Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment via

Suppose I tell you exactly what's gonna happen to you. You're gonna be back in television. Only it won't be quite the same as it was before. There'll be a reasonable cooling-off period and then somebody will say: "Why don't we try him again in a inexpensive format. People's memories aren't too long."

And you know, in a way, he'll be right. Some of the people will forget, and some of them won't. Oh, you'll have a show. Maybe not the best hour or, you know, top 10. Maybe not even in the top 35. But you'll have a show. It just won't be quite the same as it was before.

Then a couple of new fellas will come along. And pretty soon, a lot of your fans will be flocking around them. And then one day, somebody'll ask: "Whatever happened to, a, whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that? Oh by the way, have you seen, a, Barry Mills? I think he's the greatest thing since Will Rogers."

The above monologue (I know, lengthy chunk of text but bear with me) is delivered by Walther Matthau's character Mel Miller, the Vanderbilt-educated TV writer, to the fallen television idol, Arkansas folk-hero turned megalomaniac "Lonesome" Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith in a knockout film debut). Although A Face in the Crowd was released over 50 years ago as a respone to the death of radio in the face of television, Elia Kazan's film couldn't be any more relevant than it is now.

Video killed the radio star, then the Internet brutally had its way with the remains of both, while taking newspapers, magazines and basically any other form of non-wifi friendly mobile media along too. When I interviewed Carlos Cuaron for his directorial feature debut, Rudo Y Cursi, he talked about the idea of this sort of American Idol/ YouTube-driven culture breeds disposable celebrities - they are, as Cuaron put it, garbage.

And while I don't think Kazan or screenwriter Budd Schulberg were as concerned with the disposability of media sensations as they were their social responsibilities (though as witnessed in the Watthau monologue, it certainly comes up), it's impossible for contemporary audiences not to think of today's quick-fix, empty entertainment when watching A Face in the Crowd. Or at least it should be impossible - I'm pretty certain that the people going out of their way to watch Kazan's masterpiece are the sort who would make that connection.

On the surface, the story follows the classic power-corrupts-the mind/soul structure with Rhodes's unlikely rise from an Arkansas jail to the national spotlight. Under the guidance of an unsuspecting Marcia Jefferies (Particia Neal), Rhodes becomes the no-bullshit voice of the people. He's not the brightest bulb in the pack, but he knows it well enough to exploit his shortcomings and spin them to his advantage. Because what he does have is Southern smalltown charm, a bit of cunning and a guitar.

Warner Home Video brought Kazan's film to DVD in 2005, and the timing couldn't have been any more perfect. Especially as Rhodes moves from advertising shill to political lackey for an up-and-coming conservative Senator, the riffs on image control and the television age combined with Lonseome's Southern dimwit appeal ... well it's downright reminiscent of those recently departed storm clouds we know as the Bush Administration.

Rhodes's racket is TV, but the gross manipulation of the American masses -- the "rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers" or "sheep" as he eventually calls them -- is pure modern politics. Granted he's far more articulate than our most recent former president, but Rhodes is that guy you just want to sit down and have a drink with. At least until fame and money becomes too much.

The predictability of Rhodes's demise is an issue Kazan and Schulberg get away with for several reasons, not the least of which is Griffith's shear magneticism in the lead. Griffith manages to play Rhodes somewhere in between a wolf in sheeps' clothing or a sheep in wolves' clothing. Off the camera, he's a needy, womanizing alcoholic brimming with insecurity, apologizing and pleading all the way to the end.

Still, we never question Marcia's fatal attraction to the media nightmare she inadvertantly unleashed. She is the brains behind the operation, the mostly innocent party who controls Rhodes to the best of her ability, until he just about bursts through his britches. Mel -- who Rhodes initially taunts for his Vandy background (the anti-intellectualism is another connection to the Bush era mentality) -- never professes his love for Marcia, though it's painfully clear. He knows he is dealing with a woman who is tied to something more than an idea - he's competing with an entire failed idyll.

Edward R. Murrow's assessment of television at the 1958 RTNDA convention echoes A Face in the Crowd's deadly view of television's effect on the masses: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

And, like any weapon, in the wrong hands it can breed "ignorance, intolerance and indifference" rather than fight against it. The shadows and darkness brooding through Harry Strandling's crisp black and white cinematography also lurk in the hearts of the advertisers, programmers, the star and, yes, even the relative innocents like Marcia. For even after Rhodes stabs her in the back (figuratively), she continues to sit in the sidelines and watch. The show, and Rhodes, just seem to suck people in.

Those who continue to fuel the fire are just as guilty as the firestarters, and maybe that's more my read on things and the current sad state of entertainment than what we actually see in A Face in the Crowd. But in an age of micro-blogging (full disclosure: I have a Twitter page ... doesn't make me proud about it, but what can you do?), recyclable YouTube stars, Celebrity Fit Club and all that other mind-rotting shit, Kazan and Schulberg's lesson on the power of celebrity image is one you can't help expanding on.

Is that what makes A Face in the Crowd great cinema? I'm not sure if I can answer that. The film is beautifully shot, impeccably acted and the story carries you along from beginning to end. Kazan and Schulberg probablly didn't have a clue just how prophetic the film would be, but that's how things usually work out. When George Orwell wrote 1984, he said he wasn't writing about the future - he was writing about the present, and my guess is that's how Schulberg felt when he wrote the short story and then adapted it into A Face in the Crowd.

You could say (and many people have) that On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden are all timeless films, if not the indistubatle widely-recognized Kazan masterpieces. But A Face in the Crowd feels made for the here and now, and however inadvertantly, manages to comment on our current social condition more than any of those aforementioned classics.

Does that make it the best film of the bunch? Probably not, but that doesn't make it any less essential.

And now, I defer to YouTube, a weapon I strive to use for good and not for watching Pandas sneeze or whatever.

Saturday, June 27, 2009 Review: Tokyo (2008)

(Image courtesy of Liberation Entertainment via

Another day, another review. Due to's pain-in-the-ass template, I had to break this down into 2 parts, but there's a link at the bottom of Part 1. I was lucky enough to see Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-Ho (plus cast members) present Tokyo! at it's world premeire at Cannes 2008, which was quite a treat. Glad to see Gondry return to form, so here's hoping The Green Hornet doesn't lapse into everything that was awful about Be Kind Rewind.

Without further rambling, here is my Tokyo! DVD review. Enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Drew McWeeny of HitFix remembers Michael Jackson

Personally, I've never been a huge fan - I'll take Purple Rain (or 1999, Under the Cherry Moon, Around the World in a Day and many other Prince albums) over Thriller any day. But there's no denying the pop culture impact of Michael Jackson, as well as the media circus that has followed his strange saga to the end and beyond.

There are plenty of obits. and tributes to sort through online, but if you're looking for something a little different, interesting and really introspective, I highly recommend checking out Drew McWeeny's (former AICN writer) piece over at HitFix. "The Motion Captured" is one of my favorite movie-related daily reads, and with Jackson's passing, Drew does what he does best by making such a large media event distinctly personal.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beck's Record Club posts "Waiting For My Man"

For those of you who do not begin every morning by groggily reaching for your computer and perusing, Beck is up to a lot these days. His website overhaul, an album with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and maybe most interesting of all, Record Club.

Beck will be informally meeting with friends/musicians and knocking out a cover of an entire album in one day - first one is ambitious as hell but pretty logical for Beck: Velvet Underground & Nico.

Check out Beck's site for track no. 2 - "Waiting For My Man." It's certainly less-polished than his go at "Sunday Morning" - very rackety, but appropriately so. Judge for yourself.

R.I.P. Sky Saxon (of The Seeds)

This sucks. Farrah Fawcett (granted that one was expected) and now this. If you're unfamiliar with the work of Sky Saxon and The Seeds, Saxon (originally Richard Marsh) was one of those early innovators of garage psychedelia. "Can't Seem To Make You Mine" and "Pushin' Too Hard" were both immortalized on the Lenny Kaye-curated Nuggets box set, but even Saxon's later work with Yahowa 13 is worth checking out.

Considering that Saxon was about to tour with "Love" (quotations added since Love died when Arthur Lee died, no matter how much respect I have for Johnny Echols and backing band Baby Lemonade), the artist's hospilization yesterday and subsequent death comes as a particular shock.

Our wishes here at MMM go out to Saxon's friends and family.

BLURT review: Elvis Perkins in Dearland

(Photo by Zachary Herrmann)

Life's been a little busy lately, so I'm gonna be brief. Last Friday, I saw a terrific set at Johnny Brenda's by Elvis Perkins in Dearland. The review is up on BLURT magazine's website. I'd say it's worth a read, but don't just take my word for it - click away!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jay Bennett, ex-Wilco member, cause of death: overdose

I can't say this one is at all surprising - it's probably what most people assumed the second they heard the former Wilco member had died. Billboard has the AP brief up if you want the details. No matter where you fall in the "which incarnation of Wilco was better" debate, Bennett was one hell of a talent and contributed to Wilco's best studio work.

Such a shame. I have to admit I was sort of taken back by how much this one really got to me. Maybe it was just because all those Bennett-era Wilco recordings were the first ones I latched on to. Not to knock the new stuff, which I do enjoy, but those are still my favorites -- Being There, Summerteeth, YHF and both Mermaid Avenues. "California Stars" dropped into my life (via a 1999 live recording) when I was a sophomore in high school, which is about as impressionable time as any for a teengager ... and I digress.

Bottom line, no matter how much credit Bennett is owed for those albums (I'm not touching that one with a 10 foot pole ... not yet, anyway), those are the Wilco songs I'll play and sing along with for the rest of my life.

Below is a video of Wilco doing what I believe is the only song Bennett received full song credits for, "My Darling". If you're unfamiliar with the material they did for that Session at West 54th, click around YouTube and check it out - it's all pretty excellent.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The 400 Blows (1959) and The Quiet Man (1952)

( Image courtesy of Les Films du Carrosse via

I know - not the most natural of pairings, though as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, Francois Truffaut was a staunch defender of John Ford. But bare with me here. There's a connection somewhere and damn't, if there isn't, I'll force one (since I sort of did by watching the films back to back).

It's said that an artist/musician/filmmaker/whatever has an entire lifetime to draw on for his debut. The trick comes in the follow up, where pressure, deadline and expectations begin to weigh heavily. As a result, debut films are often the finest and most personal work from a director. Less restrictions and a gut reaction can yield great art and entertainment - look no further than Citizen Kane for the example to end all other examples.

Of the four Truffaut films I've seen, The 400 Blows isn't the best nor is it my personal favorite, but there's no denying it is his most personal of the bunch. Truffaut hadn't yet reached that exuberant blend of style and punctuation that, at least for me, makes Jules and Jim the gem of the New Wave. But he was definitely searching and well on his way.

The 400 Blows works for many reasons, but most of all, it works because this is Truffaut's story to tell. The troubled, 15 year-old (he looks much younger) Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) appears to be the auteur's on-screen surrogate. Antoine's love affair with the movies, his "lifting" of material from another artist (Balzac) and the way in which Paris alternates from playground to prison - it's all part of the grand (and not too heavy-handed) metaphor for the freeing sensation of cinema and filmmaking.

But it's more than that. From the opening shots from a car moving toward and then pulling away from the view of the Eiffel Tower, The 400 Blows is a referendum on France and French culture. There seems to be paradigm shift taking place, and the old guard has completely lost touch with the next generation. At home, in the cramped Paris apartment, Antoine witnesses his parents marriage swing between dissolution and solidarity, which leaves little love and compassion for him.

Of course, the kid is kind of a fuck up, and the scenes in which Antoine ditches school with his school mater René are some of the film's finest. Henri Decae -- who would later photograph Le samouraï in 1967 for Jean-Pierre Melville -- does some really lovely, simple camera work, occasionally opting for some more ambitious visual risks.

The whirling of the centrifuge ride and (SPOILER!!!!!!!) Antoine's police paddy wagon ride through the city as he gets carted off to reform school are both striking sequences (END SPOILER), visuals that alternately capture that aforementioned freedom and imprisonment. Overall, it's just incredibly assured work from a young director in the way that Mean Streets would be for Scorsese (though it wasn't actually his first film, just the first important one).

For John Ford, it took a lot longer to make his personal masterpiece, The Quiet Man. Many call it his best -- I have to respectfully defer to The Searchers -- but if you're going for his best non-Western, then it's got to be either Quiet Man or How Green Was My Valley. The latter, which is the film that beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, gets a little choked up in nostalgia. It's a fantastic film, but The Quiet Man is the more balanced work. The Fordian sense of humor goes a long way.

Nearly 20 years after Ford purchased the rights to the story, he finally got the film made, and if you know a thing or two about Ford, it's no surprise he never gave up. Like the director, the lead, Sean Thornton (John Wayne), is an Irish-born American who returns full of love for his native Ireland. And, like Ford, there's a shade of darkness in Thornton, something eating him up inside.

In America, Thornton was a famous boxer, but something forces him away from the ring, away from violence and off to Ireland. Once he arrives in his birth town, Thornton sparks a fight with one of the locals, Squire Danaher (Victor McLaglen) by purchasing the cottage and plot of land Danaher had his eyes on -- Thornton's childhood home. He falls for Danaher's sister (Maureen O'Hara, fiery and beautiful as ever) as the local matchmaker (Barry Fitzgerald) helps introduce him back into the ways of his homeland (drinking pints of porter, going courting and the like).

What saves The Quiet Man from becoming overly quaint or nostalgic is its classic Fordian subtexts -- the value of home and the domestic subdivisions within that home, be it the physical space or just the larger idea of home, what it means to be a man (across cultures) and the struggle of the outsider. Struggles with religion and sexual desire surface and more explicitly than in most pre-MPAA films - thematically, it may be Ford's most personally transparent film. You see so much of the man in the film as he lets his guard down.

All this married to the Ford Stock Company (Ward Bond, is, of course, fantastic as usual) and Winton C. Hoch's Academy Award-winning cinematography makes for one of the Ford's most essential entries.

And really, that's all I got for now. Sorry for being brief but I'm sort of all written out from this weekend, and expect to be writing a good deal more ... so, yes, there are good things to come! So for now, I leave you with these embedded YouTube videos, as a token of my, er, laziness.

Sunday, June 21, 2009 Review: Waltz With Bashir (2008)

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Hey all. Hopefully I'll rouse myself to write up a little piece on The 400 Blows or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore by tomorrow night. Until then, I've got a spankin' fresh DVD review up for what was, in my humble opinion, the best film of 2008: Waltz With Bashir.

Check it out at and, if you haven't seen the film yet, do yourself a favor and get on that. If you have seen it, then see it again.

That is all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Johnny Guitar (1954)

(Image courtesy of Republic Pictures via

If there were ever an American classic sorely in need of a home video revival, it would be The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, are you there? It's me - Zach). However, continuing down that priority list, somewhere not too far from the top resides Nicholas Ray's upheaval of the classic Western, Johnny Guitar.

Ray was a master of subverting genre and playing it cool under the Hayes Production Code, or later on, what was left of the Code in the mid-to-late 50s (see Rebel Without A Cause). The censors were always a little slow on the uptake when it came to Freudian psycho-sexual allusions, and Ray's work is loaded with repressed, dark tension. As a result, years later his films don't feel quaint and scrubbed clean in the way that even some of the greatest films from the same period are.

For any viewer with even the most casual knowledge of the classic Hollywood Western picture, Johnny Guitar stands out from the get go. As Sterling Hayden's titular character rides into a valley, a mountain range explodes. He then moves on to watch a stagecoach robbery and shooting, which the posited hero glimpses with little reaction. We are introduced into a world of chaos where the rules of the game no longer apply.

Our symbolically impotent hero carries a guitar, not a gun, and turns out to be not much of a hero at all. Good guys and bad guys are completely relative in Johnny Guitar - morally, we don't have much room to side with the law or the outlaws, which sort of disrupts the continuity for those who argue the film as an allegory for the McCarthy-era witch hunts. It's definitely there to some degree, but Ray isn't building up anyone to be 100 percent innocent of anything.

Joan Crawford's Vienna calls Johnny to her casino/pub joint in a frontier town under the auspices of needing entertainment for the place. Really, she's looking for protection from a long lost lover (don't worry, it's really not much of a spoiler). Vienna is caught in the throws of a Shakespearean stand off with Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) , John McIvers (Ward Bond) and what seems like the rest of the town. Partially, the feud is financially related, but much of Emma's deep-rooted hatred for Vienna comes from her inability to deal with her love for the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a local outlaw with his eyes on Vienna.

The HUAC undertones come in as Emma tries to pin her brother's murder on Vienna (via her association with the Kid and his gang). If it sounds like I'm leaving out Johnny Guitar, it's because the title character is largely absent from his own film. As he confesses toward the beginning of the film, "I'm a stranger here myself." Johnny is largely cut from the action in deference to Vienna, his old flame. Traditional male heroism is continually undercut by a stronger female presence - it's something the men in the film never really come to terms with, mostly because the women won't allow them to.

Thematically, Johnny Guitar cooks up many of the ideas Ray would visit again in Rebel Without A Cause. Even in 1954, Ray sensed a paradigm shift in American values. He was a bit ahead of his time with Johnny Guitar, and as a result, the film's reception was pretty mixed in America. It's no surprise Variety didn't know whether to make heads or tails of the film. It's jarring. Everything that "should" happen in a Western generally doesn't, or at least happens in a very different way. Ray inverts the rules.

Some of Ray's most ardent contemporary support came from the young French critic Francois Truffaut, and it's easy to see why Truffaut and other future New Wavers dug so hard on Ray and Johnny Guitar (Truffaut called it the "Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream"). What the New Wave would do for the gangster film (Breathless, Shoot The Piano Player), Johnny Guitar at least partially does for the Western. The genre mold is there, barely, but within that structure, the language is completely different - far more poetic, far less literal.

There's plenty of lyricism in John Ford's masterpieces, but none of Ford's films is as truly bizarre as Johnny Guitar. I realize that's not necessarily a flat out endorsement, and I'm certainly not going to make any bullshit claim that Johnny Guitar is a masterpiece in league The Searchers or Stagecoach. But Ray's film is a wrongfully overlooked and influential chapter in the Western pantheon. In the very least, I think that warrants a proper DVD release.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Power of Film?

So, in going to check the running time for a film on imdb, I found this.

Lovely, right? Now to be fair, not all of the Acura-sponsored "Power of Film" features suck or shill this hard. But how some PR flack or imdb staffer was able to type up the bit about "those movies that help drive the box office and promise to give fans more of what they liked the first time around" without choking a little on their own vomit, I'll never know.

Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans? The Pink Panther 2? Fucking Wolverine? Hurray for Hollywood.

Rant over. Time to watch a movie.

Cue Intro Music/Washington Post Express feature: Phoenix

(Photo courtesy of Pascal Textiera)

So Zach went ahead and started a blog without me — while I was at Bonnaroo, nonetheless — but now I'm in on this new media mess too.

I'll use this space to occasionally rant and rave about music and movies, but mostly I'll be posting my articles from various publications for all to read.

First up, I've got my second feature on rising indie-pop band Phoenix in as many months. For those of you riding Metrorail in Washington, you can read it here, then again in the Weekend Pass section of tomorrow's Washington Post Express. One of my biggest regrets from this year's Bonnaroo (more on those later) was not checking these guys out while I took a much-needed nap at Phish's Friday late-night set.

As an extra bonus, I've also got my review of David Byrne's June 6 show at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va. This was the second time I'd seen Mr. Byrne play the songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno — the first being in Baltimore in September — and he was so good, I did it all again less than a week later at Bonnaroo. This review comes courtesy of Glide Magazine's Hidden Track blog, where you'll find most of my concert reviews.

Also, I cannot stress this enough, if you haven't seen David Byrne on this tour, do what you can to make it out, it's the closest we may ever get to seeing Talking Heads play together again.

Say It Ain't So: Bride of Frankenstein to be Remade?

(Image courtesy of Universal Pictures via

This report comes to us via The Hollywood Reporter's Risky Biz blog by way of Ain't It Cool News It just goes to show - nothing, including James Whale's 1935 masterpiece, is off limits. There's (maybe) one person I'd ever want to hear about tackling this film, and he's going to be kept busy in Hobbit land for quite some time.

I've got to agree with AICN - Neil Burger certainly has talent, but not the Guillermo del Toro-sized ambitions and vision this project would need. Personally, I had no clue that someone had been trying to get this remake (oh, I'm sorry, I guess I meant "re-imagining") off the ground for the last 5 years.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009 Review: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

(Image courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment/American Zoetrope)

Hey all (OK, so who am I kidding, at this point, "all" probably constitutes a very select number of friends and family ... anyway, I digress). just posted my review/essay of Coppola's Dracula (1992) - I wrote this one under the auspices of the return of True Blood and ensuing New Moon fever. So there's the timeliness for yah.

Anyway, check it out here (because you love me, my opinions and what I do for a *cough* living).

Graham Greene article in NYT

Just thought this might be of interest -- Terrence Rafferty wrote a pretty excellent summation of Graham Greene's screenwriting career over at Of course, recent MMM-featured film, The Fallen Idol, receives mention.

Definitely worth a read.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

(Image courtesy of the Criterion Collection via

After seeing the later Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (a.k.a. The Archer's) classic, The Red Shoes, and reading up a little on Scorsese's high opinion of Powell's work, I purchased The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on a whim. Why this film hasn't enjoyed a reputation equal to Renoir's Grand Illusion as one of the greatest cinematic critiques of war, I really can't say. As I said with The Fallen Idol, British cinema gets overlooked too often in America.

Taken from the popular, farcical British cartoon character, Colonel Blimp, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is the ostensibly unchanging face of the British military. From his younger days in the Boer War, Candy matures in a series of conflicts which shapes his expectations for how a war is to be properly conducted. It is a gentleman's game with carefully observed rules. When one party deviates from the script and does something unsportsmanlike, as the Germans do in WWI, it is only fitting that the behaved party emerges victorious.

As Candy's German friend and foil, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) represents a much more flexible view of war. He too is brought up on the idyll of a gentleman's war -- it is this principle that first brings him into contact with Candy, dueling against his personal belief to defend the honor of the German Army, who Candy offends while visiting Berlin at the turn-of-the-century. It is there that both men meet Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), the woman Theo marries and Candy longs for throughout his life.

Given that the film was released in 1943 -- in the throws of the second World War -- Powell and Pressburger (credited as screenwriters on the picture as well) tackle the evolution of war with an inredibly prophetic scope. Even a fair and balanced criticism of the British Army in a film that is neither blindly patriotic nor scathingly treacherous could not be accepted at the time. Winston Churchill despised the film and wanted to see it banned. But that sort of knee-jerk reaction completely ignores the valuable criticism of war and British culture Powell and Pressburger offer.

Nazism, aside from being the ultimate evil, represents a complete end to the gentleman's game. Candy remains confident through the end of WWI that the Germans lost because they refused to play by the rules. His view of war running like clockwork already seems antiquated then, but when taken in with the full, horrific implications of the Nazi regime, Candy's idylls are entirely invalid. His friend Theo notes that the British are no longer fighting to win -- they are fighting for their entire "existence." And should they lose, there will be no other values but Nazi values for a very long time.

Beneath the political skepticism (Kerr delivers one of the film's best lines: "Good manners cost us . . . 6,000 men killed and 20,000 men wounded—and two years of war. When with a little common sense and bad manners there would have been no war at all.") and razor sharp dialogue, Powell and Pressburger also deliver one of Technicolor's early masterpieces. While their color cinematography is not quite as inspired as in The Red Shoes, their work alongside DP George Périnal (who worked on The Fallen Idol) is no less assured, from the opening shot of the M20 motorcycle (which seems to have informed David Lean in the opening of Lawerence of Arabia) which pulls out to reveal the British Home Guard in all its pomp and splendor.

What makes it all work is The Archer's decision to transform Blimp from a contemptible joke -- a chararicature -- into Candy, a full-blooded tragic figure. He's still bound, like Blimp, to the old guard's failing ways, but there's a profound sadness to the demise of how things were. They handle their satire with absolute sincerity, though not without a sense of humor.

The title of the film could be seen as misleading -- we never see Blimp/Candy's onscreen death. In fact, the film ends with him very much alive. But that would be an all too literal reading of "Life" and "Death". At the film's conclusion, Candy finally recognizes just how much the world around him has changed. England is no country for old gentleman soldiers, and while this evolution is inevitable, The Archers seem to mourn this passing, despite the absurd decadence and contradictory idea of so-called civilized war.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mildred Pierce (1945)

(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. via

All due respect to Casablanca, but Michael Curtiz was a goddamn hack. Maybe that's a bit strong considering all I've seen of his work is the aforementioned classic and Mildred Pierce. For all his competence on Casablanca though, Curtiz damn near capsizes Mildred Pierce, an otherwise pleasing melo-noir.

Hats off to Joan Crawford in the titular role - she carries the film from beginning to end. Pierce sacrifices everything for her family, specifically her eldest child, the class-conscious, money-grubbing snob Veda (Ann Blyth). She takes a job as a waitress, which Veda resents as socially unacceptable, and eventually builds a successful restraurant mini-empire. Despite the accomplishment, Veda still looks down at her mother for working at all. How, exactly, Vera got these upper-class pretensions, we never really know (it's something that may have been lost in adapting James M. Cain's novel).

Even as Curtiz undermines the drama (more on that later), Crawford sells the tragedy of the woefully unappreciated mother. Ranald MacDougall's tight dialogue gives Crawford and co-star Jack Carson (Wally Fay, Pierce's business partner and one of her suitors) plenty to chew on, though the narrative construct (too much noir flashback and narration) feels a bit dated.

The structure allows the film to toy with the idea of femme fatale a little, especially in the juxtaposition of mother and daughter -- although there's not much in the way of contemplation on the noir figure. Really it's more of a ploy, albeit a pretty good one.

Where the film suffers is in the directorial/editorial department. It's no wonder Crawford won an Oscar for her turn in the film, but it's downright baffling how Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller (Rebel Without a Cause) ended up with nods.

It's not just that Curtiz lacks any recognizable style - he undermines the drama with poor composition and editing. One can only imagine how much better Mildred Pierce could have been in the hands of Howard Hawks, who knew how to work magic on studio supervision. Curtiz's camera and cutting pattern move either too predictably or haphazzardly.

Each dolly in or out punctuates exactly when it you would expect it to. Rather than letting the action breathe within the frame, Curtiz (or Warner Bros., who may have been manning the puppet from behind the scenes) feels the need to break down each sequence with unecessary close ups, punctuating all the easy moments.

Without giving too much away, here's a pretty right on example. One character remains sick in bed, dying, with an oxygen tent around her. The POV shot from inside the tent is powerful -- we're isolated, trapped within the apparature. But when the reverse comes and Pierce runs to the character, we lose her in sight as she comes around the corner. At first, it appears as if Pierce's interaction with the character will occur off-screen -- an unusual and interesting choice for a studio film. However, Curtiz cuts back to a variation on the original shot, and then back to the reverse. The moment gets lost and segmented by adhering to the shot-reverse-shot convention, and to greater detriment, bad composition. It's a pivotal scene, or at least it should be, because for Pierce, it's a turning point.

I know it comes down to a question of preference, but I do not understand how critic Andrew Sarris can file directors like Carol Reed, Elia Kazan and John Huston under "Less Than Meets the Eye" and dub Curtiz "Lightly Likeable". When a lamp placed in the foreground blocks a character's movement in Mildred Pierce, it's doing just that and serves no other purpose.

Having ranted and raved, I still don't regret having seen the film, if only for Crawford's performance. Why this film enjoys such reverence (Amazon deems it "essential" for what it's worth), I have no clue. For my money, Out of the Past is a far stronger post-war melo-noir.

One last note -- Mildred Pierce is sort of atypical in the noir canon for its strong female lead. This could be interpreted as somewhat progressive given the time period. However, it is worth noting that Pierce, when interrogated by the police, admits divorcing her first husband, Bert, (Bruce Bennett) was a mistake. Bert who had lost his job, seemed reluctant to get a new one, admitted to detesting Veda and was openly cheating on Mildred with another woman. Given the mess Mildred's life becomes after the divorce, I guess this is somewhat understandable. Still, it rubs me the wrong way.

Up (2009) - The Carl and Ellie montage

(Image courtesy of Disney-Pixar via

Last night, I saw Up for the second time -- finally in 3D and with the short attached (loved it!). Have to say, the 3D was not nearly as essential as Coraline's, but Pixar's first foray into the third dimension was pleasantly (and not surprisingly) subtle. As Peter Docter has said in many interviews, the idea is to create a window (i.e., an image with greater depth), not a spectacle.

But I digress. What I really wanted to discuss was that absolutely brilliant/gorgeous/heartbreaking four-minute montage detailing Carl and Ellie's marriage at the beginning of the film. After WALL-E's wonderfully contemplative dialogue-free opening, Up really had its work cut out for it. I don't know if I'm ready to say one film is better than the other, but I will put the montage down as one of Pixar's greatest achievements and easily the best four minutes of cinema I've seen in the theaters all year.

When I interviewed Docter back in April, he talked about how some of the Pixar team had stumbled across a collection of old home videos of people they didn't know during the production of Up. Despite not knowing who these people were beforehand, through these minimal (and, if my memory serves me right, dialogue-free) interactions, the Pixar artists were able to instantly connect to these "characters". Not unlike the opening of Mean Streets - when we hardly know Charlie, the one character we've met in the film, Scorsese gives us clips of Super-8 home movies. By the time we do finally meet these people, we feel we know them (check out Uncle Giovanni's reponse to the camera the next time you watch it, the shot speaks volumes).

So, for Up, the challenge was distilling an entire marriage -- the dreams, dissapointments and in-betweens -- into one, silent-scored montage. We need to understand Carl and Ellie's relationship, and more importantly, how each character functioned within that relationship. There's a lot of clever production design at work, which gets continued throughout the film (notice the juxtaposition of Carl's chair with Ellie's chair, his square-framed pictures to her ovular ones, the rigid objects stacked on Carl's nighttable). I think, what really hits home though, is the relability of a couple whose wild fantasies eventually got grounded by simple realities of life. They never compromise happiness, but as time goes on, the dreams become more modest, or arguably, fade into the background of what is a fairly normal day-to-day existence.

That Pixar is able to cram so much emotion into these little computer generated figures (and in only four minutes!) says more about their power as storytellers than the evolution of computer animation. Hell, the first time I saw the montage I started to well up a little. The second time too. And while the talking, cooking, airplane flying dogs didn't hold up for me quite as well on viewing no. 2, I get the feeling no matter how many times I rewatch Up, that montage will still get to me on some level.

If WALL-E was about the audacity and naivite of dreaming for the stars, Up explores what happens when you find something worth trading in some of these dreams for. The montage, along with some of the other more melancholic scenes in the film, probably expresses this idea better than the film on a whole, much as WALL-E loses steam in its second half and never quite recaputres the visual expressiveness of its opening 35 minutes or so.

Seeing things like "the montage", though, suggests Pixar is still willing to challenge itself and its core youth demographic. For at least one studio, cinema, not the profit line, still comes first.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Repulsion (1965)

(Image courtesy of

Don't have much time for this post, nor do I want to go at any great lengths in case I end up doing a full DVD review. But if you've seen Repulsion, Roman Polanski's first English-language feature, then you know - this one requires some discussion.

I regret having seen Robert Altman's Images a few months ago (well, not really "regret" per say) and not after having seen Repulsion. While Images is not one of Altman's most successful/accessible/overall enjoyable films, it's sort of a clarification of the themes of isolation and female sexual repression Polanski sets forth in Repulsion.

Polanski's film is far from perfect or steady, but it is genuinely disturbing in its portrayal of confinement and madness. Beautiful composition, startling effects (the hands groping through the walls really predicts/informs all those wonderful Cronenbergian creepers) ... oh, and did I mention a quietly crazed performance from Catherine Deneuve?

Ah, I've said too much already. So, lest I trample all over a possible forthcoming review, I will leave with this. Something to brighten up your day ...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I'm Listening To: Nico

Nico - The Marble Index and Desertshore

After lordknowshowmany listens of The Dirty Projectors' latest, the fantastic Bitte Orca, I decided to do a little deep-digging and try on some Nico. (Check out the Projectors' cut "Two Doves" and you'll get an idea why - the track sounds like it could've been pulled right off of Nico's Chelsea Girls album).

For the longest time, I thought after Velvet Underground and Nico (or Andy Warhol if you prefer... whatever, the one with the fucking banana-penis) and Chelsea Girls, there really wasn't much more to hear of Nico. Apparently, not so.

Now, I know most people are a hard sell on Nico's voice. It's not pretty in the traditional sense, but it's a strong voice. Very European but not in the way Sandy Denny or Vashti Bunyan sounded. For all her folk leanings, Nico never sounded like a folk singer. She was something else.

And a large part of that something else was the work of John Cale, the VU (and then, ex-VU) musical mastermind producing and arranging all the avant-garde compositions. When doing a bit of web-scouring, I came across one Amazon customer's opinion on Marble Index, a comment which after less than 24 hours with the album, I profoundly disagree with.

He (or she, I can't remember nor do I wish to accidentally reveal any sort of deep-seeded gender bias one way or the other) wrote something to the effect of, you may never listen to this album more than once, but it's more it that once.

At face value - yeah, better off to hear it once than to never hear it at all. But both albums (especially Marble Index) are extremely textured, complex works. In other words, they beg repeating.

So, yeah. That's what I'm listening to.

The Fallen Idol (1948)

(Image courtesy of

Been catching up a lot on stuff I've been DVR-ing off of Turner Classic Movies and I was pleased as hell to come across this Carol Reed gem, one of I've been meaning to get around to for quite some time.

The first of three collaborations Reed did in with novelist/ screenwriter Graham Greene, The Fallen Idol is one of those rare films that really nails how a child perceives the world around him. In this case, that child is Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), the son of the French ambassador to England. With his mother away, sick for months (Phile confesses he doesn't remember her all that well and his father visibly detached), Phile's surrogate parents at the embassy, Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel) look after him.

All Freudian psychosexual undertones aside -- and there are plenty throughout Fallen Idol -- the film really works best at establishing Phile's loose (and malleable) grasp on morality. As Baines tells him, in the presence of Mrs. Baines, "There are lies and then there are lies."

This becomes all the more troubling for Phile when he stumbles upon Baines and his young lover Julie (Michèle Morgan), an embassy secratery. Baines insists to Julie that the child doesn't understand, and later secures a promise from Phile that he won't mention anything to the Mrs.

Reed, along with ace cinematographer George Périnal, turns the embassy into a dutch-tilted playground of wonder and, eventually, horror. As the little lies beget larger ones, Phile does all he can to surpress the doubt he begins to show toward Baines, the titular Idol of the film.

The final denouement, for all the build up, winds down a bit too quickly and tidily in contrast to the carefully sustained tension throughout the rest of the film. It's probably more the film's narrowed scope than its minor structural issues that have resulted in the film's relative obscurity to American audiences, especially in comparison to the next Reed/Greene collaboration, their pulsing masterpiece, The Third Man.

But where Fallen Idol cannot match The Third Man (performance, score, set pieces, Orson Fucking Welles) , its universal themes of truth, morality and shattered innocence may actually come out stronger without The Third Man's post-WWII frame of mind dating them. As always with Greene, nationalism still plays a role (there's quite a bit of French-British pull-and-tug, especially when language comes into the picture). However, it's more of a background motif to the foreground of a child's discovery of sin.

This one comes highly recommended, especially for any Hitchcock fans out there. Like his British contemporary, Reed understood the power of meticulous composition and the importance of air-tight pacing. He's not as flashy as Hitchcock, but at his best, no less of a filmmaker.