29 January 2010

Rally Round the Flag Boys (And Girls)! Propaganda, Hollywood and World War II

The Great Dictator

Unlike American military adventures of recent vintage, World War II enjoyed widespread popular support throughout the country. Most citizens were willing to put their money where their mouth were. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Military enlistments were high. Those not eligible to fight did far more than sport a buyer sticker claiming to "Support our Troops." The president asked for sacrifices and, for the most part, Americans willingly made them.

National morale was strong. There was after all a clear enemy and tangible, measurable goals: stopping the spread of fascism in Europe and ending Japanese aggression in Asia. Presenting a case for war to the American people was not a problem. Both enemies had clear and villainous leaders, Hitler and Tojo, along with easily identifiable symbols, the swastika and rising sun.

Still, maintaining morale for a long and costly war was never going to be easy. But even before the U.S. entered the fray Hollywood was rallying the people. The war in Europe had been raging for over two years before the U.S. declared war, and hostilities in Asia long preceded that. But Hollywood didn't want until December 7th 1941 to attack.

Maybe you can name some films out of Hollywood that argued the isolationist case because I sure can't. With many directors, stars and even producers refugees from Nazi Germany and its immediate neighbors, the American film industry was quick to expose the horrors of the Third Reich. With U.S. entry in the war the motion picture industry began cranking out propaganda, thinly disguised as fictional films.

One of the remarkable aspects of these movies is that many of them were quite good and remain beloved to this day. There's no better example than Casablanca (1942), which on top of everything else (like being one of the greatest films of all time) was a superb bit of pro war propaganda. Sure the Nazis are shown to be evil, but Vichy is also vilified and the resistance is presented as heroic. Perhaps its strongest message is in the form of Rick's (Humphrey Bogart) transformation from an isolationist ("I stick my neck out for no one") to a man who gives up the woman of his dreams for the cause. A cause he then goes on to fight for.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy
 One of the first successful attempts to use Nazis as bad guys was Anatole Litvak's Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Edward G. Robinson is a G-Man who goes after a Nazi spy ring. It was highly effective at creating the great fear of the "enemy within." Those bad guys are not just across the ocean but in our very midst, threatening our very way of life.

A year Later Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator (1940) which specifically belittled Hitler and as a bonus, Mussolini. The message was clear. Hitler was a buffoon, albeit a dangerous one who needed to be checked. That same year saw Alfred Hitchcock get in the act with Foreign Correspondent (1940). A U.S. newspaper sends a reporter to Europe to report on growing tensions and the possibilities of war. He ends up uncovering spies in London as he has adventures there, in Holland and smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The film ends with the reporter giving a stirring Edward R. Murrow like radio report from London during a German blitz. It's a great film and rallying cry.

1940 also saw the release of Escape (1940) from director Mervin Leroy, starring Claudette Colbert and Robert Taylor, about a famous actress imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and efforts to rescue her. And Mortal Storm (1940) which was an indictment of Nazi persecution of Jews.

On the eve of the war came All Though the Night (1941) in which Bogie plays a gangster who sics his New York based mob on a a group of Nazi spies who are planning sabotage. The head Nazi here is played by Conrad Veidt. Veidt was a German actor married to a Jewish woman. The couple fled Germany when Hitler came to power. He went on to play several odious Nazis, notably in this film and Casablanca. Peter Lorre and Judith Anderson (most famous for her role in Rebecca (1940)) were fellow Nazis in All Through the Night. The film, despite some weighty subject matter, is generally light in tone, boasting such comic actors as Allen Jenkins, Hugh Herbert, Phil Silvers and a young Jackie Gleason. But it slyly got across its message about the perils of Nazis. in our midst.

Also that year the Fritz Lang thriller Man Hunt (1941) was released. Walter Pidgeon plays an Englishman pursued by Nazis first in Germany and then right within London. George Sanders is, not for the first time, excellent as a nasty Nazi. The film ends with Pidgeon's character parachuting into Europe as a soldier.

Mrs. Miniver
One of the most effective pieces of Hollywood propaganda was William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (1942). Greer Garson and Pidgeon are an upper middle class British couple with a lovely house and family. Their idyllic life is shattered by the war which calls their son into service and brings bombs from above to their home. The final scene with the sermon in the bomb-shattered church had to have audiences ready to go out and buy war bonds.

Later films during the war showed men in battle. A key element in all was to see some of the good guys die. It was always a hero's death. Invariably with the soon-to-be-deceased uttering stirring last words. Often the deaths were not just a result of standard enemy fire, but resulted from sneaky, back-handed action. Witness efforts to rescue a downed enemy flier in Destination Tokyo (1942). The rat fink fires upon and kills an innocent American. According to Hollywood, the enemy did that sort of thing quite regularly and needed to be vanquished.  Destination Tokyo was aboard a submarine while Action in the North Atlantic (1943) was aboard a merchant marine ship, but both feature a man not convinced that the fight was worth engaging in. Of course, he comes to see the light. The reluctant participant was clearly meant to symbolize those Americans still unconvinced the fight was worth engaging in.

Bataan (1943) in The Philippines, Sahara (1943) in North Africa, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944) in the air, are just a few examples of "our brave fighting men" in action. But women got in the act too, never more so than in So Proudly We Hail (1943) about the experiences of army nurses on The Philippines during the war. It is as blatant an attempt to tap into American patriotism and sentiment as you'll ever see. Also, it was doubtless highly effective.

So Proudly We Hail
Hollywood's best directors and biggest stars featured in these films not to mention top screenwriters, cinema photographers etc. The result were dozens of films that both entertained and rallied the home front. Of course, I've only scratched the surface. There were also films about that very home front (something I may explore in a future post) and rallying cries that were disguised as films about other topics. There were cartoons aplenty featuring the likes of Bugs and Daffy and clownish versions of Hitlers and racially stereotyped Japanese characters.

Of course I've not mentioned most of the WWII era propaganda fiction, some of which I've not seen. One example is something called Hitler - Beast of Berlin (1939), a title I stumbled across in the Internet Movie Database. Actually I'm just assuming -- safely -- that it had an anti Hitler slant.

The flood of Hollywood films related to World War II has never abated as I've explored in previous posts. Such as this look at 25 of the best WWII films and this peak at a dozen more. I also wrote a post examining some of the best Nazi characters of films, which needs to be updated to include Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) from Ingloruious Basterds (2009).

So cinematically speaking World War II is the gift that keeps on giving, but there is nothing quite like those films made just before and during the war. They had the fresh perspective of those experiencing that time period. There is an urgency and a sense of getting an important story out.  But the dedication to telling a good story was never lost. Yes a message had to be delivered but it had to be within what Hollywood did best, making a damn good movie.

28 January 2010

Maybe They Should Have Played Checkers Instead - or - Why I Revere Bergman's The Seventh Seal

"Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." - Antonius Block.



The absence of God.

God's silence.

Who on Earth would want to watch a film dealing with such deep and dour topics? If said film is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), count me in.

It's not an easy film for me to watch because I find myself thinking all the damn time. Because Bergman so effectively introduces the weightiest of all themes throughout the film, one is constantly stopping to contemplate them.

Yesterday Howard Zinn died. Today JD Salinger. Life goes on for the rest of us. For now. But whether its in the form of some pale faced bloke in a flowing black cloak or something rather less obvious, death follows us all. All the time. Goodness, have you any notion of how capricious life is? It's something to think about because it may inspire you to appreciate each day. Hell, each hour. Antonius Block (Max Van Sydow) does late in the film. In a break from playing chess with death, he enjoys a simple but tasty repast of strawberries and milk with friends. Antonius, a knight just returned from the Crusades, vows to remember these precious moments.

One thing recovering addicts learn is how great it is to be alive to face life on life's terms. Meaning, it's great to be alive, for the good, the bad, the horrible, the wonderful. So death is the absence of that. Unless it's not and something else awaits. But The Seventh Seal does not deal with the after life. Just the termination of this one.

The Seventh Seal is set in the time of Black Death when plague claimed the lives of perhaps one-third of all Europeans. Understandably, people were obsessed with death. It was omnipresent. Try not thinking about.

People looked for answers and inevitably for scapegoats. As we see in the film one young woman is blamed for bringing the plague because she supposedly had carnal knowledge of the devil. In desperation for answers to the seemingly unknowable, people will grasp at straws and end up clutching one. During the plague, in many parts of Europe, Jews were blamed (as a Jewish friend of mine said with a sigh when I mentioned this once, "of course."). If you don't know who or what's to blame, pick someone, anyone.

The Seventh Seal was based in large part on the iconography of the church of Bergman's childhood, where his father was a preacher. Tis no surprise that it is a visually lush film in dramatic and beautiful black and white.

There is symbolism aplenty and much profundity and Bergman had the confidence to lay it on quite thick. Great directors like him and Fellini are not afraid, nothing is held back. Modern movies are too often a case of, as the old song goes, "the self deception that believes the lie." Many great directors when finding something to say, say it. Loudly.

Bergman doesn't hint at the specter of death. He puts a guy in black cloak and calls him that. In the first scene.

Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess (is life, after all, a game? I dunno, you tell me). If he wins he lives -- yeah, but for how long? In any case he's just "playing for time."  Death must win. Eventually.

The knight and his squire travel to their home, a castle, literally, they've not seen for ten years. They encounter and travel with others, including a couple. Their names? Mary and Joseph and yes they have a baby. Make of it what you will.  That's part of the beauty of The Seventh Seal. You decide. So many choices. So much to think about. Just as in life.

If it all sounds rather bleak, well it's not. It's exhilarating is what. Great art always is. It explores ideas and thus allows you to do the same. So the topic is death. Hey, you wanna appreciate life, you wanna understand "it all" you gotta face the end of "it all." You've got to know it's there. The Seventh Seal is a good place to start.

Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can't I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of? - Antonius Block.

27 January 2010

The Sorrow and the Pity, LAMB Readers' Top Ten Foreign Language Films

                                  From Fellini's Amacord.

The Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB) today published its list of top ten foreign language films as voted by it's members (yours truly included).

It's way too easy to pick apart such lists as they invariably fail to include a personal favorite. To rant and rave or even blog about the cinematic classics missing is a fool's errand. However, if such a list reveals a some truths then mention can and perhaps should be made.

First, let's look at the list:

10. The Lives of Others - 34 points from 6 voters (1)
9. M - 35 points from 6 voters (0)
8. Rules of the Game - 48 points from 7 voters (3)
7. (of course) Seven Samurai - 61 points from 7 (of course) voters (5)
6. Let the Right One In - 63 points from 12 voters (0)
5. Pan's Labyrinth - 72 points from 8 voters (3)
4. City of God - 73 points from 9 voters (2)
3. Oldboy - 75 points from 9 voters (2)
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - 80 points from 13 voters (1)
1. Amelie - 88 points from 12 voters (3)

Truth number one can be revealed by the paucity of votes. Only 44 members of LAMB bothered to vote. I'm not sure how many LAMBers there are but an educated guess is there's well over 200. Also, there was a recent poll asking readers what their favorite Clint Eastwood-directed film is. It got 78 votes. Yet only 44 people could manage to name their ten favorite foreign language film. Sadly, I'm led to conclude that one helluva lot of LAMBers don't watch foreign cinema or haven't seen enough to make a list of ten they like.

Imagine limiting your viewing choices to English only films! It's as insane as not watching anything old or anything new.

A second truth revealed is that of those of us who've watched foreign language films, many have only seen recent releases. Seven of the ten movies and all of the top six were released in the past ten years. There is one film from Jean Renoir, one from Akira Kurosawa, one from Fritz Lang and none at all from Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunel, Vittoria De Sica, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman or Roberto Rossellini. Let me clarify. None. Zero.

So not only have we got people who eschew foreign cinema, but those that do apparently favor recent releases that played in their local multiplex. And these are people with film blogs!

(I pause to remind myself not to get depressed. I then wonder if its too late to avoid getting preachy.)

Since I've gone this far I should also express disappointment, though not surprise, at  the top three films on the list: I'm disappointed, but not surprised by the top three on this list.  Imagine Amelie beating out all the films of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Kurosawa and every other director who has created a cinematic masterpiece.

Please allow me now to express my gratitude for LAMB. I am sincere in saying it's a terrific website promoting as it does the love of film and writing and commenting about film. It's a great way for film bloggers to get connected and to be exposed to other bloggers. (We cool?)

For the record, here are my top ten favorite foreign language films.

1. Amarcord (1973) Fellini
Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir
8 1/2 (1963) Fellini
Army of Shadows (1969) Melville
The Seventh Seal (1957) Bergman
M (1931) Lang
Nights of Cabiria (1957) Fellini
Rules of the Game(1939)Renoir
Open City(1945)Rossellini
Beauty and the Beas
t (1946) Cocteau

23 January 2010

Take These Valium and Watch 7 Hours of TV a Day and You Should Be Fine

In the antebellum South slaves were discouraged from reading. Oppressive limits on slave education were imposed as a reaction to Nat Turner'ssSlave revolt in Virginia in 1831. The murderous nature of the insurrection caused shock throughout the South. It had a particularly far-reaching impact on education over the next three decades. The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders. Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their lot; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

It's difficult for a bibliophile like me to imagine a more horrific world than the one depicted in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Based on the novel of the same named penned by Ray Bradbury, the film depicts a world in which books and all other printed material are banned. Any books found are burned on the spot and their possessors arrested.

It is a compelling movie for its subject matter. But at the same time awkward in the way one might expect from a film made in English by a French director with a star and  director at odds. Truffaut and Oskar Werner differed on how Werner should play Guy Montag, the ambitious "fireman" who discovers a love of books. Werner played Montag as somewhat of a robot reasoning that this was, after all, science fiction. Truffaut wanted more passion out of his lead, especially in his discovery of reading books which was quite a leap for someone charged with their destruction. Truffaut was right. We simply see Montag mechanically sit down with a book and read, then develop an appetite for more. Witnessing the transformation would have been perhaps instructive, and definitely better cinema.

Be that as it may Fahrenheit 451, which I watched for the first time today, is a fascinating look at a future that's not so unimaginable. No, one doesn't expect books to be forever banned and destroyed, but they are already being crowded to the fringes of a society obsessed with instant information in bite size form. Meanwhile we have a significant segment of society that, if it reads at all, only bothers with the occasional political tome (and at that ones which re-enforce their existing beliefs) and eschews novels and philosophy --  the most despised books in the world of Fahrenheit 451.

In F451 TV dominates the home, with wall screens in the living rooms and smaller sets in every other (welcome to the future)! Indeed TV is family with on air personalities cousins. Content is totally sanitized for mass consumption. It helps that the entire population seems to be taking one form of sedative or another at all times. This is a scary future world.  People taking addictive drugs that, rather than stimulate thought, deaden the senses. It's all not hard to envision what with the prevalence of all manner of mood stabilizers in use today. And it's no stretch to say that our TVs serve a similar purpose. There are scores of channels featuring mindless dribble in the form of "reality" shows, cookie cutter sit coms, dramas that resonate all the way until they're closing credits (if that long) and political commentary meant to rally the forces, not stimulate discussion. We have a population of docile citizens constantly "vegging out" in front of the idiot box, only occasionally stirring  if spurred by their TV.

Books are reviled in F451 for their supposed propensity to make one sad. Point taken. Books do cause one to think and we all know the hazards of utilizing our intellect. Books open up entire worlds to us and God knows that many of those worlds are rife with tragedy and heartache. But how reading stirs the imagination! What insight is to be gained, what visions of worlds that are no more, worlds we'll never see, but most importantly worlds that could someday be! And what a wonderful way to explore the human condition, to understand those alien to us and to recognize the commonalities we enjoy (or suffer). Reading is the antithesis of a world where TV does our thinking for us.

Books provide adventure, excitement, romance, knowledge, opinion and perhaps best of all feeling. To really read is to feel. We engage our heart and minds and best of all exercise our imaginations in the accomplishment. A world without books is a world where corporate-approved factoids reign supreme over the intellectual process.

451's Montag is a believer in his world (don't we all want to be? I mean wouldn't be nice if the established order had nothing but everyone's best interests at heart?). But when he dares sample the forbidden fruit, he hungers for orchards.

Montag starts with David Copperfield (excellent choice!) and there's no turning back. We know that Montag will eventually be found out and can only hope that before being caught he'll find his way to the pockets of resistance. These are not groups of people who fight back. However, they not only do not tote guns, they don't even possess books. They become books. Each person commits a book to memory then destroys it so that he'll not be subject to arrest.

One person is Machiavelli's The Prince, another is Plato's The Republic, identical twins are both volumes of Pride & Prejudice. They all thus aim to preserve these books for a time when future generations may someday revel in the printed word.

Julie Christie plays two parts in F451. She is Montag's TV and drug addicted wife and Clarisse, Montag's neighbor who seduces him -- with questions, books and stories of the human literature. Would that Werner's performance was as interesting as hers.

Despite some basic flaws with the film, it's message is powerful and timeless. Now if you'll excuse I'm smack in the middle of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tools....

21 January 2010

Movies and Trains, As Natural as the Cream in Your Coffee

Trains and movies go together as naturally as jazz and saxophones. Directors are afforded a contained area which is at once limiting and liberating. Passageways are narrow and quarters confined and there's no terra firma. On the other hand there's movement, scenery, and challenges for the camera that can create memorable cinema. It's remarkable how many chase scenes successfully take place on trains, along with fist fights, love scenes and silly shenanigans.

Spacecraft, ships, aeroplanes and even submarines have provided moving set locations for films, but not with the degree either of frequency or success as have trains. Train travel was much more common in the United States up until the 1960s. Except for the Northeastern Seaboard, trains in the U.S. are infrequent, expensive and stop everywhere, making such travel tedious and impractical. It's a sad loss for Americans who as such strong individualists all want their own modes of transportation (i.e. cars) and can't abide their tax dollars subsiding a seemingly archaic mode of travel.

So aside from visiting or re-locating to Europe your best bet to enjoy riding the rails is to watch a movie.  There are literally oodles ("did he just write 'literally oodles'"?) of movies, most from the first half of the previous century, that feature lengthy or important scenes on choo choos. I can not even pretend that what I provide below is anything more than a sample. This list could easily be twice, three times, even four times longer. But I do think I've got a representative sample of excellent films where trains were integral to a good story.

The 39 Steps (1939) or Escape on a Train. Alfred Hitchcock frequently used trains and invariably to great effect. In The 39 Steps a man (Robert Donat) wrongly suspected of murder must elude the coppers while on board a moving a train. This first creates drama when a newspaper with his mug on it is purchased and then when the law gets wind he's on the train. A woman is of no help but a bridge is, in this delightful film full of derring do, dash and whimsy.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) or International Intrigue on a Train. Another Hitchcock film. This time there's a charming little old lady on a train and then there's not. Where'd she go and why does no one believe our heroine (Margaret Lockwood) who insists the woman was on board? It won't surprise you to know that there are the proverbial bad guys in this film, most of which is set on a train.  There's also eccentric English gents, romance, a handsome leading man (Michael Redgrave) and a shootout. Great fun in one one of Hitch's most under appreciated efforts.

The Train (1964) or World War II on a Train. In this film from director John Frankenheimer, trains co star with Burt Lancaster in a thriller about the French resistance trying to save rare works of arts from the clutches of the Nazis. The villains are trying to get the artwork out of Paris via -- take a guess ... who said train? Lancaster leaps about trestles, tracks and the trains themselves in his effort to thwart the bad guys. Action aplenty much of it on moving trains. Great stuff for WWII, train and film aficionados. (If you're all three you're in for a real treat.)

Twentieth Century (1934) or Theater on a Train. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard hamming it up and us viewers cracking up. This is great stuff. The film starts in a theater where Barrymore is an impresario and Lombard his discovery. But much of the action takes place aboard a train called the Twentieth Century, a few years later when Lombard is a big star and Barrymore's fortunes are on the wane. He's trying to woo her back with guile, a wing and prayer. Howard Hawks directed the twosome and let em have it. So you get two thespians feasting on the scenery, which remember, is a train.

Go West (1940) or The Marx Brothers on a Train. By rights this shouldn't be here as it's not a terribly good film, especially for the Marx Brothers. But it features one of the great trains scenes of all time. It is an elaborate chase sequence in which the train is veritably cannibalized to fuel itself. It is the embodiment of madcap antics and its on rails.

Shanghai Express (1932) or Scandal and Civil War on a Train. This folks is a great film and its long past high time it got its much due DVD release. Almost the whole shebang takes place aboard a train, namely the Shanghai Express. Marlene Dietrich stars as the notorious Shanghai Lil a well known, shall we say working woman, who's one of several intriguing passengers aboard the express. The journey will find itself right in the  middle of the Chinese Civil War. Joseph von Sternberg directed.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or The Depression on a Train. Riding the rails was a common form of transportation for the colorfully named hoboes of America's Great Depression. In this classic from William Wellman, it's teenagers searching for where the grass is greener. They hop a freight, meet compatriots and even get into a brawl with cops. Hoping a freight epitomized those desperate times when cars were abandoned and people searched the land for some sort of break. This movie captures that time as well as any other.

Palm Beach Story (1942) or The Ale and Quail Club on a Train. Folks, this is train abuse pure and simple. What the wealthy and intoxicated members of the hunting and imbibing club do to this train is a scandal. Their gunplay (harmless in intent) terrorizes a porter and provides unwanted air conditioning to a club car. Meanwhile they go on a hunt for a young lady they've taken under their wing, utilizing their beagles. That young lady (Claudette Colbert) not surprsingly hides from her besotted benefactors and in the process meets a very wealthy bachelor (Rudy Vallee). You get it, it's more madcap fare from director Preston Sturges and is howling good fun.

Schindler's List (1993) or The Holocaust on a Train. I never said this was going to be all yucks and giggles. There is a tragic iconography in the trains pulling into Auschwitz with their doomed cargo. Stuff to haunt your dreams (its done mine) for its grim reality. Schindler's List evokes that horror and particularly the horribly crowded cattle cars.

Some Like it Hot (1959) or Men in Drag on a Train. What could be better than sharing intimate quarters on a train with Marylin Monroe? Not much although watching her cavort with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, with the latter two in drag, comes pretty close. This classic comedy's key middle third takes place aboard a Miami bound train. The three stars were never better.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) or Bandits on a Train. Behold the dedicated bank employee who stands steadfast aside his company's safe refusing to yield to the Hole in the Wall Gang. No, he'll not let them near the loot though they threaten to blow it and him to kingdom come. Our persistent thieves are led by Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford). Imagine their surprise when too much dynamite is used and money blows hither and yon. And imagine their shock when out of some of the trains cars come armed horseman. The law! The chase is on and birthed by a train.

Strangers on a Train (1951) or A Train With Strangers On It. There's actually not a lot of this film (another from Hitchcock) set aboard a train but what there is is crucial. Strangers opens with the chance meeting of two men who strike up what is to one of them a most interesting conversation (to the other it all seems rather macarbe and odd). Our oddball suggests that they each commit a murder on behalf of the other. Each will have an air tight alibi and thus neither will be suspected. The train and most especially the tracks, provide some key symbolism as well as a starting point.

20 January 2010

Okay, Okay, My Top Twenty Films of the Last Decade

I'm yielding to overwhelming and unrelenting pressure (okay a couple of people mentioned it in passing) and publishing a top 20 of my favorite films from the preceding decade. The oughts.

Initially I had balked because I felt there weren't a score of movies worthy of a best decade list. But upon further reflection, there were some excellent efforts, surely enough for a passable top twenty. And indeed this past decade is probably far better than either the 80s or 90s. (Still, this list is in no way comparable to a list one could make of films from the 70s or 30s.

So here at last are my top 20 films of the oughts.

1. Inglourious Basterds (2009) Tarantino U.S.
2. The Aviator (2004) Scorsese U.S.
3. No Country For Old Men (2007) Coen Brothers U.S.
4. Barbarian Invasions (2003) Arcand French Canada
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) Cuaron Mexico
6. Zodiac (2007) Fincher U.S.
7. Minority Report (2002) Spielberg U.S.
8. A Serious Man (2009) Coen Brothers U.S.
9. Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel Germany
10. City of God (2002) Meirelles/Lund Brazil
11. Lives of Others (2006) von Donnersmarck Germany
12. Wonder Boys (2000) Hanson U.S.
13. Gangs of New York (2002) Scorsese U.S.
14. The Man Without a Past (2002) Kaurismaki Finland
15. Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) Allen U.S.
16. Amores perros (2000) Inarritu Mexico
17. Bamboozled (2000) Lee U.S.
18. Milk (2008) Van Sant U.S.
19. The Class (2008) Cantet France
20. Bad Education (2004) Almodovar Spain

18 January 2010

From My Angst to Casablanca Appreciation in the Course of a Few Paragrpahs

I think if I could write I'd feel better. So write I must. There's a certain addictive quality to writing and I am after all an addict. I'm hooked on creating sentences and paragraphs just as I am to working out. So maybe that explains this case of the blahs. Haven't penned a word in days. Trouble is the old muse is shut down.

Just forge ahead then, when you can't write, write anything. It's the process that's going to count anyway, the product? Not so much.  Look, how many people see or care what I write anyway? Just check out the comments section. No, I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I never intended this blog to be for anyone but me. Making it public and writing in such a way that is meant to be interesting to people is just a device to create structure.

The most selfish thing we can do is act on behalf of others. It makes us feel good to aid those in need. As well it should. I flatter myself that sometimes a person out there in cyber space reads one of my posts and is amused or edified or decides to watch a film or re-visit one (maybe it's you, Celeste K. In Akron). Not as altruistic as aiding earthquake victims but we all do what we can when we can.

As a first step toward chasing away the mulligrubs I watched Casablanca (1942), a film I've probably viewed more than any other save Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Casablanca deserves to be loved. It's got one of the tightest scripts in film history. It's not just all the great lines but how there's not a wasted word of dialogue. So many memorable lines and no unnecessary ones. I reviewed the DVD for Amazon and noted there that the unsung hero of the film was director Michael Curtiz. Casablanca has the feeling of an epic yet clocks in at around one and three quarter hours. So not only is there no wasted chit chat there are no wasted shots. But here's the trick, Curtiz didn't rush anything either. There are several occasions when the camera lingers on Rick (Humphrey Bogart) or Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and always to great effect.

Curtiz was a fairly straight forward story teller but was not afraid to employ a zoom or use perspective or create shadows ala John Huston. While Curtiz made many other excellent films, this was far and away his masterpiece and its a bloody shame his inestimable contribution to Casablanca has been too little appreciated.

Then again when you're slapping together a classic there's plenty of credit to be divvied up. While Bogie and Bergman get the lion's share, Casablanca boasts an amazing supporting cast. Paul Henried (Victor Lazlo), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Claude Rains (Renault) and Dooley Wilson (Sam) are well known for their respective roles and Peter Lorre is rightly lauded for his small but crucial contribution as the slimy Ugarte. But it's hard to imagine Casablanca without S.Z Sakall as Carl, or Marcel Dalio as Emil, the croupier. Remarkably, Dalio was uncredited for his performance. He had previously worked in France appearing in three of the great French films of all time, Pepe Le Moko (1937), Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939) (hell, those are three of the great films from anywhere of all time) and he had significant quite credited roles in each. Dalio barely escaped France as the Germans invaded in 1940. His getaway, which included bribing a corrupt immigration officer in Lisbon, is worthy of a Hollywood rendering. Sakall and Veidt also came to Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis.

Casablanca is clearly a case of everything coming together magically and perfectly. Sure the story resonated with audiences in the midst of World War II for its patriotic and anti Nazi messages, but it has continued to capture imagination for decades after. There is romance, the tortured, jilted, confused and unrequited kind that doesn't just tug but yanks at our heart strings. There is also one man's redemption. Initially Rick will "stick his neck out for no one," than risks prison to see a freedom fighter leave with the woman of his dreams. So we witness this man's rise from unabashed selfishness to the ultimate noble gesture.

There is a familiarity to Casablanca that can be comforting. We know snatches of dialogue by heart. In college, (this before the time of VHS and DVD) a roommate had recorded much of the film's audio on his eight track (you're old if you remember those) and we used to listen to it along with or instead of studying. A particularly favorite line of ours was "put down that phone, put it down!" (I dunno, you tell me why).

While Casablanca is rich in snippets that have become part of our culture (round up the usual suspects, here's looking at you kid, play it again, Sam) it is best enjoyed from start to finish as the embodiment of the classic that it is.

I suppose then that Casablanca is a comfort film. Great art is supposed to challenge us but it can also soothe. Moreover we find new things to appreciate within every time. Casablanca is a film that keeps on giving.

(So what did I learn from writing my blues away? Well, I'm no good at being noble but it doesn't take much to see that the problem of one little person doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday, reader, you'll understand. Here's looking at you....)

16 January 2010

Heaping Piles of Dung, The Musical!

Never mind the circumstances, recently I found myself trapped in front of a TV with a DVD of High School Musical (2006) playing. I only had to endure 50 minutes or so, though that amount of time nearly caused me to go into convulsions.

It's rare that I watch any part of a film that can be charitably described as excrement. To suffer nearly an hour of utter nonsense was a shocking experience.

How do begin? Perhaps with the the very modern day Disney version of a high school. My children used to sometimes sit vacantly in front of some Disney Channel programming so I caught glimpses of the teen world according to Disney. Disney high schools are always predominately white with always a few token African Americans. These are Black people who, as Senator Harry Reid would say, are "light-skinned and don't speak in a Negro dialect." (Say just why did he get in trouble for saying those characteristics of Barack Obama allowed him to get elected? He was merely speaking the truth. Maybe he deserved a "tsk tsk" for the use of "negro" but that's about it.)

Disney sanitizes African Americans for general consumption. As they do with the few Hispanic characters that they allow in their programming. There were two prominent Black characters in High School Musical. Their physical exteriors were black, culturally they were all Brady Bunch.

Vanessa Hudgens co-starred with Zac Effron and she was the Hispanic character. Hispanic by name and heritage, she wasn't about to go all Cesar Chavez on your ass. Efforn, who recently distinguished himself as the "me" in Me and Orson Welles (check out my review). Was the not only going to star in the high school's musical opposite Hudgens, but he was the captain of the basketball team. I read on IMDb that he practiced basketball for three months in preparation for the role (method actors!). It didn't take. I also saw on IMDb that the team played in the championship game. It's a guarantee in teen movies and TV shows that high school teams always make it to the title game. They always play against an arch rival or heavy favorite.  It's also always a dramatic last second game that comes down to the show or film's hero.

One of the most offensive aspects of High School Musical was its depiction of teachers. I absolutely guarantee that my long and storied background as a teacher has nothing to do with my comments here. I'm perfectly delighted to see teachers lampooned in films or on the telly. The problem in tripe like HSM is that they aren't effectively lampooned at all. To satirize someone you've got to have one toe in reality. You take what a person is like and exaggerate it for effect. In HSM the drama teacher is just silly, stupid and totally blinkered. Like far too much teen fare the adult characters seem created and acted from the imagination of pre teens. Then again HSM isn't very kind to teenagers either. The two stars are adorable and virtually everyone else is a totally one-dimensional caricature. The dumb popularity obsessed blonde, the uber punctilious class president and the basketball 24-7 jock are as interesting as Wonder Bread.

Okay before I go any further I can well imagine someone reading this and saying: But it's for kids!  And that's an excuse to dumb things down? If, as I have, you expose young uns to movies starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and the Marx Brothers, they'll lap it up. You can even find modern films that don't insult their intelligence. (I'll dedicate a post to this topic within the week.) The modern idea seems to be that you make entertainment for children on the cheap. I don't mean production costs are low, I'm talking about the expenditure of creativity. Or the lack thereof.

I can also well imagine a reader or two exclaiming: But it's a musical! Yes and the tunes I saw were okay. Look Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made a dozen or so films together that were more or less just excuses to dance. But they had the courtesy to surround those performances with an entertaining story and charming characters.

I'm not in the habit of writing hatchet pieces on films in large part because I have a talent for avoiding movies I probably won't like. I just caught a bad break the other day and what I saw was silly, contrived and unnecessary that I had to expound on it. And yet I've saved the worst for last. I've come to find out that HSM was popular enough that it was followed by two sequels with a third to be released this year. "Oh the humanity!"

13 January 2010

If Cartoon Characters Do "It" "It" Must be OK

I tell people about this and they think I'm making it up. Here's the proof. Straight from the unbelievable but true files.

12 January 2010

You Can't Make This Stuff Up -- But You Can Embellish It and Make a Film!

Gary Oldman as a loony substitute teacher?

I saw an out-of-date flyer posted on a school bulletin board titled: Oakland Police Safety Bulletin. It had two pictures of some gent and one of his car. The bulletin read in part: This subject was stopped and arrested by OUSD police at Emerson School on 4/21/08 for mental illness. He currently holds a position as a substitute teacher with the OUSD. (Interjection: Well of course, you'd have to be crazy to sub for the OUSD, just ask someone who does -- me!).
If he is seen in or about school, call the police immediately. This subject is unable to care for himself or others (Interjection: Typical sub!). As a result of a temporary or permanent mental condition (Interjection: Well, make up your mind!). His position as a substitute teacher is no longer active (Interjection: That seems a bit harsh). Mr L----- lives in his vehicle (Interjection: who can afford rent on a sub's salary?) and he's been seen around several grammar schools in the past two weeks. He drives a 1997 Mazda....etc.

This may seem a rather inappropriate topic for mirth-making but since the case is nearly two years old, I see no harm. I googled his rather unusual name and found a person of the same moniker with a Facebook page, but she was a she and he's a he. No other google hits for that name.

Okay Hollywood, come crawling to me for the screen rights to this story which I'm pretending I have. I may pitch a version of this in which the guy becomes dangerous, threatening kids and a heroic principal saves the day. I see Mel Gibson as the hero and Gary Oldman as the nutcase. We'll fit someone like Charlize Theron as a teacher to sex the story up.

Another angle we could go with is the poor wretch's redemption and recovery. Sean Penn plays the tortured soul who, guided by a heroic psychiatrist (I'm thinking Liam Neeson) regains his bearings and becomes a productive member of society. How's about Anne Hathaway as the love interest?

A third idea is still germinating in my head but involves aliens, or dinosaurs or super powers. Michael Bey, are you out there? We'll get Morgan Freeman as the president of the Untied States or God or Nelson Mandela (what, been done?) and maybe Robert Downey Jr. will sell another piece of his soul to star. Definitely a Beyonce title song and Frieda Pinto as the plucky female lead who combines sex appeal, bravery and smarts.

This is your soon to be wealthy and Oscar-nominated film blogger cum film producer signing off.

10 January 2010

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Nine: La Dolce Vita)

Behold the empty man, Marcello Rubini. Handsome, sophisticated intelligent in an easy unaffected way. But with no depth at all. Let's be thankful for that. Because it is through him, the protagonist of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) that we see a wonderful episodic tale of Rome circa 1960.

We follow the adventures of this journalist and would be novelist, mostly in the wee hours of the night as he cavorts about with the beautiful, the famous and the rich. These adventures comprise nearly three hours in cinematic time. Director Federico Fellini could have cut an hour and had a nice tidy film that would have been beloved. Instead he left all stories in and let them all play out and so created a masterpiece.

We can enjoy the spectacle of La Dolce Vita because it is unencumbered by a deep and philosophical protagonist. Marcello Mastrioni plays Rubini as the ultimate nihilist. He has no strong moral center and apparently no core beliefs. He doesn't even qualify as a hedonist for he can't even manage to indulge copiously. There's a certain current day teenage girl ethos to Rubini. He's like whatever.

Sure he aspires to be a serious author, so long as actual work is not required. Meanwhile he's satisfied with collecting the snippets of life, provided they relate to the glitterati. Around him is a wolf pack of photographers, especially a chap named Paparazzo (the character who gave his name to the paparazzi). They are more obvious, intrusive leeches. Their cameras are as evident and obnoxious as Rubini's pen is hidden. They also lack his many accoutrements, such as sophisticated style.

Whether in a nightclub, a party among the upper crust or in a helicopter (Jesus statue in tow). Rubini has access to the most beautiful women in Rome. Some he falls for, some fall for him. But it's more like the old song:

There are those who can leave love or take itLove to them is just what they make it There are those who can leave love or take it
          I wish that I were the same
But love is my fav'rite game
I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last
My heart should be well-schoole
          'Cause I've been burned in the past
And still I fall in love too easily
I fall in love too fast

This is a wonderful plot convenience that Fellini has provided. Rubini's susceptibility to women's charms coupled with there's to his, allows the likes of Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee and Magali Noel to dance across screen.

There is also within La Dolce Vita such mysteries as the character of Steiner (Alain Curry). A wealthy sophisticate with a brain to match his bankbook and -- of all things -- a perfectly happy nuclear family. If you've not seen the film I shouldn't here reveal his fate, but suffice to say it is the anchor of La Dolce Vita's many light moments. Odd that Rubini makes the point on a couple of occasions that he and Steiner are good friends thought they rarely see one another. There's something especially piquant about this.

La Dolce Vita is like the grandest dessert tray you've ever seen. Marcello is our waiter. We don't want his life story. Just bring us the treats, maybe tell us a little about everything. This he does.

We follow Rubini, as one would a guide, albeit a handsome one.

La Dolce Vita lacks the madness of Fellini's 8 1/2, the clarity of Nights of Cabiria, or the inventiveness of Amarcord. But like these other great films it serves strong visual fare in wonderful abundance. Here is the work of a director fully confident in his story, his characters and his camera. To some the film goes on too long. These are people who leave a party early, forgetting that sleep can be had on other nights. This party, this movie, is an occasion to savor, not cut short. That's why Marcello is a perfect host. Asking little of us but to enjoy the festivities, we needn't indulge in any great philosophical dialogues. This night, this movie is for other senses.

09 January 2010

A Message to My Bicycling Friends

Three cheers for our fellow citizens who commute and run errands on bicycles! They are not only helping keep their own bodies hale and hearty but they are vastly reducing their own carbon footprints. Like people who walk places and take public transportation, bicyclists are urban heroes.

But I feel compelled to address my two wheeled friends on several issues of importance. These by no means apply to all cyclists. Indeed the majority of bikers show common sense and courtesy when pedaling. This is to the others.

Small children and the riding of your bike are mutually exclusive. The safety of your child comes first. I've seen some (I'm going to go ahead and use the "i" word) idiots who ride their bikes down busy streets pulling their small tots in little carriages. For protection the child wears a helmet. Yeah, that ought keep 'em safe if a car swerves their way. One wonders if Child Protective Services shouldn't be involved in such cases.

Almost as frightening is the bike-riding parent who has their wee one on a little seat right behind them. Again, the vulnerability of that child is spine tingling and not in a good watching-a-scary-movie type of way. More in the oh-my-God-what-if-there's-an- accident way.

Next we come to those cyclists who don't feel the rules of the road apply to them. Perhaps flushed with pride at their contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses, they feel entitled to flout the rules of the road. Red lights, stop signs? Those are for cars, they seem to reason. Why some even ride against traffic. Be careful, be safe and be sensible. You're to be applauded but not to be given exemption from traffic laws.

Lastly we come to my pet peeve. Those morons who ride their bikes on sidewalks. Please note the name: sideWALK. You have no more of right to ride your bike on walkways than a car does. If you're on wheels you belong on the street, can't have it both ways. Sidewalks are the sole province of people on foot. You can't imperil pedestrians by zipping along sidewalks. And the next time one of you on your bike is behind me and impatiently tries to get me out of your way, I'm going to foreswear my prohibition on violence and wallop you.

I conclude by reiterating that we all owe a debt to those who choose to bicycle rather than motor. It's a shame a few dolts give you lot a bad name.

08 January 2010

12 Steps To Becoming a Cinephile

Many of us have benefitted from one of the various 12 step programs extant. Here now is my effort to give back. I offer the world a 12 step program to become an addict. A film addict that is, or a cinephile if you prefer. As with all 12 step programs this is a suggested program. Take what you can from it and share with others. Only #1 on this list would seem at all mandatory.

1. Watch a Lot of Movies. If this is the only one you do you'll still be in good shape.  I can't overstate its importance so I won't even try.

2. Watch Them Critically. All this means is think about what you're seeing. Be aware of what the actors and the directors are doing. Don't just follow the story, note how it is being told. You'll like movies even more if you watch them critically.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Watch Movies a Second, Third or Tenth Time. A great film just gets better with repeat viewings plus you find different things to appreciate about it each time. You'll also be able to tell the "how" of the movie. The "what" usually comes with one viewing.

4. Read About the Movies You Watch. This will not be news to you: the internet (which I'm sure you're familiar with) has reviews, articles, blog posts and what not on any and all films. Just checking out the Internet Movie Database is an excellent start. Google works too. Read about movies and find out why others loved or hated them.

5. Ignore the Haters. Some people don't like a beloved movie? Those same people post nasty comments or write entire articles decrying said film? Don't get in a spitting contest with them. Learn to ignore, it'll add years to your life. Responding to their comments is a waste of your time.

6. Watch Film Documentaries and Interviews. The DVDs you own and rent are rife with those "making of..." documentaries along with interviews, talking heads and behind the scenes stuff. Watch 'em. Also check out TCM and other channels for documentaries and interviews. You'll learn a lot.

7. Read History and/or Literature. I'm smart enough to know that this helps you appreciate films but not smart enough to say why. Trust me though.

8. Appreciate Paintings and Photography. See #7. Although I think the benefits here are more obvious.

9. Sample and Enjoy all Genres. First of all  the word genre can be deceptive. Sometimes saying a film is a Western or Sci Fi is misleading labeling. There are many types of films within genres so don't ignore types of film. Worst of all some people ignore entire time periods. I've come across folks who won't watch anything new and others who won't watch anything old. Talk about cutting of your nose to spite your face! Imagine what you're missing by not watching silent films or recent ones.

10. Figure Out What You Love the Most. While I urge you to sample all types of films, figure out who and what you love the most and revel in that love. Never stray too far from the movies or movie makers that really speak to you or make you laugh or want to dance.

11. Talk About Films. Have chats with people about movies. Discuss particular films and stars and directors and anything and everything else. And I'm not talking online here! Actual old fashioned face to face conversations with a fellow human being.

12. When Bored, Make Lists. Stuck in a boring meeting (is there any other kind?) or a class that is treading water or anyplace else where your mind is wandering? Make lists of your favorites. Top ten by a director or with a particular star or from 1936 or that you saw in particular theater. Anything. It'll fill the time in a most pleasant way that reminds you of your love of cinema.

Now get started with Step 1!

07 January 2010

Great Filmmaking, It's a Matter of Faith

The great ones don't hold back. They aren't afraid to take chances. They have faith in themselves. That's what distinguishes greatness, a faith in oneself.

I saw it yesterday in my second viewing of A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers did not use a single pretty face. Not one. They had a man endure all manner of misfortune. They had a film steeped in Jewish culture. They had a story within the story that went nowhere. They had a moral retrobate that we felt  for. They had loose ends (isn't life full of them? Loose ends everywhere. So why not in art?). They had a magnificent film because they weren't restrained. They let the story dictate itself. This was not from a script writing template.

Quentin Tarantino did the same thing. Not a shy man, more importantly, not a shy director (read: artist). His Inglourious Basterds just went ahead and changed history. Why not? Actual events are just a plot device anyway. That long unbroken first scene. Who does that? He did and it was cinematic gold. Sticking the David Bowie song in the middle of the film was inspired, just as the Coens did by using a Hendrix tune in the middle of the story about the Jewish dentist. Anyone can do unconventional, not many can make gold out of it.

Fellini could. 8 1/ 2 begins with a guy stuck in traffic, he's suffocating, he floats away... That's just the start of the movie!

Conventionality is good to a degree, but my God you need to break away and dance. You need to look at the world in different ways. Look at it this way. Black and white films, beautiful. But life, you want colors, lots of them. You want variety. That's where art comes in. It forces helps you see the world, your life, your view of the world your view of life, in different ways. Art Inglourious Basterdschanges our focus. It gets our brain ticking and might I add tocking. Like the character, the young rabbi in A Serious Man said: "look at that parking lot!"

It's not so easy to look and think in different ways all the time. Most of us only have the one brain (and that's if we're lucky) so great artists come along and help us see. And in terms of movies I'm not just talking directors or screenwriters, the cinemaphotogpraphers and set designers are crucial too and let's not forget the actors. Marlin Brando, Sean Penn those actors who interpret a character in a different way. Helps us see a person, people maybe, in different ways. Heck, the Marx brothers did that too. (Ya know what Geoffery T. Spaulding in Animal Crackers said the T. stood for? Edgar!).

Lot of people complain about ambiguity in films, especially at the ending. Want the story wrapped up in a pretty little bow. So what, you want it neatly finished to store away and forget about? Come on. How about a movie that lives with you. That leaves questions for you to ponder and answer your own way. Speaking of the Coens, their No Country For Old Men  was brilliant in that regard. Not just who the hell was Anton Chigurh, but what was he? What did he represent? Art isn't a summation, it's an invitation. If its all  there it can be an empty experince. In one ear out the other. But if we have, no GET TO think, to ponder, to wonder. That's beautiful. That's art.

Challenging. Maybe at first resistant to us. We have to try. The more you put in the more you get out. A nice comfy movie can be good every now and again but how cool is it when a film makes some percolation go on in our brains? Hey, to me that's fun stuff. It's the stuff the great ones produce.

05 January 2010

My Twenty Favorite Films of the Decade -- But it's Not What You Think

Anyone who's associated with film criticism has recently published their top ten films of the decade. Being an unabashed list maker myself one would fully expect me to join in with a top ten of my own. First of all I don't think ten is enough for a decade, you should have 20, ten is for individual years as per my recent 2009 list. So this must be my top 20 of the oughts, right?


I tried.

There were some excellent films (No Country for Old Men (2007), The Aviator (2004)Inglourious Basterds (2009), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Der Untergang (2004)) but for the back end of the list the pickings were pretty slim. Even when I cut the list in half and went with the more traditional ten, the last few seemed unworthy of the best of a decade. So... ever the iconoclast I am going ahead with a top 20 of a decade only from a different ten year period -- the Seventies. Folks, this one was easy. The Seventies were lousy with great films. Actually there was some difficulty associated with compiling this list -- limiting it to 20.  Was the Seventies the best decade of film? That honor may go to the Thirties and yes I may present a top twenty films from that decade later. But I'm in a Seventies kind of mood (anyone care to go to the disco?). If you love movies and there's a film on this list you haven't seen, suffice it to say that I strongly urge you to pop a copy in your DVD soonest.

Murmur of the Heart (1971) Pictured above.

Yes, Einstein, I realize that this list has 22 films in it. Sue me.