Jules and Jim

Both Jules and Jim live the bohemian lifestyle in Paris during the turn of the century. They appreciate poetry, art, cafes, and women. They get together to talk about philosophy alongside personal problems. You see, Jules wants a woman to love. But every woman he encounters in Paris does not meet his high standards. Either they are flighty (like the steam engine girl) or not intelligent enough (like the many whores he visits). But Jim, he has a girl. A girl who is faithful and loving and boring. He wants excitement. Both of them find what they are looking for in one woman: Catherine. She is giving, outrageous, spontaneous, emotional, free-spirited, and loving. But she is ultimately destructive.

One of the big arguments concerning this film is whether Catherine can be seen as empowered or not. On the surface she seems to be. She is not beholden to one man even after she has a baby with one. She casually sleeps with one man after another but expect it to not change the dynamic of their friendship. In one iconic scene, she dresses up as a man and races the two protagonists. But once you dig deeper into her character, you can see that she is more flawed than her two male companions. She is, to put it simply, crazy. She doesn’t know what she wants most of the time, she uses sex more as revenge than actual satisfaction, she doesn’t seem to have any real redeeming qualities other than her striking beauty, and she expresses her emotions with such a wild abandonment that she hurts everyone she comes into contact with. She is sort of the opposite of an empowered woman, if you understand an empowered woman as a woman who knows what she wants, actively gets what she wants, and is not made to be a trophy that men win.

Although I have put down this character as being retroactive to the feminist movement, she still exists as a fascinating, if erratic character. As an audience member, I was drawn to her like the two men were. Her need to be at the center of attention, to always be loved by which ever man she is pursuing is desperately endearing. Her scenes where she is happy are some of the most beautiful scenes in the film. This of course includes the scene where they are making idiot faces to the table. That is one of more comical scenes in the whole film.

In this film you can see ever so subtly Truffaut evolve and mature as a filmmaker. He is less afraid of his expressionistic tendencies which gives this film an endearing immediacy despite taking place over several decades. He uses shots that are more daring, shots that would never have worked if they were in anybody else’s hands. These include freeze shots of Jeanne Moreau vamping, whip pans, and a play on the iris out at the end of a sequence. Although these techniques exist in his previous films, he uses them in a way that helps to tell the story as opposed to stylistically showing something.

Jules and Jim is an essential movie for a reason. It shows a magnificent director at the height of his creativity, sparks intellectual conversations, is awash in iconic scenes and lines, and is simply a great film. My view of this film has evolved as I have evolved and I can say now that although I was naive in the past and hated this film, I have come to love it and appreciate it for the cinematic marvel that it is.

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The Lady From Shanghai

You cannot be interested in classic cinema without being interested in Orson Welles. You also can’t be interested in Orson Welles without being interested in his difficulties with the studio system. Recutting his films, pulling finances, delaying releases, and forcing stars on him that he did not want to work with was just the tip of the iceberg for Welles. Once a highly respected actor and creator, he would end up taking humiliating jobs in order to finance his own pictures and eating himself to death. Another sad story about the corruption of talent in the studio system. But does the story have any weight? Was he really a misunderstood genius or was he just a pompous ass who rode out his first flush of fame for far too long? I mean Citizen Kane isn’t that great of a film…

I firmly come down on the side of misunderstood genius. I love Citizen Kane and feel he got a raw deal by the insane studio heads. The Lady of Shanghai, his fourth feature to be concretely attributed to him, was borne out of desperation and a final submission to studio heads. Drowning in debt and not able to put his new play on, he found the closest book he could and called up a studio to say that if they buy the option, he would direct, act and produce it for the amount of money he needed to go on that night. He came to regret that decision. Every person on set seemed to be against him. He couldn’t get a set repainted in order to use it again in a couple of days, every person lambasted him for dying and cutting Rita Hayworth’s hair, his score was  completely remade by studio goon, and again his picture was cut several times in order to make enough room at the beginning for the advertisements. But despite all of these unfortunate circumstances the film seems to come off seemingly unscathed. Again this can be attributed to Welles.

Welles is a great actor. This was true when he convinced radio listeners that there really were aliens invading, when he played a character based on a big newspaper magnate, and when he played a Nazi disguised as just a regular guy. However this might be my favorite performance of his. He plays an Irish sailor picked up by a young  trophy wife and her husband. He convinces this sailor to man their yacht on an exotic trip. But there is more to this couple than first meets the eye. Constant close-ups, sketchy eyes, and hushed voices all reveal a murder plot against the husband or maybe it is against his partner in the law firm or maybe it is the beautiful wife. Whatever the truth is, this sailor can’t help but involve himself in it. He gets deeper and deeper as he falls for the wife played by a blond Rita Hayworth, but she is not everything she seems.

Slimy characters, exotic locations and fake accents give this film its charm. While not as tightly plotted as the Stranger, as innovative as Citizen Kane or as filled with whimsy as his later films are, this film quietly stands out as being good simply because the story is good. Oh and the last scene with the mirrors is one of the best scenes ever filmed. So there’s that.

Detour

Al Roberts is not a happy man. He slumps through the action on-screen, keeping his face unshaven and his clothes crumpled. He whines on the narration always thinking the worst of his situation and what a situation it is. He sets off in pursuit of his girlfriend who chased fame to Los Angeles. Along the way he jumps from car to car, all with the loneliness of man going to the gas chamber. His luck turns around when he meets a man who is willing to take him the rest of the way. This man is full of scars and hackneyed stories, but he only has time to explain some of them before he dies of a heart attack. Cursing his bad luck again and insisting in the narration that no matter what the cops were going to find him guilty of killing this man, he might as well take his things and his money. He buries the body and assumes his identity, but then the loneliness comes back and he decides to pick up a young woman. But this woman knows his secret and has him in his snatches. Convincing of him to pull off a big blackmail involving the dead man’s dying father, things start to spiral out of control for him. But do we believe that he is just a pawn in the game and not one of the royalty? Is his version of these events reliable in any way?

Detour is a little bit of anomaly when it was made. Equipped with the smallest budget possible, the director, Edgar G. Ulmer, managed to make one of the most lauded film noir with only a skeleton of a story, a fog machine and a car that was his own. He managed with this film to prove that American consumerism and European art did not have to be mutually exclusive which of course later influenced the French New Wave players in their ideas of great cinema. All you needed was sharp dialogue, loose morals, and the hint of a bigger set in order to tell a convincing story. In fact I would call this noir more interesting than the high budget noirs of Bacall and Bogart. Although I like them, this film just feels grittier and more cynical, two qualities that make a good film noir better. It is actually kind of fascinating to read about the history of this film and how the players in the film all seemed to identify with Al Roberts. The man who played him went on to be accused of murder for his third wife, Ulmer was once a promising director but never got the chance to prove his worth with a bigger budget, and Ann Savage was a third-rate pin up. But the holy combination of these three makes this film some of the more interesting film lore and watching I have had in a while. By the way it is available for free on youtube if you are interested.

The Cat and the Canary

Why do crazy old people put in their wills that in order to get their fortunes that you have to stay in their creepy house overnight? Is it because crazy old people just want every relation or benefactor to carry on the tradition of crazy or is it because they are sadistic? They always end up putting such frail young women through such screeching terror. It is wrong and I am here to stand up for these poor unfortunate souls that will never end up getting that money. If you think that you are headed down this path of becoming old, rich, and owning of a scary  house, just turn over all of your possessions to me and it will make you feel better. I will take that house and bulldoze the crap out of it.

Made by an emigrated German expressionist (Paul Leni), the darkness of the night pervades over every action the characters do and every set piece the camera focuses on. Every trope of the horror genre is presented here with a sense of refreshment. There are secret passageways, bodies falling onto people, black cats in the road, silly intertitles, and a contrived plot that could only come from a fluff piece. But it seems like Leni doesn’t care. He was done with the maudlin. He wanted the funny and it shows. Instead of focusing on the shifty eyed relatives who might pull out a gun at any moment, he highlights the scaredy cat character who looks a little too much like Harold Lloyd. He gets into many different comprising shenanigans but the camera never leaves his sympathetic eye. In the end it doesn’t really matter which of the shifty eyed characters did the killings, it just matters that the young woman gets out okay and the Harold Lloyd copycat becomes her boy.

This is light fare, but it provides a nice diversion for a weeknight. If you are interested in seeing how Mel Brooks came up with the many different little details in Young Frankenstein, I suggest you watch this film and marvel how close the creepy housekeeper looks like Frau Buchler. It is eerie. It is like Brooks planned it or something…

Quiz Show

What would you say if you were offered the chance to go on a quiz show on television, become famous and earn ten thousand dollars a week and be called one of the smartest men alive, but they would give you the answers to the questions before hand? Would you accept no questions asked? Would you worry about being caught? Now imagine that you are on one of the first quiz shows on television ever and several million homes tune in every week to see you essentially perform. And then the government found out…

Based on a real story, Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel among dozens of other people had to make these tough decisions. Now realize this was before fake reality shows and scandal rooting news. This was when television was still an infant, religion held more of a sway than any other influence, and McCarthyism was in the recent past. Appearing to be an upright citizen was more important than actually being one. NBC was a family network but it was also a network that was competing against CBS, PBS, and eventually ABC for the most eyeballs. They needed to make their game shows interesting. What is more interesting than watching your favorite contestant just barely beating their opponents week after week? Apparently nothing… when Charles Van Doren was on Twenty-One, he captured twenty million viewers a week more than any other show on that same time slot. But they were lying. And they got caught.

Robert Redford brought this scandal to a whole new generation when he made this film in 1994. Many of the regulations that every media student has to study and every executive cleverly tries to get around originated from this one quiz show scandal. But regulations did not come right away. In fact nothing came to NBC, the show runner, or Geritol for quite some time, but all of the contestants especially Charles Van Doren and Henry Stempel were shamed for life and viewed as liars. But if I were in their shoes than I would have done the same. Tens of thousands of dollars and instant fame are what most people want. It was NBC and Geritol that should have answered for their bullying and corruptness. And finally with this film they had.

Quiz Show does not show anyone in the NBC offices as nice moral people. Van Doren winning might have meant ten thousand dollars for him, but for NBC it meant millions and for Geritol it meant even more. They were exploitative and manipulative. And nobody in the Oversight committee seemed to care about them. Each one lied  to their faces despite ample incriminating evidence and the committee took it easily. This is the problem with politics and massive amounts of money being thrown around. The wrong people get accused and punished while the true transgressors go free. But with Robert Redford (a big liberal ninny) behind the camera, NBC guys are predators while the contestants don’t necessarily become innocent but they are less to blame. John Turturro is great as the cranky overweight Jew who lives in a poor burrough. He wants revenge for ousting him in order for the network to make more money. Nobody but a truly bitter man could have pursued the prosecution of the company for as long as he did. Ralph Fiennes plays the elite and handsome Charles Van Doren, always in the shadow of his father and uncle. He didn’t need the money so much as he needed to be recognized as just as important as his father. For a short while he was more important than his father, but it became for the wrong reasons.

Although this film has its problems, the film is interesting in the ideas that are brought to the table. Calling out the true transgressors, pointing at the need for more regulation instead of less and showing the psychological breakdown of various characters in the film are all unique to this film and what makes this film the only good film in his filmography. I mean come on this guy also tried to make a film about  horse whisperers. You can’t get any more lame than that.

After the Thin Man

I posted yesterday in the body of the first film that I thought the series would get better as it went on.  I didn’t provide any examples to this assumption I made, because I already knew it to be true. That is because I had seen the second film before writing the entry for the first one. In fact I wanted to skip over that film and focus more on this one. But because I need to stretch out my writing topics as much as possible in order for me to get enough material to pull from, I decided to not be mean and write about each one in the series. But let it be known that this film is superior to the first one.

In the first film, the couple was living in this out of time wonder world where there was never any Great Depression and crimes can be solved by an intrepid dog. There was an infinite supply of booze, dresses and jewels that lent the story to be more a fantasy for the broke young rascal watching the film in the nickel theatre one afternoon. But this film seemed to interject some past in the characters’ lives and some struggle in their lives that is probably more relatable and less escapist. There was even a plot line involving one villain’s lack of money. Scandalous I know.

Nick and Nora Charles get back from their trip to New York City (where the last film took place) and want to just go to sleep in their epic San Fransisco house. However they walk into a surprise party full of people they do not know getting to know the Charles’ liquor cabinet. They narrowly escape the evil party but they cannot escape Nora’s relations. Forced to spend New Years’ Eve in the house of the most ancient of relations, there is one scene where Nick has a stirring conversation with a chorus of snores. But they have come there for a purpose: Nora’s cousin’s husband left her and she is worried where he might be. Marrying her for her money, this husband has escaped several times during their marriage, but the cousin still clings to him even when she knows a more respectable man (the young and super cute Jimmy Stewart) cares for her very much. The husband negotiates with the respectable man to stay gone for a tidy sum but he is killed before gets to reap the benefits. But who killed this man who seemed to have tons of enemies?

Nick and Nora investigate with ease that was apparent in the first film. All they need is a good drink, some shady suspects and Asta to tie up the mystery into one clean bow. But it seems to matter less in this film than in the first. I think it is because the stakes are higher for the couple than in the first one. Although Nick knew the murder victim in prequel, he was not related to him in any particular way. Not only is Nora blood related to the cousin, but she is also one of her closest confidantes. The desire to prove her innocence is more related to their well-being.

The camaraderie felt between Powell and Loy is beautiful to see on screen. Their relationship is one that I feel might truly be seen as an ideal marriage relationship. Do not be afraid of cracking a joke at your partner’s expense just as long as they can do it back at you. Oh and booze will help tremendously.

The Thin Man

I have had netflix since 2006. It is hard for me to admit this, but my queue is a reflection of me. In it I have past obsessions (like an infinite amount of Ramones documentaries and Henry Rollins stand up), films that are extremely long (I am looking at you Lawrence of Arabia), guilty pleasures, and films that I want to get around to but always find an excuse to not see. The Thin Man series is a good example of the last category. This series has been on my queue since 2006. I had heard that the series was a good example of a bantering language that I wanted to replicate in one of my past screenplays. Well by the time I clicked add to queue, the screenplay went out the door for reasons that I shall not discuss here and the The Thin Man series has been stuck in the abyss that is the middle of my queue for the past six years. I am sure that anyone who has a netflix queue (at least one that still consists of physical media, but even when I had my streaming queue, I fell into this trap) knows that movies you add to the list that you have a burning desire to see automatically go to the top of the list over the movies that you know you should watch, but just not now. Maybe it was because the series reminded me of my past follies or maybe because it was a series that I thought might be hard to conquer in individual sittings or maybe because I was waiting on becoming a millionaire (which is going to happen any day now…) so I could buy the whole series on amazon and watch it in one booze soaked afternoon. What ever the case, it has taken me this long to watch the first entry in the series. I should have watched these films in 2006…

In 2006, I was just a freshman in college discovering for the first time the joys of cinema. I was green. I was silly. And I would have loved this film then… This film would have blown my mind in that year, but now I am so used to banter, to detective films and to classic studio films that this film sort of washed over me as a pleasant but bland film. This is to no fault of the movie but rather to the fault of where my head is now. My sensibilities have changed and I am more experienced in my movie watching, therefore this type of film does not blow my mind in the way it might have six years ago… It is kind of sad.

Do not get me wrong, this film is not bad. It is just fluffy. Myrna Loy and William Powell are what saves this film from being just another detective flick to being something unique. Their chemistry on-screen is impeccable. I love watching them rib each other and make love to each other through drinks and witty banter. However the focus is so much on them and their relationship with their dog, that the mystery of the flick gets lost. When William Powell’s character Nick Charles solves the mystery he seems to just stumble upon it instead of actually using his reasoning. Sherlock Holmes he is not. There are also a few instances that I wince at because of the outdated gender roles, but for the most part Loy and Powell seem to be on the same playing level. She brings the money and the respectability to the relationship, he brings the adventure and the seediness to it. The couple needs both in order to survive the film and their keep their relationship going.

I am glad I saw this film. The sets were great, the costumes were dazzling and I cannot say how much I loved the dialogue. I even liked the silly prop that was the dog, Asta. I have a feeling that the films will improve and I will find an affection for them deep down in my cold dark heat.  I will be talking about the rest of the films in the series soon as they are all proudly at the top of my queue.

Shoot the Piano Player

Charlie Kohler seems to be just a tired, shy piano player. He plays the same honky-tonk (at least what the French call honky-tonk. I think of something quite different) tunes while a constantly smiling drummer backs him up. Behind those tragic eyes, however belies a former life that was full of fame and disappointment. He is hiding from this past as much as possible. He can think of no other way than playing the same tunes over and over again in a dingy bar while adults rub up against each other in a desperate attempt to get laid.

The first time I saw this film, I was expecting a dour noirish film full of underworld antics and fatal shoot outs. I  thought the film would echo the same tone that the 400 Blows had. In many ways I came expecting what many critics at the time was expecting: a super serious, highly intellectual crime drama. When it turned out to also incorporate slapstick comedy elements and conventional romance, I was disappointed. I hated the film. I thought it was totally uneven and a waste of time. This initial assessment did not incorporate the ideology behind the French New Wave and even one of the other famous French New Wave classic, Breathless. The French New Wave started out of these directors’ love of cinema. They wanted to create a cinema that looked back as well as forward. They didn’t want to beholden to a script, sets, or traditional structure. Because Shoot the Piano Player did not have a traditional script, sets inside a studio, traditional structure, a set genre, or a strong sense of good and evil (all of the tenets of French New Wave and experimental filmmaking), it is a true French New Wave film.

Upon second viewing, I threw out the expectations that I had the first time and set about to just enjoy the film. I had a better time with it. I think it is essential in viewing this film that you see it as more a sister to Breathless than to The 400 Blows. Although The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player shares ideas and even actors, the application of these ideas are completely different. Shoot is more experimental, more playful than 400. The constant switch from serious and sad longing that the character feels for his love interest and for his wife in the past is counterbalanced by the heightened characters he is surrounded by. For instance the “bad” guys who are out to get money back from Charles’ brothers are presented at first as these brute men who will cut you at any moment, but when Charles and his love are kidnapped, the conversation stumbles upon these men complete lack of understanding about the intricacies of women. They come off as buffoons who never grew up past twelve (which is why the scene between them and Charles’ little brother is so cute) and completely harmless. Charles easily outwits these buffoons, but they fight back by kidnapping his brother. This again seems like it will heighten the tension, but that tension is cut with a knife into small little pieces by the ensuing scenes. The same thing happens when the lovers finally come together. Instead of having a very steamy intense love scene, the story flashes back to a previous romance between Charles and his wife who ends up committing suicide. The love he feels for this new lover is undercut by the regret he feels for his wife’s suicide.

There are several small moments throughout the film that make viewing this film multiple times in order to catch them all totally worth it. (I am not going to tell you what they are, they are different for every person who watches the film and it spoils the fun to point them out beforehand) Although the film does not feel complete despite having a very definite ending, I still enjoy watching where Truffaut goes with the characters and the plot. I like that Truffaut took a chance that seemed to be more in the vein of Godard’s films instead of his. I admire his willingness to experiment and his sense of fun. More filmmakers should take heed of his example in this film.

Sita Sings the Blues

Sita Sings the Blues is such a refreshing discovery for me. Animated by a woman who was bitter over the termination of a long relationship, she delved into the mystery of Ramayana, an Indian epic about a rejected and tortured woman named Sita. As is evidenced by this film, Indian epics and folklore are stories that can be told in multiple ways and thus there is inherent mysticism to them. Instead of hiding the multiple interpretations, she showcases them by switching from many different animation styles. She also tells the story by way of narration by three native Indians who can’t seem to remember certain details no matter how they discuss it, by the songs of Annette Hanshaw, a cabaret singer in the twenties and thirties and contrasting it with her modern interruption of the story. This would not be an easy thing to pull off and she seems to blend every change in narrative and animation seamlessly. The version of Sita singing is dramatic with big breasts and a very tiny waist, but the narration by the shadow puppets, both Sita and Rama are seen in more traditional terms. The third story is told in simple, crude animation known as squigglevision (not as pronounced as a Dr. Katz, but it does bare comparisons). The resultant film is quite beautiful.

Due to copyrighting issues that Ms. Nina Paley had to go through due to her extensive use of Annette Hanshaw, she decided to put up the whole film on youtube for free. She has also become an advocate for Copyright rights and is extremely outspoken about her ideals. However if I had to pay for the film, I would have done so quickly and without regret. It was a wonder to see and I hope that she continues to work in the animation field bringing her unique voice to independent animation (such a hard thing to pull off, even in today’s more affordable industry).

To Have and Have Not

I have talked about the legend of Bogey and Bacall on this blog before, so I won’t necessarily go too far into it. Let me just say this one thing: Bacall was only nineteen years old when she did this, her first film ever let alone with Bogey while he was in his mid forties. Such a disparity would usually incite outrage and shame the couple into breaking up, but Bacall did not ever act like a nineteen year old. She had always been much wiser than her age. A prime example would be this film.

At first glance, I would not have taken Bacall to be much younger than twenty-five in this film. Her figure is dramatically highlighted by a waist baring gorgeous black dress and her hair covers up what baby fat was left on her face. But it is not her appearance that made me think she was about twenty-five. Rather it was the way she handled herself onscreen. Bogey can be a domineering presence on-screen. Many great actresses have been overshadowed by his easy and gruff persona including Bette Davis (The Petrified Forest) and I would say even Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca). By no fault of their own, Bogey just demands attention and earns it by all the marvelous acting he does. But Bacall does not disappear on the screen when forced to act next to Bogey. Maybe because Bogey was so incredibly smitten by her, but everything goes quiet on his face when next to her and all of his attention is wrapped up in what she is about to do on-screen. A good example of this type of scene is the first scene she appears in. There is no build up to her appearance at all, you just see her once in the hallway opening her door and then bam: she leans against a doorway and asks for a light. All action and tension seizes, the boys give over to the appearance of one of the most beautiful women in the world. She lights her cigarette, tosses the matches back to Bogey and leaves. However, the rest of the scene does not matter to the audience any more. I don’t care about these people who the manager of the restaurant want Bogey to take illegally on his boat. All I care about is getting back to Bacall. Happily she gets a lot of screen time.

Comparisons to Casablanca are inevitable. Both take place during WWII involving Bogey playing an American ex patriot who lives on an exotic yet occupied island. Both characters want to stay out of the conflict and both inevitably get pulled into helping the good side by pride alone. But I think that these films should be seen not in comparison to each other, but as compliments to each other. They interpret basically the same story in two very different ways. These two films would make an interesting mini marathon/drinking game. Every time Bogey lights a cigarette, take a sip and every time there is an iconic line you take a shot. You will not be sober by the end of it.