Friday, December 31, 2010

Docs on Films Year End Review

We posted about our first film on Sept. 13. On the last day of 2010, we're 3 1/2 months and 12 films in to this little project. Here's what we've encountered so far:

By decade, the 1950s won with 4 films but the 1930s were a close second with 3. All of our films fell between 1932 and 2000 but Gladiator (2000) was an anomaly--the next newest film was in 1982.

Even though we started off with a foreign film, American films took over this set of 12. Gladiator was, again, an anomaly as it's dual listed US and UK.

Almost all of the films were nominated for major awards:

In terms of nominations, Gandhi leads the pack at 34 with Gladiator close behind with 32. The Battle of San Pietro and Trouble in Paradise were not nominated for any major awards.

If we look at wins, the picture changes just a tad:

Suddenly, Umberto D, In the Year of the Pig, The Magnificent Ambersons, and White Heat join San Pietro and Trouble. But Gandhi won 19 awards and is our award-winningest film of the year with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid taking second place and bumping Gladiator to number 3.

Another interesting tidbit: of the 8 eligible films, 6 are on the National Film Registry. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Battle of San Pietro, and Trouble in Paradise were all listed in 1991; An American in Paris was added in 1993; and Butch Cassidy and White Heat were included in 2003.

Out of the 12, Athelas and I each refused to watch 1 film (La Strada for her, Gladiator for me) and we'd each seen 3 films before starting the project (Butch Cassidy and Gladiator for both of us, La Strada for her, and Gandhi for me). Athelas was thwarted by technology and commercial mail from seeing two: The Magnificent Ambersons and White Heat.

Now, for the crux of the project: did we like the films and would we keep them on the list?

So, Athelas would keep 6 films (keeping in mid that she's working from a total of 10, not 12): In the Year of the Pig, Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, Last Year at Marienbad, and Gandhi. While I'd keep 7 out of 12: In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of San Pietro, Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, Last Year at Marienbad, Gandhi, and White Heat.

Whether we liked the film is a different story in some cases. Neither of us chose to eliminate a film from the list that we liked (no surprises there) but we did each choose to keep films on the list that we did not like. Athelas would keep La Strada and I would keep In the Year of the Pig, The Battle of San Pietro, and Last Year at Marienbad. We both enjoyed Trouble in Paradise, Butch Cassidy, and Gandhi. Athelas also liked In the Year of the Pig and Last Year at Marienbad while I also liked The Magnificent Ambersons and White Heat (which don't count for her yet so she may like them).

So, Athelas would keep 6 of the 10 while I would keep 7 of the 12. Athelas liked 5 of the 10 while I liked 5 of the 12.

So, that's our first twelve films in a few nutshells. We have some doozies coming up for 2011 but we get to start the year off right with a film that we've both seen before and we both adore: Edward Scissorhands. That is, of course, followed by a bunch of films that are, well, interesting.

Gladiator, or Rarh! I'm a FIGHTER!

I hate this movie. Really. I do. I don't want a list of reasons why it's good and shouldn't be the recipient of my scorn. I. Do. Not. Like. Gladiator. And I didn't watch it again. Nope. Got better things to do than want to beat my head against a rock for watching a movie again, thanks.

Why do I hate it?

Well, it's loud, stupid--and I don't mean that in a "boys are stupid" sort of way; I mean it in an "it's not smart" sort of way--trite, lacking in heart and courage, and plain 'ol boring.

The crux of this film is the men metaphorically (or literally) beating their chests and yelling, "Rahr! I'm a FIGHTER!" But there is no point. And there is no art. Sure there are pretty shots and good moments but those are few and far between and do not a movie make.

So, why does 1001 Movies think I should watch this? Clearly because it hates me but let's review the entry:

First, apparently the author is clearly mistaken about women: "Russell Crowe lost 40 pounds and built up his muscles to play thinking women's sex object Maximus." Sorry? Yeah, that's what it says. Really? A "thinking woman's sex object"? What about him makes him sexy to "thinking women"? I'm not saying Russell Crowe can't be sexy--he's not my cup of tea but I'll acknowledge that others may love him--but there is nothing intelligent about him in this film and I'm assuming that is what would make him sexy to a "thinking woman"?? Help me out here.

Ok, at the end of that sentence is probably why 1001 Movies wants us to watch Gladiator: "Hollywood's first true Roman epic in over three decades." Fine, yes, early Hollywood was famous for Roman epics and I have a feeling we'll be watching some of those later but just because it's a Roman epic . . . .

Apparently the author also thinks the "computer trickery" super. Um, did he see that tiger?

Athelas, do we know a girl who likes this film? I know boys who think it's just fantastic but I can't think of any girls. But I also can't just simply say "it's a movie for men" and move on because you and I both like a lot of movies that should fit that category. Is this just the ball-scratching equivalent of film? Men think it's ok to do in public and women are appalled? Is this just Scott scratching his balls in public?

Gladiator: No one told it that it was just a dick flick

Some other titles I considered for this post were: "Gladiator: As Boring As I Remember"; "Gladiator: Best Picture? Seriously?"; and "Gladiator: I Think 300 Was Better."

And I do think the movie would have been a lot better if it HAD been more like 300. The fighting wasn't bad, despite the crappy CGI, and I like the idea of a gladiator with dueling death wish and vengeance complexes. Even the "Daddy loved you better than me!" angle wasn't the worst part. The worst part were the interminable conversations about feelings and politics and the interminable shots of wheat and weather. Talk about pathetic fallacy. Emphasis on pathetic. The movie really forces these grandiose statements about democracy and the mob and violence and blah blah blah. Which seem totally out of place (and horribly written) in a movie like this, but also fatally flawed. Better directors than you, Ridley Scott, have wrestled with how to make a movie critiquing celebrations of violence as cool and entertaining that also, cinematically, make violence look really, well, cool and entertaining. But even more than that, you can't have a movie that makes the smug point that the gladiatorial games were the mark of Rome's corruption and barbarism while, AT THE SAME TIME, making those very games the vehicle for the hero's vengeance and redemption. Oops.

So what do you think, Nat? Is this on the list because it explicitly states (rather than demonstrates or explores) a facile and easy political point ala Crash? Is it the academy's love affair with epics? The acting wasn't bad--Joaquin in particular was MUCH better than his character was written--but why do people love this movie?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Gladiator (2000)

I think this might be the first movie that both of us have previously seen. And as an added bonus, we both hated it. An attempt to add soul and depth to the sword and sandals historical epic, Russell Crowe (who I don't hate) plays a brilliant Roman general who learns of the patricide committed by wanna-be emperor Joaquin Phoenix (who I also don't hate) and is thereby punished in all sorts of brutal ways both emotional and physical (still on board). So why is this movie so intolerable? Is it the heavy-handed direction? The facile script? The ridiculous CGI tiger? I'm going back in, my friends, and will report back in full. Hopefully it won't be too much like facing Tigris of Gaul in the Coliseum.

Friday, December 24, 2010

White Heat, or Everyone in 1949 had EXCELLENT Aim

Sorry for the tardiness--Christmas madness and all.

I love these sorts of movies: a bunch of bad guys, a heist, chases, shootouts, explosions, and a random literary reference. Totally in my wheelhouse if two guys are shot violently and cold-heartedly before minute 3 is up. Thanks, Dad.

These sorts of films are normally placed firmly in "boy territory." Written by boys, directed by boys, acted by boys with one or two hot dames thrown in for boy eye candy, marketed to and watched by boys. What's interesting about this film, ready for it?--it was written by a girl! And that girl, Virginia Kellogg, was nominated for an Oscar for her efforts (she lost to a boy for a James Stewart baseball movie).

Anyway, this is one of the few films we've seen so far that I actually enjoyed watching but I think it also worth watching for more than being fun. It seems to be a front-runner in the "bad guy has issues" genre rather than "bad guy is just bad because he's bad and we're going to focus on the GOOD guy anyway because he's GOOD" genre. This bad guy is bad for a reason and we see him spiral into the depths of his psychosis as his world unravels.

We also see "technology" being used for a police chase--which amused me to no end because I can sort of pick out the locations now that I live in LA and, let me tell you, you wouldn't get the places they got with that sort of speed, echo locator thingamajig or no.

I was also highly amused by the accuracy of the gun play in the film. Nine times out of ten, if a guy shot a gun, he hit his target, even if that target is moving around far away on top of a ginormous gas tank. If you watch a contemporary version of this sort of film, the hit to miss ratio is not nearly as high. The guys in White Heat could shoot the cotton tip off of a Q-tip (Steven Seagal can do it) while the guys in a contemporary film might hit the broad side of a barn once every four shots.

So, why watch this one according to our trusty guide? Apparently, Cagney's Cody is the perfect example of the "ultimate contradiction that brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility undermined by all-too-human dependencies and vulnerabilities." Out here in the real world, we might just call that hubris and be done with it. I'll agree with that but I'd offer that perhaps it's not just that he's the perfect example, it's that this is one of the films that focuses primarily on that contradiction. In other films, the hubris and fall are there but they're not the crux of the film whereas with White Heat Cody's descent into madness is the point of the film.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What kind of jerk would shoot Gandhi?

Not very deep, I realize, but this is the first cogent thought I had after watching the epic. And actually, the movie isn't that interested in what kind of jerk did shoot him. In fact, for a three-hour movie, the end felt a little rushed. I suspect the issue of partition, and the role of Gandhi's Hinduism therein, was a lot more complicated than the Mahatma wanting everyone to get along and the mistrustful Muslims refusing a sweetheart deal to govern the new nation as a minority. But that might just be my Hitchens showing.

I am also interested in the Indians that were soldiers for the British, mowing down their fellow citizens during a massacre I had never heard of. Maybe the imagery was supposed to speak for itself, but I think at least a sentence or two acknowledging that it was largely Indian soldiers doing the massacring, beating, etc., would have been well taken. Maybe it's part of how carefully and elaborately the whole movie was framed? I feel like, from the monster disclaimer that opens the film forward, that the project was very much an English look at this man, so a lot (his radicalization, his abandonment of affiliation with Western/British identity) is left opaque or elided. And I'm actually okay with that.

Because I cannot let a post go live without letting my feminista flag fly, I will register my raised eyebrows that the priest G met in South Africa was summarily dismissed because this had to be a movement run by Indians, but it was no problem for the British woman to take a highly visible role in his household, because clearly she wouldn't be contributing in any meaningful way.

And yay for baby Martin Sheen!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

White Heat (1949)

Now this has promise: a violent and unpredictable gangster with mommy issues and insanity in his family who suffers from debilitating headaches that make him berserk? Score! It appears this movie is another version of what we saw in Butch and Sundance, except rather than humanizing the bad guys through wit, brotherly love, and remarkable good looks, this landmark noir and foundational action movie makes a "black hat" human by and through psychopathology. Paging Dr. Freud!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gandhi, or My Misspent Youth

I first saw Gandhi at some point in middle school--so somewhere between August of 1991 and June of 1994 and the ages of just-turned-12 and 14.5 ish. It's one of those things where I'm always amazed when someone hasn't seen the film (cough *brainmate* cough)--I just sort of assume everyone watched the film in middle school. Sort of like most people being amazed that I didn't read Catcher in the Rye until I was 20-something.

Anyway, I'm not sure 12-14 was the age to see the film really. First, I'm fairly certain I saw ALL of the film and not an edited down version so what history teacher did I have who wanted to devote basically a whole week to watching a film? You should also know that during those years I remember watching Roots in a history course, too. And I wonder why I don't really have a head for history. Second, even though I might be fairly bright, I'm fairly certain that the ages of 12-14 are not prime years of cultural discernment. While I might have understood the idea of the film, I doubt I really "got" the film and I certainly wouldn't have questioned it in a real way. And, third, thanks to watching the film then, I now only think of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Seriously. And, vice versa. Really. I had to do a Google image search to remember what the real man looked like.

So, the verdict watching the film again some 16-19 years later? It's a damned good movie and it holds up. It doesn't look like a 1982 film. E.T., Tootsie, An Officer and a Gentleman, Porky's, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas are a few of the highest grossing films released in 1982 just to give you a mental reminder of the era. And, to add further kudos to the timelessness of the film, 1001 Movies tells me that the director, Richard Attenborough, conceived the idea in 1962.

It also doesn't feel like the three hours (with an intermission) that it is--which is a feat with me. And I love the acting--Kingsley is a favorite (probably due to this role) and everyone seems to fit seamlessly within the cast, even the bazillion extras.

So, what makes for an outstanding film? In certain cases, like this one, it's a film that makes you ask questions rather than serving all of the answers on a silver platter. What I'll leave it up to my partner in crime to discuss--or help me figure out--is whether the film is actually good for the Indian people. I'd venture a yes tentatively but it is also a film made by Brits about India which is the very tension within the film and that is always problematic.

I'm also curious about the Indians employed by the English in the film who act violently against those who are uprising--the guards at the salt mine, for example, who violently and repeatedly beat their fellow Indians--or those who seem to simply not participate at all. The only point I see this vaguely dealt with is when Gandhi takes the tea tray away from the servant in Jinnah's (right person?) home. Did this class/group/section of Indians ever join the uprising? If so, when? If not, why? And how was this class/group/section of Indians impacted by the withdrawal of the English? Was there a backlash against that group by the revolutionaries?

And, another thing I'm not clear on is the India/Pakistan divide. I don't know much about this historically as I have no memory of studying anything remotely connected to India except watching Gandhi. Can the film really work if the viewer doesn't know that context well? I may need to find someone who knows Indian history to fill me in on these things.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gandhi (1982)

Here are the things I know about Gandhi the person:
He was Indian.
He went on hunger strikes.
He believed in civil disobedience.
He once gave up sugar before he told someone else to give up sugar.
He was assassinated.

Here are the things I know about Gandhi the movie:
It was directed by the grandfather from Jurassic Park.

I'm guessing this epic film will make some arguments I need to consider about postcolonialism, Indian integration and culture, and the life and death of a twentieth-century icon. Really looking forward to this one!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is It Possible To Make a Pomo Thriller?

So my attempt to watch this movie got interrupted four times:
1. I fell asleep.
2. I watched the finale of America's Next Top Model.
3. I bought a Blu-Ray player (yay)!
4. I taught a class.
Did these interruptions matter? Not a bit, because a cohesive narrative structure that relies upon a developmental model of character, plot, motivation, etc., is not at play here. Rather than modernist, which is what I thought this movie would be from the description, this one struck me as postmodernist.

I shall defer to my brainmate, who knows pomo a lot better than I, for a definite ruling, but the fact that minutes, years, and months are all equated, characters are doubled and unnamed, and the multiple narratives are presented, none of which are privileged, struck me as a postmodernist move. No matter what we call it, I agree that these choices drained all possible suspense or menace from the movie. I went from thinking the stalker dude was a mindfucker to thinking he was a rapist to thinking the (possible) husband/gambler was abusive, to thinking the woman was a mindfucker, to thinking that that wasn't the point of the movie at all. But to sustain a thriller, I think you NEED to have a world that believes in things like history and motive and character. Do you agree, Nat? Can you think of a suspense/horror/mystery movie that abandons character and history and works? Zodiac comes to mind, but it's not nearly as formally experimental as this one.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad, or A Lot of Art is Boring

This sounds like a cool movie: a mysterious man with psycho-stalker looks and phrases tells a woman the story of how they met and had a week-long affair the year before; she doesn't believe him so he has to repeat the story over and over but, each time, the story changes a bit but still employs the familiar phrases, gets a bit more involved with details or encounters or other people, she believes him a bit more and changes the story herself . . . .; and then there is always the lingering question of whether force was involved.

I want to watch that movie.

Except I did and it sucks.

This film is a super case of how a good idea is taken and made into "art" and ruined. What I described above sounds like an awesome psychological thriller in which the woman and the audience don't and can't know the truth by the end--Has she actually ever met this man? Did the affair happen? Or has this man coerced her simply through this conversation? Even the location is fuzzy--the title of the film is Last Year at Marienbad but the narrative makes it clear that Marienbad is just one option. Add in the glamour of a fancy hotel with an apparently incessant black tie dress code and the black and white film and we should have a really engaging film.

Additionally, the screenplay is apparently the reimagined plot of the novel, The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares which Wikipedia tells me is about "A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart." (

I want to read that book. [Ok--I ordered it so maybe I'll get it and can read it before this posts and, if not, I'll update when I do--it's only 103 pages]

This movie, however, takes those ideas and makes them as slow and boring and painful as La Strada, The Russian Ark, and Umberto D rolled into one. There is no thrill. There is no suspense. And, at the end, I don't care what the truth is other than the movie is over (and it's not a long film at 90-ish minutes).

1001 Movies says that this film "marked a radical departure from movies shaped by the long-dominant 'tradition of quality'" and that "it wasn't just offbeat or eccentric [but] mounted a full-blooded assault on the ingrained assumptions of narrative film, interrogating and subverting every aspect of 'correct' moviemaking from temporal structure to photographic composition to characters development." Ok. So here is where I probably can't divorce myself from the fact that I am watching this film almost 50 years after its creation and this "full-blooded assualt" is now just normal (I've seen Inception, for example). And, while I appreciate that this was one of the first films to break standard, I don't think it does it well. Just because you're knowingly breaking the rules and are the first to do so doesn't make what you're doing worthy of praise. Just ask the first kid who colored on the wall with Sharpies.

1001 Movies continues, "With characteristic modesty, he [the director] once called Marienbad a 'crude and primitive . . . attempt' to capture 'the complexity of thought and its mechanisms. He was wrong in his choice of adjectives, but right about everything else . . . . Nowhere else in cinema have the labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory been evoked more forcefully or explored more resonantly." I don't know that I'd choose "crude" or "primitive" but the film is just that in a sense and it has to be--it was a test run for this sort of film. But, about that "nowhere else in cinema part . . . um . . . off the top of my head:

Memento (on the list)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Being John Malkovich (on the list)
Inception (too new to be on the list)
The Science of Sleep
50 First Dates
Fight Club (on the list)
The Matrix (on the list) . . .

Any films you can think of that are explorations of the "labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory"--that are either better explorations or just better movies?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Looks like our French Film Festival continues with this "landmark of progressive cinema." Uh-oh. A personal note: I love Modernism. I love ambiguous, difficult texts that attempt to replicate the complexity and absurdity of human thought. That is, I love it everywhere except in movies. I find it either witheringly obvious (looking at you, Citizen Kane) or intolerably pretentious (have a feeling I'll be looking at you, Last Year At Marienbad). This movie is an anti-narrative fable, complete with characters named only by letters, no temporal structure, and a screenplay more poetry than prose. Mon dieu.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An American In Paris--NOT the Internet Sex Tape

This movie is very odd. It's like a fever dream--everything is very bright and very frenetic and people act in extreme ways and no one mentions it. It doesn't take place Paris so much as a cartoon version of Paris. I mean, Ratatouille was darker. There's a semblance of a plot--a love quadrangle--that gets abruptly resolved after the fifteen-minute sequence towards the end where the movie sort of gives up and becomes the ballet it probably should have been all along. It's not that I didn't like this movie, it's more like it didn't feel to me like a movie at all.

The one thing I found interesting was the way, at times, it seemed like in some ways this was meant to be a corrective to the war. For a lot of people in 1951, their most recent and most cognizant image of Paris was Nazis goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysees. The war is crucial to the movie--Jerry (!) was a soldier, Lisa and Harry fell in love because he cared for her during the Occupation (which means her parents probably died in the Resistance)--but this violent and traumatic history is all transformed into something bright and beautiful. The best encapsulation of this is probably during the interminable concluding dance sequence when Jerry, along with four other men in uniform, dance into a Parisian boutique and come out in dapper new duds. I also liked Adam, the tortured and frustrated pianist. I thought his fantasy of a concert in which he plays all the instruments and conducts was a spot-on distillation of the ego artists need to be successful. Hello director Vincente Minelli, and your little daughter too!

We should go to Paris, Nat, and contextualize this blog further!

An American in Paris, Or Why I Currently have a Headache

Other working titles:

Or First Dates Real Women Shouldn't Go On
Or Toulouse Lautrec Was a Painter! In France! Too!
Or Capote Hasn't Written "Breakfast at Tiffany's" Yet
What the Fuck, Oscar? This movie is NOT better than A Place in the Sun OR A Streetcar Named Desire

Ok, so let's address these points.

1. I have a headache because this movie is damned loud. The dialogue is low but the music numbers are LOUD. I have great hearing but I had to have the volume up to hear and understand the more French accents.

2. So, ladies, would you go out on a date with this guy: He stares at you like a hungry cannibalistic serial killer in a smoky club, lies to get you to dance with him, and fools your companion into giving him your number. Then he stalks you at your work and shows up there after you, in no uncertain terms, tell him not to bother you again. Yes? Then you're a damned fool. If you are a damned fool, don't then agree to "walk along the river" which just happens to be completely empty all the time when it's late-ish and dark.

3. Musicals of this era loved loved loved Technicolor. I know! We need a dance number and we have to use EVERY color we can find! Yay! Spend money on LOADS of costumes and sets that make not a damned bit of sense!! But TECHNICOLOR is HAPPY, damn it. And, if there is something we need after the war, it's HAPPY! Lost generation be damned--we're not moody--we sing and dance in the streets! In color!

4. Why, exactly, does Gene Kelly need to dance around "in" a Toulouse Lautrec painting in skin tight pants and a skin tight turtleneck, both of which are also skin-colored? What does that have to do with anything at all? Why do we need a ballet that has sets reminiscent of French art?

5. YAY! ARTS!! I agree, the arts rock. But, what I don't agree with is the absurdly long, completely indulgent composer intermission in the middle of the film. I don't care about that character. He's not interesting. He doesn't actually matter to the film's plot. He's not even funny when he's the one who knows that Gene Kelly and the French guy like the same girl. I also don't need to see the French singer guy's wholly narcissistic night club act. We already know how I feel about the ballet.

6. Husky voiced rich, blonde "patroness" of the "up-and-coming artist" buys artist a "studio" she's decorated and is interested in the artist but, lo and behold, the artist is in love with a tiny, gamine, dark-haired girl who has a secret.

7. This relates to the Toulouse Lautrec comment but why do we need a FOREVER long (eighteen minutes) ballet number that does not advance the plot? I'll admit that some contemporary dance movies are bad and the "but they just burst into song and dance randomly" can be a legitimate critique but at least most contemporary dance numbers pertain to the plot if not advance the plot. Almost NONE of the dance numbers here have anything to do with anything other than ART! TECHNICOLOR! And, that 18 minute ballet is supposed to fill in the blanks for why French nightclub dude just hands his fiancĂ©e over to starving painter guy with a smile? Um . . . no.

8. THIS movie won best picture against A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire? I have no words.   None.

Despite all of that, I don't exactly dislike the movie. I just don't know what to do with it and I definitely don't need to see it again and I wouldn't call it "good." Most of the movie, I was mentally revising it to make it a good movie.

So, why did the book have us watch this? Other than winning 6 Oscars--I have no clue. Have a clue, brainmate?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An American in Paris (1951)

I like movies where the city is as much a character as any of the cast, and it seems this musical is going to fit the bill. The movie can be read as a corrective to certain Lost Generation representations of Paris as a place where dreams go to not so much die as slowly decay in a miasma of alcohol and cigarette smoke (looking at you, Hemingway). In Minelli's vision, Paris is a place of where human passions--joy, jealousy, love--merge with the gorgeous visuals and Gershwin songs in riotous color. It's Paris as a flute of fizzy champagne rather than a cynicism cocktail. Cheers!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How I Am, In Some Ways, Like Etta

But not in any of the good ways. Not in the young-Robert Redford sneaks into my bedroom and makes me undress at gunpoint sort of way. Incidentally, is this the scene that spawned similar bedroom break-ins in Untamed Heart and Twilight? But better, of course. The menace is never wholly erased from either of these characters, especially in that scene. But back to me and Etta. I usually turn this off when they head to Bolivia. I don't want to watch them die, either, and I remembered it being mostly strangely scored montages. And there is some of that. But the melancholy and loss that is only hinted at in the first half ("You're going to die. Bloody. You just pick where.") totally suffuses the Bolivia scenes. There's a sort of desperation to all the laughing and drinking and spectacular hats. Very whistling through a graveyard. But oh, how I do love the first hour of this movie. I love the almost imperceptible transition from sepia film to the sun-drenched Utah scenes. I love the rapport between these characters. I love the chase scene. But the sadness is just as much a part of this story as the fun. These are men who the times are outpacing. And though it is a bit of a fantasy version of the West, it still bites. So I'm glad I watched all of it again, for the first time in years. Nat, what do you make of the relationship between Etta and Butch?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or, Yo Quiero los Bandidos Yanquis

Cards on the table: I love Paul Newman. He can do no wrong.

Ok. Now that we have that settled. The rest of the film is pretty damned good, too. This is the first film we've drawn that I'd seen before this little experiment and one I definitely didn't mind watching again.The only thing slightly new about this watching is I watched it on BluRay (worth it) and it's the only thing today that was going to stop me from watching the entire third season of Veronica Mars in one sitting (but that's another thing altogether).

So, besides the fact that this is a masterful, gorgeous, Oscar-winning, witty, quietly hilarious, satirical take on the Western featuring two of the best and sexiest male actors to ever wink at the camera who then went on to use names from the film for an iconic film festival and a children's charity (Redford founded Sundance and Newman the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp if you've been under a rock), why might 1001 Movies include this one on the list? I think because the authors somehow had the premonition that we two girls might just throw a hissy fit if it weren't.

I do disagree with one point in the book: "The Burt Bacharach song interlude, 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,' is the only dated element." I think the song is so dated it's fun and kitschy again. I might argue that, instead, "South American Getaway" (go to amazon and listen to the clip) is the only slightly dated part--the vocals just SCREAM late 60s/early 70s. But, that's not to say it doesn't work.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

In the first sign yet that the random spinny thing (perhaps in the same pantheon as Timmy Treadwell's Hindu floaty thing?) is a benevolent god, we've got this CLASSIC revisionist western coming up next. There is no Unforgiven without Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One of the first movies to make the bad guys the good guys (or at least the most sympathetic, interesting, appealing guys in the movie), George Roy Hill's film re-imagines two of America's most notorious outlaws as funny, clever, good-hearted, oh, and FRIGGIN' GORGEOUS. Also, "use enough dynamite there, Butch?" and "who are these guys?" are firmly fixed in my family's lexicon. Watching this one is going to be pure pleasure.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Trouble in Paradise--A Frothy Delight!

This is why we started this project! To discover little gems that otherwise I never would ever watch in a million years. I also saw Shop Around the Corner and am mocked to this day by my friend for liking You've Got Mail better. But this was charming, sharp fun. I loved the banter, I loved the clothes, and I loved the little Marxist man who came out of nowhere to say "Phooey"! And to pick up an earlier thread, I think this movie is the BEST for women we've encountered so far. It would have been super easy to make the posh princess a caricature, but she had a real depth and presence. And it was funny as hell. The first movie so far I would own, for sure! So a question for my brainmate: if we were going to update this one, who would we cast? I'll start: I think Clooney should be front and center.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) or, Finally!

Mark your calendars, folks! This is the first film in this little project that I'd actually consider watching again or, gasp!, even purchase (for reasons other than the fact that I can't find it anywhere else)! And that says a lot because I own some not-so-great films.

So, with this film Ernst Lubitsch basically birthed the RomCom and, perhaps, the one-liner ("Marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together, but, with you Francois, I think it would just be a mistake," "It's not just you that I don't love," and "I like to take my fun and leave it" are a few of my favorites) as well as the whole "Hollywood" image. Lubitsch, a German director new to Hollywood in the 1920s (thanks to Mary Pickford), basically created the Hollywood glam we know and love. Lubistch was also a heavily cited influence on Billy Wilder (and I love me some Billy Wilder) among others.

Lubitsch is also a GENIUS at the innuendo and double entendre, which was the movie's undoing in a historical sense thanks to it being BEYOND code-unfriendly. The code was adopted in 1930 but not effectively enforced until mid-1934 but there was no grandfathering. If a film was against code, it didn't get shown. and, as a result, Trouble in Paradise was shelved until almost 1970. The film begins with "Trouble in" over the image of a bed for a couple of beats before "Paradise" comes on the screen, for starters. And, in the first moments of the film, there is a fantastic scene in which stolen items are revealed one by one--almost a strip-tease of larcenous flirtation--before a "Do Not Disturb" sign is hung on the hotel room door. *wink wink*

But my favorite parts might be the scenes with the entirely random trash gondola in Venice. It's just so random and yet it fits perfectly.

We have two more Lubitsch films to look forward to, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be. As a newly minted fan**, I can't wait.

**I've seen Shop around the Corner (the film on which You've Got Mail is based) and like it but wasn't in love--that combined with one and I'm convinced.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Madcap. Zany. Romantic. These are not words that describe ANY of the movies we've watched so far on this blog. But Trouble in Paradise promises to break that streak. Ernst Lubitsch, sort of the Godfather of romantic comedies, puts the top two human desires--love and money--front and center in this story of two con artists who flirt and quip while trying to rob each other and a few other marginal characters blind. Sounds like this one gave birth to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Duplicity among others. And look! Evening wear! Let's see how many code-friendly visual metaphors for sex Lubitsch cooks up in our first romcom!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Battle of San Pietro (1945) or, Why You Should Definitely NOT Join the Army

First Huston angered the Army by making an "anti-war" movie (to which he apparently replied that he should be shot if he ever made a pro-war movie) and then he was championed and made an honorary major for making an excellent training film. No, he didn't make two films to achieve this.

He made one, incredibly short and fantastically boring film to achieve that.

San Pietro feels like about four hours. Maybe that's because I'm not reaching for my smelling salts just because there were dead bodies on screen. Maybe because I didn't have to take to bed because of the loud noises produced by bombs and guns (although one of our cats, Zooey, is now convinced we're under siege). Or maybe, most likely, it's because this film had those REALLY boring strategy maps with flags and whatnot and a pointer and blah blah blah.

So, this film made me think of a few things:
1. You shouldn't hire John Huston to make a pro-war film. Obviously.
2. I was reminded of the footage I saw of the first Gulf invasion when the attacks first started.
3. And Charlie Brown's teacher. Sorry, John Huston. It's not you, it's me. History talk makes me sleepy.

So, why is it on the list? Well, for one, it's Huston. He has eight films on the list (five of which I can vouch are better than Pietro and I don't even like Prizzi's Honor--the other four I haven't seen). And it's a major Hollywood player doing a war propaganda film that's not so much war propaganda exactly. It is an honest look at war if it is damned boring and if by "fairly honest" I mean we see dead people.

But 1001 Movies claims this film "remains the best war documentary ever made, despite changes made to remove some material thought too disturbing for civilian viewers." The "best war documentary ever made"? Really? The book doesn't really explain that claim except to basically say that this is a fairly honest look at war. But that's just not a good enough reason. We've already watched another war doc that's a fairly honest look at war in the life of this blog and we're only on movie #5.

What completely undermines the argument of the book is the last line in the write-up: "with some stock footage and staged scenes not detracting from the overall effect of authenticity and objectivity." Oh dear. Stock footage is ok. Staged scenes are ok. What's not ok is the fact that there is no discerning what's what in the film to an untrained eye or brain (meaning--I'm no history buff and don't want to be). Using stock footage and/or staged scenes without alerting your audience is trickery and that's by no means authentic or objective (See: Fahrenheit 9/11). And we now have plenty o' war docs that do not resort to such pranks.

Now, might it have been the best war doc before the editors removed the gore and added in the fluff? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is this is not that film and may never be. We can't judge the film on what it was when the premise is "you must see before you die" because I can't see that film.

If you'd like to see the film for yourself and don't want to track down a DVD or be the lucky gal who now owns this gem, the film is actually online in it's entirety here.

The Battle of San Pietro, or John Huston's OTHER The Dead

So "brought to you by the War Department" doesn't exactly foretell a subtle and complicated look at the paradoxes of war, and sure enough, San Pietro tells the made-for-the-movies story of what "we" did to overcome "the enemy," complete with stirring background music. However, the long, lingering shots of bloody corpses and body bags does much to raise the doc above your typical junior high filmstrip. (A side note: do middle schoolers even watch filmstrips anymore? They always sucked, but they are such an emblematic part of my memories of school. I don't think I could date anyone who has never seen a filmstrip.) I like the way the movie suggested that this battle, this moment, was only one of many--it wasn't the triumphant end of the war. In fact, the conclusion isn't really triumphant at all. One of the last images is that of gravediggers. The audience is invited to multiply those graves for all the battles that weren't filmed, "a thousand San Pietros." The maimed and mourning villagers who emerge from the ruins at the end is a nice move away from the doc's early America-centrism, though I thought the nursing babies/kids stuff managed to be both heavy-handed and tone-deaf. How can he suggest that the trauma from this battle won't last? Is that wishful thinking or a sincere inability to imagine the lasting damage from having your ENTIRE TOWN destroyed? Oh, and the Liberty Bell? Barf.

So, can we agree that this is only on the list because of John Huston's name? It seemed almost schizophrenic--on the one hand a real sensitivity to the human cost of war, and on the other complete agitprop. Is this what happens when a talented director is circumscribed by the War Department?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

Good news: Directed by John Huston, who gave us The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and a movie called Freud: The Secret Passion, which I can't believe I haven't seen yet. Bad news: It's yet another war documentary. Good news: Some material was deemed too "disturbing" for the viewing public. Bad news: It was framed as a propaganda film and features voice-over narration. I loathe voice-over narration. Good news: The attempt to detach the footage from an overall patriotic narrative and instead ground the experience of combat in the lived experience of the soldiers. Bad news: The cover does not bode well. Remember Mark W. Clark from Pig?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, Or La Strada (1954)

Have you ever driven on Interstate 77 from Charlotte, NC to Columbia, SC? There is a seemingly forever long stretch of road that barely counts as interstate and contains absolutely not a damned thing. Nothing. Nada. Zip. An exit pops up every now and then to remind you that there must be people around there somewhere but there is no other sign of life. Then suddenly you see an absurd median "landscaping" situation involving the what might be the ugliest state tree ever and you're back to something resembling civilization.

The entire time I was watching La Strada, I was waiting for that Palmetto-treed median. First, it was because I know Athelas doesn't want to re-watch the film. I failed to ask her why so I assumed something gross happened. Second, because halfway through the movie I realized that not only was nothing gross going to happen but nothing at all was going to happen. The civilization-signaling landscaping was only found in the film ending--not the ending but the actual cessation of the film.

During the film I learned a few interesting tid-bits from imdb. The leading lady was married to Fellini (the director of this snooze) and was supposedly his muse--yawn. Anthony Quinn (the leading man) was a boxer, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright (who supported his move to acting), and was married to Cecile B. DeMille's daughter but Quinn suspected Papa DeMille wasn't actually pleased with the whole Mexican thing. But because of the whole Mexican thing, he couldn't be drafted into the war and that helped his career immensely because he was actually given opportunities. Yep. I was able to read imdb on my phone while watching a movie with subtitles without missing a thing. And, while I am so-so in Italian, I don't know enough to not read the subtitles. Another funny fact: this film played at the New Beverly the night after I watched it. You can't imagine how pleased I am that I failed to know that beforehand lest I decided a theater viewing in order.

So, why does 1001 Movies want us to watch this? Well, first I'm confused by this statement "Although it is shot on location, it could take place in the present day or it could be 100 years ago." I do agree that, if in color and high-waisted pants on men were ignored, it might feasibly look almost sort of contemporary in a we assume poor people in other countries dress like stereotypical peasants way but what the hell does being shot on location have to do with that? A soundstage could achieve the same effect easily as could the California desert. Anyway, moving on. Apparently, we're supposed to love this film because Fellini takes the archetypal characters and makes them complex while leaving them in their archetypes. Supposedly this is Fellini's "accessible" and "well-loved" film and, as such, "[s]nobs and sophisticates should not hold that against this complex and moving film . . . which continues to provide new insights and ideas on each subsequent viewing." Hmph. Yes, this film is "accessible" if by "accessible" you mean dumbed-down to the point of no return. The archetypal characters remain solely simple archetypes and as such refuse to allow the audience to care. There is no complexity--the supposed "complexity" is already built into the archetypes and is therefore simplicity. Gelsomina's fate does not concern me. I don't flinch when Zampano yells at her. Zampano's supposed emotional involvement falls flat and fake. There is no insight or idea to be had from the film that I could find--and I had a lot of time to try to find one. The characters of the film--which is all there is because the plot is as empty as that stretch of interstate--are written so flatly that there is no interest garnered from the viewer.

So, in other words, I've not a damned clue why this was included other than it's the "accessible" Fellini and the list likes a little Fellini (6 other films by him on the list).

La Strada, aka, the movie that made me give up this project the first time

So last time I tried to up my 1001 movies total, I did it without my brainmate (mistake #1), without a blog to keep me honest (mistake #2) and I hit the speedbump that is La Strada roundabout week 4 (not really a mistake, but more the universe directing me to rectify mistakes 1 & 2). Usually you'd think I could get behind a movie in which a woman is sold to the circus by her impoverished mother and dominated by a Gypsy strongman. That sounds nice and feminista. But the actress's clownishness and (to me) impossible naivete made me kind of want to sell her to the circus. And I get that the Gypsy strongman's oft, OFT repeated routine is a metaphor for the petty weakness of humans in the face of passions like jealousy and domination and/or the inexorable movement of relentless time but GOD it was boring. And the Fool and his watch was overdetermined. And this movie ended up being bad for women anyway, as the chick decides her purpose in life is to be bullied and subjugated, so much so that she wastes away and dies after being abandoned by the Gypsy strongman guy. Bring It On is better for women, and much more entertaining.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

La Strada (1954)

Another double shot of firsts for the blog this week: the first movie I've seen, and the first movie from a director who, when people mention how they love his work, causes my ass to twitch. That's right kids--it's a Fellini film. Now you might think "a story of love and jealousy set in the circus" has promise. And maybe you'll enjoy seeing how naturalism so stark that Frank Norris himself would say "seriously?" plays out in a cinematic medium. And it is Fellini, for Christ's sake, doing his Fellini thing: investigating the disconnect between the identities people perform and their damaged and chaotic inner selves. I'm just saying it's my least favorite text called "The Road," coming in a distant third behind Cormac McCarthy's postapocalyptic novel and the Tenacious D song.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons Or, the Week of Self-Involved Characters

The library came through and got me a copy of Welles' 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons last week. I also watched the 2002 A&E version that supposedly "restores" the Welles shooting script he couldn't be bothered to defend against RKO's demand for cheer after Pearl Harbor. And, I mentioned before, I've read the book. So this post will be a bit of an amalgamation of commentary on all three.

The Welles 1942 film is fairly close to the book. The narration over the film by Welles is taken almost word-for-word from the book and, interestingly, the chopped up ending is closer to the book's ending than Welles' very slightly extended version as seen in the A&E 2002 version.

What is intriguing, and for which I have no answer, is the fact that there are scenes in the 1942 Welles version that do not appear in the 2002 A&E version. The opening sequence about fashion is chopped from the newer edition as is a scene in which Georgie is told by Eugene to push the car in order to get it going. While the opening scene could be argued as froth, the latter scene is an important affront to Georgie who views Eugene as "riff-raff" but is being told to push a dirty machine he despises nonetheless.

The 1942 film is moodier. This may be the result of black and white film or Welles' particular form of melodrama and cinematography. The 2002 version is a cream puff in comparison--a ginormous cream puff at 2.5 hours. It is, of course, in color and is more glamorous in costume and setting but the melodrama is fluffy soap-opera melodrama. It also includes scenes like Isabel and Eugene dancing in the snow which is just gorgeous. The 2002 version takes the more P.C. approach to servants: they're all white as opposed to the 1942 film's black servants. While we're on casting, even though Jonathan Rhys Myers seems to have not known anything about acting in this film and the opening dvd menu caused me to say aloud "Is that Jennifer Tilly?," the A&E film is better cast. Madeleine Stowe makes a better Isabel in terms of physical appearance and acting and Jennifer Tilly is actually the better Aunt Fanny. I love Agnes Moorehead but Fanny was meant to be silly. And who doesn't love James Cromwell as Major Amberson? What is interesting about Welles' casting of Georgie and his direction of Tim Holt in that role might be that Welles supposedly always suspected Tarkington modeled Georgie after Welles himself--whose first name is George, not Orson.

The 2002 film restores the extended ending (which was really just a scene longer and actually shows the car wreck instead of being oblique about it) and it adds in more of the splendor before fall of the Ambersons but both remove a great deal from the novel, of course, For example, it would be amusing to see Eugene go to the psychic. But, where the 2002 film goes horribly wrong for me is the obvious and just plain icky sexual tension between Isabel and her son Georgie. I don't remember that being in the novel and it's not present in the Welles film or, if it is, it's so underlying as to be missed entirely. The 1942 mother-son relationship can be viewed as just that; the 2002 version cannot be brushed off as an overly-invested mother. It borders on The Pillars of the Earth's Regan and William Hamleigh.

So, why are we watching this movie? I'd argue largely because Welles' name is on it. Of Welles' 40 directing credits on imdb, six are included in 1001 Movies: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, and Campanados a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight). There are only seven other full-length feature films in his directing credits--the rest are shorts and/or TV work or Welles is not credited as director (three instances)--and three of those seven are unfinished (one never released). To go a step further, two of the four remaining eligible films are Shakespeare: Othello and MacBeth. The list seems to disdain Shakespeare movies in that the only adaptation that I found on the list is the 1944 Henry V. So, we could say Welles' Shakespeare films were not really up for consideration and, thus, all but two of his films eligible for inclusion are on the list--six of eight is not so bad except that it makes the list look partial to Welles.

That is not to say I disliked the film. It was fine. But, do we need six Welles films to the exclusion of other films that may offer more diversity?

With two versions of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles' refusal to return for editing, Lan Samantha Chang's All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, and the son's section of Franzen's Freedom, I've watched and read a lot about incredibly self-involved men this week.

Rage Against the Machine

A series of unfortunate events prevented me from being able to see MA by blog time. They involve, in ascending order of technological difficulty, a sick baby, a disappearing Skype pal, and my total inability to find anyone with a working VCR. No matter how controversial the ending, I can't believe that there's an Orson Welles movie that isn't available on DVD, whereas I can easily order the entire series of Two and a Half Men from Amazon and have it here by tomorrow. No wonder Orson gave up on Hollywood and gained 200 pounds. Tonight, I'll have a cupcake in his honor, and watch Veronica Mars (entire series available on DVD). I hope to have Ambersons watched by the end of this month. Can't wait to hear what you thought, Nat!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

So our third pick, The Magnificent Ambersons, brings with it a few firsts for the blog. It's the first adaptation of a novel, and additionally, the first adaptation of a novel from the acclaimed genre of books I've bought and haven't read yet. The 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the second in Booth Tarkington's Growth Trilogy, which chronicles the effects of rapid industrialization and social change on the fortunes of a Midwestern family. If you know anything about my interests as a scholar, this plot is catnip to me. Will the effects of capitalism on individual minds and bodies be explored? Will the evolving definitions of femininity and masculinity be represented? Dare I hope for pre-modern nostalgia? It's also the first Orson Welles movie we've encountered so far. Welles was a 27-year-old wunderkind hot off the heels of Citizen Kane when he turned his attention to Tarkington's novel. At this point in his career, Welles was brash, arrogant, and ungodly talented--the very type of alpha male upon whom I would have developed a debilitating crush. Ambersons is notable both for being highly autobiographical and for its bungled ending. Welles was partying in Brazil and couldn't be bothered to defend his original cut. Apparently, the clumsily affixed "happy ending" is one of the tragedies of modern cinema. I am officially amped.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In the Year of the Pig (1969), or why Natalie No Longer Does Scholarship

Full disclosure: I'm starting to write this at the 41 minute mark of the documentary (it's 103 minutes long). I'm not enthralled. Although Jack Kennedy just came on screen so that got my attention for a minute. Ok, Lyndon Johnson is on--back to writing and watching simultaneously.

I think this is an important film in that it presents a crucial argument and did so at a time in our history when that argument was especially unpopular. Telling Americans that we're sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and are headed for a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation is a bold move. It never goes over well. Never. And it is especially pertinent considering our recent history of sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and creating a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation--seems good 'ol W. has never seen this film. Surprise.

The film is also a carefully edited and subtle argument. This one isn't going to knock you over the head and then scream the argument at you while shoving flash cards with key points in your face. You actually have to pay a certain amount of attention not only to content but to tone. The doc. makers are obviously not endorsing many of the people who speak in the film and it's up to the audience to carefully discern irony. This is something more contemporary political doc. makers could learn from. Ahem, cough, Michael Moore, cough. Oh! Wait! Maybe W. did see the film and thought "the sooner that we hit everything we can and hurt 'em over there we gotta a better chance to win that war and that's exactly what we should do in my opinion" was super advice.

The source of my discontent with the film lies solely in my particular focus in scholarship (when I did scholarship): terrorism in 20th century American literature with 9/11 as the pivot point. So I'm thoroughly steeped in this argument because, surprise, 35-ish years after this documentary when I was writing my dissertation, artists of all sorts were making these same arguments, albeit in color. So, perhaps especially because I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Vietnam, I'm watching this film through the lens of my 9/11 research and I'm finding it too-similar a source to make use of. "There were no torpedoes fired" rings eerily similar to "there were no WMDs." But, alas, the people who promulgate these clusterfuck no-win situations are not the people who would learn from this film (especially given the French origin when we're talking about post 9/11 enlightenment--as Athelas noted "Freedom fries indeed"), or the terrorism information I'm more familiar with--hence the unfortunate repetition of history.

So, thumbs down for me but thumbs way up high for inclusion in the list.

"In The Year of the Pig" or, Team America: World Police

If Michael Moore had been making movies in the '60s and wasn't as deeply besotted with the sound of his own voice and the sight of his own face, he might have made this documentary. Usually, I'm not as big a fan of docs that make a strident argument (rather than present an issue to explore), but I found this one inescapably compelling. Full disclosure: I had to make a brief escape after the first three minutes revealed that this was NOT the film to watch while I was eating dinner, so I took a break and caught a bit of Honeymoon in Vegas. A classic that the editors have thus far cruelly overlooked, I might add.

In any case, this movie helped me unpack the monolithic signifier that lives in my head as "The Vietnam War" by taking a dimensional approach to explicating the conflict's historical, political, social, and human context. Some of the combat footage is absolutely astonishing, and gives you a real taste of what a different business war reporting was before the Defense Department took an active interest in what does and does not make it back to American television screens. The most unsettling thing for me (and trust me, picking the most unsettling aspect of this movie is a trick) is how depressingly familiar the rhetoric of violence in the name of nation building sounds forty years later in the middle of another monolithic signifier, "The War on Terror." And, as a bonus, you get to hear Mark Clark, who currently rests in peace at The Citadel, and whose eponymous expressway I drove on regularly in Charleston, make some delightful observations about what "all Orientals" do.

Though I think this documentary is essential, it does bring up the point of whether docs should really be included on this list. They follow such different rules and operate under such a different aesthetic than features, I wonder if it's fair to lump the two genres together?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In the Year of the Pig (1969)

Apparently we don't like color film around here. Or movies made by Americans. This Oscar-nominated 1969 doc from Emile de Antonio is certainly all about America, though. In that colonial-superpower, military-industrial-complex kind of way. In the Year of the Pig chronicles America's involvement in Vietnam using what my Anthropology 101 professor called "thick description"--lots o'context from the famous (John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy) and the not as (Jean de Lattre de Tassigny--Freedom Fries indeed). And hey, any film that generated bomb threats against theatres that screened it has got to have something interesting to say.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Origins of Wendy and Lucy (2008), OR Umberto D (1952)

And, we're off with a whimper.

Athelas hit the can't-feed-the dog-but-can't-find-it a-better-home-because-I-NEED-the-dog-to-feel-like-a-person-and-this-is-just-all-a-metaphor-for-larger-country-wide-economic-issues movie plots nail on the head.

Umberto D. IS Wendy and Lucy.

Let's review a few key points (warning: full of plot spoilers for both films):

1. Down on his/her luck titular character who just needs this ONE thing before everything is better:
a. Umberto--pensioner who just needs 5,000, no 4,000, no 1,000 lire . . . . to pay his debts (back rent).
b. Lucy--young woman who just needs to get to Alaska so she can find a job.

2. A mutt who doesn't get fed much but likes to play and wander off; said wandering off gets mutt caught by whatever version of animal services and sent to the pound:
a. Filke--a Jack Russell-like dog who is only seen eating a plate of pasta at a cafeteria and who likes to play with a ball and a ruler (and later a pinecone). He wanders out of the apartment and gets sent to the pound.
b. Lucy--a golden retriever-like dog who gets an inadequate amount of dog food once and who likes to play with sticks. Lucy wanders off at various points in the film but it's Wendy's leaving her at a grocery store that gets her sent to the pound.

3. Hair-brained plan to play the system and, thus, temporarily get by results in dog incarceration:
a. Umberto plays sick to get sent to the hospital where he will be fed for a month and can save his pension which can be used to pay rent. Filke wanders out of the apartment during this hospital stay.
b. Wendy decides to steal a can of dog food (despite having enough money to pay for the can and one can not being enough for Lucy for even one day). Wendy goes to jail and Lucy is picked up by the pound.

4. Minimally-employed person of the opposite sex helps the titular character with the dog, advice, and misc.:
a. Maria the maid is supposed to watch Filke while Umberto is in the hospital, she also tries to help him with the landlord, brings him cake and a thermometer surreptitiously.
b. Security Guard (no name) gives Wendy advice on where to get her car fixed, allows her to use his phone to call the pound, and gives her money.

5. Same minimally-employed person has immense trouble of his/her own but seems to keep it together:
a. Maria is pregnant and isn't sure which of two military guys the father might be (and both deny capability). The landlady finding out about her pregnancy will probably get her fired.
b. The security guard has a daughter with a child who is demanding of all of his resources.

6. Larger economic issue on which the writer, director, et al. would like to comment:
a. The Italian post-war economic recovery which was looking pretty good for everyone but the pensioners who were suffering greatly.
b. The recent huge economic failure in the US.

7. Family member or person like family who can't or refuses to help:
a. Umberto's landlady apparently was like family when he moved in and called him grandfather. Now that she wants to get married and he owes her 1,500 lire, she doesn't like him anymore.
b. Wendy's family is supposedly having their own hard time (but I think we're supposed to not quite believe this).

8. Third character who legitimately needs money from titular character:
a. Umberto's landlady.
b. Lucy's mechanic.

9. The unfortunate titular character is not sympathetic. Somehow just being down on his/her luck is supposed to be enough without character development or depth.

10. Titular character leaves dog in better place (or tries to) by tricking him/her with play:
a. Umberto tries to get away from Filke while he's playing with a group of kids (fails).
b. Wendy gives Lucy a stick to occupy her while she walks away (works because Lucy is in a fence).

Where Umberto D and Wendy and Lucy admittedly diverge is the endings (sort of). Umberto D gives us Umberto trying to first house Filke in a sort of doggie daycare with what I assume are supposed to be people of questionable repute but he has second thoughts so he tries to give the dog away to a child he somehow knows in the park (that, of course, fails thanks to a person who is, I assume, the nanny). Then he tries to kill himself and Filke with a train but Filke rightfully freaks out and Umberto wasn't even standing on the tracks so that didn't work out. Filke then doesn't trust Umberto for 10 seconds and then they run off playing. Wendy, however, finds Lucy has been taken from the pound by a man with a home and a yard. We know Lucy has an at least temporarily better life. We don't know what will become of Filke with his homeless master.

Despite the slightly divergent endings, the movies are the same thing and both ultimately fail but let's consider why Umberto D might be on this list. 1001 Movies begins its information on Umberto D with "This heart-wrenching"--nope, my heart wasn't wrenched. Not one bit. And I'm a bleeding heart, let's feed the poor and give everyone a chance and save all of the animals liberal. It continues with the fact that the film "is shot on the streets of Rome and the major parts are played by nonprofessional actors, add[s] to the film's immediacy and authenticity." Um, no. Being shot in Rome is cool but a lot of movies are shot in Rome. And the fact that nonprofessional actors are used only makes it poorly acted not to mention the fact that these nonprofessional actors are being PAID to be in a film and no matter how little pay they are receiving, it's more than their peers. Those nonprofessional actors are now taken out of their (maybe) bad circumstances and raised above their circumstances--they no longer represent the characters they're playing, they are no longer authentic.

1001 Movies adds in that "the suspense built up around the ever-more-desperate search [for Filke] rivals a Hitchcock thriller." Has the author seen a Hitchcock thriller? Even at his worst, the suspense in a Hitchcock is, well, suspenseful. Umberto D contains not one ounce of suspense. Not one. As with Wendy and Lucy, you almost hope that Filke isn't found by Umberto. First, that might give some real emotional heft to the film and, second, if Filke isn't found there is the slight chance that someone who can feed the dog has taken him (a la Wendy and Lucy).

Ultimately, both Umberto D. and Wendy and Lucy could have been more effective social message films without the dogs. While 1001 Movies may be right that a "pet who gives joy to a joyless existence" is fascinating and heartwarming, it is not effective as a social commentary on the downtrodden. Those dogs, like the dogs of homeless people on the streets of every major city, cannot change their circumstances. Those dogs are being led around by owners who, for whatever reason, cannot care for themselves and have implicated the dogs in their situation. I'm not blaming homeless people or poor people or anyone at all for circumstances but, if you can't care for yourself, if you can't provide for yourself, you cannot and should not implicate a helpless animal. Figure out a better solution. Keeping a dog when you can't feed yourself or the dog is simply selfish and mean to the dog. That's where these movies break for me. If you don't add in the dogs, I might have felt something, anything, for Umberto or Wendy. With the dogs, I hate both Umberto and Wendy for starving their pets. Wendy is marginally redeemed for leaving Lucy but the more effective film is following Wendy after she's left Lucy in that yard. Umberto gets no such redemption and his "walk into the sunset" with Filke simply makes me sad for Filke. Both movies fail to deliver their message, cloaked in neorealism or no.

"Umberto D": aka, La Dull-ce Vita

So it takes A LOT for me not to get overly invested in an animal movie. To this day, I can't watch The Fox and the Hound. But I'll hand it to Umberto D for taking the pathos out of a pound scene. The movie ended up being less transparently political than I expected, and, actually, I think it was the worse for it. I didn't get a sense of what social circumstances led to the pension crisis the first scene alludes to, how "the war" plays into it, or what the economic picture as a whole was for anyone other than Umberto D (which would be a good name for a rapper). If you're going to make a political statement, doesn't it make sense to at least show how we got to the bad place so we can, I don't know, fix it or avoid it or something? Even Upton Sinclair does that.

So once I decided I couldn't be less interested in the eponymous character, I had to do something else for the next 85 minutes. Rather than play the game of what celebrities the Italian extras resembled, (that one looks like Joel Grey! And bald Salman Rushdie!) I decided to pay attention to the secondary characters that the movie either outright disliked or marginalized and (feminista alert here) they were both women! I have to admit that I feel a bit bad for the landlady/madam. She's got to make money too in a presumably tough economic climate, and Umby mentions that she was practically starving during the war. She's marrying a dude for free movie tickets for God's sake, and he's not paying his rent. Let's cut her some slack.

And Maria (of course) the pregnant maid. Can we just write past the ending and imagine what her life is going to look like when she starts to show? The silent crying in the kitchen was nice, but why make her promiscuous? Can no one else be sympathetic in this film?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Coming September 13: Umberto D (1952)

Our inaugural film is foreign, from the 50s, and might involve the euthanization of a beloved pet dog. Awesome. Umberto D is the follow up to director Vittorio De Sica’s and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s classic in Italian neorealism, The Bicycle Thief, aka, the go-to movie to reference if being pretentious is your goal. Umberto features nonprofessional actors and I’m guessing a pretty transparent political critique, as the plot centers around the titular character’s fervent love for a dog he can barely afford to feed. Ten bucks that the director of Wendy and Lucy is a big fan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Manifesto Fiesta or, Why We're Here

The Basics:

We're both PhDs in American literature and love a movie. We also love a list. We make lots of lists. We read lots of lists. We e-mail each other and talk about lots of lists.

Yes, we can talk about ourselves as a "we." 

We bought copies of 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die in 2007 after buying and being severely depressed by 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die (we can't discuss it without our therapists present). The 1001 Movie book became a challenge. Because, more than we love a list, we love to mark things off lists.

Fast forward 3 years and we've decided to blog our list marking off adventures, hence Docs on Films.


Rules & Methodology:

1. A movie is chosen from the list at random by that nifty widget over there on the sidebar.

2. We go with that movie--no cheating *sigh*

3. We do, however, have the freedom to not watch that movie. But we do have to post something. That something could be a rant about why we're not watching said movie (pink vomit is a legitimate and oft-employed reason, believe it or not), a post about having already seen the movie and why a re-watch isn't happening, or a post about how infuriatingly hard it is to find said movie in any medium (think we've run into a few problems already?), for example. So, we each post for each movie.

4. We're primarily using the 2005 edition of the book 1001 Movies . . . BUT we have added in a caveat for the 2008 update (which is largely the same as the 2005 ed.). If we spin the widget and land on a movie that has been removed from the 2005 edition, we'll watch both the removed movie and a randomly chosen movie that was added in the 2008 edition. Meta-discussion about the merits of the list will ensue. [Yes, there is supposedly a 2009 edition but we can't get our hands on it. And there is supposedly a 2010 update of the book coming in October. If we can get it, we'll adjust the meta-list accordingly then.]

5. We encourage you to join along or just comment. We have a handy little "upcoming movie" schedule over there on the sidebar. Disagreements are ok--just wait until we hit a Woody Allen movie--oy vey ;) Snarkiness is highly encouraged. And tell us another movie to watch--we'll make a list.