Some Cinematic Odds and Ends

November 8, 2007

fixedbc.jpgSo far I haven’t used this forum of mine to talk very much about film. Partly because I have little time to write on the subject in a sufficiently edifying way. Partly because I was little interested in either blogging or watching movies during the summer. But now that cold is back there will be a lot of viewing to do, and maybe a little writing.

Not that anyone cares, but I have been doggedly pursuing the cinematic canon since the 1970s, and by this stage have seen practically everything worth seeing, to the tune of 10,000 titles, carefully selected from the cream of the crop of all the various movie guides out there and deep research into more obscure film tomes.

My core checklist is now down to only a few dozen elusives, but my master checklist has grown so that there are still many more films to see, including all the newer ones that have to wait in the back of the queue.

Things got started this fall with a viewing a month ago of the documentary: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, about the life and death of an incredible cable channel that existed in LA in the ’70s and ’80s as well as its cinematically obsessive and evidently mentally disturbed programmer, Jerry Harvey. Some of the stuff shown on Z Channel still eludes easy viewing, such as the 1975 Euro romance, The Important Thing is to Love, but a whole lot more has gotten on home video. In retrospect, one wonders why the well-heeled Hollywood types who wax rhapsodic over this lost treasure couldn’t have found a way to keep the enterprise going, if only for their own enjoyment. In truth, the incentive was not to save this temporal diversion. The emerging business model, studios aligning with specific national cable services in lucrative exclusive deals, was really where these Hollywood-types’ economic self-interest lay. This is the Hollywood that talked about how great and influential Orson Welles was, but wouldn’t give him a job. Thus, we see the usual Tinseltown hypocrisy exposed…

With the documentary as a guide I had a Z-Channel marathon a few weeks ago, viewing a few of the flicks highlighted on the channel that I had previously not seen. These were:

** Fixed Bayonets! (1951/Samuel Fuller)
The easy way out on this Korean War movie would be to dismiss it for its now antiquated dialogue and slang, but falling back on the “dated” canard is almost always an irrelevant (and lazy) critique in cinema, since dated applies to every film at some point, even ones, I would argue, in current release. Also, because “periodisms” are part of the fascination and value of any movie. They teach us something, if not always about their subjects then at least about Hollywood standards and public mores of the time. This film was an early major studio effort from Fuller, and it’s interesting how good the film is in spite of the limitations both externally imposed (low budget, second-rate cast) and, to be honest, internally inherent to Fuller (someone once referred to him, rightly, as an American artistic “primitive”). The artificial studio sets, glazed in a white wintry powder set off by a grey glowering painted sky, quickly go from being a drawback to a strength with the drama’s growing sense of dread and claustrophobia. The American platoon is staging a “rearguard action” to hold off an onrushing human wave of North Koreans and Chinese while the main Allied forces retreat and redeploy. The dramatic, violent arc that follows is tried and true, inherited from John Ford’s The Lost Patrol, Tay Garnett’s near-remake Bataan (1943) and others of that ilk: the band is picked off one by one as sacrificial lambs. Fuller, who served in the “big one,” gets off lots of crackerbarrel philosophizing about personal honor and courage, embodied mostly in the film’s junior officer played by Richard Basehart during that brief early 50s stage of his budding career when he had some degree of credibility as an actor. The officer, like the young Quaker in Friendly Persuasion (1956), cannot at first bring himself to fire his gun to kill. Eventually, as the roster of officers above him are picked off, it becomes inevitable that he’ll have to assume what he most dreads: the responsibility of command and the tough choices that brings. Among these mentors is the pillar of strength with the unsubtle moniker, tough Sgt. Rock, played by Gene Evans, who gives easily the film’s best and most memorable performance. Too bad he was never tapped for any remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, for he would have made an excellent Katczinsky. Highlights include a rescue in an icy minefield (laid ironically to help the platoon but then becoming a drawback) and the unnerving echoing trumpet calls blared across the valley by the oncoming Chinese. Without going into lots of detail, the film is very much worth a look, a creditable addition to the war-film canon. For greater analysis, I defer to Fred Camper, who penned a customarily thoughtful review, and whose writing sometimes I confuse with that of his Chicago Reader colleague, Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The rest of the Z Channel marathon:

** The Moon’s Our Home (1936/William A. Seiter). Viewed from a long-out-of-print Film Classics used-copy VHS purchased for $15 from an Amazon seller. This obscure semi-screwball comedy was, as we learn in the Z Channel documentary, a favorite movie of Jerry Harvey. At first view, it’s hard to see why. But this quirky romantic comedy has the potential to grow on me. Having a revved-up Margaret Sullavan in the lead doesn’t hurt, and the wedding scene (sampled in the documentary) is a real gem, a quintessential moment in screwball.

** Bad Timing (1980/Nicolas Roeg). Viewed on a Criterion DVD from a local video store. I actually had a chance to see this at the local art house when I was in college in the early ’80s and passed. In the meantime the film developed a cult of sorts and I kicked myself for years while trying to get hold of a copy. So what is one to think of it? Like films of a similar ilk, eg. Betty Blue (1986/Jean-Jacques Beinex), I wasn’t sufficiently convinced at the motivation of the woman character as she descended into madness. But that is not the fault of Teresa Russell, who turned down Star Wars for this more artistically challenging shot at thespian nirvana. Details elude me already just a few weeks after watching it, to be honest, so another viewing is in order, though I’m not sure if I could again handle the necrophilic stuff at the end. I’m inclined to think that this is a Roeg failure, though a triumph of enigmatic mood. It never reaches the concentrated intensity of something like the similarly languid, Eyes Wide Shut. Art Garfunkel tries as best he can to bring some small measure of charm to his indifferent and contradictory character but ultimately comes off as ridiculous.

*** Overlord (1975/Stuart Cooper) (on Criterion DVD with the shorts, Germany Calling (1941), Cameramen at War (1943) and A Test of Violence (1969/Cooper/14mins.). Viewed on a Criterion DVD from a local video store. The blend of documentary footage into the rudimentary drama of an unremarkable young Brit’s enlistment and deployment at the Normandy invasion is as good as advertised. Somehow, the movie is better than it should be. And the meeting at the dance hall between he and the shy girl is magical. A very welcome addition to the Criterion library. The various shorts provide lesser enjoyment, though the documentary on war cameramen is a satisfying informational…

Key:
no stars: routine or worse
* some merit, but lacking in many ways
** sufficient accomplishment to merit a look
*** very accomplished, worth seeing
**** highly accomplished, essential viewing

The Quick and Dirty on the most recent viewings:

* My Life as a Dog (1985/Lasse Hallstrom)
*** A Zed and Two Noughts (1985/Peter Greenaway)
**** (***) The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965/Zbynek Brynych)
** An Inconvenient Truth (2006/Davis Guggenheim)
* Performance (1970/Nicolas Roeg)
* Diplomaniacs (1933/William A. Seiter)
(0 stars) A Woman is a Woman (1961/Jean-Luc Godard)
*** Masculin-Feminin (1966/Jean-Luc Godard)
*** Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes) (1938/Marcel Carne)
** Star Trek Insurrection (1998/Jonathan Frakes)
(0 stars) The Long Night (1947/Anatole Litvak)
(0 stars) North to Alaska (1960/Henry Hathaway)
*** Peter Ibbetson (1935/Henry Hathaway)
** Dangerous Moves (1984/Richard Dembo)
* The Mummy (1959/Terence Fisher)
** The Thing (1982/John Carpenter)
* Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982/Amy Heckerling)
* Day of the Dead (1987/George Romero)
** Tarnation (2003/Jonathan Caouette)
** Insomnia (1997/Erik Skjoldbjaerg)
**** Kwaidan (1964/Masaki Kobayashi). Third viewing, Latest: Criterion DVD.
*** Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) (1959/Marcel Camus). Third or fourth viewing. Latest: Criterion DVD.

The Lowdown on the batch:
The Swedish My Life as a Dog evokes some comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and maybe even The Tin Drum as a nostalgic look at the eccentricities of childhood. The episodic tale of a boy separated from his ill mother ties itself together thematically via his coping strategies which include lots of irony and comforts in the freakish misery of others. He empathizes with Laika the Soviet space dog, for instance, rocketed into oblivion as a scientific/political sacrifice. Our lad sometimes barks incessantly when not happy. Like much of the film, it is irritating. Taking some of its cue from French coming-of-age flicks, this Swedish trifle attempts emotional connection through unsentimental means. Yet, somehow, it still ends up being too precious and self-satisfied. This was an art-house hit and multiple award winner in the ’80s which I’ve had on my “to-view” list for 20 years—not that it was ever hard to find. The upshot is that I really didn’t care much about the boy or anyone else in it. There’s really no magical realism in it, per se, yet it has the whiff of that sort of whimsy—which ain’t my cup of tea.
I couldn’t muster up chuckles of nostalgic recognition for it, but found myself laughing unexpectedly and often at a far better 1985 movie, Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts. Like most Greenaway stuff, it defies easy description but develops its own system of logic that, once accessed, provides edifying rewards. Most of the images of decay are less disgusting than the weird desires and obsessions of the characters. There are many moments of wicked wit in it, some of it visual, as when someone snatches a rotting prawn from a time-lapse photo shoot and the “disappearing” prawn shows up later in the screened film. You have to see it to understand. I dreaded this movie, to be honest, but once engaged I was giddy with surprise at how much I liked it.
Recognized as a masterpiece by the few lucky critics who saw it at film festivals in the 1960s was Zbynek Brynych’s penultimate 1965 Czech New Wave effort, The Fifth Horseman is Fear, the tale of a hellish and futile search through WWII Prague for morphine by a Jewish doctor, an act that becomes a kind of personal penance in light of his collaboration with the Nazis. A beautifully realized movie, it seemed to exist for many years only in the memory and on the pages of old Audio-Brandon film catalogs until finally being released recently on DVD by Facets. A major caveat with the print included on the DVD, however, causes me to downgrade this release from **** to ***. At just past the film’s half-hour point, this print, for some unknown reason, omits a full reel of major content and what is arguably the most striking sequence in the film: a 10-minute interlude set in a Nazi brothel which includes ample nudity and crucial and interesting visual symbolism. Placed at this dramatic point, the missing scene put the audience on notice that this journey was one of debauched, Boschian dimensions. So where the hell is it? Luckily for me, I already had a Czech-language bootleg VHS copy of the film that includes this key scene. Oddly, this underground copy seems to be more tightly edited, and even with this brothel scene intact, it clocks in at a lean 86 minutes as against the DVD’s more leisurely paced 94 minutes. So will the real version of Fifth Horseman… please stand up? Between the two of them, there’s a masterwork lurking in there…
For those who don’t understand how humanity’s creation of greenhouse gases warms the atmosphere, melts glaciers, warms and raises the oceans and fuels hurricanes, An Inconvenient Truth, or “the Al Gore movie” explains it all pretty simply and well, except that the people who most need to hear it are wiggling their pinkies in their ears and humming loudly. As a movie, let’s face it, it ain’t much, but very useful for what it is.
Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s Performance starts out as a fairly interesting, even gritty, Brit gangster flick, but the further it tries to emulate Ingmar Bergman’s Persona the more like a pointless psychedelic stunt it becomes. There are lots of critics who still defend it, but the commentary on the DVD by some of its creators prove what I suspected: They really didn’t know what they were doing. Fish-eyed lenses and grainy film stocks influenced music-video types… So what?
The hokum antics of the forgotten vaudevillians Wheeler and Woolsey were fairly lucrative for RKO in the early ’30s, so much so that evidence suggests that at the time they might even have been more popular than The Marx Brothers. Diplomaniacs (1933) is their most famous film, but being no expert on them, I can’t say it’s their best (my favorite among the ones I’ve seen from the duo is 1930’s charming WWI service comedy, Half Shot at Sunrise). As some have noted before, it does share occasional striking similarities to the Marxes’ Duck Soup of the same year. Like that classic, there’s anti-war satire inherent, and an uncannily similar scene of a parliamentary body singing against war in gospel chorus style. Except here, in cartoonish manner, an anarchist bomb turns the assembly into burnt Al Jolson lookalikes. Between this and the Indian mumbo jumbo at the beginning, there’s uncomfortable old-school racism aplenty, and a story arc that never really gains momentum, even though a good laugh line does sometimes sneak in to redeem it.
There’s even less fun in Jean-Luc Godard’s first foray into color and widescreen filmmaking, A Woman is a Woman, which in customary fashion blends the playful with audience nose-thumbing. While this often worked for the director, in this case I found myself not giving much of a damn. Godard would better realize this examination-of-a less-than-ideal relationship thing in Contempt. After some minutes, though, Godard’s fascination with Anna Karina’s primping and such becomes interminable. The director should have been less afraid of the musical interludes that he simultaneously mocks and homages, and instead allowed them to play out. I checked it off the list and moved on…
Paris turns out to be much more interesting in Godard’s typically episodic Masculin-Feminin, (made five years later) and is a welcome return to black and white, standard ratio visual minimalism. This is the film in which Godard turns his eye on what he famously coined in a title card here as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” and the effort mostly succeeds as an examination thereof. The contrast between the increasingly annoying eccentricities of a politically aware intellectual (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and the airheaded ye-ye girls surrounding genuine pop star Chantal Goya provides for unexpected drama. The weird random killings that link several scenes prove to be disconcertingly funny in their suddenness and absurdity. Also funny is the parody of Ingmar Bergman, with two deadpan lovers engaging in meaningless sex rituals to the tune of the man’s animal grunts. The interview with a vacuous “Miss 19” proves that not a lot has really changed from 1966 to today’s alarming “Jaywalking” interviews on the present-era’s Tonight Show. How much is scripted and how much is ad-libbed I do not know, but it comes off fresh and natural. On the whole the movie is one of Godard’s most enjoyable.
Jean Gabin as an AWOL soldier from colonial Vietnam and slumming it in a dreary wet French seaport is wound so tight that you know he’s begging for trouble as much as he’s fated for it in Marcel Carne’s 1938 Port of Shadows (Le Quai des Brumes). If not the best of the French fatalistic noirs of the late ’30s, it is certainly the quintessential one. As usual, Michel Simon, as a cultivated but shifty operator steals all of his scenes in a very difficult role that evokes conflicting audience sympathies. Lots to chew on in this, and filmic poetry to burn…
Another Gabin film in the same mold, 1939’s Le Jour se Leve, was remade by RKO as The Long Night in 1947. The Kino Video DVD box heralds it as an unknown masterpiece, but we needn’t buy into that claim. Although mostly a shot-for-shot remake of the French original, the difference in tone and attitude is striking, and the upbeat Capraesque ending tacked onto this American version (in contrast to the correctly downbeat finale of the original) is beyond excusable, as is the insufferably saccharine Barbara Bel Geddes. The whole circular nature of the flashback narrative is destroyed by this namby-pamby revision. Even Vincent Price as a sleazeball magician can’t save it. Horrid.
The Next Generation cast starred in Star Trek Insurrection, which seems to have come in for a critical drubbing, although the issues it explores about cultural interference (that ole “prime directive” stuff) are really interesting—and Captain Picard’s solution may not be as fair as the movie would lead you to believe. As Roger Ebert pointed out, F. Murray Abraham’s villian and his cohorts might actually have a legitimate claim to reap the benefits of the fountain of youth. Highly entertaining, and ultimately sweetly romantic, whatever the case…
Two Henry Hathaway-helmed films, both plucked from the beginning and ending spectrum of his career, demonstrate the eclectic fare that reliable craftsmen such as he and the Howard Hawks’ of that day could tackle. Peter Ibbetson, long MIA, finally shows up in a must-have “Gary Cooper Collection” DVD multipack from Universal that is budget-priced and crammed with nothing but genuine classics—no filler. What should be an absurdly antiquarian melodrama about two life-long loves split apart by uncontrollable social forces, turns into one of the most achingly beautiful poetic romances of the 1930s. In many ways it resembles an earlier melodrama, 1931’s metaphysical Smilin’ Through, yet ….Ibbetson goes even further, suggesting the possibility of connection beyond the body in life, as well as after death. The film’s depiction of brutally separated lovers meeting each other in dreams not only delighted surrealists such as Luis Bunuel (this was one of his favorite films), it also suggested a subversive slap at Production Code censorship by allowing the perpetator of an arguably justifiable homicide to evade full punishment. A wonderful movie.
By contrast, Hathaway’s sometimes rollicking John Wayne western, North to Alaska, is good-looking piffle that launched a popular Johnny Horton record (or was it vice versa?). The widescreen DVD was not a bad buy from the Wal-Mart $5 bin (actually a mistake, it was moved from the $7.50 rack but the store let me have it for the cheaper price). Wayne makes it fun when he’s on screen in full misogynist glory, and like the contemporaneous Rat Pack, he seems to be working to amuse his co-stars and crew as much or more than the audience. The story is throwaway, the locales eye-catching, and the villian (a swarthy Ernie Kovacs) never really much of a threat. Capucine as the high-class saloon hooker/showgirl seems too scrubbed and Euro-aristocratic to suggest any real eroticism. Fabian sings. A pleasant-enough time-waster.
The Franco-Swiss Dangerous Moves (La Diagonale du fou/1984/Richard Dembo) was a surprise winner of the French Cesar and Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and one has to wonder why, for it’s a fairly lightweight offering–but a consistently entertaining one. It too is on a Criterion DVD and probably looking better than ever in that form. Though hyped as a Cold War thriller, there really are no significant espionage elements or violent action; the drama centers around the strained relationship between a Soviet chess master with a heart condition and his eccentric young defector protege who take on one another at the world chess championships. Most of the drama centers on whether the arrogant, slightly schizo heir to the chess throne will show up to the tournament on time—a strategy that effectively unnerves and upsets the fragile heart of the old master, played superbly by Michel Piccoli, and throws him off his game. (It’s perhaps the young Frenchman’s freedom of movement relative to the rigid control of the Soviet delegation that ups the thumb-nosing factor.) There are some mildly tense diplomatic machinations, a defection and some psych-out antics (a pair of dueling hypnotists in the audience, for instance) that keep things entertaining. The backstage discussions on chess strategy are actually pretty interesting, and aren’t too drawn out for non-specialists. Near the end, the film bogs down a bit in domestic squabbling (being the wife of a chess master ain’t easy, it turns out). The finale, which takes chess to its ultimate minimalist plane, is spot on. Despite some wobbles, the film is very satisfying and not deserving of its relative obscurity…
Hammer’s 1959 color take on The Mummy is a mostly good one, but like a lot of British sci-fi/horror of that vintage a one-hour story is plodded out to 90 minutes, so that lots of longeurs occur while detectives and other non-believers spout dialogue repeatedly about how they don’t believe the menace. The mummy ends up in England, a nice strategy to broaden the action, and here the best scenes occur, especially the mummy’s attack on a psychiatric hospital as he smashes and rips through 3 or four layers of bars, windows and walls toward the camera and his intended victim. The mummy’s fall into a swamp has him emerge black, slimy and mossy like Swamp Thing or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, upping the visual menace effectively, and helped by actor Christopher Lee’s bestowing him with a robotic but quick gait, unlike the snail-like limp of the old Karloff mummy. Nevertheless, the film follows a conventional dramatic arc for this kind of movie and the monster’s final fate is far from convincing, given what has come before.
Relatively bloodless (people clutch gunshot wounds with nary a sign of blood), the film contrasts completely with another horror remake, John Carpenter’s 1982 take on the old Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks 1952 UFO classic, The Thing, Influenced perhaps too literally by the gore effects and creature design of Alien, the movie is nonetheless an effective study of paranoia in close quarters, and maybe more political in implication than even the director realized. Set in a grim Antarctic research station, there’s nowhere to go and plenty to worry about as the alien relentlessy pursues a survival strategy of absorbing the body and identity of its victims. Oddly, even with all the slime and entrails, the film’s most disturbing scene might be the opening ones showing the attempted shooting of a huskie dog from a helicopter. It puts us on edge that this is going to be a tough, unsympathetic, and typically nasty 1980s take on things…
One wonders about the ongoing value of the U.S. National Film Registry when it inducts so relatively early in its existence such a low-level item as Amy Heckerling’s 1980’s teen sex serio-comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You’d think from talking to anybody who was a young filmgoer in the 1980s that the thing was on a par with Citizen Kane in the cinematic artistic firmament. It’s pretty obvious that the politically correct agenda of the board that inducted the film was to include the work of women directors, and since there still isn’t much of that around, they had to scoop this one out. The justification must also be a sociological one, recognizing the film as one of the better examples of a popular genre of ’80s low-budget teen comedies. But if the Registry was more concerned with artistic merit and greatness than with feel-good agendas, it would have picked a better teen nostalgia movie, such as Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Maybe Fast Times… got the nod because it launched a thousand careers, including that of writer/director Cameron Crowe, and actors Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason-Leigh. Or maybe members of the board can’t shake from their minds the sight of Phoebe Cates’ and JJ Leigh’s gratuitous nubile young nakedness. OK, it’s good for what it is. But a national treasure? Please…
A lot of things work in George Romero’s third zombie opus, 1985’s Day of the Dead, and yet it’s hard to precisely nail just why it seems so unsatisfying. The lack of sympathetic characters make it hard to engage, but one can’t quite ignore the nagging feeling that it gets at some hard truths about the way things work in the social order. The extreme locker room machismo of the military custodians of the salt mine zombie lab is perhaps too real for comfort. A better actor in the role of the general would have helped. If there’s any sympathy in the piece, it’s reserved for a flesh-eater, the first time one of the dead assumes a heroic role in the series. Charmingly taught how to perform rudimentary tasks by tapping into the shreds of his remaining memory, the zombie eventually and ominously learns to use a gun. Romero indirectly hints that those memories might not come from first-hand experience, but from media exposure and cowboy-and-Indians childsplay. It might even be a bash at the educational system: rote learning while chained by smiling authority figures. And when it gets down to zombie flesh-eating, this was the most gruesome Dead movie to date. Like any great movie franchise (and this is one of those), it goes on…
The documentary essay Tarnation (2003) won critical accolades not too long ago. It dredges up the wounds of filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s past with great editorial and visual invention. Yet none of that can quite overcome the bad taste left by the film’s self-conscious self-pity and narcissism. Ever the drama queen, it seems that Caouette never misses an opportunity to film his own plight-ridden face, whether he be bawling or puking. It comes out of the gate strong in this way, and takes awhile to gain our sympathy and interest, which it does, especially when it examines Cayouette’s gay lifestyle and the white-trash horrors of his Texas ancestors. Debts to Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage are owed in the film’s visuals, but so too are they to MTV and every TV show since that has used these jagged, “edgy” strategies. Caouette is very skillful in pulling them off, but every once in awhile one feels his inherent exhibitionism letting him take it all a little too far. The movie is best when it settles down to examine the unsettling. As with all studies of the grotesque it evokes mixed feelings, between some admiration for its personal honesty to slight discomfort with its exploitation. In the era of self-confessional reality TV, though, its effectiveness already seems blunted.
It’s probably fair to say that Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia (1997) is the most famous and internationally popular movie ever made in Norway. Technically, Hollywood’s 2002 remake is faithful to it as a police procedural, but the sense of guilt and ammorality in this original version feels much more potent. In fact, I saw the Christopher Nolan remake first, several years ago, and barely remember it. This version, which reminds me a little bit of the original 1988 Netherlands version of The Vanishing in its sense of hopelessness, does a better job of elucidating the fuzzy lines between cop and criminal. Stellan Skarsgard perfectly essays it, evoking sympathy and disgust equally. As a Swede in Norway, Skarsgard’s cop draws mild derision for his accent as the film humorously touches on regional Scandinavian tensions of which most of us are unaware. The film has found a clever structure in which to explore the idea that even disciplined minds can falter and weave a worsening web of error when deprived of basic human needs such as sleep and sex. The movie’s primary flaw, it seems to me, is that the main suspect is so obvious that Scooby Doo and Shaggy could have solved the crime without going to the trouble of importing a genius detective.
Finally, elegant classical film artistry marks the last two flicks viewed in this batch, both of which I have seen several times.
Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is truly a foreign movie, taken at such a stately pace that contemporary attention spans will rebel. But those with patience will be rewarded by the experience of seeing one of the most visually beautiful of films. It’s an omnibus movie of four ghost stories, each of which not only seem to suggest the superior wisdom of the dead but that the dead exert control over the living. Given the inevitable fate of us all, the idea that we are the living dead, or are at one with death, has some profundity. The film’s effects are all achieved via lighting, exterior colors and simple camera tricks that date to the beginning of the medium. That they are so effective, then, is impressive. The film’s third story, “Hoichi the Earless” is the most famous, but each of the stories burns images into your brain. The final story, though, does get a bit repetitive. It’s on a Criterion DVD, which is where you should go, and do not under any circumstances watch this from an old Video Yesteryear VHS. Those are an atrocity that ruined the color and hacked off most of the wide-aspect-ratio image. They do not represent what the film really looks like, and are unwatchable…
Black Orpheus
(Orfeu Negro/1959/Marcel Camus) delighted surprised audiences in 1959, but it has to be admitted that the film is not as great as its reputation. It is from Brazil, sort of, but the production is really a French one, and the film has very much a European overlay, from the transposition of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend to form the film’s hairthin dramatic structure, to the mostly travelogue “outsider’s” eye that the film casts on the singing and dancing brown-skinned peoples. The opening scenes are particularly risible in this regard, but one settles down to enjoy the beauty of ’50s Rio de Janeiro all in luscious color, plus the sweet visage of Marpessa Dawn. Director Marcel Camus and his cinematographer seem most comfortable and effective when shooting generic Carnaval scenes, whereas some of the dramatic elements suggest amateurish execution. The movie introduced much of the world to bossa nova, boosting the career of the great Tom Jobim. And it is helped immeasurably by having one of the most moving and memorable final scenes in all cinema: children dancing on a Rio overlook, oblivious to the death drama that has just played out.
It too is on a Criterion DVD.

More batches to come…

-Evan G

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The Gang’s Not Here: What Has Twentieth Century-Fox Done to My Movie?

April 11, 2007

—[Note: This article is illustrated with screen captures taken from YouTube-posted clips from a decent print of The Gang’s All Here. This is a long article.]——

My mother always taught me: “If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right.”

I haven’t always adhered to that advice myself, of course. On the other hand, I’ve never been charged with the responsibility of preserving and disseminating a national treasure.

gangs-poster-35.jpgHowever, Twentieth Century-Fox, has. And when the time came for the studio to finally shepherd the long-overdue home video release of one of its most unique gems—The Gang’s All Here, the final film and arguably the penultimate masterpiece of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley—they muffed it. Badly.
gangs-dvd-cover-small.jpg
Of course, apologists will say that films are really not all that important in the grand scheme of things, especially old and fairly obscure ones that appeal to only limited audiences. And, as a for-profit shareholder company, Fox should not be expected to spend lots of time and money on a DVD release that, at best, will only break even.

Still in all, movie studios are unique among businesses, and movies are unique among products. Those products are simultaneously works of art, or eventually become deemed so. They become part of the national and world consciousness. They are collectively revered and loved. They are iconic and beautiful to behold and contemplate—even when they’re imperfect. They are our history, and filmmakers and studios for the last two decades have paid lots of lip service to embracing the notion of film preservation. Film is an art and its artifacts should be saved they say. They have, de facto, assumed at least part of the mantle of culture guardians.

gangs_hoop-gals-w-shadow-50.jpgIn addition, those same studios have benefited from taxpayer and privately funded film restorations in which they keep the rights to market those films for profit. The reason we can now go to Costco and pick up a $9.99 DVD of the beautiful Library of Congress restoration of the great American masterwork, All Quiet on the Western Front, is because the American people funded it, and that allows the studio to make a little more scratch from an old perennial. Same goes for a lot of other films.

So, yes, I believe the studios owe us some giveback.

Even if the films aren’t restored, there often are superior prints out there, especially of well-established classics—if only the studio takes the extra time to get them.

In the case of The Gang’s All Here, Fox had that chance, but chose to ignore a collector who offered them a good print.

gangs-neon-hoop-girl-60.jpgSo now you can go to Costco or Borders or wherever and, if you choose, purchase a $15 DVD of a great classic transferred from an inferior print made with a formula that does not preserve the original vibrant Technicolor hues and which is overlaid with a brown haze atop resulting muted colors.

Even the untrained eye must see that things have gone awry with it at the very outset.

Before the credits even begin, the famous Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare blares over an off-white/off-pink overexposed-looking logo. What the hell kinda color is that supposed to be?

For someone who has waited literally decades for this film to come to home video, this is downright heartbreaking to see. If there is any movie that needs to be seen, nay experienced, in its full gaudy Technicolor splendor, this one is it. But, more on that in a minute…

gangs_miranda-w-bangals-50.jpgThe frustration is made worse by the knowledge that better prints of the film do exist. I’ve seen at least one of them. Both the Fox Movie Channel and the American Movie Classics cable channel have broadcast markedly better prints of the film over the past decade or so. The collector mentioned earlier also has a very good print that has been screened at various retro festivals in the recent past. Any of these would have made for a better issue than what Fox has chosen to offer.

Hell, this dodgy 8-minute clip of the finale on YouTube has better color. A lot better.

So, maybe the folks at Fox took one look at the film and came to the same conclusion about it as film historian David Shipman. In his massive, excellent overview of cinema, The Story of Cinema, Shipman begins his short assessment of The Gang’s All Here thusly: “The film is dire.”

Oddly enough, I agree with him.

gangs_carmen-hi-hat-wide-50.jpgThe film—a splashy 1943 WWII musical-comedy—is hokey, stiffly acted, stodgily executed, ridiculously plotted and poorly written. James Ellison as the square-jawed “juvenile” male lead is as exciting as plywood. Star Alice Faye, in her last major film, looks bored (as it turns out, she was). The song, “A Journey to a Star” is repeated throughout to the point of distraction. Busby Berkeley, never a great director of comedy, takes bad comic material and makes it worse through lumpen timing. The “Brazilian Bombshell,” Carmen Miranda, struggles with unfunny stereotypical ditsy-Latin comic dialogue. The central romance between Ellison and Faye is never convincing. And when the final musical numbers come, the plot just stops cold, explained away in throwaway fashion by a secondary character.

On the whole, it’s an embarrassment—something you’d be ashamed to be caught watching.

When I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, I thought it was one of the worst films ever made.

Seems I’ve made a pretty bad case for one of my 25 favorite movies.

Except that, for me, The Gang’s All Here is one of the most exquisite movies ever made. It’s not good, yet somehow it’s great.

The weirder it gets, the better it is. And it does get mighty weird, mighty often.

gangs_kaleido-opening.jpgIt also contains what I regard as the single greatest moment in cinema history: when Berkeley finally reduces his trademark anonymous chorine clones into abstract, geometrical forms via a dizzying kaleidoscope that fills the screen and is set to ecstatic orchestral music. It is the perfect melding of image and sound; a hair-raising moment, and the granddaddy of abstract, avant-garde cinema.

And it was all done by a showman—not an artist. A showman who ended up making art, and not knowing it.gangs_kaleid-chorines-50.jpg

Enough has been written in books and on the Internet about the film, so I won’t go into too much detail. Yet I can’t resist some observations and at least a mention of some of my favorite moments.

gangs_brasil-man-head-70.jpgThe film opens in complete darkness except for some diagonally positioned, floating bamboo trunks and a tiny, spotlighted human head in the distance crooning in a distinctly Latin accent the Ary Barroso classic, “Brazil.” We notice the head moving closer to us and suddenly are whisked onto a stage representation of New York City where a Brazilian liner is discharging its cargo of tropical produce and passengers, including a fruit-hatted Miranda. As Miranda struts back and forth singing about now-arcane references to the Good Neighbor policy, Berkeley’s camera swoops back and forth from the stage and into the audience for several minutes without an edit in what must have been the longest unbroken tracking shot in movies up to its day, and possibly until Orson Welles surpassed it in the opening of his 1958 film, Touch of Evil.

In the course of events, romantic complications arise, a stuffy millionaire is taught to loosen up, and lots of money is raised for war bonds.

gangs_faye-morph-80.jpgAnd, of course, chorines make geometrical patterns out of giant bananas, children dressed as adults dance the Polka Dot Polka, a contortionist dancer makes lewd poses with her body and women in blue-green leotards twirl red neon hoops in a fetishistic manner.

As a wartime propaganda tool, the film covers a lot of ground: reminding audiences of the friendly alliance between the USA and Latin America, making light of wartime shortages and thus rendering them tolerable, solidifying the message that gals on the homefront stick with their fighting servicemen, and eases class tensions by showing that the rich do their part for the war effort too. And thus, so should you.

gangs_goodman-minnie.jpgThat’s all very interesting. But what I like are moments such as when Berkeley’s camera swoops over and nearly decapitates bobby soxers and white jitterbuggers gathered around the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, as he serviceably croons “Minnie’s in the Money” (a reference to wartime women factory workers). A country that could produce a swing band this powerful was in no way going to lose the war (and a country that half a century later produces Britney Spears… well, let’s just pull the troops out now). Goodman gives a little cock of the head at the end of his first swinging set, as if to say, “Yeah, I know I’m good.”

I love that.

Alice Faye’s buttery foghorn-deep rendition of “No Love, No Nothin’”—another reminder about abstinence for homefront gals—is just about as dreamy as Judy Garland’s incomparable vocal of “The Man I Love” in 1954’s A Star is Born.

Edward Everett Horton and Eugene Pallette are delightful as a sort of Laurel and Hardy set of yin-and-yang millionaires, much better than the material they’re given to work with. And the same goes for lanky Charlotte Greenwood as Mrs. Potter, who perturbs her hubby with an incredible display of double-jointed leg maneuvers.

gangs_carmen-paducah-50.jpgGoodman and Miranda swinging out to “Paducah” (“just a pretty little city in Kentucky, but to me it rhymes with ‘lucky,’ when I’m looking into two blue eyes”) is so bad it’s great.

Kitschy, campy, a magnet for drag queens—call it what you will—The Gang’s All Here is the best musical Twentieth Century Fox ever made. Long after the studio’s once popular (and more grounded) wartime Betty Grable color musicals have been forgotten, there will be a cult that still reveres the psychedelic Berkeley film.

For many reasons that seem obvious to me—for what it represents stylistically and what it says about wartime America—The Gang’s All Here should long ago have been inducted into the Nationalgangs_faye-becomes-kaleid70.jpg Film Registry. It still awaits that long overdue honor as of April 2007.

Perhaps if it had, the film would have been given the respect and restoration it is due from its studio.

gangs-alice-faye-coll-box.jpgOn DVD the film has been issued as a stand-alone item and as part of a four-disc “Alice Faye Collection” box. Oddly enough, the three other (and artistically lesser) films in the box all show the care that Fox has given to most of its recent catalog classics DVD releases. (And besides looking good, the black-and-white biopic Lillian Russell is a good film in its own right). The print of That Night in Rio in the set shows what Technicolor is supposed to look like. But who the hell has been waiting 20 years for That Night in Rio to come out on video? Not me. So, of course, that’s the one that looks right. (And so they all do too in Warner’s superb Busby Berkeley Collection DVD box).

Like any studio, Fox is more concerned with the here and now—too busy pushing the latest $100+ million blockbuster from Tom Cruise or J-Lo, etc., to worry about any of this.

Still, the reviews are out, and, apart from a few apologists, they are not good.

In its assessment, DVDBeaver—which has accurate screen caps of the DVD—says flat out that The Gang’s All Here needs to be redone.

Agangs_faye-polka.jpgs some have noted, the print is clear and sharp. Which is true; I cannot deny it. And the colors are not horrible, per se, they’re just more muted. One online movie forum member speculated that the person overseeing the transfer may have tried to make the film more “modern” and acceptable for contemporary viewers by toning down the film’s outrageous colors.

If that was the case, in doing so a lot of the art of the movie has been lost.

That’s because a movie that depends so largely on style to succeed requires that every element that goes into that style be preserved and presented. Technicolor, accurately rendered, is a key, essential element in The Gang’s All Here.

gangs_hoop-array-60crop.jpgThree-color Technicolor, a now-lost technology that only existed in Hollywood for a short 20 years, is a lost art. Anything made with that technology is, in itself, a potentially lost work of art. When a print is made that does not represent that lost art as close to the original as possible, the film can be said to be, to some degree, “lost.”

In the case of The Gang’s All Here, style is everything. Color is essential to that style. And not just any color, but Technicolor—a Technicolor that is not reprocessed and muted with a grainy brown haze. A Technicolor that glows; a color where we can see not only that Carmen Miranda is wearing a tutti-frutti hat, but that that hat has a saturated silver nitrate color aura around it. A color so bright and saturated that it literally bursts outside its boundaries; like a kid whose Crayola has strayed over the lines.

The cluelessness about the importance of color, and particular color processes, may have something to do with the overemphasis that too many critics, studios and young filmmakers put on narrative concerns over style and other “intangible” aesthetics in movies.

The equation of movie art with narrative credibility informs most of what is understood to mean “good movies.” In that view, a good movie is like a good book. A good movie tells a good story, is well acted and has something “important” to say, a message. Movies become a form of picturized literature.

It might be a good story, well filmed, but that don’t make it art.

In my view of aesthetics, a movie like The Gang’s All Here, which is incompetent in nearly every way as regards credible narrative, is more a work of art than something like, say, In the Bedroom, which was hailed by critics but which, ultimately, is just a competent picturization of a short-story narrative.gangs_neon-gals-50.jpg

In The Gang’s All Here, Berkeley puts something on the screen that defies repetition; something that could only come from his own warped mind. It is unique in ways that movies that get on annual top 10 best lists are not.

So when someone at Fox transferred the movie to DVD, they likely didn’t put much thought into the importance of the color. The picture’s clear enough and the story can be followed. Print it and box it up and get it out to those grandmothers at Costco. They’re the only ones who are gonna buy an Alice Faye movie anyway. Oh, and maybe some gay guys, too.

But I’m not a gay guy or a grandmother. I’m just a 40-ish straight male concerned about the preservation of our heritage. And I sure would like to be able to immerse myself in the full glory of one of my favorite movies.

C’mon, Fox, have another go at it and give it the royal treatment: A double-disc special edition with a color-restored print and all the extras. And slap $50 on it and I’ll buy it in a New York minute. I’dgangs_carmen-hi-hat-1-50.jpg buy two copies, maybe three. I’ll buy copies for people I love—and hate.

But if you won’t redo it for me, Fox, for pity’s sake do it in memory of Carmen Miranda.

And I won’t poo-poo Paducah anymore—or Twentieth Century-Fox.

–Evan G


Restored “All Quiet on the Western Front”

March 5, 2007

Only twice in the history of the Academy Awards did the truly best picture of the year actually win the top Oscar.

And in one of the those years, it’s still debatable. In 1950, there was no better film than best-picture winner All About Eve, but there were two movies that were just as great: Sunset Boulevard (best picture nominee) and Rashomon (best foreign film winner).

That leaves 1930.

Early in its life, the Academy got it so very right. All Quiet on the Western Front not only was the best picture made in America that year, it was the greatest film made in the entire world.

For many years the film circulated in inferior transfers taken from worn and dirty and audibly inferior prints.

Last month, Universal finally, after a decade of sitting on it, released to DVD the long-awaited Library of Congress restored version of perhaps the greatest war movie ever made.

When the subject all-quiet-dvd.jpgof this film comes up, which to my mind is not often enough, I have a hard time toning down my hyperbole. To me, it’s one of the 10 greatest and most important films ever made. (See, I did it again.)

There’s plenty of info out on the web and in books about the film. It’s a perennial undisputed classic, so I’m not going to replicate all of verbiage that’s been expended.

The stumbling block for most contemporary viewers is the stilted, overemphatic acting, a holdover from silent cinema. But with repeated viewings, I’ve come to realize that the acting style befits the hysteria that overcomes the green lads as they dodge death in the trenches.

Everything else in the film is perfect. It has a serious message and the good sense to show the horror of war without relying on obvious voiceovers and by minimizing noble speeches. When those speeches come, they do so at the right moments.

It eschews music. War is not a grand Wagnerian fantasy. There is no Ride of Valkyries soundtrack or a Samual Barber Adagio to sway viewer emotions. In this regard the movie surpasses all the so-called serious anti-war films of recent years. The only sounds are zipping bullets, and relentless shell bursts, machine-gun fire and screams.

The film remains timeless for being so raw, brutal and uncompromising. It feels like a firsthand documentary of WWI.

Made four years before full production code enforcement, All Quiet on the Western Front offered a non candy-coated, unromantic view of war that would not again be possible for Hollywood again until the 1970s. Stanley Kubrick made a good stab with Paths of Glory in 1957, but that was largely a theatrical, highly controlled and often artificial presentation.

The only jingoism in All Quiet… is mocked, right at the very beginning of the movie.

Director Lewis Milestone pulls his camera back from a window where jubilant crowds and a marching band hail their conquering heroes and send young boys to war. The window looks out from a school room and as the camera pulls back, an old schoolmaster orates some indistinct bellicose sounds drowned out by the trumpets and the shouts of the crowds. At first, it seems like technical limitation of early sound cameras, but as the camera dollies into the teacher his voice becomes distinct and the outdoor jubilation is recessed. The noises of the bands and the rhetoric of the schoolmaster are one and the same. No difference; all designed to whip the mob into a frenzy.

From there, the movie is one searingly memorable scene after another. Shorn of glitz, it the most honest movie ever to come from the golden age of Hollywood. It seems so much different from every other classic film. Like The Birth of a Nation, it remains a great movie event. A happening perhaps even more than it is art.

It is a film that must be seen more than once; its power builds with each viewing.

The conversion of friendly postmaster Himmelstoss into brutal sadist presciently shows why fascism is so appealing to the lower and middle classes; it provides a sense of power, surety and belonging missing in their lives. Himmelstoss’ relentless drilling of the raw volunteers provides for more amazing imagery as recruits are forced to fall into the mud over and over. His Napoleonic complex is tested when, at the front, he shows his true colors as a sniveling coward: OK with sending others to die but reluctant when it comes his turn.

After the film’s central battle—a long sequence of attack and retreat in which countless men on both sides are mowed down with no yardage gained—the men retreat to their trenches. One image that haunts me is Slim Summerville’s character, Tjaden, panting and sweating and hungry, taking out his dirty combat knife to slice some of the blood off his bread, then busting a bottle and passing it to his exhausted comrades, swigging without regard for the jagged bottleneck.

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A scene that really jumped out at me on this viewing was after the death of Kat (Louis Wolheim), the hulking mentor to the film’s young protagonist, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).

At the medic station, Kat is left to lay as the medics go on about their card game. Paul simply walks away, stunned but powerless to linger or to cry. Just another day. The casualness of this scene in the tent; the way it is shot, with few cuts and the blase nature of everyone involved, make it seem incredibly real. There are many scenes like this in the film.

It was not a matter of if I would cry at some point in this masterwork, but when.

The final scene, which is famous but is nonetheless not a spoiler I want to reveal to the uninitiated, begins as the war ends. A solo wistful harmonica tune wafts across a landscape where cleanup appears to be underway. There are no sounds of barrage or gunfire. It feels more like the cleanup after a ball game than a still-dangerous war zone.

And then there is the famous ending, and here I found myself again choking back tears as Paul Baumer reaches out his hand to meet his destiny.

Despite their harrowing depictions and serious intent most serious war films of recent vintage, including Saving Private Ryan, find a way to give audiences closure; to give them an emotional out; to get them off the hook.

All Quiet… does not do this. It only gives us the accusing faces of the dead.

As for the restoration, there’s nothing to offer but praise for both the improved image and sound, particularly the sound. It adds another dimension to a film that was already powerful and overwhelming.

I bought the DVD at Costco for the no-brainer purchase price of $8.69.

Beware, do not buy the earlier, inferior DVD issue with the blueish background. The stark DVD cover art shown in the picture above is the new and better issue. It says “Library of Congress” restoration in the back cover text.

The image below from the film is a timeless one. The soldiers at Walter Reed and the ones with their limbs blown off and (warning, disturbing) faces burned beyond recognition accuse us still.

-Evan

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