Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jericho (1937) - #372

I'm going to crank out two of these movie reviews in one day! This one will be brief, since Jericho (a.k.a. "Dark Sands" in the USA, as the poster on the left indicates) is a pretty easy film to summarize, especially coming on the heels of Grand Illusion. The two movies actually make for an interesting study in compare and contrast. Both are set during World War I. Both involve imprisonment and escape. Both focus on iconic leading men (Jean Gabin there, Paul Robeson here) and both films deliver a message that can seem idealistic, subversive, or even naive for calling into question the prevailing assumptions and ideologies of their times.

The differences between the two are just as significant though. Grand Illusion is a French film dealing with European soldiers, the action set early in the war. Jericho, a British production, begins in 1917 after the USA entered the conflict and portrays American soldiers who only briefly land in France before they wind up fleeing to Africa. Grand Illusion is, of course, a universally heralded, supreme work of art created by one of the all-time great directors, Jean Renoir, while Jericho features mediocre production values, simplistic stock character performances, numerous racially insensitive rough spots and is more or less insignificant in its influence on other films. If it weren't for Robeson the Man's involvement, I'm pretty doubtful that this film would have ever made it onto my list (or Criterion's.) But in that sense, Jericho's obscurity helps put Grand Illusion in a bit of context to what was showing in other theaters at the time and it does make for some interesting viewing despite all my disclaimers that might make you think otherwise.

"Jericho" Jackson, played by Robeson, is a corporal taken under the wing of his captain in recognition of his solid character and leadership qualities. The action begins on a troop transporter heading from the States to the port of Bordeaux. Jericho helps to calm down some of the nervous black troops, who realize the danger posed by German submarines out on the open water. When a torpedo attack puts their ship in danger, Jericho responds heroically to rescue a group of men trapped below decks, but disobeys an order in the process and in so doing, accidentally causes the death of his black sergeant. The military authorities impose strict justice on Jericho, convicting him of murder and sentencing him to a long prison-term. Jericho, who had received three years of medical training which his confinement threatened to waste, has to come to grips with his dilemma and takes bold advantage of an opportunity to escape. He manages to do so and in the process, commandeers a small sailing vessel, which he and an accidentally acquired white American sidekick navigate all the way down to northern Africa. Once they arrive, Jericho builds a new life for himself as a fugitive who finds freedom in a society that allows his gifts and talents to get the recognition they deserve. A role-reversal of racial status takes place that Clancy, the white guy, submits to, figuring he has nowhere better to turn. Clancy's snappy-talkin' 30's guy mannerisms just seem to burnish Robeson's strong, confident screen presence to a warmer glow.

The film clips along briskly, wrapping up in a mere 75 minutes and managing to incorporate a diverse and entertaining collection of cultural artifacts from the time. Not surprisingly, Robeson's deep booming voice is showcased in a few musical sequences. We also get to see tap-dancing, crap shooting and some humorous dialog among the black soldiers. Also a stirring rendition of...

My Old Kentucky Home

Once we land in Africa, there's some great exotic location photography, including documentary footage from a massive desert caravan. And as with Sanders of the River, some genuine effort is made to capture tribal ways and tradition with respect and authenticity. Not consistently, I must admit - the natives are made to look like rubes from time to time for comic effect (just listen for the rinky-dink music to kick in, you'll know it's coming!) But for the most part, Jericho (and Robeson) appears to have learned from the more appalling racist overtones and other culturally ignorant mistakes that dragged down Sanders of the River.

The plot advances fueled by the vengeful pursuit of Captain Mack, the officer who helped Jericho advance but now feels justifiably betrayed by his protege's bad turn (as seen through the eyes of military law, anyway.) Mack hunts Jericho down until their fateful encounter toward the end, when he is able to recognize the virtue and legitimacy of what Jericho accomplished as a tribal leader. The ending is, in fact, quite satisfying, even though it feels rather abrupt in cinematic terms. The original script called for Mack and Jericho to leave together in a plane, where Jericho would assist in clearing Mack's tarnished reputation as the man who let the prisoner escape, only to have the two of them die in a "tragic" plane crash. Instead, Robeson (who had negotiated final cut control over the production) had Jericho remain with his tribal family where he would presumably go on to lead a long, full and serene life. The very last shot is of him and his wife smiling as they lay their baby in a crib (the kid's name is Mike, by the way - Michael Jackson!)

Unfortunately my scrounging around on the internet has failed to yield any clips from the film or even audio recordings of the set piece songs Robeson performed. Toward the end though, we do hear him bust out a few lines of "Shortenin' Bread" that he sings to his son. So here's short studio produced rendition of that charming ditty, with backing band:

Paul Robeson called Jericho his proudest moment as a film actor and I can see why. His character establishes his success on his own terms, and retains it with dignity. Robeson was a very bankable star at the time, understandably given the way he commands attention when he's on camera, both visually and audibly. It's a shame that he didn't get the chance to sink his talents into films that better stand the test of time, but that's the fate of pioneers, I guess. We still have a few more Robeson films ahead of us in the series though, and I'm quite intrigued to discover where his career took him next.

Eclipse Review: Désiré 

Eclipse Review: Quadrille

Next: Pygmalion

Grand Illusion (1937) - #1

Well here we are, Criterion DVD #1, the only disc to have a clearly specified numeric place of honor in the entire collection. (For example, disc #100 is a Beastie Boys video compilation that almost seems out of place here, and #200 is a minor cult film, The Honeymoon Killers, that is often near the top of "worst Criterion release" fan polls.)

Back in 1998, when Criterion entered the DVD market (after first establishing their niche in the laserdisc format,) they chose this film to be their first release, quickly followed up with some other universally lauded classics like Kurasawa's Seven Samurai, Fellini's Amarcord and Truffaut's The 400 Blows. But they wound up spending an extra two years working on image restoration, with the result that the Criterion logo on the cover doesn't match up with what was seen on the original releases of spines #2 - 51. OH WELL, BIG DEAL! Of no concern to you and most other readers of this blog, I'm sure! Only completist collector nerds like me even notice stuff like that. I get it. I'm ready to move on to more substantial matters now.

There's a reason, of course, that Criterion settled on Grand Illusion as their foundational DVD release (Citizen Kane and King Kong were their first two laserdiscs back in 1984, but they no longer had the rights to those films - OK, enough! I know!) The 1937 masterpiece has a whole lot going for it - a compelling story, fine lead and support performances, a stirring message delivered when Europe was at the precipice of another terrible war and an utterly masterful directorial effort by Jean Renoir who simply hit every note right in putting this film together. He'd come a long way from the rough anarchy and occasionally primitive technical limitations of Boudu Saved From Drowning, filmed just five years earlier, and now showed a command of all the details one must master in order to be considered an auteur of the highest rank. Grand Illusion rightfully and indisputably takes its place as one of the greatest films ever made.

I saw this film for the first time a couple years ago, and very briefly blogged about it, back when I was young and naive and didn't know what I was talking about when it came to appraising cinematic treasures. My comment then was, "It's a very good film, though not one that stirred up deep feelings in me." What a buffoon I was back then! I had probably been drinking wine and lost focus somewhere along the way. Or maybe the film was insufficiently "bizarre" or "quirky" to rivet my attention at the time. Any failure to be emotionally moved rests on the viewer's lack of attention or empathy, let me make that clear, because the experience of the characters in the film was poignant and profound to the highest degree, even when they appeared to be having fun. But I do want to offer up that sad example of my cultural shallowness back in 2007 in the interest of full transparency and to demonstrate just how much I've grown since then.

So what is this Grand Illusion that, like the phrase Magnificent Obsession, has embedded itself in our culture and sounds so poetically erudite to quote in various contexts? Well, it has nothing whatsover to do with the Styx song or album cover which, sad to consider, is probably how most people my age first became acquainted with the term. The 'great illusion' (to translate the French more accurately) was and is the idea that war is a necessary and inherently noble undertaking that draws societies together for the betterment of humanity and culture. The film can be seen as showing how the various characters are mercifully, but also painfully, stripped of that great, grand but ultimately false illusion.

The story takes place in 1914, the early phase of World War I. We are first introduced to two French pilots, Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Capt. Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay,) about to take to the skies in aerial combat with the Germans. We never see the battle, but we learn quickly that they've been shot down by their enemy and taken into custody. The enemy turns out to be a German nobleman, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim,) who we first meet tossing back shots of liquor and boasting of his latest triumph, shooting down yet another of his adversaries. However, he's impressed by Boldieu's pedigree, recognizing that despite their differing allegiances in the war, they are of roughly equal standing in the ranks of old European aristocracy. Boldieu and Marechal are hosted with dignity and respect at a formal dinner, at Rauffenstein's insistence, before being sent off to prisoner-of-war camp, where they meet fellow detainees from a broader social spectrum.

From this early point in the film, the plot transitions to become the prototype of the classic "jailbreak" subgenre, where a group of men cleverly conspire to find their way out of tight confinement. In the process, of course, relationships are built, tested and bonds of unity are forged in spite of the differences and dangers that threaten to pull them apart.

Audiences of our era may find the POW camp scenes seem unrealistic, more like something from Hogan's Heroes with the wisecracks, the delivery of parcels to prisoners from their families at home, the theatrical revue put on by the prisoners and the overall chumminess depicted on screen. Renoir based his story on historical precedents and wisely resisted any attempt to demonize the Germans or any of the other nationalities (including English and Russian soldiers) involved in the story (the story was set before the USA entered the war.) He wanted to appeal to citizens of all nations to resist the renewed calls to strife and combat that were beginning to sweep across the continent. No wonder that the fascist powers in Germany and Italy targeted this film specifically as a pernicious enemy of their ambitions - a contempt for Renoir's vision that led them to confiscate the film when the Nazis invaded France a few years later (though that very act of seizing the film's original negatives led to its preservation years later when they were discovered in a Munich blockhouse in the 1950s!)

And of course I can't move any further into this review without issuing forth a big SAY HEY to my bud Gaston Modot! In this film, he plays The Engineer, and here's a nice Christ-like foot-washing pose that I'd like to share with you, in still photo and video clip form:

Just when the band's escape seems imminent, the Germans pull their own surprise, moving all the prisoners to a new camp, thwarting the progress they'd made toward finding their way out of that particular trap. The passage of time is implied until we see the men arrive at the bleak, deserted and gothic-gloomy Wintersborn Castle, which fate would have it, was presided over by none other than von Rauffenstein himself.

Rauffenstein's war wounds (including burns and spinal injuries) have reduced him to desk duties running the prison camp housed in the castle. Wintersborn is seen as escape-proof because of the sheer drop confronting anyone seeking to head out the windows, and especially the highly disciplined, meticulously ordered security detail ordered by Rauffenstein, who's channeled his personal frustrations (wishing he'd died on the battlefield rather than survive in his current debilitated condition) and his obsession for order into his administrative role.

Sensing the arrival of a kindred spirit, someone who understands his aristocratic frame of reference, Rauffenstein invites Boldieu into his quarters for a revealing exchange in which they discuss the passing of the old and rigidly defined class lines that defined society in centuries past. For Rauffenstein, this is a lamentable loss - for Boldieu, a simple acknowledgement of changing times and changes that all in all are for the better. I can easily imagine that their discussion tapped heavily into sensibilities that weighed heavily on the minds of people living back then, as European societies were wracked between competing ideologies of fascism, communism and all points in between. The interactions between Rauffenstein and Boldieu play a crucial role in setting up the events that follow, as Boldieu recognizes that his aristocratic heritage actually can play a constructive part in helping his friend Marechal and another officer, the Jew Rosenthal, whose personal generosity and family wealth have benefitted many over the course of their confinement, despite the anti-Semitic prejudice that many of his fellow prisoners still harbored.

The final portion of the film puts two of the prisoners into a nearly idyllic pastoral situation, really an extended coda to the main action. After fleeing the castle in a very memorable escape sequence, they wander the German countryside, seeking the Swiss border where they can find asylum. Along the way, they stumble upon an isolated country cottage, inhabited by Elsa, a German widow, and her daughter. This sequence could easily be overlooked due to its relatively tranquil tempo compared to the bravura performances that take place in the previous hour and a half. But it's an important stretch of film, showing Renoir's vision of three people living together in peace despite all the presumed incompatibilities that ought to drive them apart according to then-conventional wisdom. The warmth, wisdom and beneficent appreciation of humanity for humanity's sake carries all the way through to the film's final scene - now that I got Renoir's insight, I have to say, I was deeply moved and still am just thinking about the scene in my mind's eye!

So... there you have it. I know I've been reviewing some really great films here and there are so many more on the way but I really do have to give Grand Illusion my highest, most urgent recommendation if you haven't seen it before. I hope this little reflection gives you a helpful cue for some of the things to look for and appreciate - I guess it's an easy film to "take for granted" in this day and age, butRenoir tackles a whole range of issues with such insight, discretion and admirable tact... and even if you have seen it before, I think you'd do well to give it another look and some prolonged reflection. You'll be a better (informed) person for it!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pepe Le Moko (1937) - #172

OK, you know this guy, right? - - >

And I practically have to assume that sometime in your life, you've heard somebody utter the phrase, "Come wiz me to ze Casbah, and we will make beeyooo-tee-full muzic, togethaaaaah..." Right?

Well I have. And I must admit that both the character and the phrase have made deep impressions on me. My all-time favorite citation of the "come wiz me to ze Casbah" line comes from an old Popeye cartoon, featuring a character I think was named "Shorty," who used that pick-up line on Olive Oyl to great (and hilarious) effect. I have looked for that clip on several occasions over the years but haven't managed to dig it up yet. Oh well, I'm not here to talk about Popeye anyway. I do want to turn your attention to the inspiration for these memorable characters and utterances - a truly delightful, exciting and wonderfully satisfying flick from the late 1930s - Pepe Le Moko!

I've reviewed some great films so far in this series, without a doubt. Pepe Le Moko rightfully takes its place among them, in my opinion, even though it can easily be relegated to the ranks of "mere" thrillers, gangster flicks and potboilers if one is so inclined. The film has acquired a high place of honor in the annals of French cinema, consistently regarded as a pivotal moment in the emergence of poetic realism, film noir and the emergence of the anti-hero as a staple of mainstream popular entertainment. Beyond its massive genre-influence, the film firmly established Jean Gabin as the supreme lead actor of French cinema over the course of the next two decades or so, and also serves as an extraordinary relic of France's colonial era prior to World War II. There are just so many things to appreciate about this film, I'm eager to share my discovery with you!

Let's first talk about the story's incredible setting. The Casbah is a particularly colorful and historic section of the city of Algiers, the capital of Algeria on the northwest coast of Africa. At the time, of course, Algeria was a French colony and arguably the crown jewel of French colonialism. Compared to Indochina or other African territories further to the south, Algiers was geographically close, yet still intriguingly foreign and well established as an international crossroads. The film's opening scene casts a powerfully alluring spell on behalf of the Casbah. Spend a few minutes getting lost there!

Of course, watching this clip also intoxicates us with the legend of Pepe le Moko himself - a clear and obvious prototype to all the other charmingly suave, seductive and immensely attractive criminal masterminds of cinema we are destined to meet in subsequent decades of movie-watching!

Naturally though, this is all build-up. We don't meet Pepe in this sequence. All in good time, mon cherie! We do meet Pepe's milieu though, and despite the attraction and intrigue we're meant to feel, when we do finally come into Pepe's presence, we quickly learn that after two years of living on the lam in this sun-drenched end of the earth, the master-thief has had his fill and then some of life in the Casbah. His lover, Ines, an Algierian native, remains devoted to Pepe, but he's grown bored of her and finds it increasingly difficult to block out his nostalgic reveries of the life he knew in Paris. Pepe walks as a demigod through the labyrinth he calls home, but satisfaction eludes him. He's grown restless, fatigued, uncertain of what he desires but unable to deny the emptiness and sense of confinement he feels day after day.

One evening, in the course of going about his routine affairs, evaluating the latest haul of stolen goods in the company of his henchmen, Pepe is tipped off that the police have laid out the dragnet, determined to pull him in and put him out of business once and for all. He eludes their grasp but in the process has a chance encounter with a beautiful young woman, the courtesan of a rich, flabby and elderly sugar-daddy who's bridged their gap in ages through an investment in fine jewelry that she wears with tasteful ostentation. To Pepe's underlings, she looks like nothing more than a frail, easy mark, but Pepe is smitten! He needs to find out who this woman is, where she's from and how he might go about writing a new chapter in his life with her at his side.
Here's another clip that shows Pepe and Giselle (or Gaby, as she's known to her friends, doubtlessly a splendid example of the ideal Parisienne beauty of the time) solidifying their friendship. The dialog is French and the subtitles are Spanish, but no matter - it's the body language that does all the talking here! (Ines, of course, is the Algerian woman we see peering at Pepe through the blinds at the beginning of the sequence... yes, it's another love triangle, the complications of which turn out to be the undoing of poor Pepe le Moko!) Check out Gabin's performance. What a man's man! From romancin' to dancin' to coldly layin' down some gangster justice! A very influential 'hit" sequence that set the bar on how to execute a rub-out for decades to come.

What follows from this point is a whole series of intrigues, double-crossings and pursuit sequences that would be a shame for me to spoil so let me refrain from giving away too much more of the plot. Suffice it to say that it all ends up suitably tragic, romantic and pitiable! Forget the extreme likelihood that if we were victimized by someone like Pepe in real life, we'd be happily cheering him along to meet his inevitable demise - when he finally does come to the end of his career, I was genuinely moved and saddened to see it come about, as inevitable and poetically justified as it was. Pepe le Moko the man serves as a compelling example of the man who has ridden out the tangent upon which he cast his life to its fullest, and having discovered that it didn't quite take him as far as he hoped it would, stakes it all on a bold, reckless roll of the dice, when he knows the odds are against him but also realizes that playing it safe is an obvious losing hand. The style and panache with which he conducts himself serves as a fulfilling outlet for those of us who still hold the dice, shake them in our palms every once in a while, but never quite dare to let them hit the ground, the concrete or the green felt carpet... whatever game it is we choose to play!

Oh I also have to give a shout-out to my man Gaston Modot! I swear, he has become my all-time favorite character actor! I love spotting his unmistakeable mug in all these French art-house films! He made his debut in L'Age D'Or, of course (still sadly not part of the Criterion Collection.) And he will be making appearances in several other films yet to be reviewed here. Pepe Le Moko, Gaston plays Jimmy, one of Pepe's enforcers who manages to subtly steal a few scenes thanks to his advanced skills with the ball-in-cup.

The Criterion DVD offers a rich assortment of special features, especially considering that this is one of their lower priced discs. We get a nice documentary on the long career of Jean Gabin, excellent background on the sources and adaptations of the iconic Pepe le Moko character and an interview with director Julien Duvivier from 1962, when he was grappling with the influence that this film had on the French New Wave which was close to its peak at the time. All in all, we have a wonderfully entertaining package here, folks, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to discuss in further depth with anyone who's seen the film and has an opinion or observation to offer!

Eclipse Review: Elephant Boy

Eclipse Review: The Pearls of the Crown

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Lower Depths (1936) - #239

Even though this film takes place in France and stakes a higher claim to being "serious art" than either My Man Godfrey (a great film nevertheless) or Magnificent Obsession, The Lower Depths (Les Bas Fonds) bears similarities to those two previous entries in our series. Each of them were the basis of remakes in the 1950s and all three deal with issues of social class, albeit in dramatically different ways.

The "lower depths" referred to in the title have to do with the bottom layers of the social pyramid, a sordid environment inhabited by people living in squalor and futility. Presumably the French audience of the time recognized the seriousness of the problems facing not just those poor wretches themselves but also their society as a whole. Viewers do well to keep in mind that the film was released in 1936, as fascist movements were catching on not only in neighboring Germany, but also in Italy and within some segments of the French populace themselves. The thought that their continent was a scant three years away from erupting in cataclysmic warfare may have been foreseeable to some but my hunch is that most citizens were doing their best to block out such scenarios from their thinking. Still, the roiling coming up from the underclasses was too troubling and potentially incendiary to ignore.

The story of The Lower Depths is based on a Russian original, a play written in 1902 by Maxim Gorky, whose ideas and political activism played a very influential role in shaping the Bolshevik movement (though Gorky publicly broke with Lenin and Trotsky shortly after the 1917 revolution that gave birth to the Soviet Union.) Gorky was a noted advocate on behalf of the poor and oppressed and The Lower Depths remains one of his most famous works, probably now due to the fact that two films by great directors have made the work widely accessible to global audiences. 

This version was filmed by Jean Renoir, whose work we were introduced to in Boudu Saved From Drowning. (The remake was by Akira Kurosawa.) The very little that I knew about the film and story going into it, I didn't anticipate many similarities or obvious connecting points to that earlier Renoir project, but I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of warmth and self-effacing humor the director wove into his story. I guess my expectations were set-up by the obvious "left wing" orientation of the source material. That led me to think we were going to have to sit through a bit of a guilt-trip as we were forced to stare at the terrible, shameful conditions that people must endure when they live in the lower depths. Thanks to Renoir, we get a story that rises above the sort of woodenly earnest scoldings that commentators on the political left too often rely on when trying to affect popular consciousness.

Gorky's play is set entirely in the confines and immediate surroundings of a poor Russian boarding house where any number of outcasts and miscreants have taken up dwelling. Renoir and company attempted to preserve the spirit of the story while moving the setting to a French town along the Marne. So we get outdoor scenes and an expanded look at the French aristocracy. The action revolves around two men: Pepel, a thief who lives in the boarding house, and the Baron, a well-bred gentleman whose fortune collapses due to a gambling problem that's escalated beyond his control. The opening scenes portray the Baron being confronted by his superior about an enormous amount of money that's gone missing on his watch, and Pepel trying to extricate himself from an affair with Vassilisa, the young attractive wife of the decrepit tenement manager Kostylyov. Pepel is a professional thief who sells stolen items to the couple. He plans a caper to rob the home of the Baron, but is interrupted in the act when the Baron returns earlier than expected from a particularly unsuccessful visit to the casino. Sensing that he will no longer be able to evade trouble due to his compulsive gambling, he decides to befriend Pepel, sensing a kindred spirit despite the difference in the circumstances of their birth. In his resignation, the Baron bestows a few gifts on Pepel, allows him to spend the night and sends him on his way. Pepel is picked up by the police, suspected of robbery, but the Baron vouches for him and allows Pepel to walk free, much to everyone's surprise. 

Eventually the Baron, having lost his fortune and his good standing in society, comes to live in the flophouse. By that time in the film, we've gotten to know quite a few of the characters who live there, including a charmingly dissheveled, wild-haired Bohemian actor and an effusively hyperactive accordianist who likes to drunkenly bound about the premises late at night to rouse les habitants. The dramatic tension continues to build as Vassilisa's sister Natasha is offered by the landlord couple as a kind of "hush money" offering to the local police inspector, an obese repulsive fellow,  so that he refrains from arresting them and shutting down their crooked enterprise. Of course, Pepel has feelings for Natasha but can't really offer her much of a prospect, living one step ahead of the law as he does, especially compared to the material advantages that the inspector can offer.

In lesser hands, this film would easily and even intentionally be reduced to the stock pacing and long-term irrelevance of a second-rate morality tale. But there are numerous pleasures to savor here. First and foremost is the performance of Jean Gabin, one of the great French movie stars of all time. I'd compare him to a Clark Gable or Cary Grant, but he's truly his own man. Gabin will star in numerous other Criterion films in the weeks/months/years ahead. Louis Jouvet (as the Baron) is another notable presence. Here is a video clip, sans sub-titles, that features both actors in a pivotal and lovely pastoral scene. The baron (the darker haired, slimmer man) is reflecting on the changes that have taken place in the various stages of his life. Watch the clip, and look for the appearance of a little snail, and appreciate how this small, tender touch (not originally part of the script, but improvised on the spot) breathes life into the dialog. I'll recap the conversation the two men have below:

Pepel: I'm tired of listening to them (the people with whom he lives in the boarding house.) I need a change. I'm sick and tired of them.
Baron: Are you sick and tired of me?
Pepel: Of course not, you're different, you don't lie. You don't go on about why you're here.
Baron: That would be hard to do. I don't know how I got here. There's a kind of fog in my noggin. When I look back, it seems all I did was change uniforms. First the schoolboy, then the student. I've forgotten everything I ever learned at the university. I got married, wore a tailcoat, then a dressing gown. What was the point? I wore the uniform of a government official and grew poorer. My clothes became more and more threadbare. Finally, I wear these, the last of the line. And it all seems like a dream. Isn't it absurd? 
Pepel: Ever been to prison? That would have been one more uniform. 
Baron: And you?
Pepel: No, not yet. But it'll happen sooner or later. My path was laid out for me by my father. Poor guy spent his life in prison, and urged me to follow in his footsteps, so...
Baron: His concern for you does him credit. Is he dead?
Pepel: Yes, he died in prison, just as he said I would. The only thing that could change my father's prediction is if Natasha ran away with me. If she'd just throw her arms around me and say, "Pepel, I believe in you, you'll protect me." No more Pepel the thief. I'd be a new man. We'd go far away from all this filth and rottenness! (I'll give you two guesses as to the film's final scene!) What about you, Baron?
Baron: I'll stay here. Once you told me how nice it was to doze in the grass. I didn't really believe you then, but I do now. 
So, isn't that a cool dialog? I dug it. I have some very happy memories of dozing in the grass over the course of many years. It's one of my very favorite things to do that I haven't done nearly often enough. I also have to confess that I'm a sucker for vintage exterior shots from this bygone era. Boudu featured a few classic clips from the streets and parks of Paris, and I deeply enjoy the scenes where Renoir gets his camera out of the studio (even though the flophouse set is quite a wonder of gritty bricks 'n beams to behold itself) and shows us glimpses of "old" (that is, pre-WW2) France. There's just something about the atmosphere and sense of place that these images convey - relics from a time that is already distant and receding ever further as humans swarm and technology progresses. You saw a bit of that on the riverbank. There are also some nice scenes of cultivated parks and gardens, replete with bandstands and members of the French bourgeoisie doing wondrously bourgeois things, sitting there in the sun in their hot stifling dresses and suits!

This is the fifth Renoir film I've seen (Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game and The River being the other three) and at this point, I am deeply impressed. His free-spirited insight into human behavior, and his ability to capture so many of those insights on film, have won me over. I can't wait to watch those other films again and to discover the other Criterion films that await me as I continue to work my way through this wondrous library of cinematic masterpieces!

Eclipse Review: Mr. Thank You

Next: Pepe le Moko

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Man Godfrey (1936) - #114

All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.

On the weekend that we learn about AIG executives treating themselves to $100 million bonuses after accepting billions in federal bailout money, I can think of no more appropos time to review this very funny but subtly scathing takedown of the idle, feckless, smug and self-satisfied inhabitants of big money New York high society.

We've probably all seen films that lampoon the rich, mocking their foibles and giving us common working-class types amusing opportunities to laugh at the eccentric dunderheads who consider themselves a distinct and superior breed apart from the rest of us. Some of my earliest and happiest media memories are of watching old Three Stooges reels that inevitably wound up in ballroom-trashing food fights, and there was never a moment more deleriously fitting than when the crotchety old man, the overstuffed grande dame, the simpering pretty boy or the highfalutin' princess got smacked square in the kisser with a dripping goopy custard pie.

My Man Godfrey never descends to such vulgar levels of slapstick (not that there's anything wrong with that) but it does manage to level a rather barbed attack, while also offering them a chance at redemption if only they let moral fiber, courage and a sincere commitment to the social contract prevail when making ethical decisions, financial or otherwise. Given its longstanding and well-deserved reputation as a "definitive screwball comedy" (quoting from the DVD case,) most of the film's message and impact comes through the sharp banter, impeccable timing and impressive performances of a great cast. William Powell and Carole Lombard were both big stars in Hollywood at the time (though this was Lombard's first leading role) and My Man Godfrey was the first film to ever earn Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories (though it didn't win any of them, perhaps because the political overtones were just a bit too much for some of the Academy voters to allow at the time.) Though I'm hardly an expert on films from the 1930's (but I'm learning more about them all the time!) I think it's fair to say that this is an essential movie for anyone seeking an informative glimpse into the consciousness of Depression-era USA.

The film starts off with a remarkable opening sequence - the main titles and credits fill the screen in gaudy Art Deco neon as the camera pans left to right across a sophisticated illustrated New York cityscape. We see the landmark Queensboro Bridge spanning the river across the upper right screen but at the bottom, we see what appear to be decrepit shacks and piles of trash. Then we notice a solitary figure standing over an open fire pit. The drawing comes to life and we instantly realize that we're looking at a man living in a city dump. He exchanges words with a fellow down'n'outer and wryly reminds his pal (and his audience) that "prosperity is just around the corner," derisively quoting the now-discredited former US President Herbert Hoover. Just then, a limousine pulls up and out hop a couple of glamorous and lovely young women, two sisters it turns out. The oldest, dominant and elegant Cornelia Bullock, approaches the hobo (who happens to be the titular characer Godfrey) and offers him five dollars for his cooperation in a game she's playing. She's participating in a scavenger hunt and one of the items on the list to retrieve is a "forgotten man," the term used back then to describe those who'd fallen on hard times and had to leave home, family and all the trappings of domestic life. Godfrey, provoked by her haughty exploitive manner, rebuffs her and as he advances toward her, causes her to stumble and fall backwards into an ash pile - not quite the response that proud Cornelia was expecting!

Irene, her younger, blonde and babbling sister, finds this all quite amusing once she gets over the shock. Godfrey senses something different about her and likes the thought of helping Irene beat her sister at her own game, so he agrees to play along and accepts Irene's ride back to the site of the party so she can collect her prize and he can take a long hard look at the dandies who would make sport of other people's misery.

From that introduction, circumstances unfold that lead to Godfrey becoming butler to the Bullock family, a certifiably nutsy clan led by a perpetually frustrated and hilariously slow-burning father, a terminally ditzy and distractable mother, her "protege" Carlo, a pseudo-intellectual whom we can regard as a live-in gigolo though the censors wouldn't let that be specified, the two sisters and Molly, the jaded wise-cracking maid who knows all too well how quickly the demands of the job have led to a continual turnover of would-be domestic servants. The family's address is given in this film, 1011 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which happens to be directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more generally right across the street from Central Park. A pretty iconic location, obviously. I wonder who lives there now?

The story propels along pretty briskly as Godfrey settles in, endures the various forms of insanity that prevail in the Bullock household and of course gets caught up in a bit of a love triangle with the two sisters. Cornelia is tall, cool, icily seductive but with an obvious intent on revenge that tests Godfrey's game. Irene is loopy, impulsive and wildly emotional - radiantly energetic, true, but alarmingly so. She's prone to have "spells" that require the pampering and indulgence of whoever happens to be around when things don't go her way. Still, Godfrey finds something amusing and attractive about her that he can't quite dismiss.

This video clip provides a quick, deep immersion into the Bullock's familial madness and also give you a chance to behold Carlo's wonderful gorilla impersonation!

Eventually we learn that Godfrey has a mysterious past that makes his employment as a butler rather unexpected but all the more meaningful in context. The plot develops in a way that leads to a happy resolution for just about everyone, which while not exactly plausible or necessary for my enjoyment of what transpired beforehand, fits well within the conventions of the time - and could be even regarded as a kind of an arch-inside joke by the director who engineered events to fall into place so conveniently that one might even think he was poking fun at the expectations placed on him to "leave 'em laughing as they go."

What makes My Man Godfrey especially relevant and poignant for our own times is how the film places the burden of responsibility for serving justice, equity and the larger needs of society squarely upon those who have benefitted most by its long-standing rules and customs. A brief but illuminating scene toward the end reveals that one of Godfrey's fellow "forgotten men" was a former bank president who liquidated all of his personal assets so that his depositors would not be wiped out. My, how refreshing it would be to hear something like that happening - these days, back then or whenever!

Director Gregory LaCava spares us any nonsense about the inherent virtues of the common folk - his sentiments seem more tempered and iconoclastic than to try and take audiences into that territory. He does believe in the power of a decent job to make a big difference in a man's life and I enjoyed the device he used to get the forgotten men a working wage - the construction of a swanky nightclub called The Dump, built on the same site that we saw in the very beginning of the movie!

The Criterion DVD includes a fine commentary and two newsreel clips from the era showing both sides of the social divide: just how very real riverside campsites and all their associated hardships were in our major metropolitan areas back in the mid-30s, and how that contrasted with the frivolities of the social elites. Sacramento already has a tent city sprung up on its outskirts. Is a Hollywood remake of My Man Godfrey on it's way? I dare the studios to give it a shot! The standard to meet is high, of course, but that never stopped them from recycling old plots before. This one would at least be more timely than the one they did in 1957 starring David Niven. But maybe the Hollywood tycoons aren't in the right position for skewering the uber-privileged these days...?

Eclipse Review: The Story of a Cheat

Eclipse Review: Sisters of the Gion

Eclipse Review:  Rembrandt

Friday, March 13, 2009

Magnificent Obsession (1935) - #457

I have to admit to my first major screw-up in my quest to watch all of the Criterion Collection feature films in chronological order. The most recent post of My Man Godfrey dates from 1936, so in order to squeeze in the original 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, I'm actually going to backdate this post so that it slips in between Godfrey and it's predecessor The 39 Steps! But in the interest of full disclosure, I'll also state right here that I'm doing it.

The reason for this is fairly simple and straightforward. I got the recently released CC disk of Magnificent Obsession, figuring that it's part of my preloading of 1950s classics that I will eventually get to (though I have quite a ways to go before I arrive there - the rest of the Great Depression, World War 2, a bunch of film noir and the re-emergence of European and Japanese cinema in the postwar era.) The famous version of Magnificent Obsession, directed by Douglas Sirk, the one that moved Criterion to actually release both versions on DVD, didn't come out until 1954. It wasn't until just the other day that I looked at the package and realized that the second disc contained a full-fledged release that predated My Man Godfrey. But by then it was too late - I'd already posted that review.

I've stated elsewhere in my rules for this blog that I won't be backtracking when new releases date from a point earlier than wherever I happen to be blogging from. But this is not that, so I am comfortable with this decision and it's respect for both the spirit and the letter of my law. OK, enough about my self-imposed rules of order! Let's get to the movie at hand.

Well, maybe, or maybe not. The truth of the matter is that the original 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession would never have warranted a Criterion release (or maybe even a DVD re-issue of any but the most generic, bare-bones, public domain bargain bin sort) if Sirk had not chosen the plot for the vehicle that ultimately went on to become the pivotal turning point of his career. I'll save my other comments about Sirk for another time. But given his influence and accomplishments, this early rendition of a massively popular novel from the 1920s takes on value that it wouldn't have otherwise. That's just telling it like it is. Magnificent Obsession (1935) is basically weepy hokum, potboiler schmaltz, pre-television soap opera... a surefire cash-in on a novel with a large built-in audience that made it a natural target for producers looking for a solid return on investment.

But that's what I love about Criterion. They are not afraid to offer up films that fail to come within shouting range of the "all-time greats" list. And here's one that is far far far from being considered on of those.

So rather than offer up some flimsy analysis of the film itself, I'd like to take a longer look at the "phenomenon" of Magnificent Obsession, a bit of a history lesson in pop culture of a bygone era that predates most everyone likely to be reading this blog. As I've said, the film is based on a fictional work from 1929 that made a big splash back in it's day, something along the lines of, say, The Prayer of Jabez or even The Purpose Driven Life has in our times. The book has apparently never gone out of print but because it is so old, it appears to have entered the public domain, so if you're inclined, you can read the thing for yourself right here! I haven't bothered much with it myself, but a brief glance at the stilted, straining prose is enough to establish the mood and mindset of the author, for the experienced reader anyway. My quick, underinformed take on the novel is that the author, Lloyd C. Douglas, a Congregational minister, was a proud and successful member of that long tradition that finds clever ways to link up some version of traditional Christian morality and sentiment with the zeitgeist of his time. Another old book that comes to mind along this line is Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, which is actually a root influence for the incredible WWJD wrist bracelet fad of the mid-90s! Even though that book was written in the 19th century! So there you have something to dig into, if I've stoked your curiousity at all.

And let me give Douglas credit for coming up with a totally fabulous, memorable title. I have no idea of the phrase "magnificent obsession" was already in common parlance back then, but it really is a very nice turn of phrase, one that is probably familiar to many more English speakers than have actually read the book, seen the movie or even heard of the media products bearing that name. MagOb, a meme that stuck before the idea of memes had even been coined!

So I'll turn your attention to this pivotal scene in the movie itself (for this is after all, a movie blog!) In it, the lead character, a young dapper 'n debonair millionaire playboy by the name of Bobby Merrick, has just slept off his drunkenness from the previous night in the home of a stranger. Fate led him there so that he could learn an important lesson: the virtue of "giving secretly" which according to author Douglas, and his stand-in philosopher Dr. Randolph, was the essence of what Jesus taught (well, there is at least one verse that points us in that direction!) That's the common thread that ties the book, the movie and the other works I've mentioned together - their shared interest in boiling down the fascinating but often confusing and ambiguous complex of Christian tradition down into a few easy to remember and practice (at least superficially) nuggets of conventional wisdom. The clip below shows the conclusion, really the summary, of the dialog between Merrick and Randolph, and Merrick's initial attempt to carry out the secret of "how to make contact with the Source of Infinite Power!"

It's kind of a shame that I can't find a clip focused on Randolph's extended discourse - a fine specimen of modernistic pseudo-scientific bluster - but then I have no interest in deterring any readers from finding and watching the film for themselves. Trust me, if my comments have intrigued you thus far, it's at least worth a rental!

I won't wax all theological on you here but I will express my skepticism at films and other media products like this that want to sell us on such simplistic and elementary "principles" as the solution to what ails us and the rest of the world, while we're at it. Though I will admit, plugging this two-bit metaphysics smack dab into the heart of a bosom-heaving 1930's weepie melodrama does at least give the pitch a touch of charm that more wooden, self-serious efforts utterly lack. As I hope you've seen (if you watched the clip) lead actor Robert Taylor does a great job portraying the slick, smug, satisfied, wise-cracking dandy of his time, even though the script and performance compel me to want to smack him hard across the kisser on quite a few occasions!

So there you have it, a quick dip into a vintage four-hankie film. The plot developments will be explored in more depth when we get to the "definitive" version of this film, made in 1954, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. That viewing is quite a few months away though. It's time to put this minor league production behind us - we have some heavy hitters coming up soon.

Eclipse Review:  Osaka Elegy

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The 39 Steps (1935) - #56

Our series continues its focus on English films, and as we move further into the 1930s and on to the World War II era, we're going to get much more familiar with some of the heavy hitters of British cinema. Here's a director who began his career in the UK but eventually came over the States where he cemented a reputation as a complete cinematic master of his genre and craft - Alfred Hitchcock.

I'll admit to feeling a bit overmatched by the challenge - Hitchcock's films have inspired an enormous body of critical work over the decades and he's a director whose accomplishments can be approached from numerous angles. He's an early pioneer of the medium who went on to have a career spanning 50 years. His films employ a wide range of techniques and innovations. The psychological themes and motifs run deep but remain playful and accessible to mass audiences. He worked with some of the most admirable leading men and gorgeous leading women to ever grace the screen. An anthology of his "classic scenes" would contain some of the most instantly recognizable images and dramatic encounters in all of filmdom. And when Hitchcock was at his best, he made films that achieved cinematic perfection over a long stretch of time. His admirers can make as strong a case as could be made for any director that he was the very greatest filmmaker of them all.

Having said all that, I'm not a rabid Hitchcock fan, but that may be due to the fact that I still haven't seen a lot of his films and I haven't really studied his work or been instantly won over by it as I have other directors whose temperament and artistic style grabs me - guys like Bunuel and Bergman. But I will be getting deeper into Hitchcock soon enough - The Lady Vanishes is coming up soon on the list, and then we'll get to follow Hitch as he makes the journey to America and directs (among others) three great classics: Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious. That will fill a significant gap in my education and probably allow me to revisit popular titles I've seen a few times like North By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho with greater appreciation.

The 39 Steps is regarded by the reviewers I've encountered as the best film of Hitchcock's early career and I can see, after a few viewings, numerous pleasures jumping out of nearly every well-constructed scene. Viewers who are more familiar with the later titles mentioned above will quickly recognize the central device of an ordinary man quickly and unexpectedly caught up in intrigues that he neither sought out nor desired. Despite his innocence, he's accused of vile deeds and encounters one suspicious adversary after another. Invariably he gets involved with a beautiful woman or two, flirts up to the edge of seduction/romance, only to be plucked away into one impossible scrape after another. The viewer gets to enjoy a very satisfying back-n-forth tug between suspense, comedy, shock and relief as the plot ingeniously and briskly drives through memorable twists and scenery towards its fascinating conclusion. That's the general sketch of a lot of Hitchcock films and I guess it's fair to say that The 39 Steps established the classic template that he returned to time and again, tossing new tricks into the mix each time out just to keep it all fresh.

The 39 Steps was based on a popular novel of the World War I era, though the film places it easily in contemporary England and Scotland. The protagonist, Hannay, is a Canadian whose chance encounter with a woman in the aftermath of a music hall melee sets him on his fateful course. She informs him of a spy cell that she's trying to prevent from making off with secret information that would compromise British military intelligence. He scoffs at her outlandish story, but when she winds up dead in his apartment with a knife in her back, he realizes just how serious his predicament has become. Her dying words send him on a trail to Scotland where, driven partly by duty but mostly a desire to save his hide, he looks to find a man whom he believes will set things straight and get him out of danger.

Of course, it's never that simple, is it? He shows a knack for making quick, nimble decisions to stay one step ahead of danger - most of the time. He gets caught just often enough to give us lumps in our throat, and benefits from more than a few amazingly implausible lucky breaks that keep him alive longer than he has a right to expect. Once the action starts, we're basically caught up in an hour-plus chase scene that features great scenes set on trains, bridges, running across the Scottish moors and just a wee bit of risque (for the 1930s) fun as he finds himself handcuffed to a beautiful blonde in a roadside inn for the night!

This clip introduces us to Hannay and his first encounter with Pamela who would go on to accompany him thru the second half of the film, despite her apparent disdain for him at this point in the proceedings. We also get to see a nice claustrophobic chase through a train, a narrow escape, a vertigo-inducing stare into the abyss and meet a grim repressed couple living out on the blasted heath:

The final resolution seems rather far-fetched and I'm still not all that clear after a couple sit-throughs just how the 39 Steps spy ring operated or if the denouement (featuring the only death-scene I've ever witnessed with a chorus line of high-kicking dancers in the background) would really be sufficient to clear Hannay of the murder charge. But that doesn't matter much really - I love the swift, dropped curtain conclusion of the film and Hitchcock's lordly lack of concern for dropping in a moral or obvious heavy message on his audience. The clues that Hitchcock scattered throughout the film are sufficient for the purpose of entertaining us at first watch, intriguing us at second and convincing us that when we follow the path that leads to The 39 Steps ourselves, we're on a trail blazed by a master.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sanders of the River (1935) - #372

It may help to refresh our memories here a bit. The Criterion Collection presents itself to us as "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." The key word here being "important." Not great, not necessarily praiseworthy or even commendable. Such is the case with Sanders of the River, the fourth feature film starring Paul Robeson in our series. 

Before I get into my deeper and prolonged criticisms of the movie though, I do want to make it clear that I fully agree with Criterion's decision to release the film as part of their excellent box set Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist. Of the eight main titles included in the four-disc set, I expect that this will be the most difficult to endure because it shows Robeson in his most artistically compromised, subservient role, portraying a native African tribal chief, Bosambo, whose ambitions and familial loyalties require him to bow (literally) and scrape (figuratively) to curry the favor of the title character Sanders, a British regent running the King's business in colonial Nigeria. 

The dialogue - and even beyond that, the presumptions - in the film are simultaneously hard to endure and also very instructive in demonstrating the patronizing, condescending mindset of English society at the time. Throughout the length of the picture, we see a small handful of pasty white Brits directing cowering dark-skinned natives into quivering submission simply by their threat of punishment and an unyielding conviction that their civilization is inherently superior and a necessary force for the improvement of the poor savage blighters that King Edward has commissioned them to govern. Time and again, we witness condescending remarks about "Lord Sandi's" black children and the ease with which they are convinced to act in accordance to the simplistic "white man's magic" that can turn them from loyal passivity to primitive frenzy with just a few wild beats on the natives' talking drums. 

Sanders, played by the fine British actor Leslie Banks, rules his outpost with a punitive iron fist, but there's no sense that anything he does is excessive, exploitive or brutal. He simply wields the force that the barbaric populace requires in order to keep the society from collapsing into bloody carnage. The British empire is portrayed and understood as nothing more or less as the provider of structure and paternal care that, if removed, would instantly render the Africans helpless and desolate. As such, Sanders of the River should be seen as a form of propaganda, though in its original release, it's most likely functions were to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and even more, to deliver a ripping good yarn that would bring exotic and exciting entertainment unlike most anything else seen in England at the time.

And let there be no mistake - I have to imagine that this film provided some amazing eye-openers for viewers of its time. Director Zoltan Korda, of the famous Korda family, used the story as a vehicle for using long and impressive documentary footage that he shot in Africa. We get to see fascinating shots of 1930s African village life, including large tribal rituals and dances - some of which are rather frank and exotic in their presentation of rhythmic music and native dress (or undress, as the case may be - the kind of "topless women" shots that led many a curious schoolboy to thumb through their grandparents' old National Geographics way back in the day.) In addition, we get to see wonderful nature photography, some from boats on the river, other images shot from airplanes flying over the savannah. Giraffe and wildebeest herds, slithering crocodiles, charging rhinos, splashing hippos - all quite wonderful and very capable of providing needed relief from the often-insufferable colonial overlay. 

The plot is pretty standard melodrama. Sanders, about to return to England after five years of service in order to get married, hands over his charge to the inexperienced lackey Ferguson and young sidekick Tibbets. Before he leaves, he meets Bosambo (Robeson) who informs him that wicked King Mofoloba and his warriors are conducting slave raids in the province.
 Sanders summons the king to his outpost and gives him a stern talking to, and Mofoloba submits, but not before snarling threats to his young rival Bosambo who speared down one of Mofoloba's chiefs in a previous scene. As Sanders leaves, threatening severe punishment for any natives who misbehave in his absence, a pair of conniving Frenchmen slip downstream bringing a load of contraband gin and rifles with which to corrupt the ignorant savages and enrich themselves. They easily dupe the natives into thinking that Sandi is dead, and with his passing, the end of English law in the jungle. 

Of course such news urges the tribesmen to shed their inhibitions and before too long, looting, pillage and massacre are unleashed. Ferguson proves to be incapable of halting the insurrection as he foolishly sets out to confront Mofoloba, only to be taken hostage. We get the standard "white man tied to the tree surrounded by snarling boogey-men" scene (at least they spared us the "missionaries in a boiling cauldron" scenario") which ends in Ferguson's tragic but predictable death. 

Meanwhile, a subplot involving Bosambo and his wife Lilongo (both played by rather obviously Americanized black actors) develops. Lilongo gets kidnapped by Mofoloba which sets up another predictable showdown between the noble (and compliant) Bosambo and the rebellious native king. But Bosambo proves to be no match and is easily overpowered by the king's henchmen. Not until Sanders heroically swoops in with his gunmen and a swarm of loyal, uniformed dark-skinned soldiers are Bosambo and Lilongo rescued from peril. And of course as a reward for his fidelity, Bosambo is crowned as the new tribal king after Mofoloba is dispatched according to the dictates of the law of the jungle. All winds up well, the natives are no longer restless, the dignity of the Crown is restored, God Save The King!

So why in the world did Paul Robeson agree to take a role that seems to pretty obviously debase himself and proved to be something of an embarrassment in an otherwise very distinguished career? A documentary on the disc titled "True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson" helps answer the question. Robeson and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s, after he had already become famous in the USA as a powerful stage actor and singer. He basically left the States in order to escape the blatant racism that he believed deterred him from pursuing the kinds of artistic opportunities that interested him. England at that time had a lot more to offer, though as he learned, the UK was hardly without its cultural blindspots. Still, he saw the role of Bosambo in this film (which was a big budget production and a significant release in its time) as a showcase that would help bring about a greater awareness and appreciation of African people and culture. It was also a chance to earn a significant paycheck, and also to put many of his new acquaintances to work as extras in the film. Among them was Jomo Kenyatta who would go on to become the founding father of the modern nation of Kenya. To some extent, I think we can say that Robeson succeeded, though even in its time, his participation in the movie earned him rebuke from black leaders including a notable scolding from black nationalist and anti-colonial visionary Marcus Garvey. Robeson eventually went on to distance himself from the film, but I think we can view the film now as a revealing relic of its time and hardly fault the man for accepting the role in the hopes that the final product would have proven less exploitive than it turned out to be. 

And of course, regardless of how we might be led to complain about and even regret the flaws of the script and story, there is still the magnificent presence of Paul Robeson himself to reckon with and enjoy on the screen. Here we see his powerful physicality and hear his booming voice. This collection of songclips demonstrates the strength and charisma that made him utterly unique in his era and still quite compelling today - especially as one becomes familiar with the intellect and vision of this true cultural pioneer. (Note that the first song in this clip is from a later film, King Solomon's Mines, though the compiler doesn't seem aware of that. Everything after the first song comes from Sanders of the River.)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) - #232

For the first time, our series of Criterion film reviews turns its attention to Asian cinema, and what better auteur to focus on than Yasujiro Ozu? One of the venerable figures of not merely Japanese filmmaking but rather a major and unique stylist who carved out a niche so distinctive that it has few imitators but is immediately recognizable and widely enjoyed across the global cultural landscape. Ozu's film career began in the 1920s silent era, bridged the war years and ended when he passed away in the early 1960s, still at the height of his powers. His body of work will be prominently featured in the months ahead, though we won't be reviewing any more of his work in this blog until we get past the World War II era - in fact, there are no more Asian films in the lineup until we get up to 1948. So this is just a foretaste, an appetizer so to speak, of the wonders that we'll behold when the Western world in general was introduced to filmmakers like Ozu, Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Mizoguchi, Suzuki and many more.

A Story of Floating Weeds might not have even made it as a Criterion release on its own had not Ozu himself decided to remake the film in 1959 under the shortened title Floating Weeds. That offered the CC an interesting opportunity to show both the continuity and the subtle changes in Ozu's early and mature styles. I have not yet watched the later version of the film so I will save my comparisons between the two until then. One reason I'm watching the Criterion releases chronologically is that I want to have a tangible experience of the development of arthouse cinema over the past eight decades or so.

Setting the historical angle aside then for a moment, Story of Floating Weeds also marks a distinct emergence of many of Ozu's essential qualities. Probably the very first thing that a viewer notices as unique is the positioning of the camera, which is routinely just above floor level, with the characters sitting right on its surface in dialog with each other. His shots are usually straight on the face of the person speaking, but just below eye-level so we get the sense of observing the interaction very directly but without intruding, almost like we are very present but invisible in the situation. Ozu also employs a simple, straight-forward editing style. The camera seldom moves, there are practically no fades, zoom ins or "effects" of any kind. Story of Floating Weeds is actually a silent film, even though we're a good five years into the sound era. I don't know if this was a budget concern or if Ozu really preferred going without sound. I think he tended to be slow to innovate - he stayed with black and white for quite awhile, only introducing color in the final phase of his career (though many great films were still being made in B&W up into the mid-sixties before color took over completely and made monotone a stylistic conceit.)

The "floating weeds" referred to in the title serve as a metaphor, apparently familiar enough in Japan, referring to people whose lives drift aimlessly through the currents of time and circumstance. I think it's important to point out that Ozu shows little interest in moralizing or "fixing problems" in his films. He's much more interested in depicting the subtle tensions that shape and underlie realistic human relationships, and our all-too-frequent inability to resolve them to our or anyone else's satisfaction. And I think what makes his cinema so refreshing and engaging, once one makes the needed adjustments to get into it, is his willingness to depict his characters in the ordinariness of their lives. Of course, for us living in 21st century USA (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) we also get a fascinating glimpse in to the world of 1930s Japan. The interior shots give us an idea of the rustic simplicity these people lived in, and the outdoor scenes possess a beautiful luminosity that I greatly enjoyed. I think I have a lot of stereotypes to unlearn about that era and I'm really glad to have this record (along with other early Ozu films that preceded this one, available on the Silent Ozu set released by Eclipse last year.)

So the story revolves around a troupe of traveling actors who happen to land in a rural northern mountain town in Japan, a different setting than most Ozu films which tend to take place in larger cities. The leader of the troupe, Kihachi, has double motives for making this particular stop. On the surface, of course, is the money they can make from performance, and we get a chance to see some charming examples of 1930s "road theater." More poignantly, Kihachi has a son, Shinkichi, who lives with his mother Otsune. Shinkichi has been told from his youth that his father was an honorable man who passed away when he was too young to remember. Kihachi is known as the "uncle" who stops by from time to time, and the central tension of the film is found in Kihachi's internal (and external) wrestling over how to maintain his fidelity to the women in his life.

He's intimately connected to one of the female actors in his troupe, who (correctly) suspects him of having secret affections for the mother of his son and who manages to catch Kihachi paying visits to her home when he claims to be out on other errands.

This leads the spurned lover to enlist a younger woman in the troupe to seduce Shinkichi, who has no idea he's being manipulated and only expresses frustration that his new lover resists his effort to make their relationship more public and permanent. Given that Shinkichi is now a young man on the verge of adulthood, the question naturally arises as to whether or not he should be told the truth about his parentage. And is the time now arrived for Kihachi to settle down with his real family, to give up his wandering, irresponsible way of life? His motives are conflicted, his mind and heart are caught up in a tug of war, and emotional pain will result, no matter what choice he makes...

This gives a fair overview (without spoilers) of the relational complexities that Ozu deals with. The story unfolds fairly slowly and anyone unfamiliar with Ozu's style is advised to watch it in a state of high alertness, fairly early in the evening. It's an easy film to fall asleep to if you're feeling a bit fatigued. :o) But there is great poignancy and delicate artistry to be enjoyed here provided you like watching that sort of thing on screen.

This video clip depicts the acting troupe just kind of lingering around. Since they perform outdoors, rain thwarts their attempts to work, so we see them finding ways to fill the time. A few subplots are advanced in the process. Honestly, I'm unclear as to what made the person who posted the clip choose this particular segment, but it's the best one I could find. I hope you enjoy it!

Update: I am very happy to give credit (and thanks for visiting!) to Donald Sosin, who composed the soundtrack music heard on this clip and also provided the scores for the three films collected in the Silent Ozu released mentioned above. His website offers nice samples of his work on numerous other films. Please give it a look and listen!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Scarlet Empress (1934) - #109

Here's a visually sumptuous and subversively sinister little gem of a film. As a young man, I had heard recollections from my elders of Marlene Dietrich's stunning beauty (also helped along considerably by Madeline Kahn's brilliant impersonation of her as "Lili von Shtupp" in Blazing Saddles) and over the years I've seen enough still photos and a few short clips to get the basic idea - blonde, flawless skin, admirable legs, strong cheekbones and jaw line, elegant style and most importantly an impeccable use of her eyes to send a full range of alluring messages to her many admirers. But I had never taken the time to see a full performance until I watched her portrayal as Russia's legendary ruler, Catherine the Great, a.k.a. The Scarlet Empress. Now I think I get Dietrich a whole lot better and happily look forward to future opportunities to see more of her work.

So she's far and away the big star here, the main attraction around whom all the other performers are mere accessories. I can't say for sure whether this is Dietrich's ultimate role but it seems like it could be. She rivets the camera when she's on screen and what other scripts of the time could have offered her a stronger "empowered woman" performance opportunity? Actually, the film is a portrayal of how she got to that position of absolute power, not so much her exercise of it later in life (and I am skeptical as to how historically accurate it is, which really is beside the point in this film anyway.) So I suppose she could have been cast in a role where she is just dominant from start to finish, which is not the case here. But I don't think that would have been as sexy as the transformation we get to observe in The Scarlet Empress.

The narrative follows young Sophia (her birth name), born in Prussia and raised by her mother to "marry up" as high into the aristocracy as fate would allow. One day her family is summoned by representatives of the Russian Empress who has chosen Sophia to be the wife of her son, the future ruler of Russia. There's not much backstory of intrigues or secret negotiations - Sophia is simply chosen and whisked away to meet her husband, whom she's told is a fine, noble, handsome and thoroughly dashing specimen of manhood.

Well, not exactly. Grand Duke Peter is, how else can I put it?, a feeble-minded hopelessly inbred retard. I know that's a bad word to use, but that's what he is. And if that's not bad enough, the Russian court is an absolutely nightmarish environment, enough to drive anyone nutsy in the head, but especially hard to take if you are a ravishingly beautiful woman who's been brought up to appreciate all the best things in life and, like anyone else, you are just looking for an opportunity in life to love and be loved. Given all the pressures, abuses and general hopelessness surrounding her, it seems not only understandable but even inevitable that Sophia would find a way to exact her revenge not only on the individuals who mistreated her but the entire culture and civilization that seemingly conspired to grind her down in its merciless machinations. So we follow Sophia's adventures through various seductions and insurrections, culminating in a memorable coup d'etat where her troopers invade the throneroom on horseback and she deliriously rings the bells of the cathedral, signalling not just her personal triumph but a cataclysmic overthrow of the world order into which she was born. Yowza!

This video clip gives a nice, succinct taste of Dietrich's performance, her beauty and the truly bizarre vision of gothic Russian oppression that the filmmakers dreamed up to shock and awe the audience. This is a movie I'd really like to see in a dark theater on a big screen in order to better inhabit and appreciate the marvels of set design, rollicking music, eerie lighting and macabre atmosphere woven together by director Josef von Sternberg.

Now before I saw this film, I had never heard of von Sternberg, so I was amused to watch a short bonus feature documentary created in the 1960's titled "The World of Josef von Sternberg." I always find it intriguing to come into contact with a world-class egomaniac who clearly sees himself as a being distinct from all others, especially when I haven't a clue as to who the exalted one is or what he has accomplished. I suppose that since he's not featured in any other Criterion films and his fame wasn't as well established by popular success as other directors of his era, the von Sternberg star has faded in the mass consciousness. But having seen this bit of his work, I will concede his right to feel egotistical after all. He's pretty good at what he does!

But let's face it, it all comes back to Marlene - von Sternberg's gifts found a wondrously fascinating presence to elevate before us. Here's a nice video tribute, set to gentler musical accompaniment than we hear in the original soundtrack, of the incomparable Ms. Dietrich!

Thinking of the last film I reviewed... I wonder what would have happened if Paul Robeson (The Emperor Jones) and Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress) had been cast in lead roles in the same film? Hmm... maybe World War II would have started a decade earlier - the world just wasn't quite ready to handle that.