Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)

Really awesome, and the dynamic between Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens (even if Jürgens totally fails as an actor…) is like a non-shitty version of the Berenger/Dafoe dynamic in Platoon, only this time the murderous tendencies arise because one doesn’t want to be labeled a coward, and such a seemingly trivial label makes the dynamic that much more disturbing. Even though the film’s last image made me roll my eyes a little, and overall the film can’t compare to far-superior Men-trapped-in-the-desert movies like Yellow Sky and The Lost Patrol, it’s still a solid, exciting effort from Ray, more of a straight genre film than I’ve been used to from him, but still instilled with those themes of the importance placed on being manly/dominant in the eyes of others, and all that good stuff.

8/10

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The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)

I wish I had known beforehand that this was actually about Selznick and Lewton and all those weird-ass early Hollywood people (and, for that matter, that I could’ve figured it out without reading a review or two just now, at which point the lightbulb finally went off in my head. Shame on me for not being more receptive to that and just figuring it out on my own, especially since “THIS IS MEANT TO SHOW HOW LEWTON TURNED CAT PEOPLE FROM NOTHING INTO SOMETHING” was practically flashing in lights ), then I probably would’ve gotten something more out of this, like a clever history lesson or something. As it stands, though, this was quite good. Some images/moments were unexpectedly fascinating, like Kirk Douglas paying strangers $11 to attend his unliked father’s funeral, or Lana Turner’s creepy yet sad legs-only introduction in that dilapidated house. After that I gradually started losing interest and getting bored, but even then I can’t deny that this was a clever, insightful look at the film industry and how it seemingly has more backstabbing and scheming than the Caesars of ancient Rome. Even though the why-we-hate-him flashback structure wasn’t exactly original, nor were the occasional cut-backs to the present so the head of the studio could give his flashback de-briefings of sorts explaining how Shields made these people in terms of money and fame but ruined them emotionally, it was a nice little way to ironically explain how fame and fortune aren’t everything in this world. Like Citizen Kane, this movie shows Jonathan Shields solely in flashback, from scorned others’ completely subjective points of view, making him an unknowable enigma (another instance where an unreliable narrator proves to be an effective storytelling tactic), and perhaps for that reason, the writer, the director, the star, and the candlestick maker know all too well that fame-and-fortune-ain’t-everything message, while the only one who’s still out of the loop is the guy pathetically trying to make that phone call from Paris.

I just wish this was a little more attention-grabbing and didn’t peter out towards the end, especially since the story of the writer, his starstruck wife, Gaucho and that plane had the potential to be the most interesting and tragic of the three and to really put Shields at the point of no return of losing the last shreds of his soul, but overall I have few complaints

7.5/10

Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)

It’s one of the most preposterous plots – or rather, amalgamation of many plots – like, ever…almost as preposterous as what Beneix believed French gangsters and Taiwanese bootleggers would consider to be fashionable looks and outfits back in 1981 .  A chief of police running a sex-slave ring, his goons after a prostitute and her tape that incriminates him, the bootleggers after another tape of a famed, and stubborn, opera diva whose voice has never been recorded before, the cops after the goons, the rich non-conformist after both tapes and wads of money and god knows what else…oh, and the geeky little mail courier, obsessed with the diva, whose illegally recording her concert and then stealing her luminous gown and having that prostitute’s tape unknowingly dropped into his mail bag sets off a chain reaction of all that nonsense I just spewed.  More than once I got completely lost and had to pause the movie and skim the plot description on wikipedia to get my bearings before pressing play again, and some of the twists and turns that this labyrinthine story takes are so unlikely, so ridiculous, that I learned fairly quickly to avoid falling into my usual trap of judging a movie on how “real” it is, how much verisimilitude it has, and just take this for what it is: a hyper-stylized thriller, not pretending to be anything other than overly-stylish with the outlandish sets (that young courier lives in an immense ‘loft’ filled with wrecked cars.  It looks cool, so I’ll go with it…) and costumes (Dominique Pinon as the skinheaded, headphone-wearing, huge sunglasses-sporting thug known only as “Le curé” takes the cake…), twists and coincidences that make suspension of disbelief an outright requirement to getting anything out of this movie, and characters and relationships that are…incredibly satisfying.  Yes, as ridiculous as “Diva” can get, its twisting, meandering story is presented in such an intelligent and unpredictable way that its world feels completely alive, so fully realized, even if it is, however based on circa-1981 Paris, different from the real-real world in an aesthetic sense.

Even though I had no idea who these Taiwanese music bootleggers were for the duration of the film – all I saw were ridiculously-dressed Asians regarding our courier hero from afar in their cars until wikipedia made me see the light – and I was trying to make heads and tails with who wanted which tape and who wanted who dead, when it was all over, I spent the rest of that night and practically all of next day putting the pieces together in my head.  The story’s ridiculous and convoluted, but rich in detail, both visually and otherwise (notice how the camera glides majestically in the first concert scene, regarding the opera diva with the same obsessive devotion as the courier), to the point that it’s just as much fun to think about the film post-viewing than during the viewing itself.  It’s just a fun thriller, convoluted and complex yet all fitting together by the time the closing credits roll in subtle and rather ingenious ways, and highlighted by one of the best and most exciting chases I’ve seen in any movie (“Diva” perfected the motorcyclist (moped-ist to be exact…) being chased through the metro and indoor shopping areas years before “The Dark Knight.”  Think the iconic subway chase from “Le Samourai,” but with a moped thrown in).  And when things got too convoluted, I always had the startlingly simple story of the courier Jules and his muse, the angelically-voiced Cynthia Hawkins, to fall back on.  Their relationship is a fascinating one that starts out predictably in a star-basically-patting-the-adoring-fan-on-the-head kind of way, and then grows into something deeper in unexpected yet natural-feeling and even sweet ways, namely thanks to, ironically, the inexperience of the two actors, Frédéric Andréi and the professional opera singer Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez.  It’s romantic, sure, but somehow not in that hokey movie kind of way – the montage of the two of them walking through a rainy Paris, culminating in the boy daring to put his hand on the star singer’s shoulder, is wonderful.  Even as bootleggers and gangsters are, unbeknownst to Jules, after his tapes and his blood, the simple relationship between the two is endearing and real (by comparison to the outlandishness of everything around it, at least…).  There’s no way that a mere mailman with a love for opera can be able to get a woman as beautiful and melodiously-voiced as Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez to fall for him, but for some reason, it just works, and you want it to work.  You care for these characters, and there’s actually something more at stake than some silly tapes or some big bad secret, so that this is much more than just ‘”Enemy of the State” but good.’  Between goons throwing knives into the backs of prostitutes and degenerates, car chases, good guys and bad guys falling down elevator shafts and good ol’ police procedural material, a moped-riding boy and his tape recorder wins the affections of a superstar – perhaps the unlikeliest in two hours’ worth of unlikely developments, but surely the one that’s the most satisfying.

…But wait, I haven’t even mentioned Gorodish and Alba!  In a film chock-full of fascinating, if not downright cartoonish, characters, the uber-Bohemian Gorodish and his Vietnamese lackey Alba are by far the most fascinating.  Hell, they might be two of the most enigmatic and downright interesting film characters I’ve ever seen, not because of depth, of which they have little, but because of the downright mysteriousness of how they’re presented.  I mean for god’s sake, just look at where they live!  An immense, dark loft seemingly furnished only with a couch, a bizarre lava lamp, and a stereo, where Gorodish lounges around all day in Calvin Klein poses while Alba does her nymphette thing…who lives like that?!?!  What the hell does this Gorodish guy do, at least when he isn’t manipulating both gangsters and bootleggers against each other for his own monetary benefit Yojimbo-style (and for that matter, how does he suddenly have the amazing cunning and smarts to pull all that off, when we’re introduced to him as a hyper-stylish couch potato?)  Do he and Alba sleep together?  What’s with that portfolio of naked pictures that Alba carries around?  Does Gorodish ever leave that dungeon of his in his everyday life?  Does she (does he let her?)?  “Diva” is based on one of a series of books in which Gorodish and Alba are the main characters, so it’d make sense that despite how captivating the story of Jules and Cynthia, the film’s so-called ‘main characters’, may be, it’s this enigmatic recluse and his exotic girl-pet who are the film’s ambiguous, and alluring, center.  They’re the posterchildren of this film’s almost exclusive reliance on striking, edgy imagery rather than deep, or even logical, characters or dialogue or plot.  On any other day in any other movie Gorodish and Alba should be laughable caricatures, cartoon characters in that cartoonish loft.  But just as a chase scene with cheesy music and a thug wearing an unfathomably cheesy outfit just feels cool for some reason, Gorodish and Alba aren’t laughable caricatures, they’re mysterious enigmas, right at home in “Diva”‘s world, a world not too different from our own, and not exactly the same…just subtly odd enough where an independently wealthy hermit and his beautiful Salacious Crumb, and a shy courier and the opera star whose budding relationship feels unexpectedly natural, and all the cops and robbers in-between, can co-exist.  This movie, while quite clearly an orgy of visual awesomeness, was a mess, but one I was all too happy to try to piece together.

8.5/10

Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)

The overriding themes I picked up on in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” were loneliness and decay…physical decay, and the decay of past values, sensibilities, and eras.  In its first scenes, we watch Burt Lancaster’s elderly number-runner Lou as he watches his pretty young neighbor Sally rub lemons on her skin from the confines of his dark, musty apartment.  You don’t see any actual grime or cobwebs or such, but his apartment just feels old and stale, its archaic furniture and trinkets and white-haired inhabitant plucked from another time and place.  Lou tries to convince others, but maybe himself most of all, that he was once in the big time, one of Bugsy Siegel’s cellmates, in fact, but all that’s in the past now, (and maybe not even that, when you consider how his behavior as the film progresses seems to contradict everything we thought we knew about who this man was), and Lou’s now just an old man reduced to watching his neighbor bathe herself in lemon oil and acting as dog walker / errand boy / gigolo for Grace, the slightly demented hoarder across the hall, and the widow of a no-goodnik not unlike Lou himself.  And Sally, who works at an oyster bar and has pipe dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer in Monte Carlo, spends her nights listening to her precious opera tapes and unknowingly putting on a show for her just-as lonely neighbor.  They live in their own worlds – Lou in the makeshift graveyard of circa-1940s culture that is his apartment and Grace’s down the hall, and Sally in an impenetrable bubble of unfulfilled desires, and the fantasies that it seems that even she herself knows are farfetched.  They’re so discontented, so similar in their loneliness that their eventual meeting, and unlikeliest of courtships, by a twist of fate involving a stolen stash of drugs and Sally’s loser ex-husband Dave, is like an incredible breath of fresh air – their paths towards each other are nearly as set in stone as their destiny to end up far, far apart. 

Once we leave that run-down apartment complex and start strolling the famous boardwalk with Lou as he imparts his old-time wisdom on his wayward, makeshift protégé Dave, the feel isn’t that different from before, and yet drastically different at the same time.  My oh my Atlantic City is a dump when you’re not standing in the middle of one of Donald Trump’s casino floors, and you realize this as Lou makes his rounds through the slums collecting his tiny little bets.  Just as Lou’s apartment, as well as his own wrinkled body and outdated yet stylish suits, are the decayed evocations of a bygone era, so too are the crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished apartment buildings that line the boardwalk, making it all the more powerful when Lou, older and dressed much more differently than everyone around him, laments the decay of his once-beautiful building to the younger Dave – one symbol of the past remembering another.  I might be mistaken, but I think that nearly every outdoor scene in “Atlantic City” might be set to cloudy skies, further compounding that air of despair as what was once Lou’s world of glitz and glorious depravity crumbles before his and our eyes. 

And yet, at the same time I was surprised, and damn near startled, when we first left Lou’s time capsule-like apartment, only to see a thoroughly then-modern day Philadelphia and Atlantic City, inhabited by the likes of the grungily-dressed Dave, the piggish and foul-mouthed gangsters out to get Dave and their stolen dope, and all the pimps, hoes, addicts, dealers, and degenerates in-between that you’d never see in the old-school gangland that a man like Lou seems to have come from.  Hell, the first time we see the insulated Lou and Grace meet Dave and Chrissie, Sally’s pregnant kid sister who Dave ran away with, it’s contrast defined, as the penniless, shabbily-dressed and Zen and reincarnation-obsessed Chrissie and the off-kilter and shrill yet thoroughly old-fashioned Grace form the unlikeliest of bonds, as we often see them just lounging together in Grace’s bed as Lou and Sally, the main players, do their own thing.  It comes off as a kind of weird, unsuccessful attempt at comic relief as Lou and Sally deal with those gangsters in the main plot, but it’s actually oddly touching to see this bizarre, nearly wordless and never-explained bond between old widow and young flower-child, the strange collision of the representatives of two cultures/eras, and almost a Shakespearan parallel to the more obvious bonding of the elderly Lou, whose time to shine has long past, and Sally, decades his junior and still seemingly with something to live for.  It’s all a little too allegorical and sacrifices some sense of realism in the characters, especially in the minor characters like Grace and Chrissie, and overall too much of this movie involved people talking about Atlantic City like it’s the most literarily metaphorical place in the universe, and old-timey songs in dance halls about Atlantic City itself.  As great as the ongoing image of ruined buildings is, a lot of this film overdid the whole depiction of place thing to the point of saturating its effectiveness (a billboard taunting the physically displaced Dave and Chrissie and the emotionally displaced Sally with the phrase ‘Atlantic City, you’re back on the map.  Again.’ is the posterchild of too-obvious symbolism that the film occasionally reverts to).  

Ultimately, though, it’s all quite evocative and complex, especially when it comes to the more fully-realized characters like Sally and Lou.  When you consider one of my favorite scenes, which is nothing more than Lou in a bathroom reminiscing about the old days with the washroom attendant, an old friend of his, and then all the disgusting and crumbling buildings that tower above the old man as he tells Dave about his glory days in Vegas, you realize that this movie is actually quite apocalyptic, as if this iteration of Atlantic City is a waste land, the physically and emotionally ruined leftovers of a more glorious time and place.  If the subplots leave something to be desired, despite some nice images, and the timing of the plot’s twist and turns – the gangsters showing up at the perfect moment, Lou and Sally seeing a crucial (and contrived…) news report just at the right time, etc. – are a little too convenient and manufactured, then at least the motivations of Lou and Sally are really, really difficult to pinpoint.  Susan Sarandon can overdo it now and then, going nuts when she’s thrown out of a casino, for instance, but there’s a certain maturity and sadness to her portrayal of Sally that actually makes it believable that she’d become enamored and sensually take off her blouse in front of Lou as he tells her all the little details of the lemon ritual he’s watched her do nightly.  And Burt Lancaster…my goodness, what a performance.  Just when you think you’ve figured Lou out, when it looks like he’s after Sally because his aging libido’s found one last ounce of strength, or because his sudden stumbling onto thousands of dollars in drug money has reinvigorated his zeal for the fast life, something about Burt Lancaster’s understated performance, a kind of combination between yearning for the past and all-out despair, that suddenly casts doubt on why Lou’s doing what he’s doing.  I’m probably giving Sally the short-shrift, which is testament to how “Atlantic City” is so seemingly simple in its story and so deceptively complex in its character’s motivations, so you can’t be sure why Lou breaks free from the confines of his shitty apartment to risk life and limb for some drug money and a beautiful neighbor, or why Sally lets this outwardly-lecherous old man be her sugardaddy and act so apathetic when her husband meets his own sad and pathetic fate.  I’m still not sure what the ending means, what becomes of Sally and that car, and what it means to see Grace of all people in a situation you’d never expect to see her in, but I’m pretty sure a rewatch of this movie, flawed around the edges yet filled to the brim with unspoken backstories and feelings, might shed some more light on the intertwining of two people separated by age, brought together by fate and their mutual need for…something.

I mean, just look at Lou, and how fleshed out he is, precisely because Burt Lancaster is so subtle and soft-spoken, and so much of Lou’s backstory is gleaned in tiny bits and pieces as he reminisces in that bathroom or tells Dave maybe-memories, maybe-tall tales.  You can learn so much from this man simply by looking at his face as he watches Sally bathe in lemons – studying her as a scientist quantitatively conducts an experiment, with a hint of forlornness.  Hell, the look on his face of anguish and ‘what have I done’ when the gangsters accost Sally because of the drugs that Dave stole, unaware that it’s Lou who’s reaped the benefits, defines great acting better than any Oscar-bait word jumbles could.  The whole time, you’re under the impression that Lou was once a well-to-do gangster and number-runner and tough guy, based on the stories he so eloquently tells, because of his cool and suave demeanor when he tells his drug customer ‘hands off the suit’ and brushes him aside, because of his angry dismay at being unable to go all chivalrous on those thugs in aid of his new dame Sally, and that he goes on this one final adventure of drugs and riches and lust and passion because he misses the good ol’ days, because he wants one last taste of being a somebody, a real important tough guy instead of a pitiful peeping tom.  But then, when you see his incredibly comical and overly-enthusiastic reaction after dispatching a couple of bad guys (Lou Pascal really, really, really did not read the Dr. Richard Kimble Handbook on Being a Fugitive), when you see how he foolishly brings attention to himself by immediately spending ill-gotten drug money on flashy clothes and what-not, all behavior incredibly unbecoming of a professional and calculated hoodlum, you start to get that feeling in the back of your mind that, as the villainous Mr. Butler said in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” ‘that man’s never killed anyone,’ and that this isn’t Lou’s attempt at evoking his past, but rather fantasy fulfillment.  And suddenly, he and Sally have one more thing in common.

8.5/10

La ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950)

I wish I could have Anton Walbrook narrate my life and fuck with people so that my tryst with a beautiful woman could go as smoothly as possible

I had little use for the stories themselves – their interconnectedness made them SO convoluted after a while that I just stopped caring and didn’t bother to keep track of who everyone was and what was going on (although the one involving Simone Simon’s (  ) maid and the man she works for was charming and sultry enough…). All that mattered was Walbrook, acting like a Rod Serling with benefits in not just overseeing the stories and being something of a Greek chorus, but being a jokester-like participant in them as well. I mean, that first uncut tracking shot as Walbrook changes wardrobe to reflect the time period, and the sun appears instantaneously and dissipates the fog, is absolutely remarkable (the cinematography as a whole was outstanding, with all those smooth, effortless tracking shots, although there were a few too many Dutch angles here and there – always a major pet peeve of mine), as was the way he’d, as I said, fuck with people with all his disguises and what-not so that the stories go the way they’re supposed to, and even guide some characters from one story into the next. Such a great and innovative breaking of the fourth wall, and such an endearing and charming and goofy and entertaining God-like narrator he made, he turned what I’d otherwise call a worthless bore of a film into something really, really worth watching.

 

Pull the string!  Pull the string!

 

7.5/10

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

These two magnificently framed and lit shots are telling of “They Live By Night”’s two protagonists, Keechie and Bowie, at least from the outset.  Bowie, an escaped convict whose youthful exuberance/optimism and good-naturedness puts him at odds with his more vicious fellow escapees Chicamaw and T-Dub, was imprisoned at 16 and thus has never been able to live and love as a normal young man can.  Keechie, the daughter of Chicamaw’s brother, who takes the men in when they’re on the run, is a hardened tomboy when we meet her, and later admits to Bowie that she’s never been in a relationship, and indeed it’s rather apparent that she’s rarely, if ever, really opened herself up to anybody before.  The first time we meet Keechie is in that outstanding shot, as she’s concealed by the shadows when she meets Bowie, and later we see Bowie’s obscured reflection in that store window as he ponders buying Keechie a present – while his accomplices are planning a bank robbery right next door.  These images of the two, concealed by shadows or what-not, are indicative of how they see themselves, and each other.  They’re enigmas, totally beguiling and mysterious, and made for each other. 

Neither has had an opportunity to interact with or relate to the opposite sex, hence Keechie’s ambiguous and mysterious appearance at the outset, so that when the lightbulb goes on that they might just fit together like a glove, they’re of such a similar mindset that that lightbulb goes on in both their heads at once – it’s such a new experience for them that their romance feels that more genuine despite an otherwise outwardly fictitious crime tale.  It not only works because the prospect of romance is so new for both of them that they’re both in the same boat, but because Nicholas Ray doesn’t treat it from beginning to end like they’re on cloud 9, doesn’t treat it like the ultimate allegory of true, limitless love.  That would be shameless, unrealistic romantic drama.  True, the actual implications of Bowie resorting to bank robberies and being on the lam with Keechie are rather glossed over from time to time – there are times when they’re living happily and comfortably off of stolen money, as if that’s completely well and good – but the entirety of their relationship is far from happy.  There’s an incredible scene where one night they just up and decide to get married in a 24 hour chapel; as they slowly make their way across the street towards the chapel, arm in arm, there’s dead silence – maybe some of the most deafening silence I’ve heard in a film in some time.  Suddenly, a wedding, what should be the happiest moment in the lives of two people, becomes SO ominous, like Keechie and Bowie are walking towards their doom.  It reminded me of the scene in “My Darling Clementine” where Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter are walking to the church service, slowly and arm in arm, while “Shall We Gather at the River?” is sung softly and slowly in the background like a funeral dirge, making this stroll between the kindly Clementine and the smitten Earp into something very eerie and foreboding.  Keechie and Bowie are smitten with each other, and their romance is very, very endearing, but boy is that silent march a portent of their difficulties to come, and of the very, very impressive direction by Ray.  I could’ve done without the abundance of helicopter shots following the convicts in their speeding getaway car or Bowie on the run – the first shots of action scenes of their kind, but relied on too heavily to the point of becoming a distraction – but moments like that wedding march in the dark, of the sultry nightclub singer regaling the happy couple in that cigarette smoke-filled lounge, of Keechie watching with a beaming smile of amusement as Bowie tries to quiet a screaming baby on the bus, of the two of them simply holding each other in their car, driving at night, make this a very moody, very atmospheric experience, and showed that even at the beginning of his directorial career, Ray was one of the best in the business.

By the time you figure out the ominously foreshadowing nature of that wedding scene, after all the strife and arguments they have due to the stress of being on the run from the law and from the alcoholic, one-eyed, and wildly unpredictable Chicamaw, a late scene shows Bowie, alone, walking out of that same wedding chapel after unsuccessfully lobbying the heavily-connected proprietor for passage to Mexico, this time with the organ and the “Here Comes the Bride” at full blast, as if mocking this sudden unfortunate situation he and his bride find themselves in.  Powerful stuff.  I criticized this film before for failing to take into account the full implications of Bowie being a full-blown criminal, and that for much of the duration he fails to appreciate the consequences of such, but really, that could also be a strength, that what begins as a heist caper a la Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” soon abandons that narrative frame to focus on a young man and a young woman discovering love for the first time, in most unusual circumstances, where outside influences like Chicamaw and the law feel like invading forces.  As with the likes of “Johnny Guitar” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray subverts some gender roles in this, his first feature, at least from the outset as the tomboyish Keechie runs her father’s gas station and doesn’t glamorize herself in the least, and Farley Granger’s Bowie isn’t exactly, shall we say, the manliest of escaped convicts and bank robbers, and certainly not the hardened criminal the papers make him out to be.  Despite that, though, the moment where Keechie lets her hair down and combs it and rubs all that grime off her face, seemingly for the first time, is so great, and Cathy O’Donnell’s smile conveys Keechie’s excited feeling of discovering a new world and a new purpose in life so magnificently – subdued, but bubbling just beneath the surface.  Their courtship is hasty, filled with passion, and utterly charming and endearing, but it’s precisely that haste, in a rather dire on-the-run predicament, that causes all the worry and disagreement between the two – in other words, exactly what you’d expect from such a sudden courtship between two people who’ve known each other for so short a time.  It all leads to a predictable but still somewhat poignant conclusion – Keechie and Bowie’s story, in this quasi-noir, crime-ridden world couldn’t end any other way than it does – that shows not that the problems of a not-well-thought-out marriage and life on the run won out, but that they always loved each other regardless, and that ‘s what really makes their relationship so endearing.  A film that begins as an adventure for escaped convicts becomes a journey of romantic discovery for two sheltered youths, and maybe one of the most compelling depictions of a spur-of-the-moment lifestyle you’ll see, and their gradual discovery of what it means to devote yourself to another is the ultimate adventure.  It’s rough around the edges, but boy, what a debut for Nicholas Ray.

8.5/10

Six Films by Buster Keaton from 1920

The Garage (Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, 1920)

Funny, but too much of just slipping and falling on oil and water and other wet stuff.

7.5/10

One Week (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

That house is probably the most developed and fully-realized character I’ve seen in any silent film. Hell, in any film.

9.5/10

The Saphead (Herbert Blaché, Winchell Smith, 1920)

Buster was essentially the greatest stuntman who ever lived, not only because of his remarkable physical prowess but because he could actually hold his own as an actor. But when he’s charged with pretty much just acting and leaving behind his biggest talent, it’s like making a color commentator do play-by-play: he’s still in the sportscaster’s booth where he’s always been in his element, but simply by sliding into the next seat he’s doing something he just normally hasn’t been paid to do, and it shows. And it shows here. Buster could certainly hold his own as an actor, but eh, not that well, especially when it’s all he does in a given film. There’s a good stunt or two here, but otherwise this was just a bore, with stuffy old men worrying about their stocks, an odd villain who turns from sympathetic loser into Snidely Whiplash at the snap of a finger, and Buster acting like a clueless retard in love who saves the day by accident. Too much backroom stock dealings and maneuverings (to the point that it’s almost more of a drama than a comedy for a moment or two…), not enough Buster, so he’s just a buffoonish clown who’s pushed to the side much of the time instead of a protagonist you can root for. This isn’t a disaster, but his first feature-length film leaves plenty to be desired.

6.5/10

Convict 13 (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Who does he think he is, a Jedi?

8.5/10

The Scarecrow (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Charlie Chaplin found his ideal athletic/agile counterpart in The Kid with young Jackie Coogan. Buster Keaton found his in The Scarecrow with that dog. And I’m patenting all that mechanical string-powered shit in his house

9/10

Neighbors (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920)

Beats U-Haul.

7.5/10

Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)

“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death?”

Wow.  Did this movie really begin with a narration like that?  An introduction showing the heavens and the clouds and speaking those heady, heady words, and quoting Eurypides and Keats, no less?  With an intro like that, you’d expect “Portrait of Jennie” to be the most philosophical and symbolic work of fiction ever conceived…which of course it isn’t, and thus that introduction where a booming voice says, “Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever” comes off as pompous, over the top and incredibly ill-conceived.  Like the blank canvas used by Joseph Cotten’s penniless artist Eben Adams to passionately draw the titular portrait, this film should’ve been a blank slate, allowing the actors, the unearthly atmosphere, and the oddly supernatural take on the romance and mystery genres to speak for themselves, allowing viewers to interpret for themselves.  That introduction is over after a couple of minutes, but it nonetheless left a sour taste in my mouth for the duration of the film – what I was looking at was a somewhat endearing story of romance and finding the will to fulfill one’s true purpose in life, and a pretty interesting mystery and quasi-ghost story, but what that introduction was setting me up for was something with a lot more depth and symbolism – the kind of stuff you’d study in a literary theory class, and this worthwhile yet relatively minor piece of supernatural melodrama was not that.  I felt gypped, and fooled into expecting one thing and getting another, but putting that aside, what you do get is flawed, but very nice. 

To its detriment, there’re plenty of lame lovey-dovey lines that’ll make your skin crawl, to the effect of “I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart” and “there is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death” and all the standard we-were-made-for-each-others in between.  In a similar vein, there are some instances in which you’ll practically be blinded by the high-key lighting emphasizing every pore of Jennifer Jones’ face, in an overdone at best, shameless at worst attempt to overly-glamorize the girl.  The bottom-line is that every high-key light in the world could’ve been shined on Jones’ face and the screenplay could’ve made use of some of the most romantic words you’ve ever heard in her interactions with Cotten, but I still wouldn’t be able to understand Jennie’s appeal or buy completely into the romance, because frankly the whole concept is just too weird for any kind of traditional romance to succeed as a narrative device.  Never mind the fact that Jennie is either a ghost or a figment of Eben’s imagination and that she grows from artist’s muse into love interest as the film progresses, consider how Eben meets her as a precocious little girl unknowingly plucked right out of the 1910s and transposed into the 1940s, and every time they meet in the park, she inexplicably grows years older, until she becomes a young woman and college graduate.  She begins as Eben’s muse, young and playful and with a crush on the older man, only to age decades in the span of a few months to the point that that crush can be consummated, and an artist/subject relationship becomes a romance.  I’m sorry, that’s just plain creepy, the thought of a man meeting a little girl and then all of sudden being able to romance the young woman who mere months before was dancing around and singing songs in the park. 

That creepiness may’ve made me shudder and made my skin crawl, to the point that any genuine passion that this romance has (and there is genuine passion, despite the dialogue clichés and what-not) is practically negated by that creepiness lurking in the back of your mind, but that could also be a testament to just how bold this film is.  In the height of the Code era, when studios were practically puritanical in dictating what was and wasn’t morally acceptable on the screen, what other film would dare to involve a grown man falling for a little girl, albeit innocently and purely for artistic innovation at first, and then for all intents and purposes consummating that love?  Even disregarding the odd romance, there’s a surprising amount of narrative subtleties at play here, making for some damn fine psychological mystery.  As far as I can remember, you never quite find out what the real deal is with Jennie – if she’s a ghost, why is Eben of all people the only one who can see her – not his friend at the bar, nor the acerbic yet sympathetic art curator Miss Spinney (played wonderfully by Ethel Barrymore as a kind of confidant and quasi-mother figure to Eben)?  If she’s a figment of the imagination of Eben, a struggling artist desperate for inspiration, how would he know all the details of her life as they happened decades before, now being relived in the mind of this mysterious apparition?  I’m glad there are lots more questions in regard to this matter than there are answers, as well as how Eben simply accepts the fact that this girl is pretty much aging in dog years and rarely questions how odd that is, and that the film simply lets him accept it without outside commentary nudging us and saying ‘look how weird this is.’  Over the course of this film, Eben quite clearly loses touch with reality, going along with the situation of the his rapidly-aging, chronologically displaced, ghostly love interest as if it were as commonplace as buying groceries.  It may not be realistic, as he investigates the mystery of what happened to Jennie at that lighthouse years before and tries to prevent it from happening again, and then at the drop of a dime try to woo what is essentially thin air, but what it is is weird, and in an era like the ‘40s when clichéd melodramas and dull romances were being churned out to theaters by the dozens, weird is good. 

I could’ve done without the green tint during the big climax – probably meant to signify that by this point Eben is way, way within his own surreal world but is just more distracting than anything – ‘cuz the way I see it Joseph Cotten’s performance perfectly represents Eben’s dogged, near-crazed determination on its own.  Always a low-key actor, Cotten’s understated dryness and wry, swaggering persona are a perfect complement for the subtle nature of Eben’s madness – his passion for Jennie becomes outright obsession, but that obsession always remains bubbling below the surface, as Joseph Cotten keeps his emotions at bay in a way that only Joseph Cotten could.  If the actual meetings between Eben and Jennie are disappointing – Jennifer Jones just being shrill whether she’s playing a child or a grown woman, and their sappy words for each other being utterly useless and detrimental to an otherwise fine film, then it’s when they’re apart, when you can feel the loneliness and feelings of worthlessness oozing out of Joseph Cotten’s stone-cold face, when this film’s really in its element.  A late scene in which Eben simply sits in his dark apartment while his friend plays the harp – yes, the harp – and sings a song with the constant refrain of ‘yonder, yonder’ is absolutely beautiful.  The harp and the singing sound lovely and mournful, the shadows palpable and the cluttered room filmed perfectly (maybe the highlight of the entire film’s great cinematography), and as Eben stares off into space – there may have never been a better actor at staring off into space than Joseph Cotten – you know exactly what, or more precisely who, he’s thinking about.  If more of this film were this ethereally beautiful and peaceful, if Eben’s loneliness and the nature of Jennie were more of an enigma instead of the film trying to turn this metaphysical mystery into a typical romance, this would’ve been a masterpiece.  As it stands, a culturally risky premise and an air of unsettling ambiguity make this into something unique, where the answers about Jennie and about Eben’s passions and desires and morality lie yonder, yonder.

8/10

Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)

Late in this film, we see Warren Beatty running from a burning train car in the desert, with gunfire all around him.  It’s an image that’s quite literally right out of “Lawrence of Arabia” and one that suggests that “Reds” is just as much an ‘epic’ as “Lawrence” is.  Indeed, there’s plenty of the requisite great Vittorio Storaro cinematography and vistas and locales and a cast of thousands that all outwardly signify epic, as well as the larger-than-life ambitions and ideals of its subject, John Reed.  Reed’s life was an extraordinary one, spanning limitless miles both physically and intellectually as he and his wife Louise Bryant covered the Russian Revolution first-hand and then tried to bring its communist ideals to America, and such a life is rife for adapting for the screen.  This project was Warren Beatty’s baby, as he produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in it, but it’s far from a propaganda piece or a treatise defending leftist politics.  It’s merely a point in time, a chronicle of two people caught up in an amazing moment in the history of the world (encapsulated perfectly in a wonderful montage that closes out the film’s first half), that’s at its best not when focusing on John Reed’s politics or oft-foolish attempt to coax a worker’s revolution in America, but on the relationship between he and Louise Bryant, and their common zeal for a particular cause. 

Within the backdrop of political unrest in America and outright revolt in Russia, their romance is a compelling one, mainly because of Warren Beatty’s lively performance as the dashing and exuberant, yet foolhardy and vulnerable Reed, and Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, initially starstruck and out of her league in following Reed to the free love-driven Greenwich Village, but then becoming strong-willed and surprisingly independent (in regard to her sexual habits and otherwise…).  All the basement communist meetings and Reed barging into political conventions and making the harrowing journey to Russia to gain recognition for the American communist party did nearly nothing for me – in fact, these scenes of petty, secretive backroom arguments convinced me that Reed’s ilk had little if any relevance in America at the time.  So why should I care about any of this?  Because I bought most into Reed and Bryant themselves, the people rather than the political motivations.  Sure, there are a good number of stock domestic argument scenes that are quite frankly overly-written (indeed, this film’s great fault is in all likelihood its slight over-reliance on unrealistically intellectual dialogue in general), but I still bought into and was riveted by the ups and downs of their relationship, with all the rocky points and complications that you’d expect (hey, when a romance is set before a revolution, there’d better be complications).  The best part of this film may have been the least ‘epic’ in scope, chronicling the affair between Louise and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson in perhaps the best performance he’s ever given – understated, soulful, exuding deep intelligence, and that trademark Nicholson smarminess barely concealing a deep and impassioned sadness and jealousy towards the love that Louise so obviously has for John Reed.  You’re never quite able to grasp just how much of a passion Louise has for the politics that John has dedicated his life to, if any.  All you see is that, despite leaving him once every few seconds, his knack for being an overly-zealous prick, and being separated by thousands of miles, they’re made for each other (this despite a rather shamelessly melodramatic stretch of the film where she treks through the Russian woods to find her lost beloved).  Love conquers all, it seems, and for once that didn’t feel like a hopelessly clichéd and artificial backbone of a major screenplay.

Both elements of this film, the romance and the socio-political epic, have their flaws – the romantic story often falls into the realm of dialogue-driven cliché, and scenes of John Reed breaking into political rallies and arguing with other socialists get old rather quickly.  But regardless, the scope of the romance that this film depicts is compelling to no end.  What’s certain is that “Reds” neither completely defends nor completely demonizes communism – John Reed’s zeal for the worker’s revolution is infinite at first, until he becomes disillusioned with the whole thing when he experiences the less-than-savory conditions of Russia and its emotionally-crippled leaders first-hand, as well as being taken under the wing of the equally-disillusioned Emma Goldman, played by the wonderful, wonderful Maureen Stapleton, so the idealistic benefits and ugly detriments of communism are both on full display here.  “Reds” is at its greatest when communism itself isn’t at the forefront, but rather the man and the woman who became swept up in its tidal wave in one country, and their doomed attempt to create a similar tidal wave in a country at a much lower tide. Much of this film consists of present-day interviews with the ‘witnesses’ – old men and women who either knew Reed and Bryant or were active participants in the era, and it’s only fitting that much of what they reminisce about isn’t what the history books tell you about the communist revolution or the fledgling socialist party in America in general, but rather vague reminiscences about John Reed and Louise Bryant, in terms of personal character rather than ideals.  “Were they socialists?”, one witness tries to remember as Reed and Bryant are now mere enigmas in the cloudy recesses of this old person’s memory.  When this film casts doubt on their motivations and makes questions like that difficult to answer, when we’re tasked with speculating why John Reed and Louise Bryant became inseparable rather than whether communism is good or evil, when it’s a romantic epic rather than an epic of sweeping panoramas and explosions and great physical journeys, it’s at its best.

8/10

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

What a filmmaker this Nicholas Ray is!  What a gift he had for revealing, and inverting, society’s fallacies, gender roles, and prejudices through metaphor!  “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” so effortlessly depicted the oddities of gender roles and taboo as Ray really got under your skin, but “Johnny Guitar” may have bested those two, not just because it was an effective metaphor decrying McCarthyism, but because of its depiction of dominant, masculine women in a Western, perhaps the most masculine and male-driven of all genres traditionally.  True, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as saloon owner and cattle rancher respectively, and bitter enemies, really ham it up and ramp up the tell-tale signs of masculinity, to the point that McCambridge’s Emma completely emasculates her less than enthusiastic posse with her near-demonic vitriol of Crawford’s Vienna, but this is 1954, when Westerns still featured heroic gunmen and their damsels in distress, so maybe a bit of exaggeration was needed to get the role-reversal train rolling in the most difficult of genres with which to experiment with that type of thing. 

The film’s title refers to Sterling Hayden’s character (a sad and subtle Sterling Hayden!  Who knew?!), the guitar-strumming former gunslinger and former lover of Vienna hired to protect her and the saloon once she senses that Emma and her goons smell blood, but this isn’t his story.  Plenty of Westerns have dealt with feuds and the coming of the railroad (and thus modern society), but none that I can remember where that feud was between two women, but just as destined for violence and death as any other, and where the men, including the crack-shot Johnny Guitar, are more or less left on the sidelines.  The first big set-piece, a confrontation between Emma’s gang, Vienna, her lover the Dancin’ Kid who Emma accuses of robbing a stagecoach and killing her brother, and a spectating Johnny Guitar, is such a fascinating one, even if it’s nothing more than a bunch of men hurling corny Western-esque macho-isms at each other, basically comparing dick sizes (indeed, later on the Dancin’ Kid admits that he hopes the town finds out that he robbed the bank, just for the notoriety, like he needs that to be a man), while Vienna observes intently from her second-story perch.  They try to act tough, one of the Dancin’ Kid’s insulted goons basically telling Johnny to put up his dukes, but once Vienna speaks up and tells them to take it outside, everything stops and the men calmly walk through those swinging before slugging it out – they know who’s in charge (“I never met a woman who was more man,” the bartender tells Johnny). 

Johnny Guitar might have the résumé of a top-tier gunfighter and have a movie named after him, but once he enters Vienna’s Saloon, he’s basically her tool, her toy, the way the wimpy marshal and posse who dare to have a sliver of a conscience are the tools and toys of the viciously jealous and perpetually enraged Emma.  Later, when we finally learn of Johnny and Vienna’s tumultuous past together, when the cynical but amorous Johnny dares to try to show Vienna who has the pants in this relationship and to rekindle their romance, a fascinating back-and-forth ensues:

Johnny: Tell me something nice.


Vienna: Sure. What do you want to hear?


Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …


Vienna: All these years I’ve waited.


Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.


Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.


Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.


Vienna: I still love you like you love me.


Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

This puts a similar conversation in “Blade Runner,” in which the emasculated Deckard tries to exert the proverbial phallus upon the Replicant/non-woman Rachel by having her repeat ‘womanly’ phrases like “I want you” and “kiss me”, to shame.  Of course Vienna repeats these falsehoods halfheartedly, of course they aren’t true, and Johnny knows it – he just needed to hear her say it.  What a sad scene.  But Vienna just ain’t that kind of woman, even if she does love Johnny, which she does.  There are only two women in this film, and the last word you would ever use to describe either of them is ‘submissive.’

Now that Johnny’s failed at his attempt to come out on top and to pull the marionette strings, this is Vienna’s story through and through, namely her fight against the impossibly spiteful Emma.  There really is no rhyme or reason to how much hate Emma shows, despite the stock reason of the Dancin’ Kid possibly being responsible for her brother’s death and later a bank robbery, and thus Vienna being responsible-by-proxy, or her contempt for the coming railroad, for which Vienna stands to strike it rich and Emma uses fear tactics to try to convince the townspeople that they’ll be ruined (two words came to my mind as Emma made her frighteningly impassioned, xenophobic speech: Sarah Palin.  This movie wasn’t just a metaphor for 1954 society apparently, but a herald for 2009 as well…).  She’s just…evil, filled to her eyeballs with rage, and every ounce of that rage directed at Vienna.  On the surface, it’s because she wanted the Dancin’ Kid, who in turn wanted Vienna, so it’s all out of jealousy, but could Emma be in love with Vienna herself, and her inability to get what she wants because it’s societally unacceptable fuels her rage, causing her to despise that which she cannot have?  Stands to reason, considering how these two careen towards the Western-esque showdown so often reserved for the men while still retaining the romance-driven hopes and desires of women – the sexual ambiguity and dare I say, full-on bisexuality, bleeds from every pore of this film.  Just consider the astonishing scene in which Emma’s posse confronts Vienna in the saloon to demand that she give over the Dancin’ Kid, only to find her playing the piano, decked out in a regal white dress and calmly rebuking the fiery Emma.  Quite a difference from the no-bullshit Vienna we met earlier, dressed like a cowboy, overseeing her establishment from her high perch with that angry, scrunched up Joan Crawford face.  Who’s the real Vienna, the pants-wearing entrepreneur whose male employees obey her without a second thought, or the dress-wearing piano player who feigns ignorance, loves Johnny, and is easily overpowered by Emma’s mob, needing to be saved by Johnny in one of the film’s few moments of reliance on traditional Western gender conventions?  Maybe both.  Also helps that this scene is damned suspenseful and entertaining on its own as a great Western showdown, Vienna on one side, Emma and her posse, hands on holsters and slowly walking forward, on the other, with the sound of a piano punctuating the air as it would in any other saloon right before a potential shootout – just with typical conventions flipped, as it’s sexually ambiguous woman vs. insane and sexually jealous woman.  Vienna’s ambiguous, but boy, Emma ain’t.  You could criticize Mercedes McCambridge’s performance for being far too simplistic and overly-malevolent to the point of being hilarious, but I bought into it the way I bought into Walter Brennan’s performance as Old Man Clanton in “My Darling Clementine” – they’re like wild animals, with no shades of gray (at least in terms of Emma’s being a bitch; in terms of motivations, there are shades of gray up the wazoo), and in a metaphorical genre like a Western, that might be appropriate.  She’s so contemptible that I was fuming in that big showdown scene that she could cause so much bad to happen, as I’m sure many back then were fuming as people were mercilessly fingering others as Reds – the allegory isn’t exactly subtle here.  Vienna ain’t exactly a completely likable character in her own right, what with her obstinate stubbornness and Joan Crawford just being Joan Crawford, but compared to a woman like Emma, you can’t help but align yourself completely with Vienna and worry for her, one woman against an entire posse, a piano and sheer guts at her disposal instead of a gun. 

“Johnny Guitar” works as an entertaining as hell Western in its own right, with larger-than-life performances and gorgeous color and cinematography, even if the production skimped out with cheap-looking sets, but that doesn’t matter when a movie is as purely character-driven as this one is.  It’s also a political metaphor, and as a gender inverter, featuring an inevitable showdown between two uber-masculinized mega-bitches whose motivations are up in the air, and a mysterious guitar-strumming gunfighter who isn’t subservient to Vienna the way the woman would be subservient to the hero in another Western, but rather, her partner in crime.  He’s the supporting player (I guess “Vienna” just wasn’t a sexy enough movie title) while she takes center stage with more at stake for sure, but regardless, they need each other.  This film changed everything about gender roles and relations, and hardly anything at all.

9.5/10