Monthly Archives: March 2013

Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals at Facets Night School

cannibals

On the evening of Saturday, April 27th I will be presenting Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals at Facets Multimedia as part of their popular Night School series. This will include a short talk about the film as well as a Q&A afterwards. Any of my students who attend the screening can earn up to TWENTY points extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for the exact details. Admission is FREE for Facets members and a lowly $5 for non-members. More information, including directions and ticket info can be found here:

http://www.facets.org/pages/nightschool.php

Here is the description of the presentation I wrote for the Facets website:

Eat the Rich!: Manoel de Oliveira’s Unlikely Cannibal Musical

The Cannibals (Os Canibais) is one of the best but unfortunately least-known feature films by prolific Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira. Made in 1988 when the still-active writer/director was a comparatively youthful 79-years old, this delightful work of anti-bourgeois Surrealism is a kind of freakish filmed opera in which every line of savage satire is sung. Adapted from a novel by Álvaro Carvalhal, the plot concerns Marguerite (Oliveira’s favorite leading lady Leonor Silveira), a high-society woman who marries a wealthy Viscount (Oliveira’s favorite leading man Luis Miguel Cintra) over the objections of her jealous ex-lover, Don Juan (Diogo Doria). On their wedding night, the Viscount reveals to Marguerite his darkest secret, which leads to a devilish, uproariously funny climax that must be seen to be believed.

Adding a layer of self-reflexive fun is an omniscient, singing narrator (Oliveira Lopes); at one point, he hilariously complains about the protagonists’ use of the “sententious language of poor melodrama” in the previous scene. Imagine an unholy mash-up of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and you will have some idea of what is in store at this screening of one of the all-time great Portuguese films. Note: The Cannibals has never received an official home video release in North America. This rare screening of the film will be shown via digital projection of a European import DVD.

If you are unfamiliar with Oliveira, check out this lovely video tribute (which includes excerpts from The Cannibals) via YouTube:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
2. Night of the Demon (Tourneur)
3. Primer (Carruth)
3. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
4. Spring Breakers (Korine)
5. A Double Life (Cukor)
6. The Irony of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov)
7. Canary Season (Mihailov)
8. The Firemen’s Ball (Forman)
9. Citizen Kane (Welles)
10. The Red and the White (Jancso)


A Mainland Chinese Cinema Primer

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always preferred films from Hong Kong and Taiwan to those from mainland China. This is in part because movies from the mainland have traditionally been subject to stricter censorship laws and have also been more likely to fall under the heading of propaganda. In the 1990s especially, my formative years as a budding cinephile, the films of so-called “5th generation” directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige seemed simultaneously bloated, self-important and aesthetically safe, while the most exciting filmmakers from Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang) and Hong Kong (Wong Kar-Wai, Johnnie To, Stanley Kwan) seemed to be making vital state-of-the-planet addresses that were also on the cutting edge in terms of form. In more recent years, however, I’ve made a concerted effort to expand my knowledge of mainland Chinese movies, both new and old, and have come to admire many more of them, a lot of which are more artistically daring than I ever would have imagined. The following dozen titles encompass the silent era up through the present day.

The Goddess (Wu, 1934)

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Ruan Lingyu is the most famous Chinese actress to have only worked in the silent era and, among her films that survive today, The Goddess is generally regarded as the best. (Although she starred in many movies until her death in 1935, they were all silents; as with most countries, sound film production began much later in China than in the U.S.) The Goddess tells the story of a noble single mother who prostitutes herself by night in order to raise her young son in relative comfort. Director Wu Yonggang offers both effective melodrama and potent sociological analysis as the ironically-named title character must contend with the physical assaults of a brutal pimp as well as the prejudice of the parents of her son’s classmates. Ruan’s emotive performance is both realistic and heartrending; one memorable scene was recreated exactly in Stanley Kwan’s superb Maggie Cheung-starring Ruan biopic Center Stage.

Song at Midnight (Ma-Xu, 1937)

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Song at Midnight is what might result if you crossed Ozu’s Floating Weeds with The Phantom of the Opera. It concerns a traveling opera troupe that sets up shop in a spooky, old small-town theater. One young singer is having trouble performing but receives coaching from an unlikely source: a local former opera star who is hideously disfigured and haunts the shadowy theater like a ghost. A lengthy flashback reveals the origins of this “Phantom” character, which then ties back into the present-day plot, as the same villain sows trouble in both stories. This influential film (it spawned both a sequel and a remake) is good early Chinese horror crossed with a romantic drama; it boasts an intriguing and sympathetic monster-hero, wonderful make-up and a poetically creepy atmosphere. Well worth a look for aficionados of the genre.

Street Angel (Yuan, 1937)

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Any plot synopsis of Street Angel would make it sound like a typically serious “social problem” picture: two sisters living in Shanghai eke out an existence as a prostitute and a teahouse singer, respectively. The younger sister, the singer, catches the eye of a local gangster, who conspires with her landlord to force her into prostitution as well. A charismatic trumpet player and street magician named Young Chen comes to the rescue by providing refuge to both sisters, but the gangster eventually finds their whereabouts . . . Incredibly, this scenario is played mostly as exuberant comedy, some of which gets downright slapsticky (e.g., Chen’s interactions with his “street friends”) and the whole thing is full of wonderful cinematic conceits from start to finish (from the montage of Shanghai nightlife that opens the film to the use of a sing-along bouncing ball above the Chinese subtitles during the musical numbers to the impressively fluid camerawork throughout). A one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

The Spring River Flows East (Cai/Zheng, 1947)

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Movies don’t get any more devastating than this epic tragedy about the lives of ordinary people torn apart by war. The premise is that, after the Japanese invade China, a man, Zhang (Jin Tao), leaves behind his wife, Sufen, and their young son, to fight at the front. The family ends up separated for years, during which time Zhang eventually moves to Shanghai and marries another woman, while Sufen and their son endure one hardship after another. Zhang is reunited with his original family when, through a series of cruel twists of fate, Sufen gets a job as a maid in his new bourgeois home. Among the narrative arts, I’ve always felt movies can convey the passage of time — and thus scenes of reunion — exceptionally well. The heartbreaking reunion scene that concludes this film is worthy of being ranked alongside the finale of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

Spring in a Small Town (Fei, 1948)

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My favorite Mainland Chinese movie of all time is Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, oftentimes invoked as the prototype for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. This intimate chamber drama follows the lives of four characters: a tubercular young man, Liyan, who lives in rural China with his wife, Yuwen, and his teen-aged sister, Meimei. Liyan’s childhood friend, Zhang, a city doctor who also happens to be Yuwen’s childhood ex-boyfriend, comes to stay for a visit, an event that soon plunges all of their lives into turmoil. Fei’s masterstroke was to tell this story primarily from the point-of-view of Yuwen (Wei Wei, in a remarkable performance), and the end result is poetic (it’s a portrait of “spring” as much as anything else), beautiful, highly emotional and even erotic. Tian Zhuangzhuang remade it more than 50 years later but, engaging as his film is, it can’t hold a candle to the original, which stands as one of the greatest post-war films made in any country.

Crows and Sparrows (Zheng, 1949)

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Zheng Junli’s Crows and Sparrows has a special place in my heart; it was the first “classic” Chinese movie I ever saw (on VHS tape via the old International Film Circuit label) way back in the 1990s. This urban drama, directed by Zheng Junli (one of the co-directors of The Spring River Flows East), was completed before the Communist takeover in 1949 although Communist ideology is arguably present in the allegorical story of poor tenants banding together and standing up to their corrupt Nationalist landlord (who was also a traitor during the Sino-Japanese war). This works as a compelling drama in its own right but also functions as a fascinating window into a key transitional period of 20th century Chinese history.

Two Stage Sisters (Xie, 1964)

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I had been aware of this film for years but it wasn’t until I recently saw the ravishing excerpts featured in Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film, as well as interviews with director Xie Jin, that I finally got around to hunting it down and watching it. The plot, spanning the years 1935 – 1950, deals with the differing fortunes of two members of an all-female opera troupe, one of whom becomes involved in the Communist Revolution while the other marries the troupe manager and ends up leading a life of Western-style materialism (i.e., decadence). In spite of its obvious propagandistic aims, this was still condemned by the government for condoning “bourgeois values” and banned — although perhaps what it really objected to were the hints that there might be something more than friendship between the female leads. This beautiful color film is what I imagine would have resulted had Vincente Minnelli been working in the PRC circa 1964. Or, as my friend David Hanley would say: “The best communist loosely-based-on-true-story period piece melodrama revolutionary musical ever!”

Yellow Earth (Chen, 1985)

yellowearth

Many Western viewers first became aware of Chinese movies with the breakthrough international successes of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou in the late 1980s. These “5th generation” directors, so named because they were roughly the fifth generation of filmmakers to emerge since the birth of Chinese cinema, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982 and revitalized an industry that had been lying dormant since before the Cultural Revolution. My favorite film of this movement is Yellow Earth, written and directed by Chen and shot by Zhang (who I wish had remained a cinematographer instead of becoming a director himself). This story of a Communist soldier collecting folk songs in rural China and befriending a family of peasants unfolds less through dialogue than through songs, beautiful landscape photography and patient editing rhythms, a style Chen would soon regrettably eschew in favor of Hollywood-style melodrama. Nonetheless, Yellow Earth is a landmark of world cinema that remains a treat for the senses.

The Horse Thief (Tian, 1986)

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Even more bold than Yellow Earth as a non-narrative experience is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief, a film set in a gorgeous but remote area of Tibet where the thievery of the title character, the Buddhist Norbu, causes him to be exiled from his tribe and, amidst the harshest natural elements, he must fight for his family’s survival. There is virtually no dialogue in this film, which paradoxically resembles both a documentary as well as the most lyrical of narrative silent movies. Tian, who would later be banned from filmmaking for nearly a decade following his controversial film The Blue Kite, was always the most political of the fifth generation directors and The Horse Thief is no exception: in addition to its aesthetic and spiritual value, it also serves as a potent illustration of how poverty is the root of crime.

In the Heat of the Sun (Jiang, 1994)

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My favorite mainland film of recent decades is this astonishing debut from actor/director Jiang Wen. Set in Beijing during the 1970s (though narrated by the main character from the vantage point of the present), this coming-of-age drama revolves around the shenanigans of the reckless teenage children of absentee Army-officer fathers, as they wile away an endless summer without supervision or consequences. This can be seen as a kind of mainland counterpart to Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, as Jiang puts his alter-ago protagonist, “Monkey,” through the paces of both gang-fights and the pangs of first love. But what really sets this movie apart is the voice-over narration (provided by Jiang himself), which continually and cleverly reminds us that everything we see is a highly romanticized memory. The narration, combined with the bright, slightly overexposed images and excerpts from Mascagni’s Cavaleria rusticana on the soundtrack, ends up conveying — much better than most films — what it means to be alive.

Blush (Li, 1995)

blush

Li Shaohong is one of the few women among China’s fifth generation of directors and I would say, based solely on this film (the only work of hers I’ve seen), one of the most talented. Blush is a piercing period melodrama about two women, “sisters” at the same brothel, who are forced into a re-education camp following the Communist takeover. Both eventually became involved with the same man, a former brothel client, leading to tragedy before concluding on a note of bittersweet resolution. The acting by the lead performers is terrific, and Li proves to be a director of uncommon visual sumptuousness: her extensive tracking shots, use of color and tightly packed compositions will linger with you for days.

The World (Jia, 2004)

world

Jia Zhangke is regarded by many critics as one of the key directors of the 21st century. While I can’t say I share this view of his filmography as a whole, I do regard his 2004 film The World as an unqualified masterpiece. Set in a Beijing theme park named “The World,” which boasts scale model replicas of the world’s most recognizable landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.), and tracking the lives of the alienated workers within, this is both a powerfully realistic and ironic portrait of modern “global culture.” Jia’s use of long takes and long shots is masterful, the latter of which recalls Ozu (to whom Jia pays explicit homage by including a snatch of the Tokyo Story score on his soundtrack), and the use of animated interludes to represent cellular communication is inspired. Even if I don’t find any of his other movies on this same level, The World alone is enough to mark Jia as an important historian of the present.

This post is dedicated to my friend David Zou, a Chinese film blogger who insisted I watch In the Heat of the Sun.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
2. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Bailey/Barbato)
3. Lady of Burlesque (Wellman)
4. The Pornographers (Imamura)
5. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais)
6. Barbara (Petzold)
7. Tristana (Bunuel)
8. Woman of the Year (Stevens)
9. Citizen Kane (Welles)
10. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)


Postering

Like many cinephiles with a massive home video collection, I am also a collector of movie posters. Unfortunately, my “teacher’s salary” has not really allowed me to indulge the latter habit to the extent I would like. Nonetheless, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in seeing some of the movie posters in my home and reading about how, when and where I acquired them.

Germany Year Ninety Nine Zero (Godard, 1991)

germany

The English language title of Godard’s belated 1991 sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That’s because “Neuf” in French translates as either “nine” or “new.” A more accurate translation of the French title, Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (which riffs on the title of Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero while also alluding to 1990 — the year Godard made his film), might be something like 1990: Germany Year New Zero. Nonetheless, this is my favorite movie poster because of its rarity. I acquired this at Facets Cinematheque in the mid-Nineties when Godard’s film received an unlikely theatrical run in 35mm from an outfit named “Drift Releasing” (who, needless to say, went under long ago). They were selling these posters for ten dollars in the lobby. How rare is it? I’ve never even seen one available for sale online.

Charlie Chaplin ink drawing

charlie

This was a gift from my lovely wife who purchased it on Etsy. Many were the times I gazed up at it while working on my forthcoming book Flickering Empire, in which Chaplin is prominently featured.

For any Chicagoans looking for recommendations on where to get their own posters framed, I recommend Lake View Art Supply — whose handiwork can be seen above. (Ask for Ethan!) For good, reasonably priced online framing, I recommend Wholesale Poster Frames (http://www.wholesaleposterframes.com/).

Pierrot le Fou (Godard, 1965)

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Godard again. This is not an original poster from 1965 but a reproduction from the 1970s. I purchased it in Paris in 1995 when I was a wee lad of 20-years-old. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but I know that it cost considerably more than the reproductions below but considerably less than the whopping $295 it’s currently going for on ebay.

The Searchers (Ford, 1956) and Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)

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Okay, these are reproductions I got in Paris at the same time I got the Pierrot le Fou poster. You can find these (and others similar to them for various “Golden Age” Hollywood films) online for cheap. However, I still really like the bright colors and the overall design. And the fact that the titles are written in Dutch.


Now Playing: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
dir: Alain Resnais (France, 2012)
Rating: 8.9

1153675_You-Aoint-Seen-Nothing-Yet

Screening yesterday as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable European Union Film Festival, and now playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. I was, unfortunately, not able to include it in my festival preview because screeners were not available at the time, but the latest from the forever formally innovative Resnais is one the best of the seven EU Film Fest movies I have seen and will undoubtedly rank high on my year-end list of the best films of 2013. While the content of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet — a group of actors gather to watch the “video will” of a famous playwright — make it seem like an appropriate swan song for the 90-year-old New Wave master, Resnais rebuffed this notion at the press conference held for the film’s Cannes premiere: “This film is unlike any other,” he said. “If I’d thought of this film as a final statement, I’d never have had the courage or energy to do it.” Indeed, Resnais has fortunately already embarked on another film project titled Aimer, boire et chanter, an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Life of Riley. Following 2009’s superb (and truly wild) Wild Grass, the boldly stylized You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet gives Resnais’ admirers ample reasons to believe that, when it comes to the director’s future projects, perhaps we really have not seen anything yet.

One of the chief pleasures of Resnais’ work, especially in more recent decades, is his exploration of the links between cinema, theater and life, a subject that arguably receives a more thorough working out here than in any of his previous films. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is, first and foremost, a movie about acting, and Resnais has fittingly assembled a dream ensemble cast that features many of the finest French actors of the past half-century, including Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azema, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Anny Duperey and Pierre Arditi. The premise is that these actors, all playing themselves, have appeared in various performances of the play Eurydice by the recently deceased (and fictional) playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, whose death has brought them together at the film’s beginning. D’Anthac’s “video will” involves showing this assorted gathering a recently videotaped performance of Eurydice by “la Compagnie de la Colombe,” a new theater company, in the hopes that the veteran actors will be able to help determine if the new company should be granted permission to put on the play. While watching this performance, the veteran actors are so overcome with emotion that they inevitably begin re-enacting the play themselves. The remainder of the film involves Resnais deftly intercutting between the two performances as well as scenes of the veteran actors interacting with each other in “real life.” The ambiguity about where life ends and theater begins — and the role of cinema in documenting this ambiguity — is treated by Resnais with characteristic playfulness and captured with characteristic formal mastery (e.g., rigorous widescreen compositions, perfectly measured long takes and purposefully fake-looking CGI). Resnais has also eschewed the astonishingly fluid crane shots of Wild Grass for a more locked-down feel that shows how much he believes that form should follow function.

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One of the most fascinating and provocative aspects of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is the fact that the video production of Eurydice viewed by the veteran actors — and us, the viewers behind those viewers — was neither cast nor directed by Alain Resnais himself but rather by filmmaker Bruno Podalydès, who was commissioned by Resnais specifically for this purpose (and whose brother, Denis, turns up in a small role as d’Anthac). Resnais has spoken of the challenge of integrating his own ideas with Podalydès’ independently made footage (which was shot in a single warehouse-like location with a very un-Resnais handheld camera) as being one of the things that most attracted him to the project. This kind of self-imposed challenge can be seen as the latest in a long line of similar formal challenges that link Resnais to his master Alfred Hitchcock (whose image famously made a “cameo” in Last Year at Marienbad via a cardboard cutout in 1961); both Hitchcock and Resnais seem to view the creation of cinema as a process of posing and then solving a series of problems — though for Hitchcock this process tended to be more technical in nature (e.g., how to construct a film entirely from 10-minute long-takes and then disguise the cuts, how to shoot in extremely confined spaces, etc.), whereas for Resnais it tends to be more intellectual and theoretical.

Comparing the films of Hitchcock and Resnais is instructive: the manner in which Hitchcock wedded his problems to an uncanny commercial sense, and the way that he was able to successfully navigate a personal vision in Hollywood by utilizing big budgets and stars, has guaranteed that his best-known films are among the most beloved of all time. Resnais has remained just as true to his own artistic temperament, which includes roots in the Surrealist movement, but this has unfortunately meant that his movies are treated as frightfully esoteric by American critics when they have received U.S. distribution at all — and thus have only ever reached the kind of American viewers who frequent the arthouse ghetto. But just as Hitchcock’s most entertaining films contain veins of moral seriousness (as well as profound observations about human psychology) that are not always readily apparent on the surface, so too are Resnais’ best films, including this one, alive with the kind of visceral pleasures that seem inherent to the cinema and that make them more accessible than they are generally given credit for. In addition to offering the pleasures of seeing a great ensemble cast really letting it fly, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet also features an intoxicating score by composer Mark Strong, best known for writing the theme to The X-Files television show (one of many American T.V. shows for which Resnais has professed his admiration).

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Also of note is the extent to which You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet seems like a quintessentially French movie by a director whose previous work (whether due to the use of locations like the German chateaux in Last Year at Marienbad or collaborations with international writers like Ayckbourn, David Mercer and Jorge Semprún) has marked him more as what might be termed a “global artist.” The film is loosely based on two plays by French writer Jean Anouilh, Eurydice and Cher Antoine ou l’Amour raté, the first of which Resnais apparently saw upon its initial theatrical run during World War II. It seems appropriate then that this film, although taking place entirely in the present, is steeped in the distinctly early-1940s atmosphere of the French cinematic movement known as Poetic Realism, most obviously seen in Jacques Saulnier’s wonderfully ornate sets (especially an immaculately designed train station). In addition to Poetic Realism, the spectacle of watching a succession of Gallic actors riff on the characters of Eurydice and Orpheus may also put lovers of classic French cinema in the mind of other movies influenced by the Orpheus myth (which seems to have a particular resonance within French culture), including Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy and the Brazil-shot Black Orpheus by French director Marcel Camus.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is also, crucially, a movie about memory. Even if it isn’t explicitly discussed in the dialogue, it is the characters’ overwhelming memories of originally appearing in d’Anthac’s play that cause them to re-inhabit the roles. They do this in spite of the fact that many of them are now “too old” for their parts, which lends the entire affair a deeply felt sense of poignance. The way Resnais uses his characters’ memories as a catalyst for blurring the lines between real life and art, actor and character, and past and present, is ultimately what makes You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet a worthy addition to the director’s formidable canon (alongside such universally acknowledged masterpieces as Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Muriel, as well as his more undervalued recent films), and reminds us of the old adage about how great artists always recreate the same work over and over again, just in refreshingly different ways. In an interview to promote Wild Grass, Resnais spoke of his loyalty to a Surrealist ethos that feels even more appropriate when the quote is applied to his latest film: “I hope that I always remain faithful to André Breton who refused to suppose that imaginary life was not a part of real life.” Through his heroic insistence on the importance of the imaginary within the real, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is supremely the work of an artist who remains forever young.

You can watch the trailer for You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet on YouTube here:


Film Comment’s Readers’ Poll of the Best Movies of 2012

holy

Film Comment, the only film magazine to which I subscribe (and you should too if you don’t already) has just posted online the results of its Readers’ Poll of the best films of 2012. I’ve seen 19 out of the 20 films featured on the list (the lone exception being the Dardennes brothers’ The Kid with a Bike), a whopping 12 of which I’m happy to report I also voted for.

Film Comment has also posted my thoughts on two of these films — Holy Motors and Bernie — on its website, which are slightly modified remarks of comments I initially posted on this blog. I’m reposting them here in their entirety:

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax – #3 in the Film Comment Readers’ Poll, #1 on my year-end Best of List):

Out of all the movies I’ve seen in the 21st century, none has struck me as more deeply personal (nor more embarrassingly private) than this. Although Leos Carax may not care about aggressively courting critics or even audiences, he still believes, like a child, that movies are magic. And when I watch Holy Motors, I believe it too.

Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater – #13 in the Film Comment Readers’ Poll, #3 on my year-end Best of List):

Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey are all great in this delicious true crime/black comedy but the real heart of Bernie lies in the performances of the residents of Carthage, Texas, who essentially play themselves and function as a kind of homespun Greek chorus. The result is so damn entertaining that I didn’t even realize the complex and even troubling questions being posed about morality, justice, and the American legal system by Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandworth until the second time through. Linklater is a national treasure and it is a shame that more critics and audiences didn’t rally behind this great, deceptively small film.

You can see the full Readers’ Poll results here: http://filmcomment.com/article/2012-best-movies-readers-poll

You can read the Readers’ Poll comments here: http://filmcomment.com/entry/2012-readers-poll-comments

(Incidentally, I noticed that the comments were heavily skewed towards Chicagoans–with Dan Pal and Alan Hoffman, neither of whom is a stranger to this blog, putting in appearances. Cheers, fellas!)

bernie


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Raven (Brabin)
2. Ward Six (Pintilie)
3. Loves of a Blonde (Forman)
4. Ride Lonesome (Boetticher)
5. Miller’s Crossing (Coen/Coen)
6. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
7. Goldstein (Kaufman/Manaster)
8. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
9. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
10. The Asthenic Syndrome (Muratova)


How Blu Was My Valley

Newly released on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox is How Green Was My Valley, the Best Picture Oscar winner from 1941 and one of director John Ford’s finest achievements.

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In the documentary Becoming John Ford, the screenwriter Lem Dobbs makes an interesting observation about John Ford’s 1945 film They Were Expendable: it is unusual, he says, that the title is in the past tense. This was, after all, a movie about World War II, made during World War II, and Dobbs believes that most other Hollywood filmmakers of the time would have wanted to conjure a more present-tense sense of urgency by calling such a movie either They Are Expendable or just plain The Expendables. (Needless to say, Dobbs’ observation was made, amusingly, several years before Sylvester Stallone’s action franchise ended up adopting the latter title.) Dobbs believes that by calling the film They Were Expendable Ford is saying these characters have already “passed into myth,” a good insight into Ford’s approach to history. One of the most prominent themes across Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how it is perceived after the fact. This is an implicit theme in Young Mr. Lincoln, an explicit theme in Fort Apache and is perfectly encapsulated in the famous line of dialogue from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Looking at Ford’s movie titles alone, it is striking how many of them are in the past tense: How the West Was Won, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, They Were Expendable, and, Ford’s ultimate “past tense” movie, How Green Was My Valley. Valley tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, but it is his story as seen from the vantage point of the character as he remembers that time at the age of 50. As in Miguel Gomes’ recent Tabu, this means that Ford’s images are not “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the storytelling also helps to explain why the child protagonist (portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of the finest child performances ever) doesn’t seem to age even though the film seems to span several years. This is similar to the poignant use of the superficially “too old” appearances of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the flashback sequences of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, Ford’s last great “memory film.”

how green was my valley

Ford once claimed that How Green Was My Valley was his most autobiographical movie, which is ironic considering that he joined the project as a last-minute replacement for the original director William Wyler. Wyler had already worked on the script with screenwriter Philip Dunne, overseen the construction of the sets on the Fox ranch in the Malibu hills and even cast the film. Perhaps it’s surprising that the movie seems as “Fordian” as it does considering how late Ford came on board the project. Then again, perhaps it’s surprising that Ford was not offered to direct the project originally, given how similar the subject matter is to The Grapes of Wrath (which had netted Ford a Best Director Oscar one year earlier). Like Grapes, a film that had arrived with the same instant prestige – and controversy – as John Steinbeck’s source novel, How Green Was My Valley was based on a current best-seller by Richard Llewellyn. Both books had been published in 1939 (an indication of how much quicker things got done in Hollywood at the time) and they tell similar stories: they are period dramas depicting the disintegration of a family, set against the backdrop of a labor struggle. How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales and the main characters are coal miners (as opposed to the Okie tenant farmers in Grapes) but the portrait of family life in each is strikingly similar.

Daryl Zanuck, the head of Production at 20th Century Fox, was a conservative Republican and, as had happened with The Grapes of Wrath, was made uneasy by some of the political themes of How Green Was My Valley, such as the workers’ struggle for the right to unionize. Zanuck commissioned screenplays for the film from two different writers and rejected both of them because he thought they focused too much on the unionization subplot. In a memo referring to an early story conference, Zanuck wrote: “I was very disappointed in the (Ernest) Pascal script mainly because it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story instead of a great human warm story about real living people. I got the impression that we are trying to do an English Grapes of Wrath and prove that the mine owners were very mean and that the laborers finally won out over them. All this might be fine if it were happening today like The Grapes of Wrath but this is years ago and who gives a damn? The smart thing to do is to try and keep all of the rest in the background and focus mainly on the human story as seen through Huw’s eyes.” The third draft, written by Dunne, did downplay some of the more radical political elements of the novel but it is still remarkable that the movie got made at all.

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Part of the reason why Zanuck first approached Wyler and not Ford to direct is because his original concept for the film was different from what it ended up becoming. The initial idea was to make How Green Was My Valley Fox’s Gone with the Wind. Zanuck was jealous of MGM’s success with their 1939 Oscar-winner and his plan was for How Green Was My Valley to “outdo” Gone with the Wind by being a four-hour Technicolor epic, shot on location and featuring an all-star cast that would’ve include Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power and Greer Garson. None of those things ended up happening; war broke out in Europe, which made location shooting impossible, and the top brass at Fox balked at the proposed budget as well as the choice of director (Wyler had a reputation for being an extravagant perfectionist who required many takes). When Fox cancelled the project, Zanuck fired off an angry letter to the front office saying that Dunne’s script was the best he had ever read and if he couldn’t make the movie now, he was going to make it later and would take it to another studio if necessary. The powers that be at Fox relented on the condition that Zanuck make the film in black-and-white and bring it in at a running time of under two hours. That’s when Zanuck brought in Ford because Ford’s reputation was the opposite of Wyler’s – he was able to get most of his shots in only one or two takes and was known for bringing his movies in on time and under budget.

The finished film was, as I’ve indicated, highly personal for Ford, who based a lot of its images on his own childhood memories. Coincidentally, Ford had been the same age as Huw Morgan at roughly the same time in history: Ford was born in 1894 and reached adolescence in the early part of the 21st century just like Huw. Further, Huw is the youngest son in a large Welsh family and Ford was the youngest son in a large Irish-American family (his parents had migrated, separately, from Ireland to America, where they first met and got married). Ford said he could identify with being the “fresh young kid at the table” and this identification is evident in the many poignant reaction shots of Huw sitting with his family at the dining room table. More importantly, Huw becomes sick in the movie and has a lengthy convalescence during which he discovers his love of books. The exact same thing happened to the director; Ford contracted diptheria when he was 12 and was quarantined at home for a year. During this time he missed a year of school but discovered his own love of literature and read classics like Ivanhoe, Treasure Island and the novels of Mark Twain. Oftentimes, one of his sisters would read to him, an event that is recreated in the film with Huw and his sister-in-law Bronwyn (Anna Lee who, like cast-mate Maureen O’Hara, was working with Ford for the first of many times).

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Ultimately, what makes How Green Was My Valley a masterpiece, and arguably Ford’s finest pre-War film, is the deeply felt, deeply Fordian depiction of family and the lament for its inevitable dissolution. Ford sees the family itself as a microcosm of the broader Welsh society and, as the family goes, so too goes the mining town. The movie is ultimately a tragedy because the intellectually gifted Huw Morgan refuses to leave his hometown and pursue an education, preferring instead to stay behind and do the same backbreaking work in the mines as his father and brothers – even as the “green”-ness is leaving the valley for good. But if there is a silver lining to be found, it is in Ford’s sense of spirituality and the notion that, as Peter Bogdanovich put it, “death is not the end.” This spiritual sense is depicted nowhere more strongly nor movingly in Ford’s entire canon than in Valley‘s climactic moments: after Huw’s father (Donald Crisp) has died in a mining accident, his mother (Sara Allgood) speaks of seeing him in a vision: “He came to me just now . . . He spoke to me and told me of the glory he had seen.” We then see all of the film’s characters, dead and alive, together on a grassy hillside, happy and smiling, as if reunited in paradise. “Men like my father cannot die,” Huw intones in voice-over as an adult. “They are with me still, real in memory as they were in the flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

After The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley was another big critical and commercial success for 20th Century Fox. It won Ford his third Academy Award for Best Director and it won Zanuck his first Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that its main competition that year was Citizen Kane (which had to settle for the Best Original Screenplay trophy only) has sadly caused some critics and cinephiles to downgrade Valley in hindsight, many of whom see it as the ultimate “proof” of the Oscars’ irrelevance–the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. I mean, the film that beat the Greatest Movie of All Time™? How good could it possibly be? Personally, while I yield to no one in my love of Welles, I have no qualms about saying that the Academy Awards actually got things right that year. The ultimate tribute to Valley came from Welles himself, who clearly modeled the gossiping housewives in his 1942 production of The Magnificent Ambersons on a scene involving similar characters from Ford’s film (not to mention identifying Ford as his favorite director in later interviews).

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About the transfer: How Green Was My Valley is presented by Fox on Blu-ray in a new HD transfer based on restored film elements. I do not believe this involved the same sort of extensive digital overhaul as last year’s brilliant Grapes of Wrath Blu-ray, which means the upgrade over Fox’s previous DVD version is not comparably dramatic. It is, however, still an upgrade — especially in the areas of detail, clarity and contrast. The amount of detail in close-ups in particular, such as the fine hairs on an old woman’s face, is extremely impressive. Arthur Miller’s gorgeous high-contrast/deep-focus black-and-white cinematography is comparable to Gregg Toland’s work on Grapes and likewise utilizes a lot of low-angled long shots; the film’s cinematic qualities come through better than ever on this new edition. Fortunately, all of the DVD’s welcome extras (especially the insightful commentary track with Anna Lee and Ford biographer Joseph McBride) have also been ported over here intact. How Green Was My Valley is one of my top three favorite Ford films, along with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I consider it an essential addition to the library of any Fordophile — or cinephile.

    Works Cited

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


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Makavejev)
2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone)
3. Closely Watched Trains (Menzel)
4. Daisies (Chytilova)
5. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh)
6. M (Lang)
7. Stoker (Park)
8. The Shop on Main Street (Kadár/Klos)
9. His Girl Friday (Hawks)
10. Out of the Past (Tourneur)


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