The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
I am prejudiced in favor of almost anything halfway decent from this time, so I enjoyed it as far as that goes. It was produced by Merian Cooper of King Kong fame. Cooper was a dynamic man of action more than an aesthete, and the film takes on this general character. In the credits it claims to be "inspired by" the famous Bulwer-Lytton novel, which I have not read, though apparently it has a completely different plot. While I believe the book features some early Christians as major characters, this movie is set mostly during the time of Christ, which of course pre-dated the famous Vesuvius eruption by about 50 years, tying the stories together by having a man who encountered Jesus while young be settled as a rich old man in Pompeii at the time of the disaster. As a production the movie is a little clunky and forced anyway, and all of this rather fantastic far-fetchedness is not done in a way that holds together. The always entertaining Basil Rathbone appears here as Pontius Pilate.
Good enough for fans of 1930s Hollywood, but I would not call it a classic.
It won the Oscar for best picture, the only movie directed by Alf Hitchcock (in I believe his first Hollywood effort) to do so, featuring a comparatively young Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, though all of this is incidental. It is famously not a typical Hitchcock picture--he was under some restraint by the studio at this time--and while a well-regarded classic, it seems to be ranked outside his most essential films by the experts, and the same critique is often applied to Olivier too. I had never seen it before, but it has all of the kinds of things I like with regard to dialogue, setting, faces, sensibility, general intelligence, etc, which I recognized within about five minutes. It's easily my favorite movie since Stolen Kisses.
I had seen this a couple of times before, though I'm pretty sure the last time was when I was in college, which was a long time ago, so it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit it when it came up. I'm not a huge Scorcese fan, mainly for reasons that have little to do with the quality of his movies, the better of which I usually concede are decent enough. His characters tend to be completely unrelatable to me, to the point of striking me as probably having advanced forms of various mental illnesses, a pattern which runs through movie after movie after movie. The other reason is that he turns up on a lot of these DVDs I get on the commentary track or some other of the special features, and I don't enjoy him or find what he has to say particularly interesting. He goes on too much for my taste about the lens being used or the panning and so on, a little bit of which is informative, but there is no humor or sense of mischief such as I like to leaven the technical presentation.
But this has nothing to do specifically with Raging Bull, which I think holds up pretty well as a work of cinema art. As far as deriving a thought exercise from the movie, I suppose the obvious question is, What are we supposed to think of LaMotta? He is possessed of a kind of demonic force that is relatively rare even among the more violent subcultures in America, which is the entire source of interest in him. Early on he is able to at least temporarily impose enough discipline on himself to become a top ranked prizefighter, yet he seems to give up even on this as he gets older, and has more need of it. He demonstrates an obnoxiously low level of intelligence, however I think we are supposed to feel a little sorry for him for this as such things are not ultimately one's one fault. He causes an awful lot of havoc however, and the people around him don't really seem to get much in return.
California Solo (2012)
I've adopted a new system for picking movies which is not completely an improvement, though it allows more opportunity for more recent films and others that may not have attained the highest rankings. For every title generated by the new system, which is a much more random process, I match it with one attained via the old system, to ensure that I still have a steady supply of the classics that I like.
California Solo, a recent production of modest distinction, is thus one of the first movies of this "new" type to appear in my lists. It features the actor Robert Carlyle, who appeared in the late 90s indie hits Trainspotting and The Full Monty. Here he is playing a former minor member of a moderately acclaimed 80s era British rock band who now lives in California doing agricultural labor, making music-related podcasts, and drinking a lot. He's also divorced and has a teenage American daughter whom he barely knows; and he is also facing deportation back to the U.K. because he gets arrested for drunk driving. While he has a certain amount of British rocker charm, his life is in the mess it's in because he drinks so much that no one can really help him. I suppose that is the most interesting part of the movie, I have rarely seen a depiction of alcoholism that is so thorough and illustrative of the pitiful state that it reduces a man to. A lot of movies that are supposed to feature the bleak side of alcoholism still induce me to want to join in and imagine that I could carry off that lifestyle if I put my mind to it. But this character I knew was beyond anything I would be able to pull off at this point of my life. I can't go that far, not that I want to obviously, but some people have compulsions to be so extreme in everything, their souls are so volatile. My soul seems to be entirely bland in that regard.
I think there was supposed to be a message for us about immigrants here because it's a fairly relatable Scotsman who is being put through the grinder with police, lawyers, and all the rest of it, and perhaps we'll be sympathetic to his desire to stay and equate that with the plights of people who aren't white and/or English-speaking and move or fortify our personal take on this issue. I tend to be of the mindset that seemed to me to be prevalent when I was growing up that if any individual country decided that they didn't want any particular foreign national camping out on their territory indefinitely that there was always a risk of deportation. Obviously the sentient part of the world has moved on from this way of thinking about the matter.
The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978)
Italian epic from the heroic era of European filmmaking. I had seen this a few years back on a poor quality VHS tape and written a post about it. In addition to the dark print on the much smaller television I had at that time, I seem to have been distracted on that occasion and not taken much away from the viewing. In the meantime I kept the movie saved in my Netflix queue along with about thirty other DVDs whose statuses are perpetually "availability unknown". However, as occasionally happens, one of these elusive discs will suddenly become available and turn up in my mailbox, in this instance the Criterion Collection release. So I had to see it again.
Of course my experience was much better this second time. I was evidently in a more relaxed state of mind, which helped, and the bigger screen and clearer print brought out much more of its grandeur and depth than I had been able to perceive the first time. There is a very well known scene in which a pig is slaughtered, and there was another episode again involving an animal, a diseased cow that has to be put down. As this cow is the only one that the family, who was exceptionally poor, owned, and they cannot sell the meat or anything due to its being diseased, it represents years worth of financial devastation. It would be hard to concoct a "pitch" of this movie describing what it's about, it's an accumulation of small incidents or strokes of ill or good luck that given the narrowness and rigidity of this world determine the courses or nature of people's lives. One boy is identified by the local priest as intelligent and is given the opportunity to go to school. A woman's husband dies and she has to take in laundry to support herself. Meanwhile the local lord of course has access to books and newspapers and even a record player on which he listens to recordings of Caruso while his peasants lead the same lives their forbears have led for hundreds of years, and this all taking place, as I noted in the earlier post, perhaps within the lifetime of the filmmakers themselves, or at least their parents, as the director (Ermanno Olmi) was born in 1931. He is still alive, by the way.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Much-loved Powell and Pressburger film about a ballet troupe and the artistic process intended as an infusion of beauty and color into a still dreary postwar England. There is a lot about it that I like, though I did not have the same response to it as I did to the earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by the same duo, which I thought was pretty much a masterpiece. However this does star favorite of this blog (and of Powell and Pressburger) Anton Walbrook as the ultra sophisticated and exacting director of the ballet company, and an English redhead (seemingly another P & P staple), Moira Shearer, who, I had not realized, was a real ballerina of some renown, as the unknown dancer who persuades the master Walbrook that she has what it take to dance the lead in his company. There are some pretty hard observations on the demands and sacrifices necessary to lead the life of the true artist, though these probably apply almost equally to being a true businessman, or a true scientist, or true tech innovator, or ace high school student, or almost anything requiring true excellence. Whether true art still occupies an elevated position relative to these in anyone's mind I am not sure.
There is of course the incongruity of the brilliant young composer and the brilliant young dancer in the film both being standard issue born and bred English people, given that these are arts in the English are not traditionally recognized as having a culture of greatness in, and even the English composers who have achieved some degree of fame (Britten, Vaughn Williams, Walton) I tend to think of as somewhat stodgy, respectable establishment types--sort of like the professor at the beginning of the Red Shoes who cribs from his student's work for his new composition--rather than the more fiery, intense younger men identified with this art on the continent. However, I find the optimism expressed by attributing the possibility of attaining great and noble heights where they have not traditionally been considered to have been reached to one's own people, as the phrase goes, to be admirable. This particular sort of confidence is not consistent with most peoples across the ages.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Another selection by my new system, I figured that these movies were hits so they must have some kind of appeal, or fun to them, so I wasn't opposed to seeing it. I couldn't understand this at all, it made absolutely no sense to me. All the technology and machines that were constantly introduced were way over my head, explained in an impenetrable foreign language. I lost the plot about fifteen minutes in, around the point at which any resemblance to life on Planet Earth as I have always experienced it departed from the movie. If this is at all representative the mental world the mass of the population comfortably inhabits nowadays it no wonder I am so isolated and incapable of understanding anybody. Good God. Look at the cast they got for this thing. Gwyneth Paltrow? Not that I ever liked her particularly, but I thought she wanted to be a snob. Don Cheadle is in this too. I know, money, money, money. Not too many people in America can win a real following doing the kinds of movies I like, But some can.