In some sense, a Marx Brothers film is a difficult film to review. The plot is insubstantial fluff and the straight material is as stiff and turgid as any 30’s B-picture. Thankfully, though, the one and only way the Marx Brothers could be described as “merciful” is in their merciless cutting of any “straight” material to its bare minimum during a time that all-but demanded it. While other films, even comedies, would go on and on forever with their central romantic love story and give way to episodic comedy in order to maintain a semblance of narrative, the Marx Brothers proudly couldn’t care less and included so little of the straight material so as to not even register. Even more-so, they absolutely skewer it, with the little included almost seeming like a satire of the need for all such films to hold themselves up to some semblance of narrative. They give us just enough to know we’re supposed to see a narrative in a film, and then they completely brush it to the side as if to say “you want a narrative, go fetch”. Continue reading
Monthly Archives: July 2014
Film Favorites: Ugetsu
A film of quiet, haunting beauty, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is a ghost story of the most chilling variety. It isn’t about the terror ghosts can cause passingly to you, what they can make you feel, and how they can even cause you bodily harm; it’s about what they can make you do, how they can control you, and how you can be made agency-less by your own desires manifested in the world around you. It’s the story of two brothers: Genjuro, who quests after money, and Tobei, who wants fame and honor. When Genjuro goes to the city to sell the pots he makes, he finds himself awash in the glories of monetary success, and when Tobei tags along, he eventually gets lost in the armor of a samurai he kills. It’s a grand tragedy of two men driven by ambition and obsession, a drama of Shakespearean proportions given quiet, breathing life, above all, by pure visual and aural craftsmanship. We look in and it looks back with quiet rage and somber mournfulness. We look in and it makes us wish we hadn’t. Continue reading
Film Favorites: Make Way For Tomorrow
One of the unsung classic tragedies of American cinema, Make Way for Tomorrow is far less well known than director Leo McCarey’s other film from the same year, The Awful Truth. When McCarey won best director for that film, he famously accepted by saying “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture!” A sly joke, but he was right.
The film is about family and communication, subjects relevant to just about everyone but which tend to be underexplored in cinema as they relate to the elderly. Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi), faced with depression-era job loss and lacking income, find themselves with nowhere to go and call their adult children for help. One child agrees to house the two for the long-term, initially, but asks for three months to convince her husband. In the meantime, two other children agree to each take one; Lucy moves to New York with her son and his family while Bart moves three hundred miles away with a daughter. Soon enough, tensions emerge as the parents prove difficult for their ever-busy children. All the while, the child who had agreed to house the two indefinitely tries, half-heartedly, to convince her husband to no avail and soon gives up. It’s easy to see how Make Way for Tomorrow was an inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the greatest film ever made about family. Continue reading
Film Favorites: The Rules of the Game
Update late 2018: Europe in its abyssal, post-WWII ruination became the subject of so many films, and so many prismatic interpretations of film. From Europe demolished and rebuilt through cinema’s moral humanism and deceptive collectivity in Bicycle Thieves to Europe rotted out as an expressionistic image of America’s disingenuous attitude toward Europe as a canvas for its own self-making in The Third Man to a Europe that both can and cannot be remembered at all in Night and Fog, post-war Europe poses many reflections and wears many faces. But WWII in cinema from the years leading up to the war tends to be read teleologically, as a slow shoring up of the known future of WWII. Critics think through, for instance, Fritz Lang’s Weimar cinema as a prophecy of Nazism and Europe’s guaranteed future moral demolition, a revelation of an impending truth many Westerners were unable to notice beforehand, no other possibilities emerging beyond the gradual rise of fascism.
But not so for Renoir. In The Rules of the Game, futurity remains a precious contingency, every single character’s moral fate hanging in a balance they often don’t realize, inclining toward a war they may not see but which Renoir is unwilling to cynically commit to. He reserves his characters’ futures, preferring not to stretch his humans across time as icons of undying, static types but, rather, to see them all as living, breathing humans. They are not crystallized as metaphors but, rather, rhyme with and intimate a larger social canvas through their particularity, not their generality. A deeply humanist film, Renoir’s work is truly empathic, which necessitates the hard work of tracing the imaginative lives of each character and their own internal cross-currents, their ideological conflicts, their crises of consciousness, and the shifting planes of sight and sound in the world which animate possibilities of connection and understanding for characters who suddenly and tragically fail to fulfill these opportunities through no evil of their own. Renoir’s film, with no villains and no heroes, is an indelible portrait of the public images we cast of ourselves, and the shadow worlds – of ourselves, of others, of the possibility of connection, of other potential futures – which those social images sometimes expose, and more often than not occlude.
Although it may seem less biting today, Jean Renoir’s seminal La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game) remains one of the most controversial films ever released. It was at one point ruthlessly censored in just about every way possible in France except an outright ban. On one level, one can imagine the understanding behind its danger. The film is undeniably pointed in its critique of French social aristocracy. But it’s also shocking in how pure and light on its toes it feels today – the narrative, boiled down, is a rather simple affair of aristocrats cheating on one another and struggling to establish love and truth in their identities. This is the narrative of many a film, and on the surface, the film feigns a similar tone to many other films bearing the same subject: cheerful quirk and light mockery. Continue reading
Film Favorites: Casablanca
Edited June 2016
What exactly does it mean to bear the weight of “America’s most beloved film”, as Casablanca does? This raises flags on all fronts, naturally. Many movies remain loved even as their luster fades, and others were never really very good to begin with, merely totems of false-positive memories. With any film of this monumentally mythic level of attention and historical repute, there are many questions, but the most important is actually rather simple: but is it any good?
Who doesn’t know the narrative? Set in the mystical imagination-space of World War II, after Germany has occupied France, a Czech freedom fighter Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) venture to Rick’s Café in the Moroccan City of Casablanca in hopes of lying low from the Nazis, headed by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), chasing them. This plays like its own potential narrative, but things rise to loftier heights when Ilsa discovers Rick is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a past love, her only love, and the two begin to rekindle their past affair. Continue reading
Film Favorites: Rear Window
Edited for clarity
Perhaps no film director has been studied, debated over, written about, psychoanalyzed, copied, butchered, chastised, and celebrated as Alfred Hitchcock. Inevitably, the question always comes up: What’s your favorite Hitchcock? A tough question, and admittedly not one I would retort to with Rear Window But if the question was “what is Hitch’s greatest commentary on film?”. Well, that’s another story altogether.
The story is simplified to its bare, jagged essentials, allowing depth and filmmaking craft to take over for breadth. Essentially, we have LB Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), a photographer here rendered bed-ridden by an accident which forces him into a cast. Bored out of his mind, he takes to observing his neighbors across the street through their apartment windows from his own window, aided by his trusty camera. Soon enough, he witnesses what he grows to think may be a murder of a wife by her husband, known to Jeffries as Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr). Jeffries has no evidence, but we soon find out a pesky thing like truth isn’t enough to get in the way of a man with a camera and his ego. Continue reading
Film Favorites: Psycho
Psycho is often reductively referred to as the grandfather of all modern slasher movies. In some sense, that is perhaps true. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most clearly defined “horror films” (along with perhaps Frenzy), and it is ultimately about a killer. On these notes, it is undeniably effective, with Hitchcock’s sense of mood and atmosphere slowly burning their way into the viewer’s psyche and his editing and film construction famously giving more than a few people a lifetime fear of a certain means of personal cleansing.
But Psycho is much more than a superior slasher picture. Its center lies in audience expectation and implication, an exercise in subversion first and foremost. The first half of the film makes it quite clear that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, a big star at the time as well as a typical Hitchcock blond and thus naturally the film’s star going in) is to be the main character, a woman looking to embezzle money in order to run away with her lover, Sam Loomis. For nearly the first half of the film, we watch her meticulously fulfill her plan before arriving at the roadside Bates Motel, where she meets Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. He’s friendly but slightly unnerving, a little creepy, and socially awkward, and he seems tied down to his mother in ways we don’t yet understand. We expect that the film will end up being about the relationship between the two. Furthermore, we assume Perkins will slowly come to obsess over Marion.
Not only do we assume this, but Hitchcock no doubt intended it. Many of his films, including almost all of his masterpieces, are about obsession in one form or another, and the structure of Psycho takes the audiences’ awareness of this to be fairly self-evident. The difference here would be a female main character, perhaps finally reflecting Hitch’s willingness to commit to a furious full-on criticism of the male gaze by moving beyond Vertigo’s uneasily likable but nonetheless ruggedly classical Scottie Ferguson and toward a more fundamentally passive male figure, someone who was ultimately less powerful than either of the film’s two female characters. Backing this up are the repeated visual images of Norman’s mother in shadow, ever-glancing and high-perched like a vulture from up in the Bates’ house behind the motel. She never physically appears, and exists only as an enigma, and yet she still has full power over Norman. In this sense, Hitch’s set-up isn’t simply “subverting” narrative expectation, but perverting our awareness of Hitch as a filmmaker.
Then, suddenly and with the confidence of a master, Hitch pulls the greatest trick ever played on an audience in a film. We all know by now that the obsession story ends with the shocking murder of Marion by who we assume to be Norman’s mother, still bathed in shadow. The scene, famously taking place while Marion is in the shower, is a masterwork of framing and editing. Its mastery of technical manipulation runs a mile wide, but the more notable include jarring quick-cutting, an ear-piercingly slashing and now famous score by Bernard Herrmann that sounds like humanity’s nightmares on a chalkboard, the film’s stunning black-and-white monochrome, essential to enhance the nightmarish detachment of the film, and a diabolical zoom outward from Marion’s eye post-mortem. The scene has been written about to death, rightfully so for its astounding construction. Yet, we wonder where the film leaves us from here. Surely, the film isn’t over?
The functional plot twist, it turns out, is no mere sick joke; it rearranges the texture and the nature of the film at a core, elemental level, playing on our expectations about stardom and cinema and slashing them to bits. It is not only narratively shocking but thematically subversive, rooted purely in audience expectation and Hitchcock’s methodological, obsessive desire to control his protagonists and his audience as well. He toys with his prototypical blond female, his favorite such figure, by literally setting her up as the main character and unceremoniously writing her out of the film. And he toys with the male lead by depicting him as a passive loser and yet essaying our sympathy toward him for his helplessness – we actually start to question ourselves and come to move back and forth between wanting Norman to escape his mother’s grasp and seeing him as complicit in the actions as well. We become implicated in Norman’s own personal tragedy, a tension expounded upon by Perkins’ own slightly-off-center enigmatic jagged nerve of a performance. It’s a scary proposition to court sympathy for such a character, but Hithcock was always about scary, unnerving propositions, something he never pulled off better than here.
If the film has a flaw, it’s a small one. Late in the film, after the climax, a psychiatrist spends a couple of minutes delivering exposition about Norman and his mother that is downright saddening. Not only are these kinds of things best left unsaid, but the film has already gone to great effort to show us what it here feels the need to say. It’s didactic and displays a lack of confidence for the usually assured Hitchcock, but it’s a minor issue that does little to damage the reputation of a true masterwork.
Counterbalancing this however is the film’s pure visual craftsmanship. It remains, for all its sub-textual questions and problematic concerns, replete with Hitchcock’s finest camerawork and editing, even beyond the famous shower scene. Later on, there is a famous murder where a victim falls down the stairs while dying, given a hallucinogenic edge that captures better than anything in Vertigo (not a film about the fear of heights anyway) the vertiginous, surreal sensation of having the world unceremoniously pulled out from under you. And of course there’s the conclusion, whose defining feature is a light-bulb swinging back and forth as it illuminates and darkens the unfolding events like a garish, atomic ball of pure energy, a flickering dispatch from hell. Howard Hawks once said a “good” movie is a film with three great scenes and no bad ones. Well, this film has one bad scene, but at least three (aforementioned) monumental ones, along with plenty of great ones, all of which isn’t to mention the very game-changing narrative bending of the film, something never done before nor repeated with the success seen here. Besides, I’ve always been more of a cohesive “full experience” viewer than the kind who weighs positives and negatives, and this film, as a full experience, is unnerving, subversive, and downright terrifying, a disturbing descent into a moral abyss.
Of course, some of the impact has been diluted over the ensuing fifty years – it’s less emotional than intellectual now, since many of us know how the story proceeds and have seen the multitudes of films which borrow heavily, and indeed owe their existence, to Psycho. Today, the film feels slightly more like a time capsule work to appreciate rather than to experience, but damn if that doesn’t just make it all the easier to admire. Perhaps no other film in the history of cinema marks a before and after like this one – narratively, Hitch completely rewrote the book (for English language cinema at least; one need look no further than Antonioni’s own L’Avventura released the same year for a foreign-language film that spent as much energy on completely disfiguring the logic of narrative filmmaking, but far fewer filmmakers have seen that film so by definition it is less “important” to the development of film). In a sense, this may be the most important film ever released.
But importance and film history, and even thematic nuance, take a backseat to Psycho’s worth today. That’s because Psycho has never been about thematic nuance – it is, at the end of the day, a direct distillation of just about the purest cinema Hitchcock ever produced, something ruthlessly efficient and purely dedicated to its own craftsmanship. It’s his greatest stylistic achievement and his most visually energized and oppressively constructed film, designed with every scene to confuse and confront us and our expectations. He winds us up painfully and refuses to let go. If that wasn’t enough, it is also a rather breathless commentary on filmic expectation and audience voyeurism that never once (well, only once) tells what it can show. The idea that a certain character must inevitably survive the film, that a certain lead actress must be the star, that films should follow a certain structure as they take us along with that star – all are dismissed gleefully by the film’s narrative structure. Hitch steadfastly and destructively confounds expectations and throws our role as an audience under the bus by quite literally rubbing our faces in our understanding of role and character. Best of all is that Hitch accomplishes his technical mastery and his thematic wonders in perfect harmony, never once laying his themes on top of the film but always tackling the more difficult question of how to create the theme in the film itself. Theme in Hitch, as it always should, comes from form, even when so many other films make the mistake of doing it the other way around.
All of this, and it is a real wonder that Psycho is really nothing more than the famously bald director letting his hair down and playing with us. For what reason you ask? Sure, he plays for the sake of a commentary on filmic viewership and on masculinity and the male gaze. But his real reason is far purer and giddier: he woke up one morning and thought it would be a fun thing to do before teatime. Remember, this is Hitch, a man for whom diabolical malevolence was synonymous with fun; he scrapes us along his ragged, angular celluloid surface like butter on the crumpet he eats to congratulate himself for a good day’s fright.
Film Favorites: The Apartment
Billy Wilder began the 1950s with a masterpiece, Sunset Blvd., and he ended it with one, 1959’s Some Like it Hot. It’s tempting to call The Apartment, astonishingly released only one year later, a victory lap. It’s tempting, but Wilder won’t let us. The Apartment is often considered his most sentimental film, but merely seeing the sentiment does a disservice to a film clearly assembled with love and care, an indomitable spirit, and best of all, a real humanity mixed up in Wilder’s customary bitter humor and acid tongue. There are films that may be more telling about the human condition, but for pure cinematic entertainment that knows just how far to push the envelope and to leave to suggestion, few films match The Apartment. Continue reading
Film Favorites: Chinatown
Chinatown has two lead characters, and as dictated by the logic of the film noir genre, one must be male and one must be female. And they too must share something, usually a sense of loss, an alienated nature, and a distance from society. Chinatown’s male lead is JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private eye initially contracted by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to find proof of her husband’s infidelity. Soon enough, he thinks he does so, only to learn he’s in for something much deeper and scarier. The lady who had presented herself as Mulwray was pretending, and when he meets the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), she insists on his involvement in a different aspect of the case, one involving her husband’s now-dead body. Complications and complications arise, as they do in any noir. And this is a plot out of any noir. It’s been done hundreds of times before and since, and it seems appropriate to start here because this is Roman Polanski’s jumping-off point for paying homage to the noir genre while turning the whole thing on its head with Chinatown.
Film Favorites: Touch of Evil
Update 2018: Touch of Evil’s introduction is still genius, a blurring of perspectives and races as the camera recklessly unfurls itself across porous national and moral boundaries, ambivalently flaunting its ability to contest America’s certainty about racial and national borders even as it questions its own ability as cinema to escape those borders. When the bomb blows up, prematurely concluding and interrupting an interracial kiss, the film confronts the moral, legal, and visual limits of its time-period and quite literally explodes in attempting to find a way out. What a way for Welles to return to the nation that abandoned him, and that he abandoned.
Released in 1958 on the eve of the barren no man’s land that was Hollywood cinema during the first half of the ’60s (before the ’70s would give it the caustic, cynical kick it needed to revitalize itself), it’s fitting that Touch of Evil is usually considered the final classic-period film noir. As if sensing the decay of the Hollywood system and its inevitable decline for its conservative rigidity, Orson Welles must have sought to bring the house down by making the ultimate film in one of its premier genres (Welles, to be fair, had not only seen this coming but had initiated its eventual arrival twenty years before when he gave the studio system its definitive film and by definition made every passing year for Hollywood an unsuccessful attempt to surpass this benchmark). And “ultimate” film noir here doesn’t so much mean the greatest or best film noir, although it comes close. It implies instead that this film is the ultimate example of noir, or the most film noirish noir ever – it plays like Welles read the genre past itself, distilled it to its core, and expanded those elements to their extreme. Everything – from the caustic characters to the cavernous nightmarish despair to the eternal worthlessness of human nature to the implicit racial subtext to the concern over obsession, control, and power – that constructed the noir as a genre is on display here and rendered more nihilistic than perhaps ever before. Continue reading