Monday, February 15, 2016

Fragments of Cinephilia, Pt. VI


Short thoughts on: Stanley Kramer • Howard HawksVivre sa vieAnatomy of a Murder • John FordThe Hunchback of Notre DameMouchetteYoung Mr. LincolnOrdet Jules and Jim

Here we are with another collection of IMDb comments, my sixth in about as many years (albeit my second in two months, so maybe you can expect more in the near future). As we move back in time, here we reach the period where I was really posting on those board prolifically, watching many movies and eager to share my thoughts in the primary forum I used at the time. While the previous (or should I say, chronologically, next?) round-up featured a lot of European films, here I seem to be at least as much focused on American classics. What do you think of these movies? Do you agree/disagree with my judgments? Since this was almost a decade ago, I'm not sure how frequently I concur with my conclusions, but it is interesting to revisit these earlier opinions.


On Stanley Kramer (comment from August 4, 2006):

Poor guy.

His critical reputation seems to have been smashed to bits. I read in another post how someone's father knew him and said he would prattle on endlessly about how he gave Sidney Poitier his start, how he tackled this and that message, etc. Well, I can see why he was so defensive since a few years after he achieved so much success his work was held up by younger critics as proof of the bankruptcy of "respectable" postwar American cinema. I suppose much of his work doesn't really hold up and has become dated, but I enjoyed Judgement at Nuremberg a great deal. Just seems like the backlash against him was a bit stronger than necessary.

Worse, though, I think is the discredit William Wyler seems to have attained from the "auteur" types. Just look at The Best Years of Our Lives...it may not express a personal vision like the work of Hitchcock, Capra, or Ford, but it's clearly the work of a top director, one highly skilled, intelligent, and creative. But I digress.

On Howard Hawks (August 15, 2006):

In my opinion, Hawks is an auteur/great filmmaker almost by accident. Unlike Hitchcock, Kubrick, or Scorsese who have conscious styles which immediately mark the work as their own, Hawks seems to have approached the material more with the sentiment of "how best can it be told" rather than "how best can I express myself or my views or my style" in this material. He was less artsy than John Ford, who bares more resemblance to Hawks than many other directors, tending towards unpresumptuous angles and a barreling, faster pace in the delivery of his scenes. So if all he was trying to do was tell the stories he was assigned (or chose) in the best, most natural way possible, why is he a great director? Having recently watched Scarface I would offer this up: he was simply better at it than anyone else. And this ability to peel back any stylistic excess and allow the raw, pulpy appeal of his material to shine through is, I think, what characterizes Hawks' work, gives it its personality, and places him as a director above some of his contemporaries who were mere craftsmen.

On Vivre sa vie (August 19, 2006):

I'm a little confused... What exactly do you mean when you say you respect Godard's artistic talent, but didn't care for the style? With Godard, so much of what he has to say as an artist is inherent in the style. What was left for you to appreciate if you didn't like his presentation? Or was it more of, wow that's really different & original and I can see something there but it kind of alienates me?

As for myself, I love Godard. While this was not one of my favorites, I saw it again recently and got more into it. I don't really like the opening where the characters' backs are to the camera and I'm not sure what he's trying to achieve when he constantly moves the camera side-to-side during a conversation later in the film. Otherwise, I find the style very engaging. My favorite scene is the one in which Anna Karina dances around the pool lounge by herself as everyone ignores her; I've come to realize that, unlike certain other Godard films, you can't really appreciate this one by admiring its surface (a film like Band of Outsiders wears its mood on its sleeve, and its style and substance are almost one and the same). There's much more there and you have to dig for it so in that sense it's more like an Antonioni picture, though in most other ways it's not.

Antonioni, Ozu, and Bresson are all considered difficult directors, all in very different ways from Godard (and each other) so any of them would be worth checking out if you want to "expand your horizons." I think Blow-Up, Tokyo Story, or Pickpocket are some of their relatively more accessible films so you may want to start there. Good luck.

(And as for Godard, he seems to me a very visceral filmmaker; either you connect with him or you don't -- but he's got a lot of different films so try a few more before you decide)

On Anatomy of a Murder (August 26, 2006):

I was entertained throughout and it had a lot to recommend, but I understand why some people would consider it a mess. First of all, it's way too long. I wasn't bored, but there was so much that seemed unnecessary and distracting...Duke Ellington's cameo, to name just one egregious example. Definitely NOT a tight movie by any means.

More importantly, there was something really, well, "off" about it. Anatomy of a Murder treats rape more flippantly than any other film I've ever seen; to the point where I was expecting there to be a twist, i.e. she wasn't raped. In fact the film gives us so much food for suspicion and so little information about what actually happened, that I was surprised, like many other viewers, when the movie ended so anticlimactically. Also odd was the casualness with which Stewart feels he can ask the dead man's daughter to consider him a rapist, and then the ease with which she appears in court to reveal him as the rapist. And, it bears repeating, the joky, easy manner in which every character in the film, including Lee Remick herself, discusses the brutal rape of the wife. At one point the judge even says something to the effect of, "Stop laughing! There's nothing funny about a pair of underwear which led to one man's death and may lead to the other being executed!" Gee, let's forget all about the girl who the underwear belonged to!

The characters in the movie seemed way too casual about pretty much everything that happened. It was easy to watch and was entertaining, so I can't say I'm sorry I rented it, but I fail to see the overall point of this venture.

On The Hunchback of Notre Dame (August 28, 2006):

I just saw this film for the first time and I can recommend it for Laughton's performance alone...it is poignant without the slightest touch of sentimentality. The direction is also quite good and the sets look wonderful. But then there's the writing. Don't get me wrong -- the movie actually has some humorous moments throughout but it makes one of the cardinal mistakes of the 30's Hollywood talkies -- relying too much on dialogue. Story points and morals are hammered home again and again, endlessly, in moments that make us cringe today. From the constant harping on the printing press and its historical significance to the long exchanges between characters leaving nothing to the viewers' imaginations, it's really too bad more of the story couldn't be told visually. I think Dieterle would have been up to the task and the scene in which Quasimodo shyly woos Esmerelda in the bell tower amongst the heavens...well, it's a small masterpiece. Does anyone else feel like I do or did the overwriting not bother you? From a social point of view, I have to admit the constant veiled references to antifascism (the persecution of the gypsies, the destruction of books, etc.) are quite interesting...I wonder if this film came under HUAC's fire 10 years later, as I know It's a Wonderful Life did. But that's another thread.

On John Ford (August 29, 2006):

John Ford films are so beautiful it hurts. Just had to get that off my chest.

On Mouchette (September 26, 2006):

I had a mixed response to Mouchette. There was much to admire, and in many ways, it IS a more accessible film than Au Hasard Balthazar, if for no other reason than that it sticks with the one character we care about more consistently than in the film about a donkey.

(Spoilers ahead)
I knew the ending in advance, so maybe that plays a part in my reaction, but rather than feeling moved or having a sense of transcendent spirituality, I mostly felt weary when the film was over. And not in the sense of "gee, I'm glad that's over" but emotionally tired from the tug-of-war Bresson plays with us. Often his distancing techniques kept me from fully feeling the character's emotion and then when I felt I was getting used to it, I was confronted with a scene or a moment in which this distancing feels not only cold but cruel, manipulative in its own way. There are always inherent problems in representing cruelly in a film, or any work of art. Spielberg's Schindler's List goes too far in one direction, I think, when it makes me feel the death and pain of its characters so forcefully I almost come to value this pain as an aesthetic experience...certainly a dangerous game to play with the audience (it reminds me of Truffaut's argument that war films can never be completely true to their subject because cinema automatically romanticizes its subject matter).

Bresson would appear to go too far in the other direction, nobly refusing to manipulate us through music or cutting, but allowing this nobility to become its own certain cruelty, when we are stuck regarding Mouchette's abuse from the outside. At least that's how I felt. Intellectually and instinctively I know I do not want her to be raped, and then when she is, I feel a sinking sense of my own apathy. Even as I make this argument I'm seeing some justification in Bresson's method: perhaps his goal is to make us aware of this very apathy. In some ways, we are made to walk in Mouchette's shoes (I never felt that I didn't understand where she coming from) but in other ways we are put in her tormenter's shoes, often pushed to view her just as coldly and distantly as everyone else in the movie. And the final culprit is Bresson himself...creating a character so hurt and with such potential for identification (this actress has one of the most shattering faces and presences I've ever seen in a character) then standing by somewhat distantly as she experiences pain and isolation and watching casually as she kills herself, staring blankly at the water and pumping up the soundtrack before presenting us with "The End." Interesting how in the course of this questioning, it's come to sound as if I'm justifying Bresson's tactics. Maybe I am. But at the same time, given what I'm constantly told he is trying to do, this reading of the film feels to me more subversive than laudatory. But one things for certain...this film won't be leaving my mind any time soon, and that is an accomplishment.

And one last note: J. Hoberman writes in his review of the film that he has no tolerance for viewers who don't "get" Bresson and that to miss the point of this director is to miss the point of cinema. I'm happy the "grace" of these films is immediately apparent to him, but I stand by the fact that it offers a challenge to most viewers. Ignoring the challenge, turning away from the director on shallow grounds, is certainly worthy of approbation. But grappling with this challenge, considering it, and allowing the possibility that perhaps there is something offensive in Bresson's attitude towards his characters (even if it's conceptually brilliant as well) and his use of their suffering to achieve "grace" for the viewer...well, I don't find anything wrong with this questioning.

On Young Mr. Lincoln (September 28, 2006):

Why this is a great movie...

There are many reasons but a few stick out in my mind, all relating to the character and his presentation.

1. Lincoln is no goody two shoes, nor is he is an innocent naif. He comes off as homespun, genuine, unpretentious, modest, and idealistic. All those qualities are there. But he's also sharp, clever, canny, and unafraid to cheat or manipulate a little bit to achieve the higher good. Morally, he's a bit ambiguous and he's certainly no Capra hero (at least not a pre-George Bailey Capra hero) - unlike Mr. Smith, he always knows what he's up against and would rather play the game than stand on noble principle but be defeated. This is not to say he has no feelings, or that everything he does is calculated. At the same time, he's self-conscious, fully aware of life and death and knows that good does not automatically triumph in the world. He's a politician in the best sense of the word (and that sense is used rarely).

2. The movie's genius lies in its ability to present Lincoln the historical, mythical hero out of his usual context. It allows us to take everything we could take from a more traditional historical portrait, but without the obviousness of a Civil War story; furthermore, the power of that traumatic historical era remains all the more potent for sitting offscreen, hinted at by the brewing storm at the end, the occasional bit of music (the hymn in the beginning, The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the end, the snatches of Dixie throughout), and by occasional references to mankind's darker side (the lynch mob, the violence, etc). There's never a moment where we aren't aware of Lincoln's historical future, but yet the hints never seem too obvious; they're always at home in the film's context of 1837.

3. The subtle way in which Lincoln's character is established, that of an outsider who is crafty enough to use that outsider status to appeal to everyone. He's neither fully at home in the world of the poor (he can talk to them, but ultimately he's a well-dressed lawyer with prospects) nor the rich (he comes from a common background and is a bit too mystical and idealistic for their tastes) - yet he knows how to engage with both worlds and use them for his benefit. Once again, we see a Lincoln who is not entirely wholesome, nor a pompous fool. He knows how to play the game, but he has principles and he uses the game to achieve those principles.

Ford's direction is of course fantastic, as is the cinematography, the writing, and all the other elements. I think perhaps my favorite thing in the movie is Fonda's performance. Without it, the film wouldn't work for a second. But he achieves the ambiguity of Lincoln's nature, his ambivalence about achieving prestige, and his good humor in the face of melancholy, always allowing us to see what Lincoln thinks and feels without ever completely letting us inside: a masterful performance, straddling the line between obviousness and obscurity, without ever coming down on either side, achieving a subtle and sure sense of character which imbues the whole picture with life and gravity.

On Ordet (September 26, 2006):

I had trouble with the ending, but Dreyer handled it so well as a director that I went with it. Notice how (unless I'm mistaken) the close-ups of the girl represent the only time he brings us closer to a character without moving the camera; in fact even the cuts between the coffin and the other people in the room are radical for the film. And the way we hold on the body for so long, barely detecting movement...only in the last week have I seen The Passion of Joan of Arc and this, and on the basis of these 2 films I can say Dreyer was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. An obvious point perhaps, but I have difficulties with some of the filmmakers he's lumped in with (Bresson, Ozu - for different reasons) yet have no trouble "getting into" his movie. It reminded me of Bergman a lot, actually, though perhaps I should say vice-versa since it preceded Bergman's major work. And of course it has its very own flavor, courtesy of its highly individual and talented auteur.

On Jules & Jim and Francois Truffaut's "accessibility" (October 2, 2006):

I first saw Jules & Jim when I was about 15 and I think it was the first of the classic foreign films I was watching at the time that left me underwhelmed. I'd seen and been charmed by 400 Blows but was expecting a giddy romantic, bittersweet film and was surprised by the unsympathetic nature of Catherine's character and the distance I often felt from what was supposed to be so "magical." I saw it again years later, was more engaged (particularly by the middle section) and decided I actually preferred it to 400 Blows. Since then I've gone back and forth...on both films.

Today I saw it screened at Lincoln Center and have to say my ambivalence remains. It's much easier to get swept up in it on the big screen (and I hadn't realized how wide it is on video!) but this was the first time I noticed how distracting the subtitles are in a film which moves so fast and has so much dialogue. This is especially the case when the viewer literally can't see everything when just focusing on the titles at the bottom (luckily having seen it a few times, I didn't always have to focus on the text).

More than ever, I concluded that Catherine, by the end at least, is a monster. I agree with what Jim says to her, and her tiresome reliance on her own fickle emotions as the barometer of all that is true and worthy in the world does grow deeply tiresome (as I believe it's supposed to).

It's funny, but despite his reputation as one of cinema's warmest and most engaging filmmakers, I find Truffaut to be someone whose world you have to make an effort to enter (unless you're on the same wavelength as him to begin with). Unlike Godard, Welles, or Spielberg - to name 3 diverse artists - who tend to grab ahold of you and yank you into their universe, Truffaut more or less presupposes an affection for his setting and characters (similar to the New Wave's heroes Renoir & Rossellini) - and if it's not already there it's upon the viewer to do the work to see what he (and all his admirers) are on about. When I stopped thinking about its meaning and what it was SUPPOSED to be doing, and let myself go with the flow of the story, the imagery, and the worlds both 400 Blows and Jules et Jim do work for me. But I find it's almost a conscious decision I have to make (paradoxically, a conscious decision not to be too conscious) to get into his work.

Hope this was clear...anybody else agree with my sentiments?

2 comments:

MichaelJacksonPollock said...

Thanks for that.

- On Ford's films:

John Ford's films (the half dozen I've seen at least) are indeed so beautiful it hurts.

My life story but I think the "Let's go home, Debbie" cut in The Searchers will forever remain an experience of a mystical nature for me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ci3a4zc-40I).

Hadn't even noticed there was an ever so subtle cut between the moment Ethan picks up Debbie on the ground and the moment he lifts her up in the air.
Then someday I was told about it and what it meant. That before the cut Ethan doesn't know if he's going to kill Debbie-the-Indian or hug Debbie-the-niece and that after the cut he's decided to accept her as both and out of love for her is willing to make peace with all Indians.
And then I rewatched the scene again and quite simply burst into tears in front of such beauty.
First, because in an infinitesimal amount of time is contained a world of compassion and an epiphany of life-changing proportions for John Wayne's character: the man he is after the cut is not the man he was before.
Secondly, because it was the most subtle, understated, unpretentious cut possible and yet in hindsight it feels absolutely necessary and almost obvious. Once seen you can't conceive of that scene not having this cut here.

- On Young Mr. Lincoln:

Fonda does indeed make the film. I find he carried this role with him and a part of his "young Abe persona" in every subsequent role he played until Leone, well... we all know what he did.

And how tasteful of Ford not to have shown the reverse shot of the acclaiming crowd in the scene after the trial where young Abe walks towards the light and through the door to meet his destiny and become "the people". Tears in my eyes again.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh wow, I LOVE that interpretation of the cut. Thank you.