Thursday, January 24, 2013

1951 Movies

Five of them here (though it looks like one might really have been from 1952). I don't remember this year being often mentioned as one of the landmark years in cinema history, but it produced a hogshead's worth of classics. I have already noted here in passing having seen, from that year, A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, A Place in the Sun, and the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol. Besides those featured in today's post, there are still quite a few more celebrated titles from this year presumably to come. Based on my listkeeping, it looks to date like the champion year for the number of individual movies that have merited the highest rating in mainstream publications.

An American in Paris

Won the Oscar for Best Picture in that highly competitive year. The choice seems to have been considered an upset at the time, Streetcar and A Place in the Sun being the favorites going in. I enjoyed the movie very much, though of course I am a mush-brain. I am surprised by how well-regarded it still seems to be by many people who seem to be demanding, the sort who not only talk about things like the Real Paris, but have intimate knowledge of it. Obviously there is a sophisticated way to appreciate it requiring legitimate mental seriousness as well as a mindless one; however, all that I am able to get from it seems inconsistent with all my sense of what sophisticated people would be impressed by. And the film certainly has its share of detractors, though again, mainstream opinion seems to have accepted it as a classic on its own terms. My own take is that it is better than its detractors, most of whose arguments against it are almost too obvious to be convincing, would have it, but it is not Great great.

The saying that all good Americans, when they die, will go to Paris, is no less pointed because it is over-quoted. Indeed, I suspect that this promise is likely is not true, and am rather downtrodden in mood because of it. I suspect we are not talking about the Real Paris, especially that of the present day, that alternate place which has the genuine good food and is supposed to be far more interesting, because everything and everyone in it is held to and lives always by high standards in which Truth is the dominant governing element; but of something more like the Paris of this movie, though hopefully a little more populated and less stagy. The opening sequence of real footage--from a distance, aloft--of the city circa 1950 with its sparse auto traffic, slightly less worn out monuments and suggestive glimpses at the miles of streets and boulevards of (for Americans) dirt cheap rents and endless carafes of wine, is getting pretty close to the fantasy. What do I ask of Paris but to give me a few sensations. That I am an artist, or at least that I appreciate beauty and all of those wonderful things. That I have a mind. That I like to drink and eat well and enjoy life, without the necessity of being a prig about it because I can take it for granted that my victuals are of acceptable quality. That I am capable of being a subject of romantic interest. This is the whole extent of it really. Is it such a joke to desire these things? Well, yes, if they haven't any grounding in truth, it is. The experience of "Paris" is not a gift or reward given for earnestness and good behavior, especially to outsiders.

Forbidden Games

This is the one I think is in fact from 1952. My book said '51 but everything else says otherwise.

This is a French movie, very different, not only from the image of France depicted in American in Paris, but even from most other famous French movies, that I have seen anyway. It reminds me more of an earlier or mid-career Ingmar Bergman movie like The Virgin Spring as far as its themes and cinematography go than anything else I can think of. It also takes for a direct subject the death and destruction, indeed the fact itself, of World War II, then still quite recent and in France especially painful to have to recall. I probably should have watched it a second time. There was nothing obviously wrong about it, and I am sure it is as great a film as it is supposed to be, but nothing about it absorbed me or made any kind of emotional connection with me either. The affection that developed between the children would have been the likeliest route to my heart and sensibility but I just wasn't up to feeling it on this occasion. I will have to try to see it again. Sometimes the second viewing is the charm.

The Idiot

This, on the other hand, was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for, the more so as it was completely unanticipated. Despite the presence of cinema legends Akiru Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune in the project, it must not be among their top 6 or even 10 most celebrated collaborations in this country, as I was previously unaware of it. And then upon discovering that it was an adaptation of Dostoevsky, I just assumed it was set in Samurai times, another two hours and 46 minutes of the rituals and other formal cultural trappings of that genre, which I am learning, I think, to appreciate more as the years go by, though it still involves some work for me. However the movie is set in the modern world, in Hokkaido, the big northern island of Japan, where, as I remember from one of Paul Theroux's travel books in which he went there, it really does snow as much as it does in Switzerland or pre-global warming Vermont. It has great atmosphere, and a deliberateness of pace that however never fails to be interesting and makes for a pointed counterpart to hyper-distracted contemporary digital life. I should have kept it a little longer and watched it a second time, so taken with it I was.

The Idiot is one of the great stories of the post-1500 world, I believe. The dramatic background of the saintly man who is not insipid, the sickly man who is not (entirely) weak, the innocent man who is not wholly ignorant of the world, who indeed at the outset of the story is himself returning from abroad, where he has presumably been engaging with life at some serious level after his own fashion, I find to be highly affecting to the imagination. All of its main characters, and most of its minor ones, are superior representations of humanity than their counterparts in actual life, as are the incidents and settings of the plot. While the story is ultimately unhappy, I suppose, the experience of it as art marks a high point in one's mental biography that is usually to be but too rarely replicated, especially it seems as one ages. I recommend it (the book, but the film gives something of the same sense in miniature) to anyone unfamiliar with it, particularly in the dregs of mid-life, who is feeling sluggish and disengaged mentally from all of the higher currents in life.

The Magic Box

Almost four years ago I wrote about how I was unable to find this movie anywhere. Finally I discovered a couple of months back that someone had uploaded a copy of a television broadcast of it, presumably from England, to Youtube, where in exactly 1 year (January 24, 2012) it has received the rather paltry total of 738 views. So I have now seen it on the computer at least.

I noted on the other post that this was the British film industry's contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, that it was shot in Technicolor, that it starred the great actor Robert Donat and featured cameo appearances by numerous other British acting luminaries of the day including Laurence Olivier, and that its subject matter is a man named William Friese-Green who may or not have been the inventor of the movie camera but who according to the film at least invented a machine that produced moving pictures independently of whatever else was proceeding in that area at the time. The film is good, especially in its depiction of the main character's obsessiveness regarding his inventions, to the point of ruining his finances, his and his family's social position, both of his marriages, and any relationship with his sons, the elder three of whom feel obligated by the family's circumstances to enlist in World War I, which in British movies especially is so readily understood to be a death sentence that they don't even have to insert a scene later on in which the mother gets the bad news or refer at all to it having happened; the boys just don't return to the movie. And Robert Donat as William Friese-Green doesn't seem to be affected by any of this in his pursuit of invention. He repeatedly borrows large sums of money from anyone he can get to lend it to him, with no real effort undertaken to ever pay it back, and clearly thinks it an injustice when one of his creditors finally cuts him off. There is a tradition, that this is the attitude visionary and creative people have to have, and that normal types can't understand what goes on in the mind of such a person. In Europe especially that the visionary dies unappreciated in poverty and obscurity is almost preferable. Americans generally want to see some kind of payoff or vindication in the end, at the very least recognition, or reconciliation with friends and loved ones. Otherwise, how do we know the person is worth celebrating with a movie?

I am obviously not a visionary, but I did have, and still have, a certain amount of this impractical nature. It is quite amazing how long into my adult life, almost until I was in my mid-30s, that I believed I would eventually  be accepted by the greater world as some kind of writer or other intellectually-oriented line of work and be paid for it in line with other middle class professionals. Even today I don't really know or have a clear sense of how I am likely to come by money enough to live reasonably on for the rest of my life. Though the alternatives eventually happen and take on a life of their own, they always remain to some degree unthinkable, and to this day I cannot really face the reality of my situation and acknowledge it as anything significant. As this, I have noted many times here, it has rendered completely unable to function socially. In this I am completely the opposite of the Idiot.

Both of the actresses who play the beleaguered wives of William Friese-Green are of exceptional attractiveness in this particular movie, especially the one who plays the first, the Viennese-born Maria Schell.

The River

In keeping with the (loosely) overarching French theme here, this was a later project of directing icon Jean Renoir, though in English and set in India, based on a novel by a writer named Rumer Godden, with whose work I am not familiar but who I am guessing falls quite distinctly into the category of 'colonialist literature'. It was notable at the for being, I am pretty sure I remember this correctly, the first Western feature film shot in India. It is a strange and often discordant movie, which combined with the fame of its director's genius, persuades one that its art value must be high in a way that is inaccessible to the casual viewer, which I assure you is a disappointment for him. None of the actors in this movie that I am aware of when on to achieve much notoriety, and several of them are actually quite awkward in their performance. I don't know how comfortable Renoir was with English but he does not appear to have been deeply intimate with this language's spoken theater traditions (which a few short minutes of the Magic Box will serve to refresh your acquaintance with). The attitudes towards things like European colonialism and the place and nature of women vis-a-vis men are pretty close to what was consensus mainstream opinion at the time. A little English boy is killed by a cobra he is trying to charm. There was a very British Colonial speech made in the wake of the boy's death that did not go in for the sentimental or woebegone view but emphasized the duty of those surviving to move forward. I thought it made some sense at the time but obviously the argument hasn't stuck with me.

There was a mid-90s documentary included on the DVD about the then 88 year old Rumer Godden, who grew up in the English community in what is now actually a part of Bangladesh, but returned to India, or so it said, for the documentary, which I also found strange and in fact I did not finish it. I didn't like Rumer Godden. I grant that she was really old and having to go around an India that she really didn't recognize or have much affinity with by that time, but still, there was a deeper than usual air of coldness and cynicism about her. She was a real artist and turned in completed and well-received books on a regular basis, which should be more than satisfactory to me, and it is. Still, she had the air of someone who had some number of bad nights too many at the English club...

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