28 January 2012

The Flesh (Oh My!) The Devil (Hiss!) and Garbo's Smoldering Eyes (Sigh!)

"....she liked to be active, though at times she gave an impression of repose that was at once static and evocative." From Tender is the Night By F. Scott Fitzgerald

I fancy myself as something of a bohemian though without facial hair and affected looks of boredom. I will tap my fingers nervously on a coffee table but don't smoke so it isn't always easy to tell where I'm coming from. I dally in poetry but offset that with a passion for college football.

Things happen all the time and if in a certain mood I pay attention. Now you know.

Today I watched Flesh and the Devil (1926) starring Greta Garbo as a type A vixen and John Gilbert as the dashing looking chap who falls for her. But then so does his best buddy. As did the Count she was married to. You can't resist her. Slip into the film sometime and try. I double dare you.

There is a certain casualness to the film expressed in languid scenes of delightful innocence that resonate from the silent era. There is also an intensity of love, friendship and aroused passions that elevate the film beyond melodrama.

Clarence Brown directed. Score one for him. But before and after he made some extraordinarily ordinary films. Like Idiot's Delight (1939), Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and The Human Comedy (1943). Nice but....

Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) are the best friends. Very best. Since childhood when they made the proverbial blood brother pact (with real blood!). We meet them in the army where they are up to shenanigans. Their mischief exposed they must shovel manure. Memories are made of this.

Home on furlough they meet the evil seductress herself, Felicitas (Garbo). I don't know about the rest of you lot, but I love that name -- Felicitas! We also meet Lars' kid sister who has a crush on good ole Leo and we are further introduced to Leo's saintly old mom. For those of you keeping score at home that's one sibling and one parent between the two buddies.

Leo and Ulrich are forever hugging and looking each other in the eye and avowing their friendship and I'm sure some folks have cried, "homoeroticsm" but that seems a bit easy and cheap here. Don't you think?

The beautiful Felicitas casts her spell on Leo, who doesn't realize that she's...a married woman!

A duel and an exile in Africa later, Felictas has cast yet another spell, this time on poor Ulrich. They are husband and wife. Husband one's death is shown in scene that is as beautifully shot as anything ever filmed and raises the question of why didn't Brown do this more often?

 Leo is taken by surprise by the nuptials of Leo and Felicitas. But she has her hooks in the poor sap and married to his best buddy or not, he wants her back.


In the middle of the story is a kindly sot of Pastor who moralizes against such sirens and their ways. There's no point in me railing about the presence of such moralizers in films of that era, they were there being obvious and dull as plain oatmeal.

Where Flesh and the Devil goes is not nearly as interesting as how it gets there, which is via Garbo and those eyes that would bring down a pope. The bosom chums are nice and all, but they serve as a set up for the comely wiles of the evil seductress. The late silent era was towards the beginning of films rich with great roles for women and great actresses plying their trades in them. See Garbo, Dietrich, Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, Shearer, Harlow, Loy and a bunch of other dames who I don't have time to list here. It was a Golden Age for women. (The preceding sentence was, I'm quite sure, not the least bit original, but no less true.) Garbo's performance here is a shining example. Of course its sans words. Her body is shapely enough but on the skinny side. It is her face and most particularly those penetrating eyes that suck one in. Whether a character, a co-star (Gilbert left his wife for her) or some bloke watching 80 plus years on, she's nigh on impossible to resist.

There's a lot of schmaltz to Flesh and the Devil. Hanson is a tad hammy for my tastes and much of the rest of the cast are as animated as the props. But Gilbert has an unmistakeable presence and Garbo possessed one of the greatest screen visages of the 20th century (you wanna say the greatest, go ahead, I won't squawk).

Should you see Flesh and the Devil?  If you've read all this I reckon you want to.

Don't ask me why, but I close with this:

24 January 2012

Brief Thoughts on Oscar Nomination Day

"The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined. That made everything come true." - Ernest Hemingway.

We like to trivialize art to make it manageable. Our minds have trouble with absorbing it all, to process and then to articulate? Beyond us.

But we are of nature that wants meaning and understanding and explanations. So we distill the life out of art and give it little statuettes and have ceremonies to honor. The best.

Yes, the best. Not the winner, but the one the award goes to. Clips, highlights, moments. A little pill. The Xanax. "What is that awful dress she's wearing?" Hey, let's repartee.

Silly of us.

Luminous. With commercials.

When serving yourself becomes self serving.

Best performance by an actress in a supporting role. This was the very best one. This person deserves an award. ("But what is that awful dress she is wearing?")

Oscar nominations were announced this morning. With baited breath the press waited. Announced. The news was spread. Some gasped. Some nodded. Some pondered. Many analyzed. Let the arguments begin. May they continue until THE NIGHT of the ceremony.

 -- (Ceremony) --

"In Hollywood Oscar is king." -David Letterman, tongue in cheek.

The impulse is, I suppose pure. We want to recognize that we love movies. Love them. They are more than a diversion. They are a pure form on art that helps us celebrate and contextualize the mystery of life. Movies can divert, yes. They can also focus us on what is real. REAL. This is worth celebrating. I'm not sure we've figured out quite how.

Oh and Melancholia didn't earn one of the ten (10) nominations for best picture. Oh screw it....

And another thing...

"Men of Paterno's era kept a lot bottled inside, too, often to their detriment. This was a real world, not the smarmy, sepia-toned world proffered by maudlin nostalgia-peddlers like Tom Brokaw." - Tim Keown.

The recently late Joe Paterno was a straight shooter. No nonsense guy. Of another generation. Men were men and then they died. Wouldn't know irony if it slapped 'em in the face. There is a strain of simple thinking there that harkens to another time. The Republicans are trying to bottle and serve it to the American people. Indeed there are many who drink of it in large gulps. America good/taxes bad/bootstrap pulling/screw immigrants/Gay is sin. Turning back the clock to a time that never existed....

I saw F.W Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) FOR THE FIRST TIME last Saturday. (How do some of us miss films like this for so long?) Starred Emil Jannings, later a character in Inglourious Basterds (2009). It's a brilliant film but dig this: almost 90 years ago, in Germany, the director had to tack on a happy ending. Murnau had the power and the sense to at least tell the audience that this last bit wasn't his idea. Who knew interference with a director's vision's had such deep roots? Probably a lot of you. Not me.

And the award for best film made in Germany 88 years ago with a false ending goes to....

Speaking of Jannings, also watched him in Josef Von Sternberg's last silent, The Last Command (1928). It was one of von Sternberg's final films before teaming with Marlene Dietrich, perhaps the greatest actress/director collaboration of all time. Along with other of his silents, The Last Command has had a recent DVD release (packaged together, no less). If you've not seen it, do yourself a favor and put Last Command (along with Underworld (1927) and The Docks of New York (1928)) high atop your Netflix queue. While benefiting from strong performances, these are real auteur works. Von Sternberg was a master at lighting, framing shots and using physical objects to set the mood of scenes. He almost suffered from his Dietrich obsession in later films, and never did anything of note after her.

17 January 2012

The Poem That is Vertigo

I'm torn between the light and dark 
Where others see their targets 
Divine symmetry 
Should I kiss the viper's fang 
Or herald loud
the death of Man 
I'm sinking in the quicksand 
of my thought 
And I ain't got the power anymore

Don't believe in yourself 
Don't deceive with belief 
Knowledge comes
with death's release 

I'm not a prophet 
or a stone age man 
Just a mortal 
with the potential of a superman 
I'm living on 
I'm tethered to the logic 
of Homo Sapien 
_ From Quicksand by David Bowie

It just doesn't fit. All those beautiful pieces and they don't go to together. But they don't have to. If you want logic, see an instructional film on car repair. No, no, no. Vertigo (1958) is not about the story. Hitch said so himself. It's the mood.

The look. Look at it. The words are part of the instrumentals, they're not lyrics. I thought. Maybe. That it would work better as a silent movie. But that just meant I was overstating the importance of the words to the story. Or misplacing them. The words are not to be used to construct a linear story, but to accompany the movements and the colors and the backdrops.

Of course, the story had to be set in San Francisco. With dizzying hills and vistas, and the icy blue bay, the pixilated history and the eccentricities galore. A beautiful city. With magnificent woods nearby and twisting roads leading to missions with bell towers. A good place for a fall. One purposeful the second accidental. Should anyone really buy that last fall? Was it meant to be ironic? Or some sort of delayed justice? If the latter the architect of the original crime was still away Scot free. It was rather silly and contrived but then that's taking the fact of it too literally. The last fall, the death was part of the poem that is Vertigo.

The honest, direct warmth of Jimmy Stewart serves as a perfect contrast to the devastating beauty of Kim Novak. He was at the time approximately twice her age. This served to heighten their contrast, to add another bit of the outre to the story, like how quickly they fell in love and how deeply. And as the everyman, Stewart's descent into bizarre obsession, preceded mind you, by a turn in the loony bin, is evermore effective.

Vertigo is not a story in the traditional sense. It is an exploration of misdirection. A dance around the mind. A tender embrace of jagged edges. Vertigo the condition is an ideal film subject. A person facing a malady that strips him of his vocation and sets him up to be a patsy. An exploitation that leads to a comatose state. This poor blighter seems close to the figurative edge even as he avoids the literal ones. He wants to recreate in one person what he had in another. And in getting it he finds the real McCoy and that serves as the ultimate betrayal. She was her all along and that is unforgivable, because it means a code, a trust has been violated. That supersedes all.

You don't need to muck up such a story with the sensible. That's like dissing a beloved song for having split infinitives. This film is Dali meets Bergman as directed by Hitchcock with Mr. America and a blonde beauty in the lead. Wow.

There is not just physical wonders and delights for the eyes but talking points and moods to contemplate. It can't be viewed as a perfect movie because of the holes in the story. But then the holes are irrelevant to its majesty anyway. This is bright reds of Ernie's. The green aura of a woman. Nightmares more fascinating then frightening. People mixed up, toying with others lives and thus their own.  It's a trip, man. Really.

11 January 2012


She had milky white fingers and fire engine red nail polish. Sitting next to me on the streetcar she turned the pages of her book. Maybe it was just that and perhaps it was the combination of this and her lacy black outfit, but the effect was to remind me of: grandmother's house, rainy late Wednesday afternoon. I, a child. Grandma patting me on the back as I sat in her kitchen. I must have been about eight years old. This is a distant memory.

I came home and watched TV when I should have been sobbing softly. These are the kind of mistakes we make when the poetry of our life gets to far away. There is a tenderness that can ease out of our soul. Warm blankets and fog shrouded green hills will give way to the desert of spiteful desires. Resentments encroach on lonely men stuck on sofas with commercials blaring.

These feelings, these moments, these crystal clear pictures are evoked in certain kinds of films. Bergman has the camera hold on a face. Within the context of the story this shot tells us more than five minutes of dialogue. Chaplin shows us a man walking, startled, running, chased and we are in that moment. No words. Ford gives us a landscape and we know great truths about the story he is telling us.

There are the great unspoken moments in films that we fix on. Our mind holds them. Dwells. We may contemplate or not. But the image remains. Is stored for later use. Movies are like this. Still pictures of incredible truth that are lovingly set within stories. Kubrick told bold stories with daring set pieces that are indelible. Fellini would create incredible sights that defied our imaginations and then wrapped around them and held on. Von Sternberg gave us Dietrich's face cast against light and shadows. Held for what would be too long, were it not shot just right, and she not so beautiful. Forever moments.

Not the fast and easy. Not the loud and strong. Never the mindless whir of dervishes. Only the thoughtful and considered. No false beauty of haute couture. Only the real and the remembered and that which has been felt. Understood or not. Underscored only perhaps.

Malle follows Moreau through the rain in Paris. That face. That luscious black and white. We want to be with her. Just as we want to walk the streets of San Francisco to find Hitchcock's Novak in deep red. The silence of beauty. Allen gives us Hemingway's tears as his own character gives her unwanted freedom. We understand him, ache for her, feel the time and place.

The undefinability of love. The fleeting permanence that is film. The contradictions that make life confounding and oh so wonderful. We need never leave it.

Let the music of your musings, mingle with the desire, the longing for life's beauty. The rare moments of clarity that are are just this side of insanity and back again. Watch a movie. Take a picture. Don't rush off. It is all still here.

08 January 2012

An Incredible First: Film Blogger Changes Top Ten List! Has New Number One Film For 2011

Earlier today on Twitter I confessed that as a wee lad my family went to see the Harlem Globetrotters play and I rooted for the other team. I was unclear on the concept. Today I have not youthfulness to excuse a more recent embarrassment: I've gone and changed my top ten films list for 2011 published only a few days ago. It is, as Groucho Marx would say, the most unheard of thing I ever heard of.

I've not only never done such a thing in over 20 years of making top ten movie lists, I have almost never looked back years later and realized that with the passage of time I've come to admire a lower ranked film more than the number one film I'd picked. This is actually odd considering how our tastes change over the years. Something that moved us deeply ten, even five years ago may not seem so all fired great today. By the same token that film we merely liked may suddenly take on new meaning to us. Yes, people change over time. But a few days?

I have no explanation. I watched Melancholia for the second time and not only thought it magnificent and better than anything else released the past year, but quickly consider it among my favorites of all time. I wrote about it yesterday. Total passage of time between first and second viewings was 48 hours.

So Melancholia has leapfrogged The Artist, Midnight in Paris and Of Gods and Men, the latter two I've seen twice. I'd like to let the makers of those three films know that the luster of their fine films has not diminished because they are sliding down a notch.

Initially I was going to keep secret my change of heart. But then the whole business is rather silly anyway. Top ten lists stand as personal statements of an individuals taste. Their primary benefit is to alert readers to movies that they may not have seen or been hesitant about. When I see a respected reviewers list I look for commonalities and ideas about what I might like to see.

I do not feel that I am violating the public trust by going back and changing my top ten list.  Especially since I am offering this confession. First, I've been open about it and second I'm, for the most part, pretty darn consistent about such things. I knew you'd understand.

07 January 2012

Come to Me My Melancholy Planet

Last night I turned on the TV to watch some of a college football bowl game but instead got an endless series of commercials. I tried again later and this time there was a sideline reporter talking to a representative of the bowl's corporate sponsor who was blathering on about giving back to the community. He was being self-serving and spouting pure pablum. I thought then how wonderful it would be if a another planet were to spin out of its orbit and crush the Earth.

I later watched Melancholia for the second time and thought that if people could get together and make this film, which ends with the destruction of the planet, maybe Earth has a chance. I thought also of the sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) so utterly wonderful in their damage. Two characters so vivid and alive and rich in complexities. Totally compelling.

Justine suffers from severe bouts of melancholia, which happens to be the name of the planet that will destroy Earth. It is a gripping all consuming, luxurious melancholia that renders her variously immobile or prone to rash acts -- like seducing a stranger on her wedding night. Funny that.

There are so many great films with characters who are obsessive, addicted, compulsive, or just plain bats. Simply: people are more interesting that way. Look at those sane folks who are leaders of the United States. The ones who say the right things and spout nonsense about how their greed is for the greater good or how their corporations are "giving back" or who evoke God to justify their decisions as if they were a personal servant of the almighty. These sane people who hate in the name of love and make war in the name of peace and rape and pillage our natural resources and our working poor. They are the death of us all. Their clean and healthy minds are a sickness on humanity. As characters in stories they symbolize evil, as well they should.

But we are drawn to the likes of Scottie in Vertigo (1958), Brandon in Shame, Dan in Half Nelson (2006), Juliette in I Loved You So Long (2008), Travis in Taxi Driver (1976), Elisabeth in Persona (1966) Don in The Lost Weekend (1945). Damaged, scarred people who by their broad actions and extreme behavior illuminate what is it to be a living being on a planet that as a whole encompasses more madness than the mind can cope. How wise they seem, as they reflect or own doubts and confusion. We stare in wonder as they act out in ways we dare not or dare not admit we have. They show us how are faults are what make us human. Just as commercials and corporate sponsors dehumanize.

Melancholia the movie is a masterpiece from a director, Lars Von Trier, who himself seems a damaged soul. It is an Earth bound 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its daring, beauty and probe of humanity. Von Trier uses classic art, great music and rapturous cinematography, not to mention brilliant acting, to paint a landscape of human behavior, some of which is in the face of the apocalypse.

The first eight minutes of the film defy description and perhaps understanding. But they are beautiful. The film is great without it. With it Melancholia is transcendent.

Dunst has taken a giant leap from her days as Spiderman's girlfriend and turned in a performance for the ages. She is shocking, repellent, wise and accepting. Gainsbourg is barely a notch below. The first half of the film is named for Justine and it is set on her wedding day. Many movies before have created madcap, sprawling weddings with events going awry. But none with a bride whose mental state is so fragile. No, broken.

The second half of the film is named for Claire. She is the caretaker sister who looks after her broken sibling much to the chagrin of her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). But as the end times approach the two sisters find their roles reversing. Magic. And how great is it to have the destruction of the planet sans faux TV news reports, panicked hordes or crumbling Earthly landmarks. Just a few people. That's all you need anyway. And they are ensconced in an Eden like estate.

This film is exhilarating. The subject matter seems impossible to view a second time but the mastery of the story telling demands it. I saw it twice in three days and immediately pre ordered the DVD. I hope the world has not been destroyed either by a wayward planet or corporate sponsors, until that DVD arrives.

05 January 2012

Better Late Than Never, My Top Ten Films From 2011

The year 2011 in films was like what Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike (1952): "Not much meat on her, but what's there is 'cherce'." If you were looking for quantity it was a bad year, but there was plenty of quality. I present my personal top ten with four movies worthy of the top spot. Indeed the competition is so strong at the top that an outstanding film like The Tree of Life was back in the 8th spot. After that it thins out considerably. I barely squeezed in two more to round out the top ten and felt nothing was truly worthy of my usual honorable mention category. If there's a film on this list you haven't seen, suffice it to say I recommend it highly.

1. Melancholia
2. Of Gods and Men
3. The Artist
4. Midnight in Paris
5. Shame
6. Hugo
7. Le Havre
8. The Tree of Life
9. Beginners
10. Young Adult

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia). Runners Up: Charlize Theron (Young Adult) and Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Runners Up: Michael Fassbender (Shame) and Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men).

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Shailene Wooley (The Descendants).

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris).

I have previously written about many of these movies and their titles are here linked to those posts.  Of Gods and Men, The Artist and Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Shame, Le HavreThe Tree of Life, Beginners, and Young Adult

01 January 2012

You Can't Go Home Again And All the Liquor in the World Won't Change That

Yesterday was so much better. Remember how wonderful it was? We all were in perfect health. The food was delicious. The conversation veritably sparkled. The weather was ideal. By comparison, today sucks. We are older. We have headaches. The food is overcooked. No one has anything interesting to say. The weather is awful. How I long for that Golden Age that never existed. That idealized time that so flourishes in my imagination. As Paul McCartney sang: "yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they're here to stay, oh I believe in yesterday."

We try to go back to old haunts. See old friends. Recreate old times. But there's a gas station where the old ball field was. Our former flame has put on a lot of weight. And the old days don't exist. Except in our memories where they have a golden hue. At best their memories can be recreated by a familiar song.

I understood what Charlize Theron's character, Mavis was trying to do in Young Adult, the new film from director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. In returning to her small hometown and trying to re-hook up with her old boyfriend, Mavis was taking a very recognizable action. I also got what she was doing by drinking all that booze. That's understandable when you are being reckless and when you are stepping out of your comfort zone and stepping all over someone else's. It's all understandable when you are an alcoholic. You drink copiously and think not at all or in all manner of directions that have no connection to reality. You can't listen to the logic of other voices over the din of your addiction. That addiction that tells you very loudly to follow your heart, even if it may lead you off a cliff.

Today suffers from reality. Yesterday's only flaw is that its in the past. You don't need to have a snootful to tell you that you can get it back. But by God get loaded and you'll think the old days are right at your fingertips and damn anyone who gets in your way.

Mavis was a stuck up prom queen in high school who cared not a whit for anyone significantly below her social status -- which was most everyone. She cared deeply and passionately for herself (classic addict behavior) and her beau, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). Guys like Matt (Patton Oswalt) who had the locker next to hers were irrelevant. He was, in her words at the time, "a theater fag." In fact he famously got severely beaten in high school by a group of jocks who thought he was gay. He would have been a martyr to gay rights except he was straight. Rotten luck. So he was just another victim of testosterone fueled thugs. Oh yes, and crippled for life.

So Mavis comes back to town, 37 years old, a career on the rocks, one failed marriage to her name. She aims to get Buddy back. To recreate the perfection that in her mind was the teen years. Never mind that he is, by all accounts, happily married and only recently a father. Mavis will win him back.

As she plots and connives to win Buddy she befriends the grown up Matt. They are on odd couple indeed. Their relationship becomes complicated and central to the story. Matt sees that her quest has no chance and is at best ill advised. But he can hardly resist hanging out with Mavis. Matt may be a loser stuck in his hometown playing with gadgets, but he's had a lot of time to ruminate and has used it wisely, having figured out a lot about life.

Young Adult is a movie with the very best of intentions. An original story that combines humor with the awkward and painful. It's also one of those modern films that suffers from selling itself short, settling for a few jabs when a roundhouse right would have been okay. It's too short. I suspect there is a better movie that could have been constructed from the pieces on the cutting room floor. I'm sure audiences would have sat through another ten or 15 minutes that were in service of telling a fuller story.

That said, Young Adult is an admirable film. Theron and Oswalt give terrific performances. Cody is a top notch screenwriter as Juno (2007) established and Reitman is a serviceable director who one only fears will pander to mainstream sensibilities rather than challenge them as he did with the facile Up in the Air (2009).

What Young Adult clearly does is tell the story of how you most certainly cannot go home again (plus you know you're going about it the wrong way if you've got loving parents there and you find yourself avoiding them completely). But it is also a story about alcoholism and what happens to a person on the road to hitting their bottom. It is not a pretty story, but in the case of Young Adult, it's a pretty good one to watch.