29.6.13

I Keep My Undies In The Ice Box!: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

First off, I want to thank Movies, Silently for the opportunity to be involved in The Funny Lady blog-a-thon, and be given the excellent task of tackling Marilyn Monroe no less!  I have decided to revisit The Seven Year Itch, a film I have no seen in years, firstly, because I find it to be one of the funniest (if not the funniest) films ever made.  Second, however, I also believe it speaks volumes to the brilliant performer that Marilyn Monroe was, while also allowing her to play with notions of her own place as a sexual icon, as well as the larger idea of male fantasy and expectations of the "ideal conquest."  I picked this movie specifically because it is so funny, and while much of that can be credited to the involvement of Billy Wilder and the droopy-eyed performance of Tom Ewell, it, ultimately, comes down to the masterful delivery of Monroe as a fantastical version of some robotic version of an ideal male woman, who is a risqué model with demure sensibilities and a young, overly idealistic woman who just also happens to have a mature understanding of the complexities of marriage.  While it is never expressly stated, one can assume that the film is a large scale fantasy on the part of the main character and that his fantasy is merely a projection, in which case, the performance Monroe puts on takes another layer of absurdity, nonetheless, being portrayed with a stone-eyed certainty as she delivers lines about retrieving snack foods and undergarments from iceboxes.  Simply put, what Monroe does in The Seven Year Itch is reject everything that the cult of celebrity had created for her, through blowing it all out of proportion, because while the cultural image of Monroe is easily the famous publicity still of her in a white dress catching a draft from a passing subway car, that was merely an instant in this film, it is not reflective of her in the slightest.  One must remember that Monroe also took on serious roles in films like All About Eve, Clash By Night and another Technicolor delight River of No Return.  As such, she is performing a comedic deconstruction of herself within the framework of The Seven Year Itch, one that is half-fantasy/ half-absurdity and all perfection.  I would argue that actors, regardless of gender, struggle to commit to a character with such a degree of certainty as Monroe displays in this racy film that stands as one of the big breaks from the restrictions of The Hayes Code.


The Seven Year itch focuses on the experiences of the shy and sheepish Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) a well-to-do publishing agent who, like many men living in Manhattan in the fifties, finds himself seeing his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Butch Bernard) off as they leave town, while he stays in town and continues accruing wealth for the family.  Richard, a schmuck of sorts adheres to every detail his wife lays out for him, including an avoidance of smoking and drinking and a strict diet, all doctor's orders of course.  Richard, who constantly speaks about his love for his wife, nonetheless, fantasizes about all his possible moments of infidelity, while also creating a projection of Helen that dismisses his claims.  Richard finds himself even incapable of thinking about cheating, without the condemnation of his wife.  Seemingly fine simply existing in a liminal space between freedom from his family and a constant reminder of their presence, through slips on roller skates and hidden keys to his cigarette chest, things change for Richard drastically when he is met with a new occupant in his complex, a curvaceous young blonde woman who becomes simply known as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe).  The innocent girl initially asks Richard for help getting into the house which he gladly agrees to do, although it is clear that he is fraught with anxiety over how to help this woman whose stunning beauty is alarming, a matter that is made all the worse when she accidentally knocks a tomato plant onto his balcony later that evening, only missing Richard by seconds.  This accident leads to Richard inviting The Girl down for a drink, to which his fantasies begin running wild from causing the girl to swoon over performances of Rachmaninoff to perfect cocktail recopies.  Yet even as Richard unfolds elaborate plans his reality impedes constantly, through things like the landlord attempting to change the carpeting and a check-up call from Helen.  Despite these constant distractions timing still proves in his favor as The Girl enters and the two hit it off, despite his nervousness, awkwardness and misdirection, leading to a failed performing of not the Russian composer, but instead the simple Chopsticks.  The next day, Richard finds himself despairing over his foolish advances, only to be furthered condemned by a psychoanalytically inclined author that says his desires are a result of pent up frustrations and the like.  Invariably, Richard and The Girl continue seeing one another, although their engagements, aside from innocent kisses are left undisplayed, but an encounter with one of Helen's dear friends leads Richard to realizing where his true concerns should lie and he flees form Manhattan, ultimately, leaving both his fantasies and realities behind him to join his family on vacation.


If one is to assume that much of this film exists in the space of Richard's fantasies, the dream sequences within the already established dream would make the film a sort of meta-fantasy, wherein, Richard has one projection of his own life that is not suited to his liking and simply adds another layer to make it more fantastical or indicative of his personal desires.  This is scene when he is already troubled by the idea that he does not represent the ideal masculine of somebody like Tom MacKenzie (Sonny Tufts) who he suspects his wife to be having an affair with, therefore, he creates another layer to his fantasy that involves The Girl saying that she is only interested in men who, like Richard, are shy and constantly perspiring.  If there is a certain degree of layering to his idealization and desire on Richard's part I would contest that there is also the same amount of twisting and multiplicity within Monroe's performance.  As noted earlier she is playing a heavily caricatured version of the sultry, yet shallow, young model that would encompass male desire, tragically, something she would become known and stereotyped for both on and off the screen.  Yet, Monroe bring a certain vapidness to the role, not because she is a bad actress, that is far from the case (refer to the films mentioned earlier), but because she knows that such a "desired" version of femininity requires that the woman strip away all notions of emotion or a soul and become, like the picture of her in which Richard constantly sneaks a glance, a object of desire without thought or reason.  Incidentally, it is no coincidence that the still of the dress being blown by the subway draft is the most famous scene of the film, despite being only a publicity still, it reflects this same non-animated form of objectification.  The beauty of Monroe while important to the film, particularly when Wilder's script breaks the fourth wall and has Richard suggest that the woman hiding in his house is none other than the real life version of Marilyn Monroe, is secondary to what she is stating about the nature of a desired body both in fantasy and reality.  To Wilder and to Monroe, it is one thing for her character's performance to be one of Marilyn Monroe, but it is secondly so because she is playing into a heavily muted version of herself, one that must only be sexualized because it is realistic to be anything else.  To Monroe this is to be laughed at, and while it may not have been realized at the time, it is certainly the case now, and easily stands as Monroe's funniest performance, and were it not for the unfortunate tragedies that would follow in years to come, I would imagine that this performance would stand up to be one of the single greatest strokes of comedy genius to ever grace the screen.

Key Scene:  All that I have mentioned culminates perfectly in the Rachmaninoff scene, although there are other wonderful moments throughout the film that combine together to make Richard's fantasy world one of the most foolishly funny visions in all of cinema.

This film, along with a ton of other Monroe classics is available in a bluray box set.  The transfer is stunning and the extras are wonderful, particularly the Hayes Code meter that you can have play throughout the film, showing the degrees of "obscenity" that the picture would have received.

27.6.13

A Lot Of People Are Going To Think We Are A Shocking Pair: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

One would quickly assume that a film with such an invested interest in talking about the racial issues and dilemmas of an America still in the grips of a violent, troublesome and, more importantly, societally altering ear of the late 60's would prove troublesomely dated by the time I get around to watching almost fifty years later.  One would assume a lot of things about a film like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a work by the great Stanley Kramer and starring some of America's most well-established and well-regarded actors.  I had written the film off, primarily because I feared it would have a sensibility that was indicative of its time and the racial elements would be dealt with in a manner far too idyllic and concerned with political correctness to properly deserve the repeated recognition and devotion even years after its initial release.  Sure it may have been the fact that I had the great fortune of seeing this on a big screen or my adoration for a well made melodrama, but I can say with the utmost certainty that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is not only the rare stroke of masterful filmmaking that results in a perfect piece of cinema (No Country for Old Men and Casablanca being two other examples from different decades), but one that proves more socially relevant today than it ever has in the past.  Indeed, as I was watching the "gimmick"of this film unfold I could not help but wonder that, if this film had not already existed in the cinematic consciousness of America that the notion of an interracial couple, one of a white woman and a person of color getting married, would have proved equally challenging to much of America today as it, undoubtedly, did in the hostile racial climate of 1967.  I am a bit disconcerted by the seemingly comfortable embraces by some on the film's more comedic elements as being the core to its continued adoration, because it is a searing indictment on both the ignorance spouted by those with foolish racist mind frames, as well as a careful consideration as to what a progressive mind really thinks when faced with the reality of "otherness" or socially revolutionary behavior stepping through their doors. Without a doubt, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner works on a structuralist level, but it works deeper on its pertinent and multi-layered consideration of race in America and teaches lessons far too great to be suppressed and should be required viewing on the ideas of race relations in America, much as the work of Mark Twain continues to exist as a similar frame of reference.

For a narrative that runs well under two hours, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner takes great care to include as much information and consider as many viewpoints on an issue as possible.  The story, of course, focuses on the newly engaged couple of Joanna "Joey" Drayton (Katherine Haughton) a recent college graduate who finds herself smitten with the successful doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier).  Indeed their relationship would be relatively normal were it not for the distinct fact that both were of different races.  This noticeable division and difference is immediately condemned by the world around them, but Joey, ever the optimist, believes that her parents will not only welcome John into their family, but they will also be open to their rather quickly thrown together wedding plans.  The first to meet John is Joey's mother Christina (Katherine Hepburn) whose shock is immediately and noticable although she quickly comes to her senses and is happy for the introduction to John, who she finds an upstanding and well-to-do man, although she expresses clear concern for how Joey's father might react.  This hesitation is justified because Matt (Spencer Tracy), the patriarchal figure of the Drayton household is indeed uncertain about the entire endeavor, first because he thinks it to be a hasty decision, and secondly, because he is quite aware of the social stigma the two will carry and the very violent way some of the world will react to such an engagement.  Nonetheless, John explains that he cares deeply for Joey and that he will only marry her should Matt give his consent.  A dear friend of the Drayton family, one Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellawy), attempts to assuage the concerns of Matt noting that a change in societal attitudes has to happen at some point, regardless of their liberal views, Ryan reminds Matt that they mean nothing if they cannot be backed up with quantifiable actions.  John faces condemnation from the Drayton's maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford) who finds John's actions reprehensible because he is stepping beyond his race.  Nonetheless, a dinner goes on as planned, only made all the more intense by the sudden invitation by Joey for John's parents to join in the dinner.  Invariably it leads to a serious of dialogues and discussions between the families all of which, ultimately, rest upon Matt's decision to give his blessing, which plays out with a stern sense of importance not only within the narrative, but as an extension to the world outside the film itself, almost as if to speak truth to an injustice that transcends the filmic universe and exists in the very spaces of cinematic encounters.


It is precisely the transcendent elements of this film that make Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a continually relevant film.  It is one task simply to create a (to use an earlier term) gimmick about an interracial couple announcing their wedding plans, however, it is an entirely different film and one that grapples intensely with the personal, social and political ramifications of such revolutionary actions for not only the couple of Joey and John, but for the larger state of their respective families and America as a whole.  Take for example the interactions between Tilly and John in the context of welcoming a new member into the family one would expect Tilly to be quite excited, ecstatic and embracing of the person, especially since John is such an upstanding gentleman.  The problem is, however, that not only does John represent to Tilly a privilege she has not obtained, but it also forces her to come to grips with her own racial oppression as a servant, which affords Matt and Kristina some freedom from the chores of house and home, which she undertakes, and likely returns home to continue undertaking well after her work day for the Drayton's.  Of course, this is a layered reading of the film, all be it an important one, and the real issue comes from deconstructing the notion that a person can separate their racist actions from their verbal claims to be nothing of the such.  If both Matt and Kristina were as open to equality amongst the races as they claim to be, nothing about John would have caused any red flags, certainly not his race.  Kristina, of course, snaps out of her foolishness rather quickly and realizes the two are madly in love and that her hesitation is indeed a result of her archaic views of the world, even if only out of the fear for her daughter and soon-to-be husband's safety.  Matt takes a considerably higher amount of prodding and self-reflection before he can come to grips with the issue, both in the shock that it leaves him in his own belief system, but also because he genuinely believes that the couple will face degradation beyond their worst nightmares.  Indeed it is not until he is reminded that love is a transcendent thing that is often lost with time, by of all people John's mother Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards) that he comes to understand that his passion for equality will just have to fight twice as hard to help the love of his daughter and John overcome the vast ignorance and hate that they will invariably face.

Key Scene:  The entire movie flows like a wonderful stings concerto starting of simply, perhaps even playfully, but as things come together it is clear that like a concerto normalcy can only stand so long and things swell and swing accordingly, often clashing in purposeful disharmony.  As such, the scene where Tillie finally confronts John with her opinion takes on a layer of fury that is matched by a slanted camera angle and an extreme close-up and this is only one of many scenes where the filmic structure alters ever so slightly to convey a mood.

I was mesmerized by this film on the big screen and am not sure how it holds up when brought onto smaller proportions, as such I would suggest renting it before purchasing.

22.6.13

Together, We Can Turn This World To Fucking Rust: Testuo, The Iron Man (1989)

I should begin by explaining why I have been a bit less consistent in blog posts over the past two weeks or so.  Firstly, I decided to do the 100 films for June challenge which has meant keeping a pretty consistent viewing schedule going, one that has taken up much more time than I expected, particularly since I included a considerable amount of films that were on the lengthier side.  I would think about posting and then get distracted by a back-to-back feature of some daunting two hour works.  This, of course, is only half the reason, since I still find myself allotted with a good bit of time in between.  Aside from my regular summer job I have also been given the incredibly fortunate opportunity to be part of a upcoming book, in which I will have an academic article published in and it has meant doing some heavy duty research and the like, again taking up more time than planned.  I am being vague with it until it is a certainty, but once that is official you better believe I will be posting in regards to it her on the blog.  All that out of the way I have come with a film so intensely its own and indicative of the possibilities of post-modern cinema as to assure it would be a great cinematic experience for me, made all the more excellent by it being one of the classics of post-sixtes Japanese cinema, while also existing before the big push towards J-horror in recent years.  The film I am referring to is the maddening and demented, industrially fueled Tetsuo, the Iron Man, directed by Shinya Tsukamoto and had been a film that was long on my shame list for films that I had yet to encounter.  I knew I needed to see it upon it also receiving mention on The Story of Film documentary and boy am I glad I finally made it around to this work.  It is parts David Lynch paranoia in human interaction, part Cronenbergian sexual/bodily violence nightmare and even pulls heavily from Teshigahara, for some of its more oeneric, ghastly elements that are heavily influenced by its Japanese cultural milieu.  While I can begin to draw these deserved comparisons, Tetsuo still very much stands as its own work, one with such a fevered editing pace and visually jarring schizophrenic nature that it is really a surprise the film has not been championed as a horror classic all its own.

Tetsuo, the Iron Man begins with images of a man known only through the reveal of the closing credits to be The Metal Fetishist.  Played by the director, The Metal Fetishist is shown running pieces of metal ocrros his teeth and jabbing pieces of steel into his exposed flesh, until he realizes that these actions have allowed for maggots to invade his wounds.  Disgusted the fetishist runs out into the street and is immediately rundown by a driver and his girlfriend, simply known as The Man (Tomorowo Taguchi) and The Woman (Kei Fujiwara).  Fearing for his well-being and the trouble that could be caused by the vehicular manslaughter they dump the fetishist's body into a ravine and go on with their life as though it did not occur, however, when The Man begins to notice tiny pieces of metal protruding through his face, as though it were beard stubble, it becomes clear that the fetishist has moved beyond the grave to exact a physical revenge upon his murderer.  The man, who is then shown attempting, unsuccessfully, to retain some normalcy at his life in business, as well as with his relationship to his girlfriend, begins to have his body taken even more over by the metal, which grows out through intravenous means and even begins to reproduce itself in the form of sexual organs, all to the dismay of the few onlookers throughout the film, as well as the viewers.  Eventually, after a frightening nightmare in which The Man's girlfriend takes on her own metal form, his evolving body reacts by destroying the theoretical threat of The Woman in a violently sexual manner, followed almost immediately by the emergence of the fetishist from the newly laid corpse.  The Man, now completely formed into The Iron Man begins a battle with the fetishist over the industrial and urban spaces of Japan eventually merging into one collective bodily form that agrees to undertake the task of destroying the entire world by turning it into rust.  The new form more insane and layered in various extremities takes to the streets of Japan at a frenetic pace as the term GAME OVER appropriately flashes upon the screen.

The body transformed and mutated is certainly something that is not unfamiliar to this blog, particularly as it is tied to deeply troubling psychological aspects, as is the case in a beloved film of mine I'm A Cyborg But That's OK (also of which I plan to juxtapose with Tetsuo for a presentation), nor is it entirely new to the world of cinema itself, stretching at least back to the themes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis which looks at the possibilities of alteration and simulacra when considering the human body.  Of course, what makes Tetsuo so particularly engaging is that it takes this theme and these images which are decidedly entrenched within the realm of science fiction and appropriates them to be both within their original genre framework, while also reflecting upon what spaces of the horrific and grotesque, one might even say carnivalesque that a cyborg body could inhabit.  Furthermore, when extending this idea of cyborg, one must remember that it is often the case, narratively speaking, that these human-like robots are made entirely of synthetic materials which are metals and the like altered to appear to be the anatomy of a human body.  A case could certainly be made that in Tetsuo the exact opposite is occurring, wherein The Man's body is taking its fleshy human parts and altering them to achieve a degree of metallic perfection, or a fetishistic ideal, helping to explain the decidedly sexual nature of many of the encounters, or more aptly put confrontations in this film.  Much like the aforementioned Cronenberg films this invasion comes at the aftermath of some sort of high-level guilt experienced by a character, whether it be the failure to protect something or a forced and unsuccessful repression of natural desires, in the case of Tetsuo it appears to be some bizarre combination of the two.  The Iron Man transformation occurs as a result of the paranoia and guilt that emerges after committing a murder, even if accidental and this troubling occurrence, allows for other walls to be let down, particularly tumultuous and tense relations with those close, ones that can lead to violent and penetrating actions that range from emotionally harmful to physically violent.  Tetsuo is as much a metaphor as it is experimental art, moving, much like the title character between the emotive concerns for a simple existence and the industrialized demand for constant growth and upward expansion at the cost of nothing.

Key Scene:  The rust and stainless steel monologue is powerful stuff.

The DVD's available are both out of print, therefore they catch a lofty price, however, one is available on Netflix and is definitely worth renting.

17.6.13

What He Did To Shakespeare We Are Now Doing To Poland: To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

It is no small feat to create a narrative that is anything but dreary and preoccupied with loss and death during a war time era, this proves true for the previous post regarding A Matter of Life and Death which situates itself as a romance story amidst the death of war.  I assumed that comedy, while certainly present within the era would find itself entirely relegated to efforts relating to the warfront or training buddy films, never to step foot onto the fields of battle where such levity would invariably be misguided and executed poorly.  More so, I entirely dismissed the possibility that a film could emerge from  a setting involving any sort of concentration camp/occupied country space, specifically Poland.  However, Ernst Lubitsch's uproariously funny and poignantly serious To Be or Not To Be manages to be exactly the film to prove that when considering comedy, almost anything is fair game as long as those creating the jokes and humor know what they are doing and execute it with the appropriate respect and understanding it deserves.  On paper, nothing about To Be or No To Be should really work, between Polish citizens passing as Hitler and a oft-repeated joke involving infidelity and Shakespearian monologues, the film, one would assume, would either become heavily dated or better be served as a contemporary remake (Mel Brooks actually remade this film later in his career, which makes complete sense considering the subject matter and degree of serious commentary underlying the jokes).  Of course, cinematic history is filled with a ton of examples of unexpected moments in a movement, films that disregard the expectations or demands of the time to create something truly though-provoking and challenging, while also affording the moviegoer the desired escapism necessary for a great piece of non-experimental cinema.  It should me noted that To Be or Not To Be indeed has moments in which the gravitas of Nazi occupation invades the narrative, and deservedly so since it was an event that occurred and negatively affected whole nations, however, it is also worth considering that to people experience the real traumas, both abroad and personally, finding humor where possible proved greater a good than initially imaginable.


To Be or Not To Be focuses on the experiences of a Polish theater group at the onset of Hitler's moving through Europe, in which the troupe, full of idealistic actors attempt to provide escapism to their community by putting classic works like Hamlet, as well as plays parodying the infamous leader.  Although the group of actors are not particularly brilliant at their work, especially the leading couple Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) who spend far more time bickering than they do assuring their success, in fact, their constant feuding comes to heightened state when Joseph realizes that Maria is talking with a young officer who constantly visits her during his performance of Hamlet's most famous lines, from where the film draws its title.  Hoping to catch her in the act, his attempt is halted by the announcement that Hitler has just invaded the border of Poland and, therefore, leads the group to refocusing their efforts on resistance.  This resistance proves well-organized and relatively efficient, although the power of the German army is far too great and Poland eventually succumbs to Nazi rule, much to the disconcertion of those still living there, particularly Joseph and Maria.  When the young soldier with whom Maria has taken a liking one Stobinski (Robert Stack) attempts to send a message to his new love via Professor Salinsky (Stanley Ridges) an assumed ally to the Polish, he is put off by Salinsky's complete ignorance to the famous Maria.  This information leads to suspicions of Salinksy being a spy and the resistance takes up a counter-intelligence movement in the hopes of trapping Salinsky and preventing him from betraying Stobinski and the other members of the town.  Considering that the group is a set of actors, they find their best course of action to be pretending to be high ranking SS officials, to which Salinsky has no knowledge of in physical terms.  This ruse works, until the set of actors go a bit overboard with their performance, ultimately, leading to their killing Salinsky in an ultimate form of silence.  At this point Joseph undertakes the role of Salisnky, now hoping to trick the Nazis a feat the works for length enough to extract the resistance from Poland, but not after one of the members passes as Hitler.  The group escapes to Scotland where their story is revered and Joseph earns the ability to play Hamlet, although in a clever final twist, another young man steps away amidst his monologue, fueling yet another layer of suspicion for the overly sensitive actor.


It is no difficult task to suggest that To Be or Not To Be is a film that is expressly concerned with performance, in fact, the performing of a theater troupe always influences the narrative, even in its more emotionally heightened moments, where their resistance movement acts take on a political level, most powerfully captured in their graffiti of Hitler hanging from the gallows.  However, I mean to refer to the notion of performing power, or at the very least appropriating the images of authority to pass as knowledgable in a moment of fear and ignorance.  Professor Salinsky, one of the characters decided villains arguably betrays others in the vain hopes that it will afford him safety against the ever encroaching armies of Germany.  It is fair to say that he is performing betrayal, because he sees it as a means to save his own skin, not so much as a genuine act of loathing.  He has no power within the Nazi army, evidenced by his inability to identify fake versions of key figures.  Furthermore, his own foolish belief that he can perform properly allows him to place a problematically high amount of trust in Maria who he convinces to be a spy.  Maria eternally tied to the resistance, nonetheless, performs the role of support to Salinsky, a illogical move in the eyes of others not because she would chose to side with Germany, but because she would be swayed in her decision by such an unattractive man.  Joseph arguably has the most to lose or gain from each performance, taking the risks of passing as people in the face of immediate danger, whether pretending to be Colonel Erhardt when Salinksy initially returns to Poland or reversing the process by pretending to Salisnky when he meets with Erhardt (Sig Rugman) played up humorously when the conversations seem to mirror one another.  Passing, in the case of this film requires a heavy degree of audacity and willingness to stretch beyond comfort, an act made possible perhaps by the very real threat failure assures.  However, it is also contingent on a power dynamic that is predicated upon blind obedience, affirmed by a fear of Hitler emerging, and, ultimately, a cowering of his fake presence, even by the most trusted of his advisors.  Infamy allows for silence, which for the most part is problematic, but when tested it can allow for those oppressed to earn safety.  Yet Lubitsch reminds people that a certain degree of performance pulls from reality and the Shylock part that draws the group its final bit of safety is as much pretend as it is is enflamed by a real question of suffering in the face of evil.

Key Scene:  For a decidedly comedic film the maddening imagery of the initial resistance acts and the Nazi occupation might be some of the most intense of the entire World War II era.

I watched this completely unaware of an upcoming Criterion release, I would suggest holding off until that bluray comes about, it is certain to be visually stunning.

14.6.13

After All, What Is Time? A Mere Tyranny: A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)

The idea of melodrama is something that has its grounding solidly within the romance genre and tends to branch out in minimal ways to other genres.  This is a pretty consistent thought about the stylistic choice, unless, of course, one is referring to the works of the beloved and highly influential masters of Technicolor Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose works are no stranger to this blog.  As I imagine most people did, I came to this duo via The Criterion Collection who have done an excellent job of bring many of their films to homes of cinephiles seeking out the most mesmerizing and stellar of movie experiences.  Yet, the film I had the joy of catching up with recently, their 1946 pseudo-war film A Matter of Life and Death, also known as Stairway to Heaven, has yet to receive the illustrious Criterion touch.  As such it went off of my radar for quite some time, but when I heard its mention first on an episode of Filmspotting regarding "romantic gestures in film" only to be followed by its inclusion as one of the hundreds of clips in the all-encompassing Story of Film miniseries, I knew that both its unique narrative and its visual style were something that I needed to witness.  Imagine, if you will, a film that has some of the grandly woven romantic offerings of the best World War II romance stories, but with the surrealist eye of Cocteau.  Moving perfectly between black and white and the Technicolor cinematography which made the duo famous, A Matter of Life and Death is serene, fantastical and easily one of the most artistic moments in all of cinema.  It is clear where other directors would draw heavy influence, whether it be the obvious borrowing by Wim Wenders for Wings of Desire or in more subtle ways for a variety of East Asian romance film.  A Matter of Life and Death, however, does not simply stop at looking amazing, it continues on to be a perfectly pitched story of sacrifice and acceptance of loss that is so masterfully acted it is really a surprise it has not received a larger awareness, because in some ways it is a better film than The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, both of which are definitive masterpieces.  I have allowed myself almost a week to let the film wash over me to before I was certain, but I know definitively that this is my new favorite work within the romance genre.

A Matter of Life and Death begins in the midst of a sky fight between Axis planes and a handful of British pilots, most notably Peter Carter (David Niven) whose realization that he will inevitably be gunned down and die leads him to seek solace in the radio assistance of American woman June (Kim Hunter).  While he is initially playful with her reciting poetry and telling her she has a wonderful voice, the imminence of death lead to the two confessing their shared hopes for love.  Tragedy is not avoidable, however, and Peter's plane does crash.  This event is followed by a transferring of the narrative to the black and white world of what is assumedly the afterlife, where a variety of deceased figures deal with the incoming deaths, many of which are soldiers.  The bookkeeper, as well as one of Peter's fellow pilots note his absence, despite it being clear that he could not have survived the crash.  At this point Peter's assigned aide to the afterlife Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) admits to having missed grabbing him due to the thick British fog.  This realization then leads viewers back to Earth where a Peter who has survived his crash navigates the land, only to instantly run into, of all people, June.  The two seize the inconceivable occurrence as a sign to pursue their love, realizing quickly that their feelings are quite real.  Yet when Peter begins seeing visions of Conductor 71 and smelling fried onions, the concerned Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) steps in to help diagnose Peter's visions.  Reeves comes to the conclusion that Peter has suffered from serious head trauma that, if not treated, will result in his death.  This narrative in reality begins paralleling Peter's own experiences with Conductor 71 who says that he can be afforded a trial to justify his staying on Earth, one that allows him to pull from any person in the history of time to serve as his defendant, but it must happen in the upcoming hours, coincidentally at the exact same time as his surgery.  Finding it difficult to choose a counsel, Peter is hesitant, but when a motorcycle accident takes the life of Doctor Reeves he appears in the afterlife and reluctantly agrees to help Peter.  What unfolds after is a trial between Peter and the laws of the afterlife that transcends space and time, where he is to convince those in attendance that he should be allowed to pursue love that was allowed to blossom as a result of the miscalculation on the part of the conductor.  Heated and heavily semantical, Peter, along with the help of a brief dream induced visitation by June, convinces the jury of his deserved chance and the two are given their lives on Earth, where he survives his tricky surgery and the two are assumedly to live a long and love-filled life.


What makes A Matter of Life and Death both a great romance and an important moment in cinema is that it manages to take its subject matter and extend it to a large scope, considering not only what grounds a persons notions of love, but what causes a person in a different setting to have feelings of animosity.  We are shown the relationship between June and Peter as one entirely of adoration, that goes against the societal norms of British folks marrying one another and Americans staying within the states, although as history certainly showed, that was far from the case.  Similarly, the film analyzes the, then, deeply seeded resentment between some loyalist British and Americans as to their relationship to one another, despite fighting on the same side of a larger war that questioned the value of human life on a scale larger than mere nationality.  Powell and Pressburger manage to deal with the questions with a precise combination of levity and seriousness that shows how entrenched distrust can cause for sadness to more than a single person and, further, how the seeming simplicity of two persons and their shared love can extend well beyond their rather personal experiences.  By pulling from a wide net of historical narratives and centering it with the era of World War II, where combat casualties were high, the film becomes both a reflection and expose on the nature of how love forms quickly or slowly depending on time allotments and how in its most enriching experiences it can take on an otherworldly feeling of importance.  I claim to be no scholar on the ethics/philosophy of love, nor fully aware of its biological process, but having lived long enough to know that it is a real feeling and one that ebbs and flows according to the aforementioned factors, I can affirm that, for me personally, this film really gets the beauty entrenched within true love and passion paints the film both narratively and visually, making it first about a love between characters and secondly about the very love of using cinema to share a worldview.  A Matter of Life and Death, much like its story, extends between at least two worlds of thinking and manages to combine them into a shared moment of wonder.

Key Scene:  The film, as noted earlier, was also called Stairway to Heaven.  There is a scene in the film that makes this name obvious and boy is it a feat of movie technology.

This film is hard to come by, I would suggest seeking it out by alternative methods or patiently await a Criterion release, it should only be a matter of time before it makes their prestigious list.

11.6.13

There You Are, Right Back In The Jungle Again: Duel (1971)

While I am quite aware that there are a ton of films I still need to catch up within regards to the "most important" works of cinema, both American and foreign, it is quite nice to be at a point in my film consumption that I am able to dig deeper and find lesser known gems for viewing experience, especially the discoveries of lesser known works by well-established directors, particularly those of Steven Spielberg.  In the past few decades Spielberg has all but made himself the face of American filmmaking by creating gripping narratives that often double as fully realized blockbusters.  Now it is also worth acknowledging the particularly troublesome notion of films being Spielbergian which seems to account as being both negative and positive simultaneously, granting that his use of orchestra heavy John Williams scores and sweeping camera work cause very real emotive responses within their viewers, while also arguing that this highly-stylized execution on the part of Spielberg is in some ways hokey or hammed-up for effect.  While there is a degree of validity to this argument, it is quite necessary to remember that these descriptors account for a specific set of films by the director, whose cannon is almost inconceivably expansive.  The epic nature of his films often only hold true for those that are in their very nature fantastical, whether it be Jurassic Park or the Indiana Jones films.  Indeed, if one were to revisit something like Jaws or Schlinder's List it becomes rather obvious that the over-the-top nature of the auteur only emerges when it is begged from the narrative.  To solidly entrench this argument I offer what may well be the biggest hidden gem in Spielberg's oeuvre, his 1971 television movie Duel, which exists within the world of implausibility and intensity, while also managing not to be an entirely showy or melodramatically over-abundant film.  Indeed, I would even contest that this film is a highly internal work that focuses on the experiences of a singular man in relation to a terrible encounter that invariably leads to his fracturing from insanity, the acting is surprisingly minimal given the movies concept and the music is decidedly diagetic.  Perhaps it was the fact that the film was made-for-tv that resulted in Spielberg reigning in his showy ways, but one thing is for certain, it shows a varied cinematic output by one of film's most identifiable directors and the result is quite excellent.


Duel is a decidedly enclosed narrative, focusing nearly entirely on the experiences of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) a non-descript business man who is taking a semi-lengthy trip for a meeting with somebody a couple of hours from his home.  With only the absurd discussions of talk radio to accompany him he heads about his way, hoping to make great time an endeavor that leads to him passing a slowly moving freight truck with little or no thought.  However, immediately after this decision, it becomes clear that the unseen trucker is quite infuriated with David for his act and begins bullying the much smaller car by passing him on the narrow road and blocking him from moving any further.  An irate David pulls into a gas station to seek respite and  calls his wife to apologize for some vague event involving a sexually demeaning advance by another man at a part, an act for which David apparently stood by indifferently.  David clearly hopes that this brief pause will afford him escape from the encroachment of the maniacal truck, although it becomes quite obvious upon return to the road that the trucker's vendetta is far from over.   What follows is a highly intense game of cat and mouse between David and the truck driver, wherein David constantly attempts to take advantage of his much smaller size and speed to take side roads and the like, even going so far as to break at a local diner in order to approach the truck driver in person, yet in the decidedly elusive nature of the driver, David ends up showing face and ultimately gets kicked out of the restaurant for starting altercations with the customers.  All the while, David is continually chased by the trucker who shows no hesitation in destroying all that is in his path in order to teach David a lesson.  When David attempts to seek solace by helping a group of children and their bus driver get back on the road it is only another point of failure as he is again attacked by the truck driver who chases David off and immediately aids the children in their getting back on the road, verifying that the driver's wild behavior is entirely intended for David.  Ultimately, the chase leads to a dead end of sorts and a showdown occurs between the much smaller vehicle David is driving and the truck, but in a last minute move of genius that plays upon the rampage of the truck driver, David is able to get the truck to drive off of a cliff, thus, assumedly, killing the driver in the process.  Yet given his ultimate escape, David does not immediately return home, instead he sits dazed by the events and simply tosses rocks in to the wreckage in the canyon below.

The tossing of the rocks pretty much entrenches the films clear narrative influence which, while pulled from a short story, clearly borrows heavily from the biblical tale of David and Goliath, both in the chucking of rocks at a figurative slain beast, as well as the title character's all to obvious name.  However, David's last name is Mann, which helps to conceptualize the second layer of Spielberg's Duel, which clearly seems to deal with the issues of failed masculinity and the misguided attempts to reassert one's masculine loss a theme that is present to varying degrees within other works by Spielberg, particularly Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but seems to be most blatant and wild within the context of this film.  Between the failed ability to assert himself in an awkward situation the day before, as evidenced by his brief conversation with his wife and his recounting of his experiences in what viewers can assume to be the Vietnam War, David has assumedly lost all sense of self-worth, even going so far as to silently relate to a man who bemoans feeling as though he is not the head of his household, while he is quick to laugh off another man who is concerned with whether or not his filling out of the census will result in his home being invaded.  With this in mind, one is better able to understand the frustrations that come to a boil, leading to David's initial passing of the truck, it is half out of a need to speed up his travel time and as passive condemnation of the truck for interfering with his ability to escape his lack.  Yet, when the truck driver quickly puts David into check, what unfolds is a series of missteps and failures to verify his own masculinity some taking very physical form, whether it be his cowering in fear when his verbal threats fail at the diner, or his own attempt to exert a "perfect male sense of direction" to elude the truck driver.  David runs the gamut of attempts to be a man only to find that in this scenario those assumedly male advantage  are both useless but, arguably irrelevant.  Metaphorically speaking, David is also reminded of his own failures as a male in the form of references to what might be his impotence, these realizations occur most noticeably at the aptly named Snake-o-rama gas station, as well as his failure to "perform" when he cannot push the phallic-like bus through the tunnel, a metaphor only heightened when David notices the truck waiting at the other end of the tunnel, suggesting that another phallic power already resides in his place, one that is sexually adept and bigger.  It is no coincidence that David's ultimate success comes in his avoiding a head on conflict with the truck driver, finding that butting phallic heads proved futile.  It is worth considering this in relation to some other Spielberg works, because I am quite confident that it is a metaphor that extends well through a series of his early works.

Key Scene:  The Snake-o-rama scene is wild and surprisingly elaborate for a television movie.

Quite a surprise for an early work and while Jaws is the definitive starting point for Spielberg, I would highly encourage checking this movie out because it is as thrilling as they come.

9.6.13

Let's Roll. Come On, Let's Go Already: United 93 (2006)

I have discussed in varying detail the idea of post-9/11 cinema at least once during my review of the decidedly enjoyable Red Eye.  That particular film makes for such a great point of reference since it takes place on a plane, focuses on terrorism and plays upon the emotions associated with both frames of reference to American moviegoers.  Now to be fair the idea of post-9/11 cinema obviously extends well beyond plane based movies and affects the elements of horror and espionage/action films specifically and in some more unusual ways it also deals with comedy.  While these films began emerging within the year or so after the attacks on the Twin Towers, the obvious "don't talk about it" subject for film seemed to be any sort of retelling of the events surrounding the terrorist attacks, or more importantly a recreation of the actual events of those persons on any of the ill-fated flights.  Yet, in 2006 Paul Greengrass audaciously approached the story of those on United 93, the one hijacked plane that was diverted from its mission by a set of courageous passengers.  I will admit, I avoided this film for what was seven years now, because I felt that this narrative would be exploitative and in bad taste, particularly since it plays on emotions that were, and still are, highly sensitive to Americans.  Yet, I could not help but be made aware of the various sources of championing and praise that were directed towards Greengrass' work, and understandably so considering that given the controversy that would exist with such a subject I would posit that it is handled perfectly.  In fact, there were a ton of wrong ways that the film could have gone and it never does so, more so, there even "safe" approaches to this film that would have assured its success without taking risks, something that Greengrass also manages to reject.  The result that comes from United 93 is a film that manages to capture the events on the day of September 11th, both in its inconceivable initial events to its jarring realization that silenced Americans and the world around.  The film ends in the only appropriate way possible, gloomy sure, but nonetheless indicative of the tragedy and the very real loss that still lingers in the American discourse.

United 93 begins in an unexpected manner by focusing on the activities of the terrorist preparing for their missions, shaving and praying in the bathrooms and floors of hotels, indeed following them along to their entering into the airport through security, running late even, as they rush through the gate to their respective flights.  It is, in fact, not until the boarding sequence that the film starts to focus on non-terrorist characters, first looking at the pilots who move through their daily chores with practiced indifference to the beleaguered air hostesses who clearly just want to get through with their flights to exist in their moments of rest between travel.  The passengers flow into the plane in a sense of normalcy, a few moments of dialogue and light banter occur, aside from the normal preparations.  Their flight United 93 is scheduled for an early take off, however, when the air traffic increases they are forced to wait longer than expected.  It is during this wait that air traffic controls across the United States begin experiences trouble with their communication on a handful of planes in the skies of America.  Seeming at first to be technological issues, it is not until one correspondent picks up what he thinks to be a threat that a fear of hijacking emerges, although the various organizations involved wait with bated breath before sending the nation into panic.  Their patient approach proves ill-conceived when a plane crashes into one of the twin towers in New York, only to be immediately followed by another, in which footage of the real life event is incorporated.  These attacks lead to an outright madhouse approach between various organizations, demanding that military interception is used a request that is denied due to the safety issues of entering more transportation into the busy airways.  All the while the attendants and passengers of United 93 are oblivious, only made worse by the leader of the terrorist particular hesitance to lead his men in their own attack.  Yet when the time comes the overtake the plane with violent use of a box cutter and an assumedly fake bomb.  Panicked and confused the attendants and passengers initially follow the demands of the terrorists, whose actions are made known to the government and flight branches due to their change in path and radio silence.  When it is made apparent that the actions of the terrorists are violent the passengers mount a revolt against them, using boiling water, knives and a fire extinguisher to take back the plane, eventually making it to the cockpit, although their endeavors prove to only fatally ground the plane, it is suggested that the diversion resulted in saving the White House from being another victim of the 9/11 attacks alongside the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

So how then can one conceptualize a film that is so close to the emotions of Americans.  It is tough to say, because it is not the same method Bigelow incorporates into the opening moments of Zero Dark Thirty with the voices of real 9/11 victims overlapping darkness.  Paul Greengrass is pulling from the actual experiences of a group of people who were riding a plane that was victim to a terrorist attack.  Now it is worth remembering that nobody survived this attack and aside from a handful of phone calls and what could be gleaned from the black box recordings, most of the film upon the planes takeoff is left to poetic license.  Now this poetic license could have meant that Greengrass painted a perfect and idyllic picture of those on the plane, while juxtaposing it with the fumbling acts of the government to intervene, although it is an understandable hesitation on the part of those organizations due to the unfathomable nature of such an attack.  Yet, Greengrass creates a dramatization that shows the real humanity of all those involved from the breaking down emotionally of men and women realizing that their lives will come to an end on the plane, as well as painting a picture of the terrorist as people driven by a misguided blind hope for justice, as well as being susceptible to regret for their engagements.  Even the final retaliation by the passengers is filmed in such a frantic and disjointed manner as to reflect what the attack may have actually looked like, no glorious feats of heroism or athleticism, but instead the frantic rage of a mob hoping to quell a terrorist attack, while clinging to a fleeting hope that they will somehow rally together for survival, ignoring their own wounds and burns in they name of survival.  Now the film takes minor missteps throughout, whether it be a lack to subtitle certain conversations between the terrorists, or the particular demeaning treatment to one of the few non-American passengers who is not a terrorist, but to call any of this exploitative in relation to the larger narrative is ill-advised and a complete overlooking of the sincerity and gravitas that Greengrass has given the story, again closing it on the moment when all involved would have lost the ability to explain their respective experiences.  The brief explanatory texts are not really necessary for viewers, who have at this point had their collective memory rekindled in an unsettling manner, although it is the type of disconcerting feeling that is necessary to understand the wrong doing that occurs on a daily basis.

Key Scene:  The once scene Greengrass pulls from actual footage is seemingly obvious, but again he takes this narrative seriously and is fully aware of the power this image has on the collective memory of a post-9/11 society, one so jarring and world changing as it could prove to be the single most important moving image of this still early century.

Netflix has this very important film available and while it is a decidedly daunting engagement, I think it serves as a pseudo-documentary on the events of one plane during the traumatic date in American history.

8.6.13

Get Up Lazarus, You're Resurrected: Tigerland (2000)

I am on a constant search for excellent war movies, particularly since given their heightened states of tension and leaning towards the epic narrative, usually means that the product will at the very least be engaging and even entertaining.  Of course, when I discover particularly enjoyable films within the genre they are usually the ones that take a huge stride in deconstructing some element of war, or in the case of Joel Schumacher's 2000 film completely rejecting the idea of filming war altogether.  In fact, what makes Tigerland a bit distinct from its counterparts is that it never makes it beyond the training fields, yet manages to still include many of the elements of loss and confusion that are prevalent within a warfare riddled nation, particularly the politically fueled and ethically murky engagement that was Vietnam in America.  While this film does rely on Colin Farrell for much of its performance and narrative, it is a bit varying from other war films in that it is occupied by established characters, who are, nonetheless, not the household names their masterful performances might suggest, this is very obvious in the work delivered by both Clifton Collins Jr. and one of my favorite working actors Michael Shannon, whose cameo is beyond awesome, although calling it such would suggest that the man has accrued a heavy degree of star power.  I digress in my adoration for Shannon, but his scene paints a larger picture for the film which looks at the very debasing nature of training for war, one that is hinged loosely on an agreed upon following the rules, although everyone is aware of their absurdity, especially in the face of absolutely certain death in a foreign country.  Shot with a grainy digital handheld camera and edited disjointedly, one wonders if Schumacher's film would not fit perfectly within the canon of Dogme 95, or at the very least borrows heavily from its push for realism, which results in images that either poetic or horrific, even becoming both in rare occasions.  I am aware of people who will discount this as a war film because it does not have the sort of sweeping grandiose elements of the classics, but where those movies lavish in spectacle, Tigerland counters with a very real consideration of war and humanity.


Tigerland is set at the back end of Vietnam, at a moment when it was quite obvious that success was impossible and that the continual training of soldiers would result in more unnecessary deaths on both sides.  Realizing this one soldier Private Bozz (Colin Farrell) takes it upon himself to become the guy who knows all the tricks and legal means with which to get out of the army, serving as a sort of boatman on the river of Thames who takes people from the hell of training back to their lives which by contrast seem angelic.  These acts are of course heavily condemned by his superiors thus leading to his being constantly berated and demoted in hopes that he will eventually just succumb to the reality that he will end up in Vietnam.  Bozz adamantly refuses this fact and takes to undermining his superiors while also picking out soldiers who he knows are better suited at home.  One of Bozz's first undertakings allows him to help a young southern man return his wife and children on the grounds of hardship.  His helpful actions earn him the respect and trust of another member of the war Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis) who has joined the war after a fallout with a woman during college.  Bozz makes matters worse by constantly contradicting his appointed squad leader Miter (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who becomes the victim of insults and condemnation by drill sergeants who blame him for the insubordination of Bozz, even though it is made quite clear that they are displacing their own frustration upon the helpless Miter. Eventually, Bozz explains to Miter his purpose and through this explanation allows for Miter to obtain a discharge on basis of psychological issues.  While enemies in the higher ranks are obvious, Bozz also makes enemies with the racist and violent Wilson (Shea Whigham) who due to his own psychological breakdown attempts to pull a gun on Bozz and Paxton, an act for which they attempt to get him court marshaled.  While Bozz has done his best to avoid going to Vietnam he inevitably takes the next step and begins training, along with Paxton, in Tigerland, which is describe as the home front equivalent of Vietnam.  It is there that the two realize Wilson has indeed been allowed to stay in the army despite his psychosis, leading to one final shootout, where Bozz takes the opportunity to wound Paxton just enough to not hurt him, but allow for him to avoid being sent overseas.  Bozz himself is sent to Vietnam, and seems quite calm about his fate, only demanding that Paxton never write about him and forget about his presence altogether, although the closing voice over suggest that Bozz's reputation takes on almost mythic qualities.


It begs to be asked whether it is even possible to describe a film that never leaves the foot of a training camp as a proper war film.  Of course, the training flick is a staple of war, whether it be the comedic films of World War II or something more recent like Stripes.  However, these films often have a noticeable degree of comedy and light-heartedness about them since the characters shown are never really experience war.  Tigerland takes its style more from the world of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket or Ridley Scott's G.I. Jane and argues that in a time of warfare, the haunting experience and psychological breakdown occurs far before stepping foot in the war zone, however, those two films do indeed extend beyond to consider the actual war, therefore adding the layer of reality to the fear and rage that had manifested itself up until that point.  While it is acknowledged that Bozz does eventually step foot in Vietnam this occurrence is never visually verified and at the point in which this is explained the narrative has become Paxton's who also never steps foot in Vietnam.  I would posit that the reason this works with such fluidity and narrative cohesion is almost entirely a result of the particularly infamous nature of Vietnam, then and now.  The soldiers in the film are all aware of how terrible the situation is in Vietnam and were, for the most part, drafted involuntarily.  Their respective anger and paranoia is not so much of having to fight for their country, but, more so, a result of knowing they will be doing so with assured futility.  Where this film then extends beyond just claiming that Vietnam was a lost cause, is the post-Vietnam awareness of how terribly veterans were treated by the country who viewed them as child murders and rapists, completely ignoring that their engagements were forced.  While characters like Wilson and the various drill instructors serve as the antagonists within the narrative, viewers cannot help but remember that nobody wants to be in the situation and any sort of reminder of its absurdity is only a reminder of their imminent demise.  This realization helps to explain why Bozz is such a threat, because unlike Bozz who is attempting to destroy all things in a mindless rage, Bozz manages to get all to think about how complacent they are within their own down fall.  Bozz rejects the war, he rejects the training for war, and attempts to hide it in indifference, when in fact he seems to care far more than any other person in the film, both about the sanity of hope, as well as about ending war both physically and metaphorically.

Key Scene:  Michael Shannon explaining the benefits of battery shock torture is next-level acting.

This is one of the greater war films of this still burgeoning century and is cheap to get obtain.  I highly recommend that you get a copy.

6.6.13

See You Later, Comrade: Army of Shadows (1969)

I am beginning to realizes from a personal and very internalized view of the world, I am most struck by the cinematic stylings of Jean-Pierre Melville.  While the subjects of his films may not always prove the most ideal of characters, the visually unique world with which Melville creates for his characters to inhabit is something I find highly relatable.  The cinematic world of Melville is one that is both crisp and visually evocative, while also managing to be washed out and dreary, reflecting the alientation and detachment of Camus in filmic form.  While many would find the color palette of a Melville film ugly and lacking in serenity, I would strongly contest that the alienation which results from such bleak mis-en-scenes is quite honest and very realized, evidenced both in his work Army of Shadows, as well as his more hip and well-received works like the infinitely cool Le Samourai.  Army of Shadows is a particularly noteworthy film in the well-established canon of Melville films not because it is his best per se, but because for nearly half a century, it went unwatched and dismissed as a severe misstep in the director's career, almost entirely the result of a bad review from the then highly influential Cahiers Du Cinema.  The critics found the highly political nature of the film to be far too overbearing and, more importantly, against their own political stances, which always wound their way into the reviews of this particular group of critics.  Yet, when the same journal revisited the film decades later they instantly realized their own mistake, holding it up as an unacknowledged masterpiece of its own time, as well as being one of the most poignant and well-executed commentaries on the nature of the human psyche during wartime both within and outside the confines of the prisons of warfare.  Melville fills the film with everything that one demands from a work with such gravitas: great actors, highly symmetrical cinematography and a noticeable degree of the stylized to make it transcend the inevitable political leanings that such a controversial subject is bound to pursue.  The result of the care for his cinematic offering is nothing short of marvelous and the fact that this film not only remains highly relevant, but rose from the grave to a second life speaks to the power of both Melville as a filmmaker, as well as the life that cinema with a real message obtains well after its initial arrival.


Army of Shadows with its subtly epic narrative manages to focus on the experiences of one highly influential man during the German occupation of France in 1942, right at the heart of World War II.  The man is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a leading member of he resistance who has recently been arrested by SS troops occupying French Vichy and is to be sent to the Nazi headquarters from heavy handed interrogation.  Using his guile and quick wits, Gerbier is able to escape from imprisonment and get right back to work on his work pushing the resistance forwards, wherein his first task is to kill of one of the resistance members who has become a German informant.  Gerbier recruits a set of his best men to undertake the task at one of their safe houses, only to discover that none of his men have the audacity to kill their own men, even if it is known that they have betrayed them, this results in Gerbier undertaking a strangling himself, setting into motion a very clear vision on his part to push forward the resistance by any means necessary.  Gerbier, though a chance encounter at a bar, recruits new members to his cause in the debonaire young pilot Jean-Francoise Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), as well as the devilishly cunning housewife Mathilde (Simone Signoret).  Jardie, specifically, becomes one of the main network members for Gerber, meeting with his own brother Luc (Paul Meurisse) who is also heavily involved in the resistance himself, forming a relationship with Gerbier in the process.  The film then takes viewers on a set of missions and attempted prison breaks, most of which fail.  It is not until Gerbier breaks into prison with the intent to break out resistance members that things begin to look up, particularly when a seemingly impossible escape planned during an execution takes effect and the members are freed.  The farther into the war the members get, the more difficult it is to keep their activities secretive and when it becomes a realization that the groups members are betraying one another for the safety of their respective families, Gerbier undertakes a purging of the resistance to return it to its ultimate focus.  Many of these killings go over without a hitch, but it is not until he demands that they kill Mathilde who has betrayed them for the safety of her daughter that things become murky, eventually having to undertake the task himself.  After shooting Mathilde in the street, the film cuts to close-up shots of the remaining members of the resistance and, subsequently, explains how they each ultimately died.

War movies often handle death in a very real manner, showing its excesses and inconceivable repetition, particularly in works like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon.  However, even when this death is shown in great detail and with earnest concern, a certain degree of glorification and celebration comes with it, because viewers are reminded that the ultimate goal was achieved, even at the cost of thousands of sacrifices.  In Army of Shadows the same sort of entrenched comfort is far from available. From the very first death of the film, one that comes from assumedly natural causes, viewers are provided stark shots, none of the glorification of death that comes from other war movies, a distancing that is only doubled by the awareness that this loss could have been prevented were the guards willing to help the dying man, and while this is a serene death, the later stabbing of a Nazi soldier in the throat by Gerbier to assure his escape is so jarring and out of place that it strikes a viewer as unnecessary, even though it is well-established that any one of these soldiers would have easily killed Gerbier if he were to run away.  It becomes then a larger commentary on the very "kill-or-be-killed" nature of war itself, so much so that the members of the resistance realize that the passing of their allies, in some cases, means their future safety.  Take for example the bruised and beaten men with whom Gerbier is trying to save.  One is beaten to such a pulp (by the way the makeup for these moments is excellent, if not disturbing) that the other offers him a cyanide pill to firstly take him out of his suffering, but offering the second benefit of no longer having to worry for his transport should a chance for escape come about.  It is killing with mercy and self-concern simultaneously and Melville shines his muted light upon all its hypocrisy with such a keen eye that one realizes why any viewer of the era would have been hesitant to praise its narrative, a fact that is certainly driven home by Gerbier who is easily one of the most problematic and troubling characters in all of cinema history.  While he is primarily to be understood for his concern for the movement and for an unoccupied France, it is made clear throughout that he is also, ultimately, concerned with his own survival.  Moments like him hesitating to jump out of  a plane, or failing to stand stoically as a Nazi officer makes a moving target out of him, suggest that all the idealism Gerbier spouts is fine and well, but in essence, it betrays the fact that during war he is just as prone to human flaws as any other person.  In Melville's world there is no right and wrong side to war, especially one that takes such an indifferent stance on human life.

Key Scene: The initial escape from interrogation to hiding in a barber shop by Gerbier sets up the films pace and sort of seedy navigation through deception and is only one of the many perfect moments in the film.

This is a Criterion disc that has, unfortunately, gone out of print.  However, it was relatively recently so the bluray is not terribly expensive.  I would suggest grabbing a copy if only for investment purposes.

5.6.13

Exterminate All Rational Thought: Naked Lunch (1991)

I am both regretting, as well as beginning to appreciate the #100filmsforJune marathon I have decided to undertake along with a ton of other members on Letterboxd.  I am regretful because it is proving to be an incredibly daunting and time-consuming process, especially considering that I am trying to avoid repeat viewings per the stipulations of the marathon.  However, it has thus far afforded me an opportunity to catch up with a few blind spots within my film literacy a problem that I hope will be noticeably altered by the end of the month.  One such blind spot for me, as mentioned with my previous post concerning Sunshine, is that of underrated or overlooked science fiction films, which made a viewing such as Naked Lunch excellent, primarily because it falls within the confines of lesser known science fiction, while also affording me the very welcomed opportunity to fill in a gap on my desired viewing list with the psychosexual madness of yet another Cronenberg film.  While I would not say that Cronenberg hits every work out of the park, I do find most of his choices engaging and, at times, deeply profound.  Works like Videodrome and Existenz have become staples of consumerist fears and the detachment of the body in regards to an omnipresent, artificial entity that can fulfill even the most base of human needs and desires.  As should be little surprise, Cronenberg takes lens in Naked Lunch and spins a web of insanity relating to some absurd hybrid of drug culture and repressed heterosexuality.  What comes out of his cauldron of visions is a film that is parts Terry Gilliam and Ken Russell, engaging the very fabric of human life and its fractured psyche during a state of dependence that parallels nicely with the narrative of Linklater's A Scanner Darkly which provides for yet another layer of fitting parallels, in that both manage to perfectly adapt rather dense and challenging texts from equally prolific authors into a world all their own, using similar metaphors and messages to paint their facsimile of society in such a way that it is entirely implausible to the point of viewers finding safe detachment, while also being incredibly prescient and a cause for very real feels of discontent and dismay.

Naked Lunch is set inconceivably in fifties era New York and follows the life of exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a rather interesting job in the context of this world considering that both bugs, as well as particular pesticides prove to be highly addictive drugs, so much so that his girlfriend Joan (Judy Davis) is a strung out addict to bug powder herself, often stealing large quantities from Bill's work supply to get her fix, which, in turn, leads to his being fired from his job. Later that evening in an attempt to get people out of his house, Bill and Joan do a William Tell routine that involves him shooting a glass off of Joan's head, only for it to go awry and result in her being shot.  During an arrest related to his assumed murder Bill begins his own hallucinations as a result of repeated work around bug powder, where in he sees a large insect who informs him that he is to be a secret agent in a alternate world known as Inter Zone where he will serve as a writer for the various alien-like bugs that inhabit the world.  During his work for a particular bug, one named Clark Nova, after the typewriter which it manifests itself though, Bill is told that he is to find one Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), an endeavor that leads him to meeting doppleganger of his deceased wife.  As this navigation towards Dr. Benway continues, Bill comes to realize that the entirity of Inter Zone, as well as its extended alternate universe Annexia are riddle with drug addicted individuals, many of which actively engage in gay relationships, and that a larger narcotics trade orbits around the trafficking of a particular bug based drug known as "black meat."  Of course, getting to the center of the issues is far from simple, particularly since Bill himself is navigating various drug induced trips, yet after a constant shifting of mind states, he eventually comes to realize that it is indeed Dr. Benway who is the veritable kingpin of the narcotics pushing and in an attempt to flee to Annexia, he, as well as the doppleganger of Joan, is stopped by border police, also dopplegangers of previous characters themselves who demand that Bill prove he is a writer.   After pulling a pen out of his pocket as evidence, Bill, for no obvious reason, recreates the William Tell accident from earlier, thus bring the acid trip of a film full circle and Bill no closer to a sort of meaning and happiness he so clearly seeks throughout.

Much like other Cronenberg films, the narrative and its visual stylings seem to have a particular fascination with flesh, penetration and the seemingly inextricable connection between the mind and body as it relates to identity and survival.  This cinematic theme within Cronenberg's films furthermore always seems to have a psychosexual layer added as well, one of invasion and intrusion that is made all the more grotesque by the perfectly disgusting creatures that Cronenberg's crew makes for his films.  While I know I am not going to do any justice to this thematically, I feel it necessary to talk about the particularly unusual way in which the psychosexual elements relate to homosexuality between males.  Much like Barton Fink, the film has a drifting writer character to seems to be struggling with something larger than himself that is forcefully and unsuccessfully being repressed only to blow apart in troubling and destructive ways.  I would argue that both the character of Barton, as well as Bill are dealing with their respective oppressed sexualities, ones that are necessariliy oppressed for fear of violence and desertion from society.  In Cronenberg's film, this repression means that Bill must shack up with a drug addicted woman who he "accidentally" kills not out of malice, but out of a desperate hope to escape to something desirable, an escape he and the other openly gay characters of the film seem to pursue via wild hallucinogenics.  The escape only proves mildly beneficial for Bill, in that he is arguably surrounded by other gay males, although the price is pretty severe because the various drugs essentially allow for his feuding id and superego to go unchecked resulting in some bizarre drug induced visions. Of course the image that will be easy to pick up to the non-Freudian thinking viewer will undoubtedly be that of the various writers and other figures suckling at the flaccid stem of the white bug hoping to receive the liquid that emerges upon the completion of "good writing," which, of course, extends to include a good sexual performance as well.  Bill while madly struggling to repress his feelings cannot help but desire this secretion, much as he cannot change his desire for other men.  Of course, there is also the bug whose back, and apparent form of communication very much resemble the anus, suggesting a point of sexual pleasure, as well as verbal interaction whose implications both within the context of sexuality and Freudian psychology are many and multifaceted.

Key Scene:  The bug farm scene and the revelation of Dr. Benway's disguise are a fitting way to bring this narrative to a near close and defy all the logic in the film, which was minimal to begin with.

This is an excellent film and Criterion has recently put out a bluray, I would strongly encourage obtaining a copy when finances allow you to do so.

4.6.13

For Seven Years I Spoke With God. He Told Me To Take Us All To Heaven: Sunshine (2007)

After my wonderful first appearance on the podcast DrivebyNerding I am already planning some possible discussions for my next appearance on the show.  On the previous engagement we discussed movie adaptations of video games and the like, which proved fun and humorous with a general consensus that most of the films were outright awful.  As such I suggested that our next endeavor focus primarily on underrated science fiction films, because I had a few in my mind that I felt would be worth including as well as a justification as to catch up with many that I had desired to see for quite some time, one of which being Danny Boyle's Sunshine, a film I had initially attempted to watch on a Playstation 3 some years ago only to discover that the bluray disc programs had a glitch that caused the pop-up video commentary to run the entire time, therefore placing it on the back burner until I later obtained a regular bluray player, as well as a copy of the film, which I had at the time ordered from Netflix.  Thankfully, I was forced because my then two year younger frame of cinematic reference might have lost sight as to the truly profound things occurring within the context of Boyle's film.  While I will always have a deep admiration and thus favor 28 Days Later... I would not hesitate to suggest that Sunshine currently stands as Boyle's masterpiece.  Between its genre hybridity, its ambient soundtrack and some excellent acting by all involved one could easily describe Sunshine as being an orchestral film perfectly layered with competing sounds and grand ideas while also lending itself to subtle infusions of alienation, desire and isolation, all themes that exists in unique manners within the sci-fi, particularly the space travel, genre.  While I am always jumping to state that Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh are the best directors currently working, I am also aware that many of their works can be a tinge bit alienating to the more traditional filmgoer, where as Boyle manages to make narratively direct films that are nonetheless captivating and to the more seasoned film viewer prove to engage with a cinematic language and vision that is unique, inventive and in possession of a finger on the pulse of the future of film.  I in the process of viewing this film am convinced yet again that Boyle may well be the best director working today.


Sunshine focuses on the crew of the Icarus 2, a spaceship whose orders are to travel to the sun with a bomb that will reignite the cooling sun and subsequently heat up the earth that is beginning to freeze from the lack of heat.  The task has a certain degree of uncertainty attached to it since they are not the first crew to attempt the endeavor and are indeed following in a direct route behind the previous Icarus 1 team who disappeared inexplicably on the way to the sun.  The crew is headed by Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) a stoic and direct Japanese man whose approachability and poise make him an excellent leader.  Under Kaneda include the likes of an entire and diverse crew whether it be Searle (Cliff Curtis) the ship's psychological officer who has a particularly vested preoccupation with staring at the closely impending sun, the brash but well meaning engineer Mace (Chris Evans) or even the somewhat emotive pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne).  The clear odd man in the group is the ships physicist, in charge of operating the bomb Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy).  Together they are undertaking a dangerous task, one that is reaffirmed when they begin receiving contact signals from Icarus 1, which are identified as distress signals, a haunting revelation that is paired by the equally disturbing news that due to a trajectory malfunction the ship is hightailing towards certain destruction.  Kaneda and Capa take it upon themselves to correct the issue only to result in the loss of Kaneda in the process.  This change of direction leads the crew to being in line with the lost Icarus 1 chip, which they quickly mount and discover the crew to be burned alive, an obvious result of their failed equipment in such a close relation to the blistering sun.  At this point all forms of technology falter and other crew members die in the process, a tragic occurrence which doubles as a boon considering that oxygen becomes scarce.  Aiming to complete the mission, a conversation with the ship's artificial intelligence leads Capa to discover that they have an extra person occupying space on the ship, the extremely burnt Pinbacker (Mark Strong) whose psychological state has deteriorated, leading him to believe it is his task to destroy the crew and bring death to the world in the process.  While Pinbacker begins killing the remaining crew, Capa finishes the mission and ultimately escapes, leaving Pinbacker to die and bringing brightness back the the ice crusted Earth, although the survival of Capa is left in question in the films closing scenes.


Danny Boyle, never one to hide his clear influences, made open statements about the influences of Kubrick, Scott and Tarkovsky on this particular film, particularly the manner with which space and its simulacrums serve as a fabrication of the experiential world of Earth that can only fall apart under the foolishness of its own artifice.  Whether it be the space islands of Solaris, the failure of gender roles in Alien, or a complete reconsideration of evolution as occurs in 2001: A Space Odyssey, one realizes that to seek uniformity and normalcy within the expansive, and for sake of argument limitless voids of the stars is assured alienation and destruction.  Danny Boyle, in the cinematic genius that he has proven himself to be, manages to extend this beyond the metaphor of space to the very nature of cinema itself.  It is easy to pick up the rather distinct references to a godlike presence within the film whether it be each characters decidedly elaborate moral compass, or the fact that the space ships all look like large optical lenses but every thing is in the presence of something so much larger that their respective sanities crack in an attempt to comprehend its omnipresent state.  Indeed the bright, searing light of the sun breaching the windows could also be seen as a statement on this element, but it is what Boyle does with the images and subliminal moments that make it something far greater.  Throughout the film, the ambient soundtrack swells and sinks with the action and drama of the narrative, yet one could argue that when music is needed most, it is often paired with silence or jarring musical riffs that crackle against normalcy, as though being tampered with by the very film itself.  Similarly, when the inexplicably living Pinbacker begins to implement his havoc upon the surviving members of Icarus 2, the films images begin to split and mirror themselves, which along with extreme angles and profile closeups manage to completely immerse the viewer, through of all things, making them feel disconnected and alienated by the entire experience.  It is not until Capa comes into contact with something so grand and fantastical that the narrative reclaims its normalcy, perhaps as a result of coming face-to-face with that intangible thing that is greater than the singular human experience.  While I am not prone to call things God, I am sure Boyle is aware of the challenges of contemporary astrophysicists to pinpoint the force that holds the universe together, and it clearly influenced not only his narrative, but the very method with which he made the narrative exist on film.

Key Scene:  Kaneda's death is moving, tragic and highly cinematic.

Bluray...no excuse.

3.6.13

I Write On Water What I Dare Not Say: To The Wonder (2013)

It was nearly a month ago when I first watched Terrence Malick's most recent offering to the world of cinema, running out of my way to view what I knew would be an extraordinary work.  Sure it does not stand close to his giant works like The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, but even a lesser Malick films proves invigorating, challenging and deeply moving on a level most filmmakers can only obtain once in their careers, which span a set of films that are ten times the size of this art house favorite.  Again, I watched it nearly a month ago and put a review on the back burner in light of the western marathon that I just completed.  Usually there is a week or so window in which my waiting to write a review will prove detrimental to being able to provide anything close to a legitimate reflection and, it should be no surprise, that To the Wonder proved to be the major exception.  Far more condensed than earlier Malick works, this film still manages to tackle some of the deepest questions of humanity, particularly focusing on the way one seeks meaning in a world that is noticeably and, to some degree, purposefully destructive.  I was quite hesitant to get excited about this film because of the heavy backlash it seemed to be receiving from well-established critics who referred to it as being "Malick making a film that another person would make as an homage to Malick," and while I do agree that it gets much more introspective and wandering in its visual composition, one should remember that it has the very purposeful name of To the Wonder, suggesting a very real quest for something beyond and the Malick camera manages to really focus on this journey this time around, even making a decrepit building and a Sonic Drive-In take on ethereal and transcendental qualities.  I would boldly posit that a lot of the hesitation and dismissal of this newest Malick film has something to do with its decidedly Christian narrative, which led to some self-imposed alienation by the generally liberal minded film critic.  I myself am nothing close to Christian, indeed identifying with atheism as a worldview.  Of course, that does not mean that I should dismiss something with such an earnest message and engagement.  After all The Passion of Joan of Arc is a awe-inducing experience and it is about as Christian based as things come.  Malick's To the Wonder is a work concerned with Christian Existentialism and one well worth encountering regardless of the religious framework with which one identifies, because well done cinema transcends all presuppositions.


As is the case with many Malick films there is no one central figure, but, instead; a group of individuals who sort of interact between one another, at times in the same literal space, but always in the same metaphysical one.  The first major characters are the romantically involved couple of Neil (Ben Affleck) whose recent trip to Europe has afforded him an opportunity to meet Marina (Olga Kurylenko) a recent divorcee who is worried about how her falling in love with Neil will affect her ability to raise her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline).  Even though this is a factor, the two fall wildly for each other on the stormy hills and rocky beaches of Normandy only to move back to rural America, where both Marina and Tatiana experience decided culture shock.  This change of scenery is only heightened by the diminishing feelings of romance between Marina and Neil leading to Marina seeking help from a local Catholic priest named Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) who himself is going through a particular crisis of faith, admitting through the classic Malick voice over that he is uncertain about the feeling of God's presence.  When Marina and Neil end things, she returns to France while Neil, after losing his job due to an environmental controversy, rekindles a relationship with a old fling named Jane (Rachel McAdams) and helps her rebuild her failing farm only to realize that the relationship will not work, proving a fortunate change as Marina returns to Oklahoma where she and Neil get married in a civil union.  Meanwhile, Father Quintana fruitlessly continues his quest to find God's presence even navigating the most dire and troublesome of communities hoping to find beauty only to be told by others that it is real, most noticeably in a conversation he has with a church janitor about warmth of light and the presence of God's love.  It is suggested that Quintana never truly finds what he is looking for much to his disappointment.  Meanwhile, Marina takes her turn becoming indifferent in her relationship with Neil leading to her infidelity with a carpenter (Charles Baker) an engagement that Neil eventually discovers and is enraged by, initially leaving her on the side of the road, only to pick her up moments later.  Neil seeks his own solace in Father Quintana who takes him on his trip to visit with the sick and poor, leading to Neil providing his own forgiveness towards Marina.  Yet the two still separate and Marina is last shown returning to the grounds of Normandy as she catches a flickering light in the distance, perhaps that of the presence each character seems so desperately to seek.


I am not wholly familiar with the tenants of Christian existentialism, although I am aware that it is almost entirely credited to the work of Søren Kierkegaard and essentially argues that humans as creatures live a vacant and lacking life that is inherently meaningless until they are able to find a purpose, which to Christian existentialists must necessarily exist within the framework of a Christian ideology, one that is also very much hearkening back to an older, almost antiquated version of Christianity, that is not concerned with proselytizing, nor is it as derisive and condemning of those whose actions go against biblical decree.  Instead it simply existed as a means to help people deal with their questions of suffering, loss and injustice as it relates to personal worth, as well as a larger societal picture.  Malick's To the Wonder is very much a film about this Christian existentialist issue and I think it very much has its hand on the pulse of some of the issues that still exist within the philosophical framework.  The clear example of the issue arises with Father Quintana who is ostensibly as respectable of an individual as a person can find, going out of his way to preach to those with nothing, while also engaging with people in a manner that suggests genuine human concern.  Of course, he has committed to the ideas of Christianity, but his interpersonal feelings still seem to struggle with the larger questions of the presence of a figure.  Ultimately, it asks the question about whether or not commitment to an ideal will prove enough to mellow the burning quest for certainty and verification of a higher purpose and meaning.  Furthermore, the narrative extends beyond simply suggesting that understanding can come through a direct embracing of the Christian ideal, instead, arguing that an embracing of love in its most positive sense could also result in an outright transcendence of suffering, one that is based on forgiveness and compassion, or in actions that would be Christlike, without simultaneously being Christian.  This furthers the issues of Christian existentialism by positing that the same sort of happiness could be obtained with a humanist worldview detached from God per se.  Yet the most unusual moment in regards to Christian existentialism seems to come through Marina who is never actively seeking its presence, but, nonetheless, seems to find it in the closing moments of the film, arguably adding the very real possibility that the very higher power which Christian existentialism is grounded, transcends even its lofty expectations.

Key Scene:  The last two shots of this film will likely stand as my favorite of the year.  I was not fully moved by the film until that instant and everything came together perfectly and poetically.

I saw this in theaters and it may well prove to be less captivating on a smaller screen.  Nonetheless, I highly suggest you seek it out upon release.