Friday, October 22, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Oct. 22 - 28

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.

It's difficult to find one unifying theme this week - rather there are multiple little themes. With Halloween approaching, of course, there are a few gorefests; there are also several films dealing comically with sexuality - one both farcically and poignantly, one about as broadly as barn, and one with satiric surreality. There are two films with "seven" in the title - but there the connections end. So stroll through the years free of the need to furrow your brow and discover the thread. The bulk of these films have little in common but their alignment across time (at least to our decade-obsessed minds). As always, share your thoughts below; this week I'm particularly interested in your thoughts, recommendations or brush-offs as I've only seen two of the titles.



10 years ago...
Malèna; October 27, 2000
starring Monica Bellucci
written by Giuseppe Tornatore (from Luciano Vincenzoni's story)
directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

Story: A young boy observes the suffering of a beautiful young woman in his Italian town, circa World War II. At first merely lusting after her, he eventually finds himself empathizing with her travails and wondering if he will defend her against her accusers.

By most accounts, the film walks a fine line between treating its subject with empathy and objectification - or as Roger Ebert put it in his pan, "There is noting [sic] quite so awkward as a film that is one thing while it pretends to be another." Mixing nostalgia, adolescent eroticism, wartime melodrama, and finally tragic martyrdom, does Malèna bite off more than it can chew - and if not, does it do so at the expense of authenticity, sacrificing profundity to achieve crowd-pleasing effects (as Variety's comparisons to earlier Italian hits suggest)? In the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle praised the film lavishly, comparing it to Cinema Paradiso and writing, "The new masterpiece is not quite as magical as the earlier one, nor as sprawling and all-encompassing, but it's also not as messy and uneven. Malèna is smaller and more perfect, and it covers a wider emotional range." Tornatore had followed the international success of Cinema Paradiso with a steady stream of films throughout the 90s but after Malèna he slowed down, waiting until 2006 to release another movie. Bellucci, meanwhile, caught fire, appearing in a variety of art films and blockbusters in the early 00s, including the Matrix sequels and the notorious Irreversible. Apropos of nothing, except that it's an interesting anecdote, the Mafia apparently razed the production's sets during shooting.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...
Sibling Rivalry; October 26, 1990
starring Kirstie Alley, Bill Pullman, Carrie Fisher, Ed O'Neil, Sam Elliot, Jamie Gertz, Scott Bakula
written by Martha Goldhirsh
directed by Carl Reiner

Story: A beleaguered housewife cheats on her husband with a man who drops dead; she flees the hotel room, a drapery salesman thinks he killed the lover, a cop is friends with the salesman and falls in love with the housewife's friend, somebody in there is related to someone else...

From the advertising to the casting, this one screams early 90s. Alley was hot off "Cheers" while Ed O'Neil was making it big as Al Bundy on "Married with Children". Bill Pullman was on the cusp of his romantic comedy ubiquity and Fisher was making a new career as a wisecracking supporting actress, alongside her other new career as a writer (see Remembering the Movies 9/10 - 9/16). The synopsis above suggests the knottiness of the screwball plotting, while the title adds an extra twist - wait, there's a sibling in there somewhere, alongside the corpse, confused identity, and romantic entanglements? Desson Howe, knocking the movie in the Washington Post, played on its tagline, proposing "Two final questions: Where is director Carl Reiner in all of this? The man once rubbed shoulders with comic greats Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and directed All of Me and The Man With Two Brains. And what are the chances of a personal Reiner ad that says 'I DID IT AND BOY AM I SORRY'?"

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
La nuit de la mort; October 22, 1980
starring Isabelle Goguey, Charlotte de Turckheim, Betty Beckers, Michel Debrane, Ernest Menzer
written by Raphaël Delpard, Richard Joffo
directed by Raphaël Delpard

Story: Martine, a young woman frustrated by a long stretch of unemployment, is relieved to finally find work at a nursing home. The residents strike her as a bit eccentric and eventually she finds out why: they hope to live forever by feasting on the flesh of the young.

From the footage available online, the film seems intensely disturbing, with its haunting score and gruesome gore: a coven of silent oldsters calmly and slowly cut open a dead girl and noisily remove her innards, chomping down on them as the unsuspecting Martine returns from a date. Not knowing the plot when I watched the film, I suspected Martine would stumble across the late-night snack, gasp, and then admonish the elderly residents: "Why did you start without me? I told you I'd be back by 11!" But no, she is not one of them; she's one of us, in the sense suggested by the film's tagline: "You are what they eat." On DVD Drive-In, Jason McElreath notes the horror film's apt choice of setting: "While no new ground is covered, be it for a Euro cult or horror picture in general, NIGHT OF DEATH! does cleverly spin the preconceived notion that nursing homes are places where people go to die, into an effectively creepy and atmospheric tale of terror. Deadlock House is not so much an assisted living facility as it is a haven. One where a select few partake in an ancient, grizzly tradition that allows its participants to live life long past their golden years. Of course, somebody has to die in order to accomplish such a feat but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a couple of eggs, or in this case, heads."

Watch a scene.

40 years ago...
The Wizard of Gore; October 23, 1970
starring Ray Sager, Judy Cler, Wayne Ratay
written by Allen Kahn
directed by Herschell Gordon-Lewis

Story: A psychic magician with an intensely gory stage act is investigated by a talk-show host and her boyfriend.

Montag the Magnificent kills everyone who comes onstage with him - or so it seems, with chainsaws, guillotines, and knives graphically employed - yet they walk off unharmed after every performance. Then they show up, later in the night, dead. This is what leads the two protagonists to investigate, and what they discover is a plan for mass murder through magic - will they be able to overcome this modern-day Mabuse? Images Journal notes, "The surrealism of the storyline is bolstered with reality-challenging elements from beginning to end. Montag's introductory speech challenges the audience (including the viewers of this very film) to prove that they're actually watching the show and not merely dreaming themselves in the theater. No explanation whatsoever is given for the origins of Montag's powers; his goals and motivations are similarly obscure. Montag is seen performing a nightly ritual in which the bodies of his victims are spirited off to a secret location inside a cemetery; no rationale is ever offered. And while many mystery-thrillers have offered a 'nothing is what it seems' finale, it's never been done in quite the way Lewis does it here. " In the introduction to the original trailer, a man stands before a curtain and delivers an over-verbose warning, declaring this "a new movie, geared to the 1970s" (even though his demeanor and style suggest 1955 more than 1970), continuing, "For those of you who appreciate this type of cinematic art, you will see some of the most startling scenes of their type every filmed. But for those of you with heart conditions..." Remade in 2007 with Crispin Glover as the evil genius.

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
The Magnificent Seven; October 23, 1960
starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn
written by William Roberts, Walter Bernstein, Walter Newman (from the screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni)
directed by John Sturges

Story: Seven gunfighters are hired by a Mexican village to battle bandits in an epic showdown.

The consensus seems to be summed up by Pete Croatto, reviewing the film much after the fact for AMC: "It's not a great movie, but it is a cool movie." The film has a lot to live up to of course, as it was a Western (in both senses) remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai. The story made an easy transplant to the Wild West and no wonder; Kurosawa, long considered one of the most "Western" Japanese directors, was a great admirer of John Ford. The American remake has a great cast, most of whom had the bulk of their careers ahead of them - look down the list and, aside from Brynner, you'll see names that would pop up continually in tough-guy cinema throughout the 60s and 70s: McQueen, Bronson, Wallach, Coburn. Despite the film's reputation as a big success (and indeed, it spurred several sequels), a 1960 Time Magazine review tells a different story, lamenting, "Greeted by a flurry of inattention from the critics, this western has been hastily remaindered into the neighborhood circuits in the hope that it will soon get profitably lost in the Christmas rush. The loss will be bearable: Seven is not a great picture—not nearly as good as the Japanese Magnificent Seven (TIME, Dec. 10, 1956), the brilliant episode of chivalry, directed by Japan's Akira (Rashomon) Kurosawa, from which it is adapted. Nevertheless, it is the best western released so far in 1960, a skillful, exciting, and occasionally profound contemplation of the life of violence."

Watch the trailer.

60 years ago...
High Tension; October 23, 1950
starring Signe Hasso, Alf Kjellin
written by Herbert Grevenius (from Peter Valentin's novel During Twelve Hours)
directed by Ingmar Bergman

Story: A young woman tries to get away from her husband, a communist spy.

Shot back to back with the excellent Summer Interlude, the anti-Red High Tension has experienced a rare double reputation of obscurity (hardly anyone's seen it) and notoriety (there's a reason hardly anyone's seen it). Some quotes from Ingmar Bergman on this film: "There's nothing in it I like at all. I think it's disgusting." "Few of my films do I feel ashamed of or detest for various reasons. This Can't Happen Here [another title for High Tension] was the first one; I completed it accompanied by violent inner opposition. The other is The Touch. Both mark the very bottom for me." "I was dead tired and ill; I only made it for the money." (see here and here for more) Sounds horrible - which of course only makes me want to see it all the more. That said, poor Bergman is surprisingly poor - when he had a dud it was really a dud. Being as prolific he was, he was bound to launch some clunkers and they often come not in the middle of fallow periods but squeezed between masterpieces (see, or rather don't see, the terrible All These Women which was produced between The Silence and Persona). Still, I will jump at the chance to watch this if I come across it.

Watch the opening.

70 years ago...
Seven Sinners; October 25, 1940
starring Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Broderick Crawford
written by Ladislas Fodor, John Meehan, Harry Tugend (from Laslo Vadnai's short story)
directed by Tay Garnett

Story: In an exotic locale, a sultry troublemaker winds up seducing a naval officer whose superiors try to keep them separate.

Though the much-cited precedent is the previous year's Destry Rides Again, a Western with Dietrich cast against James Stewart, Seven Sinners' plot would seem to bare a strong resemblance to Dietrich's Morocco ten years earlier (along with a number of other Sternberg-directed Dietrich vehicles). A decade in, she was still playing the irresistible femme fatale, and pulling it off. Here one of her numbers is "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" whose peculiar intonations would be echoed in somewhat different terms by Ben Gazzara nearly forty years later (in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). For DVD Times, Stuart Galbraith IV sees Seven Sinners as "very representative of Universal's would-be A-picture output of the early-1940s. Around this time the studio became something of a 'last stop' for fading Paramount stars: Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and W.C. Fields all made the uneasy transition from the European glamour of Paramount to the sausage factory that was Universal at the time." Still, he commends the film as entertaining. Interesting casting of a young, slim Wayne, who appears on the video cover as almost a William Holden-lookalike. (If you really want to see Wayne play the plaintive, pathetic lover boy watch his amusing cameo in the classic 1933 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Baby Face).

Watch Marlene sing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby."

80 years ago...
L'Age d'Or; October 28, 1930
starring Gaston Modot, Lya Lys
written by Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí (inspired in part by the Marquis de Sade)
directed by Luis Buñuel

Story: A documentary about scorpions begins...and then suddenly men are on an island fighting, watched over by the skeletal remains of long-dead bishops...we're at a bourgeois party where a woman sucks the toe of a statue, and a man defenestrates cows, trees and (more) bishops...an extensive orgy is wrapping up, and out of the decadent palace crawls the ringleader, who just happens to be...

With the "story" shifting gears every few minutes, L'Age d'Or - The Golden Age - plays like a one-man exercise in the Consequences parlor game (where one person takes up another person's narrative, only knowing the last line of the previous portion). Another similarity is to that old Surrealist pastime of entering a cinema and leaving only after you realized what was going on onscreen (then going to the next theater and immersing yourself in the mystery once again). After recent viewings, I think this may be my favorite Buñuel, still flavored with the 20s surrealism he cut his teeth on, yet extended to (and sustaining) a feature length. There is a propulsive, yet almost dreamy, dynamism to the flow of images. In addition to the fetishistic sensuality, anticlericism, and pronounced irrationality, there is a playful mix-up of purposes: is this a documentary? a work of fiction? an abstracted stream-of-consciousness? Ed Gonzalez reflected upon the film's political implications and visual aesthetic in Slant upon the DVD release, observing that while "the scorpion itself is not unlike the meddlesome bourgeois of the film's second half, the arachnid comes to represent any and all mechanisms of oppression. According to Buñuel, the Surrealists 'made very clear distinctions between good and evil, justice and discrimination, the beautiful and the ugly.' Buñuel scoffed at critics who praised his visual aesthetic. He said it was non-existent, perhaps because the Surrealists were self-named anti-visualists. And though there is no denying the potency of his images, Buñuel was more a master theorist: a purveyor of anti-oppressive codes and signs." Buñuel would direct one more film, this time a straight-out documentary (though no less surreal), Land Without Bread in 1933, before virtually disappearing for almost two decades, during which this and the previous Un Chien Andalou were often credited to collaborator Salvador Dalí (who apparently had hardly any involvement with L'Age d'Or).

Watch the film.

90 years ago...
Convict 13; October 27, 1920
starring Buster Keaton
written & directed by Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Story: Going from leisurely golfer to desperate prisoner due to a misunderstanding, Buster finds himself caught up in a jailbreak.

Occasionally humorous but not altogether uproarious Keaton short. The first few minutes are not very funny, but the pace picks up once Buster is mistaken for a prisoner, at which point the gags rely as much on the comic's deadpan personality as the situations (he calmly marches in front of the pursuing policeman and, as if hypnotized, they follow suit; he flees his would-be captors and shuts himself in behind a door - the prison door, which he registers with his usual dazed stoicism). The ending turns violent, with a prison riot gone deadly, but then it all ends rather lamely with the "it's-all-a-dream" gambit (used rather more effectively down the line in Keaton's Sherlock Jr.). Eric Penumbra praises the movie on Prisonmovies.net, observing, "Not only is this Buster Keaton offering funnier than many more recent prison comedies (including the various Laurel and Hardy prison movies that followed soon after), it has the advantage of only having to sustain itself for 20 minutes… so there is little time for any audience to get restless."

Watch the film.

100 years ago...
Under the Stars and Bars; October 27, 1910
starring Francis Ford
directed by Gaston Méliès

Story: An injured veteran of the Confederacy returns home to his broken town, Vicksburg, in the wake of the Civil War.

Two lesser-known brothers of famed directors collaborated on this film, which is hard to find but apparently still exists out there somewhere. Sibling to the more famous Georges, Gaston Méliès had an adventurous film career of his own. He collaborated with Georges on many of the early productions like A Voyage to the Moon; in the early 20th century he struck out on his own, distributing his brother's films in the U.S. and then making his own stabs at documentaries (most of which were not initially successful). His adventures continued into old age, as he married in his sixties, founded the Star Film Ranch in San Antonio, Texas when he was already sixty-five and eventually took up globetrotting in a hunt for documentary subjects. He died in Corsica, from food poisoning, at seventy. Under the Stars and Bars was produced at Star Film Ranch and starred John Ford's brother, Francis. Apparently Francis was a bit of a prodigy, at least according to his little brother - "he was really a good artist, a wonderful musician, a hell of a good actor, a good director—Johnny of all trades—and master of all; he just couldn’t concentrate on one thing too long. But he was the only influence I ever had, working in pictures." (Senses of Cinema - great article, check it out.) On NitrateVille.com (near the bottom of the thread), a moderator describes the film: "Everything is in long shot or even further back. There is no cutting inside any scene at all. D.W. Griffith it ain't, but it is at least good to know that this Méliès Texas short and now one other survive." Under the Stars and Bars was one of a number of early silents taking the Civil War as their subject, most fascinatingly to 1910 filmmakers and audiences, the Civil War was not ancient but living history - one aspect that makes The Birth of a Nation, despite its many cringeworthy features, still so riveting today.

A picture is miraculously available, but no video could be found - and on top of that, no video for anything by Gaston Méliès; even footage of Francis Ford, who appeared in a number of his brother John's films, proved difficult.

9 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

The Magnificent Seven is one of the most watchable westerns I've seen, it's not a favorite by far and it has the disadvantage to be a remake of one of the best movies of all time.
Another one of the best films of all time is "L'Age D'Or" and how you wrote about it was perfect, this is my favorite Buñuel, no doubt about it, many think it shades in comparison to "Un chien andalou", but I think this attempt at plot was better than the still perfect surrealist short feature. Being this pieces you write about the day they were premiered, it's curious that you didn't write about how it went down and how it was never shown again.
I wanted to see the Convict 13 short, but I have no time, maybe some other day.
Good work as always.

MovieMan0283 said...

Jaime, funny I didn't - I find the approach I take to these write-ups is kind of random, but it would have been good to include that (especially since there will be other opportunities to write about Bunuel's larger career). Not sure why it slipped my mind...

L'Age d'Or is very probably my favorite Bunuel, who is probably my weakest link in the Great Auteur chain - I just don't respond to his work the way most film fans seem to. Not sure why - my review of The Exterminating Angel gets into it a bit, in terms of that specific film.

Sam Juliano said...

L'AGE D'OR is one of the great ones by one of the cinema's most profound surrealists; THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is aobviously one of the most eternally popular titles, and MALENA features of the most gorgeous of all Ennio Morricone's scores. (which nearly steals the film in fact)

As always, a diverse lot and a passionate showcase.

Sam Juliano said...

Great to see that Melies and early Bergman features here too!

MovieMan0283 said...

Amazing how ubiquitous Morricone is, isn't it? And fun to read about the Bergman, if not to see it...

Joe Thompson said...

When TCM showed "The Magnificent Seven" James Coburn, iirc, told a wonderful story about how Steve McQueen did everything possible to bug the heck out of pompous Yul Brynner. The movie is ok, but not as good as "Seven Samurai." The best all-star western from the 1960s is "The Professionals."

"L'Age d'Or" upset people in film class, but not as much as "The Andulsian Dog."

All of Keaton's silent shorts are good.

Very interesting about "Under the Stars and Bars." Gaston Melies made a lot of movies in the US. It's sad the survival rate of all cinema from the silent period is so poor. Francis Ford was a great character who helped get his brother John started in the industry.

MovieMan0283 said...

I'll look up that anecdote - sounds fun.

As for Stars & Bars, as I'll be saying in an entry later this week, on a bizarre Italian comedy, doing this series has led me to a lot of fascinating films and people I hadn't heard of before. Gaston & Francis definitely fall into that category; I haven't read the whole Senses of Cinema article yet but what I did was really interesting. Big age gap between John & Francis too - I remember hearing that it was Francis who brought the younger Ford out to Hollywood in the first place; I know John was a Klansman in Birth, was Francis too?

Joe Thompson said...

Francis was already a star and I think a director by the time "Birth of a Nation" was in production, so I'm pretty sure he wasn't a klansman.

There's a great story that Francis ran away from home and lied about his age to join the army during the Spanish-American war, but got sent home when the truth was discovered. When World War Two started, he wasn't working much, mostly small parts in John's movies, so he dyed his hair black and lied about his age and joined the army. He was doing fine in training camp until a mail call, when he received his Social Security check. He got sent home again. It may not be true, but it's a good story.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yeah, I looked it up on IMDb and no KKK so presumably he had better things to do at the time!

That's not a good story, that's a friggin' awesome story! Not sure what the SS age was in the early 40s but if it was 65 it probably couldn't be true. Still, I can see Ford using that to taunt Wayne on set ("gee, even my 60-year-old brother found a way in, ya chickenhawk...")