Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of 2011

An annual tradition here at The End, here are my favorite movies I saw for the first time over the past year, excluding newly released films:


1. La Commune (Paris 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
2. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
3. Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer, 1983)
4. Street Scene (King Vidor, 1931)
5. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)
6. Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty, 1948)
7. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)
8. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958)
9. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
10. Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)
11. The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1960)
12. An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1962)
13. Gone in 60 Seconds (HB Halicki, 1974)
14. The Mission (Johnnie To, 1999)
15. People on Sunday (Siodmaks, Ulmer & Zinneman, 1930)
16. Mahanagar (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
17. Culloden (Peter Watkins, 1964)
18. The Black Book (Anthony Mann, 1949)
19. Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933)
20. Street Angel (Frank Borzage, 1928)



21. One Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)
22. Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)
23. The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1932)
24. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
25. Man's Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)
26. The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)
27. Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder, 1964)
28. I was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949)
29. The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950)
30. The Indian Epic (Fritz Lang, 1959)
31. The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer, 1981)
32. Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915)
33. Carnival in Flanders (Jacques Feyder, 1935)
34. History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
35. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)
36. Two Tars (James Parrott, 1928)
37. The Marquise of O (Eric Rohmer, 1976)
38. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)
39. There was a Father (Yasujiro Ozu, 1942)
40. What Price Glory? (Raoul Walsh, 1926)



41. Bonjour tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
42. Les bonnes femmes (Claude Chabrol, 1960)
43. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (Eric Rohmer, 1987)
44. The Masseurs and a Woman (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938)
45. Mon oncle d'Amerique (Alain Resnais, 1980)
46. My Sister Eileen (Richard Quine, 1955)
47. Socrates (Roberto Rossellini, 1971)
48. Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
49. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921)
50. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933)
51. Avanti! (Billy Wilder, 1972)
52. Jazz on a Summer's Day (Aram Avakian & Bert Stern,1959)
53. Election (Johnnie To, 2005)
54. The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)
55. Ornamental Hairpin (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941)
56. Leaves from Satan's Book (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1921)
57. The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, 1928)
58. The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)
59. The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille, 1927)
60. He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924)



61. Caught (Max Ophuls, 1949)
62. American Madness (Frank Capra, 1932)
63. The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)
64. Colorado Territory (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
65. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard, 1938)
66. Full Moon in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1984)
67. God of Gamblers (Wong Jing, 1989)
68. Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, 1943)
69. Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
70. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
71. Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
72. The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)
73. A Good Marriage (Eric Rohmer, 1982)
74. Heat Lightning (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934)
75. Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
76. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
77. Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)
78. The Only Son (Yasujiro Ozu, 1936)
79. Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)
80. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
81. Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray, 1955)



82. A Damsel in Distress (George Stevens, 1937)
83. Spione (Fritz Lang, 1928)
84. The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (Robert Siodmak, 1945)
85. The Moon is Blue (Otto Preminger, 1953)
86. My Young Auntie (Lau Kar-leung, 1981)
87. Midnight Mary (William Wellman, 1933)
88. HM Pulham, Esq. (King Vidor, 1941)
89. Mademoiselle Fifi (Robert Wise, 1944)
90. Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936)
91. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
92. The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929)
93. Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)
94. Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)
95. The Pajama Game (George Abbott & Stanley Donen, 1957)
96. A Hero Never Dies (Johnnie To, 1998)
97. Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932)
98. September Affair (William Dieterle, 1950)
99. Camille (Ray C. Smallwood, 1921)
100. Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949)
101. The Battle of the River Plate (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1956)



102. Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)
103. Born to be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
104. The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1936)
105. All for the Winner (Jeffrey Lau & Corey Yuen, 1990)
106. Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)
107. Free and Easy (Edward Sedgwick, 1930)
108. The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957)
109. Blackbeard, the Pirate (Raoul Walsh, 1952)
110. The Tale of Zatoichi (Kenji Misumi, 1962)
111. Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
112. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
113. The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray, 1957)
114. Sherman's March (Ross McElwee, 1986)
115. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
116. Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949)
117. What! No Beer? (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)
118. Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
119. A Woman's Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949)
120. Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)
121. The Lady Hermit (Ho Meng Hua, 1971)

Top 20 Albums of 2011



These were my favorites:


1. Hilary Hahn & Valentina Lisitsa - Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
2. Oregon Symphony - Music for a Time of War
3. Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson - Berlioz: Les nuits d'été - Handel: Arias
4. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
5. Lise de la Salle - Liszt
6. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
7. Various Artists - Jonathan Harvey: Bird Concerto with Pianosong
8. Thomas Gould & Aurora Orchestra - Nico Muhly: Seeing is Believing
9. Hélène Grimaud - Mozart
10. The Decemberists - The King is Dead
11. Tom Waits - Bad as Me
12. Béla Fleck & The Flecktones - Rocket Science
13. John Adams - Son of Chamber Symphony & String Quartet
14. Alexandere Desplat/Various Artists - Tree of Life Score/Soundtrack
15. Various Artists - The Muppets Soundtrack
16. Los Angeles Philharmonic - DG Concerts: Adams: Slonimsky's Earbox - Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 "Jeremiah"
17. Okko Kamu & Lahti Symphony Orchestra - Sibelius: The Tempest; The Bard; Tapiola
18. Stephen Malkmus - Mirror Traffic
19. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Rome
20. Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts

Friday, December 30, 2011

On These Amazing Shadows



A run of the mill advertisement for the National Film Registry, which is an admirable foundation (a subset of the Library of Congress) with a fascinating group of films covering a surprisingly wide range of American film.  The doc is all talking heads and movie clips, but the clips are great and some of the heads are inspired (Nina Paley!, The Self-Styled Siren!, George Takei!).  Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes devolves into a minority roundup, with boxes checked for marginalized groups the Registry recognizes: documentaries, animation, experimental film, women directors, African and Native Americans, etc.  This wouldn't be so bad, merely plainly schematic and a bit pandering, if they didn't pair The Searchers with The Birth of a Nation as racist films that are countered in turn by The Exiles and Boyz N the Hood.  Setting aside the fact that Boyz N the Hood is a pretty lame film, the mistreatment of The Searchers is criminal.  And it's not just the filmmakers at fault, though they include clips from the film taken out of context to prove how racist Hollywood was against Indians (which is kinda the point of the film but never mind), they get a Native American studies professor to talk about it, though it's unclear if they've misedited him.  No, the worst is Charles Burnett, director of the marvelous Killer of Sheep, talking about how he never knew how racist The Searchers was until he watched it with a friend who walked out in the middle of it.  When he asked her what was wrong, she asked "Can't you see all the racism?"  I don't know which is worse, Burnett for not realizing the film was about racism despite seeing it several times, or the woman drawing such an extreme conclusion after walking out halfway through.  I don't know how this idea that one of the most complex, powerful and moving indictments of racism ever to come out of Hollywood was in fact racist itself merely because it showed acts of racism in all their ugliness, but this kind of thing has got to stop.  And equating this with one of the most vile perversions of the art form in its history?  Unconscionable.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy


Vincente Minnelli's 1956 adaptation of the play Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson necessitated a few changes in order to make it past Hollywood censors.  As a result, the film is often derided as a watered down version of the original, another casualty of a culture that sought to systematically tame the daring and provocative in the name of of bourgeois morality.  On the contrary, I think the film as is is much superior to the play, that the censor-forced changes Minnelli and Anderson made make the film a simultaneously broader and deeper work, with a more nuanced view of human sexuality and relationships.  The film as Minnelli made it is one of the great melodramas of the 1950s, and one of the key works in this brilliant director's career.

This synopsis from the questionably named All Movie Guide provides a reasonable example of the general attitude toward the film, as well as a decent summary of the plot:
1956's Tea and Sympathy is a diluted filmization of Robert Anderson's Broadway play. The original production was considered quite daring in its attitudes towards homosexuality (both actual and alleged) and marital infidelity; the film softpedals these elements, as much by adding to the text as by subtracting from it. John Kerr (Tom) plays a sensitive college student who prefers the arts to sports; as such, he is ridiculed as a "sissy" by his classmates and hounded mercilessly by his macho-obsessed father Edward Andrews. Only student Darryl Hickman treats Kerr with any decency, perceiving that being different is not the same as being effeminate. Deborah Kerr (Laura), the wife of testosterone-driven housemaster Leif Erickson, likewise does her best to understand rather than condemn John for his "strangeness." Desperate to prove his manhood, John is about to visit town trollop Norma Crane. Though nothing really happens, the girl cries "rape!" Both John's father and Deborah's husband adopt a thick-eared "Boys will be boys" attitude, which only exacerbates John's insecurities. Feeling pity for John and at the same time resenting her own husband's boorishness, Deborah offers her own body to the mixed-up boy. "When you speak of this in future years...and you will...be kind." With this classic closing line, the original stage production of Tea and Sympathy came to an end. Fearing censorship interference, MGM insisted upon a stupid epilogue, indicating that Deborah Kerr deeply regretted her "wrong" behavior.

The changes from the original play occur mainly at the beginning and end of the film.  In the beginning of the play, the event that touches off the bullying Tom receives is that he's caught swimming naked with a (male) teacher.  The teacher is fired and Tom becomes an assumed homosexual and his every action (the way he walks, the way he cuts his hair, the music he listens to) is used as further evidence of his deviance.  In the film, the inciting incident is much less obvious, Tom is espied one afternoon sewing with Laura and some of the other older women, instead of playing sports and roughhousing with the other boys on the beach (the homoerotic elements of the "straight" boys' play is apparent but not emphasized, one of the many ironies Minnelli plays with in the film).  For this, he is taunted as "Sister Boy" for the remainder of the film, which follows the events of the play more or less closely until the end.  By making the inciting incident less sexual (sewing is hardly akin to skinny dipping), the film muddies up the question of Tom's homosexuality.  Indeed, for most of the film, it's unclear if Tom has any sexual inclinations one way or the other (or both).


For Nathan Rabin, this makes the film a necessarily flawed work.  He writes at The AV Club:
Simultaneously bold and a cop-out, Tea And Sympathy is a film divided against itself, a drama about a young gay man’s awkward, fumbling initiation into the adult world of sexuality that doesn’t have the courage to embrace its destiny as a groundbreaking queer film. (Unsurprisingly, the film features prominently in the stellar film and book The Celluloid Closet.) Yet this subtext makes the film even more poignant during its many subdued scenes where John and Deborah Kerr talk around what they’re really feeling because they can’t come right out and say what’s on their minds. Like the film’s troubled protagonist, Minnelli simply made the best out of an impossible situation with this flawed, fascinating time capsule.

On the contrary, the film as is is not a failed attempt at a "groundbreaking queer film", but rather it is queerer than Rabin realizes.  For queer doesn't simply mean "homosexual", but rather a rejection of the dominant image of sexuality, that of the middle class heterosexual masculinity of the 1950s which was seen as the only viable option for a man to be a productive member of society.  Minnelli has taken a play that appears to be about sex (gay kid gets teased, may sleep with Deborah Kerr) to one about sexual identity and its relation to social codes.  In the film, there's every reason to believe that Tom is gay, but he's just as likely to be a straight kid who just happens to like to sew and listen to classical music, or even a straight kid who doesn't like sewing at all, but is just pretending to so he can hang out with the older woman he's passionately in love with.  Or all of the above.  The point is that none of those things (sewing, classical music, Deborah Kerr) prove anything definitive about Tom.


Tom's relationship with Laura is highly ambiguous: he may see her as a friend, another lonely person who needs someone to talk to (Laura's husband is cold and distant towards her, and is explicitly identified throughout the film with Tom, especially in his youthful love of classical music (to which he regresses in the end) and the bullying he received when he was Tom's age for that non-conformity, thus her husband can be read as a homosexual who has been closeted since his late teens); a mother figure (Tom's own mother abandoned the family when he was very young, Laura throughout the film is wearing earth tones, greens and yellows (Tom always wears light blue: powder blue for his effeminacy or baby blue because he has not yet matured into a proper man) and Tom first sees her in her garden and their sexual encounter takes place in an Edenic, womblike forest (in the play, it takes place in Tom's dorm room, I believe), Minnelli thus identifies her with Nature, whether that is Mother Nature, or a comment on her effect on Tom's true nature (fulfilling it if he's straight or repressing it if he's gay) is undetermined); or a potential lover (this is apparently what Laura believes: he is acting strange because of his burning unrequited passion for her, by sleeping with him, Laura is helping Tom "become a man" in the sense of maturation, not repression).

The film's epilogue settles none of this.  Here, Tom receives a letter Laura has written him after confessing her infidelity to her husband.  The husband is wrecked and alone (listening to classical music), Laura is apparently also alone, and Tom is a successful writer, married with children.  Suffice it to say, being married and having children in the 1950s says very little about one's "true" sexual orientation, so even this tacked on, mandated-by-censors ending solves none of the ambiguities Minnelli has opened up.  Far from dividing the film against itself, the epilogue concludes the film in the same variable state the rest of the film has occupied.


The film rejects the idea that Tom can be defined by any of the usual methods we use to identify someone as "gay" or "straight" and in so doing undermines the very idea that people in general can be so defined.  The truth is, we don't know anything about Tom's inner life, all we ever see are outward manifestations that we then choose to interpret one way or the other.  By making those outward clues more ambiguous and potentially contradictory than they are in the play, the film opens up more possibilities for Tom's sexuality, and forces us to consider whether he really is gay or not, and what it is that makes us think so and why.  Thus the film, instead of being merely an admirably pro-gay melodrama is instead a deeply subversive work, one that undermines not only homophobia, but all of our assumptions about what it means to be a "man" (non-biologically speaking, of course) as well as the very idea that we should have such definitions to begin with.  It's a wholesale rejection of heteronormativity in the name of non-definitional ambiguity.

Thematically, this ties in with a recurring strain in Minnelli's films, one that it is very tempting to read as autobiographical (though we should probably refrain from such things).  That is the story of an artist's struggle to fit into or escape from a constricting social environment.  Tom's ambition in life is to become a folk singer (very prescient for a film from 1956, a full five years before Dylan showed up in the Village).  He also reads poetry, likes to listen to classical music, and by the end of the film has become a writer.  His troubles in school arise largely because his artistic inclinations are read as "gay" by the other kids at school (as well as his father).  The film is therefore not only about a sexually ambiguous man struggling against social mores, but also about a society that reads "art" as "deviance" and attempts to repress its manifestations.  Tom therefore joins other Minnelli heroes like Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis, Manuela and Serafin in The Pirate, Jerry in An American in Paris, Van Gogh in Lust for Life and Dave in Some Came Running (along with many others) as artists trying to remake the world to match their vision of it, despite all the pressures of social obligation and expectation weighing them down, repressing them.  The results aren't always the same: in Minnelli's dramas, the artist usually fails and ends in tragedy (Tom can be read as either fully closeted or finally free); in the musicals, the artists usually triumph -- after all, what is a musical if not a fundamental subversion of restrictive social codes (it is highly improper to just start singing and dancing whenever you feel like it).  The conflict is uniquely sexualized in Tea and Sympathy, but Minnelli's goal, and his hero's, remains the same: the breaking down of normalcy in the name of a freer, more open world full of possibilities.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

1902



1. A Trip to the Moon -  Possibly the first great narrative film, George Méliès loosely adapted Jules Verne and HG Wells into this film about a group of bearded scientists shooting themselves to the moon in a giant cannon, where they take a nap, assassinate the King of the Moonmen then make their escape back to Earth.  The parallels with European colonial adventures are obvious.  The wonder of the film though is its ambition: Méliès weds the stop motion magic tricks he perfected through the first 6 years of cinema to fantastical, multi-layered and interactive set design, elaborate costumes and a cast of dozens to create a unique cinematic world, one that, for one of the first times in movie history is less a recorded artifact of a stage performance and more its own creation.  The movie starts a bit slow, as the scientists pose for an interminable group photograph, but once they change into their space suits (really just suits) and get loaded into the cannon by what appear to be a phalanx of chorus girls, the film piles mind-blowing image upon image.  My favorite: that the moonmen, after what must have been millennia of evolution prove vulnerable only to that most dangerous weapon of all: the umbrella.


2. Gulliver's Travels - Another Méliès literary adaptation, though a much less successful one.  Rather than a coherent narrative in its own right, this is more a set of illustrations of scenes from the book.  The best part is a tour de force bit of double exposure split screen action at the center of the film, where Gulliver is served a meal by the Lilliputians.  Méliès almost seamlessly integrates the two images (filmed on separate sets with the camera at different distances, to create the size distortions, it looks like) in a way that remains marvelous even to modern eyes.

1901



1. The Pan-American Exposition By Night - Directed by Edwin S. Porter and James Blair Smith, working for the Edison company, this one minute film consists only of a slow pan across the eponymous exposition.  Midway though, the shot fades to black and returns, only now it is nighttime and the exposition is lit by the wonder of electric light.  As cinematic miracles go, this is about as simple as it gets, but it's a miracle nonetheless.


2. Excelsior! The Prince of the Magicians - Magician Georges Méliès uses the power of editing to create a magic routine greater than any possible in continuous reality.  Some of the edits are pretty obvious, but the speed and abandon with which Méliès commits himself makes it all work.


3. What Happened on Twenty-Third Street - A cute little joke movie, anticipating a certain iconic Marilyn Monroe image by over 50 years.  Edwin Porter directs what appears to be a documentary street scene that turns risqué when an actress comes onscreen.


4. The Devil and the Statue - Another Méliès magic movie, though much clunkier and pedestrian than Excesior!.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On The Spanish Earth


Is it just me or does the Hemingway narrator in everyone else's head always sound like Orson Welles?  Anyway, Welles narrates Hemingway and Jon Dos Passos's text in this documentary film, made in the midst of the Spanish Civil War by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens.  As if that wasn't enough star power, the musical score is by Marc Blitzstein (Cradle Will Rock) and Virgil Thomson, one of the first great American classical composers (along with Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin).  Thomson won a Pulitzer for his score to Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, and while this isn't that good (there's a lot of pastiche Spanishness to it, as opposed to Thomson's usual all-American style), it's still pretty charming.  The film is newsreel-style footage with sound effects and voiceover added later, but Ivens has an eye for striking images and some of his editing is quite clever (a particular cut from a gun firing to a hole of sunlight peeking through the crook of a soldier's elbow comes to mind).


Set during the fascists' march on Madrid, the film splits the focus onto two stories, that of the capital's populace preparing themselves for the eventual attack (evacuating children, forming militias out of soccer players and bullfighters) and a nearby village's construction of an irrigation ditch to turn their unoccupied waste land into crops to feed the to-be-beseiged city. The script throughout is filled with pithy Hemingwayisms, sounding at times like the parody Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.  My favorite: a post-battle riff on how sixes went out and only twos and threes came back.  The farm scenes are OK, but they pale in comparison to the similar construction effort in King Vidor's communitarian classic Our Daily Bread, released three years earlier.  Perhaps the final scenes of water flowing to relieve the parched Spanish earth (get it?) would have had a more triumphant effect if we didn't already know the ultimate fate of the Loyalists and those farmers.  Then again, that adds an unintentional poignancy to the whole film, and Vidor's communist farmers likely didn't end up much better off when McCarthyism and groups like Vidor's own Randian anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals got ahold of them.


There's something that continues to fascinate me about this war.  Unlike the fascist takeovers in Germany and Italy, it wasn't a matter of an evil political party capitalizing on social conditions to get itself elected to power.  Unlike totalitarianism in France and Russia it wasn't the byproduct of a revolution corrupted by its own power.  Like many dictatorships, this one began with a coup, but only a partially successful one.  Instead of creating a military junta overnight, which could then proceed to its dastardly ends (purging the population, annoying and/or allying with US corporations, etc), the Spanish coup only managed to split the country politically in half, between the Monarchists and Fascists on the right and the Republicans, Communists and Anarchists on the left.  And so the war makes manifest, in a way no other conflict does, the divide between the political left and right in Western politics.  World War II, for example, wasn't a fight for Democracy against Totalitarianism, it was a fight against territorial aggression by rogue nations that happened to be totalitarian (with one of Democracy's key allies, the Soviet Union, being itself a totalitarian state).  But the Spanish Civil War was a real left vs. right conflict, where the political rhetoric of the most extreme elements of both sides for once became a reality.  The idea that these arguments between Left and Right really could degenerate into the kind of civil war Spain went through is an idea that seems wholly alien to us (though it can be found in many political films of the 1930s, particularly those of Frank Capra, which I think are greatly enhanced by seeing through the politics of the time, where Democracy was an existential choice and not merely a platitude), where our political parties throw around words like fascism and socialism with little regard to their actual meaning or their relevance to the people being so accused.  No one really believes Dick Cheney would organize a military coup to overthrow the elected government of the United States, nor does anyone serious believe that Barack Obama is plotting a government takeover of American industry or a mass collectivization project.


It is this seemingly obvious fact that Ivens's documentary makes clear to me: that this was a war fought by actual people who actually believed in and put into action the most extreme variants of modern political theory.  He focuses on the Left, the loyalist side with its poor folks banding together in a communitarian ideal to protect themselves from the invading fascists (helped, he repeatedly notes, by the foreign influence of the Germans and Italians, the assistance the Loyalist side received from the Soviets goes unmentioned), but in seeing those Loyalists as individuals, the fact that the fascists were also a mass movement becomes clear.  We don't see them in The Spanish Earth, I imagine Ivens would prefer to see the fascists not as individuals but as abstract forces of evil, but in their conspicuously off-screen existence, their presence, their threat, is inescapable.  Spain didn't have its democracy stolen, or totalitarianism imposed upon it: a sizable portion of the Spanish population wanted to live under dictatorship so much that they fought and killed and died for the right to create a fascist state.  I find that truth to be absolutely terrifying.


On a much lighter note, this was the first film my daughter watched, and she made it almost the whole way through its 55 minute runtime.  I don't know what exactly about it fascinated her so much, she usually prefers color images and flashier editing, and has very few interesting opinions on politics or history.  Maybe it was the score (she's heard a lot of Thomson over her 13 1/2 weeks of life), or maybe she just likes Orson Welles's voice (who doesn't?).  Regardless, she was rapt with attention until she slumped over asleep.  As far as she knows, the war had a happy ending.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On the Late Films of Buster Keaton


In May of 1928, Buster Keaton released Steamboat Bill, Jr, one of his greatest films, with perhaps his most elaborate and memorable stunt work, featuring the facade of a house falling on top of him in the midst of a hurricane, a small window clearing his body with inches to spare, the difference between comedy and death.  It received mediocre reviews and failed to do much at the box office.  For almost a decade, Keaton had functioned autonomously in Hollywood, with complete creative control of his films, first producing a remarkable string of 19 short films, then a series of 10 wildly innovative features, work that by itself has earned him the status of one of the single greatest filmmakers in history.  But after Steamboat Bill, Keaton signed with MGM, the biggest, most powerful studio in town.  In September of 1928, he released The Cameraman, made at the studio, but under his own system.  Within a year, the studio would take over supervision of his features, leading to a series of popular, but highly mediocre films that, combined with a couple disastrous marriages and a bout of alcoholism nearly meant the end of one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever known.  Keaton survived, eventually kicking alcohol and finding a stable apparently healthy marital relationship, and his career continued in bit parts and TV and writing gigs until his death in the late 1960s.  In the end, he left us with 19 feature films, half of which are the highest example of what a true artist can do with the medium, and half of which are a textbook example of the money-making blandness corporate bureaucracy would prefer the medium to produce.

(That it all happened within 15 years (about the length of Wes Anderson's career) surely says something about art and bureaucracy as well.  The great artistic peaks of the 20th Century all occurred in a remarkably compressed amount of time.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan from 1962-70, Jean-Luc Godard from 1960-67, DW Griffith from 1909-19 and so on.  Keaton's run from 1920-1928 ranks with any of them.)


Over the last few weeks, I've managed to catch all the Buster Keaton sound films thanks to TCM.  Knowing the backstory made me apprehensive, and for the most part my fears were confirmed.  These are simply not very good films.  But I like to think that there are good things to find in just about any movie, and when a filmmaker and performer is as brilliant and gifted as Buster Keaton is it is almost impossible for them to do nothing interesting over the course of a feature film.  So in watching these movies, with low expectations and the understanding that not a single one of them can be considered anything like a masterpiece, the viewing experience changes, or rather, it shifts into what it probably should be all the time, but usually isn't.  Instead of being carried away by the film, either by the artistry of its visual style or the cleverness of its screenplay and story construction, or the emotional implications and philosophical or political ideas it is trying to convey, I find myself instead waiting for the moments of inspiration, the small gestures or expressions or moments of balletic grace that transcend the surrounding mediocrity and where we can catch a glimpse of the buried genius within.  Watching the late Keaton films is not to be swept away by the fulfillment of a cinematic vision, but instead to be reminded that artistry can be found in the most unlikely places; that though it can be incredibly fragile, it is more indestructible than we think.


The Cameraman - The last true Buster Keaton feature has a bit of an out-sized reputation.  It is not at the level of his greatest films, Sherlock Jr or The General or Steamboat Bill, but it's pretty good nonetheless.  He plays a photographer who tries to become an MGM newsreel photographer to impress a girl.  There are some very good bits: a recurring gag with Keaton breaking an office window is a bit obvious, but nicely built, a pool changing room sequence that, like many of Keaton's best and worst routines, feels more like a record of a historic vaudeville performance than a comic innovation, a rousing climactic gang war in Chinatown, with Keaton (and a monkey!) finding himself perilously close to the action as he attempts to film it.  Most magical of all is a sequence where Keaton finds himself alone on a diamond and he plays an imaginary game of baseball.



Spite Marriage - This was Keaton's last silent film, and it's more or less a whimper.  He plays a sap who idolizes a stage actress who ends up marrying Keaton to spite (get it?) an actor who rejected her.  There's a great scene of Keaton trying to put his passed-out-drunk wife to bed on their wedding night, and the first of what would become a recurring trope in Keaton's MGM films: the destruction of a serious theatrical production by Keaton's cluelessly chaotic behavior.


Free and Easy - Taking that last idea and running with it through early sound era Hollywood makes this my favorite of the Keaton talking pictures.  He plays a slow-witted but well-meaning small town type who accompanies a young lady and her mother to Hollywood, where the girl will attempt to become a star.  She ends up dating Robert Montgomery, and Keaton destroys a number of film projects, most memorably when he's cast in a small part in a Fred Niblo costume picture (his repeated inability to enter a scene without destroying the entire set is a masterpiece of slow-burning slapstick).  Somehow, Keaton and the mother end up with major parts in Montgomery's film, which is apparently a musical, while the girl (played by Anita Page, who was excellent the year before in the Oscar-winning The Broadway Melody, and who would also star with Keaton in Sidewalks of New York) decides she'd rather be a housewife than an actress.  There are a couple of fine comic musical numbers: the first a duet with Keaton and the mother that harkens back to vaudeville, the second a big group production number featuring a slick little dance by Keaton to the film's catchy title song.



Doughboys - Basically a comic version of King Vidor's The Big Parade, except not as funny as the original (which isn't particularly funny).  Keaton plays a rich guy who accidentally joins the army, goes through basic training and gets shipped off to World War I.  During all this, he falls in love with a girl who is not Clara Bow, as impossible as that may sound.  It's about as funny as your average Beetle Bailey strip.  Someone had to invent all the comic tropes we know and hate about army life (the mean sergeant, peeling potatoes, guard duty in the rain), I really doubt this is that ur-Army film, though it does provide a thorough survey of everything you've seen before.  There is a really cool musical sequence with Keaton, Cliff Edwards and a ukelele.


Parlor, Bedroom and Bath - This is a prime example of one of the worst trends in the MGM films, which is the stupidification of the Keaton character.  In his own films, Keaton always played a reasonably intelligent ordinary little guy, generally unlucky with love and machinery, often a fish out of water.  By the end of the film, though, he would have learned to master his environment (a ship or a train or a house, etc) and would win the girl through acts of bravery and physical competence.  In the MGM films, however, Keaton increasingly plays a character (seemingly always named "Elmer" for some reason) for whom a developmental disability is a very real possibility.  It's not that he's an ordinary guy who finds himself out of his comfort zone: he's an incompetent with no discernible skills who manages to survive to the end of the film not through learning to master his surroundings, but through sheer dumb luck.  For example, in this film, Keaton plays a guy who gets hired by rich people to pretend to be a womanizer in order to attract the attention of the older sister of the girl Reginald Denny wants to marry (it's a Taming of the Shrew type scenario).  The twist is that Keaton knows absolutely nothing about women, apparently only discovering their existence some 15 minutes into the film.  This remarkable ignorance leads Denny to hire a giantess to teach Keaton the ways of romance, leading to some occasionally inspired chaos (despite the complete lack of believability of anything any of the characters do) during a series of unmaskings and a wild chase at the film's climax that is the only sequence in the film where Keaton's genius peeks through, despite the horrific material he's given to work with.


Sidewalks of New York - Just like the film above, but instead of rich swells, Keaton stars with a bunch of proto-Dead End kids.  He's a rich guy who tries to start a community center for the inner city youth in order to impress a girl.  But the kids would rather join gangs instead and keep beating Keaton up.  One of the kids gets mixed up with a grown up gangster and there's some cross dressing and eventually a chase in a mansion that's so uninspired you can hardly believe it stars the same man as The High Sign.  The only high point is a boxing match with Keaton and a goon he's hired to throw the fight that double crosses him, but even that looks lame in comparison to Charlie Chaplin's boxing match in the same year's City Lights.  In fact, that should give a good idea of where Keaton and Chaplin were at this point in their careers:  Chaplin making arguably his best film, Keaton his worst.


The Passionate Plumber - With this we have the unlikely pairing of Keaton with comic Jimmy Durante.  The two make an amiable, if totally mismatched duo, but they probably had a lot of fun during the shoots.  Unfortunately, on-screen, they're a mess. As with Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, MGM cast Keaton in a remake of a play that had already been adapted for film, and again the material is completely wrong for him.  He plays a plumber/inventor who gets mixed up in the tedious love lives of the rich, and fights a duel with someone for some reason (he invented a kind of gun or something).  I was wrong before: this has got to be the low point of Keaton's career.  Or maybe not, I'm having trouble remembering anything else about it.


Speak Easily - A slight improvement is this return to the magic of Free and Easy, with Keaton joining a terrible traveling acting troupe (led by Durante) and bankrolling their production on Broadway (to impress a girl, naturally) while under the mistaken impression that he (an oblivious college professor) has inherited a fortune.  The film is pretty lackluster (though Durante gives a much more interesting performance here, he got lost in the European setting of The Passionate Plumber, but we get the full Schnozzola here, and there's a fun sequence of Keaton getting drunk with a scheming actress played by Thelma Todd), at least until the end, where Keaton again works his chaos magic on a stage performance, his unintentional nuttiness driving the audience wild and saving the day.  Again, this is in distinction to the arc of his silent features, when the Keaton character would save the day not by accident, but because he had learned to master the machines and environments that he'd found himself so comically mismatched with at the beginning of the film.  In the silents, he overcomes obstacles through his bravery and ingenuity.  In the MGM films, a bunch of random stuff happens and sometimes it's funny.


What!  No Beer? - Surely one of the all-time greatest film titles deserves a better movie than this.  Under the mistaken impression that Prohibition has been lifted, Keaton and Durante go into the beer-brewing business, inadvertently underselling the local bootleggers and inspiring a gang war.  Again, the Keaton character is pretty dumb, his interactions with the women in the film are ridiculously juvenile (Keaton was 38 years old at this point, did the studio really expect us to take him as so seriously, ignorantly virginal?).  The best visual sequence in the film is an homage to/rip-off of the famous boulder chase scene in Seven Chances, this time with Keaton fleeing a bunch of beer barrels.  A comparison of the two would show the obvious superiority of the silent version, as it not only exists on a bigger scale (dozens and dozens of boulders on a massive hillside vs. a handful of barrels quickly rolling down a couple city blocks) but lasts longer and is filmed so as to maximize the visceral impact of the chase (whereas the beer barrel sequence is filmed mostly in long shot, keeping us at a respectable distance from the danger).  Still, at least Keaton gets a suitable finale in this film, as he manages to come up with a brilliant plan to save his crew from a police raid on their brewery by getting the entire town drunk on free beer.  Despite its shortcomings, this does manage to be the second-best talking film of Keaton's MGM career.



Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Essay & Podcast Index


An index of my written reviews can be found over here. This is an index of the non-review pieces I've written here at The End of Cinema, as well as various other websites. And also the episodes of The George Sanders Show and They Shot Pictures that I've appeared on.

Podcasts:

The George Sanders Show:

Episode One: The Big Heat and Drug War  Jun 29, 2013
Episode Two: Dead Man and Ride Lonesome  Jul 06, 2013
Episode Three: Charade and The Truth About Charlie  Jul 12, 2013
Episode Four: Duel of Fists and Tears of the Black Tiger  Jul 20, 2013
Episode Five: Sneakers and Whirlpool  Jul 27, 2013
Episode Six: Two Lovers and Two English Girls  Aug 02, 2013
Episode Seven: Logan's Run and WALL-E  Aug 09, 2013
Episode Eight: Gun Crazy and Point Break  Aug 16, 2013
Episode Nine: Ishtar and Sons of the Desert  Aug 26, 2013
Episode Ten: The Grandmaster and A Touch of Zen  Aug 29, 2013

Episode Eleven: The Top Ten Films of All-Time  Sep 05, 2013
Episode Twelve: The Black Stallion and The Killing  Sep 12, 2013
Episode Thirteen: Once Upon a Time in America and The Roaring Twenties  Sep 19, 2013
Episode Fourteen: Harakiri and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai  Sep 27, 2013
Episode Fifteen: Solaris and Solaris  Oct 10, 2013
Episode Sixteen: Belle de jour and Belle toujours  Oct 17, 2013
Episode Seventeen: Cat People and The Black Cat  Oct 24, 2013
Episode Eighteen: Ingeborg Holm and The Holy Mountain  Oct 31, 2013
Episode Nineteen: The Big Parade and The Red and the White  Nov 10, 2013
Episode Twenty: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Three Ages  Nov 18, 2013

Episode Twenty-One: Monsieur Verdoux and Bonfire of the Vanities  Nov 25, 2013
Episode Twenty-Two: Computer Chess and The Chess Players  Dec 01, 2013
Episode Twenty-Three: The Hudsucker Proxy and Lady for a Day  Dec 08, 2013
Episode Twenty-Four: Crank and The Victim  Dec 15, 2013
Episode Twenty-Five: Meet Me in St. Louis and A Christmas Tale  Dec 23, 2013
Episode Twenty-Six: I'm No Angel, Dragnet Girl and 1933 in Review  Dec 30, 2013
Episode Twenty-Seven: The Wolf of Wall Street and L'Argent  Jan 14, 2014
Episode Twenty-Eight: Her and The Doll  Jan 27, 2014
Episode Twenty-Nine: The Train and Emperor of the North  Feb 12, 2014
Episode Thirty: Oscar Spectacular, The Great Ziegfeld & Chicago  Feb 24, 2014

Episode 31: The Three Musketeers and Jason & the Argonauts  Mar 13, 2014
Episode 32: Pride of the Yankees and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings Mar 24, 2014
Episode 33: The Magnificent Ambersons and Platform  Apr 07, 2014
Episode 34: La ultima película and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break  Apr 22, 2014
Episode 35: Under the Skin and Starman  May 05, 2014
Episode 36: Hatari! and White Hunter, Black Heart  May 20, 2014
Episode 37: The 2014 Seattle International Film Festival  Jun 11, 2014
Episode 38: Snowpiercer and Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors  Jun 30, 2014
Episode 39: Lola and Lola  Jul 13, 2014
Episode 40: The Genius of the System, Hellzapoppin' and The Barefoot Contessa  Jul 29, 2014

Episode 41: Rock 'N' Roll High School and Pitch Perfect  Aug 20, 2014
Episode 42: Strike and Matewan  Sep 01, 2014
Episode 43: Top Ten Films of All-Time  Sep 07, 2014
Episode 44: Videodrome and Wavelength  Sep 20, 2014
Episode 45: How to Marry a Millionaire and Down with Love  Oct 06, 2014
Episode 46: Gone Girl and The Vanishing  Oct 18, 2014
Episode 47: Toute la mémoire du monde and Russian Ark  Nov 03, 2014
Episode 48: Renaldo & Clara, Masked & Anonymous and Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2  Nov 15, 2014
Episode 49: Awaara and Sholay  Nov 29, 2014
Episode 50: Coffy, Golden Chicken and 2014 Discoveries  Dec 13, 2014

Episode 51: Love Streams, Streets of Fire and the Best of 1984  Dec 27, 2014
Episode 52: The Shopworn Angel and The Cheyenne Social Club Jan 10, 2015
Episode 53: Selma and Malcolm X Jan 24, 2015
Episode 54: Alphaville and A Separation Feb 11, 2015
Episode 55: Doctor Zhivago and Darling Feb 22, 2015
Episode 56: Where Danger Lives and Farewell, My Lovely Mar 06, 2015
Episode 57: Days of Thunder and Red Line 7000 Apr 11, 2015
Episode 58: Jauja and Three Crowns of the Sailor Apr 18, 2015
Episode 59: The Clouds of Sils Maria and Centre Stage May 2, 2015
Episode 60: Linda Linda Linda and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis May 17, 2015

Episode 61: SIFF Special - Interview with Atticus Ross May 30, 2015
Episode 62: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival Recap Jun 13, 2015
Episode 63: Blackhat and A Better Tomorrow Jun 29, 2015
Episode 64: Summer Interlude and Songs from the Second Floor Jul 11, 2015
Episode 65: The Green Ray and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes Jul 29, 2015

They Shot Pictures:

They Shot Pictures #7: Hou Hsiao-hsien  Aug 28, 2012
They Shot Pictures #11: Mikio Naruse  Feb 25, 2013
They Shot Pictures #13: Johnnie To  Mar 26, 2013
They Shot Pictures #15: Akira Kurosawa Part One  Jun 15, 2013
They Shot Pictures #16: Jane Campion  Jul 01, 2013
They Shot Pictures #17: Sammo Hung  Jul 08, 2013
They Shot Pictures #19: John Ford Part One  Aug 31, 2013
They Shot Pictures #21: Festival Recap Part One  Oct 17, 2013

They Shot Pictures #22: Festival Recap Part Two  Oct 30, 2013
They Shot Pictures #23: Akira Kurosawa Part Two  Oct 31, 2013
They Shot Pictures #24: Claire Denis  Nov 28, 2013
They Shot Pictures #25: John Ford Part Two  Dec 19, 2013
They Shot Pictures #26: 2013 Year in Review Part One  Dec 22, 2013
They Shot Pictures #27: 2013 Year in Review Part Two  Dec 22, 2013
They Shot Picutres #28: FW Murnau  Feb 15, 2014
They Shot Pictures #29: Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli  Mar 04, 2014
They Shot Pictures #30: Vincente Minnelli Musicals  Apr 19, 2014
They Shot Pictures #32: Lau Kar-leung  Jun 25, 2014
They Shot Pictures #34: King Hu  Nov 17, 2014
They Shot Pictures #35: 2014 Year in Review Part One   Dec 25, 2014
They Shot Pictures #36: 2014 Year in Review Part Two  Dec 25, 2014


Essays and Lists at The End of Cinema and Seattle Screen Scene and Elsewhere:

Coen Fatigue  Jan 02, 2008
Movie Roundup: VIFF '09 Edition  Apr 11, 2010
Movie Roundup: SFIFF Edition Part One  July 19, 2010
Movie Roundup: SFIFF Edition Part Two  July 27, 2010
VIFF '10: Wrap-up  Oct 11, 2010
On the Late Films of Buster Keaton  Nov 22, 2011
For the Love of Film: One Week with Hitchcock  May 13, 2012
Ozu's Fun with Salt  Jul 16, 2012
On the 2012 Sight and Sound Poll  Jul 31, 2012
More on the 2012 Sight and Sound Poll  Aug 02, 2012

Last Notes on the Sight and Sound Poll  Aug 16, 2012
Flights of the Red Balloons  Aug 21, 2012
VIFF 2012 Index  Nov 03, 2012
On Some Objections to Auteurism  Mar 08, 2013
The Johnnie To Whimsicality Index  Mar 17, 2013
On Infernal Affairs, The Departed and Johnnie To  Mar 19, 2013
Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism: Part One: On Vulgar Auteurism  Apr 16, 2013
Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism: Part Two: What are the Resident Evil Movies?  May 01, 2013
Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism: Part Three: Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism  Jun 02, 2013
The Best 2012 Movies of 2013, So Far  Jul 13, 2013

VIFF 2013: Dragons & Tigers Awards  Oct 04, 2013
Running Out of Karma: Introduction  Nov 14, 2013
A Top 25 Films of 2013, More or Less  Dec 31, 2013
Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 Jan 09, 2014
The Best War Movies of All-Time  May 26, 2014
The Best 2014 (and 2013) Movies of the Year (So Far)  Jul 01, 2014
A Top 50 Films of 2014, More or Less Dec 21, 2014
The Best Older Movies I Saw in 2014  Dec 30, 2014
Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 Feb 12, 2015
Seattle Screen Valentine Scene Feb 13, 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards Preview Feb 20, 2015
On the 2014 Academy Awards (Or, the Vice of Intended Ignorance) Feb 27, 2015
Fists and Fury at the Cinerama Feb 27, 2015
Hitchcock at the Uptown Mar 12, 2015
The Seattle Hou Hsiao-hsien Retrospective Mar 19, 2015
Underrated 1985 Films Apr 11, 2015
Underrated '65 Jul 02, 2015

Essays at Metro Classics:

All About Bette  Aug 17, 2009
A Short History Of The Western Genre, And Why The Wild Bunch Was Ahead Of Its Time  Sept 07, 2009
A Short History Of The Musical Genre, Towards Defending As Essential The Arguably Extraneous Dance Sequence At The End Of Singin' In The Rain  Oct 02, 2009
Clint Eastwood And The Myth Of The Last Golden Age  Oct 26, 2009
A Filmography Of Wong Kar-wai In Eighteen Images (Or, Yay! Pretty Pictures!)  Nov 09, 2009
Why Charlie Chaplin Is Better Than Buster Keaton  Nov 16, 2009
Disjointed Musings Somewhat Related To Gone With The Wind  Dec 01, 2009
On Eric Rohmer  Jan 12, 2010
Following Up On Eric Rohmer  Feb 01, 2010

Pre-Game Warm-Up: Gloria Swanson Edition  Mar 22, 2010
What If Double Feature: Meet Me in St. Louis  Aug 22, 2010
What If Double Feature: All That Heaven Allows  Aug 30, 2010
Hell is Other Movies: One Week with Nicholas Ray  Mar 29, 2011
Hell is Other Movies: Seven Samurai for Seven Samurai  Apr 12, 2011
Eric Rohmer: Comedies and Proverbs  Aug 23, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Movie Roundup: 52 Movies To Go Edition


When a Woman Ascends the Stairs - Ho hum, another great Japanese movie about the miserable life of a woman/prostitute.  The main character of this one, Keiko, played by the great Hideko Takemine, isn't exactly a prostitute, but rather a bar hostess, whose job it is to be charming and entertaining to the male customers, but not actually sleep with them.  She wants to open a bar of her own, but the economics of mid-century Japan make that extremely difficult for women, and director Mikio Naruse examines in great detail the complex maneuvers and moral compromises Keiko must go through to try to realize her dream.  This is my first Naruse film, and he has an elegant visual style that isn't as immediately idiosyncratic as his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, but is quite lovely nonetheless. The jazzy score is pretty great, as are supporting performances from big stars like Tatsuya Nakadai and Masayuki Mori (at least one of the Seven Samurai shows up as well).  Despite its thematic similarity to many a Mizoguchi film, it feels completely fresh and modern, and more humane for the lightness of its touch and story construction relative to the more schematic Mizoguchis like Street of Shame or The Life of Oharu.  The #6 film of 1960.


Midnight Mary - Loretta Young plays a poor orphan girl who gets mixed up with gangsters after spending three years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.  One day, she meets rich lawyer Franchot Tone (who continues to do no wrong in my eyes) who falls in love with her and tries to reform her.  But when she's recognized by a cop, she pretends she never loved him and goes back to the gangsters (after another little stint in jail).  Eventually, the lead gangster tries to kill Tone and Young kills the gangster instead.  This is all told in flashback as Young is awaiting sentencing for murder.  This pre-Code William Wellman film is a solid bit of salacious melodrama and it is brisk and efficient in telling its wildly improbable, coincidence-driven story.  That speed, and the excellent performances, make for a fine, if not revelatory, experience.  The #16 film of 1933.


Mademoiselle Fifi - You know how John Ford's Stagecoach is actually based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant?  Well, this is based on the same story, along with another of his short stories.  A variety of characters are sharing a coach through Occupied France during the Franco-Prussian War.  Each character represents a social type: nobility, businessmen and their wives, a political agitator, a priest and a laundress (played by the Cat Person herself, Simone Simon).  When the coach stops in a town controlled by the German Army (led by the scary Lieutenant with the title nickname), everyone eats with and fraternizes with the Germans except the laundress, who sticks to her patriotism.  The Germans won't let them go until she changes her mind, leading to much in-fighting exposing the cowardice and avarice of the upper classes.  The political message is inescapable, the film being made in 1944, and Simon makes a particularly appealing symbol of Nazi defiance, her halting delivery effectively expressing the laundress' humility and hard-headed simplicity.  Made at RKO under producer Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, it's not as visually interesting as the films made there by Jacques Tourneur, but I suspect it would have been impossible for the Lewton unit to make an ugly movie.  The #13, film of 1944.


Socrates - Another of Roberto Rossellini's fascinating "History Films", albeit one that did not make it into the recent Eclipse box set devoted to them (it's available on Hulu).  Like The Age of the Medici, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV and Cartesius, Socrates recreates in great detail the world of a major historical figure, in this case sticking close to the events of the Socratic Dialogues as recorded by his disciple Plato.  In addition to various philosophical arguments, these follow the course of Socrates's condemnation, trial and execution for the crime of corrupting the youth by trying to lead them away from the gods. Seems he has the audacity to point out that nobody knows anything, prove it by taking apart everyone else's arguments, then claim to be no more knowledgable than they are.  Socrates's real crime was thus being passive-aggressive.  Like the other History Films, Rossellini cuts out all the extraneous things that get in the way of the ideas and the story and the audience: acting, character, fancy directing, etc.  That's not to say the films are boring or ugly, on the contrary, every shot is carefully and classically framed, and Rossellini makes the most of his European TV-level budgets in terms of costume and set design and his actors are competent, if not emotive (they exist somewhere on the Robert Bresson end of the scale, though filtered through a few levels of dubbing).  What is left in the end is the pure expression of information, and in submitting to that we experience a deeper, more engrossing involvement in the events on-screen.  Not one that gives you emotional highs and lows, or that shocks and thrills you, but one that manages to create a sense of. . . well not really reality (it's too obviously composed and performed for that) but of the actuality, almost tangibility of the ideas and the people (not characters) that espouse them.  They tend to make all other historical films or biopics, which invariably alter history for the sake of melodrama and "plot", look silly, if not outright imbecilic.   The #5 film of 1971.


Midnight in Paris - A much more playful approach to history, from a director who, with a few exceptions, enjoys the silly as much as anyone.  Owen Wilson plays a writer with an obnoxious fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and obnoxious future in-laws.  They're all in Paris for some reason, and Wilson, wrapped up in the romance of the city finds himself transported back to the 1920s, where he hangs around with Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Salavador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Marion Cotillard.  Wilson is a great avatar for Allen's dialogue, his laid-back delivery making him seem like less of an impersonator than most of the actors who star in his films.  The movie's a great deal of fun, Allen's most purely entertaining since Mighty Aphrodite (another film that mixed the past and the present to great effect) and its opening sequence, a montage of Parisian sites set to Sidney Bechet, is one of the loveliest sequences of his career (that it is an obvious homage to his own Manhattan makes it no less charming).  The moral of the story is a bit forced, as Wilson learns that there's wonder and romance at every time in history, if you know where to look for it (like used record stalls at flea markets, apparently, though this is wholly counter to my experience of such places).  Things would have been more interesting if the McAdams character was the least bit sympathetic.  As is, we have no doubt that Wilson is better off abandoning his life for the sake of supernatural adventures.