Lost in the Movies: December 2010

Remembering the Movies, Dec. 31 - Jan. 6

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

With the aftermath of Christmas, New Year's Day, vacations, and the slow return to the yearly grind, this week tends to be one of the weakest/slowest in any film year. So this Friday we've got an (almost) straight-to-video, several shorts, and (luckily) some interesting obscurities in the lineup (as well as a few more well-known but still relatively unheralded films, like a Walter Huston crime pic and an award-winning Hindi musical drama). Looking over the options, I almost wound up with a porno and a Christian inspirational flick - which would have been an interesting double feature to kick off the new year! At any rate, we've got a Three Stooges program, which is apropos on this day: but it's not even a Curly, sadly. Ah well, see you next week...

The Year of the Blog: The Dancing Image in 2010

Year-end highlights and reflections

Permit me a bout of navel-gazing (this post is not the round-up of other bloggers' best work; that will appear here in a week or two). In past years, I have offered resolutions which were rarely fulfilled; this year, I'd like to focus on the past rather than the future. Apologies for the self-serious tone and inordinate length. I got tired of revising it: blame the blizzard...

Anyway, I am very happy with 2010, though it's hard for me to believe a mere twelve months passed - it was a year of ups and downs, twists and turns, but with a definite narrative and a true progression. This is true for my "offscreen" life as well but, as concerns us here, it's certainly true of my blog. The path of my blogging through 2010 had a few central themes: 1) consolidation, as I centralized my diffuse activities, initially scattered over several websites, back onto The Dancing Image; 2) visual presentation, as I started using more screen-caps, presenting "visual tributes," and making over the blog so that it was more appealing and navigable; 3) self-expression, as I moved away from trying to fulfill certain criteria and moved towards simply saying or showing what I wanted to say or show.

On November 1, 2009, I was reviewing independent films for the Examiner website, and writing occasional pieces for The Dancing Image. But I wanted to reserve the latter site for more ambitious undertakings and ongoing projects, while still putting up regular, random postings and linking up my Examiner articles. So I decided to start a new blog, The Sun's Not Yellow, which would be both a conventional outlet for my musings and a locus-point for my increasingly scattered output. I was visiting friends in New York, and it was my twenty-sixth birthday. I made a resolution to myself to focus on writing about movies for the next year, and to temporarily put aside other goals (save for meeting my financial obligations month to month). It would be the Year of the Blog. What follows is the story of that year...

The Sunday Matinee: Cleo From 5 to 7

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Cleo From 5 to 7, France, 1962, dir. Agnes Varda, starring Corinne Marchand

Story: After a bad visit to a psychic, pop star Cleo Victoire (real name Florence) fears that her recent medical tests will offer a sentence of death. As she wanders the streets of Paris, flitting from rehearsals to sickbeds to restaurants to strolls through the park, the artifice of her persona and appearance is slowly stripped away, until only Florence is left to find out what fate has in store.

The visual touchstone of French New Wave cinema is a character wandering down the real-life streets of Paris, trailed by a handheld camera or preceded by a makeshift dolly: think Jean Seberg shouting "New York Herald-Tribune!", Jean-Pierre Leaud playing truant, Bernadette Lafont pretending to ignore flirtatious overtures from a passing car, or Betty Schneider ducking into a cafe to discuss a mysterious disappearance with Jean-Luc Godard. This visual tradition traveled through time when Jules and Jim brought the New Wave spirit to prewar bohemia, parading down the period avenues and alleys. Truffaut's big hit seemed to capture the restless motion of a whole generation at the dawn of a new, exciting era in art and life alike (although in its ending it contained foreshadowings of the frustrations, disappointments, and uncertainties to come).

Then "the walk" crossed the Channel in 1963 with Julie Christie's daffy, free-spirited stroll through a Yorkshire town in Billy Liar, and it crossed the Atlantic when Liar's director John Schlesinger set Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman loose in a downbeat, grimy New York - by then, the sixties had taken a darker turn. (In 1974, Louis Malle would turn the French "city-walking film" on its head: rather than follow one character with a moving camera, he fixed the camera in place, allowing it to glimpse into the lives of all the passerby who crossed its path.) But no film more perfectly captures or fully explores the potential of this method than Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnes Varda's second feature and her first fictional film since 1955's Le Pointe-Courte, a documentary-narrative hybrid, which preceded the New Wave.

Remembering the Movies, Dec. 24 - 30

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

Despite the holiday season, there is not much Yuletide spirit on display this week - only drug lords, gangsters, and mad scientists, as well as a dumb blonde and brunette Ginger. As with last week, we must reach back 100 years ago to find something Christmas-themed (also as with last week, there's no capsule by me; I'm hoping to be able to resume the full-fledged approach in the new year). If you're looking for something in the spirit of the season, check out yesterday's visual tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Otherwise, follow the Ghost of Christmas Past through the jump...

Good Grief and Merry Christmas

A Visual Tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Part 3 of 3 visual tributes - Merry Christmas!

Snow White Gets the St. James Infirmary Blues

A Visual Tribute to Snow White (1933)
This is my #2 (maybe #1) animated film of all time (see here for my other #1).

Part 2 of 3 visual tributes - Merry Christmas!

Man vs. Machine

A Visual Tribute to Duel (1971)
(An entry in the Spielberg blogathon - spoilers included!) 
Part 1 of 3 visual tributes - Merry Christmas!

Visual Tributes (What's in a Day?)

Several months ago, I designated each day of the week with a particular purpose. Monday would be the "wild card," available for any random post, Tuesday was for The Wind in the Willows series, and so on. Now that I'm not posting daily, I still retain this formula. Why? I'm not sure - I like the orderliness, I suppose.

Since September, Thursdays have been reserved for visual tributes. This week I had a conundrum: three different ideas for visual tributes, all of which would only be relevant this week (one was part of a blogathon ending this weekend, another is a final response to the animation countdown that ended yesterday, and the last is in anticipation of Christmas Eve tomorrow). Instead of being logical and spreading them out over the week, I'm sticking with the "themed day" idea and unloading them all today. Here they are:

My #1 animated film: Street of Crocodiles

Six weeks ago, as the Wonders in the Dark "Horror Countdown" reached its conclusion, I responded by writing about my own pick for "favorite horror film" - The Shining. In three days, the same website's "Animation Countdown" will end so I'm repeating my previous tribute and selecting my own #1 animated film. The countdown, conducted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett, has been a real treat: marching to the beat of his own drummer, but with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the history and tradition of the form. Stop-motion, sand animation, hand-drawn cartooning, and CGI are all included, as are selections from the United States, Canada, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and a slew of other nations. Features, shorts, even television shows were considered, ranging from straightforward narratives to pure abstraction. And only three Disney films made the cut - two fairly offbeat selections and one so canonical that, given the idiosyncracy of the rest of the countdown, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs managed to be the major surprise of the series! Moreover, Stephen was able to include clips or even entire films at the end of many entries, so you can watch the films he discusses. His style is concise, erudite, and deeply personal - very engaging and highly recommended. By the way, the genre countdowns are still in their infancy - a noir countdown is scheduled for January, so stay tuned! Without further ado, my own pick for #1 animated film...

Street of Crocodiles (1986) opens not with animation, but with black-and-white live action. An older man walks into a room and sets up some sort of machine, perhaps the "mechanical esophagus" the onscreen chapter heading indicates. Only when he peeks into the contraption do we see in color, and only when he gently spits into the mechanism do the gears start turning. A puppet comes to "life" and the man guides a pair of scissors in through a slit in the box and cuts the puppet's strings - from there we only see the puppet and the strange world he explores, a world filled with cavernous baby doll heads, mounds of meat, and robot creatures with blinking light bulbs for heads. Screws dance as if magnetically controlled, the puppet-man crouches and crawls like a spider and the camera capturing all of this moves with a fluidity rarely seen in live-action films, let alone stop-motion animation.

The Sunday Matinee: Les Bonnes Femmes

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Les Bonnes Femmes, France, 1960, dir. Claude Chabrol, starring Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon

Story: Four shopgirls while away the daytime hours in tedium, then spend their nights prowling Paris, looking for fun, excitement, and perhaps true love - only to find predatory jerks, cowardly boyfriends, lascivious bosses, and a mysterious motorcyclist who stands in the shadows, watching all like a wise demigod - or a prowling tiger.

When, all at once, a new group of young filmmakers arrives on a national scene, there may share some common wellspring. In the U.S., it was often an apprenticeship under Roger Corman (Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Hopper all made early B movies with the prolific independent producer). In Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, the new generation came through the state-run film schools; in the UK, the "kitchen sink" realists were usually documentarians before they made narrative features. In France, the situation was more incestuous than most. If you were to pick the ten or so major French filmmakers to emerge in the French New Wave, at least half of them came from Cahiers du Cinema, the fiery, controversial, and influential start-up film publication. In the late fifties, right around the time Cahiers editor and New Wave mentor Andre Bazin died, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer all began work on their first features. It was Chabrol who hit screens first, with Le Beau Serge (about a young urbanite visiting the provinces) but Truffaut and Godard were the ones who brought attention to the movement, with The 400 Blows and Breathless. In some ways, Chabrol was the odd man out of the five.

Remembering the Movies, Dec. 17 - 23

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

We've got quite a few classics this week (camp or otherwise). As we get within a few days of the big holiday, surprisingly there is only one Christmas selection - and it's the oldest of the bunch. Again, as with last week, I'm unable to offer a capsule review but I do have some recollections surrounding the 10- and 20-year-old films, both of which I saw in theaters.

Lady and the Tramp: A Dog's World

Lady and the Tramp, though not nearly as dark as some of Disney's earlier films, is one of the studio's most "adult" stories. It appeals to children, to be sure, with its talking animals and adventurous storyline. Yet much of that very appeal may be rooted in the way the film offers peeks into the adult world - using the dogs as both surrogate children (allowing young viewers to identify with their emotional tangled relationship to the owners/parents) and as more approachable versions of adults themselves (their animal appeal taking the edge off potentially "grown-up" concerns like romance, leaving home, and social awareness). Disney's next project, Sleeping Beauty, would be more adventurous as animation, although Lady and the Tramp is expansively framed, nice to look at, and able to effectively employ close-ups and "camera" movements in widescreen compositions (something live-action contemporaries had difficulty achieving). Yet Lady and the Tramp accomplishes more through story than visual presentation; the film represents a number of "firsts" for a Disney feature, most having to do with that aforementioned maturity.

The Sunday Matinee: Miraculous Virgin

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Miraculous Virgin, Czechoslovakia, 1967, dir. Stefan Uher, starring Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda

Story: As bombs fall from the sky, a beautiful young woman wanders into the lives of several young artists and a melancholy middle-aged sculptor. They treat her as their muse. Yet before long, she is overwhelmed by their aggressive attention, and they are frustrated by her aloof resistance to their overtures.

An interesting element of the various European New Waves is their relationship with the recent past - namely World War II. I've often felt that the sixties were imbued with the displaced spirit of the forties, and that the cultural explosion and political upheaval of the era may have been impossible without the misery, death, and displacement of two decades before. This is not to say that the war played a huge role in cultural artifacts of the time; in some ways, the influence was indirect, in others displaced. In certain countries, for example the United States or Britain, the war was considered property of the older squares, and youthful revelers, rebels, or activists either satirized or ignored the earlier era's sensibility. Elsewhere, the war haunted the cinema without necessarily being foregrounded: in France, it popped up in the films of Alain Resnais (about ten years older than most of the other New Wavers); in Italy and Japan, a sense of collective guilt fed into the bitterness with which young filmmakers scorned the societies of the past. Whatever the country, New Wavers tended to be born around the same time period, from the late twenties to the mid-thirties (some a bit younger in Italy, some a bit older in Britain), making them teenagers at the time of the war. This meant that most did not serve as soldiers, and would only have experienced the turmoil of the time to the extent that war came to them.

Czechoslovakia, in some ways, was spared the most brutal aspects of the war. Unlike Britain, Poland, Germany, or Japan it was not subjected to substantial aerial bombardment, one reason that Prague still remains the glistening city of the past, architectural jewels from earlier centuries still dominating its skyline. Yet this was precisely because the Germans didn't need to bomb the Czechs - the country had already been handed over to Hitler by allies eager to appease, and Czechoslovakia was given the dubious honor of enduring Nazi occupation from months before World War II even began. Following the war, unlike the French, Italian, or British, the nation was not able to stumble towards a new sense of independence or democracy; it was occupied by the Soviets, democratic officials were killed, and a Stalinist dictatorship was installed within several years of the "victory." In some ways, for Czechoslovakia, the war never ended. No wonder then, that World War II features so prominently in the Czechoslovakian New Wave (and here it makes sense to use the country's full name, as Miraculous Virgin was directed by a Slovakian, not a Czech). Some of its most famous films - including the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains and The Shop on Main Street - take place during the war. The best of these (and the least well-known) is the phenomenal Miraculous Virgin - while the setting is ambiguous, the film is tormented by a sense of occupation, persecution, death, and collaboration. Its themes are universal, but the historical experience of this beleaguered nation is the context out of which Miraculous Virgin was born.

Remembering the Movies, Dec. 10 - 16

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

As the man above taught us, simplicity is a virtue. With this excuse in mind, there's no personal review this week, even though that's a feature I intend to continue down the line (truthfully, I was unexpectedly busy, and I did not have as much time as usual to prepare the post). As always, plenty of pictures, several videos, some quotes, and a wide variety of choices: everything from a saintly pacifist to a squadron of bloodthirsty teenagers - with room for a spinach-guzzling muscleman, an Israeli freedom fighter, and Cher. As for the biggest hit of this week's history - contra the man from Assisi, who probably would have said love meant humility and a recognition of simple virtues and submergence in the divine glow of God, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw tell us what love really means. (Cue the hankies and/or barf bags, though I'll diplomatically forswear both, never having seen Love Story...)

I Vant to Link Your Blog

If you can forgive the awful pun, the sentiment is sincere. At the end of every year, I have offered up a buffet of blog highlights. In 2008, I chose them myself; in 2009 I invited you to pick your own best work and today I echo that call. What one post are you proudest of? What do you feel might have been overlooked? Or, conversely, what was your most popular piece, that you'd like to share with a wider audience? The exercise began as a way of paying tribute to my "fellow travelers" in the blogosphere, but it's also developed into a healthy corrective for tendencies which are still strong on the internet (particularly for yours truly): falling out of touch with certain bloggers, focusing your attention on a narrow range of sites, catching up only with someone's more recent work. A number of factors - from better archiving to sidebar links to tabs on the homepage - have helped make blogging (both on my site and on others) seem less ephemeral, which I think is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, this can contribute to that trend.

So I invite you, either through a comment (which, being moderated, I will delete after collecting the necessary information) or by e-mail (movieman0283@gmail.com), to contact me with the post you'd most like to share and your e-mail address (if you don't hear back from me, contact me again; I probably didn't receive your submission). It could be an essay you feel really addressed an important or overlooked topic. Or it could be what began as an ostensibly minor review or aside, during which you hit your stride and turned out work you're really proud of. It could eschew words altogether and be a picture or, even better, video post - foresaking the dance about architecture in order to jump right into the heart of the matter, the visuals that draw us in, in the first place. It could be a clever comical piece or a serious polemic or a diaristic personal piece you're proud of. If you can't pick one, pick several - I will browse them and choose the one that I think is your best work and/or best fills out the overall program. As I don't want things to get too crowded (leading to some blogs getting lost in the shuffle) I will only be linking one post per person (not necessarily per blog; if there are multiple authors, multiple posts will be eligible). But as with last year, the extra material will be linked collectively at the end of the round-up.

The bulk of the post, after a short introduction, will consist of all the links, preceded by quotes and images from the piece in question (this will be a lively, colorful directory). Last year, I got a lot of submissions, which was great, but it also tetered on the edge of being too much. To keep things reasonable this time, I ask that you not mention or link to this particular post (meaning the one you're reading right now) on your own blog until after all the links have been collected (Christmas Day, appropriately enough, will be the last day for submissions). To the extent possible, I'd like to keep this to readers of my blog, so that those who have been loyal readers/contributors (particularly since the beginning) don't get completely overwhelmed in any onrush. Of course I have no way of knowing who's been lurking (or who has just discovered the blog, but will be revisiting) so any submission will be accepted with good faith! But by keeping it on the downlow for the time being, I think it will make for an eclectic but still manageable collection of great reading.

In the mean time, if you want to revisit past years (and why not? that's the whole point of this exercise - no time limits) check out the previous entries in this ongoing exercise. "Blog 10" is scheduled to make its debut on either January 3 or January 10. Enjoy.

The Sunday Matinee: Daisies

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Daisies, Czechoslovakia, 1966, dir. Vera Chytilová, starring Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová

Story: Bored with their lives, two young girls (Marie and Marie) go on an anarchic and increasingly destructive spree of eating, drinking, partying, ridiculing conventions, while burning, cutting, or stealing every object in sight.

...Though I'm not sure I'd call it a "story."

Daisies opens and closes with images of war. The opening credits intercut the grinding mechanisms of wheels and cogs with shaky aerial footage of bombardments. The film ends suddenly with one last image of a (Vietnamese?) countryside being strafed, along with the slow-boiling, deadpan tribute of the filmmaker to her would-be censors: "This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle." The visual carnage is appropriate, for seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it gives a real-world analogue to the devilish destruction unfolding throughout the movie, and perhaps suggests that the aggressive but not physically violent behavior of its heroines could eventually lead in this deadlier direction - or at least that it's part of the same continuum, selfish decadence leading to bloody chaos. On the other hand, there's an apocalyptic tenor to the war footage, which contrasts sharply with the free-spirited bonhomie of our leading ladies - the suggestion is that this ugly world is what they're rebelling against. Seen this way they are the embodiment of the contemporary countercultural ethos, thumbing noses at conservative social forces be they masked as American imperialists or Stalinist bureaucrats.

And on yet another hand (anatomically incorrect perhaps, but in the spirit of a film which shatters all rules of propriety and perspective) the documentary authenticity of those fleeting shots casts a gloom over the completely and flagrantly fabricated playfulness of the protagonists, giving it an unreal and desperate air. So perhaps there is no direct relationship (either positive or negative) between the world's war and the girls' anarchy, but rather a tension unresolvable in their favor - this grim reality lends a certain fragility to their antics, justifying their aggression and threatening their larks with an air of impending doom. All of these interpretations are, of course, valid but ultimately interpretations are - if not beside the point - at least after the fact. This is a film to be experienced more than "understood" - a wild ride through colors, cuts, iconic images, jagged suggestions, lavish set pieces, roundabout dialogue, and alarmingly incessant and aggressive noises (the sound collage "score," mixing speedily-played classical compositions, random sound effects, and avant-garde atonal exercises, is as much a part of the experience as anything onscreen). It's a tale told by an imp, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

Remembering the Movies, Dec. 3 - 9

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past

This week, "Remembering the Movies" takes a walk on the wild side - surrealism, fantasy, and passionate affairs are all in the offing, as are deserted islands and dilapidated attics, exotic adventures and anthropomorphic westerns, the birth pangs of the "Felliniesque," the adolescent angst of Tim Burton, and the death rattle of the sixties counterculture. There are two personal recollections for films I saw in their initial run, two collections of screen-caps for short cartoons, and a fresh review of Flash Gordon, which I watched for the first time tonight. I have also excerpted a contentious contemporary argument between my favorite critic and my favorite documentary filmmakers (Point: filmmakers) about the hypnotic, hallucinatory and disturbing Gimme Shelter. See The Documentary Blog for the full back-and-forth. As always the black words are my own, the red, quotations.

Search This Blog