Lost in the Movies: September 2010

Waltz with Bashir (Best of the 21st Century?)

#87 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

The movie opens with black dogs, growling and barking as they race down a busy city street - hounds from hell whose presence puts the lie to the calm bustle around them. They arrive at a certain apartment building, yelping loudly - and the man in the apartment knows they're yelping for him. Then he wakes up. This sequence was a dream, one inspired by his recollections of shooting dogs during an Israeli commando raid back in Lebanon of the early 80s. Now those dogs haunt his dreams, and in a sense the dreams are more real than the memories.

There have been many films about memory, and plenty of films about war, but Waltz with Bashir takes a unique approach to both. Firstly, there's the fact that it's animated - not exactly rotoscoped apparently, but drawn in accordance with taped interviews (fantasies, dreams, and flashbacks, of course, are simply animated). Secondly, while the movie is a documentary, it often plays like fiction, partly because of the animation (which allows past sequences to play less like History Channel "recreations" and more like narrative sequences) and partly because of the tightly unwinding dramatic structure. Finally, there's the conjunction of the two subjects - war and memory. The memory in question is individual, but it's also collective, and it's not just a matter of remembering the past but experiencing the present. When Ari Folman, the director and main character, returns to Israel on leave from the Lebanon War of the early 80s, he's shocked to find his peers dancing away in discos and ignoring the fact that a brutal war is unfolding just next door - and that men like him, their neighbors, friends, and relatives are fighting it. This doesn't have much application to Israel today, where the homefront has become the war zone, but it certainly applies elsewhere.

The Wind in the Willows - The Wild Wood

Part 3 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.

"And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listening to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fullness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment - that thing, which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from - the Terror of the Wild Wood!"

-from The Wild Wood
As the last entry proved, the River Bank contains multitudes...but it does not contain everything. Outside of its bounds lay the Wild Wood and the Wide World, both introduced briefly in the first chapter of Grahame's book. Mole asks his friend about the Wild Wood a few pages into the story, "waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water meadows on one side of the river." We detect a bit of unease in Rat's curt response: "We don't go there very much, we river-bankers." The conversation quickly turns to the denizens of the wood, and indeed the looming forest has a social significance as well as a geographical and psychological presence, but for now we will be focusing on the latter two. At any rate, Rat's subtle warning suffices for the time being, but as the seasons pass, Mole grows restless, and in the dead of winter, as his friend snoozes by the fireside, Mole gets up, throws on his scarf, and ventures forth to explore the Wild Wood. What he encounters is a dark night of the soul - a journey into the depths of both a physically hostile environment and a deeply rooted terror of the unknown, which will seize his imagination and bring him face to face with "that dread thing."

The Wild Wood is not just a place - it's a state of mind.

Michael Collins: Taking Liberties with History

From time to time, I will be sharing unpublished movie reviews or analyses written before this blog existed. As this past week was quite busy and I did not have time to prepare a new piece for Monday, it seemed like a good time to start! This essay, which examines historical accuracy in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) is a bit of a departure in style and subject for the site, but I think it might still be of interest - the topic of how, ethically, filmmakers should represent real-life incidents in their films is an evergreen issue. Share your own thoughts, on this film or on the broader subject, below.

When Neil Jordan defended his treatment of Michael Collins’ life in the film of the same name, he claimed, “It’s not a work of history, it’s not a historical document.” But then he went on to say, “The film is as accurate a dramatic reconstruction as I could make it.” The first statement is meant to defuse any potential critics, eagerly nitpicking at the film’s version of history. And it also clears the way for the second statement, hinting that Michael Collins may not be history, but it’s pretty damn close. Maybe it’s just me, but Jordan’s comments seem to suggest that details may be inaccurate, but the big picture’s all right. For this to be true, the details would have to be small enough not to impinge on the picture’s credibility. So any criticism of Jordan’s film as historical record (which he claims it’s not supposed to be, while hinting that it’s not far off) will have to be two-pronged. One is to examine the proverbial devil in the details, most essentially deciding which changes are important and which are relatively inconsequential. The second approach should focus on the “big picture,” the spirit of the film and the message it’s trying to convey. It’s certainly true that Michael Collins is not a work of history or a historical document, but is it true that it’s as accurate as Jordan can make it? That’s the claim that will have to be judged.

Remembering the Movies, Sep. 24 - 30

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

Gangsters, witches, and quite a few romantic roundelays are the featured attractions this week. As always, share your own thoughts below: have you seen any of these films? What did you think? What are your memories if you caught them in their original run? Any anecdotes about them you'd like to share? The floor is yours.

The Son (Best of the 21st Century?)

#85 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

Olivier is one of those men you can’t picture outside of the workplace. They’re very good at their job, often stern without being cruel, dignified yet something of a personal cipher. In Olivier’s case, when we see him off the job (he’s a carpenter whose task is to train apprentices) we discover that he lives alone, never takes off his uniform (blue overalls), and apparently does not watch television or read – leisure time is spent doing sit-ups. As played by Olivier Gourmet, and photographed by the Dardenne brothers (whose penchant for handheld close-ups here borders on self-parody, so claustrophobic is their cinematography), Olivier is initially hard to read, and one wonders if there is indeed anything to read, or if he’s simply content to be uncomplicated. There is, and he isn’t – or maybe he would be, but he hasn’t the chance to be simple. Having experienced a tragedy, and now forced to rub his nose in reminders of his loss, Olivier begins behaving erratically – although only we, in the audience know this; he’s still firmly enough in control to hide from public view his odd behavior (running through the shop, peeking around corners, leafing through files). Until a conversation with his ex-wife (Isabella Soupart) some ways into the movie we are not sure what lies behind all the eccentricities. Given the title, we suspect secret filial relations between Olivier and Francis (Morgan Marinne), a heavily medicated carpenter-in-training, whom Olivier initially refuses before accepting as an apprentice and then proceeding to stalk. But Francis is not Olivier’s son. Read no further if you want the film to take you by surprise. There are certainly benefits to both approaches (knowing who Francis is enables you invest more in Olivier’s strange behavior) but you can always go back and re-watch the movie with this knowledge in mind, so I suggest taking a break if you haven’t seen The Son.

The Wind in the Willows - The River Bank

Part 2 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations.

"'And you really live by the river? What a jolly life!'

"'By it and with it and on it and in it,' said the Rat. 'It's brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we've had together! Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it's always got its fun and its excitements.'"
-from The River Bank

The river is the central symbol of The Wind in the Willows, the story's anchor and motor (at least until Toad's automania commandeers the narrative). As that dual metaphor suggests, the river is deeply ambiguous. Early in the book, in that same speech just sampled, Rat introduces Mole to the world through his own eyes. Ratty's globe is divided into three spheres: the River Bank, the Wild Wood, and the Wide World. If the Wild Wood represents certain danger and threatening instability, while the Wide World connotes an unknowable, intimidatingly vast outside universe (which Rat dismisses with a wave of his hand and a curt "that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or to me"), then the River Bank must stand for stability, familiarity, and comfort, right? But this is not how we are introduced to it.

The book begins not at the shores of the bubbling river, not even in the fresh meadows of springtime, but underground in a den perhaps once cozy, but now merely oppressive. Mole is fussing about his subterranean home, attempting a spring-cleaning but increasingly distracted by a vernal tremor from above which penetrates "even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of discontent and longing." Accordingly, Mole throws down his paint bucket, gathers his coat, and burrows up through the dirt. "So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, 'Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow."

Mole strolls through the countryside, enjoying the fresh air and the verdant scenery, but it is not until he reaches the unseen - and unforeseen - river that his spirit truly stirs for the first time: "Never in his life had he seen a river before - this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver - glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble." It is this river, whose qualities as a subtle storyteller are shortly celebrated, which stands for the drama of this tale, helps Mole grow into a mature and skilled animal, and leads our furry friends to their auroral encounter with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

The River Bank - consisting of rushing river and the sturdy bank surrounding it - is both home and the call of adventure, new experience and old comfort, lazy pleasure and soul-shattering mysticism. Ultimately, the very life-force that draws Mole to the river in the first place may provide its own undoing, forcing a choice and then shrivelling itself into a little brook, babbling with pleasing familiarity but speaking of fleeting sensations that disappeared as quickly as a breeze in the willow leaves.

White Dog

The story of an attack dog re-trained by a black man, White Dog combines the sincerity of the animal picture, the heart of the "message" movie, and the rudimentary dynamism of the exploitation film into one powerful little package. Perhaps it was that last element, here understood as a genre niche rather than a marketing device, which unnerved the NAACP. In 1981 the organization cast doubt upon the film's potential influence (they seemed to believe it would result in an upsurge of the very phenomenon it seeks to discourage) and got Paramount Pictures to shelve the film, breaking writer/director Sam Fuller's heart. Indeed, a scene in which a truck crashes into a storefront does lean a bit too heavily on action-movie tropes, and a grisly killing (offscreen, but no less upsetting for it) makes the viewer temporarily question its necessity. But by the end of the film it's clear that Fuller is dead serious; however entertaining and inventive the finished product, White Dog is fundamentally earnest in its desire to investigate racism (in a mode more visceral than didactic). Perhaps the film's undoing was actually due to that very earnestness, an inability to treat race is a mere excuse for action sequences and iconic posturing.

Remembering the Movies: Sep. 17 - 23

Due to the enthusiastic response last week, "Remembering the Movies" will become a permanent fixture at The Dancing Image. Each Friday, I will briefly revisit ten films released 10 - 100 years ago this week. I'll offer pictures, describe the movie, quote a critic, and link up to a video clip (either a trailer, a scene, or sometimes the whole movie). Then it's all yours - what did you think of the films in question? Do you remember seeing any of them when they first came out? Any anecdotes you have about them or their making, which I didn't mention and you'd like to share? Respond below with any of the above.

Today, we've got gangsters, gorillas, and revolutionary rabbits whizzing past the window on our ride back through time...

Moolaadé (Best of the 21st Century?)

#83 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.

With its sun-dappled village huts, its jaggedly Gaudi-like mosque (topped with a 150-year-old ostrich egg), its gorgeously bright primary colors, its grins and laughter, Ousmane Sembene’s Mooladé is a film of immense good cheer. It is also a movie about female genital mutilation, in which the tortured deaths of several young girls are acknowledged, in which a husband whips his wife mercilessly in the public square, in which a man is murdered outright, in which a brutal system of female subjugation, social oppression, fearful superstition, and child abuse is maintained, exalted, and bloodily enforced. But Sembene’s film is neither superficially naive, nor self-importantly morose. It is manifestly the movie of an 81-year-old master, simple in presentation but echoing with depths, observing tragedy with a sad smile, and buffoonery with the indulgence of a satirist – affectionate but hardly gentle. Despite his knowledge of human weakness, despite his awareness of the power of the elders and the men and the female priestesses, Sembene offers up optimism, not the avoiding, weak kind but the earned kind, the kind that rests in reservoirs of strength, for which good humor is not a front but rather a manifestation of indomitable resilience and wisdom.

The Wind in the Willows - Introductions

Part 1 of a microseries devoted to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and its film and television adaptations. (This post was heavily revised 11/1)

"The Willow Wren was twittering his thin little song, hidden himself in the dark selvedge of the river bank. Though it was past ten o'clock at night, the sky still clung to and retained some lingering skirts of light from the departed day; and the sullen heats of the torrid afternoon broke up and rolled away at the dispersing touch of the cool fingers of the short midsummer night. Mole lay stretched on the bank, still panting from the stress of the fierce day that had been cloudless from dawn to late sunset, and waited for his friend to return."
-the first lines of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
A little over a century ago, in an England uneasily poised between Victoria and the Somme, a slender volume hopped into the hands of skeptical critics and a delighted public. It originated as a bedtime story told to Kenneth Grahame's young son, focusing at first on the misadventures of a proud and foolish Mr. Toad. The story began its formation as a comical odyssey, in which an amphibious and buffoonish Ulysses crisscrossed the countryside in drag, eventually vanquishing the rascally weasels and stoats in order to restore himself at his ancestral home. Yet as Mole, Rat, and Badger entered its pages, as room was made for the River Bank, the Wild Wood, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the call of the Wayfarer, the book took on a richer palette, a more wistful tone, earning the title The Wind in the Reeds (which, already the title of a W.B. Yeats collection, was eventually changed to The Wind in the Willows). The book resonated with Grahame's life, his disappointments and frustrations, his dreams and fears, but more importantly it resonated with readers, and it hasn't stopped resonating with them up through the present day.

The Fall of The Dancing Image

That's "Fall" as in "Autumn," not as in "Downfall." But hopefully I've got your attention.

With the change of season, I'm again shifting - and vastly expanding - my approach here. This will entail daily posting (at least during the week) and adherence to a schedule in which each day serves a different purpose. Here's what's to come, certainly through October, and probably through December:

MONDAY is reserved for a random posting, usually a movie review of at least five paragraphs. It makes sense to start the week with this reliable standby, since it's how I began the blog and is often what attracts the most attention. As always you're invited to share your thoughts and responses to the film in question.

TUESDAY is "series" day. It will be devoted to the latest entry in an ongoing series, each of which will probably have 5-10 chapters. First up is the long-awaited Wind in the Willows series, which will mostly be an examination of the themes in the book, but using references and multiple images from the various cinematic or televisual adaptations. After that, I have a number of ideas I'd like to explore: an episode guide (probably combining multiple episodes into each entry) of the enthralling German miniseries Heimat and its sequels, another adaptation series on Dickens' Great Expectations (this one would be focused more on the adaptations than the source), and an extended analysis of post-9/11 cinema, including fiction and documentary films dealing with that day, the ensuing War on Terror, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the next six weeks, however, it will be Wind in the Willows to start things off.

WEDNESDAY is going to offer an intro paragraph and link to my latest "Best of the 21st Century?" review, which will be posted in its entirety, as always, at Wonders in the Dark (the weekly - no longer biweekly - review will go up at 12 pm 5 pm on Tuesdays, with my cross-posting following the next morning). This series sees me moving through a list of the most acclaimed 00s movies, watching and reviewing all the ones I have not yet seen. At the rate of one-a-week, there's still a couple years left in the series (though I'll probably step up the pace at some point) so midweek will be reserved for some time.

THURSDAY is spotted for the second part of my blog-title. This year especially I've become enamored of the screen-caps, so every week this day will be devoted to sharing about 25-30 images from a given film. A wide variety of movies will be represented (Hollywood/art-house, live-action/animated, famed/obscure, all different genres and eras), and occasionally I'll take the opportunity to indulge in something a little more ambitious. This week, for example, I'll be offering a follow-up to the popular "Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker" by examining, in pictures, the character arc of another famous character from a different classic. Usually, however, the approach will be shorter and more informal.

FRIDAY actually began serving its new purpose last week. For those of you who missed it, I've kicked off a brand-new, very long-term project called "Remembering the Movies." Every week I'll look at the movies that came out 10 - 100 years ago (in decade increments), and then hopefully you'll offer your own recollections, opinions, or anecdotes of the films in question. It should be a lot of fun (if also a bit of work for me, at least initially) and I hope you enjoy it.

So that's what's in store as the air grows cool and the leaves fall from the trees. Enjoy your own autumn, and I hope you'll make The Dancing Image a frequent pit stop during this time. There will certainly be plenty of action to make it worth your while!

OCTOBER UPDATE Add a sixth day to the retinue: I have just initiated a new series on Sundays, at 12 o'clock noon: The Sunday Matinee. It will explore personal favorites of mine, beginning with European cinema of the 60s.

100 Years and Counting: Remembering the Movies, September 10 - 16

I have a proposal to make, and one distinctly more amenable (I hope) than the one Jack Nicholson is about to offer above. Every week (or if the project proves too strenuous, once a month, though I like the idea of a weekly basis better), we take a trip through the annals of film history, peeking in at what's playing in multiplexes in 2000, movie palaces in 1940, nickelodeons in 1910. I will present a still, a summary, and a bit of history (when possible) on movies which made their debut this week 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years in the past. The idea is that you'll offer your own thoughts, reflections, memories, or other miscellaneous musings on the movies presented (hopefully someone whose experience stretches further back than the average blogger's will occasionally make an appearance). And that, beyond that, you'll just enjoy the stroll down memory lane.

The inspiration for this endeavor comes from an NPR show on which our host guides us through a century of music, playing the hit singles from the past in ten-year increments. I can't offer the direct experience of that radio program - films are not as readily available as records. And even if I could, the movies would be too long to render such an exercise feasible. Instead, wherever possible (and, this week at least, it proved surprisingly doable) I'll link to a trailer, clip, or other video artifact, so that it isn't all talk. This way you can get a bit of the flavor of the moment, a snapshot of cinema history so to speak. I will also include a snippet from a contemporaneous critical assessment. In the end, I'd love to hear from anyone who's seen these films - particularly the more obscure ones. I've only caught two of this week's entries so I'm all ears.

Most importantly, right now anyway, I'd like to hear from you on the project itself. Are you interested? Is this something you'd like to see more of? I don't plan on continuing the series unless it seems worthwhile, so if you like the idea, speak up (lurkers included)! Now excuse me while I rev up the DeLorean...

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood

This directory was added in 2010, although the "Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood" series was completed in 2008. Its purpose is to organize links to this whole series into one convenient location. Now, whenever you click the label "microseries" any of my short-term series directory posts will pop up, one post per series from which you can go on to explore the various entries. Enjoy.

"Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers."

The series began in August 2008 and ran through October 2008. There are six posts total, and they represent a journey from gentle spoofing to merciless black satire, so while they can be read in any fashion, there is a certain sense to be had in following them in the order they appear here:

The Fly

This is an entry in Tony Dayoubs's David Cronenberg Blogathon. It contains spoilers.

Some horror concepts enter the popular consciousness and take on a life of their own. Oftentimes, these are cinematic manifestations of mythic or literary antecedents - the Frankenstein monster predated James Whale's 1931 film by over a century, though it's Boris Karloff whom readers tend to think of when re-visiting Mary Shelley's original. Other pop icons, like Dracula or the Wolf Man, are merely individual variations on long-known archetypes - while later, more human monsters like Norman Bates, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger have established an enormous cultural presence without transcending the films that made them famous. They are their personalities, not just their images; whereas older monsters seem to exist as pure icons, talismans of the unconsciousness. We know, without quite having to recognize on a personal level, a Dracula or a "Frankenstein" (the creature having taken on his creator's name in a kind of osmosis which The Fly would appreciate).

Likewise, perhaps, The Fly. Even if one does not know the behavior of the mutant insect-human or the plot surrounding it, one probably recognizes and shivers at the image, the idea. First crafted by George Langelaan as a short story, the narrative - losing little in translation - was first presented onscreen in the 1958 film of the same name. In the movie, a scientist builds a teleportation device but in the process of disintegrating/reintegrating him across space, a fly buzzes into the machine and the confused computer mixes up the two creatures. This results in a dreadful fly-headed human, whose inner state detoriates until finally, with his wife's help, he has himself "swatted" by a gigantic hydraulic press.

Certainly this is the version which gave the "fly and man switch body parts" concept its widespread recognition. Whether nicked for a "Ninja Turtles" villain or parodied on "The Simpsons", the fly-headed scientist is usually derived from the '58 version. David Cronenberg's 1986 remake is a bit knottier and headier, more difficult to pin down in a simple image or idea. It is itself a riff on the earlier film, so that's no surprise - yet it has its own distinct cultural legacy, and very much its own flavor. The two Flys share similar outlooks and tap into similar anxieties, but they take the material in different directions, demonstrating its potential for various tangents as well as differences between the 50s and the 80s (culturally and cinematically), and the distinctive stamp of David Cronenberg himself.

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