31 May 2011

Life is Full of Pain and Suffering But The Best in Cinema Offers Help

God there's a lot of pain associated with living. There's everything from existential angst to constipation. Various forms of misery afflict even the luckiest, healthiest and happiest among us. Some people often say "it's always something." Actually it isn't "always" but often enough it is something. How some of us dodge the worst of it most of our lives is nothing short of a miracle.

There's so much beauty and so much joy and so many truths to be unlocked and so many divine moments of clarity to savor. But there's also a seemingly inordinate amount of horror that surrounds us. There are some people who can wallow in their ignorance and indifference and pretend that everything is fine. But a lot of us are keenly aware, perhaps too keenly, that senseless violence and unimaginable suffering are everywhere. At any moment we could become the victim mentioned in tomorrow morning's newspaper. The innocent bystander struck down. What is that officials always says at such moments?  "We are deeply saddened by this senseless tragedy." Here's an example:

Guilty verdict in slaying of slow escalator rider

Tuesday, May 31, 2011
(05-31) 17:09 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A San Francisco jury convicted a 19-year-old man of second-degree murder Tuesday for fatally shooting a man at the Metreon complex after complaining he was clogging an escalator.
Christopher Canon, of San Francisco, was 15 at the time of the Nov. 11, 2007, killing of 18-year-old Michael Price Jr. of Oakland, and was charged as an adult. He faces a sentence of 40 years to life.
Assistant District Attorney Kin Tong said Canon shot Price four times with a handgun after the two argued over whether Price was moving too slowly on the escalator.
An earlier trial ended with the jury hung between first- and second-degree murder.
Canon's attorney, David Simerly, argued that video taken by a security camera at the shopping and entertainment complex at Fourth and Mission streets showed that Price had been the aggressor in the dispute. He said Canon had simply been defending himself.
"He's not standing there, he's attacking," Simerly said of Price.
Simerly also argued that Canon had been too young at the time of the crime to understand the consequences of his actions and be guilty of murder.
"It's just wrong, massively wrong," Simerly said of the verdict. "I'm stunned."
Sentencing is scheduled for July 8 before Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo.

Two lives over and done with. Not to mention the effect on their families and friends. It's the type of event that scars the survivors.

Last week a 15 year old girl rode her bike to near the Golden Gate Bridge. She parked her bike, walked to the bridge and the leapt to her death. I defy you to make sense out of that to her family and friends.

The world at times seems utterly insane. Not only do people go around beating and shooting each other, they verbally assault and threaten one another. Some people do it as a matter of course. Meanwhile many of our more privileged citizenry live for the pursuit of more. More than they need. More wealth. More power. Greed run amuck. Some have even made a virtue of greed, which by its very definition is the selfish desire for excess. This while turning to a deaf ear to social problems that are the brew in so much pain.

It's easy for me to pontificate from the safety of a blog. I'm sitting here at the computer in my nice comfortable house in a nice neighborhood with nice music playing on my nice stereo while I type. Don't think I don't realize how fortunate I am. I've spent over 20 years in urban public schools and understand just how much fortune has smiled upon me. I never take that for granted. I also know good and well that it can all come crashing down in a second. I had a friend my age who was as healthy as me and far more productive who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two years later he was dead. There's have been about a dozen former students of mine who were killed by gunfire before turning 25.

But the older I get the less sense I can make of some of what I see, know and hear of. I know I'm not the only one who's frustrated with the way the world is today. Sometimes it makes me angry. I'm pretty good about keeping it from depressing me but it can still give me a short term case of melancholia.

Since this is a film blog I'll finally get around to saying how much solace I get from movies. A good film can be a rich source of the joy, truth, beauty and even the divine I earlier referred to. For some, films are a kind of escape. I suppose that's the case for me as well but I like to think that I'm not escaping life's realities so much as I am immersing myself in them. However through film I am experiencing in a way that is at once less harmful because it is fictional but is also more illuminating as it provides insight and understanding into the human condition. A film can allow us to experience an emotion in life, a condition, an event or a perspective. We see the world in a different often clearer way through the way the story is told. This allows us to attach meaning to certain realities and come to peace with them or appreciate them.

A love of art and literature in various forms can inform our world view. I've made a serious and somewhat successful effort this calendar year to radically scale back the amount of TV I watch. I now find that over indulging in TV leaves me, if not exactly depressed, empty. Meanwhile movies and books are nutritious and filling. While TV seems to caught me off from thinking, art and literature are stimulants. So too are exercise and meditation. Television tends to de-sensitize us.

One truth that I've become aware of is that the more I learn about any given subject the less I understand. When I taught history I always noticed that when I asked for questions, the best and brightest of my students would have many and those who, for whatever reason, struggled, had none or only the most elementary kind. If you delve into any subject, be it academic, spiritual or philosophical, you'll find exponentially more questions for all the answers you find. That does not make the seeking of answers any less rewarding, quite the contrary. The journey is more important than the destination.

So I'm spending some time these days struggling with why tragedy and misfortune afflict so many of us in such various forms. I've found a lot of what I'm looking for in films. Ingmar Bergman gives one a lot to ponder and I've been pouring through his films since last Fall. I've more recently been exploring Rainer Fassbinder and Michelangelo Antonioni. Last night I enjoyed another Italian director Ermanno Olmi's fantastic film, I Fidanzati (1962). Olmi is better known for Il Posto (1961) but I Fidanzati is, in my mind, every bit its equal. Olmi is foremost a documentarian and brings a strong sense of realism to his fictional work. Like Antonioni and Bergman, Olmi creates compelling stories out of ordinary human drama. They are films that are invitations into character's lives and are photographed (beautifully) in such a way as to allow us to fill in meanings.

Such films can make us more mindful of ourselves and our world. They are clues to unsolvable mysteries. But it is in the pursuit of answers that we are enriched, not in a full sense of discovery.

While we cannot begin to solve the woes that plague humankind, we can increase our understanding and insights. We can make our own lot, and that of those around us, more comfortable and meaningful. We can set examples for one another on living productively and happily together. We can find solutions to some vexing problems and share them. We can move forward. To shoot. To jump off a bridge. To give up. To vegetate in front of the TV. All are forms of defeat. But to progress is the greatest good we can do for ourselves and others.

Films can play a part. Yes, they can be diversions, but at a deeper level films can, as a form of art, bring us closer to truths.

28 May 2011

"The Traces of Humanity in Men..." Scorsese on Antonioni's L'Eclisse

I recently saw Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962) and was profoundly moved by it. In the above clip Martin Scorsese discusses the film, particularly the ending. L'Elcisse stars Monica Vitti and Alain Delon.

This is unconventional story-telling, leaving, as it does, so much space. L'Eclisse is wonderfully uncluttered with dialogue or traditional plot points. It is an invitation into a time and place among a few characters. This is a film that is as beautiful as its two co-stars.

Scorsese's discussion highlights much of what is so special about L'Eclisse.

26 May 2011

Movies You May Not Have Seen That I'd Like to Recommend

Any idiot can recommend a classic or well-known film to watch. Being any idiot myself I've done it dozens of times. But I'd like to step out of my usual idiot role and suggest some movies you are less likely to have seen.

I've selected ten movies, all from different decades with different directors and different stars. None are exactly obscure, but none are regulars on favorite movie lists or are considered classics. Also, all are available on DVD. Most importantly, they're all damn good films that will have appeal to most discerning viewers, and some of you undiscerning viewers as well.

The Circus (1928). Of Charlie Chaplin's later silent era films, this is the one that gets lost in the shuffle. Many who've seen it compare it favorably with The Gold Rush (1925) and a few even prefer it. One would assume that the Little Tramp set loose in a circus would be a recipe for hilarity. One would be correct in this assumption. There is romance, there are chases, there is pathos, the usual Chaplin fare and its all too good for you to have missed it.

The Mayor of Hell (1933). A favorite topic of pre code films like this one was social injustices. In this instance the victimization of the young is explored. James Cagney plays that rare combination of gangster and social crusader, the latter quite by accident. He finds himself in charge of a reform school and gains an interest in it when he falls for the school's activist nurse. In opposition to the corrupt head of the school, our hero supports a program of reform where the inmates run the asylum (to great effect, mind you). Complications ensue. There's a lot going on in this 90 minute film: intrigue, romance and melodrama aplenty. Archie Mayo directed and did a fine job.

The Long Voyage Home (1940). John Ford cranked out a couple of dozen or so excellent films so its no surprise this one is often forgotten. While many of his usual cast including John Wayne is aboard (as a Swede!) this time the setting is a ship rather than the Old West. I only discovered TLVH a year ago and fell head over heels. The opening scene, sans dialogue for a full five minutes, is positively mesmerizing and will suck you into an captivating film. As the son and brother of one-time merchant marines I appreciated its depiction of the sea faring life. You will too.

Sudden Fear (1952). Somebody named David Miller directed this largely forgotten noir. 1952 was when Hollywood was cranking out noirs and here again we have a case of movie that gets overlooked among others of its type. Joan Crawford stars as a newlywed whose younger husband (Jack Palance) is conspiring to off her, with the help of his mistress (Gloria Grahame). The streets of San Francisco are beautifully utilized in the telling of this suspenseful tale. You haven't seen it, have you? Give it a shot, thank me later.

Ride the High Country (1962). A Sam Peckinpah Western before the blood started spewing. This is one of my all time favorites. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were aging actors playing aging lawmen at cross purposes as they set out to transport gold through dangerous country. Along the way they are side tracked by a mission to rescue a girl held by some of the nastier villains in filmdom. Mariette Hartley is positively sumptuous as the girl. McCrea and Scott were getting on in years but were in peak form and Peckinpah was as good here as he'd ever be. Here's what I wrote about RTHC a few years ago.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). With friends like Eddie's got, who needs enemies. Am  I right? You wouldn't know if you're among the many who've missed this fine film from director Peter Yates (best known for Bullitt (1968)). Robert Mitchum was, in my opinion, never better than in this performance as the title character, a career criminal looking to avoid another stretch in stir by ratting out his friends. Do they know? Will they "take him out"? It's a superbly told story with many subtleties and strong performances all around. They were making a lot of really good films in the 1970s and this was one of them.

Local Hero (1983). Question: did Burt Lancaster and Peter Reigert ever co-star in a quirky comedy set in Houston Texas and Northern Scotland? Answer: yes and this is it. Local Hero is a criminally neglected film that I couldn't recommend more. Reigert is an American Oil company employee sent to Scotland to buy a village. He falls in love. With the village. His boss, Lancaster, eventually joins him. He too falls in love. And you'll fall in love if you wisely decide to watch Local Hero. Kudos to director Bill Forsyth.

A Bronx Tale (1993). Okay, you've probably seen this one but in case you haven't....Robert DeNiro directed and co-stars along with Chazz Palminteri and Lilo Brancato (who's been in a spot of bother with the law of late). The film is based on Palminteri's play of the same name which is based on his childhood experiences. Brancato plays a young man torn between his honest hard-working bus driver father (DeNiro) and the local crime boss (Palminteri). Oh yes, he also falls for an African American schoolmate in a time when such a romance in that area was a no-no. One of the better film scripts ever in a memorable film that every young person in America should see. For that matter youngsters of other countries should see it to as well as us old fogeys.

Notes on a Scandal (2006). Master classes in acting by Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy highlight Notes. It is the powerful story of an older teacher (Dench) who  befriends a younger married teacher (Blanchett). There's something rather creepy about the older woman and the manner in which she ingratiates herself into her new friend's family. Matters take a dramatic turn when Blanchett's character has an affair -- with a student. Egads! Nighy plays the cuckolded husband. It is a powerful and memorable film. NOAS received four Oscar nominations but won none. Typical.

The American (2010). Only recently in theaters but missed by many. It was a George Clooney vehicle that did not appeal to the masses. The American calls to mind French thrillers of the 1960' in that it was more about characters than action. There is a leisurely pace to this story about a hitman (Clooney) in a small Italian town who finds romance. I thought Clooney was particularly good as a suave but mostly silent, ruminative and meticulous craftsman. His craft was killing, but still.... Italian actress Violante Placido was enchanting as the love interest. Anton Corbjin, from Holland directed.

23 May 2011

I Come Clean About Recent Lies I've Told

Like everyone else I've been known to stretch the truth (that's a euphemism for uttering a falsehood). I've tried over the years to cut down radically on fibbing but there are some situations which practically cry out for a prevarication. 

My conscience has been nagging me so I've decided to offer this form of confessional. I'm omitting any mention of the circumstances or who was on the receiving end of the fib. But here they are, lies I've told so far this calendar year. I'm truly sorry for each and every one. No, really.

I already made a donation online.

It was nice meeting you.

I am a retired colonel.

Not only does that dress not make you look fat, you actually look thinner!

I have a background in musical theater.

I appreciate your feedback.

No, I've never actually seen a full episode of Scooby-Doo.

I'd love to get together for lunch sometime.

You look great!

I have classical training.

No, dear, I'm not looking at pictures of Pippa Middleton on the internet.

I am a National Merit Scholar.

If I'm guilty of anything it's of loving you too much.

Those lima beans were delicious!

Martin Scorsese wants me to write his next film.

I did not eat the last cookie!

If there's anything I can do, let me know, I'd love to help.

Of course it's real, I'd never sell anything phony.

I would never lie to you.

I read your blog religiously.

It was great talking to you.

While I am indeed happy to see you that is a banana in my pants.

Sorry I'm late I had to go down to the morgue and identify a body.

21 May 2011

Viridiana: A Film About Which I Don't Know What to Say But Will Say it Anyway

The key to life is to be happy. To seek  your shining light. Find whatever meaning you like along the way, but make every effort to discover and spread joy whenever possible.

I've really got to say something. I've just watched this amazing film and right here is this film blog. So naturally I feel obliged to write about it.

It's not easy when you're in the "wow!" phase of having just witnessed something special. You want to process what you've seen and how you feel. Moments, images, scenes, characters, meanings, illusions, allusions maybe even the Aleutians are all swirling around. How then to translate all that into words? Coherent ones in sentences within paragraphs within a theme.

Writing or telling about something wonderful isn't obligatory of course, but it can be a good exercise. It can help you understand how you feel, what moves you and why. Movies are better suited to such occasional discipline because they contain an inherent structure which includes a story and characters. Much is subject to our interpretation and much is clear to one and all. Still in writing about an experience with a film we sometimes face the difficulty of exposure. Digging into ourselves and then sharing what we find. It can seem personal and as in this case for me, it can be difficult to find words for.

Luis Bunuel's Viridiana (1961) is about a prospective nun, the title character, who before taking her final vows that will cut her off from the "outside world" for the rest of her days, pays Uncle a visit. Turns out she bears a striking resemblance to Uncle's late wife, very late as she died on their wedding night. Suffice to say that Uncle (Fernando Rey) becomes obsessed and weirdness ensues. It won't surprise you to learn that Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) never returns to the convent.

Indeed she doesn't leave Uncle's estate. Viridiana does not suffer a crisis of faith. There is a trauma the result of which is that she decides to serve God as a free agent. This primarily consists of providing shelter for the nearby town's homeless and unwashed. Meanwhile the Uncle's son moves in with his girlfriend and....

But you see I'm getting caught up with details. While these details are constructed masterfully by Bunuel (subversively, according to some) to create deeper meanings, they aren't for me to parcel out any further.

Viridiana the character is eminently watchable and both admirable and beautiful, not to mention consistent to her own truths. She is the strong moral center. And yet, Viridiana the film is not kind to Catholicism. But Bunuel was an equal opportunity satirist. He took on anyone with two legs and any group that consisted of humans (I don't know, maybe he had a go at critters in one of his film's too).

Bunuel's camera lingers on feet (you read that right) a few times early in the film. Fetishism perhaps, but also some what I saw as surrealistic foreshadowing (you read that right too). Viridiana is quite intentionally subject to interpretation, a classic example being the famous Last Supper shot (see photo above) at the beggar's banquet. And about that banquet.....What a scene. Lord of the Flies for adults, society's debris loose in the mansion without supervision. Havoc.

Viridiana is yet another unassailable argument on behalf of the beauty of black and white cinema photography as well as a pat on the back to the restorative powers of the good people at Criterion. But mostly it is a testimony to Bunuel, the director and writer of the film. He did the audacious, the scandalous the subversive and made art of it. Viridiana was made and then banned in his native Spain, not seen there until the death of Franco in 1975. Not surprisingly the Catholic church had a hissy fit over the film.

Such is art. It can take people out of their comfort zone and present them with a story and a kind of story telling that is uncomfortable. Light is shined on truths many would rather keep in the dark. For the rest of us, the fact that, in the case of Viridiana, a ruckus was kicked up 50 years ago, is an amusing sidebar.

I've meandered about in trying to say something about this wonderful film, not really scratching the surface of how I reacted to it. Let me try this: through its presentation of a story about a straight forward person in extraordinary circumstances surrounded by unusual characters and by choosing to focus on unique elements of the story, Viridiana was to me a moving cinematic experience. I highly recommend it.


18 May 2011

The Zen of Naked Running

It's anti multi-tasking. When I go to the local YMCA and board the tread mill, I do so sans IPod or newspaper and with the TV screen on the off position. I just run.

I realize this sounds strange, but sometimes I like to do just one thing at a time. Like meditating. I don't check my email, listen to music or run errands, I just meditate.

We have a lot of options today. It is possible to be on the computer with two, three windows open at a time and have the TV on and be talking on the phone too. People today text while doing pretty much anything. People are busy and have no patience with just walking or talking or listening or washing or reading or running. Someone, I'm sure, would like to figure out how to get something else done while sleeping.

This can't be healthy.

You notice how when you get to sporting events there's always something going on during any stop in play? At a hockey game the second the whistle blows rock music blares over the PA system. Between innings at baseball games there are all manner of visuals and sounds emanating from the gigantic scoreboard. There's contests, kiss cams, blooper reels, sing-alongs. We can't just sit and talk or contemplate. Our senses need to be occupied at all times. Who decided this? Does some Big Brother not want us to engage with each other?

Not long ago if you arrived early to a movie theater you could sit and chat with your companion or, if alone, read. Now many theaters have adds running continuously, some even disguised as informational programming.

Young people today have a very difficult time focusing (ask any school teacher). A discussion on one topic is not stimulating enough. Teachers have to integrate modern technology into their lessons to keep young minds from drifting and trouble from brewing. Movies for young people are geared to shorter than ever attention spans. Scenes are short and action is quick. Emphasis is on visuals with the story line and dialogue merely an accompaniment.

Could it be this makes us less mindful? Less sensitive? Less able to really listen to one another and to express ideas? Surely with information and images so readily and quickly accessible, people are far less patient. Minds can't sit still.

Yesterday when I was on the treadmill the guy next to me had the TV on (what genius decided people needed something else to do while exercising?) he was watching the screen but listening to music from his IPod. He didn't seem to be working up a sweat. I only noticed him once I got on my machine. Then I ran. And thought. I thought about everything and nothing. I also became aware of my running. As a seeming paradox to this I soon was oblivious to my running, I was just doing it. About nine minutes in I began to sweat. At various times I was aware of different parts of my body. Sometimes because of a momentary ache or pain. I felt a side ache for a time. Then didn't. I grew quite tired and drenched in sweat. It was wonderful. I was my running.

After 35 minutes I was done. I took a short stroll around the gym to catch my breath then returned to the treadmill and ran another ten minutes. It was the same sort of feeling one gets from jumping back into the swimming pool after having been out for a few minutes.

I used to get a lovely jolt of post exercise endorphins that was a true natural high. Now I get that and a feeling of invincibility, like I've just bathed in the fountain of youth. I can't imagine sullying the whole experience with some sort of external stimuli.

Recently at the ballpark I had a nice long chat about running with my good buddy Paul who is one of the country's top senior runners. As a life long runner he also runs old school. In fact he asserts that music pumping into your ears and perforce your brain is not good for your body as it cuts of message being sent from body to brain. Paul also extols the benefits of, shall we say, natural running, to the mind and spirit. I actually don't think of Paul as a runner as if it were something he did on the side. It would be like thinking of him as someone with two ears. He is his running. I am sometime. He has melded mind, spirit and motion into his being. You can't do that while reading the box scores or updating your facebook page.

Oldest daughter has a friend who runs ten miles every other day and claims that she can't run without music. There is, of course, a difference between can't and won't.

I realize that my little diatribe will have somewhere between little and no influence on readers who currently exercise the new fashioned way. But I would urge people to consider conducting as many of their more enjoyable affairs single mindedly. Sure if you're doing unpleasant chores or, God forbid, work, you might be trying to kill two birds with one stone. But when engaging in a pleasurable activity such as listening to music, recreational reading or running, staying focused and appreciating that moment can be highly beneficial. Actually hear the different notes in the song. Appreciate how the author constructed sentences. Feel your body pushing itself and reaching new levels of endurance.

It's good for you.

15 May 2011

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

The world is a dangerous place fraught with peril as humans attack, beat, main and kill other humans in an endless series of wars and reprisals. Nations and individuals flex their power and boast of their ability to handle themselves in a fight. In virtually all cultures violence remains an acceptable answer to violence. Human evolution has been unable to stem the primal acceptance, even the embrace, of kicking ass and taking names.

While soldiers, fighters and their exploits are celebrated, there are pockets of non violent resistance to the notion that might makes right. Some who call for peace -- damn the costs -- are even members of religions that have and still do perpetuate bloodshed in the name of God. In their purest forms, Christianity and Islam, to name two, extol the virtues of peace and love.

Both religions have been twisted to the point of deformity by fundamentalist factions that stray from true principles and wreak havoc. They are blasphemers of the worst sort.

These issues resonated to me throughout the French film Of Gods and Men (2010), which I saw today. A group of eight Trappist Monks, living in an impoverished part of Algeria are threatened by the growing local presence of Islamist terrorists. They must decide whether to stay, return to France, or perhaps find a temporary safe haven. Most of the film concerns itself with that question.

So imagine a movie about an octet of monks who serve a local community. We see them interacting with the locals -- including the local Muslim clerics -- always in positive ways, especially in providing medical help. We also see the monks at prayer, worship, meals, tending their garden and carrying out chores. We also watch them discuss and pray about the central decision of whether they should stay. Director Xavier Beauvois has made an appropriately slow, methodical film that perfectly befits the subject matter and story line. I found it totally compelling.

There was a purity, simplicity and honesty about the men that is utterly refreshing. They are true to themselves, to one another and most importantly, their faith. These are men who feel that they have been called to a duty -- by God, no less. This piety provides the framework for their lives and the decisions that they make within it.

Of Gods and Men respects the Algerians as well as the monks and acknowledges the terrible cost of French colonialism and the consequent blowback. It does not flinch from a few quite necessary scenes of violence. The terrorists and the soldiers are not cartoon characters but men carrying out their own missions as they see them. Fully armed of course.

Beauvois has done two things that are common to many great films: he has focused on the faces of people and taken full advantage of expansive scenery. He has allowed the movie to breath.

There is a certain inevitability to decisions and consequences in Of Gods and Men, which is based on an actual incident in 1996. But the journey in the film is what's most interesting. It is a profound statement about men of peace who, while following God's laws, must, through God's guidance, make their own decisions. I can attest to the fact that you need not be a deeply, or even barely, religious person, to appreciate the film.

I hope against all reason that a lot of people will see it in the U.S. (it has won numerous awards, including at Cannes, BAFTA and the European Film Awards). I further hope, again against all odds, that it will further the notion that peace deserves a chance.

13 May 2011

Film Blogger Appreciation Week is Coming!!!!

Pictured are the official spokes models of Film Blogger Appreciation Week. Left to right Anne Hathaway, Penelope Cruz and Megan Fox.
Friday May 20 is the first day of the first annual Film Blogger Appreciation Week. This will be a week long celebration of film bloggers who, by their diligence, brilliance, creativity, wit and courage, make the planet Earth a fit place to live.

Imagine a world without film bloggers. It would be a barren hellscape resembling a post apocalyptic zombie-ruled planet. The rivers would flow with blood.*

Thankfully film bloggers are very much a part of and largely responsible for the flourishing, happy Eden that we all live in.**

The edict declaring May 20-26 Film Blogger Appreciation Week was passed unanimously by both houses of the United States Congress (he made that bit up). It was further endorsed by the United Nations (not strictly speaking true) and NATO (again, this is a lie). Proclamations supporting Film Blogger Appreciation Week were also endorsed by Al Qaedea just prior to Osama Bin Laden's death (not really), the British House of Lords (never happened), The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (total fabrication), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (he's just being silly), the International Society of Aboriculture (doubt it) and Amnesty International (oh, please).

Do your bit to honor a film blogger. Take one to lunch or dinner or send a card or give a gift. Better yet, send a film blogger a large amount of money. At least send one a DVD. Write your favorite film blogger and ask what he or she or I want. Give as much as you can. More even. Just think of the invaluable contribution film bloggers make to creating a happier, better universe.

Spread the word Film Blogger Appreciation Week is coming!!!!

* That's a gross exaggeration
** Utterly ridiculous

10 May 2011

My Adventure With L'Avventura or How I Went From Disliking to Loving a Film in a Few Short Years

There I am as a little kid. About nine-years-old actually. I've got my baseball glove and a bat and am heading over to a field not far from my house to play ball with some friends. I've got a wad of chewing gum in my mouth that I'm working on methodically. Not sure what I'm thinking but as I'm not even ten yet so it's probably not about girls. Baseball would be a good guess.

I know, you can't see me. This vision exists in my imagination. I wish I could go back and visit this much younger me. If I could somehow do with it creeping the little guy out, that is. I'd have a lot to say to him/me. Inspirational. Comforting. Informational. Plenty of advice. But I've got to let me grow up on my own.

I've come along way since then. I still love baseball but eschew gum. I still don't think of girls except the two I fathered and the grown up variety, particularly the one I'm married to. Same DNA. Same blonde hair. Considerably older and a tad wiser. My tastes in movies are quite a bit different too.

Now I see another me. Not so many years ago. He's watching Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). The thing is, he ain't digging it. What's with this guy? In fact he goes over to IMDb and rates it a three on their 1-10 scale. What's with this guy? If I could go back and visit this slightest younger me I'd have one thing to say to him: what the hell's with you? I'm just a little older than that chap and not a whole lot different but evidently my taste in films has changed.

Suffice to say I watched L'Avventura today and loved it. And I'm frankly mystified about what I missed the first time (seemingly the whole thing).

This is actually not unusual. Other films I didn't like the first time I saw them include The Searchers (1956), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), if you can believe it. Now I revere them.

People change.

Thank God.

Sometimes public opinion not only changes but does so quite rapidly and L'Avventura is a case in point. Audiences and critics howled with derision when it opened (at least I didn't howl, I just yawned then gave it a measly three). But before you could say Michelangelo Antonioni the howls turned to hosannahs. Go figure.

So the point here is that people, in general and individuals, often see the same thing differently the second time they look. In fact, one of the joys of watching a beloved film  multiple times is finding something different to appreciate about it.

Flexibility, seeing things from a different angle, hell even flat out changing your mind are strengths in a human being (unless you're running for public office in which case you are never ever supposed to alter your stance on anything). Not seeing anything new in a person, place or work of art is just another term for being brain dead.

L'Avventura is a movie that on the surface doesn't go anywhere or resolve anything. A group of friends sets sail on a four-day pleasure cruise. Central to the story at the outset is a woman traveling with her lover, who may well be her future husband, and her dearest friend. The first stop is an island at which the woman promptly disappears.

For much of the rest of the film the lover and friend look for the lost woman, as do others. But the search and the resolution of it -- or lack thereof -- is not the story. It is what we discover about them, and their class of self-satisfied, vacuous hedonists that is most compelling. They are not the most sympathetic cast of characters you'll ever meet but they make for interesting viewing. Particularly the delicious sexy Monica Vitti who co-stars along with Gabrielle Ferzetti as the searchers who find love in each other's arms. Yes, that's right. In looking for this person so important to them both, they fall for each other. And it's not like this takes place over time, they're at each other with a day of the woman's disappearance.

L'Avventura is also a visually magnificent film. Shot in glorious black and white, the scenes on the island, particularly of a coming storm, are striking. I found L'Avventura a visual delight from start to finish, in fact the very finish of the film is a particularly beautiful shot. As with all great films, the manner in which this story is told is what makes it such a compelling viewing experience.

Why is that we enjoy some books, music or films in one point in our life and not another? Certainly maturity plays a significant role in changing tastes. But I am but a few years older today than when I previously saw L'Avventura. Yet I haven't gone from thinking it okay to liking it, I went from disliking L'Avventura to loving it.

Besides our sensibilities we bring whatever frame of mind we're in to a viewing experience. Maybe the long session of meditation prior to today's vieiwing allowed me to more clearly focus on the story. Perhaps when I saw it before I was in a foul and hyper mood. Certain films we are just not ready for. Maybe some of what I've read and watched and ways in which I've thought of and seen the world have led me to a emotional state ripe for enjoying L'Avventura. Not every such question can be answered for certain, but they are always worth exploring.

Sometimes I have an instinct about giving a film a second chance. I would urge you to re-consider films you didn't like before if you've any reason to believe your experience will be different.

Now I'm seeing again, that nine-year-old version of myself. I wish I could say something to him. I know one thing I'd tell this striking handsome lad: "son, you might want to wait a few years before watching an Italian film called L'Avventura." I doubt he'd need much convincing.

09 May 2011

The Enemy Within, Our Fear vs. The Power of Love in a Fascinating Fassbinder Film

Fear can be a natural instinct that helps alert us to real danger. Fear can also be born of ignorance and lead to prejudicial even racist behavior. The Nazis were scared liked nobody's business. People in the United States have been afraid of immigrants for as long as there's been a United States, hell even before.

This kind of fear is a victory of superstition and lazy thinking over rationality and human kindness. It is group based in that individuals come to think out of this fear as the result of peer pressure rather than from their own reasoning.

Such fear was addressed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). The title comes from a line spoken by one of the film's two main characters, Ali. It regards the corrosive nature of fear. Irrational fear eats away at the goodness within people, turning them into miserly, hateful and not incidentally soulless individuals. There is hope. Many people are fully capable of sorting things out and experiencing a victory of love, or at least reasonableness, over hate.

AFETS can also be viewed as a most unconventional love story. (It's interesting to note how many really good films feature atypical romances.) Check this out: a 60ish German widow who is, to be kind, no picture postcard, hooks up with a Tunisian immigrant who is several decades her junior. He is ruggedly handsome boasting a strong upper body. Yeah these things happen all the time.

Sometimes a love story works just because it's so damn odd. If a couple is a few years apart or has different taste in music some people might not believe it'll ever work between them. But there's something about a truly odd couple that makes one say: it's so crazy it just might work! And then really root it on. Couples don't get any odder than Emmi Kurowski and El Hidi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha, Ali for short.

Our Emmi is a cleaning woman who seems quite typical for the job. She is probably quite frugal and maybe her late husband (he was Polish) left her something as she lives comfortably enough. Ali is a mechanic who confesses that his life consists principally of working and drinking, not unheard of. His German is halting, as the subtitles adroitly convey. Ali evidently does much of his imbibing at a bar habituated by fellow Arabs, though its run by a buxom German woman. It is the bar where our two lovebirds meet when Emmi comes in one night seeking refuge from the rain.

Watching the progression of their romance is to appreciate the subtlety with which true love can develop. It is not always fireworks. As AFETS demonstrates, Fassbinder could be patient in letting his stories unfold. I'm just coming to the prodigious German director who died in 1982 not yet 38 years old yet the director of dozens of feature films, a couple of TV movies, plays and other assorted artistic accomplishments. Drugs can help keep you busy and then later kill you too young. A few films into my self taught Fassbinder film course, I'm marveling at his sometimes parallel use of a leisurely camera and rapid developments.

Any romance is going to face obstacles, especially if its right smack dab in the middle of a movie. Remarkably, despite their incredibly different backgrounds, Emmi and Ali are making a go of it. It's everyone else that's a problem.

This is where fear has set in. Emmi's co workers, neighbors, and children just don't get it. We get glimpses into their xenophobia before they even learn of the couple. Once they see the duo -- forget about it.

Emmi seems an altogether ordinary woman but the manner in which she stands up to the haters is an example of the uncommon courage that lives within many people. Ali is strong too but occasionally succumbs to various temptations. As couples go they may outwardly be a strange combination, but they face the same sort of dilemmas we all do.

Fassbinder, who in addition to directing, wrote the screenplay, made an interesting choice in having some of chauvinists change their spots. But of course its why some of the change that is the rub -- their own self interest. Sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reason. It's a start.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a bold film made by a bold filmmaker. It successfully tackles some nasty human behavior and wraps it comfortably within a love story. I'm ready for more Fassbinder....

05 May 2011

Kate and Ginger, Ginger and Kate Both are Wonderful Both are Great Watch 'Em Stage Door Make it a Date

I have decided to retire from professional yodeling effective immediately.

That being said I don't have a whole lot else to say other than to confess that I've never yodeled in my life, professionally or otherwise. It's just that I occasionally like to start a writing with a "grabber." This would be something that "grabs" or "gets" your attention. Here's an example of what would be a good "grabber":

I have come up with the cure for restless leg syndrome.

Pretty good, eh?

Okay so you're now doubt wondering what this is all about and frankly I don't blame you. In fact I'm quite surprised you've read this far. If you haven't read this far then you've missed out on this sentence entirely and it's a doozy.

But I digress....

I recently watched Stage Door (1937) a film directed by Gregory La Cava that boasts the only screen pairing of two legends: Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. One of them alone makes for a great cast. Put them together and you've got a great cast squared. Seriously, you wouldn't have needed a script or props or a director. These two you could watch sitting and having a chat over tea.

But for Stage Door there were a whole mess of people involved and it damn near got in the way of these two legends. Fortunately one thing that enhanced the film was the supporting cast. It featured a young, cute Lucille Ball; the permanently sardonic Eve Arden, fondling a cat through the whole picture; the incredibly underrated and incredibly interesting Gail Patrick (you don't know here? she played Lombard's nasty sister in another LaCava flick, My Man Godfrey (1936)); that's for starters.

I'm going out on a limb and saying that you've seen Stage Door so don't require a synopsis (synopsis, there's an awkward looking word). If you do require one take two aspirin and call me in the morning, or check the film's IMDb page which is linked at my first mention of the film.

So I wasn't kidding earlier about all the other people involved with making Stage Door nearly interfering with Rogers and Hepburn. Everyone did a fine job and some cases an excellent one. But I've got some real problems with the movie. None of these flaws ruin Stage Door for me but they keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been. However, I'm not going to get all nit picky about it so you can relax.

Anyway what's most compelling is, as I've been harping about, two greats of the silver screen together for the first, last and only time. What I found most interesting was how much more I liked.....Ginger. There was that patrician air to Kate that she came by quite naturally. She was all upper class Yankee elocution and mannered sophistication and clothes that, well they fit on her like plumage. It's all part of why my favorite performance of hers is in Bringing Up Baby (1938) where she gets to play a wacky dame version of herself. You still get the hoity toity Hepburn but this time as goofy as a frog in your uncle's spaghetti.

Hepburn did everything right. Whether the picture was Alice Adams (1935) or The Lion in Winter (1968) she was putting on an acting clinic. Frankly I would find a Hepburn film festival tiresome. If I'm gonna sit through the same actress in a slew of films give me Barbara Stanwyck or Ginger Rogers.  Yeah, the same Ginger I've been going on about.

Sometimes I find Ginger too sexy for words. Sometimes I find her absolutely adorable. Sometimes I find her just oh so cute in a non cloying totally endearing way. She was just so damn natural. Every bit herself at all times and yet creating a whole new character. Even when paired with Fred Astaire in those absolutely delightful if quite silly musicals, she was an effortlessly relatable character. She might have been giving Astaire the air in the coldest of ways but still danced up a storm and let Fred worm his way into her heart. She was the cats.

Stage Door has a certain sisterhood is powerful tinge to it. It was made back in the time that women did not have an equal place anywhere in society except Hollywood. Now it's damn near the reverse. Good strong roles from women are in U.S. films are a rarity. Not in the 1930s. The creme de la creme in those days included Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Stanwyck, Rogers and Hepburn.

If a film like Stage Door was made today it would be set in a sorority house with demeaning roles for the women as stereotypes as proscribed by cable television. Yuck!

There are certainly actresses today who are the equal and even perhaps the superior of Kate and Ginger, at the craft of acting. But none can match their star quality. No one today has their screen presence, which is so essential to telling certain types of stories. By not creating strong female pictures we are being denied female stars, in the traditional sense of the word.

If you chance to watch Stage Door soon, watch especially the scenes between Kate and Ginger. In sports when you get to see two superstars its usually because they are in competition. Here you witness a pair of greats in a collaborative effort. I certainly detected no scene-stealing by either. One would guess they had two much respect for the craft to stoop to such nonsense. Watch also their contrasting styles that play so well together and pay great service to the story.

I would guess that someone who had never heard nor seen either of these legends would still be very much drawn to them. They both in their own distinct way embody something of the women of their time. Hepburn was the best of those born of means and Rogers was the quintessential middle class girl who would be equally comfortable dancing in a night club or working as a Rosie the Riveter. Stage Door is a showcase not only for these two distinct stars but an opportunity to see them together. God they were good.

And if there's any footage of the two sitting down for tea and chatting away, put me down for the first DVD.

02 May 2011

Just Imagine, That's All I Ask

In the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's slaying, I've seen that many commentaries on major news sites have trumpeted the death of this "loser" who "failed" in his mission.

Sadly, I cannot agree. Because of the terrorist attacks he engineered on 11 September 2001, the United States has squandered billions of dollars on a war on terror. (That is to say, there is an undeclared war on a tactic.) This war was not funded by a tax increase and is thus partially responsible for an ongoing economic crisis that has cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their jobs.

The war has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans while many more soldiers have suffered permanent physical injuries including loss of limbs, movement and sight. Still others endure ongoing emotional stress.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of Asians have been killed by American military action. The trauma to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan has been incalculable. Hatred for the U.S. and the recruitment of future terrorists have risen in much of the region. The United States has solidified its reputation as a chest thumping bully who kills flies with shotguns.

Perhaps this was Bin Laden's plan. If so, it worked to perfection. Killing him hardly makes up in the slightest for the damage he has done. It was as if he predicted the incredible over reaction in this country and the consequent costs to U.S. time, resources and money.

Imagine if in in the wake of the terrorist attacks the United States had taken a different approach. Imagine if this great and powerful nation had rejected the impulse to enact military reprisals. Imagine if instead the government invested all the resources that were expended on military actions to honoring the victims by improving our schools, hospitals, infrastructure, health care, parks and boosting funding in scientific and medical research. And now imagine if the U.S. did the same for those same countries it instead bombed and invaded.

Imagine how the world would be today.

Would the U.S. have been perceived as weak for not coming out with guns blazing? Or would it command respect for not resorting to answering violence with violence? Wouldn't it have been a fine example for the rest of the world? Especially the children? Instead there has been more violence and today the death of a single man is celebrated with high fives. I think Bin Laden has been figuratively high-fiving his compatriots for these past nine plus years seeing America's rage in action. What a shock to him if the U.S. had responded peacefully. You might say that the U.S. would then have been seen as weak and vulnerable. But I think it would have been a shining victory of reasonableness over bellicosity exemplifying the best in religious teachings.

I know, I know, you think the whole idea is insane. But look what sane people have done with the world.

One last point. President Obama referred to the men who carried out the killing of Bin Laden as, among other things, patriots. Why is that the strongest expression of patriotism in this society is framed in military terms? It's considered an act of patriotism to join the armed forces. Love of country is expressed as flag waving, saluting, national anthem singing and supporting our troops. In other words, militaristic nationalism. Can't love of country be evidenced by participating in government? Speaking out on issues, voting, voicing concerns. Contributing to charities. Serving one's community? Must patriotism always be a show of force?

Just asking.
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one 
       -- John Lennon
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
       -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.