Lost in the Movies: November 2011

Grand Illusion

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Just as Pauline Kael once noted it would be absurdly narrow to classify Grand Illusion as an "escape" film, so it feels reductive to tag it with the "antiwar" label. True, it is fundamentally antiwar, but in such an unusual way that it doesn't sit well alongside smoldering masterpieces like All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory. There is no combat, there are no speeches about the inhumanity of war, and there are only two deaths: an offscreen slaying of an unnamed character, and the shooting of an officer who is willing and prepared to die, in order to free his fellows. He is given several warnings - the shooter even pleas for him to stop - and is granted a poignant bedside farewell from his very executioner.

So we don't see the most awful side of the war, and the characters retain a certain dignity, humor, and will to live throughout. There are no villains. Ultimately Jean Renoir's classic is no furious "J'accuse" but something closer to "C'est la vie." Yet that statement is not uttered as an excuse but rather as an explanation, a "C'est la vie!" uttered over one's shoulder while running in the other direction. After all, these characters do not give up easily - they resist, they rebel, they escape; if they do not "accuse" it's because they're too busy subverting. Yet they do so without idealistic illusions; they are essentially pragmatists, dedicated only to survival and endurance - in body and spirit.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

There is a case to be made that the first two Godfather films form the Great American Movie of the second half of the twentieth century. Just as Citizen Kane sums up a half-century of cinema in its flurry of techniques and time-spanning story, so The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have one foot in the world of classical cinema, with their mixture of formal restraint and epic grandeur, and one foot in the cinema of New Hollywood, with their gritty textures, dark themes, and graphic content. Certainly there are few cinematic masterpieces that retain such an immediate foothold in contemporary public consciousness (at least among men): ask someone whose other favorite films are recent blockbusters or lowbrow comedies what they think of The Godfather, and you're likely to get a positive response. The movie resonates across generations and interest levels in cinema history, acclaimed among those who revere classic Hollywood or foreign films, and popular with the crowd that likes the latest action and horror films. Those looking for entertainment made the first film the biggest box office hit of all time, those seeking middlebrow acceptance and respectability voted it Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and those celebrating cinema purely as art routinely place it atop polls and lists of the greatest movies of all time.

In some ways, mixing the two films in one piece is deceptive. While they are often taken together - the Sight & Sound poll combines them and Francis Ford Coppola once re-edited a chronological version stretching from 1901 to 1960 for television - these movies are actually quite different in their approach and style. The Godfather is the movie of a nervous young filmmaker, supremely talented yet under pressure from a studio and crew that didn't quite trust him. It is an adaptation of an entertaining but lurid pulp bestseller, and the public anticipated it the way they had anticipated Gone with the Wind and Love Story, or (later on) The Exorcist and Jaws. The Godfather Part II, on the other hand, feels the film of a self-assured master, even though Coppola is just two years older - a hitmaker, he now commands big-budget resources with confidence and the beginnings of a hubris which would raise him up and eventually bring him down. Part II sheds all associations with its pulp roots, aspiring more towards the complexity and grandeur of a European art film, bleak American drama, or even Greek tragedy than the effectiveness of a tightly-wound thriller (although, of course, it achieves both, as so many great movies do). Yet it makes sense to consider the two films together, different yet inextricably bound. Above all, they tell one story - the slow, desperate, barely poker-faced moral fall of a young American, son of Sicily yet a long way from home.

The General

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

I've heard that The General was essentially remade, straight, as a wartime chase film (I think it was a Disney production, maybe The Great Locomotive Chase). Or rather that the original historical incident - a spy (Northern in reality, Southern in the film) seizes or reclaims an engine, piloting it through enemy territory - was adapted once again. This is not the only time a Keaton film was reincarnated (Seven Chances was remade with Chris O'Donnell as The Bachelor); while it would seem bizarre to remake a Chaplin film, it makes sense for Keaton to see this treatment. Why? He's certainly as inimitable as Chaplin, perhaps more so - while Chaplin's comic inventions can be copied by mimics, Keaton's stunts should not be attempted by the weak-hearted, legally sane, or uninsured.

The obvious answer (as indicated by the Disney film which circumvented The General and went back to the source) is that, well, many of the best Keaton films actually had plots - with a catchy angle. Or as I put it in my review of Seven Chances a few years ago: "Almost every picture is not only a vehicle for his unique talents, but a clever high concept idea as well." This is true - but there are other qualities that sets Keaton films apart from other comedies of the time, and makes them appear to be about more than just him: ambition, scale, and style. I promise this will be my last self-quote, but I don't want to pretend I'm not repeating myself here: in celebrating Our Hospitality, I wrote, "he could easily have fashioned romantic epics of American history, because he has the pictorial, spatial sense of a John Ford or D.W. Griffith." No film better bares out those comparisons, especially the latter, than his masterpiece, The General.

Bambi, book and movie

The Story: One spring, a little fawn is born into a world of sunshine and flowers - but as the seasons pass, and the young deer comes of age, neither he nor the world around him will remain so innocent.

“You’d be forgiven for picturing cute, wide-eyed little critters wandering through daisy fields and singing happy songs,” I wrote when introducing this month’s theme, adding pointedly, “Not so.” And I meant it - yet here we are! Well, let this prove that clichés obscure more than they illuminate. The cute, wide-eyed little critters of Bambi inhabit a violence- and sex-filled world of tragedy, stoicism, and carnage. Despite frequent light and happy moments, this is ultimately a very dark forest indeed. Why? To unearth Bambi's roots, I dug up the book that gave it birth.

Felix Salten’s Bambi was published in 1923, and it shares the qualities of much classic children’s literature: quiet, thoughtful, with a delicate playfulness, yet fundamentally somber, elementally instructional and subtly allegorical – simple yet deep. Walt Disney more scrupulously balances the dark and light, yet much of the book’s mood and atmosphere is effectively conveyed. Those majestic moments when Bambi and his mother cautiously approach a meadow, or tiptoe through the snow to hunt for food, admirably capture Salten’s spirit. Even those prototypical Disney elements – anthropomorphized chattering forest critters, resembling gossipy housewives or restless schoolkids – have their source in Salten, who devotes many pages to the silly conversations of little birds.


This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Fantasia is a film that proclaims its own greatness. What does that mean? That it opens itself up to charges of pretension, of being overblown "white elephant" art, but also that through its ambition it opens up new horizons, elevated peaks for the viewer to explore. My own relationship to this sort of movie, and this movie in particular, has shifted back and forth over time. I've always had a soft spot for the epic and larger-than-life; I like the lofty heights it aspires towards, its Apollonian contemplation of the transcendental. But the moment something is "off," the moment a film like this doesn't click with you, the whole facade comes crashing down like a house of cards. Unlike a smaller film which can sneak up on you, grow with time, overtake you the self-consciously great film is all-or-nothing. Fantasia used to be my favorite Disney film, but it doesn't work so much for me anymore.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

E.T. opens like a horror movie. What are we so afraid of? Aliens? People? Divorce? Growing up? Fear is everywhere - the alien screams when he sees the dog, the siblings scream when they see the alien, the mother pours out her coffee and covers her mouth. The men in space suits frighten the family when they break in to their suburban home, and they themselves seem frightened by their responsibility for this strange creature. These are the moments of dramatic fright, but a deeper, creepier sense of fear pervades throughout - present whenever Spielberg cuts away to those ominous men in blue jeans, shining flashlights and slashing through the foliage. Fear lingers in scenes of acute domestic unease, when arguments about doing the dishes turn into revelations of family secrets, or a visit to the garage turns up mementos of father-son bonding, now bygones of an extinct era.

Unlike most horror films, whose visions of the "other" are fundamentally conservative, E.T. seeks transcendence in a tentative escape from the normative, into the foreign. In the process it both domesticates the stranger and "alienates" the familiar; while the alien becomes more human, the knickknacks of suburban boyhood also take on a peculiar, curious quality, as if we are seeing them for the first time and realizing the surfaces we noticed before were merely illusions. This is Spielberg's gift, which most blockbuster filmmakers lack: an insight into the sublime qualities of the everyday, the mysterious in the mundane, so that elements many directors would treat in a banal, obligatory fashion are lingered over, savored and seen with new eyes - that of a child, or of an alien.

La Dolce Vita

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

There aren't too many movies I've watched twice in the same day. I can, however, think of at least one: La Dolce Vita. It's not the likeliest candidate for that honor - after all, there's the length (almost three hours) and the episodic narrative, creating the impression of several movies rather than just one. Not exactly an experience screaming for instant replay. And yet... Many years ago, during a summer vacation when I was home alone, I rented La Dolce Vita and gave it a spin. I was disappointed; the film left me cold, unfurling across the screen without letting me in. Its idea of decadent fun seemed tame and outdated, its characters smugly unsympathetic, its themes and ideas pretentious and overblown. I was bored, and missed the warm, magical aura of Fellini classics like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria.

That night, I felt a vague stirring. I kept thinking about the movie; something about it, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, was drawing me back. Around 10 or 11 at night I went downstairs, put the video cassette back into the player and started the film over again. This time, I was hooked. Somehow, without meaning to, I had discovered the way into the movie - at least for me. Often celebrated as a visual feast, albeit more philosophically shallow than it seemed at the time (and derided by its detractors for the same reason), La Dolce Vita is actually most successful - to my eyes - as a film of ideas, albeit ideas difficult to articulate (which is why some of the dialogue seems too pretentious and on-the-nose). The emptiness that drove me away from the film initially was now what reeled me in - or rather the sense of anxiety and alienation beneath the flashy but shallow facade. There was a "there" there after all, brought into existence by its own self-doubt.

The Decalogue

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Like many films in this series (Citizen Kane, La Dolce Vita, and Fantasia all come to mind) The Decalogue is simultaneously one film and many. Today I watched the whole film straight through, stopping here and there to sum up my thoughts, each chapter a single page of a legal pad (although I'll admit I ended up doodling in the margins as well!). What follows is a sort of viewer's diary, chronicling my journey through this magnificent opus for the second time, my first viewing in a half-decade. Some spoilers follow.

City Lights

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

"Here is my secret. It is very simple: one sees well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye." - Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
The genius of City Lights lies in its paradoxical ability to convey the heart's invisible essence in entirely visual terms. Entirely visual terms: shot when Hollywood had completely switched over to talkies, the film stubbornly sticks to silence. There are a few clever exceptions. Charlie swallows a whistle which, whenever he hiccups, interrupts entertainers, calls cabs, and attracts every dog in the neighborhood. When boxing (in what is probably the film's funniest and most brilliant sequence), the mismatched Tramp somehow gets the bell rope tied to his neck, so that he can't go very far without it dinging and either calling him back into the ring or deceptively luring him into a well-earned respite. Most notably, the film opens with sound, "dialogue" of a sort which is actually over-recorded gibberish pouring forth from a pontificating politician. It's not only a humorous send-up of official pomposity, but a goof on Hollywood's new obsession with sound itself.

However, while the verbal distortion brings a smile to the face, it is appropriately enough a visual revelation that makes one laugh out loud: a white sheet is lifted from a newly christened monument, and Chaplin is discovered sleeping in the arms of the bombastic statuary, ironically called "Peace and Prosperity." He will experience little of either throughout the course of the movie, yet he does get get little tastes - teases really - of both peace and prosperity throughout. One could say that the comedy is inspired by the glimpses of prosperity (via a wealthy drunkard who showers money and good times on the Tramp - at least until he sobers up), while the pathos is provided by the potential for peace (in the form of a beautiful flower girl who loves Charlie, sight unseen, for his generosity).

An Open Letter to Toontown

November 20, 2011

Toontown City Council, c/o Cloverfield Development Co.
Acme Avenue & Avery Alley
Toontown, CA 90@#!

Dear Toons,

Well, gang, I just watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit again, this time for an online series called "Fixing a Hole." (You remember holes, those convenient black discs you carry around in your pockets, portable escape hatches when you're in a pickle. Incidentally, how much those go for nowadays?). Anyway, the movie was a delight as always; though the climax is a bit drawn-out, the appearance of a one-dimensional Judge Doom, crushed and cackling like some maniacal cross between Johnny Paper and Johnny Rotten, is well worth the wait.

I dug that, and I laughed along with Roger, cringed for Baby Herman (somebody tell that middle-aged infant about Viagra, or better yet, don't), and marveled at Bob Hoskins' ability to play it straight even as he was acting against thin ai-  er, I mean, against real, live Toons who must have been rather intimidating “in the flesh.” And Jessica Rabbit. Oh Jessica Rabbit. With her in their extended family, it’s no wonder the fluffy-tailed little mammals are so eager to breed.

Citizen Kane

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

I was ten when I watched Citizen Kane for the first time. It was a snowy evening, early December I think, and my friend had a videotape of a famous film I'd heard of but not yet seen. I knew its reputation but was not very attuned to or interested in deep focus, montage, or mise en scene. I experienced these elements, of course, but more or less subliminally, while my focus was on the story. Right away this forties film reminded me of It's a Wonderful Life, without the happy ending: Man's view, rather than God's, of an unhappy life set against the backdrop of 20th-century American history. I was drawn in by the mystery represented by Rosebud (whose revelation my friend's father spoiled at the last moment, wandering into the room as the camera scanned the endless round-up of Kane's belongings, and musing, rather unbelievably, "I can't believe Rosebud was his sled!"). The mystery, of course, cannot be solved by any one object nor, as it turns out, by any one person.

Citizen Kane has suffered, albeit in a more benign and limited form, much like its main character. The film has become so successful, so overbearing in its influence and acclaim that the object of all this attention can get lost in the haze of hype. That's why I'm glad I saw Kane when, and how, I did. To this day whenever the film is discussed, I always find myself steering the conversation towards the story. Unconsciously, I pull away from analyses of its legacy or impact, and especially from cataloging its various achievements and attributes, like those men roaming Kane's mansion at film's end, listing all the possessions one by one instead of stepping back to look at the big picture. One of the most compelling pieces I've read on this favorite film was written by a blogger who hated it; in his effort to explain and examine his distaste, he astutely and penetratingly analyzed the film bit by bit, but with an eye toward the whole effect.


This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

* Today I learned that a fellow blogger, who was an enthusiastic commenter on The Dancing Image, passed away. Ironically, his final post references Casablanca as does the name of his website (though I didn't realize it until now). I encourage you to visit Laszlo's at Lex, and I now dedicate this piece to Gerald Stewart. *

What are the fundamental things in life? A kiss? A sigh? So the Casablanca cult would have you believe - after all, we are told, the film is a romance first and foremost, a gauzy Hollywood myth full of larger-than-life themes, iconic close-ups of glamorous stars, and an exotic locale and wartime backdrop that serve to heighten the emotional tenor and raise the narrative stakes, though only window dressing for the main attraction: a love story to end all love stories. Everyone knows that the film was meant to be nothing special, just another Warners release, that it even shifted into B territory with Ronald Reagan considered for Rick. We've heard how, miraculously, the elements all clicked into place: ideal stars, a perfect supporting cast, the right writers and crew behind the camera, last-minute rewrites to ensure that the film ended on its memorable, ever-more romantic bittersweet note. Love lost is that much easier to savor.

I've felt this way about Casablanca before - watching the movie several years ago, the World War II trappings seemed almost surrealistically artificial. I think I had been watching later, more hard-hitting films on the war, so it felt bizarre to see these actors roaming around an elaborately decorated soundstage in sunny Los Angeles, pretending to be struggling in life or death with the Nazis who were half a world away. True, America had joined the war by this point, but this also served to make the heightened stakes of the films' German dominance and American neutrality seem safely past. No, Casablanca might be many things but a true reflection of the war and the wartime mentality, it was not - just a fun, exciting, romantic slice of Hollywood mythology, right? Wrong.


This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Patricia is pregnant. Like the virgin mother-to-be in Hail Mary or the pop princess of Masculin Feminin contemplating a gruesome abortion (and unlike the desperate housewife in A Woman is a Woman), this young American has been knocked up - but her decision remains more ambiguous than that of the other two Godard heroines. The situation is doubly appropriate. For one, Breathless was probably the film, more than any other, which birthed the new cinema to dominate the next decade; for another, this is a movie uncertain and uneven in its style and story. Yet just as Patricia's fickleness and hesitation charm her beaux, so the movie's ragged, freefloating style impressed and excited an entire generation and held the coming epoch in thrall.

At times, one can have trouble figuring out why. Jean-Luc Godard is a brilliant filmmaker, but the intensely focused experimentalist who helmed Masculin Feminin or Weekend, wild yet precise in the manner of a jazz improvisationist, has not quite found his groove yet in Breathless. For better or worse, this remains the film's distinctive charm and provides it with the uniqueness that helps it to remain, to this day, the most popular and celebrated film in his oeuvre. It has an amiable looseness that would tighten up before long, a relaxed luxuriance best manifested in the captivating bedroom scene in which the characters' facades drop a bit and we glimpse the uncertain yet somewhat unconscious kids behind the masks.

Bicycle Thieves

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

"Put the blame on Mame," sang the red-haired girl in the poster, the one that Antonio is gluing to the wall when his bicycle is stolen. If it only it were that easy. Bicycle Thieves has scorn and skepticism aplenty, for the overwhelmed bureaucracy and government of postwar Italy that can't put men to work, for the Catholic Church with its phony sentiments and bourgeois charity offering a shave if you'll grovel low enough, for the pompous bedroom psychics who offer cheap pessimism and recoil from money as if it reminds them what they're really doing. And for the small-minded, jeering mobs who gang up on desperate men, and the snobby little brats who turn up their noses over plates of spaghetti, and even the Communist Party which writer Cesare Zavattini belonged to, which seems distant and rhetorical compared to the desperate needs of the stumbling human beings interrupting its gatherings in the catacombs of Rome.

And yet this is a film of context and, ultimately, compassion. If the film refuses to sentimentalize institutions or ideals, it is ever-attuned to the complications that motivate and mitigate human behavior. As Jean Renoir said, "Everyone has their reasons." And those reasons have an awful lot in common - one of the signature motifs of the movie is that in an atmosphere of competition, desperation, and degradation, every man feels compelled to look out for himself. Bicycle Thieves does not endorse this ethos, nor does it offer a hopeful alternative - this is not a film which offers cheap inspiration, or even much hope at its conclusion. Yet it observes this atmosphere unblinkingly, leaving us to draw our own conclusions, and the climax refuses to let us wallow in self-defeating despair or condescending pity. Instead at its end we feel angry, uncertain what should be done, but knowing that this situation, whether in 1948 or now, is unacceptable.

Does it seem strange to say that this movie is also beautiful, often warm, occasionally quite funny, and suffused with a careworn romanticism and naturalistic poetry? It is also, very pointedly, a "movie" - a slice of life, yes, in a sense, but filtered through the structures, motifs, and payoffs of the movie world.

The Battleship Potemkin

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

The Battleship Potemkin could be subtitled "A Story of the Sea." For while the men who scurry about its frame - those anonymous and amorphous masses - instigate the action, it is the ambiguously gleaming waters around the ship, and the ship itself, that most reflect the narrative arc. When the film begins, the sea is forbidding, isolating, intimidating: a mass of impenetrable emptiness encircling the starving and discontented battleship. Its shimmering presence heightens our impression of the sailors as imprisoned by their circumstances, and zeroes our focus in on the ship that holds them; after all, there's nothing else to look at, for them or for us.

Yet the film concludes with another shot of these waters and suddenly our interpretation is quite different. At this point the battleship Potemkin steams toward the squadron sent to shoot it down, only to discover that the other ships have been overtaken by sympathetic sailors, more interested in saluting than shooting the mutinous barge. And suddenly the sea is an open field, a liberating space upon which anything is possible. Its shimmers seem friendly winks, its little waves infinite possibilities, its wide-open landscape a heroic horizon. Eisenstein's title tells us that the ship is waving the flag of freedom and it's as if this banner is clearing the air, swatting away the mosquitoes of reaction and the haze of oppression, parting the waves as crisply and cleanly as the ship's bow itself.

Dumbo ("Fixing a Hole")

This Sunday brings, as all Sundays do, a fresh "Fixing a Hole." This week I've selected guest writer Stephen Gebbett-Russell of Checking on My Sausages to cover the Disney classic Dumbo, continuing the theme of "Animated Animals" for November.

He has an interesting take on the film, ambivalently noting its drawbacks while appreciating its unique charms. Here's a snippet to whet your appetite, after which you can follow the link for the full piece.

"While the story is a bit of a bore (and by no means offering an inspirational moral to take home, as we shall see), the film occasionally gets off the ground in a few magical details, the red ribbon that wards off the evil eye: Dumbo's bath-time frolics with his mother, a kangaroo cradling its young and creaking like a rocking chair, a clever song that plays on nouns and verbs (“I've seen a fireside chat, a baseball bat...”) and a drunken hallucination that includes a hideous monster made up of elephant heads and ends with floating pachyderms softly morphing into clouds in a dawn sky."

It's a Twister!

A short visual tribute to the tornado sequence in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

(In honor of the film's high placement in the musical countdownand in recognition of its exclusion from my upcoming series "The Big Ones," due to an upcoming, extensive essay next year.)

For the rest of 2011, visual tributes will go up every Saturday.

Introducing "The Big Ones": 32 classic films reviewed over 7 weeks

Though of course they need no introduction!

Originally I had a fairly long piece here, with many disclaimers and explanations. I've nixed it. The focus instead should be to briefly announce what I'm doing, and then let the forthcoming pieces speak for themselves.

I've chosen thirty films that I think may be the most notable in their absence, so far, from this site. If you're curious about my criterion for selecting these titles and my thought process in initiating this series, you can email me and I'll send you the original intro. Suffice to say for now that these are not necessarily personal favorites, but films that have achieved either a widespread critical consensus or a near-universal popularity among audiences (or both) over time. Classics that I look forward to engaging with in public prose for the first time.

I first conceived this project in August 2008, only a month into blogging, when I noticed that a lot of great movies were getting lost in the shuffle as I focused on reviewing films I was seeing for the first time. It took three years and five hundred posts, but this is a step towards rectifying that. Incidentally, the only reason The Wizard of Oz is not on here is because I'm reserving it for a special essay sometime next year.

The scheduled lineup follows the jump. This post will also serve as a directory from now on, with titles linked to the pieces once they go up.

My #1 musical: Jammin' the Blues

Today the Wonders in the Dark musical countdown comes to a close. In tribute, I am naming my favorite musical film, just as I named a #1 horror, #1 animation, and #1 noir in response to those countdowns (to wit: The Shining, Street of Crocodiles, and Laura).

Is Jammin' the Blues really a musical? Well, it certainly has plenty of music - in fact, it contains little else; the dynamic 10-minute short film (produced by Warner Brothers during World War II) fades up with the first notes of Lester Young's "Midnight Symphony," even before the credits roll or the opening narration, crisp as dried ice, informs us, "This is a jam session." (It actually isn't; all the music is prerecorded, as the visuals would be impossible if tied to live performance.) "The End" pops up on the screen before the film even seems to be over, with Cheshire-grinning drummer Jo Jones finishing just as the image fades to black. There's not only a musical score, but singing (Marie Bryant's beautifully touch-of-hoarse rendition of "Sunny Side of the Street") and dancing (Bryant's seriously simmering boogie with Archie Savage, against a bright-white background, anticipates Mulholland Drive sixty years later).

Desert Island Discs

All movie buffs have asked themselves that question sooner or later, a variation of the same question audiophiles, bookworms, and other assorted enthusiasts have posed: were I stranded on a desert island, accompanied only by a solar-powered TV and DVD player, what proud few movies would accompany me into the wilderness? In the age of streaming video, this may seem a quaint, unnecessarily limited exercise - after all, even desert islands have wifi, right?

Well, I find myself in a unique predicament - soon to move, packing lightly, and with no computer, TV, or DVD player for the foreseeable future. When I am eventually watching movies again, it will probably be because I'm buying new equipment "out there," not because I sent for what I left behind. Which means that the bulk of my collection will still be on the other side of the country.

With that in mind, I wondered: assuming I find myself once again with a DVD player, but without (most) of my current DVDs, what small selection would I want to bring with me, just to keep me company in that dark age between purchase of player and shipping of discs? Like a monk in a monastery, what cinematic texts will I hover over to keep the flame alive?

What's your best post this year?

...Or your personal favorite, or your most popular, or your most original, or the one that covers the film you'd most like to highlight? For the fourth year, I'm going to do a blogosphere round-up, so I'm inviting readers' submissions for their own strongest work.

The piece could be a personal essay, a picture post, a video tribute, a clever conceit, or a straight-up movie review. It could embrace all of cinema, zero in on one movie, or have nothing to do with film at all. It's up to you.

You can submit a comment below (I will delete after reading and recording the choice) or email me at movieman0283 at gmail.

This year I have to be stricter with (my own) deadline as last year I let the project go until February when, no doubt, some of you weren't even aware that it went up! This year the deadline for submissions will be December 15 and I will crack the whip on myself to ensure that the post itself goes up between then and New Years Day.

If you want to take a look at past years, here are the round-ups from 2008 - 2010.

My #1 noir: Laura

In the past year, the website Wonders in the Dark has conducted four genre countdowns. The first covered horror, and I responded to it by naming my #1 horror film as The Shining. Shortly thereafter, an animation countdown led me to write up my #1 animated film, the Quay Brothers' haunting Street of Crocodiles. In the next week or two, the site will wrap up its most ambitious and wide-ranging countdown, a musical list that featured a dozen or so contributors and spanned seventy entries. I myself submitted three selections: The Gay Divorcee, 42nd Street, and An American in Paris. As the countdown concludes, I will offer a review of my own #1 musical, though I'm keeping the title under wraps until this Thursday.

But first, there's unfinished business. Lost in the shadows, appropriately enough, is a response to the site's third countdown - on that genre/style/movement, film noir. The noir countdown took place between February and May earlier this year, a time when I was all but absent (and eventually just plain absent) from the blogosphere. As such, I didn't get to read the pieces until recently, but they were worth the wait. Unlike the jovial, cheerful crowd that comprised the musical countdown, the noir beat was handled by just one person, Maurizio Roca, who wandered those cold dark streets alone, allowing one guest essay but policing the series parameters and placements with a strict understanding.

Unlike the expansive horror, animation, and musical lists, the noir selection was as focused and intense as a harsh streetlight: early forties to late fifties only, two Brits allowed but otherwise American only, no Hitchcocks (he was practically his own genre), and please, black and white only need apply. Well, my selection also fits those restrictions, and it was on Maurizio's list too, at #18. It took a while, but noir (anti?)heroes are a patient, unrushed lot, waiting for the right moment to pounce and catch their prey. My prey is quite lovely, enigmatic, and perhaps a bit dangerous. Without further, ado, my #1 noir: Laura (1944). And yes, there are spoilers.

Is it the portrait? Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) tells us the alluring painting doesn't quite capture Laura's essence. Maybe it's Waldo's loving descriptions - we see them played out in flashbacks, but for Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), they must unreel in his mind like imaginary movies, half-glimpsed through a haze of perfume and cigarette smoke. An elusive image dazzling yet blinding, like the "silver sun" Waldo describes in his memorable opening monologue ("I shall never forget the weekend Laura died...").

Then again, perhaps it's something more intangible that makes McPherson fall in love with, not a corpse as Waldo cynically puts it, but Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) herself - the girl before she was murdered. He's in love with something gone, something that once existed, that "essence" still lingering in the afternoon air but dissipating rapidly, a presence just missed by McPherson, in the room right before he entered but now vanished for good. Or has it?

The Story of the Fox

The Story of the Fox (1937/France/directed by Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz)

stars the voices of Claude Dauphin, Romain Bouquet, Sylvain Itkine, Marcel Raine

written by Jean Nohain, Antoinette Nordmann, Roger Richebe, Irene Starewicz, Wladyslaw Starewicz from Johann Wolfgang Goethe • photographed by Wladyslaw Starewicz • designed by Wladyslaw Starewicz • music by Vincent Scotto • animated by Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz

The Story: The royal lion seeks to punish Monsieur Renard (Mr. Fox) for eating his fellow creatures, yet the crafty animal tricks, manipulates, and fights his way out of every scrape.


“Animated Animals”: you’d be forgiven for picturing cute, wide-eyed little critters wandering through daisy fields and singing happy songs. Not so: this month there’s one cuddly creature (albeit too mute to sing), an amiable buffoon, a murderous yet still sympathetic monster, and then there’s Monsieur Renard (French for "fox"), the eponymous antihero of the brilliant stop-motion feature The Story of the Fox. Crafty, nasty, and carnivorous, Renard may have the least redeeming qualities of all the November beasts; unsurprisingly, he may also be the most human.

Watching as he assaults and semi-cannibalizes his fellow creatures, regarding us every now and then with an ambiguously conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, we titter nervously.  We recognize we aren’t really compatriots in crime but rather spectators in a show enacted only for the fox’s own benefit. Renard has the gifted performer’s contempt for the audience – and we’d probably be his next victim were we onscreen ourselves. Not only the fox but his master are winking at us with raw, mischievous relish.

Cinema in Pictures

The complete directory (in images) for "32 Days of Movies"

It's all here - every movie I included in my video series, completed yesterday. If you click on a picture it will take you directly to the video chapter including that clip. From there you can either press play, or navigate to the chapter intro via the "Return to the Dancing Image" link below the video player. You may want to do so for more information before watching (spoilers, NSFW, links to my reviews, even historical context), or you may just want to dive in and start swimming.

You can read the introduction if you have any questions about the intent of the series (based on my DVD collection, not canonical/favorites) or visit the Video Gallery if you'd like to browse the series by chapter rather than clip. If you're at work, be warned that a few of the images below contain nudity.

This post is really exciting for me to look at all laid out; it fits my image of cinema (encompassing multitudes, like some crazy quilt; see also Allan Fish's more canonical and ambitious timeline poster) and it feels a satisfactory conclusion to a project that was the most extensive I've ever done outside of school and among the five or six most time-consuming endeavors I've undertaken period. It was worth it, for me at least, and I can only hope the results work for you as well.

The End of Evangelion and Boiler Room were added in 2015.

Falling into the Future 2006 - 2009 • "32 Days of Movies" Day 32

Thirty-second chapter in "32 Days of Movies", an audiovisual tour through 366 films
(2015 update: included Vimeo embed after the jump)

View "Chapter 32: Falling into the Future"

Falling into the Future

Today we end quietly, mournfully, and, I think, beautifully. Many of these clips deserve that adjective - there is a sinuous grace to the films in this chapter, a kind of painterly impression as if figures and backgrounds on a canvas were being animated. As if, in a way, we had returned to the very roots of cinema, yet with a memory of where we'd been. This is less death than a kind of anti-birth, which makes the final clip deeply appropriate. It might help here to explain that my storytelling sensibility trends neither optimistic nor flatly pessimistic, but rather toward the tragic. Tragic conclusions are at once sad and deeply transcendent - not a happy ending, but still a glorious one. This certainly describes the last two clips, over which I played a single soundtrack - the music derives from the second film but works equally well with the first. Together they form a kind of swan song, and so this chapter's final moments can stand with the 40s dream chapter and the lightning montage ending the 60s episode as one of the most unified and telling moments in the video series.

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