.” Steinbeck also said he was afraid that Zanuck was going to remove the “social significance” from the story. Zanuck assured Steinbeck that would not be the case and that we was willing to take any “legitimate or justified gamble” with the material. After Steinbeck saw the finished film at a private screening in December of 1939, he wrote his agent, “Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches are pulled. In fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.”

When it came time for Zanuck to assign a director to the film, John Ford was the most logical choice. Ford was a proven critical and commercial force in Hollywood at that time, having recently won an Oscar for Best Director for The Informer and having directed a series of hits for Fox, including the terrific Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. More importantly, Zanuck knew Ford had an affinity for the material. Zanuck himself was a conservative Republican, which makes his decision to produce the movie all the more remarkable. Zanuck, however, was also smart and fair and he didn’t have a problem producing films that espoused beliefs that were opposed to his own. Zanuck actually hired a detective agency to investigate the labor camps in California like the ones portrayed in the book to see if the conditions were as bad as what Steinbeck had claimed. The agency reported back to Zanuck that the conditions were actually worse than what was in the novel. Zanuck then gave Ford free reign to make the film as brutally realistic as he could.

At this stage of his career, Ford’s politics were unambiguously liberal. (After the war they would become a complicated mixture of liberal and conservative but in 1937 Ford had described himself as “a definite Socialist Democrat, always left.”) Ford supported liberal causes throughout the 1930s, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and had sent money to anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War and to charities that supported displaced migrant farmers like the Joads. He was also one of the founding members of the Screen Director’s Guild, a union that was initially extremely unpopular with studio executives. Zanuck was willing to overlook his disagreements with Ford because he knew that Ford was the best person for the job. For his part, Ford was excited to receive the assignment. He later said that he “bucked to do it” and that he put everything he had into it. How seriously Ford took the project can be ascertained by his approach to the visual style; Ford hired the best cinematographer in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, to shoot the film. What Steinbeck referred to as the “documentary” feel of the movie was a conscious strategy employed by Ford and Toland. This semi-documentary style is a perfect visual correlative for Steinbeck’s semi-journalistic prose (the novel had its origins in a series of newspaper articles that the author had written about labor camps in the mid-1930s). In particular, Ford and Toland intended to reproduce the style of Depression-era photographers like Dorothea Lange and government-produced documentary films like The Plow That Broke the Plains.

This documentary influence is most notable in the sequence where the Joads first arrive at the first labor camp in California. In one of the greatest shots that Ford ever composed (which is saying a lot), he shows a harrowing scene from the Joads’ point-of-view as their jalopy enters the camp. In the background of the frame, one can see the primitive shacks where the workers are living in total squalor while, in the foreground, the workers slowly drift across the frame, staring directly into the camera with almost accusatory looks on their hard, unforgettable faces. It is one of the most haunting, powerful and mysterious shots of any Hollywood movie of the era. I’m happy to report that these are qualities that come thrillingly alive like never before on Fox’s new Blu-ray of the film, the best it has ever looked on home video. This is not merely a straightforward high-definition rendering of existing source materials (like Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of Fort Apache from earlier this year) but a high-definition transfer of a full-on digital remastering of the movie. The Grapes of Wrath is a very dark film and this transfer boasts the impressive richness of film-like black levels while also showing an incredible level of detail: every wrinkle on every characters’ face seems visible, which really brings out the film’s documentary side.

In addition to the visual style, the other most noteworthy aspect of The Grapes of Wrath is Henry Fonda’s lead performance as Tom Joad, the role that the actor was born to play. Fonda’s persona was one that embodied honesty, fairness and liberal idealism, qualities that made him one of the biggest stars of the New Deal era (and qualities that Sergio Leone intentionally and cleverly subverted by casting Fonda as a sadistic and pro-capital villain in Once Upon a Time in the West nearly thirty years later). The scenes where Tom Joad serenades his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” and, later, gives the famous “I’ll be there” monologue are unforgettable mainly because of what Fonda brings to the table. Not only is it impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing this role, I am incapable of reading the novel without hearing in my mind the flat, midwestern accent and distinctive cadences of Fonda’s speech in every one of Tom Joad’s lines. Speaking of which, that accent comes through loud and clear in Fox’s DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. While most mono soundtracks from Hollywood’s golden age sound understandably limited on a surround sound set-up, the audio on this Blu-ray might be superior to any other transfers I’ve ever heard of movies from this era. This is perhaps because the original mono soundtrack itself is brilliant, offering surprising depth and complexity in the mix of the distinctive speaking voices of Ford’s stock company (Jane Darwell, Charley Grapewin, John Carradine, et al), sound effects like wind rustling through leaves and birds tweeting, and, of course, the mournful, indelible strains of Danny Borzage’s accordion.

The bottom line: The Grapes of Wrath is an American masterpiece and one of the best films John Ford made before his post-war mature period. The Fox Blu-ray, which exceeded my expectations, is worthy of the movie and will certainly figure prominently in my end-of-the-year “Best Home Video Releases” list.

Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


A Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, Pt. 2

Below is part two of the classic Latin American cinema primer that I began last week.

Black God, White Devil (Rocha, Brazil, 1964)

Glauber Rocha’s international breakthrough begins roughly where Vidas Secas ended: with a poor laborer living in the harsh landscape of northeastern Brazil being cheated out of his wages by an exploitative boss. Unlike his compatriot Nelson Pereira dos Santos however, Rocha is not content to portray this conflict in a simple Neorealist style; instead, he sends Manuel, his protagonist, on a picaresque, occasionally hallucinatory journey where he first falls under the sway of a self-appointed religious prophet named Sebastião (the “black God” of the title) and later a charismatic proletarian bandit named Corisco (who christens our hero “Satan”). Hunting all of these characters is the government-and-church appointed assassin Antonio das Mortes, who gives the film dramatic shape and allows it to build to an awe-inspiring climax. An excellent example of how politically-committed filmmakers used cinema to engage socio-political problems as Marxism swept across Latin American in the mid-twentieth century.

Chronicle of a Boy Alone (Favio, Argentina, 1965)

Like an Argentinian version of Zero de Conduite or The 400 Blows, Leonardo Favio’s first feature uses the microcosmic story of mistreated children rebelling against the adult world (school teachers, parents, police) as an allegory for friction between individuals and society as a whole. As a political statement though, it is arguably more effective than its predecessors because it was actually produced in an “authoritarian-bureaucratic state,” which responded by promptly banning the film. As in Italian Neorealism, this features an incredible child performance by Diego Puente as Polin, an eleven year old boy who escapes from a state-run orphanage and runs away to the city. Once there, he goes skinny dipping, spies on a prostitute, witnesses the accidental death of a friend, smokes countless cigarettes and has an unforgettably poetic interaction with a horse-drawn carriage, all in the course of one long day before being re-captured. Plotless and meandering on the surface, this is actually political filmmaking of the most powerful and vital kind.

Simon of the Desert (Bunuel, Mexico, 1965)

In one of Luis Bunuel’s wackiest tall tales, the title character decides to live atop a giant column in the middle of the desert in order to be nearer to God and to avoid the worldly temptations. Satan repeatedly tempts Simon to come down from his pedestal, including once in the guise of a topless Silvia Pinal (which is worth the price of admission alone). This short feature clocks in at a mere 45 minutes because Bunuel allegedly ran out of money while filming and yet, ironically, the end result is probably all the better for it. Simon of the Desert is like a short, well-told joke with a great punchline (albeit one that involves Bunuel’s heretical attitude towards rock and roll) that provides a fitting conclusion to the director’s great “Mexican period.”

Memories of Underdevelopment (Alea, Cuba, 1968)

The most famous film of Cuba’s most well-known director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, is this unforgettable chronicle of Sergio, a bourgeois intellectual who chooses to remain in his native Havana from the pre-Revolution era through the rise of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Missile Crisis and beyond. Far from being a work of Communist propaganda like one might expect from a Cuban film of the 1960s, this is instead a deeply ambiguous character study and a brilliantly fragmented work of cinematic modernism. It looks and sounds like a kissing cousin of the contemporaneous French New Wave while also functioning as a vivid portrait of a specific time and place in Cuban history.

Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)

Glauber Rocha’s masterpiece is this semi-sequel to Black God, White Devil in which the earlier film’s villain is converted to the cause of the working class canguaceiros and turns against the vicious capitalist landowners who’ve hired him as an assassin. This socialist fable and visionary western is the midway point between The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and El Topo, a film that succeeds as much for its filmmaking smarts (a beautiful and symbolic use of color, the favoring of Brazilian folk music over dialogue) as it does for its political messages. A singularly hypnotic experience that deservedly won Rocha the Best Director prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.

Macunaima (de Andrade, Brazil, 1969)

Cinema Novo’s penchant for radical political content and form is pushed to a delirious extreme in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s adaptation of Mário de Andrade’s quintessential modernist novel. Andrade confronts racism and neo-colonialism head-on in a bat-shit crazy comedy about an old white woman living in the jungle of Brazil who gives birth to the title character, a full-grown black man. After taking a bath in a magical fountain that turns his skin white, Macunaima heads to Sao Paolo where he becomes mixed up with a variety of strange characters including a left-wing female terrorist and a wealthy cannibal who is in possession of a priceless pearl. The cannibalism = capitalism metaphor is a bit too pat and some aspects of this are dated but there is also ferocious and highly original filmmaking: some of the sight gags (such as the goose that lays golden eggs) are hilarious and the use of brilliantly colorful sets and costumes makes this a provocative live action cartoon for adults.

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Dos Santos, Brazil, 1971)

Nelson Pereira dos Santos takes his super-realistic style and applies it, fascinatingly, to a 16th century period piece in this incredible account of the European colonization of Brazil. A French explorer is captured by an indigenous Brazilian Indian tribe who make him their guest of honor for eight months prior to killing and eating him. During his captivity, the Frenchman attempts to assimilate to the tribe in hopes of being able to escape but his attempts are all in vain. Once controversial for its near-constant depiction of full frontal nudity (male and female), this feels at times like a documentary made by an ethnographer with a time-machine. Hollywood filmmakers, including Terrence Malick (whose The New World covers similar terrain to lesser effect), could learn a lot from watching this.

Painted Lips (Nilsson, Argentina, 1974)

Argentina’s Leopoldo Torre Nilsson is one of the most unjustly neglected major directors in the history of world cinema. His masterpiece is Painted Lips, also known as Boquitas pintadas or Heartbreak Tango, an adaptation of an equally fine epistolary novel by Manuel Puig (often translated into English under the title Heartbreak Tango). The film is a haunting comic melodrama set primarily in the 1940s about Juan Carlos, a tubercular Don Juan-type, and the four women who are doomed to love him. Since much of the movie’s dialogue consists of the voice-over narration of letters, and the denouement flashes forward thirty years later to a deathbed scene involving one of Juan Carlos’ lovers, Nilsson turns the whole enterprise into a great, innovative “memory film” along the lines of the best of Alain Resnais.

Dialogues of the Exiled (Ruiz, Chile/France, 1975)

Modeled on Brecht’s Conversations in Exile, this wry piece of political cinema was the first film made in exile by the great Chilean director Raul Ruiz following the CIA-backed military coup of Augusto Pinochet. It consists almost entirely of dialogue-based interior scenes (all of which have a semi-improvised feel) of Chilean expatriates attempting to assimilate to their new existence as political refugees in France. One particularly amusing subplot details a rather benign kidnapping of a touring Chilean pop singer named Fabian Luna by exiles attempting to win him over to their cause. Dialogues of the Exiled is a modest, no-budget comedy but a crucial document of the Chilean diaspora and essential viewing for fans of the director.

Diary of the War of Pigs (Nilsson, Argentina, 1975)

Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s penultimate film is a fascinating quasi-sci-fi parable about growing old. Sometimes referred to as taking place in the future, this actually begins with a title crawl stating that it’s based on a diary from the year 1969 (which would make it more of an alternate reality movie rather than a futuristic dystopian one). The premise is that Argentina’s youth have formed marauding gangs who exterminate the country’s elderly after having become fed up with senior citizens who seem to be of no use and are merely living off of social security. The story is seen from the point of view of Isidro, a middle-aged man who dares to take a young lover and thus makes himself a target of the “revolution.” Torre’s unique tone is intriguingly pitched somewhere between the profoundly unsettling and the surprisingly erotic.

The Passion of Berenice (Hermosillo, Mexico, 1976)

The Passion of Berenice is a deft updating of the kind of melodramas that characterized the Mexican cinema’s epoca de oro, not least because the male lead is played by Pedro Armendariz, Jr. (who looks uncannily like his pop, albeit with with long hair and a 1970s mustache). The story concerns Berenice, a young woman with a scarred face and a troubled past who lives with and takes care of her elderly godmother. Berenice is haunted by nightmares involving flames and horses that she can’t quite make sense of and there are rumors that she murdered her first husband. She embarks on an affair with the son of her godmother’s doctor in what starts out as a straightforward romantic drama but grows increasingly mysterious and eventually becomes downright scary. A lot of the credit belongs to Martha Navarro who offers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who always appears chillingly aloof.

Xica (Diegues, Brazil, 1976)

In the 18th century, Joao Fernandes de Oliveira is a contractor sent by the King of Portugal to oversee diamond mining in Brazil and to root out corruption within the local government. Upon arrival, however, he falls in love with Xica da Silva, a black slave who is renowned for her sexual prowess. Soon, Oliveira will stop at nothing to give Xica what she wants, including luxury items from around the world and even has a man-made lake constructed just for her. In spite of the serious subject matter, the tone of the film is kept light and amusing throughout. Xica is essentially a trickster figure, similar to the protagonists of other slave narratives, who pretends to be a subservient fool in order to get what she wants. I’ve heard it said that she is supposed to represent the spirit of Brazil and, when viewed in that light, this weirdly touching love story becomes even more complex and provocative. The funky, anachronistic score is also a delight.

The Place Without Limits (Ripstein, Mexico, 1977)

Arturo Ripstein, considered by some to be Mexico’s greatest living filmmaker, is probably best known in the States for his superb 1996 serial killer melodrama Deep Crimson but his lengthy film career extends back to the early 1960s when he began as an assistant to Luis Bunuel. The influence of Bunuel can be strongly felt on The Place Without Limits, a 1978 drama that offers a fascinating, colorful portrait of small town Mexican life while also subtly critiquing Latin machismo and homophobia. Robert Cobo (who, as a child, played the worst of the delinquents in Los Olvidados) stars as “La Manuela,” a gay brothel owner who is torn between selling his business to local bigwig Don Alejo or capitulating to the wishes of his daughter, who manages the brothel, and keeping things status quo. Complicating the scenario is the return of Pancho, a hotheaded truck driver who had violently attacked Manuela the year before but who appears to be equally attracted to both father and daughter alike. Like many of Ripstein’s films, this is a literary adaptation, but the film’s chief pleasures (including Cobo’s unforgettable flamenco dance) are those that could only come alive on the screen.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Metropolis (Lang)
2. Faraw! (Ascofaré)
3. The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones)
4. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
5. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
6. Sunrise (Murnau)
7. Psycho (Hitchcock)
8. M (Lang)
9. Alien (2003 Director’s Cut) (Scott)
10. Snow White and the Huntsman (Sanders)


Now Playing: Prometheus

Prometheus
dir. Ridley Scott, 2012, USA

Rating: 8.2

Now playing at theaters everywhere is Prometheus, a much-hyped, surprisingly excellent Alien prequel that offers intelligent, meticulously crafted, beautifully designed riffs on familiar genre elements. 75-year old veteran director Ridley Scott has not made a science fiction film since Blade Runner way back in 1982 and Prometheus at its best is so staggeringly good that it makes you wonder why. Scott has always been a masterful visual stylist and an obsessively detailed director along the lines of a Stanley Kubrick or a David Fincher. Unfortunately, for most of the past 30 years his talents have been squandered on projects that were not worthy of his time or attention. (Gladiator is one of my personal nominees for the worst Best Picture Oscar winner ever and I would rather eat my own brain than have to sit through Hannibal again.) But sci-fi and Scott go together like bacon and eggs as evidenced by Alien and Blade Runner, both of which are now firmly established as classics of the genre, and Prometheus manages to rekindle memories of the best aspects of those movies while also having a few new tricks up its sleeve; Prometheus follows the same basic template of the original Alien (which, unique for its time, was essentially a slasher film that just so happened to utilize sci-fi iconography) while simultaneously asking the big philosophical questions of Blade Runner: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?

The plot of Prometheus involves an expedition by a team of scientists to a distant planet, the purpose of which is to investigate the origins of human life on Earth. “Prometheus” is also the name of the ship that takes these characters on the trillion dollar mission, which is being funded by an elderly tycoon named Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of latex), who hopes that the answers they find will enable him to live forever. Among the diverse crew members are Janek (Idris Elba), a pragmatic pilot, Drs. Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green), a couple of humanistic “true believers,” Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the heartless corporate-type who is in charge and, most memorably of all, David (Michael Fassbender), a genius android who comes across like a live action version of 2001‘s Hal 9000. This is a remarkably strong cast (with the unfortunate exception of Marshall-Green, whose presence supplies a slice of hipster cheesecake in lieu of a performance). Fassbender, in particular, shines; he is spectacularly eerie and yet also strangely sympathetic as a non-human who always speaks in even, perfectly measured tones and whose laugh always sounds just a little too forced. The brilliant parallel that Scott draws between the Aryan features and chilly demeanors of David and Vickers is apparent long before Janek jokingly asks Vickers if she is a robot. Her response provides one of the movie’s few lighthearted moments.

Sparks begin to fly as the scientists, many of whom are at cross-purposes with one another, discover an alien tomb and begin arguing over if and how the mission should continue. There are plenty of surprises from this point forward, none of which I will give away. Let me just say that Prometheus is an unmitigated visual triumph that consistently offers one jaw-dropping shot after another and needs to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated. Scott, working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, seamlessly blends location footage from Iceland with brilliantly designed sets (the alien tomb’s dank, cavernous, honeycomb quality put me in the mind of Fritz Lang’s Indian tomb) as well as computer generated effects. This is not, I hasten to add, the flat, thinly textured, animated-looking CGI that Takashi Miike likes to slather over his films because he finds it funny but that the average Hollywood comic book movie wants you to accept at face value. These are dense, thickly textured digital images with impressive depth and a green-blue-black color scheme that makes them resemble lush, monochromatic oil paintings. The 3-D effects are also intelligently and judiciously applied; as some commenters have noted, Prometheus is in many ways a movie about movies, a quality that is perhaps most apparent in the way that the film’s most ostentatious stereoscopic effects also appear as stereoscopic effects to the characters (e.g., video images appear before them as three-dimensional holograms).

But Scott’s technical mastery would be nothing if Prometheus did not also hold viewers in thrall for every one of its 123 minutes. There are a number of magnificent, white-knuckle suspense set-pieces that rival anything that has come out of Hollywood in recent years (including a scene where two geologists confront a snake-like reptilian creature in the womb-like tomb and a truly horrifying body-horror sequence involving self-inflicted, robot-assisted surgery). Scott refreshingly plays these genre elements straight and true, which gives the film a winning balance of humility and grandeur. As a result, the more cosmic moments effortlessly conjure up a sense of wonder that something like the arty, overly-pious Tree of Life could never match. (Prometheus also proves that contemporary genre movies can be self-reflexive without being fashionably cynical a la The Cabin in the Woods.) Having said that, Prometheus is not perfect. In addition to the miscasting of Marshall-Green, the screenplay (by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) is perhaps overly stuffed with more characters and subplots than is strictly necessary, and the orchestral score also underlines the awe-inspiring moments a bit too emphatically for my taste. But these are minor quibbles considering the film provides so many images and ideas that do genuinely inspire awe in the tradition of the best science fiction movies – not only Alien and Blade Runner but Metropolis, The Thing From Another World, La Jetee, Alphaville, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris as well. Even if Prometheus were only half as good as it is, however, I would still urge everyone I know to see it in the theater. It is, after all, a big-budget “tentpole” movie that is rated R and aimed at adults and God knows those are rapidly becoming an endangered species.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Prometheus (Scott)
2. Alexandria . . . Why? (Chahine)
3. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
4. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
5. Raining in the Mountain (Hu)
6. Paul (Mottola)
7. The Nightingale’s Prayer (Barakat)
8. Yaaba (Ouedraogo)
9. L’amour Fou (Thoretton)
10. Trollhunter (Ovredal)


A Classic Latin American Cinema Primer, Pt. 1

I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn about something is to teach it and, after teaching film studies classes for three and a half years now, I have to concur. Sometimes I feel as though I learn almost as much from my students as they learn from me. A case in point is the subject of Latin American cinema, which I was only marginally familiar with prior to teaching. Because so many of my students are first or second generation immigrants from various Latin American countries, I have made a concerted effort to learn more about movies from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba in order to better connect with them. (I’d like to give a special shout out to Fernando and Evelyn here for hipping me to Cantinflas.) Similarly, one of the great things about running a film studies blog like this one is that it provides me with a great excuse to constantly be studying different aspects of film history for the sole purpose of writing new blog posts.

My classic Latin American Cinema Primer is split into two posts of thirteen titles apiece. Part one concerns films made from the beginning of the early sound era through 1963. Part two, to be published next week, will span the years 1964 – 1979.

Tango Bar (Reinhardt, Argentina/USA, 1935)

Carlos Gardel is considered one of the greatest tango singers of all time. He was also a movie star and this delightful Spanish language musical, directed in the U.S. by the Hungarian John Reinhardt but written and performed by Argentinians, was the last film he made before he tragically died in a plane crash at age 44. The story has something to do with Gardel’s character, Ricardo, leaving Buenos Aires for Barcelona on a boat after a streak of bad gambling luck. En route, he meets Laura (Rosita Morena), a beautiful woman whom he romances and saves from the clutches of gangsters. But the slender plot of this one hour feature is really just an excuse for the elegant Gardel to sing a bunch of songs including the rousing “Por Una Cabeza,” which both opens and closes the film.

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (De Fuentes, Mexico, 1936)

Considered by some to be the greatest Mexican movie ever and the one that single-handedly inaugurated the Mexican film industry’s “golden age,” this astonishing wartime drama follows six peasants known as “Los Leones de San Pablo” who join Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican revolution. Director Fernando de Fuentes takes care to paint each character distinctly, showing the warm camaraderie that exists between each individual and the rest of the bunch, which makes the film genuinely tragic when their numbers start to gradually dwindle. But what really impresses about this film is Fuentes’ jaundiced view of Villa and the revolution itself, which the director sees as complex and messy and marked by a terrible human cost, the exact opposite of the hagiographic approach one might expect.

Dona Barbara (De Fuentes/Delgado, Mexico, 1943)

Written by Venezuelan author Romulo Gallegos (adapting his own novel), this epic melodrama made a screen goddess of lead actress Maria Felix in the title role. Beautifully photographed in high contrast black and white, the story concerns a kind of love triangle between the vicious, eponymous ranch owner Barbara, her illegitimate daughter and the civilized doctor who attracts them both. This movie belongs to the incredible Felix, a force of nature whom I’ve described elsewhere on this blog as combining the fierceness of Joan Crawford with the sexiness of Ava Gardner. She practically burns up the screen when she says “I use men at my convenience. I spit them out when I’m done.”

Maria Candelaria (Fernandez, Mexico, 1944)

Before Luis Bunuel migrated over from Europe, the most important director of Mexico’s golden age was Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez. Maria Candelaria, a melodrama set among the indigenous people of Xochimilco, is one of his masterpieces. A journalist visits a famous, elderly artist in his studio and asks him about the painting of a naked Indian woman. The artist tells the story of the painting’s subject, which is then seen in flashback: the good-hearted title character (Dolores del Rio) is shunned by her fellow villagers because she is the daughter of a prostitute, which dooms her relationship with her fiance Lorenzo (Pedro Armendariz), the honest and hard-working peasant who loves her. This powerful tale of love and intolerance is similar to (and in my opinion infinitely preferable to) Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves from a half century later.

The Pearl (Fernandez, Mexico, 1947)

Emilio Fernandez’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel about Quino, a Mexican diver who discovers a priceless pearl at the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, what should be his family’s ticket to a better life inspires jealousy in the surrounding community and Quino soon finds himself a wanted man on the lam. Fernandez and his great regular cinematographer Gabriela Figueroa were heavily influenced by Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico and here they’ve captured comparable images of silvery, spellbinding beauty: low-angle close-ups of the protagonists lend the characters and story a resonant, near-mythological power while longer shots juxtapose them against the beautiful landscapes of rural coastal Mexico. Fernandez is also notable for being the only film director to ever shoot a film critic.

Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

El Bolero de Raquel (Delgado, Mexico, 1957)

Mario Moreno Cantinflas is known as “Mexico’s Charlie Chaplin” because he was a genius comedian who specialized in playing working class underdogs while also sporting baggy pants and a distinctive mustache. El Bolero de Raquel is a great vehicle for the actor’s comedic chops; here, he plays a shoeshiner who finds himself, much like Chaplin in The Kid, unwittingly playing foster father to a young boy following the death of a close friend. Cantinflas is primarily known for his intricate wordplay (specifically for his tendency to ramble on while essentially saying nothing) but this non-Spanish speaking viewer will most remember El Bolero for a couple sequences of primarily visual humor: one involving the application of suntan lotion and one where our hero ruins the dance routine of a beautiful nightclub performer by attempting to dance with her against her will. Both scenes had me laughing like an animal.

Tizoc (Rodriguez, Mexico, 1957)

Tizoc (Pedro Infante) is a poor Indian laborer who falls in love at first sight with a wealthy Mexican woman named Maria (Maria Felix), initially mistaking her for the virgin Mary. Infante, the most famous Mexican actor ever, is at his best as the simple but noble title character. His mistaken belief that Maria wants to marry him, and his subsequent realization that he is wrong, lead to a series of tragic events in this beautiful Technicolor musical melodrama from Infante’s favorite director Ismael Rodriguez. The most memorable scene features Tizoc singing to Maria that he loves her “more than his eyes,” which causes her to weep. Angry at himself for making her cry, Tizoc hits himself in the mouth with a rock. Released after Infante’s untimely death in a plane crash at the age of 42, this is a great love story.

Black Orpheus (Camus, Brazil/France, 1959)

Prior to the rise of Brazil’s celebrated “Cinema Novo” in the 1960s, the most significant movie produced in Brazil was this contemporary musical adaptation of the Orpheus myth directed by the Frenchman Marcel Camus. Charges of racism and colonialism have occasionally been levied against it (including by some Brazilians who have objected to their culture being portrayed as a non-stop party) but I think that’s an overreaction. For one thing, Camus’ film, which expresses a genuine love and respect for Brazilian culture and music, never claims to be anything approaching a definitive statement about the soul of a people. For another, it’s an adaptation of a play by Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes that already views Brazil through the lens of another culture (ancient Greece). The music, widely credited with popularizing bossa nova outside of Brazil, is incredible, the cast of local performers is infectiously energetic, and the Eastmancolor cinematography employs color more purposefully than 99% of all other color films.

The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (Gonzalez, Mexico, 1960)

Luis Alcoriza wrote the script for Rogelio Gonzalez’s wicked black comedy about Dr. Morales (the great Arturo Cordova), a taxidermist who murders his insufferably pious wife. In a scenario reminiscent of Bunuel and Hitchcock (there is a healthy amount of Catholic-bashing to go along with the humor and uxoricide), Dr. Morales informs family and friends that the Mrs. has gone on vacation even as he puts her skeletonized remains on display in his shop. Alcoriza also wrote the screenplay for many of Bunuel’s best Mexican films and if Gonazalez doesn’t push this to quite the surrealist extreme that Don Luis would have, no matter. This is still an essential comedy from the tail end of the golden age of Mexican cinema.

The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, Mexico, 1962)

One of the best and most vicious satires of Luis Bunuel’s career is this 1962 comedy built on the irresistible premise of a group of upper class friends getting together for a dinner party and then, for no explicable reason, finding themselves unable to leave. After several days, the facade of not only the aristocracy but civilization itself is stripped away as each of the characters ends up revealing a primitive, essentially bestial core. Is this a satire of an entire class of people or of the tragic absurdity of existence itself? Or is it just a bunch of meaningless nonsense? In the best Surrealist tradition, that’s up to each individual viewer to decide.

The Unscrupulous Ones (Guerra, Brazil, 1962)

Criminally unknown (in the U.S. at least), this 1962 feature from first time writer/director Ruy Guerra is one of the best Brazilian films I’ve seen. Clearly inspired by the French New Wave, Guerra’s story follows a couple of amoral petty criminals from Copacabana who hatch a blackmail plot that involves taking nude photographs of a young female acquaintance. Pretty soon she’s helping them to perpetrate the same scheme on her cousin. This film is startling in so many respects (the use of handheld camera, the nihilism, the critique of machismo, the full frontal nudity and casual drug use), it’s hard to believe that someone could have made this movie anywhere in the world as early as 1962. The big bang of Cinema Novo.

Vidas Secas (dos Santos, Brazil, 1963)

A man, his wife, their two children and a dog lead a nomadic existence, constantly in search of work, food and shelter, in the most barren region of northeastern Brazil. The man of the family eventually hires on at the home of a wealthy cattle farmer, where he ends up being grossly exploited, before inevitably moving on. Fueled by a sense of social outrage and inspired by Italian Neorealism, Nelson Pereira dos Santos wrote and directed this bleak, starkly beautiful black and white film (which might be more appropriately referred to as a “white and black film”) that stands as one of the crown jewels of Brazil’s Cinema Novo.


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