Blackmail (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) – How can there be so much time for watching and so little for writing? Answer: there’s time for neither, but somehow watching squeezes its way in. This one from Hitch was supposedly the first feature-length sound film in Britain, and who better to direct it. It feels more noteworthy as a Hitchcock artifact rather than a particularly significant film, but maybe not. It’s got his fingerprints on it, with a structure no less perfect than North By Northwest. The bookending technique makes retrospective sense, although the beginning at first is rather unclear. As with all of his stuff, arguably, these are not characters so much as archetypes, culturally stereotypical figures who fatalistically respond in ordinary ways to extraordinary events. Hitchcock’s draw is never in how characters respond but rather in what happens and who the characters are. No different, even in 1929.
How Much Do You Love Me? (Combien tu m’aimes?) (dir. Bertrand Blier, 2005) – Not unlike Côte d’Azur, another French romantic comedy that revolves around men not so much impotent as just tepid, devoid of virility. Not to let the American notion of so-called “manliness” inform everyone else’s, but these guys, along with the main character in the Czech I Served the King of England, have no legs to stand on, and it gets rather old. Seems as if the narrative content at the micro and macro levels depend on this annoying feature. In these films, ironically, it’s still the man who saves the day, who brings about resolution, who has the real agency. What, then, is the point of such flaccid men? Is it to offer a truer glimpse of the proverbial man by which to celebrate the modern, liberated, and strong woman? No, it’s to show that even the modern, liberated, strong woman is at the mercy of the unmanly male. Probably not intentional, exactly, but that’s what’s there.
Fat Girl (dir. Catherine Breillat, 2001) – This was strongly recommended by an academically credible source, and for that reason only denotes what will likely be the only penetration into Breillat’s oeuvre one will ever see here. This is a film, of course, so it’s not about what happens but rather how, from what point of view, to what end. The things that happen here are disturbingly “realist,” and as a film it gives a visual voice to a traditionally ignored character. It’s a point of view to which many of us can’t relate, but that does make it a worthy exercise in film viewing, which typically presupposes a male point of view. Breillat is aware of this but finds it incomplete. She finds more ways to make her audience squirm, all the while chastising them for squirming. In a way, it’s another case of a female character living in a man’s world and wrestling with what it is to be a girl/woman, not unlike In the Cut. Being a weaker character here than “she” was in In the Cut, the girl is here punished in a way but allows her own desire to be complicit in the punishment.
A Serious Man (dir. Coen Brothers, 2009) – It’s been said that this is a take on the book of Job, but pshaw, I don’t think so. Or, it’s a “take,” but that’s about it. Postmodernism/poststructuralism notwithstanding, hermeneutical violence is still violence. The Coens’ protagonist here was never a believer in the first place, which is fine, but let’s call a spade a spade. Poor devil may not be angry himself, but were there ever an angry film, this is it. One loves the structure of this one; quite competent in form, quite legendary in narrative. If Magnolia ended on the note of Ecclesiastes (it’s all meaningless), A Serious Man ends on a note that makes Camus look like an optimist. This is No Country for Old Men but funnier. Cinema may be an outlet for the Coens’ unconscious self-effacement.
Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963) – The label of “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made” is a great label, albeit a little inaccurate. If you must view Charade in terms of Hitchcock, it comes up lacking in all kinds of realms, especially camerawork and Freudian themes. If you can let it be what it is, then it’s fascinating for its own elements. By this point in Cary Grant’s career, his directors more and more made him the desired-after one, even when an actress like Audrey Hepburn was standing right there. Interesting that Grant, as the Hollywood man par excellence, should be treated like Hollywood treats women. He’s a pretty face, and the camera knows it…as does Audrey. Is he not rather the femme fatale here? He may save the day and she may be mostly helpless all the way through, but the mystery is his and we get to swoon over him with Audrey, not so much vice versa.
Persuasion (dir. Roger Michell, 1995) – At least in terms of screenwriting and storyline, this must be one of the best Jane Austen screen adaptations. Camera is odd; at times it has a handheld character that’s appropriately rough around the edges, then at times it reverts too lazily into the extreme closeup to signify viewer engagement with Anne. There are more ways to achieve this effect, but the film’s reliance on only the one causes some predictability. Classism (yes, “classism,” not “classicism”) is at the forefront of the film’s concerns, and perhaps Austen’s, too. At the outset we hear a character’s disdain for military men on account of the disregard for birth in their social status. (The gall for someone of inferior birth to climb the ranks of society – deplorable!) Anne, though born into the upper class, is the ugly duckling who delays her trip to Bath as long as possible, then makes it clear that such excess is improper and immoral. The film’s final shot, a bit of a liberty taken from Austen’s source work, does well to conclude the film’s critique of the shallowness of upper class elitism. Had they merely settled on the family estate, Anne would seem more of a sellout. This is not an attack on hierarchy, per se, as seen in this final shot’s inclusion of social rank’s necessity at times. A character in the film longs for the next time England goes to war. In the novel, Anne concludes the story worrying that this will happen all too soon. Also, this might be as close as Austen ever gets to admitting her own Romanticism (yes, that’s a capital “R”). One woman advises Anne toward a more Neoclassical course of action, praising logic and reason. Anne doesn’t so much disagree with the idea as the application. Still, that Austen isn’t at least “romantic” (lower case) shouldn’t be disputed. Another look at this film’s final shot is as R/romantic an ending as we ever get from her.
Anna Karina, biblical, Broken Embraces, cinema, Clint Eastwood, Coen brothers, Days of Heaven, film, Frank Capra, Genesis, Jean-Luc Godard, Los Abrazos Rotos, movies, Pedro Almodóvar, Penélope Cruz, Preston Sturges, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Richard Gere, Terrence Malick, Unfaithfully Yours, Vivre sa vie, Where Eagles Dare
Unfaithfully Yours (dir. Preston Sturges, 1948) – Another Stanford Theatre gem. Sturges tops the So-Embarrassed-I-Don’t-Know-Their-Stuff List. This was a fortuitous screening, since after viewing The Hudsucker Proxy, with all its Capra influences, I was reminded that Capra is dwarfed in the Coens’ oeuvre by the influence of Sturges, who is far more grotesque, straight-up morbid. Rex Harrison’s character Sir Alfred is appropriately cast as a British immigrant symphony conductor on the other side of the Atlantic. This keeps him aloof and snooty (would the Palo Alto locals have noticed this?), and the perfect man to fill the role of the conductor. He orchestrates not only the strings, horns, and percussion, of course, but various plans of offing his wife. At the latter he’s not so good, as is apparent from the bumbling failure of materializing such an idealistic plan. The banter here is apparently not as sharp as earlier Sturges, but the scenes are staged quite effectively. The perpetual, symphonic musical soundtrack keeps us within Alfred’s mind, whether we enter his mind’s eye (literally) to imagine along with him how he might respond to the alleged infidelity, or we’re accompanying him around town and back home as he flubs his own investigation and role as executioner at every turn. Sturges is surely a cynic, though the Coens take his cynicism to new levels. The happy ending of this film is decidedly forced. Probably wouldn’t have been released without it, though.
Broken Embraces (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2009) – Phew. More to come here, to be sure. Film deserves more than one viewing, easily, before making any kind of analysis, to say nothing of assessment or judgment. A recent Film Quarterly article has been helpful, but thesis work now prevents me from interacting with it. In a word, this one’s beautiful, somehow supreme, very 8½, of course. There is something compelling and simply honest about films that deal with sight. Without it, there’s no cinema, right? Hard not to think of Pan’s Labyrinth in this sense, another beauty from another Spanish-speaking filmmaker. Also, Penelope is one tough chica.
Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978) – If you’ve read this far, you should have arrived at the conclusion that this has been an excellent week (so far) for films. Malick is a visual poet perhaps up there with the best of them. Plenty of people think so, but this is my first taste of Malick aside from a high school viewing of The Thin Red Line. Really didn’t get it then, but looking forward to giving it an “enlightened” look. Wish this first one had been Badlands, but that’ll come soon enough. This is a very tight, image-driven epic, but less a “slice of life” than a whole pie. It’s round and full and rich, gorgeous and sad. It might be more biblical than anything else, in terms of adjectives anyway. If you’re familiar with Genesis, especially, it’s hard not to think of Cain & Abel, Abraham & Sarah, Lot & Sodom. Then there’s Ruth, although post-Genesis. But it’s “biblical” not only in terms of narrative elements (and narration, too?), but in terms of the form itself. If some of those OT books had been “written” with images, they might have looked a lot like this. Such a broad scope but with every frame and element maximized, it’s so much bigger than its size. Needs another viewing, next time on Criterion blu-ray.
Where Eagles Dare (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1968) – A classic, pure spectacle. The Alistair MacLean novels lend themselves well to cinema, with others like The Guns of Navarone, Bear Island, and Ice Station Zebra also a pleasure to watch. This one heroizes the Brits via Richard Burton, but the token inclusion of Clint Eastwood as the gun-ready American lieutenant makes it as well-rounded as necessary for a film of this sort. Pacing is steady, working consistently toward a final climax through so many little climaxes. It’s hard not to like this one. Even the ladies, who use their gifts to the Allied advantage, show competence and agency despite soft spots for Mr. Ladies’ Man Richard Burton himself.
Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) – A rather cursory viewing, one that demands thought and attention. Danger here is to see simply “Godard” instead of something unique, which it seems to be. The French is typically translated as “My Life to Live,” which is fitting, since Karina’s character insists on her own agency/responsibility within the narrative. How Godard’s camera, editing, etc. deny her agency while acknowledging something like subjectivity is worthy of note. He seems to be at his most vicious here, casting his then-wife as the female character who is rather “bound” for prostitution and death. She’s just the image, at first unreachable, then, once gotten, cast into the gutter. Godard is honest if nothing else. At one point he employs a rapid-fire cutting sequence overlaid with a machine gun sound effect. His camera is his weapon, the look as fatal as can be. She wants to be looked at, but it doesn’t go so well to get what you want. Inclusion of Poe’s story “The Oval Portrait” may be as overt as Godard ever gets about his own murderous kind of authorship.
Doesn’t matter what day it is. Drugs aren’t all Credence and trash cans.
In The Big Lebowski, when Walter says, “Say what you will about the tenants of national socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos,” you have to wonder if the Coens weren’t acknowledging their own tendencies. They may not be nihilists in the same way as the stupid Germans in Lebowski, but they’re still nihilists. Arguably the only film they’ve made that isn’t in the end absurd and meaningless is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and that was an adaptation that, in spite of its theme of redemption, is still infused with the Coens’ characteristic ultimate pointlessness. For the record, no one here is saying that those boys can’t put together a swell movie. With such prolific production, though, their cynicism may not be as strong as Kubrick’s but it’s just as much there. The Hudsucker Proxy has been accused of a core emptiness, a vacuum in the eye of the storm disguised by flare and style. This is a problem with being too intelligent for your own good. Everything becomes a tongue-in-cheek homage. Or, you wallow in the dead end of intellectual limits, finding new and clever ways to soliloquize over the vacuity of existence. It’s not that there isn’t truth to such conclusions – everything is, after all, a bit meaningless – but one should question the productivity of not taking the next step, asking, “So what?” If the pointlessness of life exists only to be talked about and converted into art, then that talking and that art are just as pointless as life. Better, perhaps to break through the brick wall of meaning(lessness) and choose a fork in the road: create some meaning or find some that has evaded you thus far.
But, the film. The His Girl Friday stuff is pretty joyous, especially with Jennifer Jason Leigh channeling fast-talkies like that one and everything Kate Hepburn ever did. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is the inept imbecile whose alleged humanity (endorsed by the film itself) is compromised by the narrative. If the film had anything going for it at the beginning, it’s that this kid from Muncie, Indiana is innocent, idealistic, and unstained by the big-city world. His virtue stands contrary to that of another contemporary small-town boy come to the booming metropolis to make a life for himself: Kenneth Parcell in 30 Rock. Kenneth, despite his here-and-there slip-ups, maintains his convictions and doesn’t let big bad New York change him as a person. Norvile, on the other hand, quickly slips into the same gratuitous self-indulgence as his predecessor once he’s made a fast buck on a lucky idea. What this says is that “virtue” is something that should always remain in quotes. It’s not strong or resilient on its own, just foolish. A virtuous fool is just a fool, and once given the opportunity to step on others to maintain his place at the top, he’ll do just that. Class boundaries and the selfishness of the American dream aren’t chastised in this film; nothing really is. One corporate bigwig decides, in a frenzied laughing fit, to jump to his death from 44 floors (or 45, if you count the mezzanine). Another equally sinister exec ends up in the nuthouse. And Norville the nincompoop remains on top by sheer luck and happenstance. When the first president revisits Norville during his long fall from the top, he comes as an angel. This ridiculous fact on its own exposes the Coens’ rejection of meaning and morality. That such an evil fiend should plan such an end for himself, including a last-ditch gesture of friendship that inevitably backfires, and end up with wings and a hula-hoop halo says it all. Still, it’s a really funny movie.
Another deeply enjoyable viewing at the Stanford Theatre during their spring program, George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town. This sort of film has a purity to it, an innocence that makes you want to watch more like it and enter into its world. It’s funny, well-executed, and it wears all its main themes and concerns right on its sleeves. No big plot twists, no camera angles that just make you think, no method acting. There’s something to be said for this. It’s political in the best possible way, showing the transformation of not one but two characters, each of which are entrenched in their own opposing ideals, that dangerous slough from which there is little chance of escape. To quote President Obama’s statement yesterday concerning the threat of rogue nuclear weaponry, “Words have to mean something.” This is in some ways the point of this film: words have no real value until they have street value. The law professor begins the narrative refusing to lower himself from the clouds of judicial philosophy, then ends up interrupting a lynch mob’s invasion of a courtroom to give an impassioned speech on the importance of the human heart and common sense to counterbalance the innumerable volumes of law books that clutter the shelves of attorneys and judges.
Aside from the straightforward but impressive ideas contained in the film, the real injustice would be not to mention Jean Arthur. Her goofy, screwball persona is what gives the film its warmth. Without her, Cary Grant would just be competing with Ronald Colman for screen time. The two men work fine together, but the macho bit is rather unbecoming. The film almost seems to exist for Jean, who sacrifices her own sanity for the sake of the men. At the finale, she chastises them for thinking they control her and wields her own choice as to which man she’ll leave with. The tragedy of the ending is the loss of the little family they’d constructed and openly acknowledged. The new court justice does so for the greater good, however. Each character takes turns filling the domestic role in the family home, perhaps with Cary Grant doing so most naturally. (A screenshot of this scene would be nice, but good luck finding anything online.) If this one offers anything slightly hidden, it has to do with the superficiality of the inscription. Words of justice are meaningless without pragmatic interpretation. Even a photo shows nothing, as Grant’s characters says when he encounters his own wanted poster, if it has no spirit. The process of things is mechanized, the recording and prescribing empty without humanity to inform, reconsider, and apply.
So since neither 30 Rock nor The Office had new episodes airing last week, we went and saw Date Night. Since we followed it up with dinner, we inadvertently completed the cliché. The lame thing here is that some of the funniest moments were contained in the trailer, which always creates the impression of watching a longer, less-funny trailer in a theater. This little movie, at least, turned the tables from the conventional by offering a funnier second half than first half. It’s the sort of movie that stands or falls on its own ability to elicit laughter, and certainly not on its ability to offer something novel or provocative. This is the basic problem with these films, which is why they are usually compelled to throw in an outrageous comedy bit to maintain viewer interest. In Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that posed as something unconventional, that bit was a strip routine performed by a grade school girl. In Napoleon Dynamite, it was the titular character getting down to the grooves of a boy band. (Quirky, indeed.) In Date Night, it happens when the characters played by Tina Fey and Steve Carell pole dance together in a dark, dingy, red-light-lit underground night club. We saw Tina, as Liz Lemon, dance with strippers in the pilot episode of 30 Rock, which somehow worked a little better than it does in this movie. One gets the impression that the writers, bored and lazy, went with the first idea that came to them when confronted with the problem of renewing viewer interest at the two-thirds point of the film.
But at least there’s Marky-Mark. The movie’s only f-bomb is pretty well-placed, really, as Carell reaches the end of his rope and demands that the tri-nippled man put on a $%*# shirt. But enough about Mark Wahlberg’s nipples (gonna get lots of hits to this post). Date Night is a little confounding for a few reasons. The first sign that something is off happens before the opening credits, with the screen is filled with “20th Century Fox”. This is just a little weird because Carell and Fey typically work for NBC Universal, a company rather opposed to the mainstream conservatism of Fox. 30 Rock takes regular jabs at Fox, Rupert Murdoch, and all things associated with them. The character of Liz Lemon is not exactly traditional, though she embraces certain aspects of the modern woman that have been caricatured and stereotyped. She’s pretty feminist, and although Jack Donaghy mocks her feminism at every opportunity, the show itself mocks his right-wing character constantly, too – especially through the casting of Alec Baldwin, Huffington Post blogger. So when the first shot of Date Night is of Carell and Fey in bed together, sleeping, facing opposite directions, it fits the Fox mold much better than the NBC mold. The kids run in and jump on them, and later they discuss where to go for date night when the babysitter shows up. They’re the proverbial married couple, even from New Jersey, which is the proverbial “suburban” to New York’s “urban.” Fey’s character says as much at one point, something to the effect of, ‘We’re not New York people; we’re just a little old New Jersey couple.’
The point of the film’s story, of course, is to celebrate the ordinary married couple, to show that they’re still fun, funny, and able to have adventures of their own. This is kind of nice, really, but it stands apart from Fey/Carell TV material. The stand-out moment in the film, in this respect, is toward the end when Carell’s character tells Fey’s character just to trust him and follow his instructions; he has everything under control. The wifeis unable to remember the plan, carry it out, or operate with authority. The husband, despite being a bit of a goofball, remembers it, executes it, and tells his wife what to do (and she obeys). While there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with the film using these age-old patterns, it contrasts noticeably from how we’re used to seeing these two actors. Since this change takes some getting used to, it could account for the film’s seemingly funnier second half in comparison with the first. What’s fairly certain watching this one, though, is that the film rides completely on its two main stars and numerous cameos; nothing entertaining about the story, dialogue isn’t that funny, and the action scenes are a stretch. What Fey and Carell say usually isn’t that funny; what’s funny at times is how they say it. The presence of James Franco and others isn’t optimized, as if Franco’s very presence is enough to score the movie some points. Certain jokes are repeated ad nauseum, again, as if the repetition itself is funny. (“You stole our reservation?! Who does that!”) At the risk of sinking to a shameless Ebert-style review, wait for this one on Netflix. It’ll be a better movie if you do.