I first fell in love with Robert Altman a couple of years before he died. He made a quiet masterpiece that I ate up like a mountain of chocolate (I love chocolate!!!) entitled Gosford Park. I rented the film over and over again so I could watch Helen Mirren lay down the law, Maggie Smith chew on scenery like only Maggie can do (case in point the most amazing tv series on right now: Downton Abbey), and Clive Owen play a quiet young man. The exchanges between the upper classes and the lower classes were as cutting as they were charming. The dose of cinematic history was something I latched onto with the excitement  that only a young cinephile can. (Before this film I had no idea what and who Charlie Chan was. Now I know. Now I know.) The sets were wonderful, the characters were charming and well-rounded and you felt for each one of them. Since watching Gosford Park I have delved into other Altman films but I haven’t really done a serious study of him. I think it was mainly because those other films of his that I watched were very underwhelming. A Prairie Home Companion was cute but that was all. Short Cuts I found cold and annoying. The Long Goodbye was hip, but intellectually not fulfilling. I just didn’t get why people thought Altman was such an amazing director. Then I watched Nashville.

Nashville is about many things, the least of which is country music. The film intertwines several story lines about so many rich characters that they could each have their own film. There is an aging earnest country superstar with the predilection for white suits, a British outsider reporter who is just doesn’t fit in and is quite annoying, a rock star god who uses women in order to feel something, but never really does, a young country singer who tours too much, sings too much, and is on the verge of a mental breakdown, a middle age housewife with two deaf kids dying to get out of her marriage, a promoter who will try to manipulate everyone he sees into voting for this one political candidate and therefore make buckets of money, and there is an older man who just wants his flighty niece to see his dying wife one last time. Each character has a simple arc that weaves in and out of each other’s lives, but it never feels forced. Through these characters Altman explores the cult of celebrity, sexism, racism, political manipulation, political motivations, the music industry and power without coming to a definite answer to them.

In an interview with him on the disc he explains that although this film is not considered a musical, it actually is. I find that interesting. What defines a musical? Does have to have a simple story line so that it can showcase the music without being too messy? Does it have to originate on Broadway? Can it showcase popular music and not just “show tunes?” This film contains many numbers performed in real-time by the actors that populate the story lines. These numbers serve as a window into the characters’ psyche just as much as the actions they do when they are not stage. So why isn’t this a musical? I think it might be too complicated to be a musical. A musical is usually about a simple concept that involves musical numbers in order to drive it to a satisfactory ending. Think about West Side Story, Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Rent, Hello Dolly!, or any other musical that comes to mind. You can sum up what they are about in one very short sentence, sometimes even one word. This does not make them bad, it just makes it a very easy genre. Nashville is hard to sum up in one sentence. It is about so much, involves so many things that cannot be expressed easily in song, that many people (including me) do not see it as a musical even though on the surface it has all the properties of a musical.

Altman may become a hit or miss director for me. When he hits I will get a film that I can watch over and over again and enjoy it every time. Nashville is the definition of an effective film. It has enjoyable complex characters, a unique premise, and intellectual ideas that will leave me thinking about them once the film is over. And his ending will make you think not just about celebrity but about what it had an effect on just five short year later with John Lennon. That is all I am going to say about the ending. Do not hound me about it.

Kiss Me Deadly

Going to a movie theater has always been a big thing for me. I was raised on cable television and video rental places, so I missed the experience of seeing a particular gem projected 10 million feet tall and the sound blasting at me. Instead I had to endure my parents yelling at me to do my chores or turn the damn thing down while watching Bogart’s ending speech to Ingrid Bergman at the end of Casablanca. So when I got to see one of my favorite films of all time in a small art theater in my new adopted home town, I was stoked beyond all measure.

Kiss Me Deadly is amazing plain and simple. I have measured every other film noir I have seen against this film and found them wanting. It is not because it is good in a conventional sense. It is because it is an experience that you will either latch onto at the first amazing shot of a woman walking barefoot down the middle of a street at night or you will think is total nonsense. The protagonist is gruff womanizing gum shoe who sticks his nose into anything that will make him a few bucks. He uses women, anger, physical violence, and just about anything in order to get what he wants. Yet you love him because he is so bad, so mean, so sexist. The side characters who either help him or hinder him are also something to see. His “friend” from the force has this way of speaking that immediately recalls a snake. He has a mechanic friend who says “va-voom” as his catch phrase. His secretary wants to have sex with him every time she is around him and yet he is always telling her no and she has a ballet bar in her apartment (wtf?!). Every character is so expertly written that you remember them and their sly and out-of-place dialogue days afterward. It is quite amazing.

But you know what is even more amazing? The freaking cinematography. I love film noir cinematography because of this film. The bright lights of the car saturate the screen with such a blaring intensity that your eyes blink in the same way the lost young woman does. One in particular scene is framed with such complexity that I could watch it again and again. It is the scene where the protagonist, Mike Hammer, rescues this other young woman from her apartment complex. She hides in her bathrobe at the bottom of these interwoven stairs, crouching on ripped up black and white tile flooring. For seconds the camera lingers on this shot as she waits for the car honk. She is just one part of  the puzzle that Hammer is trying to figure out and therefore she is highlighted in the middle of this puzzle of apartment design. It is fantastic.

I feel like I was born too late to experience the collective film experience that is going to a movie theater. I wish everyday that I can experience the experience I had watching this film with every other film I see. The audience knew what they were getting into and it was full of older people who have a respect for the medium. I enjoyed myself at a theater for the first time in a long time and it was refreshing. Go to your local art theater. Make sure they stay in business. It is the only true way to see a film.


Beautiful Nazimova as Salome

Salome is a peculiar film. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, the story is based on the death of John the Baptist from the Bible. Salome is the daughter of King Herod, but falls in love with a poor Jewish man while he is held captive for speaking out against the government and the Jewish establishment. However John the Baptist does not return her affection, so as revenge she demands his head on a platter. Spoiler alert: She gets the head. This story has been told several times a parable about how bad women can be, so the story is not the peculiar part. The execution of the story is.

Alla Nazimova was a famous actress on stage and in very early silent pictures. She was rich and strange, so she decided to finance this film and bend it to her whims. Her whims included costuming by avant-garde designers, obtuse angles on the placement of the camera and the set design, and an extended sequence that involves an intricate dance. This dance sequence is presented as the penultimate scene and involves some feathers and beautiful costuming. The dance itself is quite odd. Maybe something was lost because of the lack of sound and therefore you do not know quite what song she is dancing to. Or maybe it is supposed to be odd, like her ball headdress. I don’t know but it is fascinating. In fact this whole film is. Legend has it that every actor and actress in the film is either homosexual or bisexual (Nazimova liked her women and her men very very much.). The costuming, especially of the men, seems to reinforce this notion. The servants (who are all men) wear as little as possible and sparkle like stardust.  The king is flamboyant and openly courts Salome in front of his drab wife. Of course Salome is supposed to be his daughter which makes it gross but in the best way possible. No wonder this film flopped and Nazimova went down in history as only a sidenote. She was too daring. She was too ballsy. She acted too much like a man.

This film should be treated like an event. It should be projected on 35 mm nitrate film stock with a small band accompanying it. It should influence fashion, storytelling and the homosexual experience in film. It should be celebrated just like I did after seeing it for the first time on youtube: with a toast of delicious wine. It is only fitting.

Stage Fright

Hitchcock is one of the most reliable directors. He can provide a taunt plot line full of twists and turns while using great actors and actresses to their advantage and introducing small innovations in filmmaking along the way. Whether it is minor Hitchcock or major Hitchcock, it doesn’t seem to matter. It will always be entertaining if you know what you are getting yourself into. With Hitchcock you get many major attributes and small flaws in every film.  One of those flaws is the questionable degree that he treats his female protagonists. It doesn’t matter if it is Vertigo, Rear Window, Stage Fright or Sabotage, the female characters come off as getting the short shrift. I don’t know if it was just the sign of the times or if Hitchcock really thought that women were flighty young girls who could never complete a mystery without falling in love. Of course as he matured as a filmmaker his characters became more dynamic so this aspect of character development was layered under other more complex issues, but it still persisted. I am not alone in my assessment of his filmography, there are plenty of film books out there that take this thread and expand upon it in a more eloquent matter than I did here. I only bring up the female characters up because it was painfully obvious while watching this film.

Stage Fright involves a man who is suspected of murdering the husband of the woman he is having an affair with. The man runs to one of his friends who is an actress played by Jane Wyman. She plays the sincere wispy young girl who tries to prove this man is innocent and place the blame on the woman, who is a favorite singer and is played by Marlene Dietrich. Marlene is a vamp and therefore she plays a vamp in the most delicious way possible. But of course these women can only get along with their lovers, their fathers and their detectives who turn into lovers. They are betrayed, taken advantage of, and assumed to be incompetent at every plot twist. And yet they take it with a charming smile and a pithy line.

Of course after my harsh last paragraph, it must seem that I hate this film, but that is untrue. Although it will never count as my favorite Hitchcock (Rear Window will always have that place in my heart), I enjoyed it very much. It was a nice diversion from my moody thoughts for an hour and a half. Marlene Dietrich in particular was quite fascinating. She steals every scene from Wyman with her bedroom eyes and her nonchalance in the face of a quite dreadful murder. (My speech seems to be influenced by the language of the film that is really English.) The wit of most Hitchcock films is always charming and Wyman pulls off the lines with such earnestness that it is even better. So in short, I liked the film, but consider it minor Hitchcock. That is all I have to say.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

When I complain about Godard’s lack of coherence and mish mash of styles, it pains me to write those complaints because I know that he was just a few frames, a few sounds and a few characters away from greatness. Then when he finally gets the combination right and completes a work that is complete in some way, it feels like I was watching his progress. I feel like the last couple of films that I watched of his, with the experimentation of the limits of character, montage, classical music, and titles have led him to create this masterpiece.

A sequel of sorts to Alphaville (it has the same main character, the wrinkled Lemmy Caution), it involves a spy who is trying to get a grasp on what Germany is after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. Of course this film is much more than a story about a lost spy. It is about a lost country. How can a country that has been divided for so long, and has had such a complicated past, construct its future? Is it supposed to just forget the past and succumb to American ideals and consumerism? Is it capable of incorporating such a rich history into a future that will be able to compete with the superpowers of the world? All of these questions are asked by Godard, but in a way that only Godard can do.

You can tell by his past films that his love for classical music (especially Mozart, but also Wagner, Stravinsky, and many other German and Austrian composers) is boundless. In this film he takes sections of different works by different German composers and lays it against footage of Lemmy Caution walking around and old film clips from the Weimer period. This piecing together shows the beauty that has come out of German passion in such way that makes me wonder how movements such as music or film would have done without the German aesthetic. Germany is so much more than Hitler. But it is hard to escape from that notion as a Westerner. I think Godard recognizes that and shows that Germans also recognize this but at the same time just want to forget about it. They want to forget about it by buying things, by becoming as Western as possible and by caring only for superficial things. Godard tries to tell the audience that that is not the way to forget. There is no forgetting, there is only the movement forward.

On a purely aesthetic basis, this film was well paced and really beautifully shot. There is one scene in particular that I found breathtaking. It is such a simple scene of Lemmy Caution walking down past this massive old machinery used to turn ground over in order for it to be dug out for some sort of development. The scene is just Lemmy Caution narrating his discontent, him walking and this massive machine churning and yet it is magnificent in its simplicity.

This film is why I love Godard. When he has a solid idea, he can mix aesthetics, intellectual quagmires, art and art history, along with politics in such a way that is magical to behold. There is truly no one like Godard that has ver worked in cinema and I hope there will never be another one.

In A Lonely Place

English: Screenshot from trailer for the movie...

Image via Wikipedia

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dixon Steele

Film noir is a depressing genre. No matter how much you care about the broken people on the screen, you know that nothing will work out to their advantage. Take for example the main character of In a Lonely Place, Dixon Steele. He is sensitive, hard living, talented, angry, and truthful. But he can’t control any of these impulses so when he finds a love that has the potential to last a very long time and fix him, he can’t help but kill the relationship by his very nature. But you hope the whole time that you are watching these unfortunate scenes unfold that the woman who loves him will ignore them and will be with him until the end. But of course you know that will never happen, because she is just as troubled and sensitive as he is. By the end you know that it couldn’t have worked out any other way, but you are sad nonetheless.

This film is heartbreaking in only the ways that Humphrey Bogart can portray heartbreaking. He plays a screenwriter who is washed up. He has interminable writers’ block, drinks like a fish and makes more enemies more that than he makes friends. He is commissioned to write a screenplay based on a trashy novel. Instead of reading it himself, he decides to take home the hat check girl who has read and loved the book. Nothing happens between them, except for establishing that she is a fickle girl who only likes the most melodramatic of novels. He sends her home and then the next day, she is found murdered. Due to his rap sheet, he is the prime suspect, but he has his neighbor, the impossibly gorgeous Gloria Grahame, testify that the woman left his apartment still alive.

Dixon (Humphrey Bogart) and Laurel (Gloria Grahame) get together and their love is palpable. She becomes his muse and he writes continually while she takes care of him. However the murder investigation continues and because they have no better suspect, the detectives put more and more pressure on him. Laurel begins to doubt if he was truly innocent, based on a couple of events that showcase his impossible temper. It gets to a point where nothing will fix the relationship, no matter how hard they try. She leaves him. He is broken forever and so is the viewer.

Humphrey Bogart puts in an amazing character as this broken screenwriter. He conveys so much emotion by one look. One of my favorite scenes is when Dixon and Laurel meet for the first time in the detective’s office. The attraction is immediate and palpable by one look and one drag on a cigarette. Gloria Grahame holds her own on the screen as Bogart’s love interest. Although his best pairing has got to be with his wife Bacall, this pairing has got to be a close second. She is smoking hot and doesn’t just play hard to get, but is really hard to get. She is just as damaged as he is which is what makes them perfect for each other.

I have to mention that this film was directed by Nicholas Ray, one of the best at portraying broken people. So much so that he must have been just as broken as his characters. He is also a master at finding the perfect sets for the situation. Holy crap would I love to live in Steele’s apartment complex. The Spanish veranda style is used to perfect effect. As opposed to other films of his that I have seen, this film’s use of complex shots, sets and lighting is stripped away in order to portray the doomed love. All Ray needs is a look and a pithy line in order to create magic.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

When film historians talk about German expressionism, they are usually talking about the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. So many subsequent films have been inspired not only by the story of this film, but the filming techniques, the sets and the theatricality of the actors. It is even considered to be one of the first true horror films ever committed to celluloid. Although there had been other stories before 1920 that had horror elements to it, they were routed in reality to the point of them not being that scary. This film however employed surrealist sets and Dada like writing on the walls along with body stockings and strange makeup so that it felt more like a nightmare than an actual film. The players seemed more like dancers moving fluidly through the twisted and jagged landscape than actors on a set.

The story involves a Somnambulist who has been asleep for his whole life but can be awoken at any time by Dr. Caligari, its caretaker. Dr. Caligari takes this somnambulist to a fair and tells the crowd that he can answer any question that a person wants. One brave man steps up and asks when he was going to die. Cesare (the somnambulist) answers tomorrow at dawn. Spooked by this prediction, the man goes home only to be found dead the next morning at dawn. Was it Cesare that committed the murder or was he just that good at predicting? The rest of the film involves a police chase and a strange reveal of Dr. Caligari’s true identity. Cesare is not portrayed really as man, but more of an instrument of Dr. Caligari. He is like a human robot who can only take orders from this grisly old man with severe facial features.

Living in the world of this film has been one of the best film experiences for me. This film is why I love film and why I watch it with all-consuming necessity. I would love to see this in a movie theater surrounded by other people who love this film. This film a necessary part of anyone’s film education. Even if you believe to be entirely style over substance, you will be the better for watching it.

A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking could easily be called the Charles Darwin of the 20th Century. Discovering something that would help explain the formation of the Earth, he completely revolutionized how astrophysics is practised and thought about. After he published the work of his career in a book called A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris decided to make a documentary about the man behind the theory and the theory itself. Since he made this documentary, it has been famous for being hard to get a hold of. I have been trying to get a VHS copy of the film for ages and finally last night I stumbled upon a crappy upload of the whole film on Youtube. I am so glad that I got to finally experience one of my favorite documentaries of all time.

Hawking’s story is one of the most unusual in the scientific field, but one that is totally captivating. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, this genius man went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge and become the head of science at this lauded school for decades the whole time working on his theories about the black hole. His mother at one point in the film said that he probably wouldn’t have been able to think and hypothesize about the nature of black holes if he hadn’t developed ALS, because his lack of freedom to do anything forced him to be constantly in his head. Before he was diagnosed, he was active in several activities and thought about other things beside math and science. He probably wouldn’t have had the focus that he now has if he was a fully capable human being in the physical sense.

Despite the disease rendering him a physical vegetable, he has a cheekiness that is enduring. He doesn’t need to speak the words himself in order to be truly witty. It was quite refreshing that this stuffy academician also had a sense of the macabre. Trust me, you don’t come across that ability much in the scientific world. He related one incident where he was giving a lecture in Rome and he was granted an audience with the Pope. The Pope said that it was okay to theorize about everything up until the Big Bang, but the Big Bang was an act of God and therefore unable to truly be theorized about. He said that he was glad that the Pope wasn’t at his lecture the next day because that is exactly the subject he was lecturing about.

Errol Morris is considered one of the best documentarian of all time, because he captures truly unique interviews. He gets them to bring out the truth in themselves and to show the truth in the audience. He has done this with Robert McNamara (also a great documentary entitled the Fog of War), Guantanamo prisoners and guards, death row inmates, and Stephen Hawking. However one of his faults is what the footage he puts in between the interviews. Although not as major a gripe as it was with the Fog of War, some of the footage was kind of boring and empty compared to the informative interviews. Maybe that was the intention, but I was bored by the continual pictures of buildings at different angles. I would have rather seen more pictures of Hawking as a lad or more pictures of his diagrams that he used to think about his theories. I would have also liked to see an interview with his wife, but I’m sure I didn’t see it for a reason. Overall though, the interviews that he gets in this film completely make up for everything including the bad sound, the thick English accents, and the boring footage. It stimulated me intellectually and started me thinking about ideas bigger than what I am going to eat or see next and I love when films do that. Also it made me jealous that I was not some genius scientist with ALS… That was hard to admit.

Keep Your Right Up!

As a warning to people who read this blog, I didn’t watch all of this film due to some technical difficulties. I can only review what I saw and it was only about half of the film. In other words this film will be very short.

Jacques Tati cornered the market for comedians who harken back to silent comedies for inspiration. M. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime are two amazingly great films about the changing times and this buffoon’s relationship with them. However when I think of Tati, I do not think of Godard. For one thing, Godard is not a comedian. For another thing when he does attempt comedy, it is usually best when he sprinkles it on a serious film instead of making the film itself comedic. However in this film Godard tries his very best to be Tati in a way that makes you want to stroke him and say “maybe next time, kiddo.”

Tati’s world is small and thus his narratives are too. Mon Oncle is about taking his nephew out to the beach. Where the comedy comes from is his riffing on this journey to the beach. However in Godard’s film, the plot line involves way too many characters and too many breaks in order to completely understand what is going on. The result is watching Godard falling over at the airport, in a car garage, in the entrance to the airport and on the airplane while someone searches for her husband, people recite operatic lines to each other, and people get mad at him for no real reason.

One of the major problems with the film was something I championed in First Name: Carmen. That is the break in narrative in order to watch a musician play around with music. However this time it involves someone I am not familiar with screwing around with electronics as opposed to actual instruments and singing really badly. What she was singing about, and coming up with musically was just awful eighties pop that had nothing to do with the story. At least when he broke in First Name Carmen to watch the musicians play, there was a correlation to the narrative. It just seemed like Godard didn’t have enough footage to make an hour and half long film and spliced some other footage that he was working on. It is slightly annoying when Godard stumbles across a technique that is really interesting and beats it to death in the ensuing films.

As I said before due to some technical difficulties I only got to experience half of the film. Maybe the second half is pure genius. Maybe this film will go down in my personal history as the one that got away. I doubt it.

The Eagle

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a review of a silent entitled the The Thief of Baghdad. In this review, I stated that although I was dazzled by Douglas Fairbanks’ theatrics the film was nothing more than action fluff. I bring this up because although this film showcases a different male heart-throb, it is nonetheless very similar to the Thief of Baghdad. It is set an exotic land, features a lot of daring action sequences and has a romance at the center of the plot that is very contrived. Similar as these two films are, the Eagle has something that is strikingly in its favor: a good female lead.

Mascha, a young Russian woman who is rescued by Valentino’s character early on in the film, proves to be a vulnerable yet meekly strong woman when faced by rough times. She is not above getting rescued by a handsome young man, but when he turns out to be an enemy of her father’s, she is still not afraid to keep loving him. The actress that plays Mascha is Vilma Banky. She is not a well-known name in cinema history for one reason: she had a terrible Hungarian accent that she could not get rid of when the switch to talkies came about.

This is my first taste of the infamous hunk that is Rudolph Valentino. Let’s just say I know why he held so much appeal to women. I would have him rescue me from a runaway carriage any day. He seems to get a lot of his acting across by simply looking charming (a lot like Douglas Fairbanks in the Thief of Baghdad). Although through most of the film he is amiable enough, towards the end the film had a hard time wrapping itself up. Was he going to get revenge against this man or not? Isn’t the ultimate revenge marrying his daughter? Why don’t you just woo her and get it over with…geez. Of course that is what happens, but let me make sure that you know it wasn’t for revenge, but for true love (ahh isn’t that schweet?).

One other thing that might have come up in other silent film reviews, but I want to say again is the quickness that an onscreen couple falls in love. It is quite frankly scary to watch how fast these couples want to marry. There is sometimes only one scene of courting before look there is this huge rock on my hand and wedding bells on the soundtrack. Is the slow burn to a romance only a function of accompanying sound? I mean if I were Mascha, I would want marry this hunk of a man in heartbeat, but just what was so charming about her that he wanted to tie down his wild reins and give up on revenge so quickly? I feel like her charm would develop over a long period and his hunkiness would probably fade pretty fast to reveal a thrill seeking, proud individual. Oh well what can you do, huh? Just watch the films and shut my trap, I suppose.