29 July 2013

Shhh! It's a Silent Movie Weekend

Any weekend that is in part spent watching three films that one has never previously seen and that one ends up liking is a weekend well spent. So it was for me this past weekend. Coincidentally all three films were from the silent era. Here's a brief reaction to this silent trio.

I don't know about the rest of y'all but I can be pretty darn stupid. Examples of said stupidity abound (for a complete list check with my wife). One example of this brainlessness is my stubborn and inexplicable refusal to watch a particular film without being able to (shall we say) show just cause. Case in point until Friday night: The General (1926) the much revered silent from Buster Keaton. I didn't know what I was missing. I hate comparisons between Keaton Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. Even the late great Roger Ebert had to muddle his review of The General by contrasting Keaton and Chaplin. They were all three geniuses and let's just leave it at that. I may like one better then the others and you may like another and Hank over there (Heya Hank!) may like the third. Big deal.

The General is a comedy but that's selling it short. It is also a ripping good adventure yarn with some pretty dad burn good Civil War battle scenes that includes a real train falling off a real bridge into a real river. No special effects needed. It's even a love story. Oh yes and its based on actual events.  Keaton is the stone faced hero of the story pursing the eponymous train and the woman he loves and -- hardly a spoiler -- succeeding through pluck and luck and fortitude. The movie is a ballet of coordinated movements in which Keaton performs his own stunts literally defying death.

This is as engaging a film as you'll ever see. Following Keaton the train engineer wooing his girl being rejected from the Southern Army as the Civil War begins (he's too valuable running the train) seeing his train stolen by Union spies and chasing it down and his girl who's mixed up in the whole mess and becoming a most unlikely hero. Don't be a numbskull like me. See The General before you get to my ripe old age and if you've seen it already watch the durn thing again.

Saturday night the missus and I repaired to the Pacific Film Archives for another in their series of Raoul Walsh films. This time it was What Price Glory (1926) which I've been wanting to see for decades. It was worth the wait. This is yet another World War I film that makes a very strong argument about wo things: the lads who fought -- especially those who died -- were heroes and war is a really stupid way of deciding anything. Unfortunately as a culture we are much better at remembering the first half of that lesson than we are at remembering the second.

At the center of WPG are two rival U.S. soldiers (Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe) who start the story as sergeants with one raising to lieutenant. Their chief form of rivalry is over women. Actually they are usually less rivals and more combatants. It usually ends up being good clean soldierly fun with haymakers thrown and coarse words exchanged and all forgotten when its time to do battle against the common foe. Most of the story is set in a the quintessential WWI French village which is where the men are stationed when not fighting the Huns. The Mexican born Delores Del Rio played the French miss whose affections they fought over. There are of course other complimentary characters but none are more piquant than the young sensitive momma's boy whose fate seems obvious from the start. When the inevitable happens it is no less touching.

The battle scenes in WPG are incredible. People marvel at CGI enhanced war scenes of today but the lack of color and blood aside I challenge any filmmaker today to top what Walsh did nearly 90 years ago.

Sunday afternoon I settled into to watch The Iron Horse (1924) an early Western from the master himself John Ford. This is the epic telling of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. George Bancroft -- best know for his starring role in Sunrise (1927) -- is the hero who faces villainous rivals in his efforts to both complete the railroad in an expeditious fashion and to get the girl. There is action aplenty much provided in battle scenes with those pesky Indians. To be fair many of the "hostiles" are inspired by evil whites and one tribe of natives are heroes. Ford was not nearly as harsh to Native Americans as some have mistakenly believed (I'm talking to you Tarantino). After the terrific films I'd seen the previous two days The Iron Horse paled in comparison but it it a worthy entry in the Western film canon and is an engaging if sometimes schmaltzy film with all too starkly drawn bad guys. But it also serves as a nice preview of what was to come from Ford. The vast majority of the film is outdoors and as always Ford did the landscape justice. The Iron Horse shows that Ford's eye for the big scene and scenery came early in his amazing career.

24 July 2013

Some Simple Rules for Commuting

Fellow commuters: In order to sit next to me on a bus or the subway one of the following criteria must be met:
1) Be morbidly obese. Chubby overweight or portly won't do. You've got to look like you swallowed a mini van whole.
2) Smell like a brewery. Just a whiff of alcohol on your breath won't do, we're talking here about putting out the odor of one who has fallen into a vat of liquor and then stuck around for a swim.
3) Be having a profanity-laden cell phone conversation. The louder and angrier the better. Be sure you're telling someone off tearing them a new one and giving 'em hell and in no uncertain terms as loud as possible.
4) Chatter to yourself. Preferably be engaged in a long monologue detailing the exploits of the corrupt mob-tied aliens who have invaded your brain.
5) Be playing your iPod at quadruple maximum full strength wall cracking super volume. It should be so loud that even with my iPod on I can hear the heavy metal cacophony as if I was locked in a closet with the band.
6) Reek to the heavens. Be on your way home from your job of shoveling pig manure. Especially if you took a couple of spills during the day and were working in 100 degree temperatures in humidity that would kill a snake.

Now what happens if when I enter the vehicle there are no empty window seats and I have to sit next to someone? Simple. Let's just make sure that any empty seat is next to some ignoramus male who by virtue of having gotten their first feels justified in taking up two thirds of the sitting area. Have those legs spread buddy and don't move more than an quarter of inch when I come to sit. Seriously it's okay. I'll sit half out in the aisle thus increasing the number of times a swinging backpack plunks me. Which reminds me. Folks I don't care how crowded the bus or subway is and how bulging your back pack. Leave it on and forget its there. Other passengers are just abstract objects anyway and feel no pain when your brick filled backpack slams into their ribs.

And to all commuters: the words pardon me or excuse should never be uttered. Whether knocking a person flat on their back, stepping on their face or hip checking them across an aisle, just plow forward. You are far too busy and important to acknowledge the havoc you've wreaked.

Thank you. See you on the bus!

20 July 2013

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Men -- The Wages of Fear

When your soul is weakened by the hate and avarice that envelops so many places people and things. When your heart aches for the losses the catastrophes the misbegotten and woebegone.
When your mind races as it whirls and twirls and shambles its way to the failure of meaning.
What do you do?
How do you get up?
How do you stand and smile and say its all all right?
How do you look the stranger in the eye and say "how ya doin'?"

Anger fear twisted malice and hate and prejudice and the deaths premature of too many -- any.

I am surrounded by happy people in a happy place and yet I spend so much time wondering at the abyss and what the whole thing is doing and meaning and I couldn't cry about it if you paid me.

Classic stuff. Eh?

Today I watched The Wages of Fear (1953) and wondered again at how one goes many decades without laying eyes on a particular film that is so damn good.

Here we have a story about desperate men trying to get out. Get back. Get away. Stuck in a town of ennui and purposelessness and heat and spiders and emptiness. The town is in South America and it is desperately hot and barren. An American oil company is a villain. Well that's an easy choice. Nothing particular heroic about American oil companies. Wages of Fear ticked off Americans 60 years ago. It was shown here with parts removed because freedom of speech is not absolute when it ruffles feathers. The ending was cut too so people would be happy. Because artificial happy is far more important than art I guess. The same kind of butchery was perpetrated on Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli (1950) at roughly the same time.

Before that ending there are four men among the desperate who desperately take a desperate assignment. Desperate. They are to transport a nitroglycerine shipment in two trucks across 300 miles with the great risk that a mistimed bump or jump could blow them sky high. If successful they will pocket $2,000. A princely sum at that time in that place. Plenty enough to get them the hell out of nowheresville.

This is one treacherous road trip heightened by misfortunate and the fact that three of the four hate one or more of the others. Director  Henri-Georges Clouzot knew his way around a motion picture and here was masterfull in creating tension drama and even excitement. He also knew how to make special effects that seem not at all special but part of the reality that these characters are sunk in. Yves Montand and Charles Vanel headed an excellent cast.

Movies are nothing without a story to tell. Movies are nothing without compelling characters. Movies are nothing without purpose. Wages of Fear has plenty of all three. It is very much something. Even minor characters are fully drawn with a degree of complexity. No one is merely a personification of one characteristic or another. Even our hero Mario (Montand) is no day at the beach slapping around as he does the woman who loves him.

Sometimes I'll see an excellent film from 40, 50, 60 years ago and wonder if it could possibly be made today. Could something like The Wages of Fear be made and released among all the superhero schlock and Adam Sandler gross out comedies? Would the public want such anti heroes? If made at all it would heavily emphasize the special effects -- extra explosions! -- and their would be stick figure bad guys and a joyously happy ending with a rock and roll sound track then ten minutes of closing credits.

But we have The Wages of Fear and other great films like it from the past. So let us not despair.

14 July 2013

A Recounting of My Weekend Focuses on Three Films I Watched As Well as Trips to the Gym

Somehow -- and there is no accounting for this -- my weekend began with a smooth and easy commute back to Berkeley. There was no long wait for public transportation nor was I packed sardine can style among other travelers. It happens.

I had a great workout at the gym with copious sweating. Ran 5.25 miles on the treadmill after and before the requisite stretching. Sat in the sauna and -- again proving miracles do happen -- no one had left a wet towel or bathing suit to dry and there was no one engaging in physical activity. Both are sacrileges as far as I -- a person of Finnish heritage -- is concerned. Actually there was a little bit of exercise going on but I was oblivious to it (and me with my hyper vigilance). At one point an older gentleman got up and repaired to the showers. A young man sitting to my right said "that was fucking weird, really weird." This got my attention. He then told another young chap that the older bloke had been staring at him and playing with his member. Glad I missed that. I've heard that such things happen at the YMCA but had never witnessed it nor known of it going on in my presence. Here is another reason why I wish to share a gym locker room and adjoining shower facilities et al exclusively with young female fashion models. Not -- I assure you -- because I would "try anything" and not because I would so much as hold my gaze for a second too long. Only so that I could be in the presence of the naked female form and not 60 year old hairy butts.

Got home. Made a smoothie. Both aimlessly and purposefully skimmed and scanned the internet. Then met the wife for dinner followed by a trip to the Pacific Film Archives. They have just begun a series dedicated to Raoul Walsh who directed films for 52 years. On this night they were screening Regeneration (1915) his first feature film. Frankly I went thinking that this would be an interesting oddity. A 98 year old movie. A movie made when there was still a czar and Russia a kaiser in Germany Babe Ruth a pitcher for the Bosox an World War I year in only its second year. But it was a good film.

Walsh would go on to make several notable gangster films including The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949) but this was the first feature gangster film that anyone made. It was the story of a hard luck youth who turned to crime and made a success of it. The extras included many actual gangsters of the time. The lead -- John McCann played by the wonderfully named Rockliffe Fellowes as an adult -- ends up meeting a lovely do gooder (Anna Q. Nilsson) and becomes torn between two worlds. It is a compelling story well told most especially for a film made so long ago. If it ever comes your way or to TCM or to DVD do yourself a favor.

You ever plan a lazy day of just sitting around watching a movie or two reading drinking coffee? Ever really look forward to said day? Ever execute your plan to perfection then feel guilty for having accomplished so little? That was my Saturday. The guilt was short lived however for the most part I enjoyed my leisure especially as it was much needed.

My Saturday matinee was Watch on the Rhine (1943). Some films have be watched in the context of when they were made. WOTR is one such movie. It is one of the many films cranked out by studios in the years preceding and during World War II that was meant to rally the country to the cause. (See this post by yours truly on that very subject.) Given that the cause was fighting fascism this was a good thing to rally to and many of the films were not only quite effective -- if a bit heavy handed at times -- but good movies in their own right. Casablanca (1942) is the perfect example. WOTR concerns a German born anti fascist named Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who is married to an American woman much his junior -- Sara -- played by Bette Davis. They've been living in Europe since their marriage 18 years ago but the story begins with them coming to the US to stay with Sara's widowed mother Fanny played magnificently by Lucille Watson. Fanny has plenty of dough and a big house near DC replete with obsequious African American servants a French companion of about Fanny's age (Beulah Bondi) a son and two house guests one of whom is a Romanian nobleman and rat fink who is going to sell Kurt out to the Nazis.

Dashiell Hammett adapted the stage play written by his girlfriend Lillian Hellman. The director was some shmoe named Herman Shumlin who directed a grand total of two films. He didn't do a bad job but there is nothing remarkable about his work here either. It seems he basically shot the play. A bigger problem was Davis. She was one of the greatest actresses ever but here she was far too mannered self consciously acting throughout the film. Kurt and Sara's three kids are far too perfect. The youngest is supposed to be precocious but is more annoying and the other two are cardboard cutouts. Yet WOTR has much to recommend it. Watson as Fanny is a treat and the story is engaging with a somewhat surprising and justifiably harsh denouement. I've seen the film several times before and may one day visit it again. For all its faults it is an important part of the history of Hollywood's war against Nazis.

I ended the evening with the Marx Brothers and Animal Crackers (1930). This was their second feature film and as much as I liked their first -- The Cocoanuts (1929) -- this was a great leap forward. All the madcap antics (I know it's a cliche but I love it -- madcap antics) of the brothers Marx that we would come to know and love were on full display. But what I like best was the surrealism. One example being the lyrics of the song Hello I Must Be Going.

I'll stay a week or two, I'll stay the summer through, but I am telling you, I must be going.

So much better than some stiff like Alan Jones crooning a syrupy love songs as the world would have to endure in later Marx Brothers films.

Then of course there is classic dialogue like this:

Capt. Spaulding: I used to know a fellow who looked exactly like you by the name of Emanuel Ravelli. Are you his brother? Ravelli: I am Emanuel Ravelli. Capt. Spaulding: You're Emanuel Ravelli? Ravelli: I am Emanuel Ravelli. Capt. Spaulding: Well, no wonder you look like him.  But I still insist there is a resemblance. Ravelli: Heh, heh, he thinks I look alike. Capt. Spaulding: Well, if you do, it's a tough break for both of you.

Today's comedies lack this kind of wit. Now they just have people getting kicked in the balls or pooping in sinks.

Groucho Marx has been a central figure in my life. Sure he was funny as hell but it was the way he was funny -- the wit the edge the fearlessness and the very joy in using words adroitly. He was -- like many comic geniuses -- an extremely intelligent man. Fortunately he left behind a treasure trove of films TV shows interviews and writings.

Sunday meant another trip to the gym with my run cut ten minutes short by tightness in the left calf. I'm not one to talk chances when it comes to something that could curtail future runs. I did a little extra lifting to compensate. Back home to sit in the backyard and read a Richard Ford novel before tackling some household chores. I'll wrap things up by honoring Ingmar Bergmann's birthday with a viewing of Wild Strawberries. In fact I'm going to stop writing now and pop that into the DVD player....

11 July 2013

It's Worth Remembering that Life Is

I blinked out of the fog of living and found myself at a memorial service for a 22 year old.  Here was a moment of clarity. Stark bright full color clarity. There is nothing like a death to sharpen our awareness of life. The incredible trip we're riding on this relatively small orb circling a huge star. We are here for fractions because time. Time. This is the great error of human existence. To divide life into seconds years days months hours centuries weeks. We have dissected our being into finite measurable spaces. We are always and were always and will always and so it is with all.

Family and friends were gathered in a picturesque setting in the Berkeley Hills to bid farewell to this young man who succumbed to cancer 12 days before. Beautiful heartfelt words were spoken. Stories told antidotes shared quotes read. Tears and laughter. Heads bowed heads raised. Solemn. A tragedy made into a celebration. How else can one respond to the death of a young person who was deprived of the rich full life he richly deserved? Weeping and wailing must be accompanied with smiles and laughs or it defeats us fully as it does our reason.

It was at times too much for me to bear. I carry with me the recent deaths of two good friends and my only brother and a former student who died at 16. Not to mention parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. There is a ceaselessness to death which reminds us of our being alive and that "our time will come" too. And there's no telling when.

Parents. The mother spoke. The father looked crushed. The fact of his son's dying had been known for months but there is no amount of time that is enough to prepare. The father looked suddenly quite old and defeated. As the words poured out from others I thought of him sitting some rows in front of me and wanted to pitch forward and sob. I was angry. I was confused. What was I doing there? I hadn't known the lad so very well. But both of my daughters did. I had known correctly that I must be there for he had touched my life and I his. The poor dad. No replacement for the loss of an only son. This was not. Right.

Internally I keened. The injustice. The cruelty of life. The desperation to be useful purposeful meaningful helpful. Full. Full. Full. We want to be full now with eternal empty waiting.

I ruminate about mortality everyday. Without exception. I find this comforting. It makes much more sense to me then ignoring the finality of existence. Life is all the richer when considered in relation to its opposite.

It is is important. It is paramount. To be happy. Very happy. And to help others to be likewise. Reduce human suffering. Lift spirits. Take that raw and vibrant anger that stalks us and turn it into a raging force for improvement. We are all creators. We can make better lives and feelings and things or we can let our anger destroy. We can.

And so I seek not meaning nor purpose but fulfillment. Clutching. Snapped out of the fog last night with a stark reminder that what we have is. What we have is. Is. And that verb to be is an extraordinary piece of cosmic luck not to be squandered. Feel it all but succumb to none. Carry on. Be.

10 July 2013

If You Don't Find this Picture Adorable There's Something Wrong With You

This photo is from 1914 and comes courtesy of Shorpy Historical Archive a website you should totally check out. 

06 July 2013

I Guess I Never Outgrew My Teenaged Angst -- What I Could Have Been Cassavetes The Passion and a Finn in French Cinema

If I had lived the life I'd dreamed when I was young rather than the one I deserved it probably would have gone something like this: Ivy League school where I lettered in soccer and received a PHd in comparative literature. Professor at a small liberal arts college. Published a novel at 26 that won the Pulitzer moved to New York married a gorgeous heiress feted at cocktail parities by a who's who of American letters. Long stays in Paris. Think pieces written for the New York Review of Books fluffy humor for the New Yorker an occasional screed in the Op-Ed section of the Times. A collection of short stories. A few more novels though nothing to compare to my earlier masterpiece. A drinking problem a nasty public divorce affairs with married women and fashion models. A son who committed suicide another who wrote sit coms and a daughter who edited for a fashion magazine. Occasional estrangement from both. Reconciliation with first wife but nasty public break up after a binge. Second marriage to a woman 15 years my junior with a drinking problem equal to mine. Finally another critically praised novel this one made into mediocre movie. Second divorce a move to Switzerland. Rehab. Confessional novel that is my biggest seller. Marriage to a French woman my age. Heart attack while hiking the Alps. Full recovery live in seclusion in Belgian countryside.

I'm maybe better off.

Watched a lot of Cassavetes recently. Loved loved loved Shadows (1959) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Really liked The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) Opening Night (1977) and Faces (1968). Thumbs down for Husbands (1970). I always start his movies reluctantly as if knowing this will be an uneasy experience. There is a sense of discomfort through much of the film feeling like I'm intruding on an unpleasant family moment. That car trip to the market that's gone array. But I'm gradually able to simultaneously distance myself emotionally from their argument and become involved in the life that surrounds them. Ultimately the story becomes compelling as it reveals truths and shared understandings of how we live and think and interact. I suppose Husbands didn't work for me because I felt distanced from these men who lived such different lives with such a different rhythm from my own. Most of Cassavetes' films have the feel of Beat Generation literature. Maybe he's the only director who could have made On the Road.

Odd person I am. While saner people were out watching fireworks on July 4th I was on the sofa watching The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) a film included among my top ten of all time. It is also one I could literally watch once a week. The face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti. There is so much joy resolve defeat acceptance wisdom loss and hope in that face. She is utterly and completely defeated. And the victor. Above her (always looming above) are the faces of her judges captors enemies. No more no less than the soulless bureaucrats of today who preside over the lives of the innocent and push papers of thick lies. The film is a triumph of style making substance. Such a wonder.

Another and very different cinematic trip to France last night with my third viewing of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre (2011). Colors and amazing set pieces. Establishing shots of simple beauty held just so. Understated performances so as not to interrupt the natural flow of a simple story. This one of basic humanity. It's interesting to see Kaurismak's very Finnish sensibilities set in and among the French and how well they blend. Such a hopeful film.

I've noticed recently how effectively we can use fiction to tell the truth, be it social or political. At the same time I see how non fiction is used to tell lies and distort. People use kernels of truth to tell large lies parsing out bits of information to suit the narrative they've created (hello political commentary). One can learn a lot more about life from a good novel.