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et al) do in the history of that genre, even if certain of their attitudes and concerns and even techniques become outdated or superseded.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.

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