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!