Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Very Long Movie Post Because It Concerns My Favorite Years (1945-46)

During my survey of the history of movies, I have identified a few especially favorite years, 1962 being one, and 1951, perhaps unexpectedly, has proven to be a year with a lot of things that I like. There are other years, such as 1949, 1966, 1971, that occasionally pop up and seem possibilities, with a couple of more hits, to join this exalted group. I think however that my all time favorite year in cinema history is 1945, with 1946 just behind it. The first year especially does not seen to usually be considered by experts as one of the all time great ones. As I have noted in other posts, the films from that year, particularly from Hollywood, have a somber, gentle, unfrenetic aspect about them that likely does not appeal to people who like their life and art to be as edgy and exciting as possible, but clearly I love them. There was a rather academic-sounding book written about these two years in film which makes an argument for them indeed being the best of all time. Here is a review of it. There are two sentences from the review that resonate for me, the first a quote from the actual book, the second a follow-up comment with regard to the quote:

"For many moviegoers the time coincided with their own 'best years'; for others who came later, the movies of this period mirror an extraordinary chapter in the nation's saga they regret having missed."

"Alluding to the nostalgia associated with the immediate postwar period, the Affrons colorfully suggest that generational memories of 1945-46 have sunk deeply into the U.S. subconscious, so much so that those of us born after the fact feel compelled to relive the best years vicariously through the film camera's misty-eyed lens."

There is certainly something in this that applies to me, even if I would not describe the effect these movies have on me in exactly these terms. I would also say that the people for whom the generational memory of 1945 has sunk deeply into their subconscious constitute a decided minority, even among the sensitive. Most people seem to be able to resist the nostalgia without too much of a struggle.

La Belle et La Bete (1946)

It is often referred to by its French title, not only because that title is so great, but also in later years to distinguish it from the Disney movie. Like Les Enfants du Paradis, this was made at the very end of World War II and remains beloved in France to this day. There were numerous special features that came with the film, many interviews or short documentaries taken from French television, in which an aged actor or makeup artist or cinematographer would be presented and a resume full of said person's involvement in classic movies by iconic directors would be recited; but always at the very end the announcer would say some variation of "but so-and-so will always be most remembered for his work in Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete." This period at the end of the war was probably the most emotional time in recent memory, in every country that was involved in it. This emotion was not of the hysterical, irrational quality that the word seems to have come to mean in recent years, but, when applied to the classic films of the era, that in which people express, in a controlled and even subdued, but very direct way, those things which they most deeply love and desire and feel.

Apart obviously from Germany and Japan (and Austria), no one receives less sympathy in this country for what they endured during World War II than the people of France. The Italians, despite actively being on the other side during the most tenuous part of the conflict, my sense is are thought of, if they are thought of at all in relation to that period, as having been poor and wretched and suffered considerably, while with the French the emphasis is forever on collaborators, defeatists, women who consorted with the Nazis, and a general sense that the mainstream population was comparatively living it up while everyone else on the continent was starving and being subjected to torture on a routine basis. I don't know how important the films which emerged from these two countries in the immediate aftermath of the war were in confirming these impressions, but I suspect they had some influence; the Italians of course producing the neo-realists, who in the beginning at least had a somewhat underground quality about them, and movies like The Bicycle Thief and Open City (the former of which at least I do think is still one of the greatest of all time, for the record) in which, however one wants to color it, the predominant attitude is "We are desperate. We are on our knees. May some fate or power or something have mercy on us."--while the French in contrast brought out numerous titans of their pre-war artistic establishment and produced a couple of films, also among the very greatest of all time, in which the message being conveyed, to themselves, the rest of the nation, and that portion of the greater world that cared about such things, was "Our self-esteem has been shaken, but we are still who and what we always have been, and we are still great." This is an example too of what I was referring to earlier by the depth of emotion that these movies carry, and which gives them a power that is doubtless hard to duplicate in ordinary instances. The insistent pride which undergirds them, in spite of the more complicated and interesting emotions which move the work, nonetheless will always I fear tend to work against a real understanding and feel for what these movies are about in some instances.

I have had the Georges Auric musical soundtrack for years, though I had not seen the movie before. I got it back in the 90s when I was a member of the Columbia Record Club. It was one of their monthly selections that you got sent if you forgot to mail in the card saying that you didn't want it. Of course you were supposed to pay for the CD or send it back, but...I used to listen to it fairly often for a time. All-instrumental movie soundtracks are probably an underappreciated genre, especially as background music. I don't like to move about in a silent house (of course this was more of an issue before I had a lot of children), especially if I am not writing, but opera and some of the more intense classical composers can be a bit much first thing in the morning, with one's eggs and toast....

My general thoughts about this movie, about which entire books have been written--I think it does what it sets out to do, which is roughly to connect a modern avant-garde sensibility with a specifically French classical story (this was something of a specialty of Cocteau's, who frequently used ancient stories and themes in all his arts); it uses what it has--its material, and the emotions and allusions suggested by this material--expertly. It feels classical, in the sense that the story feels elementally spare yet expansive and significant in all of its parts. The actors, as they always are in French movies of this time, are excellent, fully inhabit their roles, seem as if they completely understand what the movie is about, and so on...

The Lost Weekend (1945)

A 1945 movie directed by Billy Wilder that is about drinking would probably be impossible for me not to like. And I had never seen it before. I have known about it for a while, of course, but I was waiting for it to come up in my system, as something to look forward to. It does contain pretty much everything I like in movies. I suppose one could pick apart the script and the acting and find numerous flaws, but I found it moving and disturbing enough in about equal measure that the flaws don't concern me that much.

I like what Jane Wyman does here as the girlfriend--I suppose this is in keeping with my general love of women in movies in this era. People don't like the character because she won't drop the drunken loser, but it's good for the movie's emotional thrust that the protagonist has this normal, likable and yes, sad and deluded woman who loves him and feels such devotion to him. It may not matter to the alcoholic, but the idea of that degree of loyalty and affection in a woman even when one has hit bottom appeals strongly to the imagination of the audience. And it is not as if women don't love alcoholics, or at least enough of them do. They may not love the alcoholism itself, exactly, but there is in many instances some characteristic which is indicative of tendencies in that direction that appeals to them that is absent from the makeup of the computer genius. Though she will never admit it, I'm quite sure my wife liked me better when I drank more than she does now. I was more work, and more unpredictable, and much more interesting, and there was some drama, or the possibility of it, because I had more delusions about being alive and a real person than I do now, and women do like that, even if they don't always realize it.

I note a number of people in online reviews saying the ending was too Hollywood. I did not see it as being too Hollywood at all. If anything I thought it was ambiguous, and quite well played. There is absolutely nothing in the ending that indicates he won't be back at the bar begging for more rye by four o'clock that same afternoon. Sure, he puts the gun down and his girlfriend who looks pretty from being out in the rain hugs him in tears and he says he is going to stop and begin writing again...I go through this routine about three times a week, it means absolutely nothing. The ending is fine, I think it is quite good, actually.

I love the old 40s and 50s style alcoholics' bars, better even than the old nightclubs. The kind that are always uncrowded and a little melancholy, plenty of room at the bar, booths, wood or veneer-paneled walls. They're all just about gone now. I don't know of any still in operation that fit the type. When I was young there were still a few up in the Northeast Philadelphia area. My grandfather used to take me to them for lunch. The Little Campus in Annapolis was another, now gone. There is still a bar there, under a different name, but a recent travel book I have describes it as "the epitome of a power-broker bar". I'm pretty sure there was no power broking going on at the Little Campus.

This is one of those movies (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another--I haven't seen The Days of Wine and Roses, which I guess is the third part of the trinity of drinking movies) where you have to stop the film somewhere in the middle, go and get a bottle of some real stuff--I always drink beer when I watch movies, but that doesn't cut it in these instances--and drink along with it. Like Don Birnum also, I was carfeul to hide my bottle and shotglass from my wife, who was floating around the house doing work, having opted out of seeing the movie due to the grim subject matter (and perhaps the subject matter hit too close to home?) I do identify too strongly with alcoholics. I once thought maybe I would become one--if you had told me twenty years ago what my life would be like now, I would have assumed I must become one to preserve any sense of self I might have--but as in most things, I didn't have it in to be that extreme, and upset and disturb people. But I do feel like I understand characters like this and their lives and why they have no great desire to change better than I do most other types of people.

I do worry that the world, or at least America, is being taken over more and more by people for whom the mentality on display would not even begin to make any sense. That is perhaps good for America but it is bad for me, who always found society and the environment all around me alien enough as it was. But it only seems to be getting worse.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I thought this might finally be the 1945 movie I wasn't going to like. Described as "slick trash" even by people writing favorably about it, it is a technicolor melodrama with a lot of stilted acting and dialogue set in the kind of bland, sterile, expensive rooms that one forgets were fashionable around this time (indeed, my grandparents were still betraying signs of this influence into the 80s). Yet there was enough to interest me and keep me going. These points briefly were:

1. Jeanne Crain! I love Jeanne Crain. I wrote a little about her in Letter to Three Wives here. I will comment more on her in this movie below.

2. Though filmed entirely on sets and around the Lake Tahoe area and not having anything in particular that really reminds one of anything about Maine, most of the movie is set at Deer Lake or Bar Harbor. The glow of having gone to Bar Harbor for the first time this past summer is still fresh with me, and I found the thought of wandering around the village there and coming upon Jeanne Crain hoeing in the garden rather captured my fancy.

3.Vincent Price. In a supporting role, as Gene Tierney's jilted fiance. I had never seen him in a movie before. He is only really in two scenes, though the second one is long and crucial to the movie. He's an interesting figure. He seems to have been well-liked, and was widely regarded as a cultivated man. He had majored in art history at Yale. He famously lent his name and expertise to the Sears Roebuck company's line of fine art for home furnishings in the 60s, which apparently was a serious enterprise, and included work by people like Picasso and Salvador Dali. He came at his career from many different angles, and was at least adequate in all of them. He also was noted for his cooking and gourmet taste in food back when this was a less widespread interest than it is now, and he wrote several cookbooks.

4. The script must be better than it seems on a first impression, because somehow the thing held my interest, though apart from the courtroom scene where Price plays a rather manic lawyer, nothing in it much stands out.

5. Gene Tierney is the star. She is extremely beautiful. I don't think she is more beautiful than Jeanne Crain, but then I like the more wholesome types. Gene Tierney plays a psychopath who lures a cripple into the middle of the lake and looks on detachedly while he drowns because he is too weak to swim anymore, throws herself down a flight of stairs to self-induce an abortion, and arranges her own suicide in such a manner as to implicate her innocent half-sister (Crain) as having murdered her. According to the commentary she was not much more emotionally responsive in real life.

About that was weak. I endured it because I wanted to go through the movie again. The commentators were the veteran film critic Richard Schickel and the former child actor who had played the cripple who drowned. This is the third movie I've gotten where Richard Schickel has been the commentator. Along with the woman who did Lola Montes, his commentaries are the most useless I have come across. The first two I gave up after ten minutes, but as I said, I wanted to go through this one again and try to figure out what it was about it that worked. Schickel started off on the wrong foot for me when he quickly dismissed Jeanne Crain as a subject of any interest, observing that she was a beauty queen with limited acting abilities who 'lacked fire'. However true this ultimately may or may not be, I have to admit my immediate response at this instant was "is this guy gay?" I couldn't find a definite answer to my question, but my guess is "probably". If Richard Schickel's general knowledge and capacity for thought, his aesthetic sensibility, his sense of humor, were interesting and worthy of my admiration and emulation, I don't think the question of his possible gayness would have pressed itself upon me so crudely. However, since I already did not like his commentaries, or any of the directions where his perceptions lead him, and presumably would, or should, lead us, and he begins speaking flippantly of my favorite 1940s actresses, a situation arose where I reached a sort of breaking point. 

Speaking of all which, The Lost Weekend didn't have a commentary. I'll do one for it if no one else wants to, though I would have to get paid for it.

Other interesting Wikipedia tidbits about Jeanne Crain:

She achieved notoriety as an teenager for her ice skating.

She had seven children.

She was nicknamed "Hollywood's number one party girl" in the late 40s and early 50s, though this appears to refer to her rate of attendance rather than wildness of behavior.

She was married to her husband for 57 years, though they appeared to live apart for most of that time and they nearly divorced in the 50s, with each party claiming the other had been unfaithful. The details on this are not very satisfactory.

She was an active advocate for conservative Republican causes during the 1960s. Again, details are not forthcoming as to which causes she was especially fervent for. Another site notes merely that 'unlike the humanistic, progressive-thinking Margie (reference to one of her roles), Crain was a conservative Republican who supported Richard Nixon". Horrors! This page fills us in further that Crain's husband beat her brutally, that she never divorced him because she was Catholic, that she became a severe alcoholic, and two of her children predeceased her due to alcohol and drugs. Maybe I shouldn't do any more research...

Lady on a Train (1945)

In many ways a perfect 1945 movie--inveterately scruffy, pace very deliberate, at times scarcely discernable, plot simple and not especially the point of the movie in any case, good-spirited in a somber, muted way, has some wry humor mixed in with more telegraphed humor, a distillation, I think, of the national mood and general character at that particular time. It stars a very likeable Deanna Durbin who is fun, fun, fun and decidedly livens up what could otherwise be a dreary wartime atmosphere. Deanna Durbin was a four or five tool star: good-looking, could sing, was intelligent, was very funny in her own perky way. Not everybody liked her of course. She probably was not considered to have a lot of fire either, which quality seems to be especially treasured in women by my father's (early baby boomer) generation regardless of their sexual orientation. Earlier in her career she was famous for playing the Ideal Daughter (as that role was perceived at the time) in a series of teenybopper movies. I haven't seen any of these ideal daughter films (Three Smart Girls seems to be regarded as the most vital one of the group). Personally I think the ideal daughter is an aspirational ideal that society could embrace more widely that it does at present without overly sinister results, but perhaps I am showing my naivete again.

Deanna Durbin for some reason is always described as Canadian. It is true that she was born in Winnipeg but her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was a year old (that would be age 1). Even all of her singing instruction appears to have been done in this country. I don't mind the Canadians claiming her, but if, as we are often told, people who move here as full adults, especially if they have a work ethic and entrepreneurial or other high level career skills, are more fundamentally American that most of the people who happen to be here by mere accident of birth, then I am not sure why Deanna Durbin would not automatically be considered an American first.

Lady On a Train spoofs, albiet gently, a number of tropes of 1940s film--noir, Orson Welles, the outlandish kinds of nightclubs that are ubiquitous in movies of this era (and which I have often extolled myself in these pages), the entire murder-mystery genre of novels and movies, which was obviously flourishing at the time.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Life in Bridges

marietta violacea wind surface omitted bees

Honorable Mention: Pulaski Skyway, Route 1-9, Newark, New Jersey

I've only been on this once (though you can see it from the Turnpike). It's a big black 1930s iron bridge near the Newark airport. I thought it was pretty nifty the one time I was on it. I must be due for another trip.

12. The Triboro, New York

Historically important, and makes you feel like you are in the heart of one of the real New Yorks. I don't think I was on it until I was around 30.

11. Verrazano-Narrows, New York

Similar to above. I usually only take this going north, to avoid the $13 toll. Anything that reminds me of the old days, before I was born.

10. The Hamilton Fish Bridge over the Hudson River, I-84 in New York.

I only go on this road every other year or so--maybe less than that now--as a change from routine. There is nothing special about this bridge except that it is very gloomy, especially in the dark, in winter, and during a snowstorm. I only ever feel impelled to go this way in winter, the whole length of which in New York is quite gloomy, and some of the gloominess even continues into Connecticut as far as Hartford. I find much of upstate New York--and this is not even very far upstate--to be gloomy compared with most of New England. Even at night.

I couldn't find any pictures of this bridge in the winter.

9. The Bridge to the Outer Banks (Rte 12?), North Carolina. 

My old family--not only my parents but my grandmother and my father's five younger siblings and various of their cousins and other friends--vacationed here for a week every August from 1976-1979, and again in 1981. I have not been back since. I think this area has been considerably altered and built up during the interval. This bridge carried one from the ramshackle rural North Carolina mainland instantly into the magical world of sand dunes and waving cattails and seashells and mini-golf courses and motorcourts and swimming pools and the potential for, if not adventures, at least drama or memorable stories. I still get this feeling once in a while in famous vacation spots--I felt it at Bar Harbor, which similarly features a bridge from a comparatively dreary mainland onto an island where everyone seems to be happier and better looking and has more purpose than than the run of people you find in life. One year we arrived at the island to ominous, albeit very striking and dramatic, dark skies and learned that a hurricane was on the way--apparently we did not have a working car radio at the time. It was right at the beginning of the trip. My parents fled to the dreary mainland in the pouring rain, backed up for hours along the bridge and the one road leading out. The rest of our group, being either young and adventurous or old and cantankerous, stayed behind to ride out the hurricane. Though there was a great fear on the part of some that the bridge would be taken out, apart from a couple of days of heavy rain the storm did little damage, and we had to slink back in once the danger was out of the way in mild disgrace at not having braved the storm, though being seven or eight years of age it is not as if I had had any say in the matter. But the cool people had all chosen to stay and party, and even at that young age I knew they would be all right.

8. George Washington Bridge, New York.

This is the New York bridge I've been over the most. I also walked across it once when I was depressed and failing, though obviously I kind of enjoyed it. I can't believe failing in New York, while a more decisive and public humiliation, is more fundamentally depressing than failing in some nothing place. I don't go over this bridge much anymore because there is always too much traffic, but if you come down the Palisades, at night especially, you see it in all its glory, and it signifies "New York" to the children.

7. Delaware River Bridge Between PA & NJ turnpikes

The bridge by which I usually enter my home state these days with all of the nostalgia and regret and bitter feelings that comes with that. The bridge itself is a pretty run of the mill green arched truss bridge. The ones further down the river that go directly into Philadelphia are more distinguished, but I never went on them much. My father, for reasons that were never fully explained to me, hated the Jersey shore and for that matter the entire state of New Jersey so much that we practically never went there. I went a couple of times to Wildwood or Sea Isle City with my grandparents, but on the whole I don't think I have been to the ocean in New Jersey more than five or six times in my life.

6. Piscataqua River Bridge, I-95 Maine-New Hampshire Border

Due to my largely positive associations with both of these states, this is a bridge where I feel pretty good going in either direction. With most of these there is at least one side where I feel a little deflated upon descending from the bridge, because I am leaving a place that holds excitement or meaning for me and coming into one that holds neither. But I feel pretty comfortable and familiar almost everywhere in both of these states.

5 & 4 Bay Bridge & Rte 450 Bridge, Annapolis

These rate where they are because when I was actually in school I never drove back and forth from Annapolis to anywhere else. I only started to use these bridges after my time there. Still, they have a drama and a poignancy about them. The Bay Bridge is one of those bridges that puts a psychological distance between you and the town when you go over it. Once you are in the flat farmland of the Eastern Shore, you know St John's College and its idiosyncracies and colonial mouldings and all those Greek books have vanished again into the mists they probably came from. The Severn Bridge, with the romantic view of the water and the city of Annapolis with its domes and cupolas and spires (the Naval Academy mainly) on the approach to it, I did go over on the day I first came to Annapolis to begin school. It was years before I came that way again though so I have never developed a consistent emotional response upon arriving this way.

I have read that the Bay Bridge is considered by many to be one of the scariest bridges in the world to drive across, and someone did drive over the side of it earlier this year (though she survived, swimming to one of the piers and hanging on there). I suppose it is a little scary, though I have gotten used to it. I took the Bay-Bridge Tunnel in Virginia for the first time last year, which is much longer, and found that a little anxiety-inducing due to that length, though the bridge itself is not as high up, or at least does not seem so. As I have written before, I have a greater, and probably irrational, faith in tunnels, bridges, etc, built in the 1930s, 40s and 50s compared to more recent constructions, especially if they are in some way 'marvels' or otherwise spectacular engineering feats. This is because my mind cannot comprehend new developments and advancements as having any relation or proportion to it. These new environments do not belong to me or have much to do with me, so therefore my instinct is that they are likely to kill me sooner rather than later.

3. George C Platt Bridge, Rte 291, South Philadelphia

I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) don't have a direct interchange. Coming from the south, you get off 95, take this bridge over the Schuykill, are greeted on the other side by oil refineries on your left as far as you can see and a giant car demolition/scrap metal lot on the right. Welcome to Philadelphia! (although I must admit the pollution and air of menace in this little section is much less striking today than it was in say 1979). There used to be a forlorn little newsstand/hog dog cart on the corner where you turn for the Schuylkill, as well as guys walking up and down the median selling flowers and soft pretzels, but I haven't seen any of this in years. It is a very fitting scene for entering/leaving the city. Particularly on the trip to Annapolis when you go the Eastern shore route, which is only two and a half hours, but you pass through 5 or 6 very sharp geographical and cultural gradations during that drive. This little stretch obviously is one of the major gateways you pass through.

2. Route 9 Bridge over the Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vermont

This is is the major bridge in my children's life, since this is the one we pass over when we go to our camp, which is about 2 miles beyond it, and thus means we are essentially there. This is an hour and a half trip mostly through (beautiful) woods and alongside rivers and lakes. The bridge is a significant landmark. This trip passes through about five subtly distinct geographical and social regions as well, once you get to know it. The new bridge was built about ten years ago, so I remember when the old bridge, which is rusting but has been kept up as a foot/bicycle bridge, was used by cars. Some of the twee, healthy-eating, marathon training, technologically adept, visibly educated (I say this to distinguish them from myself, as I appear to be invisibly educated, for social purposes) Brattleboro crowd has hung up a handmade banner which reads "Welcome to Our Bridge" on this old bridge, which annoys me, since A) I don't consider myself to be part of them, so I cannot collectively share anything with them, and B) I also consider it to be my bridge. Do any of them really think it can mean more to them than it does to me?

1. I-295 Bridge into Portland, Maine (South End)

This bridge has no distinguishing features--no trusses or arches of any kind--but at the time it represented a border between the romantic hopes and images I had about my life, and emptiness and despair. I should explain: when I went to high school in Portland I did not actually live in the city--I was able to go to school there because my father was a teacher and they let me attend, which sort of thing they don't do anymore because the taxpayer vigilantes are more alert to it. So having to go out of the borders of the city, where my life, or my best hope for my life was, was a kind of emotional death at the end of every day, and my return again in the morning a kind of rebirth. I don't deny looking back that it was very strange, but that was how I felt. I don't have quite the same response anymore going over this bridge, because almost everything from that time is gone now, and my connection to it, for whatever reason, does not seem to have been very deep. Also even the exit that I used to get off at and that descent from the road into the city, the buildings I saw every day, etc, has been altered, and is almost futuristic now, bears no resemblance to the old days. Still, I like to stop in if I am passing through the area. Sometimes it is possible to get something of the old feeling, if one is lucky.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Favorite Women of Art #16

attention solitary

The Misses Vickers--Sargent (1884)

We are different people at different times, even the dullest of us. This week, or maybe just today, or maybe just this morning, hours before I was able to get at a computer, I did not merely desire that life should be like this for me, but even believed that it was. A few hours after I first wake up is my most vivacious time of the day. I often think that I recognize other people, women included, and that I am not so terribly different from them, indeed am quite like them. By the evening everyone is a stranger with whom one realizes he has nothing in common and is completely ignorant of the real nature of, as they are likewise of him. Everybody--one's family, co-workers, authors, artists and their characters, one's teachers. Thoughts about the images of film stars and anonymous naked bodies and ranks of numbers acquire more of reality than any idea of individual soul or intellect one could attempt to conceive of, including one's own. This is why it takes a very great amount of mental refinement to be able to converse,and seduce, and read and appreciate any fine beauty or work for what it is,the product of an elevated mind and spirit. This is not how most people ever experience life.

None of which is to take away from the dream of feminine beauty, however unreal or insubstantial it may be determined to be, captured, or asserted, in this painting of the Misses Vickers. I imagine my old female schoolmates, or more likely some airy substitutes for them, to be have been arrayed in some such manner in their rooms during off hours when we could not see them (those were the days before webcams). The details are not important, only the ability to imagine them. All of the three here look like liberal arts majors, and worthy and significant ones, that a properly educated man ought to be able to talk to, and hopefully command the interest and respect of one of the three, for each is of a distinct type, and while there is disagreement on how many types of beautiful and interesting women there are, most experts place the upper limit at somewhere between fifty and three hundred...

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Judgment at Nuremberg & Odd Man Out

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

I was not too excited at the prospect of another courtroom drama, more than three hours long, directed by Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most earnest and socially committed liberal of the early 60s (whose films have been turning up in my program at a prodigious rate over the last year), and featuring a cast loaded with superstars signed up for a film which already promised to be more self-consciously important than most people raised in this cynical generation can stomach. In spite of a lot of what one would instinctively dread about this movie being in fact true--it does take itself very seriously, it is grandiose (it opens with a five minute "overture" during which Nazi music plays over a black screen with the word "Overture" spelled out in white), some of the big name stars are a bit too big for the roles they are asked to play, and overdo them--its sincerity and confidence in its importance, and maybe the importance of human existence, are genuine enough, and strong enough, to relegate these potential flaws to a rather minor status.

Stanley Kramer is not a master of subtlety or the small but telling detail, but he seems to have been one of the more sincere directors, and strongest in his beliefs, who ever worked in this country. This is no doubt his magnum opus. Inherit the Wind, which came out the previous year and which I found myself grudgingly admiring in many of its aspects, was a good warmup for this, as there are obvious similarities between the two. Nuremberg has more plotlines and characters and covers quite a lot of ground. One of the most important, and, relating to Kramer, characteristic parts of the movie is the ten minute interlude near the middle where he simply shows the actual documentary footage from the concentration camps, which evidently in 1961 had never been seen by the general public before, at least in the United States. I appreciate the way that it was done. It is not thrust or flung out at the audience demanding that it take in and acknowledge at once all the pertinent facts of the case, and feel viscerally a certain response that the artist or historian thinks you ought to feel but has not adequately prepared you to feel. Kramer is very strong on this preparation, and did not break out the footage until a critical moment arrives in the trial, when its impact will have some weight behind it, and not immediately invoke a purely shocking or emotional response. The effect is more "Can you believe this happened?" rather than "You didn't know this thing I have shown you was going on, well, now you can't plead ignorance anymore, so what do you intend to do, or at least emote, about it? Also feel free to squirm under my moral superiority," which is how I often experience the presentation of atrocities or injustices in films and other public forums.

Burt Lancaster is one of the many big names in this. There was a time, especially in the early 60s, when you could not keep him out of a classic film. I think this is the fifth time I have seen him, with 3 being in the '61-'64 period (the other two being The Leopard and The Train). I didn't recognize him until the movie was practically over, so believable was he as a dignified German. I guess that means he did a good job. Marlene Dietrich was back again,and gave the picture something it wouldn't have had otherwise. Maximilian Schell won the Oscar--he is notable to me as Maria Schell's brother anyway. They were Austrian. Austrians, as actors, directors, composers, etc., I probably don't need to tell you, were prominent, and very able, at all levels of Hollywood in the middle of the last century. The Austrians who came of age in the years just before World War I were one of the more artistically accomplished cohorts in the history of the world. And now they are extinct.

I am falling asleep--but I must finish this post tonight.

Judy Garland was in this, at age 39. She is not terrible in it, as some have written, but they really could have gotten someone else to play the part--they didn't need Judy Garland for it. I also think they may have given her an Oscar for this, which was ridiculous. I feel similarly about Montgomery Clift's appearance to what I do about Judy Garland's. He's not giving you anything you would not have gotten from a relative unknown. Spencer Tracy is the star, which I had not realized beforehand. I won't say that he was miscast, but that his persona seems strange in this setting. He plays his usual upstanding adult middle American role here, fundamentally decent, incorruptible, adhering to common sense and measured, all of which is good and well, but we're trying Nazis here, very brilliant and in many cases intimidatingly accomplished ones. Were amiable provincial judges like Spencer Tracy really who we sent to deal with these guys?

For all this, the movie does work. I think it is because it doesn't just care that the Nazis killed millions of people and got (sort of) punished for it, but it cares about the way that they were able to do it, by perverting the laws and all of the other institutions of society that might have been able to oppose it. And yes, we all sort of know this, but we probably don't spend as much time thinking coherently about it as we should, and the point that Stanley Kramer would make is that if we have any part of a working brain, we are responsible, even if we consider ourselves to be powerless nobodies without proper credentials for critique, for the perversion of these institutions and bulwarks of civilization in our own society; and I actually still believe this to be true, which probably accounts for why I am unable to be happy about anything going on in contemporary life.

Odd Man Out (1947)

This is a good movie, but I am on the clock, so my review is going to be choppy, and brief.

Postwar Britain--set in Northern Ireland, but I assume it was filmed in one of the London studios. Directed by Carol Reed, in one of his warmups for The Third Man, which came out two years afterwards. That time, for me, has in general an atmosphere that I find strongly appealing, at least for the purpose of watching movies, but the atmosphere in this--the relentlessly dreary weather, the darkness, the cold, the dingy houses and apartments and pubs--is really what makes the film. The plot is improbable, but it does not strike me as particularly important. Politics also,surprisingly, don't seem important. The main character, who is played by James Mason, is an IRA type, and the viewer, as well as many of the minor characters whom he encounters in the film, are sympathetic to him, and the police are undoubtedly the villians, but I certainly did not feel that the movie contained any kind of blatant pro-IRA message, nor can I believe any suggestion of one would have been permitted in 1947, the censors in Britain at that time being even more severe than they were in America. The IRA aspect provides a subject and a framework for the director and his assistants to undertake an artistic exercise. Later in life, James Mason apparently said that this was favorite among the films he had been in. I wonder why, given that in most of the movie he doesn't say or do much, drifting in and out of consciousness due to having been shot in the arm and at his most vigorous dragging himself from one hiding spot to another, usually wordless. That is what he felt however.

I watched this on VHS, though the place I ordered it from sent me a burned DVD of the movie as well. I enjoyed viewing it on tape. I cannot remember why. It does fill up the whole screen, or more of it, than most DVDs do.