"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 31, 2011

"The Godfather" (1972) by Coppola (Film review)

With its golden-brown hues, Coppola's The Godfather (1972) is an autumnal movie. It describes the fall season in the life of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a "benevolent" Mafia boss, for those who believe that such a contradiction can exist. In Chinese philosophy, autumn is the season of iron and steel, the matter from which the bullets and knives with which the gangsters kill, are made. Corleone is shot down by a rival gang, ironically because he refuses to assist them in the drugs business, which he detests. That allows the real hero of the film to step to the fore: Corleone's youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), who was meant for a career in society outside the "family," but who now returns to avenge his father.

In a pivotal scene, where we see his bright and youthful eyes turn cold and cruel, he assassinates the rival gang boss and his henchman, a corrupt police officer. Then he hides for a while in Sicily, on native ground so to speak, before returning to take over the gang. He grows as a strategist, but also becomes as cold as steel. The apex of his nihilism is reached when he shows off his ruthlessness by killing the bosses of five rival families, who were ganging up on him, while himself attending a church service. "Do to others all the evil they want to do to you, but do it faster," he must think with a criminal variant on a Christian maxim. The assassination scenes are intercut with the baptism ritual in the church. Michael professes his faith, while outside he is dealing in death.

The three hour film is based on a pulp novel, but raises the material to epic heights, although soap elements are not lacking either. The problem is, that it has no complexity, no ambiguity, and as "just an entertainment" ends up glorifying the gangsters and the anti-society culture of "the family." For a realistic treatment of the mafia as a social problem, read the crime novels by Italian authors as Sciascia (see my post here) or Camillieri, who show how admiration for gangsters (or silence about their misdeeds) can pull a whole society down into gangsterism and nepotism. It is therefore unbelievable to me that The Godfather is often called the “best film ever made” - it is stupid pulp, only good to waste a few hours - the best thing of the film is the music by Italian classical film composer Nino Rota which in fact is much too beautiful for this sordid tale.

(Revised August 2014)

December 30, 2011

"Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932) by Renoir (Film review)

In his work made in the 1930s, the legendary French cineast Jean Renoir usually expresses his concern about the large class differences in his country. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) addresses that problem at its very start, when the tramp Boudu looses his black dog, asks help from a policeman and instead is chased away with the threat of prison. An elegant bourgeois lady who makes the same request only seconds later, gets immediate assistance from three constables. This is indeed typical “class justice.” Later, when the tramp tries to kill himself out of sadness for the loss of his dog by jumping into the Seine, he is saved by the kind bourgeois bookseller Lestingois, who invites him into his home for recuperation, and then we get the class struggle on a higher level, between Boudu and the Lestingois household that is thrown into utter chaos by this asocial guest. Indeed, one couldn't be less bourgeois than Boudu!

But the film goes much deeper than only antagonism between social classes. This is a film about total freedom in the sense of Chinese Daoist philosophy, incorporated in the tramp Boudu, played by Michel Simon, who also in real life had Boudu-like qualities. Boudu is almost animal-like, he lives completely outside society. He is untrammeled by any concerns, going his way in total freedom. Or, in the Buddhist sense, he is wholly free from attachments - except to his dog. Being free, he doesn't know love or gratitude. Not bound by any conventions, he is brutally honest: when told not to spit on the floor, but use a handkerchief, he retorts that putting a dirty handkerchief in your pocket is even more unhygienic - in the end he uses the pages of an antiquarian book to get rid of his spit. He is also a "natural man," who even in the bookseller's house prefers to sleep on the floor. He never washes, so you can smell him through the screen. Although a hairdresser later in the film changes his appearance, making even Madame fall in love with him, his character remains the same. He wins a fortune in the lottery and gets to marry the bookseller's maid, but neither money nor marriage have any meaning for him. He has by chance drifted into the bookseller's family, and finally will leave it in the same way, floating down the river from where he came, returning to his life as tramp as easily as changing his clothes. Boudu's freedom is so immense that it is almost frightening.

This simple but meaningful story plays out against the backdrop of charming footage of Paris, the Seine, the Bois the Boulogne and the Marne in the early 1930s, filmed in the long tracking shots that were Renoir's trademark. Boudu is truly Renoir's first masterpiece.

Boudu Saved from Drowning is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 23, 2011

"And God Created Woman" (1956) with Brigitte Bardot (Film review)

The mid and late 1950s saw a spate of films worldwide about wild, rebellious youth. There are the James Dean films in the U.S., the “sun tribe” films as Crazed Fruit with Ishihara Yujiro in Japan, and Et Dieu Crea la Femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) with a very wild Brigitte Bardot in France. The French and Japanese films are set on beaches, the hangout of young people. These youngsters are both rebellious and hedonistic, they hunt after their private pleasures in an amoral and asocial way, even cruelly so. In a certain way, Et Dieu Crea la Femme can be called a precursor of the French Nouvelle Vague.

As the fame of the director, Roger Vadim, seems to rest more on his relationships with young and beautiful actresses than his films – he was married to Bardot at the time this film was made – one could easily approach Et Dieu Crea la Femme with some trepidation. That is indeed justified as far as the story is concerned, an all too simple tale about a wild woman who drives three men crazy. On top of that, the sexual politics of the film are ultra-conservative, despite the seeming modernity. But the film also soothes the eye with colorful views of St. Tropez in CinemaScope format, and it is breezy and energetic.

But above all, we have the well-known “iconic” shot of Bardot sunbathing. Voyeuristic though it may be, this image of Bardot has become part of our cultural memory. It is also alluded to heavily - in a postmodern way - in Godard's Contempt (see my review of this film). Bardot on the beach in St. Tropez blew away the dark shadows of war and austerity in Europe and allowed people a glimpse of the oncoming sixties. That being said, there really is nothing in the film that will steam over your glasses today. Bardot goes barefoot to emphasize her wildness, but on the whole the film it is more modest than the average contemporary advertising billboard. In fact, the scene that shocks us most today for its political incorrectness is that Bardot uses her invalid stepfather in his wheelchair as a shield to ward off her angry stepmother.

Et Dieu Crea la Femme is available in the Criterion Collection.

(Revised August 2014)

December 22, 2011

"Contempt" (1963) by Godard (Film review)

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris ("Contempt," 1963) is the story of the dissolution of a marriage because the wife starts feeling contempt for the husband. It all happens in a day's time. In the early morning there is not a cloud on the horizon: Paul Laval (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) are a happy couple, living in Rome. Paul is a playwright, but that day he gets an offer from vulgar American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the scenario for a film about Odysseus that is being made by director Fritz Lang (played by himself). Remember that this was the period of the "sword-and-sandal" movies, pulpy Italian films about mythological heroes played by muscular American wrestlers, with lots of ladies in skimpy dresses. Paul is promised big bucks for this task, money necessary to finance the couple's new apartment. But Paul goes too far when he – unconsciously? - uses the charms of his beautiful wife to win over the producer.

He leaves them on purpose for a lengthy time together and later, back in their apartment, while bathing and dressing to go out again in the evening, Paul and Camille have a big marital argument. This has been filmed with incisive psychology. Paul keeps trying to be rational, while Camille argues from her emotions. And indeed it is all a matter of feeling, objectively Paul has done nothing wrong, but Camille senses how he tried to use her. It is perhaps also not strengthening his argument that Paul takes a bath with his hat on and a fat cigar in his mouth.

The next day they visit the house of Prokosch on Capri and there the matter reaches a decision: Paul has dropped so much in the esteem of Camille that their marriage is over, although Camille is not at all interested in Prokosch. While its own drama is unveiling, Le Mépris draws parallels with the mythological film Prokosch is making, where Odysseus (Laval) and Poseidon (Prokosch) are rivals for the wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

Le Mépris has been filmed in beautiful colors - stark reds and yellows, a sort of European modernism. The locations are interesting, too, from the Cinecitta studios in Rome shown pastorally empty to the Casa Malaparte with its flat roof top and long staircase on Capri, built by Le Corbusier, which is used in the final part of the film (This house was built in the 1940s by Italian author Curzio Malaparte - see my review of his novel Skin in which the house also plays a part). The sea behind it is immensely blue, as the Mediterranean should be. Godard also includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "iconic shot" of Bardot in And God Created Woman. And it is fun to see the legendary director Fritz Lang acting himself.

Contempt has lots of style – you will find that certain colorful shots keep turning around in your head.
Contempt is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 21, 2011

"The Phantom Carriage" (1921) by Sjöström (Film review)

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) by Swedish director Victor Sjöström is marketed as a horror film, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality it is a Christian morality tale of Sunday School inspiration, decked out with all the cheap and sentimental stuff imaginable (alcohol addicts; brutish violence; fatal illness; the deathbed of a good Christian; a renegade father who tries to breath TB germs on his own kids; an almost suicide of a desperate mother and her children). That is how some people a century ago liked their stories.

Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) lies on her deathbed. She is dying from tuberculosis given her by alcohol-addict David Holm (Sjöström), a man she has tried to reform, but without success. She wants to see him again, but Holm is drinking with a couple of guys in the local graveyard, and hit with a bottle during a drunken brawl. Suddenly, a ghostly carriage with the "grim reaper" on the coach appears to collect his spirit, but instead of carting him off, the Reaper shows him flashbacks of some disastrous scenes from his wasted life. Luckily, as Holm is not really dead, he can still reform and save his wife and two kids who were going to drink poisoned tea. Ouch.

The ghostly carriage finds its origin in Scandinavian legend. It collects only souls that are refused entry into Heaven, and the driver is himself also such a black soul – the last one to die in the old year before the clock strikes twelve. In fact, the present driver is an old buddy of David who died a year ago. He would like to shift his heavy job onto David's shoulders for the new  year. The ghostly carriage has been made properly ghostly by using double exposure, and the director seems to have liked this technique so much that he rather overdoes it. More impressive is the scythe carrying figure of the driver, the “grim reaper,” – this image formed the inspiration for the figure of Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal (see my review of this film).

Amid all the tears of this multiple handkerchief film, there is one scene that stands out: at a certain moment, David Holm when chasing his wife, goes berserk and smashes in a door with an axe. Where have you seen this before? It was borrowed lock, stock and barrel by Kubrick in The Shining: "Heeeere's Johnny!"
The Phantom Carriage is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 13, 2011

"Something Wild" (1986) by Jonathan Demme (Film review)

There is one itch we all may have now and then: the wish to get away from it all, if even for a few hours. After lunch, standing in the sunshine outside, you suddenly don't want to go back to your office, but instead lie on the grass in a park, or depart town for the nearest hills and hiking course. On the spur of the moment, you really would like to step out of your humdrum life and do something unexpected. Well, most of us never act on this, perhaps because some additional incentive is necessary. For example, a beautiful, unknown woman who suddenly offers you a ride...

That is what happens to strait-laced yuppie banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) in Something Wild (helmed in 1986 by Jonathan Demme, who five years later would become famous for Silence of the Lambs) when he meets sexy, wild woman Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith). She looks like Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box plus African jewelry for hippie effect, so he should have been warned. Instead of driving him back to his Manhattan office, she in fact kidnaps him and takes him on a wild road trip, indulging in petty crime. Although he keeps protesting, he seems to enjoy the little adventures she exposes him to - including a scene with manacles in a motel.

The Friday afternoon turns into weekend, and she not only keeps him away from his job but also from his wife and children (as he weakly protests). On Saturday, Lulu has him pose as her husband and visit her sweet, knowing mother ("See, Mamma? Just the kind of man you said I should marry"), as well as join a rather silly high school reunion.

There the genre changes from road movie to noir when they run into Lulu's violent husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), who is just fresh out of prison - of course she never mentioned to Charles that she already had a husband. Her buddy wants his wife back and does his own kidnap act - one fraught with real danger. Ray is a guy who oozes violence and sadism from all his pores. The silly game Lulu was playing with Charles turns serious.

In the final part of the movie, another, more rebellious side of Charlie surfaces – he also has a marital secret: his wife is in fact divorcing him and has run away with the kids - and he fights Ray with all he has on behalf of Lulu. It is literally a fight to the death, but as this film was made in Hollywood, we all know how it will end. Yes, and he gets her, too.

Despite the kink in the middle, this is a film that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. It has excellent acting by all three protagonists. Ray is violence incarnate, with a menacing shrewdness; Daniels is exactly the right comic type for the conventional, square guy; and Melanie Griffith is the star of the film, both alluring and dangerous, and totally reckless - she really looks as if she might do anything. Director Demme has infused the film with the right amount of weirdness and black humor.

A pity that this kind of off-beat movie can't be made anymore in today's degenerate Hollywood, which is dominated by safe, "template" stories and cardboard characters and therefore only turns out forgettable junk. Not to speak of bringing a “three-dimensional” woman like Melanie Griffith to the screen...
Something Wild is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 12, 2011

"Nights of Cabiria" (1957) by Fellini (Film review)

Thanks to the beautiful story and wonderful performance by actress Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) is Frederico Fellini's most moving film, about a prostitute who shows great resilience in the face of life's tragedies and disappointments. She is both a victim and a survivor. It reminded me of a film made in more or less the same period by Japanese director Mikio Naruse, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, in which a bar hostess who tries to realize a better life each time is pushed back by fate (see here for my review).

Cabiria is a prostitute living on the outskirts of Rome. She owns a stone shack and has a reasonable income, but is also the envy of unscrupulous boyfriends. At the start of the film, she is thrown into the river by her man who then makes off with her purse. This will be echoed at the end of the film, when her money is stolen again by another guy she trusted.

In between, we have several episodes from Cabiria's life: she is taken home by a famous film star, only to have to spend the night in the bathroom when his fiancee appears unexpectedly (Fellini doesn't fall into the Hollywood trap of Pretty Girl); she joins a pilgrimage to a holy shrine sincerely believing that a miracle will happen, only to realize the lies of religion; and she meets Oscar, a mild-mannered accountant, who professes to be in love with her and doesn't ask questions about her life. Will she finally become happy?

Of course not. This is Italia and not California, our realistic world and not dreamland. What this great film teaches us is that it is futile and even dangerous to have blind faith in people, in chance and in religion. But it also reminds us that, whatever happens, life is precious. It vividly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome terrible personal crises.

For the wonderful thing is that Cabiria, this small, sprightly and energetic woman, each time picks herself up and carries on with her life. Each time, she has the strength to move on.

During the film, Cabiria learns about life, she is a better person at the end than she was at the beginning. When she sees a solitary man distributing food to the poor in the fields outside Rome, she realizes that it is our own actions that count.

Her experiences teach her to live her life free from illusions. That is the only way to take control and work towards a better future. At the end of the film, Cabiria has lost money and love, but she has won hope. As viewers we trust she will be able to realize a better future.

The part of Cabiria is wonderfully played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. The early Cabiria is thick-skinned and her mouth is her largest organ (Italian-style) - even when she has been saved from the river she gives a tremendous verbal broadside to her rescuers when they ask unwelcome questions. Here, Masina plays for laughs alone, but gradually the veil of comedy is lifted and we get a glimpse of the real Cabiria, who has never experienced love but who is capable of deep feelings. She is even a bit sentimental. As viewers, we gradually start to love her and follow her with interest on her journey of self-discovery. Thanks in large part to Giuletta Masina, Cabiria is the most touching and realistic creation in all Fellini's films.

Watching this magic film is like a spiritual experience.

Randoms:
  • The food distribution scene was cut out by the Catholic censors who regarded it as criticism of the Church whose task it is to feed the destitute.
  • Cabiria is also the title of a silent historical drama from 1914, wholly unrelated as it is about the trek of Hannibal over the Alps. 
  • Le Notti di Cabiria won the best foreign film Oscar in 1957 and Giulietta Masina won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Hollywood couldn't keep its hands off the film and remade it as an empty musical called “Sweet Charity” (with Shirley MacLaine playing the lead role).
Nights of Cabiria is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

December 5, 2011

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) by Carl Dreyer (Film review)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a film about faces. Dreyer uses a special cinematic language that consists of incessant, sometimes brutal close-ups (coupled with daring camera angles). It is as if the director wanted to study the grammar of faces. With great psychological authenticity, the characters are revealed in all their nakedness.

The actress Renee Maria Falconetti who plays the role of Joan (Jeanne d'Arc) is simply mesmerizing. Her beatific face - without any make-up for the film - is usually lifted upwards (towards an imaginary Heaven?). She strongly brings out Joan's innate beauty and strength, and faces her clerical captors with dignity and humility.

The judges and wardens, in contrast, are false, unthinking, grotesque, bored, decadent, evil, in short, the type of faces you can meet daily on the street. They are us. In the film, they are also the face of the organized church. It is a wonder that Joan, while being tortured by these men, can still believe that goodness exists in the world.

This impressive film is not a historical account of Joan's life, showing her military exploits. It is also not a nationalistic vehicle, the way the image of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is used in France in times of distress, such as WWI. And, happily, it is also not a torture movie like The Passion of Christ. Dreyer only shows us Joan's trial and subsequent execution. The trial is held by churchmen in a room in the castle where Joan is prisoner. We, too, are confined in these spaces for almost the whole film's length - anything obviously cinematic from Joan's life has been left out.

The film is based on an authentic document: the original deposition of Joan's trial in 1431 (here condensed from four months to one day). Tried for heresy and blasphemy, she faces her main enemy, Bishop Cauchon, who places various wily, semantic traps in her way. She evades them all. It is only under heavy pressure - the threat of torture - that she finally signs a confession, only to retract it almost immediately because she feels she would betray herself. She then gets the maximum punishment and is burned at the stake.

This is a most moving film, perhaps thanks to its conscious limitations. It is also the coming together of an actress who gives a breathtaking performance and a director at his innovative best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is available in the Criterion Collection. 
(Revised August 2014)