Friday, January 22, 2010

Back to the Movies

I've been reading some of James Agee's film writing this past week, so maybe that will have some positive influence on this post. His essays make some good reading, especially the ones about the silent era, the comedians, D.W. Griffith, and such, though I'm not sure I would have included them in the Library of America series alongside Melville, Faulkner, Henry James, The Federalist Papers, and so on, where they now are. Most of the book consists of weekly columns, many of which were clearly dashed off in a hurry, from the Nation and Time magazines. Most of these are about insignificant and long-forgotten movies to boot. Compared to modern film writing there is not a great deal of analysis either of films' meanings or of the filmmarker's technique. Agee's persona, as it were, is as a literate commentator who responds, or doesn't respond, to various experiences he gets from movies; the main question for him is where a film works and doesn't work, and why, which answer he usually either does not seem to find difficult, or at least does not make difficult. He makes great use of one of my favorite techniques, which is to expostulate on the ten or fifteen egregious flaws intellectual types will be sure to point out in a film such as Casablanca or The Best Years of Our Lives, to cover himself, and then confess to liking them a great deal anyway. In this way I find him engaging, though perhaps I don't learn much from him, for we have both a similar approach and often a similar response. When a particular actress moves or excites him, he writes about her with a kind of heartfelt tenderness that it is almost impossible to imagine a professional critic expressing today. He had a good eye in these matters too. Here he is, for example, on my old favorite:

"I cannot, however, resist speaking briefly, anyhow, of Teresa Wright. Like Frances Dee, she has always been one of the very few women in movies who really had a face. Like Miss Dee, she has also always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent as an actress, and with something of of a novelist's perceptiveness behind the talent. And like Miss Dee, she has never been around nearly enough. This new performance of hers (Best Years...), entirely lacking in big scenes, tricks, or obstreperousness--one can hardly think of it as acting--seems to me one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years. If the picture had none of the hundreds of other things to recommend it, I could watch it a dozen times over for that personality and its mastery alone."

How about the young Judy Garland, before she became a thoroughly sad, campish ruin of a human being:

"Girl Crazy has nothing in it I can recommend unless...(actually names 2 other things)...and unless, like me, you like Judy Garland. Miss Garland is a good strident vaudeville actor too; and has an apparent straightness and sweetness with which I sympathize."

And two years later, on the now-forgotten wartime movie, The Clock:

"There are quite a few things wrong with this picture--some of them basic. The average lonely soldier in New York doesn't have the good luck to pick up Judy Garland, or true love, or anything remotely resembling either. But it could be justly argued that such things do occasionally happen--and ought to happen more often."

When Jean Simmons came on the scene Agee was so gaga and unrestrained in his enthusiasm for her that he is still made fun of for it by writers today:

No, she's nothing special, just looks like somebody's overly well-behaved girlfriend or daughter. Probably boring too. Not sexy like the Kardashian sisters or whomever.

Agee doesn't seem to be taken as much by Deanna Durbin however, for whom I have a lot of (heretofore) secret affection.

Pretty much all the articles in the book date from 1941 to 1948. Such immortal classics as Bathing Beauty, Butch Minds the Baby, Two Girls and a Sailor and His Butler's Sister are well-covered, while Orson Welles, whom Agee doesn't seem to like, is alluded to only in passing, except for the 1946 film The Stranger (which is about a Nazi who escapes and hides out as a teacher in a New England prep school, in case you were wondering), which gets a review. Casablanca is only mentioned in passing, usually with the sense that the author is still trying to justify the fact that he liked it, and It's a Wonderful Life also gets one of those I-liked-this-movie-even-though-my-friends-won't-and-there's-also-a-myriad-of-problems-with-it assessments, with a promise that a longer review is coming next week, which review either never got written or didn't make it into the collection.

I find Agee a more aimable writer about movies than such celebrated and provocative later critics such as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Richard Corliss, and pretty much anybody who ever reviewed films for the Village Voice. Obviously Agee generally allows people like me to remain comfortable and doesn't challenge us much either about our preferences or our way of seeing and thinking about what the artists are intending for us to see. He talks about what he likes, and why, but doesn't seem very interested in attacking or trying to change the habits even of his readership. let alone the mass of the population. Part of this no doubt was due to the time in which he wrote--there was a rather refreshing break during the war years from publicly bashing ordinary people's bad taste given that most of them were sacrificing in some way, though even in 2010, it is fairly obvious that most people are not and never will be interested in movies that set out primarily to provoke questions of any kind of difficult or abstract nature, or that depend on subtle rather than easily identifiable pleasures. They like the production and packaging, the professional polish and shine, of the big studio releases. The problem I have with the Village Voice school isn't so much that they criticize this, but that one gets the sense that if one isn't a chosen member of their club, who sees things in their way, etc, like things and people that they (in some cases unjustly) despise, etc nothing you do is ever going to be acceptable to them, so at a certain point I began to tune them out. Even when I like the movies with edgy sex, violence and subversive attitudes such as these critics favor I inevitably don't, and can't, respond to them at the level that they really require, for unlike the Old Hollywood comedies and romances I tend to favor, there is not a lower base of simple entertainment built into the overall artistry that is O.K. to enjoy. You cannot emerge satisfied from a Robert Altman or Cassavetes film without a substantial understanding of human sexuality, art, ambition, and the dark motivations of capable people such as are wholly foreign to the lives of about 92% of the population; if you tried to claim that you did anyway, that you were entertained on a simple-minded level, the directors and their fans act as if they would rather punch you in the face than graciously accept your compliment. This however is an attitude that a lot of smart, fed-up people seem to approve of, and one they seem to believe it is necessary to cultivate if society has any hope of ever being generally improved--in their sense of the word improved, it should be added.

All right, on to the reviews. You may have noticed if you have been following me for a long time that there has been a general movement backwards in time with the films I've been watching. I tend to make lists of about 40 or 50 movies I want to see, and then go through them from the present day backwards. As you can see I am getting near the end of one of these lists, as today we finally make it back all the way to the silent era. But first there is one last talkie:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I had never seen this. This is one of those films of course that is iconic historically, referred to as much in textbooks and surveys of history as those of cinema. It's one of the earliest talking films, and the plot and dialogue are a little stilted (Agee referred to it, or quoted someone else who referred to it as 'a good Phd thesis'). The battle sequences are excellent and vivid however even by modern standards, and are played very matter-of-factly and convincingly by the actors, which experience tells me is not easy to do. When characters get wounded and are screaming or have to demonstrate exhaustion after several hours of relentless machine gun firing, there is absolutely nothing that feels phony about it. There are several sequences where there are a solid 10 or 15 minutes of loud machine gun activity and screaming that is truly technically impressive (I watched this on the Saturday night before Christmas; my wife was in the next room wrapping presents, and she commented in one of these parts that the movie was really getting her in the Christmas spirit, though I think this was supposed to be sarcastic).

It is interesting to me that a film dealing so comparatively honestly with the evil aspects of the First World War came out just 12 years after it ended. Of course there had been poems detailing its particular horrors even as it was going on, and the novelists and memoirists were publishing books about it in pretty vivid detail before the movie. This is in a pretty sharp contrast with World War II, most films about which stuck largely to a heroic or even comic (i.e. 'Hogan's Heroes') treatment (U.S. & Britain) or made references to it obliquely (Europe/Japan) well into the 60s, with comparably graphic or 'realistic' depictions, particularly with regard to the Holocaust, not really beginning to come out in force until 25 or 30 years later. One of the main differences is, I think, first, that World War I, while horrible, was not especially personal. The guy who killed you in most cases was not usually in any more privileged position then you, he probably didn't despise you, and he was not personally humiliating you to gain some advantage he didn't need. In many instances he probably suffered the same fate a few days, or even a few minutes, later. Conditions seem to have been equally bad and absurd among all the various armies in the conflict, with the exception of the Russians, (where they were actually worse). The ruling classes who supported the war were by 1918 so discredited and weakened, if they hadn't been overthrown, that these could hardly have been said to have benefitted by the disaster either. During the 20s it wasn't in the interest of any government or ideology to play up the war as necessary or heroic, and play down the more unsavory aspects of it, the way it was for the U.S. to do in the decades after WWII. In any case, the veterans of 1918, as well as the ruling interests of the time, were much more amenable to unrosy and unheroic depictions of that war than seems to have been the case in wars since then.

My Deanna Durbin Picture Got Out of Order. Oh Deanna!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

It states right on the box that critics from Roger Ebert to the Vatican have declared this the greatest of all silent movies, and that Maria Falconetti in her role as Joan is widely considered the greatest filmed performance of all time; so you know when you put this movie on that you are going to see some of the greatest cinema you will ever see in your life, and can only hope you are ready to profit by it. On top of that it is, like the Third Man, a veritable smorgasborg of top flight international talent; the director is the Danish genius Carl Theodor Dreyer, the cinematographer Rudolph Mate was one of those subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire who dwelled and worked in many countries and among many peoples throughout his life, and in addition to Falconetti the French cast includes Antonin Artaud, almost the eidos of an avant-garde French artist and intellectual, and the author of the book The Theater and Its Double, which is on my reading list, though it doesn't look like I'll be getting to it for ten or fifteen years at least.

I had seen this once before, perhaps at St John's--this seems like the kind of thing they would have shown there, and at the time they were very partial to classic French cinema generally. It was doubtless one of those inferior prints the serious cinephiles will say invalidates whatever experience of the film you may have had, though I'm sure I still knew it was good--I mean it's pretty obvious that it's good. Is it one of my favorite/most beloved movies of all time? Not yet, nothing has clicked for me in that regard. It has great intensity, especially religious intensity, and you have to be in the right frame of mind, alert, with good concentration, and so on, to follow and be swept up by this. I think this film is one that would be especially helped by viewing it in the theater and feeding off the energy of the people around you (it is, indeed, both rather theatrical and rather Catholic mass-like in presentation now that I think of it). At home, after a long day, without dialogue, without a lot of movement and with only a medieval-inspired musical composition for sound, I find it rather hard to stay awake and fully riveted by the movie at this particular time, which I find regrettable.

Of course I did a series on Joan of Arc a couple of years ago, having read 4 plays about her that I wrote on, and it is natural to wonder what I think of this film in comparison to those. Interestingly, 2 of the 4 plays (Brecht and Anouilh) date from after this movie--which is itself based on a 1925 novel by a man named Joseph Delteil--and a 3rd, the Shaw, was only 4 years older than this film. It isn't really comparable to any of them, that I can remember. The Anouilh perhaps would be the most similar, but even that, as I remember, is not as confined and straightforward with regard to action and story as this is. The plays of course have lots of dialogue, and this has very little, the emphasis here is on the passion, passion in the religious meaning of the drama of the execution of a martyr, and you have to be into that idea, and feeling it, to get this.
Storm Over Asia (The Heir to Genghis Khan)--1928

I had been really jacked up to see this for a number of years, as it has 1) one of the greatest titles of all time, 2) it's the early Soviet avant-garde, which nobody is either too cool or too sophisticated for, and is always never less than outrageous in some way at the very least, and 3) I actually thought it was about Genghis Khan and the Mongols storming across Asia in the 13th century raping and pillaging, which, combined with the Soviet avant-garde touch, was something I evidently wanted to see. So I have to say that although it is a great movie in completely different ways, I was overall a little disappointed. First off it is set in the Russian Revolution, and the heir to Genghis Khan is a hunter who lives in a yurt who has to drive some foreign capitalist fur traders and their military backup out of the region. Secondly it is rather slow moving, with (often extremely beautiful) long shots of desolate landscape or ritual dances or capitalists decking themselves out in expensive clothes and jewelry, and I again found myself drifting in and out of sleep after about a half hour over two nights. I would like to see this again sometime, if not in a theater, than at least when my concentration and stamina will be better than they are now, because I am quite sure I missed a lot. I don't know if this is the first occasion in cinema where the motif of the stoic, put-upon Asian guy who goes apeshit at the end and wreaks all manner of havoc is used, but that was definitely operating on my mind throughout the movie.

Not Had Enough? How about some quickie reviews of recent movies. I watch a lot of movies in December and January. It's dark 15 hours a day and freezing most of the time where I live. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I had been avoiding because I thought it was going to be pretentious, but it really wasn't. Actually it was outstanding, in a minimalist kind of way, and the cinematography was first-rate. It is very rare that I see anything new that either doesn't annoy me or doesn't seem stupid. I also saw The Hangover, the dialogue of which isn't going to make anyone forget the Marx Brothers or the young Woody Allen (anyone who hasn't forgotten them already, that is). It at least showed something of an instinct for real comedy, which you don't see much of these days either. I didn't fall asleep, and I laughed enough (bought very cheap, admittedly) to keep me going in anticipation of more of the same. Still, while I like to see the kinds of things guys my age and a little younger are up to, I could easily go another year without seeing anything else like this. I've gotten my annual dose of bachelor party/weekend in Las Vegas/slovenly, vulgar, hopeless modern male pictures.

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