Friday, August 19, 2016

Five Movies 1949-1977. Two Golden Age Foreign Classics, One Golden Age Hollywood Comedy, One Neglected Classic, and One Exhibition of Edgy Modern Nihilism

Abigail's Party (1977)


British teleplay, written and directed by a young Mike Leigh, whose work I have always found a little too relentlessly unflinching and vicious. This might be the most depressing movie I have ever seen that didn't involve child rape, or the Holocaust or something. I didn't know anything about it, apart from the blurb on the sleeve, which made it sound like a comedy in which working class British people drink too much with socially disastrous results. Based on this, I induced my wife to watch it with me. She did not find it uninteresting, though at several intervals she did ask "What is this?" and "Where are you finding these things?" It is a comedy, of sorts, though of an extremely uncomfortable variety. It is not uproarious.




This work is better-known in England than it is in the U.S., and seemingly well-regarded there. I guess it is the sort of thing they like, and it speaks to their uniqueness as a people. For all of its artistic and literary virtues, I see it still as a story about vulgar, animalistic people who are neither bright nor virtuous nor original with and to and around whom nothing good or positive happens. It is almost a ne plus ultra of spiritual nihilism.


My wife thought it was the kind of thing certain people at St John's would have gotten into on account of its ironic, passive-aggressive edginess and alienation. Perhaps.


The Hidden Fortress (1958)


Now we are back in the sunny days of the first flowering (in terms of popular success in the West) of the golden age of the great international directors, whose fame I suspect will continue on and occupy the position in the history of cinema that the famous novelists of the 19th century (Dickens, Twain, Austen, Balzac, Tolstoy, et al) do in the history of that genre, even if certain of their attitudes and concerns and even techniques become outdated or superseded. Everyone will still know them, better than they will most of their worthiest contemporaries, and will probably still like them to some degree because their films, especially the earlier ones, have many likeable qualities.




Kurosawa has at present perhaps the strongest cult following among this group, Bergman, Fellini, various other new wavers, et al, at least among important people. Maybe this is because he is not European. Sometimes it seems like it, that certain Western people want to respond to a vision that is more definitively other. I greatly admired Kurosawa's version of The Idiot, but that is to this point the only one of its films that has strongly resonated with me. There is a lot of fun and high spiritedness in this movie, and it conveys an optimism, about the direction of the art of cinema if nothing else that was characteristic of a lot of these celebrated foreign movies (though I think it picks up as well on certain other positive attitudes that were widespread in the later 50s even if brooding artistic types denies sharing in them). However, and this is about the third time I have watched it, my mind always wanders about during it, thinking about the terrain, and the sunlight on the rocks, and maybe the sweep of the vista in certain shots, and I lose track of the characters for minutes at a time. In truth, they are not as compelling to me. Of course, I have never been able to get through Star Wars either, large parts of the plot of which George Lucas has confessed to lifting from this movie. So there is something in the story that does not connect with me.


Edge of the City (1957)


I liked this one very much, perhaps because it is not especially well known, and thus a pleasant surprise for me (I had never heard of it before), though there is no especial reason for it not to be known at this point in time. It was the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, who went on to make many well-known films, the only one of which I have seen is  Hud, which however I also liked very much as an American movie with something of the atmosphere and sensibility of the European art films. This one has something of that as well. It also reminds me of Paths of Glory, which came out the same year. Sidney Poitier stars in what I think probably should be one of his more celebrated roles, along John Cassavetes, who is one of those people the edgy art-film crowd always talks about but whom I had never managed to encounter until now. It has a lot to recommend it besides being a solidly made movie: New York in the 50s, even some of the redeeming aspects of America in the 50s, a jazzy contemporary soundtrack of the sort that was criminally underexploited at the time, Poitier's character is extremely likeable, though perhaps primarily to whitebread types, as some prominent studies by black writers have been dismissive of the character. One example given in the Wikipedia article on the movie calls the character a "colorless black" with "little ethnic juice in his blood", who acts in the tradition of "the dying slave content that he has served the massa". I think this is a little harsh (To be honest, I also find it humorous. Why I do, since I am sure it was not intended for me to find it so, I think is because there is something of truth in it, though only partial truth, and I am pretty certain the effect that the film inspired in the critic was entirely unintentional). The Poitier character does not seethe with anger every second that he is around white people, though I don't think he lacks ethnic juice, nor is he in a totally submissive role relative to any of the white characters, though perhaps this aspect was somewhat sugar-coated for 1957. In the first scene when his light-skinned wife, played by Ruby Dee, appeared, I thought for a moment that she was actually white; but I knew there was no way that would have flown at the time. In fact I have seen several claims that this was the first American movie to depict a genuine interracial friendship, and one of the reasons it did not make a lot of money or otherwise have much of a national impact was because the studio didn't even bother trying to show it in the south. There is a lot here that I found moving. There is an undercurrent of anger in it, but it is understated and low-key and allows for a lot of fine impressions to come through.






Not available via Netflix. I bought a cheap DVD (around $1.99) on the internet, well worth it.


Pather Panchali (1954)


I had seen this probably three times already, but not in ten or fifteen years, and as it is to me one of the greatest of all movies, I was glad for the excuse its coming up in my system afforded for seeing it again. I cannot say much about it beyond what has already been said a million times, that it is so moving because it is really a very simple, ordinary story out of which great secrets and other depths have been pulled. This is not the whole of art, but it is a substantial and in terms of power usually underdeveloped part of it.




The night after I saw the movie I had a dream about the toothless, ancient "Auntie" who is one of the more visually memorable characters in all of cinema. I am usually rushed in the morning but I took a couple of seconds to jot down what I could remember of it:


"Twice came across Auntie blocking road while driving, once legless body, second time just a head still breathing. Both times waited for another guy to move her out of the way, set her up on the side of the road. Second time she stared at me hard in disgust. I couldn't think of what else to do. I was in New Hampshire, not India..."


Adam's Rib  (1949)


One of the famous Tracy/Hepburn "battle of the sexes" comedies that judging by this don't appear to have dated very well. Since I usually love just about anything from this time I watched it through twice just to make sure, but I could not get into it. Besides the changes in the male/female dynamic in our day that have rendered most of the jokes stale when they are not actively wince-inducing, the writing and direction in general I did not find strong enough to be able to overcome the contrivedness of the plot and the artificiality of the situations, including the marriage. The screenplay was written by women, which I suppose was somewhat unusual at the time, though many famous female writers of the 20s and 30s, such as Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lillian Hellman, Mary Chase (author of Harvey), etc, received paychecks from Hollywood during this era, so it wasn't completely unheard of.






The most interesting character in this movie to me is the Cole Porter-esque piano-playing, always tuxedo-clad song and dance man who lives in the apartment across the hall from Hepburn and Tracy. He is interesting mainly because he was a type who was a staple in these kinds of entertainments who has largely faded away. What was the cause of his demise? Rock and roll, perhaps, or television, or the decline of the cocktail party in general, or the movement towards music-playing among those who could do so as exclusively an instrument for self-aggrandizement rather than shared camaraderie and joie de vivre? Yes, I wonder.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Break From Origin Story to Catch up on Movie Notes (1982-2009)

I actually have nine of these to do, but as I have only gotten through four and the end of the week approaches, I will divide this into two parts.
Me and Orson Welles (2009)


Period piece about the 1937 production of Julius Caesar directed by the 22-year old genius and egomaniac Welles, largely from the viewpoint of a teenager from, I presume, the outer boroughs or maybe New Jersey who lands a small role in the play. I like the period aspect. It is well felt, particularly in the romantic attitudes towards the arts and learning and New York City life (by outsiders) that seem to be more characteristic of that time, or at least my idea of it, than of our own. Welles, whose genius was evidently already established, or was forcefully impressed rather quickly upon anyone who had to deal with him, comes off as pretty insufferable, not to mention capricious, manipulative, bullying, and generally joyless. As long as all this is in the service of great art and the exercise of the g-word, it need not be of any concern to lesser mortals. However, in Welles's defense, I have seen real-life interviews with him in which, while arrogant, he displays more humor and charm than he is depicted as having in the film. He also, in these interviews, strikes me as engaging with the person talking to him, even if he is berating him, on a more personal and intimate level than is common with celebrities. On the other hand, as I get older, the Welles genius, at least as experienced through the medium of his movies, seems to be losing some of its appeal and power. Now I have only seen two of these since I began documenting all of my cinema-watching here, one being The Trial, which is not renowned as one of his better efforts, though some people still consider it good, and the other The Magnificent Ambersons, which I thought was great when I saw it in my twenties, but in my forties found to be difficult to concentrate on and be drawn in by, as there are long, long spells of verbose conversation unenhanced by music, etc, which effect had only gotten worse by The Trial. So while I do still like Welles to some extent, especially as far as what he represented in his youth, I would not regard him as someone who needs to be treated with the level of artistic reverence that I feel this movie thought it was obligated to do.


An Education (2009)


Another period movie, this time taking us back to the hidebound, provincial London of 1961 in which all of the better sort of young people are dying from boredom and waiting for things to loosen up and get exciting (hey, I'm 46 and still waiting for this to happen). It's not bad, though I found it kind of depressing. It's about a teenage girl (who, despite having hopelessly middlebrow and status-anxious parents, has a legitimate shot at going to Oxford), who has an affair of a kind with a comparatively sophisticated older man, who turns out to be disturbing for reasons other than his predilection for dating teenagers, which, while perhaps of a body with his other objectionable qualities, is not presented as a terrible thing in the movie. The supposedly cool, more alive people in this themselves have rather more of an air of desperation than joy about them. Even the teenage girl when she is swept up in the excitement of the more sophisticated, jazz-club and art auction life seems not to be exactly having real fun, though I guess that is the point, one has to be educated in these things before you can fully take part in them as an independent agent as an adult.


The girl, whose name is Carey Mulligan, is pretty (she was also 23 or 24 when the movie was made). The director was Lone Scherfig, who is a Danish-born woman and was part of the Dogme 95 movement that was a big deal for a time. Since this movie she seems to be working mainly out of Britain.


It is a point of emphasis of course that the era in which this is set was stifling and dull and culturally stagnant, especially for women, and while all that was doubtless true, especially for the more artistic and dynamic-minded, I don't see a lot of films depicting contemporary England that would indicate that the overall quality and tone of life has improved that much beyond the circumstances, usually presented somewhat superficially rather than deeply explored, that some people are more cosmopolitan, that women can hold important and lucrative jobs, travel is easier and more frequent, and so on. Working class horror show movies like Fish Tank and Wasp come immediately to mind, though the whole genre of Hugh Grant-type yuppie movies don't portray a way of life that I find especially attractive, and yes, I am assuming that these movies are rooted to some degree in reality or aspirations for some such lifestyle, or they could not have such similar attitudes, characters and so on.


This is based on a memoir. I hope for the father's sake he lived long enough to see his suburban London house appreciate to be worth half a million pounds or whatever it would go for these days. It would have given him real joy.


Hamlet (1996)

There was an article by John McWhorter that came out around the time I saw this in which he made a point that I was going to make in this article, which is that he, and presumably many other modern people, cannot really enjoy watching most staged productions of Shakespeare because it is difficult to keep up with the spoken language in real time, because the syntax and word usage and so on are not what we are used to processing, even if we have a lot of experience with and are able to enjoy reading them. Obviously this is not the case with many people, who are either able to process the language faster, or have committed greater snatches of the plays to memory, but I usually find it to be the case with me. There are some Shakespeare movies that I like, though these tend to be more cinematically (visually) oriented ones, like Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V. I also remember kind of liking the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet, though I haven't seen that one since I was in 9th grade. Most of the film adaptations I find either too stagey without the warmth that a stage performance can sometimes convey or otherwise disconnected from, whether emotionally or by way of intellect.
As you have probably guessed, I have written this introduction because I did not have the time of my life in getting through Kenneth Branagh's four hour plus movie, considered by seemingly a lot of people who demand to be taken seriously to be the greatest of all filmed Hamlets. Besides falling asleep several times, which happens to me now during all movies except those most exactly fitted to the workings of my brain, and finding difficulty in keeping up with the dialogue, I was not inspired by any aspect of it, and nothing in it fit with or satisfied any of my pre-existing ideas about the story, which could mean that I understand absolutely nothing about it, though I doubt it. The cast is full of big name stars, including lots of Americans, even in minor parts. For the most part this was a distraction as far as perceiving the characters, who in the long run are more famous and greater personalities than most of the movie stars. There were even people in this that I like, and Gerard Depardieu I thought was pretty good in his part, while the effect of Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston, who seem by the way like they have been dead for too long to have been in a movie with all of these other people, is just strange. Then there are the people I don't particularly like, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal as the gravedigger (spare me!). Kate Winslet is Ophelia. Since I never like her in anything, I am starting to think that maybe she can't actually act. I know unlikeability is considered something of a virtue now, especially when it is people like me who are doing the unliking, but I never really think she is all that good. However, casting directors love her. I will grant that she looks great naked, and in most of her movies (including this one), they'll put in a scene which requires her to appear in this natural state.


I've never liked Kenneth Branagh much either. He plays Hamlet here as a prick who luxuriates in his superior intelligence and facility with words and is aggressively contemptuous of everyone. Of course one can read it this way (Yes, I know you don't read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads you. Another of my favorite people), and I shouldn't be surprised that your brash, in the arena types would interpret the most important character in world theatre to be temperamentally closer to themselves, just like everyone else does.
Missing (1982)


One of those movies that was a big deal when it came out but has to my mind been kind of forgotten, though whether because it is not similar enough to other stories that we have grown accustomed to in the interval or too much like them I cannot determine. It is based on an actual event, the disappearance of an American journalist during the 1973 military coup in Chile (though the specific South American country we are in is not identified in the movie), that is widely assumed to have been instigated in no small part by the United States government. I guess what I remember most (the movie, while well made and dealing with one of those dreaded serious subjects, does not seem to have left much of an impression on me) are snippets into the characters and mindsets of Americans of the time: the still overwhelming maleness of professional life, especially at the upper ends; male sexuality that is still aggressive and assertive; the know-it-all arrogance of the younger boomer aged males, and their often uncertain comfort levels with physical danger; the attitude of the father (at first) that diplomats and other U.S. government officials are in some way answerable to and should care about him at all. All of this did not add up to any great effect for me however.