Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Luis Bunuel/John Huston/James Joyce/Andy Williams

The Dead (1987)

I had seen this about twenty years ago, and I still think pretty much what I thought then, that if you are familiar with the story, the movie doesn't add anything to it, though it is certainly watchable and not an abomination. It is famous for being John Huston's last movie. It is comparable to another literary adaptation he made about ten years previously, of the Flannery O'Connor book Wise Blood. That did not add much to its source material either, though I thought it was mildly more interesting as a movie due to the casting and a slightly more off-kilter approach with regard to its presentation. The Dead is almost a straight transliteration of the events and settings of the book to the screen. Huston's daughter, the famous, or at one time famous actress Angelica, does not come off to me as Gretta, which character I always took to be more of an idealized Celtic type, earthy, but in a particular Irish way that is not quite so heavy and earth-motherly as this usually implies and allows for a suggestion of an inner etherealness that is largely undetected by non-poetic types. I had also always pictured Molly Ivors as being more attractive, in an athletic, vivacious way, than the actress they had playing her here, though both of these are doubtless my personal prejudices at work. The most striking characters in the movie to me were the hard-drinking duo of the protestant Mr Browne and especially the wretched and hopeless but not wholly uncharming alcoholic Freddy Malins. Freddy Malins types seem to have been fairly common in society at large when I was young, but I do not recall coming across one in years. Certainly they would be shunned by any company frequented by high-functioning and respectable people, presumably even in an extended family setting such as that in The Dead.

This is, all in all, a pleasant enough little movie, and depicts a higher level of civilization and conversation than most people experience on a day to day basis. I think if it were not directed by the Great John Huston, one would be more fully satisfied by it. But being directed by the Great John Huston, one feels that it is lacking some extra push or flair properly characteristic of that Greatness.

Born Free (1966)

This is, apparently, a widely known movie, considered by some to be a children's classic, though I had never heard of it. I was certainly familiar with the hit theme song, made famous by Andy Williams among others, which is to this day a staple of AM golden oldies radio stations, but again I had no idea of its being a movie theme, especially for the kind of movie it was, whatever it was: for it does not fit naturally into any genre of contemporary entertainment, though I do like it, partly for that very reason.

My sense of its not fitting into any contemporary genre are due to the following points:

1. While the movie is clearly aimed somewhere at the 10 to say, 16 year old market, which was a big market in the mid-1960s, I think the younger end of that age group would have trouble following the story, especially today, while the whole presentation of the movie is nowhere near cool enough to attract the attract the interest of more than a handful of kids at the upper end.

2. Vestigial colonial attitudes. I joked at one point, after an African women washing clothes along the river had been mauled to death by a lion (not shown on camera), that there should have been a disclaimer stating that 'No caucasians were injured in the filming of this motion picture', because it was fairly obvious by the whole tone of the production that the British naturalist and his blonde wife, while lovers and custodians of nature, were also at all times able to exercise and maintain control over it no less than over the human society around them. They were not going to be overwhelmed or caught off guard by the inferior life forms among which they had thrust themselves, though they affected a respect for them within certain parameters dictated by their conditions of life.

3. I touched on this some in point 2, but being a movie scientist and nature lover in the 1960s involved considerably more recourse to firearms and celebration of carnivorousness than sensitive animal lovers, especially children, would probably be comfortable with nowadays. Our naturalist has to put down (with his rifle) at least 3 lions in the course of the film whose behavior has crossed the line of decency with regard to aggression towards humans, and this without it being suggested that perhaps the people need to remove themselves from proximity to the lions' habitat. Another major part of the plot is the need of the young lioness brought up in captivity to learn how to feed itself by hunting down and devouring zebras and wart hogs and other traditional lion fare. It seems to me it would be hard for a good-hearted contemporary thinker to embrace this facet of development, even in an animal, with any very robust enthusiasm.

The unironically heart-warming ending may represent a kind of peak in the expression of the postwar bourgeois sentiment. There wasn't really anywhere to go after it.

Nazarin (1958)

A Bunuel film from his Mexican period, evidently little seen in the United States, not released here on DVD and available on VHS, which is how I saw it, in very limited supply. I am a true believer in the greatness of Bunuel, but I have become resigned to the understanding that I will probably need to see any of his films three or four times at least before I can perceive and experience this greatness in each individual instance. I watched Nazarin through twice. It is in the somewhat overly stark black-and-white that seems to be especially particular to 1958 (The Defiant Ones and Separate Tables are two examples coming immediately to mind where the film itself has this less than normally striking quality) and which gives the whole work a more artificial quality on a first viewing than other movies in this general period. The subtitles, on the version I saw anyway, come and go very quickly, and as, as might be supposed, there is no inconsiderable degree of weight and subtlety contained within this dialogue, it is something of a chore to keep up. Also I am more than usually tired lately, due to the new baby, and probably my age, and the first time I tried to watch I struggled from about minute twenty through minute sixty to remain awake and alert before finally succumbing to sleep in my armchair; the second time I made it through all the way to the end, though I faded again in the last hour, and the next day when I tried to recount what happened to the main character at the end I could not remember at all for several minutes before my brain, scanning its own recesses desperately for some image or clue, came upon the ox or horse-drawn fruit cart that does appear in the last scene. Needless to say I have to consider my assessment of this movie incomplete for the time being.

I suspect that after another viewing or two (at some future time) something that binds together its to me still disjointed and not wholly coherent parts will become clearer to me and the movie will attain for me a whole that I have not yet been able to grasp.

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