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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Falling in Love with Screwball Comedy in Wilmette

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Mike at the Movies: Falling in Love with Screwball Comedy

On Sunday, February 9, at 2:00 pm I will be giving a special Valentine’s Day-themed talk at the Wilmette Public Library about the history of the screwball comedy. The students in most of my current classes are eligible to earn up to twenty points extra credit towards their final grades if they attend this event. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more information. Below is a synopsis of the presentation I wrote for the library’s website:

The “screwball comedy” is a beloved offshoot of the romantic comedy genre that was first popularized in America in the 1930s and early 1940s. This is when glamorous stars like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck were pitted against one another in films characterized by rapid-fire dialogue and “battle-of-the-sexes” love stories. This special Valentine’s Day presentation will highlight clips from classic movies of the era as well as more contemporary Hollywood films that show the screwball influence.

Non-students interested in attending can find more information in the Wilmette Public Library’s “Off the Shelf” newsletter:

http://www.wilmette.lib.il.us/administration/offtheshelf/offtheshelf_january14.pdf

Hope to see you there!

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Ring (Hitchcock)
2. Class Relations (Straub/Huillet)
3. The Four Feathers (Korda)
4. What Price Hollywood? (Cukor)
5. Blazing Saddles (Brooks)
6. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
7. No Greater Glory (Borzage)
8. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
9. The Edge of the World (Powell)
10. Prairie Love (Bias)


Filmmaker Interview: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson

Writer/director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson is almost single-handedly responsible for Iceland’s impressive movie boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature Children of Nature, about an elderly couple who flee from a Reykjavik nursing home to take a road trip to rural southern Iceland, was the only locally produced film of 1991 but went on to become the first Icelandic movie ever nominated for an Oscar. (For my money, Children of Nature ranks alongside of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly.) Fridriksson sunk the profits he received from the film’s various international distribution deals into buying more production equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive films in the following years.

The following interview, in which we discussed the prolific filmmaker’s formidable career as well as several tantalizing projects he is currently working on, occurred in a Reykjavik coffee shop last August. Anyone familiar with Fridriksson’s work should recognize his trademark deadpan sense of humor: more than any other director I’ve met, he seems like a character out of one of his own movies (when my wife remarked that she liked his purple shirt, he replied without missing a beat that it was a gift from the pope). For more of my thoughts on Fridriksson’s films see my Cinematic Iceland Photo Tour post.

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MGS: I read that before you started making films you were involved in film exhibition. How did that come about?

FTF: Yeah, you know, (in the 1970s) we had like three colleges here in Reykjavik, so we had a film society and I was running the society for many years. And then I wanted to expand it, so I got an old theater . . .

Waitress walks over and sets down coffee.

MGS: Thank you.

Waitress: You’re welcome.

MGS: And you programmed that theater?

FTF: I programmed that theater and it was very, very well received. I managed to get the (Icelandic) University involved as well. We had more than 2,000 members so we could get almost every film we wanted to see. It was before the video revolution so we got most of the films on 35 or 16 (millimeter). And 16 was more common because of the transport cost. Yeah, so I was running that for many years before I started to make films.

MGS: And the attendance was good?

FTF: Yeah, absolutely marvelous. We were quite well off because we were able to buy a 16mm camera and a small editing table. So we offered our members (the chance) to make some short films.

MGS: So you were doing both at the same time, programming and making films?

FTF: Yeah. I was also running a gallery on the next corner. It was right here in the center of Reykjavik. So it was really handy.

MGS: Wow, that sounds like an exciting time.

FTF: Yeah, yeah (chuckles), when you’re 20, 20-something . . . And then I ended it in ’78 or ’77 because then I was asked by the government to establish the Reykjavik Film Festival. We only had the budget for one or two guests.

MGS: Who was the first guest?

FTF: Wim Wenders.

MGS: That’s a good first guest to have!

FTF: Yeah, because at that time there was hardly any filmmaking in Iceland. So he encouraged people to . . . I mean, politicians he met, because he met everybody, the President and everyone. So he encouraged people, politicians especially, to establish a film fund and to support the filmmakers. And then people started to roll.

MGS: The earliest of your films I’ve seen is Rock in Reykjavik (1982), which I just watched on YouTube without subtitles. I was riveted by the whole thing even without subtitles because the musical performances were so great. I understand you made that for television. Were you commissioned to make that or did you initiate the project?

FTF: No, I didn’t get any grants to make the film. And it became like a political thing because they (state-run television) wanted to cut three minutes out of the film. It was a terrible experience. We lost a lot of money because I suspected that I would get support from the Icelandic Film Fund that was already established. But I didn’t get any support until my first feature White Whales (1987). So I made like six documentaries before that without any incentives.

MGS: So Rock in Reykjavik you made independently and then after you were done you sold it to television?

FTF: Yeah but they cut it, with the censorship, so it was . . . I disliked it a lot at that time. But I also made a film that was like a sketch for Children of Nature (1991): it was 35 minutes, a documentary. Even the President of Iceland wrote a film critique, very positive, about that one. (chuckles)

MGS: Wow. So if Rock in Reykjavik was your concept from the beginning, were you a fan of the bands in the film?

FTF: Yeah, some of them. You know, we had made (another) project with one of the groups, Theyr. And then I was old friends with Bubbi Morthens who was probably the most popular rock star at that time. So then I just was scouting for groups and I saw Bjork when she was performing with her group Tappi Tikarrass. And I was fascinated (chuckles), absolutely fascinated. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears when I saw her. I remember it just like it happened yesterday.

bjorkBjork (aged 14) in Rock in Reykjavik

MGS: Did you have a premonition that she was going to be a big star when you first saw her?

FTF: No, I thought many . . . at that time I thought Theyr, this group, would be world famous, and they became world famous for a while. I mean, world famous in Italy, Japan, and, you know, (for) people who were interested in the punk rock at that time. You see, you have to imagine it’s before video, so it was difficult for them to go through. And also, Iceland was not well known. It was like making rock and roll in Afghanistan or something (chuckles). It came out of the blue. But I was also trying to tell the story of rock and roll music that was through the American NATO base here in Iceland . . .

MGS: Which is also a big part of Devil’s Island (1996).

FTF: Yeah, yeah. So I wanted to tell the history. And then some of the bands were really good bands but they were doing so much with synths. They were very . . . what shall I say? They were very clean-cut boys. Good music but I had to cut them out.

MGS: You liked it more raw? (laughs)

FTF: No, I liked more, like, people who have something to say, you know?

MGS: There’s one band in that film — it seems like they’re just kids. A kid with a mohawk is the lead singer and he destroys his guitar with an axe. It’s one of the most punk rock things I’ve ever seen. Who were they?

FTF: Just people coming from split homes. They stayed at this bus station that I was filming. They had a terrible life. The lead singer passed away after he was sober for many years. Nice boys but they went through all this shit like what people go through — you know, in America, it’s more crack but here they were sniffing gas, gasoline, to get high. It was a very tough time for those kids. I could have made just a documentary about this group ’cause they were very fascinating guys, you know? (The name of the band is Sjalfsfroun – MGS)

MGS: Absolutely. One kid is being interviewed and he’s smoking a cigarette. Even today that was strange to see. (laughs)

FTF: Yeah, yeah. And that was the funny thing, that censorship here wanted to cut that out.

MGS: Of course!

FTF: (laughs) And then the journalism — the headline of my newspaper: “Why Are you Cutting It Out of the Film?” There were very few films being made in Iceland at that time. So people were afraid, I think, of me as a person because I was on the left wing and I think they were afraid I would do more political stuff. Because Iceland has been very corrupt even though on the surface everything is fine.

MGS: Right. They thought you were dangerous.

FTF: I guess so. Or film was a dangerous medium. Because young people were flocking to see it — about 25,000 people — and we were thrown out of cinemas when we had 800 (admissions) a day. So there were many people against me at that time. And also after I made this film Cowboys of the North (1984). They felt I was making fun of Icelandic culture.

MGS: And that was another documentary?

FTF: Yeah, that was another documentary. It went to cinemas and did very well.

MGS: Let’s talk about your fiction features. I think my favorite is Cold Fever (1995). I read that you were a fan of Japanese cinema and I was wondering if that was your inspiration to make a film about a Japanese businessman visiting Iceland.

FTF: No, we had invited Jim Jarmusch to come here with Mystery Train (for the Reykjavik Film Festival in 1989). He couldn’t come so he offered us the producer Jim Stark and he came. He saw my first film White Whales. He said he liked it and he wanted to work with me. He said “Can you come up with some ideas for this Japanese boy in Mystery Train (Masatoshi Nagase) because he’s eager to work again with me?” So I went to Japan to scout, you know? And in the beginning I wanted to make a film connected with whaling because Jim Stark hated people who were whalers (laughs). So I went to Japan and I was concentrating on whaling stories and selling whale meat and things like that — the same issues as today because now we are whaling again. We were not whaling in ’89. But anyway, it ended up that there was an accident here in the Highlands of Iceland: two Japanese scientists drowned. So seven years later — that was ’84 — seven years later, in ’91, people from Japan came and were performing the same ceremonies you see in the film. So I said, “Now I have an idea for a film.”

MGS: Oh, yeah, that’s perfect.

FTF: Yeah, so me and Jim wrote the script together.

MGS: I see. So he brought you the actor and then you came up with the concept?

FTF: Yeah.

MGS: But I think the film still reflects your love of Japanese cinema because you cast the great director Seijun Suzuki as the protagonist’s grandfather.

FTF: Suzuki, yeah!

MGS: I don’t think he had done much acting before. How did you approach him about acting in your film?

FTF: Masatoshi Nagase knew him and I asked him to. He was extremely nice, you know, and it was beautiful. It’s one of my favorite moments in my career.

vlcsnap-2013-08-13-11h21m46s7Seijun Suzuki and Masatoshi Nagase in Cold Fever.

MGS: It seems like a lot of your films have an ambivalent attitude towards American culture. You know, we were talking about the influence of rock and roll earlier. Devil’s Island and also Movie Days (1994) . . .

FTF: Yeah, my childhood . . .

MGS: I think those films express a love of American rock and roll of the 1950s and also classic Hollywood films. But at the same time I also feel like you’re being critical of American imperialism . . .

FTF: Yes, of course.

MGS: Is it safe to say you have a love/hate relationship with American culture?

FTF: I would say it’s love but (laughs) . . . but I have been misunderstood. Because I think it was the actor Elliot Gould or someone . . . Movie Days and Devil’s Island were both Oscar entries from Iceland — when the people came out, they said “Fridrik’s turned into an anti-American . . .” (laughs) But it’s mainly love because, you know, if you are under imperial threat like Iceland was — because when I was growing up there was only one T.V. station from the NATO base, without subtitles, of course, and the only radio station young people listened to also came from the NATO base — so, of course, it was something that woke us up, but we had to protect our culture, our cultural heritage. And so it was very important, so that’s why it’s pure love. (laughs) If someone put a gun on you and said “You have to beware of where you’re heading,” you’re just grateful for the guy who has the gun. (laughs)

MGS: (laughing) That’s a good analogy. That’s a very good analogy.

FTF: I have been joking a lot about Hollywood cinema but there are people who take me too seriously. We were taking the Marshall Plan (the American program that provided economic support to Europe in the aftermath of WWII – MGS) and part of that was to have one cinema for each major (Hollywood) studio. So we got hardly any European films here but we were really well educated in literature and our literary heritage from the Icelandic Sagas. It is very strong in your heart and mind. So you can’t really compete that with American films. Like I put it in Mamma Gogo (2011), my last feature film, it (Hollywood) is just like fast food. When you watch an American film you are just killing time — on an airplane or something. I love those films but I’m always waiting to see them on an airplane — instead of going to the cinema — when I’m flying to Japan or Korea. But I like it, you know? I have nothing against it.

MGS: Well, fortunately, there’s a lot of good independent American cinema.

FTF: Yes, yes, yes. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about Hollywood. Because, when you’re Oscar nominated like I was for Children of Nature, all the agencies are after you. But I was not interested in working in a hamburger joint, making fast food. Because they are so good at it, also. I am not good at it. I know my skills.

MGS: Good for you.

FTF: You know, it was money, but I would probably have made one or two films and been sent back home. Because with White Whales I got over this, what shall I say, shoot-out and things like that? Have you seen that film?

MGS: I’ve not seen that one.

FTF: Because there’s a lot of fast cuts, shoot outs . . .

MGS: You got it all out of your system early on. (laughs)

FTF: It’s just like a kid, you know, “I want this toy.” (laughs) And then you get bored with it.

MGS: Absolutely.

FTF: But, of course, you know, Coen brothers and many people have made those films so beautifully.

MGS: My wife and I were at the Lebowski Bar last night (laughs). You were just talking about Icelandic culture and the Icelandic Sagas being so prominent in your life, it seems to me that you are a very Icelandic director — even more so than a lot of other directors whose work I’ve seen who are from here. You make films about Icelandic history and Icelandic identity: Devil’s Island and Movie Days, for example, are very much about Iceland in the 1950s but even in a more contemporary film like Angels of the Universe (2000) it seems like the protagonist, Paul, is meant to represent Iceland in a way. He was born on the day that Iceland joined NATO and there’s a hilarious line where he says that growing up he felt like the Communists were protesting his birthday. Do you consciously explore what it means to be Icelandic in your films?

FTF: Yeah, of course. I have made films abroad but I feel I’m not . . . let’s put it like, “I’m not sure what I’m doing when I’m doing films here.” (laughs) So that probably makes me more Icelandic than some directors that can easily do international cinema. But also the films I have made here are much more popular. Like, for example, when you show your films in Iran or China, you feel they have similar humor. That’s so great. Because Angels of the Universe when it was screened in Bremen, it was a big distribution company in Germany, and people were just silent. They were not laughing. And here (in Iceland), people were laughing their heads off. And in China people were laughing their heads off. And Iran also, in Tehran. And so I said “You never know really what is going to travel between countries.” Of course, you can do local humor here but if you make your characters human and, of course, you have to be in love with your characters and have empathy and all these words that can describe what a filmmaker should do with a character . . . you have to respect your characters. That seems to be the best way to make a film travel.

MGS: Because if you respect them then other people will too?

FTF: Yeah, if they have a similar human touch.

MGS: Are you a fan of Ozu?

FTF: Ozu? Yes, yes, yes.

MGS: His films didn’t really play in America until the 1970s because it was felt that they were “too Japanese.” But when you watch his movies today they seem so universal because they’re about family and everybody can relate to that.

FTF: Yeah, that’s true.

MGS: I want to ask you about The Boss of It All (2006), the Lars Von Trier film that you acted in.

FTF: I was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the Danish Oscar.

MGS: Oh really? Your performance was my favorite part of that film. It was hilarious. I didn’t know you were nominated for an award. In the movie your character is always angry and yelling. But, talking to you now, I can see you’re a mild-mannered person. Was that hard for you or . . .

FTF: No!

MGS: It came naturally?

FTF: I’m a soccer player! I still play soccer.

MGS: Did you play today?

FTF: Yeah.

MGS: When you told me you were playing this morning I thought you meant you had to watch a soccer match. (laughs)

FTF: No, no, no. I play three times a week. Always outdoors, even minus 20, all the guys show up. That’s beautiful. It doesn’t matter how the weather is because the pitch is always heated up. So it’s always nice.

MGS: So you yell a lot while you’re playing? (laughs)

FTF: Yeah, well, I can easily put myself in that situation.

MGS: Had you ever acted or played a role that prominent in a film before?

FTF: No, no, no.

MGS: Did being directed by Lars Von Trier change the way you think about directing actors yourself?

FTF: No. He used very similar methods I use: just follow his instincts, you know, when he’s hiring actors. Like the boy in the autistic film (A Mother’s Courage, 2009), he was looking for a job. And he typed (on a “letterboard” specifically designed for autistic people) “Maybe I could become a film director.” And I said to his parents “Why?” “Because I heard that Fridrik is not communicating with his actors.” (laughs)

MGS: Oh my God, that’s hilarious. Did Lars give you a lot of freedom then to do what you wanted?

FTF: No, you only had two chances for each shot, then he asked the computer to change the angle. (Von Trier shot the movie with a cinematographic process called “Automavision,” in which the compositions were determined at random by a computer – MGS) So sometimes your face was just half . . . (Fridriksson holds his hand in front of his face to indicate an awkward, fragmented composition) So there was no camera movement. He asked the computer, “Okay, 8mm or 25mm?”

MGS: For the lens?

FTF: Yeah. (chuckles) So it was quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet (on the set).

bossFridrik Thor Fridriksson (right) with Jens Albinus and Peter Gantlzer in The Boss of It All.

MGS: What are you working on now?

FTF: One film is granted already. I’m not producing — usually I produce my films — but it’s a lesbian love story. I wanted to do something completely different. And then I’m working on a film based on a book called Black Cliffs. Hemingway was very fond of this author, Gunnar Gunnarson. He passed away a long time ago. He was actually a guy that was supposed to get the Nobel Prize but I think, in his life, he was not a Nazi but he met Adolf Hitler . . .

MGS: Right.

FTF: It’s just like I would go to (North) Korea now and meet Kim Jong-un. (laughs) Then I would never get an Oscar.

MGS: That’s true.

FTF: But the book sold many, many copies in the States. All his books are very popular in the States.

MGS: So is that going to be a period piece?

FTF: Yes. It’s a murder case that took place in Westfjords. It’s the most beautiful spot on earth where this tragic story took place. Then I’m doing a documentary about a painter who passed away. You can buy his books at the gallery around the corner. His name was Georg Gudni. He was a friend. And that’s a feature. Then on the 28th I have the premiere of a film I produced for a first-time director. So I’m going to produce first-time directors again.

MGS: So you’re making two fiction features and one documentary?

FTF: Yes.

MGS: Which one are you going to do next?

FTF: I think it’s the documentary — this summer. And then I’m going for the lesbian love story. It’s called Staying Alive.

MGS: A good title.

FTF: Yes. That was my title. Then Black Cliffs. Black Cliffs is a period piece, which takes place in 1803 so it’s a very, very expensive story. So I might wait with that and maybe make three films from the same period.

MGS: A trilogy?

FTF: Yeah, well, I will not direct them all. I will only direct probably this (first) one. But I have an option on two other books.

MGS: It sounds like you’ll be very busy for the next few years.

FTF: No, no. I’ve produced maybe 60 features in my life. So I like a lot to help first-time directors because we have a terrible landscape to work in here because nobody wants to support first-time directors.

MGS: I know the film industry here was hurt by the economic crisis . . .

FTF: Yes.

MGS: But that was about five years ago. Has the situation changed at all?

FTF: Yeah, it’s better now. They started by cutting down the Film Fund heavily. Because they were a leftist government and most of the filmmakers are leftists so . . . (laughs) but then they corrected it. For example, me and many people were hammering them because all this tourism now is because of us. And now more and more American films are made in the country . . .

MGS: I think it’s great that you’ve done so much to build up the industry here . . .

FTF: No, I was just the lucky one. I was the first to be (Oscar) nominated and that’s just pure coincidence. So I just bought cameras and stuff so I could participate. Now it’s so easy to make a film. (laughs) I mean much easier than with film. Just to go through raw stock and cameras and lights and trucks. It was a heavy task.

MGS: Well, best of luck to you in the future with all of your films. I look forward to seeing them.

cold

This interview first appeared in La Furia Umana.


An African-American Cinema Primer

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s post is an African-American cinema primer. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (for one thing, I’m limiting myself to one film per director) but here are 10 essential movies made by African-American filmmakers that I think have valuable things to say about black life in America. I hope this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring African-American cinema.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

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The only films made by African Americans prior to Gordon Parks helming The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969 — much to the shame of the major Hollywood studios — were independently financed. The most important black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century was Oscar Micheaux, who directed over 40 films in a career spanning 30 years in both the silent and sound eras. The incendiary drama Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s second film and is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. Sylvia Landry Evelyn Preer) is a young Chicago woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south, and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate time frames in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The complex and clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of Griffith’s film by showing the historical reality of who really did the lynching. Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, it is now available on DVD via Grapevine Video.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

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“. . . Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality . . .” So reads a fitting quote at the beginning of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking third film, one that he financed independently (which included a $50,000 assist from Bill Cosby) when Columbia Pictures balked at the proposed storyline. Van Peebles himself stars as “Sweetback,” an L.A.-based gigolo who beats up some racist cops for harassing a Black Panther and then flees to Mexico with help from members of the black community (who are collectively credited as “starring” in the movie in the opening credits). This film bears roughly the same relation to 1970s blaxploitation cinema that John Carpenter’s Halloween bears to 1980s slasher flicks: it almost singlehandedly kickstarted a dubious subgenre after becoming a surprise commercial phenomenon (although none of the movies that followed in its wake arguably matched it for subversive political content). And while its still debatable as to whether the copious, unsimulated sex scenes are necessary (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting one scene and was able to get “worker’s comp” from the DGA for being “hurt on the job” — money that he promptly sunk back into the budget), it’s important to remember that cinematic depictions of black American males prior to this had always been meek and asexual. A fascinating relic of its era that still feels revolutionary today.

Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)

cooley

This terrific high school movie — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.” Like George Lucas’ beloved period piece, this low budget indie looks back nostalgically and humorously on a more innocent time by focusing on a group of teenagers at the end of a school year — and features an equally amazing soundtrack (nearly all Motown) to boot. Best friends Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) cut class, crash a party, chase women, shoot craps, inadvertently get mixed up with the law after unknowingly going for a joyride in a stolen Cadillac, etc. All the while, their friendship is tested by their divergent career paths: the literary Preach, a character modeled on screenwriter Eric Monte (who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project), dreams of becoming a successful writer, an ambition that Cochise doesn’t understand. This was directed by Michael Schultz, a former theater director who does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns. It also features arguably the greatest use of Chicago locations of any picture shot in my fair city.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979)

killer

The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of its insider’s view of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another, and playing in railroad yards never fail to bring tears to my eyes because of how much they remind me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and often engaged in “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

The Killing Floor (Duke, 1984)

killingfloor

Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013.

Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

dotherightthing

Spike Lee’s long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a “good, lively filmmaker.” Lee’s best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film’s unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without providing any easy or reassuring answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes — by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee’s credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson.

Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

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Julie Dash is part of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers along with her fellow UCLA graduates Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark. But unlike her male counterparts, all of whom directed their first features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed and released until 1991 (it was, in fact, the first feature-length movie directed by an African-American woman). It was also worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands off of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. More specifically, Dash’s movie centers on one Gullah family, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving the islands behind and immigrating to the mainland for good at the turn of the 20th century. The film is primarily a non-narrative experience, one that Dash claims is based more on African folklore traditions rather than Western storytelling: characters in period costume frolic on the beach, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography, images frequently accompanied by poetic voice-over narration about the importance of tradition and memory. Regrettably, this is also Dash’s last theatrical feature to date.

One False Move (Franklin, 1992)

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Three drug dealers/killers — two men and one woman — pull off a big score in L.A. and then head across the country to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Two L.A. cops, aware of the trio’s plan, beat them to their destination and must work there with the local-yokel sheriff in order to apprehend the criminals. The always welcome, perennially underrated character actor Bill Paxton has arguably his best role as Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man who seems overly eager to have the chance to crack an important case alongside of the big city cops. What starts off as a compelling neo-noir, however, gradually deepens into something much richer and more complex as layers are peeled back from each of the characters, some of whom prove to be connected in unexpected ways. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Epperson and a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-stars as one of the crooks). The taut direction is by Carl Franklin who, as a result of this, landed the plum assignment of helming the Denzel Washington-starring Devil in a Blue Dress. But I would argue that the independently made One False Move, which makes no false moves, remains the director’s finest hour.

Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, 1993)

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Menace II Society is by far the best of the early 90s “hood movies,” which essentially transposed classic Hollywood gangster film tropes to contemporary urban black neighborhoods. The auspicious directing debut of twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes (and still their best movie to date) follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad and hustler, and his charismatic but crazy sidekick O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they navigate life on the mean streets of Watts over the course of one long and deadly summer. This is much more violent and less obviously moralistic than John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the film that had kickstarted the genre two years earlier, and consequently generated much controversy upon its first release. Seen today, it’s much easier to view it as the intelligent cautionary tale and social critique that the filmmakers intended.

Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)

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Kasi Lemmons wrote and directed this singular fever dream of a movie about a woman looking back on her childhood growing up on the Louisiana bayou in the late 1960s. It begins with the title character narrating as an offscreen adult how she “killed” her father the summer that she turned 10-years-old. Much like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, this is a great “memory film” that introduces viewers to the cast of a large, colorful family through the subjective reminiscences of its youngest member. Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced, gives one of his finest performances as Louis, a handsome doctor and the patriarch of the Batiste family. His extra-marital dalliances, which cause his family grief even as they put up with his roguish behavior, ultimately lead to tragedy. Among several interwoven story threads is one involving Louis’ sister and her practice of witchcraft, and another involving a disturbingly ambiguous treatment of incest. I’ve heard it said that female filmmakers are less concerned with narrative logic than their male counterparts, and more concerned with the poetry of emotions. Whether or not that’s true, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually poetic narrative in the best possible sense.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Her (Jonze)
2. Beau Geste (Wellman)
3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones)
4. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
5. Two in the Wave (Laurent)
6. The Innkeepers (West)
7. Nebraska (Payne)
8. Cooley High (Schultz)
9. For Ever Mozart (Godard)
10. It’s Pat (Bernstein)


My “World” Is Blu

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My first exposure to “foreign films” came as an adolescent during the VHS era. After I had already acquainted myself with many of the staples of the classic Hollywood cinema, a friend introduced me to a book that featured essays on the “top 100 movies of all time” as voted on by international critics in the 1982 Sight and Sound/British Film Institute poll. Sure, I knew Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, and Vertigo, all in the top 10, but what were all of these other titles that I had never even heard about before (The Rules of the Game, Seven Samurai, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, etc.)? I made it my goal to see every single film on the list and I was delighted to find that my local Blockbuster Video store had many of them in their previously daunting-looking “Foreign” section. Looking back on that time now, I think that my budding cinephilia must have been an extension of my curiosity about other countries and other ways of life: what better way to learn about the world — to “visit” places I couldn’t yet travel to — than to watch movies that were representative of the specific cultures that produced them? I mention this because, while poring over the contents of the Criterion Collection’s splendid and ambitious new DVD/Blu-ray box set entitled “Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 1,” I was reminded me of why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

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In 2007 Martin Scorsese, a cinephile-filmmaker who has long been a champion of film preservation/restoration, founded the World Cinema Project whose mission statement is “to foster cooperation among filmmakers world-wide and to identify, preserve and restore endangered films representing diverse cultural heritage.” Among the 20 movies that the WCP has restored so far, six have been bundled together in the new Criterion set. As Scorsese himself notes in an interview included among the supplements, it used to be common for American movie lovers to equate entire countries with a single filmmaker (or sometimes two or three): India was Satyajit Ray, Sweden was Ingmar Bergman, Japan was Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi (and later Yasujiro Ozu), etc. In the 1990s, the advent of DVDs and the internet combined to make it easier for American cinephiles, especially those not living in urban areas, to educate themselves more thoroughly on film history from an international perspective. In this age of increasing globalization, the WCP has deliberately cast its net wide by focusing on Africa, Asia and the Middle-East, often restoring movies from “third world” countries that lack the money and resources to carry out the restorations themselves. The six films in Criterion’s set are Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gomez Muriel’s Redes (Mexico, 1936), Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (S. Korea, 1960), Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer (Turkey, 1964), Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1971), Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (Senegal, 1971) and Ahmed El Maanouni’s Trances (Morocco, 1981). The rest of this post will be devoted to capsule reviews of these titles.

redes

Redes, released in 1936, is a passionate cinematic plea for social justice that was commissioned by the most progressive government that Mexico has ever known. It is also a film with an unusual number of “auteurs” — it was shot by the well-known American photographer Paul Strand who also co-wrote the script with many other hands; it was co-directed by the Mexican Emilio Gomez Muriel and the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (who had made just one movie previously in Germany, the terrific People on Sunday, but would go on to mainstream Hollywood glory with High Noon and From Here to Eternity); and the original score, destined to become one of the most famous in Mexican film history, was composed by Silvestre Revueltas. With so many chefs in the kitchen, it’s small wonder that none of them were pleased with the final product but the end result remains both fascinating and vital: what started off as a documentary about a community of poor fishermen ended up as a fictional narrative about the importance of working-class solidarity in the face of capitalist oppression. Redes, which translates as “Nets” in English, is probably of most interest today, however, for the masterful fishing montage that serves as its centerpiece, proving this is essentially the missing link between Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. The World Cinema Project’s restoration of Redes is the least impressive in the box set in terms of image quality (it looks a little soft), though this shouldn’t be surprising given that it’s also the oldest of the films included. This is probably the best Redes will ever look, so we should all be grateful that we can see it at all.

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The absolute highlight of the entire World Cinema Project box set for me is The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young’s mindblowing 1960 hybrid of domestic horror and lurid melodrama. Made during a brief window of opportunity when S. Korea was between military dictators, Kim’s provocative and singularly nutty film tells the twisted tale of a piano teacher and aspiring bourgeoisie whose brief affair with his young maid threatens to tear his family apart. Shot in gorgeous high-contrast black and white, The Housemaid exploits its chief location of the family’s home to maximum effect, with each character seemingly trapped in his or her own box-like room, and the distance between them highlighted by fluid tracking shots. The way the story touches on fears about the disintegration of the family unit makes the subject matter universal but fans of contemporary S. Korean cinema will especially recognize its kinky and transgressive aspects as hugely influential on the likes of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, et al. And this is to say nothing of how the twist ending will knock you into next week. The Housemaid looks immaculate in the World Cinema Project’s restoration, which was based on the original camera negative, except for two reels of much lower quality that had to be taken from another source.

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Turkish cinema prior to the current generation (Fatih Akin, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, etc.) is virtually unknown in the West; it was therefore particularly surprising for me to learn that this erotic Turkish melodrama from writer/director Metin Erksan won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 1964 Berlin International Film Festival. Erol Tas, a legendary actor famous for playing bad guys, is Osman, a greedy farmer who dams the spring on his property and thus prevents the irrigation of his neigbhors’ crops. Political conflict and murder ensue, and when Osman’s good-hearted brother, Hasan (Ulvi Dogan), agrees to take the wrap because he will face a lesser prison sentence, Osman then conspires to seduce the brother’s wife. The erotic imagery, occasionally symbolic and occasionally more explicit (including the unforgettable image of Osman sucking milk directly from a cow’s udder while gazing lasciviously at his sister-in-law) would be eyebrow-raising in a Hollywood film from 1964 and is therefore shocking to see coming out of a movie from that era in the Middle East. As the critic Peter Labuza has wryly noted, the water-rights scandal plot would make this the ideal second-half of a double bill with Chinatown. Criterion’s superb-looking transfer is based on the World Cinema Project’s photochemical restoration, which involved both the original camera negative and an interpositive print provided by the the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

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In A River Called Titas, the great Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak adapted a popular novel by Advaita Malo Barman for a powerful neorealist study of one of the poorest regions in India. This art film’s unusual and complex story proceeds in fits and starts, following a diverse group of characters including a woman who is kidnapped by pirates the day after her wedding, her husband who goes mad as a result, and the child she is forced to raise alone. After becoming assimilated into a desolate fishing village whose inhabitants are at war with the local capitalist landowners, the mother dies and the son is raised by an “auntie” who coincidentally also lost her husband immediately after marrying. What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms. Satyajit Ray once said that Ritwik Ghatak’s films could have been made even if Hollywood never existed. There is certainly nothing in American cinema that feels anything remotely like A River Called Titas. The black and white cinematography here is deliberately much grayer and lower-contrast than the crisp images seen in, say, The Housemaid but, aside from some minor damage inherent to the source material, this transfer is excellent.

touki

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant, angry and occasionally surreal picaresque-adventure movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three features in the career of Senegalese master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the relationship between a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various schemes to make some easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary director Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this up with complex social criticism (in which neither Senegalese nor European characters are spared his harsh eye) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for both characters and viewer alike. The World Cinema Project’s new restoration and 2K transfer of Touki Bouki‘s original 35mm film elements is the most impressive of all the films included in this set: Mambety’s use of bright primary colors, the kind one tends to only see on movies shot in the Sixties and early Seventies, really pops on Blu-ray. The eclectic soundtrack, featuring everything from local music to Josephine Baker, is likewise a delight.

trances

Trances, a wonderful music doc that originally premiered at Cannes in 1981, was the first film chosen to receive the restoration treatment from the World Cinema Project and, given Martin Scorsese’s own proclivity for using popular music in narratives and documentaries alike, it’s easy to why. Director Ahmed El Maanouni’s portrait of the supergroup Nass-El Ghiwane (sometimes referred to as The Rolling Stones or The Beatles of Morocco) combines electrifying concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing, interviews with the band’s individual members, and archival documentary footage of Morocco through the decades to help illuminate the specific social issues addressed by the band’s songs. But, like all great music docs, the primary virtues here are visceral: the best scenes involve the band’s highly interactive live shows where audience members dance onstage among the musicians while in a trance-like frenzy. Trances was shot on 16mm color film stock and, as with some of the 16mm movies included in the Eric Rohmer box set released last November, its marriage with the Blu-ray format results in images that are frequently stunning. The grainier texture of 16mm in high-definition can look like a beautiful water-color painting (in contrast to the oil painting of 35mm). Like all of the releases in the World Cinema Project No. 1 box, Trances is essential cinema.

Although I didn’t pick up the World Cinema Project No. 1 until after the new year (and thus didn’t include it in my list of my favorite home video releases of 2013), this is easily one of my favorite Blu-ray sets of recent years. I plan on screening all six films as the backbone of a future “Global Cinema” class, and I eagerly await the release of the World Cinema Project. No. 2.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Hail Mary (Godard)
2. New York Stories (Coppola/Scorsese/Allen)
3. Birth (Glazer)
4. All is Lost (Chandor)
5. The White Shadow (Cutts)
6. Upstream (Ford)
7. Dry Summer (Erksan)
8. Hindle Wakes (Elvey)
9. A River Called Titas (Ghatak)
10. Daughters of the Dust (Dash)


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