Lost in the Movies: Fragments of Cinephilia

Fragments of Cinephilia

Short thoughts on: The River • Stranger Than ParadiseL'Avventura  Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer • Howard Hawks • AFI lists • Wilford Brimley's physique

These fragments were originally comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) left by yours truly in his pre-blogging days. The jump into blogging was a good move, all things considered, but sometimes I miss the spontaneity and clarity offered by commenting. Since I don't really do capsules or random observations these days, I'd like to revive some of these comments here; they are generally quick and to the point, no padding. These selections (dating from September 2007 to June 2008) are the first 10 I found worth reprinting. Some are general musings, some are focused on a particular film or moment, some are just amusing observations (amusing to me anyway). If you enjoy this sort of thing, let me know and I'll continue from time to time; there's plenty more where these came from. I've already noted that I'd occasionally like to reproduce older writing on this blog - to give myself a break once in a while, if nothing else. Before blogging, IMDb was my movie home, so here's a walk down memory lane. Comments begin after the jump.

On my favorite cut in The River (spoilers):

A dissolve, actually: when Mr. John is speaking about how actually it's fortunate that "a child died as a child" and then in the middle of his pontificating, we dissolve to Harriet sitting at the table, in grief and misery. To me it underscores the phoniness of what the old man was saying. All his pseudo-wisdom means nothing to the heartbroken young girl who's just lost her brother. Later, it's Captain John who's able to comfort her.

I wonder if this is the effect Renoir was going for or if anyone else took it the same way. The rest of the film is so classically restrained that this dissolve had quite an unsettling effect, at least to me, almost as if it was an avant-garde moment. I liked it.

On Stranger Than Paradise:

-All the comparisons being drawn are with other indie films, all of which came after this one. What about the film's antecedents? It's impossible to miss the Ozu connection if you've seen any of his films. The film comes out of a long tradition of minimalism, with antecedents in the Beat movement, Zen Buddhism, and the run-down punk/post-punk aesthetic of the late 70's, early 80's. I don't think it's necessary to be familiar with all these things to enjoy the movie but if you see the film and are confused about why it was made the way it was, it might not be a bad idea to look into the past.

-It annoys me when people criticize the movie from a subjective standpoint (which is fine; as stated, it's not for everyone) and then try to make this personal reaction into an aesthetic critique. Actually, the movie is extremely well-controlled (it has to be, without coverage) and there's an exquisite precision in the way each shot is framed and how long it is held. Obviously, Jarmusch learned from the best (see Ozu again, above). If you're at all interested in film as an artistic medium, as a potential filmmaker, critic, historian, or just as someone who's interested, you should try to figure out why this film works for so many people.

-Was I the only one with a major crush on Eva by film's end? If parts of the film were potentially slow-going, she certainly gave it an extra kick. No close-ups, either. Must have been the accent.

Answering the question "Why do people hate on [L'Avventura] for it being too 'slow?'"

Based on my own divergent reactions, it's obvious to me that you have to be in a certain mood to appreciate some films (or books, paintings, really any form of art). Some people are in this "mood" (or frame of mind would perhaps be a better term) all the time, some none of the time, and most a mix. I've watched L'Avventura, drinking in the images, finding every frame packed with mystery and beauty. The other night I watched it when I wasn't really in the mood for it after all, and it was a chore to get through. I was restless, my mind on other things, probably should have watched something more narrative, [where] the story kind of propels you along. I can totally see how someone could just not be taken in at all and wonder what all the fuss is about. We're all wired different ways from one another, sometimes wired differently ourselves from day to day.

On set decorator Russell A. Gausman's 696 credits:

Not bad.

On Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer:

I didn't find most of the film particularly disturbing (perhaps I'm just desensitized). But the use of the videotaped murder was a brilliant formal coup. It left me deeply unsettled and with the uncomfortable lingering feeling that I'd watched a snuff film. This is due both to the staging of the sequence, in one long take as a home movie with shaky camerawork, but also the form itself -- streaky VHS, which instinctively tells us we're watching something "real." The rest of the film, for all its violence and creepiness (often due to the music as much as anything else), is recognizable from a safe distance as a movie -- filled with interesting performances, some good directorial choices, writing which expounds character, background, motivation -- in other words, conventional (though that's not necessarily a criticism) cinema.

But the video sequence (aided, in part, by the earlier, more innocuous, but also brilliantly staged playing in front of the camera) breaks down the fourth wall and disturbs the viewer. It felt morally objectionable on some level, but perhaps that could also be it's justification: rather than lulling the audience into a comfortable black-comic detachment (the favorite tactic of many "serious" violent films these days), it implicates them both as victims and perpetrators and rips the mask from the acts it has previously displayed with stylistic flourishes and genre trappings.

Responding to a comment titled "There's nothing great about about Hawks' cinema":

The art of Howard Hawks is the art of standing in just the right spot with a clear head. Perusing this board, I can see I was not alone in being initially perplexed by the Hawks cult. His style does not leap out at you like Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, Godard, Bergman, Fellini...but there's a masterful subletey [sic] to it, a directness which crackles and yanks the goods to the forefront. Others have amply demonstrated his talent with performances and storytelling but I'm trying to get at his formal appeal here and having trouble conveying my meaning (how un-Hawks-like of me). It's like a meal that is satisfying without seeming extremely flavorful, yet leaves a distinct and very pleasing aftertaste moments later. Sorry, that's the best I can do at 2 in the morning. But watch the shot in Scarface where they pull the towel off Paul Muni's face, revealing him for the first time, and it's just...right.

Responding to the AFI's Top 10 Fantasies:

Also interesting that It's a Wonderful Life is on this list. Sure, the last half-hour is dedicated to fantasy, albeit hardly a light-hearted one, but the moments that I retain are among the most true-to-life of pre-60s cinema: George Bailey sharing the phone receiver with Mary, the desperation of the bank run, and of course one of the most outstanding scenes in classical Hollywood cinema when George explodes at his family in a fit of rage and pent-up frustration, expressing the pain and anger of everyone who's ever felt their dreams slip away one by one, facing the grim reality that (irony of ironies) is not like the fantasy world of the movies.

Responding to each of the AFI's Top 10 Epics:

10. Silly, but fun. As I recall, it was my favorite movie when I was about 8 but I haven't seen it for years.

9. I wasn't so enchanted with this one but I suspect I'd enjoy it more if I saw it again.

8. Why is this in the epic genre? Shouldn't there be a separate genre for war? At any rate, I watched it again recently and it seemed to hold up fairly well -- in fact, better than I'd thought it did a few years after the fact (when, the novelty worn off, weaknesses in the screenplay seemed to come to the fore). It was hell of an experience on the big screen, though the effect was more intense and aggressive than "epic."

7. Another odd choice for the epic genre, but a great movie nonetheless. As an old movie book of mine once put it, "some dust has settled on the acting and dialogue" yet it retains its power and, in fact, beauty. The combat scenes are crisp and clear, potentially too well-photographed to be raw and painful, but somehow they retain a sense of shock. In fact, 78 years later they still hold up as some of the most powerful battle scenes put on film.

6. You know, I haven't seen this since 1997. But man, has it been discredited! Sure, it's now officialy the "#6 epic of all time" (whatever that means) but can you actually find anyone who admits to liking it? For what it's worth, I remember enjoying it as an old-fashioned, sentimental but well-crafted romance.

5. A good movie, but the best bits don't involve the noble heroics of the slaves but the homoerotic decadence of the Romans, Laughton and Olivier chewing up scenery left and right. And Ustinov is hilarious. On the epic side of things, Kubrick certainly has a way with old-fashioned battles, of the sort where men form giant geometric patterns on hills and fields.

4. More of a soap opera than an epic or, I suppose, an epic soap opera. And probably the best of its kind.

3. I cringed when I saw this on the list. Did we really need stark images of naked Jews crowding into Auschwitz (clearly lettered on the screen) sandwiched between romantic images of Vivien Leigh gazing on Tara on one side, and Charlton Heston's bellowing on the other? This seemed even more out of place than the war films.

2. I've always had a soft spot for this one, though certain regulars on these boards ruefully call it "bad" (though they like it too).

1. Possibly my favorite film of all time. An absolute no-brainer for the #1 spot on this list. Though it's worth pointing out that it's far more than a mere camel opera (a point that escaped such astute critics, and erstwhile enemies - usually quick to attack each other's weak spots - as critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael).

On the 1998 AFI list:

The AFI lists serve a purpose in that they are (or at least the first one was) hyped-up. The hype brings attention to older films and one thing leads to another. I was 14 when the first list came out and I remember seeing it in a video rental store. At the time I was actually pretty well-versed in film history, having read many books on the subject. Of course I was an avid attendee of the multiplexes too, though this was fading somewhat at the time (just out of middle school, I was already getting too old for Hollywood's summer blockbusters) just beginning to be eclipsed by an interest in music -- an interest that would have to wait until college as a new film fanaticism was about to supercede it. Seeing the AFI list sparked something in my imagination -- it reminded me that though I was a well-versed film buff for my age, in terms of knowledge, I hadn't actually seen most of the titles on the list! Obviously I'd viewed the ones everyone over the age of 2 had seen -- E.T., Wizard of Oz, etc. -- plus a few others that even the most cursory film buff becomes acquainted with (Citizen Kane, Casablanca, 2001). And I had been on a Hitchcock kick the summer prior. But soon I was renting every title on the list and though in the process I would discover its insufficiencies (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The Jazz Singer?) it would lead me to more fertile ground. Within a year I'd moved on to foreign classics, seeking out what I could find away from the mecca of a major metropolitan center. And I know I'm not alone in this.

So, pathetic as it might seem to jaded cinephiles, and superior as other media-grabbers like Ebert's list (which grew more esoteric after a few years of the usual suspects) might be, I have to give credit to the AFI list for drawing the spotlights on the classics. Their motives might not be pure, but their effects are often quite positive.

On Wilford Brimley's age in Cocoon:

Think of it this way: Johnny Depp (now) is about 5 years younger than Wilford Brimley was when he shot Cocoon.


Chris said...

Interesting snippets - how long ago did you write them? I'm asking because I wonder if you feel differently now about some of your answers. I know I've gone back to some of the early things I've written and sometimes (like watching L'Avventura) it turns out I was in a completely different frame of mind back then.

Anyway, great stuff, and I'm still flabbergasted at the Wilford Brimley tidbit.

Joel Bocko said...

These were all written between December 2007 and June 2008. I think the only one I feel differently about is The River - I still read (and like) the cut that way, but I don't think I'd assume Renoir was being so purposefully subversive - I think it was more subtle than that. Like, he probably agrees somewhat with the older man's views but wanted to offer the counter to his lofty wisdom by dissolving right into the young girl's plain grief. Sort of like he says in Rules of the Game: everyone has their reasons.

The Brimley bit is shocking, but good for him - I mean "old man" is a very niche category for actors, and he's been milking it for 30 years now, with at least another 10-20 in him. Few actors can manage that kind of run (Depp will probably still be trying to pull in "young roles" when he's 70, and he'll probably kind of look it - though he's seeming a bit bloated in his latest role. Kind of the anti-Brimley, that one.)

Stephen said...

I like capturing dissolves or changes in scene where they aren't visible except in a still such as this.

Chris asked the question I was going to ask.

I was thinking of writing something expanded from a comment left on 'The Sun's Not Yellow' funnily enough, on The Exterminating Angel.

Joel Bocko said...

Freezing a dissolve can be tricky, and often doesn't work; luckily I thought it worked really nicely here.

What's the post you had in mind - specifically addressed to that film, or something that came up in that conversation?

Stephen said...

Specifically addressed to the film, though I do try to discuss wider things in what I write.

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