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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: West Side Story (1961)

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Brymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris

West Side Story is a deeply flawed film, but that doesn’t preclude it from being a great one as well. A musical tragedy that takes an old story (Romeo & Juliet) and gives it a modern twist (race relations in America), this is the rare musical where the message is more important than the music itself. From a technical standpoint, it’s an amazing achievement (director/choreographer Jerome Robbins put his dancers through the wringer here) and despite flaws that it shouldn’t be able to overcome (the weakness of its two protagonists, for example), it manages to rise above its problems to create something extraordinary.

Standing in for Romeo and Juliet are Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), separated by race – he’s Polish, she’s Puerto Rican – as well as the fact that her brother, Bernardo (George Chakiris), is the leader of the Sharks, the rival gang to Tony’s Jets. Of course, they fall in love anyway and the result, as anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s story knows, is tragedy. First Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is killed, and then Bernardo by Tony and then, as Tony and Maria are about to flee, Tony is killed by a member of the Sharks. In the moments following Tony’s death, Maria speaks aloud the message of the film, that hate only engenders more hate, that violence is cyclical and solves nothing. “How many bullets are left, Chino? Enough for you, and you? All of you. You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns – with hate. Well, I can kill too because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many and still have one bullet left for me?” The war between the gangs has gained nothing for anyone and in these final moments, the realization that their war is pointless weighs heavily on the gang members, who are shamed and united by Maria’s impassioned pleas.

The film is at its best when it is dealing directly with the issue of race. The strongest of the film’s songs is “America,” sung by the Sharks and their girlfriends, lamenting the disillusionment of the American dream when you’re an immigrant, especially a non-white immigrant: “Life is all right in America/If you are white in America… Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes.” The song functions not only to highlight the difficulties they face as Puerto Ricans, but also to show the cultural clash between America and Puerto Rico, figured here as a battle of the sexes. While the women sing about the opportunities they see for themselves in America (“Lots of new housing with more space”), the men see the dark side to everything (“Lots of doors slamming in our face”). The men are coming from a place where they were once valued by society simply by virtue of being male, and are now treated like nothing by virtue of the fact that they aren’t white, which makes their disillusionment only natural. The women, on the other hand, are coming from a place where their value is derived not from themselves, but from the men in their lives (fathers, husbands, sons, etc.) and while that doesn’t wholly change with their arrival in America, there’s greater opportunity for them to break free of those ties and make their own way. Bernardo’s assertion to Anita (Rita Moreno) that “back home, women know their place,” cuts to the heart of the matter. “Back home,” she would naturally have conceded to him, but now she’s an American girl and gets to have her say.

Later, the issue will be broached in the form of song again, after Anita finds out that Maria is hiding Tony even though she knows he killed Bernardo. “A boy like that who’d kill your brother/Forget that boy and find another/One of your own kind, stick to your own kind,” Anita cautions, but Maria won’t be swayed and through her own song convinces Anita to help her and Tony run away. However, when Anita goes to deliver a message to Tony, she’s brutally confronted with the reality that Tony and Maria’s love is not enough in this harsh, color-conscious world. This scene, where Anita is confronted by the Jets, is easily the most difficult scene in the entire film to watch, as they taunt her with insults both racist and misogynistic, and simulate raping her before the scene is interrupted by Doc (Ned Glass), who puts an end to the grotesque show. But the damage is done, and Anita’s response – telling the Jets to tell Tony that Maria is dead – seals the fate of the lovers.

The directness with which the film deals with the issue of race, in addition to the spectacular nature of the musical numbers (the choreography is never anything short of impressive) makes this both compelling and watchable, but not to the extent that it’s weaknesses aren’t obvious. As the young lovers, Beymer and Wood are a little wooden, especially in comparison to their spirited co-stars like Chakiris, Tamblyn, and the engaging and forceful Moreno. The only time Maria really seems to come alive is in the moments following Tony’s death, which makes it a little difficult to believe in them as a couple. The story’s message of tolerance is also undercut somewhat by the fact of casting Wood as a Puerto Rican. That being said, however, the film’s strengths far, far outnumber its weaknesses, and there’s so much going on here that it’s easy to overlook the listlessness of the central love story and focus simply on the music and the message, both of which are engrossing.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Olympia (1938)

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Any serious discussion of the relationship of art to politics must, sooner or later, come to the work of Leni Riefenstahl. She was a master at creating images, a director of technical brilliance, but one who used her talent to make propaganda films for Hitler, a fact which has overshadowed her achievements ever since. To discuss Riefenstahl is to ask whether art can be divorced from its own message, whether it is necessary for art to have a noble aim in order to be considered “good,” and whether an artist’s personal politics have to be considered in order to come to any conclusions about the art that they create.

Olympia is a documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics and not, technically speaking, one of Riefenstahl’s propaganda films although it often gets lumped in with other films she made such as Triumph of the Will. Olympia is essentially apolitical, even though Hitler does make an appearance or two in the audience. This is a film concerned with an aesthetic appreciation for the human body and the feats that can be produced from it. This is established immediately as the film opens with shots of nubile (and naked) young women and simply watches them as they move. The entire film - which is split into two parts: Festival of Peoples and Festival of Beauty - is about watching the human body move. We witness various sporting events but we rarely have any real sense of who is winning or of the progress of the event as a whole. We just look at the athletes as they manipulate their bodies to achieve a particular kind of perfection, and then we move on to another event, another set of fetishized shots - and what beautiful shots they are; Riefenstahl was a genius at creating images. We aren’t removed from the action as if seeing it from the vantage point of the people in the arena, we’re right there, seeing it often from the vantage point of the ground beneath the athletes’ feet. Riefenstahl was granted control of her subject in a way that is almost unthinkable, given how close she is to the athletes as they are performing. But the shots she gets speak for themselves. From a purely photographic standpoint, the film is absolutely outstanding.

However, this film, like all of Riefenstahl’s work, cannot simply be considered from a purely aesthetic point of view, and the political is always inevitably drawn in. Being allowed to host the Olympics helped to legitimize Hitler’s regime, as did his association with artists such as Riefenstahl. Her film Triumph of the Will helped elevate his image and is seen as so incendiary that even today you have to seek governmental permission in order to view it in Germany. It solidified her association with the Nazi party and made a film career post-World War II untenable. Riefenstahl herself was not actually a Nazi and once stated that she would have made films for anyone who had given her the access to funds and resources that Hitler had given to her. This does not make her innocent of helping to further the Nazi cause, it’s just a point of fact. She considered herself apolitical and insisted that her films simply recorded events as they happened. This is, of course, patently false because every decision she made – from camera angle, juxtaposition of shots, etc. – shaped her films and made her voice active, whether she was willing to own it or not.

Even if she was only seeking to create aesthetic perfection, that same perfection comments on and sculpts our view of the subject – in the case of Triumph it is Hitler and the Nazi party and the people who follow them, in the case of Olympia, the human body itself – which makes it almost impossible to separate the message itself from the way that the message is presented. But does a bad message ultimately make for bad art? Can something beautifully crafted but ultimately hateful, still be beautiful? These are questions that must be asked when you view Riefenstahl’s work, even this film which isn’t political, although certainly an argument could be made that the film’s focus on aesthetic perfection helps enforce the Superman ideals so highly held by the Nazi party.

When you see Olympia, you see immediately how deeply it has influenced not only the way that sporting events are shot and the way that the human body is presented to us through photography, but also the way that the Olympic games are constructed as an event (The running of the Olympic torch, for example, is an event that was first devised by Riefenstahl as a set piece for this film). This is a beautifully made film, regardless of what you think of Riefenstahl’s politics. Incidentally, I’d like to point out that the version I saw featured narration by a British sportscaster that was so jaw-droppingly racist with regards to the black athletes that I was stunned, but which certainly provided context for the age in which Riefenstahl was creating. It is, perhaps, a film best watched without the benefit of sound.

Monday, April 28, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Citizen Kane (1941)

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles

I don’t know that there’s much point in writing about Citizen Kane - everything there is to say about it has already been said numerous times and in every possible way. But maybe that’s exactly why Orson Welles’ masterpiece is still worth talking about. Some films become bogged down by the weight of analysis attached to them, but Citizen Kane rises above the scrutiny it’s undergone to remain purely and essentially a fantastic film entertainment.

The film begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), whose final word is “Rosebud”… or is it? Kane is alone in the room when he dies, his nurse entering when she hears him drop his snowglobe, which shatters on the floor. Whether truly his final word or not, the quest to attach meaning to Rosebud, and thereby define Kane, drives the story. We see multiple visions of Kane, as told from the perspectives of different people who knew him. The image we’re ultimately left with is of a lonely man who saw himself as an entity around which other people simply orbited like satellites. “You want to be loved – that’s all you want! I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want – just name it and it’s yours! Only love me! Don’t expect me to love you,” his wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore) laments. Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) comes to a similar conclusion: “That’s all he ever wanted out of life, was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” Kane was big, built to be adored, and the people around him were designed to be accessories to his adoration, meant to put a face to it. But, of course, we the audience don’t get that idea from Kane himself, but the people who knew him, some of whom were spurned by him.

Technically and narratively this film is genius and would earn a spot on any “best list” on the strength of either aspect alone. There is the great sequence of Kane and his first wife at the breakfast table which grows longer and longer to symbolize the figurative distance that has grown between them. It is brief, but effective: an entire marriage summed up in a table. And there is the echoing cavern of Xanadu, filled to the brim with objects – so many that they must have been collected purely for the sake of having, rather than enjoying – but empty of life, emphasizing Kane’s isolation from the rest of humanity. There is the scene of Susan’s disastrous opera debut where the camera pans up from the stage to the stagehands far above, one of whom holds his nose to express his opinion. The list goes on and on.

From a narrative standpoint, the film has been much imitated. It tells the story of Charles Foster Kane in a fractured way, jumping to different points in time based on who is being interviewed. It is difficult to get an accurate sense of the chronology of events, which just emphasises the ultimate unknowability of Kane’s life and character. You just can’t pin him down. As Kane, Orson Welles is appropriately larger than life. As most people know, the character is based on publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and there’s a certain degree of cheek to the way Welles carries himself on screen, as if eager to make trouble. It’s not just hard to imagine anyone else playing this role, it’s downright impossible. No one else could have pulled it off, no one else contained that kind of bravado that was specific to Welles. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, especially Cotton as Leland, who in one line about a girl he saw once from a distance (“I saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”) manages to reveal more about a character than is sometimes expressed in an entire screenplay.

The end of the film brings us back to the beginning, to Rosebud and the failure of Thompson (William Alland), the reporter, to ascribe meaning to it. But, ultimately, it isn’t really a failure because Thompson has come to recognize the futility of his quest: “Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece.” No one thing was ever going to define Kane because, like all people, his life and his being had multiple meanings and can’t be easily explained or contained. And in the final moments, when the sled emblazoned with “Rosebud” is tossed in the incinerator, it isn’t the meaning that is being lost, but just another symbol. Knowing that Rosebud is the name of a sled doesn’t help you to better understand the entirety of Kane’s person, it just adds dimension to an already complex life.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Piano (1993)

Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neal

The Piano is writer/director Jane Campion's lush, lyrical take on the place of women in the world. It takes place in the mid-19th Century and stars Holly Hunter as Ada, a mute woman given into marriage by her father to Alistair Stewart (Sam Neal), and sent with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), to live with him in New Zealand. With them are Ada's prized piano, her only form of expression and a bone of contention between her and Stewart. In the course of the film, Campion will weave together themes of feminism, colonialism, and sex, all revolving around this piano.

Ada is mute by choice, having simply stopped speaking when she was six. "The voice you hear is not my speaking voice," she tells us at the beginning, "but my mind's voice... The strange thing is, I don't think myself silent. That is because of my piano." The fact that Ada is mute by choice has deep meaning. It essentially makes no difference that she doesn't speak because, as a woman, she wouldn't ever be heard anyway. She's married to Stewart by her father, seemingly having no choice in the matter. Later, Stewart trades her piano to Baines (Harvey Keitel), because as her husband it is now his property; she doesn't have anything. By being mute, Ada is basically refusing to be complicit in her own subjugation through the polite acquiescence employed by other women. She wouldn't be listened to, so she doesn't speak. But she expresses herself through the piano, which is first abandoned on the beach, then given away, then bartered for and finally destroyed. The piano is her voice and in losing it, she loses herself.

Baines wants the piano not because he wants to play it himself, but because he wants to listen to Ada play it, and because he wants her. He makes a deal with her: a sexual favour for each key of the piano. She reluctantly agrees. She has already been violated by the fact of his having her piano so entering into a trade for it doesn't actually make the situation that much worse. He lets her play whatever she wants, listens to her and in return asks only small favours, at first, and then bigger ("Ten keys," he tells her in exchange for intercourse). Slowly, Baines comes to mean more to her than the piano itself, a fact proven when she has the piano back and removes one of the keys to inscribe it with a message to Baines. This message could have been her undoing, intercepted as it is by Stewart by way of Flora. Stewart removes her finger with an axe (which is foreshadowed in various ways, most notably in a scene of shadow theatre where a man pretends to take an axe to a woman's hand) and sends it to Baines, informing him that every time he and Ada see each other, he'll remove one finger. Prior to this, Stewart had kept Ada locked in the house ("I trust you to stay here," he says on the day he removes the bars from the door; the same day she removes the key from her piano).

The film obviously has strong feminist overtones, but it also plays on themes of colonialism. Shortly after the bars on the house have been put in place, a neighbour remarks to Stewart that he's put them on the wrong side. "The Maori will lock you in," she says, assuming that his aim is to keep the natives out rather than his wife in. The Maori are treated in much the same way as the women, as people who need to be taken care of and told what to do by the all-knowing white men. "You treat us like children," one of the Maori says at the moment the colonialists begin to lose control of them. Prior to this we see a scene of Stewart attempting to barter for land, which the Maori won't give up because it is a burial ground. Stewart doesn't understand. They aren't cultivating it, they aren't improving it. They don't know the "proper" things to do with land. The fact is that Stewart and the other men like him are the ones that don't know. They walk through the wilderness dressed like English gentlemen in their top hats and coats trying to impose a replica of the place they just came from in this other place where it doesn't seem to fit. They are attempting to mould this new land to their old habits, rather than adapting their habits to this new land.

The Piano is a film that is narratively and visually strong. For a film about repression, it moves with amazing fluidity. Campion and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh have created images that look almost like paintings, that move with the smoothness of a brush on canvas. This is especially true in two of the film's most emotionally charged scenes, both between Stewart and Ada. In the first, Stewart catches her on her way to see Baines. She flees, her catches her and attempts to rape her and is stopped by Flora's calling to her. The second is the scene where he takes her finger. In both these scenes we see him dragging her towards what he has decided is her destiny as she struggles to free herself from him. Both are visually stunning sequences, especially the first where Ada's face appears so ghostly white in comparison to that of Stewart.

In the end, Ada is given once again, this time by Stewart to Baines. They leave New Zealand and as they're rowing away, she orders that the piano - which has been "spoiled" - be tossed into the ocean. It's tossed overboard and she allows her foot to get caught in the rope, so that she’s dragged over with it. As she's drowning, she surprises herself with her will to live and fights her way back to the surface, where she will live with Baines and Flora and get another piano... or does she? I've always been intrigued by the idea that these are just her dying thoughts, a musing on what life could have been. The last shot of the film is, after all, of the piano at the bottom with Ada floating above it, tied to it as her voice-over tells us about the silence. If she lived, why would this be the last shot of the film? If she still plays piano, why are her last words concerning silence? But regardless of questions of interpretation regarding the end, this is an excellent film with an amazing central performance by Hunter, who expresses so much you forget that she isn't speaking. But, of course, she doesn't have to. She has the piano.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

It was only about a year ago that I saw Jaws for the first time. I had never gone out of my way to see it before because I was under the impression that it was just a routine action thriller, albeit the one that began the trend of summer blockbusters. Happening across it on TCM last summer, I decided to watch and found myself completely engrossed. There is nothing “routine” about this movie, and if more “blockbuster” wannabe films styled themselves after Jaws, they wouldn’t come and go so quickly from the collective imagination.

Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has moved with his family from New York to the island of Amity, a place his wife thinks will be a safer environment to raise their two kids. The mangled body of a woman is found on a beach, a victim of a shark. The Mayor, and other locals concerned about the impact that news of a shark attack would have on tourism, conspire to cover this up, and Brody reluctantly goes along with it until the shark returns to claim more victims. He then teams up with Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw), a shark expert and shark hunter, respectively, to kill the shark, a creature that proves to be more difficult to kill than most movie monsters.

By now everyone has heard the anecdotes about the mechanical shark that wouldn’t work, necessitating a limited visual presence in the film. This turned out to be a good thing, of course, because it lets the audience build up the shark in its imagination, and even though we don’t actually see the shark until the final third of the film (though we do see it’s massive shadow underneath the water), it’s presence looms large over the entire narrative. What we do see of the shark is pretty spectacular (and prompts the film’s most famous line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”), especially when it literally takes apart the ridiculously inadequate Orca piece by piece.

However, the sequences of high action are only a small part of why Jaws works. This film is effective because it spends most of its running time letting us get to know its characters and then puts them in the middle of nowhere up against a shark bigger than their boat. There are lots of little moments that allow us to feel for these characters, to like them enough so that we actually care in the end whether they live or die. There is a moment early in the film, after Brody has had an especially bad day, when he sits at the dinner table and notices that his younger son is imitating his gestures and expressions. There is also the scene in the Orca where Brody and Hooper listen as Quint tells them about being a survivor of the USS Indianapolis – one of the great movie speeches. Scenes like these are cut out of most blockbuster style movies, where the story is more or less just a means of connecting one explosion to another. But these scenes add incalculably to the film because they ground the characters firmly in the audience’s reality and we see them as people instead of characters who have the superhuman ability to withstand just about anything.

Jaws also has in its favour a pretty good sense of humour and moments of comedy that seem to arise organically out the story, rather than being tacked on for the sake of ironic catch-phrases. Most of the comedic moments come courtesy of Hooper, but my favourite comes down to Brody. Hooper drops by the Brodys’ house with a bottle of wine and Brody pours about half the bottle into his own glass while his wife and Hooper watch with bemusement. They then have a conversation which includes the following exchange:

    Ellen: “Martin hates water. Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to     the mainland. I guess it’s a childhood thing. It’s a… there’s a clinical name     for it isn’t there?”
    Brody: “Drowning.”

Hooper then takes Brody off on an unofficial exploration mission in which we get more scenes of drunk, snarky Brody before he quickly sobers up at proof that the shark that has been caught and killed is not the same shark that’s been attacking people.

Jaws is a movie that does everything right in order to accomplish it’s goal. It’s a movie that knows that the audiences needs someone in the film to connect with in order to care whether or not the villain is defeated and whether or not the action sequences result in death. It doesn’t rush through the steps of character establishment in order to get to the “good stuff,” but instead takes its time and lets it characters breathe a little. It’s an action movie that is anything but routine.

Friday, April 25, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter

Rear Window is a film that doesn’t let the viewer off the hook. It’s all about looking and the pleasure, anxiety and danger that can surround it. Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, its brilliance lies not in what it shows us, but what it suggests to us and the places it inspires our imaginations to go. The protagonist is always a substitute/surrogate for the audience, but it’s especially true with this film where everything is seen through the eyes (and camera lens) of Jeff (James Stewart) and what we see is limited by his own immobility.

Jeff is a photographer who is stuck in a wheelchair while recovering from an accident. Out of boredom he begins using his camera to look in on his neighbours across the courtyard. He has nicknames for many of them, including Miss Torso, a beautiful dancer, and Miss Lonelyhearts, an older woman whose nickname pretty much says it all. He has a girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and a nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) who keep him company, but from the moment he begins looking at his neighbours, an obsession begins. He sees things that he feels badly about seeing, such as what happens when Miss Lonelyhearts finally has someone to bring home, and he sees things which make him ask questions. For example, where is Mrs. Thornwald and where is her husband (Raymond Burr) going every night with that suitcase?

Jeff thinks Thornwald has killed his wife – and so do we, having seen the same things that he has, which importantly doesn’t include the actual act of murder. But Jeff doesn’t have to see what happened to know that something is amiss, and soon he’s convinced Lisa and Stella, though not Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public,” Doyle says in the face of Jeff’s suspicions. He has a point, of course. Jeff has seen plenty of strange behaviour from other neighbours since he started watching, and given that there’s no hard evidence that Mrs. Thornwald is dead rather than out of town as her husband claims, there’s reason for Doyle to dismiss the suspicions. But Jeff can’t let it go and he, Lisa and Stella continuing putting pieces together, culminating finally with Lisa inside the Thornwalds' apartment as Jeff (and the audience) sees Thornwald coming up the stairs on his way home. Jeff is helpless to save her – at this moment he’s just another viewer, like the rest of us.

I’ve heard a lot of people muse over the fact that none of the neighbours have curtains, and refer to this as a flaw in the film. However, if you view this as a metaphor for the act of watching a film, it makes sense. Jeff is us, the audience, and his neighbours and their lives are the film, and the curtains, or lack thereof, are simply the assumed fourth wall. It isn’t that they aren’t “there,” it’s just that we can’t see them. However, even if you don’t think of the film as a metaphor, and view the lack of curtains as just a device to move the plot forward, it still won’t prevent you from enjoying the film. Hitchcock was a director of great detail and great ambition in terms of how he shot his films. When the camera looks into the windows across the courtyard, it’s looking at small but fully realized worlds, each defined by the people who have created them. We get to know these characters, albeit from a distance, and we get a sense of the individual arcs they go through during the course of the narrative. None of the miniature stories that we see through the windows are left unresolved: Thornwald gets what’s coming to him, Miss Lonelyhearts finds someone, the musician finds someone to appreciate his music, etc.

Like most masterpieces, this is a film that can be enjoyed as pure entertainment and for it’s deeper meanings. Jeff likes to watch, but consider what he’s watching in connection to what he’s ignoring – namely, his relationship with Lisa. There is a struggle in their relationship because she wants to move forward and he’s afraid to make too much of a commitment to her. When he looks across the courtyard, he escapes into other people’s relationships – the newlywed couple who can’t get out of bed until the end of the film, when the spark has begun to fade and the wife begins to nag the husband; the couple who lead a quiet life with their dog; and, most importantly the Thornwalds. Jeff is seeing various mirrors of his own relationship, each one of which, to greater and lesser extents, serves to unnerve him… but he can’t stop looking. Jeff escapes into these worlds in order to avoid having to deal with his relationship with Lisa, which begs the question of what we, the audience are avoiding when we escape into this, or any other film.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Dodsworth (1936)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor

If your only familiarity with Walter Huston is through The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Dodsworth might come as a shock to you. In fact, Dodsworth is a film that is kind of shocking regardless. A thoroughly adult story about a middle-aged couple discovering that they aren’t so compatible, after all, this is a film that approaches its characters with such candour and sincerity that it’s like a breath of fresh air. It isn’t the most technically innovative film, and it’s influence can’t be read in a thousand films that followed it, but as pure character study, I can think of few films that can top it.

It begins with Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), an automobile tycoon taking his last look around his office before retiring. His employees look upon him with reverence as he says his goodbyes and makes his exit, and we’re already aware that he’s not your typical millionaire. He’s not a faceless money-grubber or a tyrannical despot who will do anything to maintain his power and influence. Instead, he’s the most average of Joes, a regular guy who would fit in easily with his employees, were it not for the fact that he’s worth millions. Following his final day at work, he and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), leave for Europe and we see more of Dodsworth’s “everyman” qualities in the way that he’s thrilled not by the fact that he’s about to experience the decadence that Europe has to offer, but instead by the mere fact that he’s crossing the ocean and seeing things he’s never seen before.

Dodsworth’s excitement, demonstrated here in his desire to wait up on deck as they approach the land so that he can see it, is undercut by the first signs of distress in his marriage. We see Fran beginning to distance herself from him, embarrassed by what she sees as his provinciality. He may be a millionaire – self-made, no doubt – but she obviously sees herself as coming from a higher social caste then him and makes it clear that she finds his ways unsophisticated as she aligns herself with a fellow passenger, the British Captain Lockert (David Niven), who embodies the type of person – charming, refined, and most certainly above being excited by the fact of seeing a light that is the first sign of land – she wants to be associated with. She and Lockert flirt and seem on the verge of having an affair, until he realizes that she’s in over her head and makes it apparent to her that he thinks she’s just as provincial as her husband. It’s the worst kind of insult for Fran, whose humiliation will lead her into two affairs before she's finally able to work herself up to leaving her husband.

The break comes while the pair are touring Austria, when Fran and the much younger Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) fall into an affair and Fran decides to throw Dodsworth over for her new man. Dodsworth lets her go and wanders aimlessly around Europe, seeing things for the sake of seeing things but not really enjoying them, until he runs into Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an acquaintance from the journey across the Atlantic, and falls in love himself. However, before the Dodsworths’ divorce can be finalized, Fran comes running back, her plans to marry Kurt having been thwarted by his mother (played marvellously by Maria Ouspenskaya). Dodsworth is willing to give his marriage another chance until he realizes that Fran hasn’t changed at all, that she’s learned nothing about herself from these events, and that she hasn’t grown to appreciate him or their marriage any more than she did before she left him. Fran is the sort of character that you really want to see get her comeuppance – she’s vain and flighty and completely unwilling to take responsibility for her own actions (the withering look that Dodsworth fixes on her when she explains to him that her affair with Kurt was partly his fault is a thing of beauty) – and Dodsworth delivers by allowing her to be thoroughly served not once, but twice, first by the Baroness and then by Dodsworth himself.

Huston is fantastic as Dodsworth, playing this simple, ordinary guy in a very simple, no-frills kind of way. Through Huston, Dodsworth isn’t simply a character, but a man with character who exudes without having to say as much, that the qualities he values most are hard work and loyalty. Because he values loyalty, he’s willing to give Fran another chance, and because he’s such a strong character, he doesn’t seem wimpy for it. It’s also important that Dodsworth, while not necessarily a man of the world in the sense of being well-travelled, is a very intelligent man who is able to assess the situation clearly enough to know that his loyalty isn’t valued, but taken for granted, and that it’s time to call it a day. As Fran, Ruth Chatterton shines in what is an unforgiving role, playing as she does the film’s “villain,” if a film like this can be thought of as having a villain. However, there’s enough shading to her character that, even though you want her to get knocked down, you still feel sorry for her. She’s a woman clinging desperately to her youth, perhaps all the more fiercely because the Dodsworths’ daughter is about to make them grandparents. “You’re simply rushing at old age, Sam, and I’m not ready for that yet,” she tells her husband. Given how society tends to value women less the older they get, it’s easy to understand why she feels so much anxiety about aging, even though that doesn’t excuse the way she treats Dodsworth.

Dodsworth may very well be the most underrated American film ever made. I’ve never seen it included in any Top 100 and I’ve yet to meet anyone else who’s heard of it, let alone seen it. Perhaps because, like its title character, it is so simple, so straightforward, that it’s bound the blend into the background and take a backseat to flashier entertainments. But its simplicity is also what’s kept it fresh, and while Fran spends the movie worrying about getting older, the movie itself hasn’t aged a bit.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich is a film of breathtaking originality from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, who just might be the best screenwriter working today. It isn't a film that's really like anything else you've ever seen, and the things that it shows you aren’t really like anything you’ve ever seen either, but it commits so fully to the world that it is presenting to you that suspending your disbelief is never an issue. It is an existential comedy, a drama about lonely people longing for connection, a meditation on the nature of sexuality, and a commentary on the malleable nature of identity. It is, in a word, brilliant.

The story begins with a puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack), who takes a job at Lester Corp., where the office is located on floor 7 ½. Because the office space is half a floor, the ceilings are so low that they make it necessary for the employees to walk crouched down and the elevator has to be pried open to let people on or off. “Why are the ceilings so low?” Craig asks Dr. Lester (Orson Bean). “Low overheard, my boy – we pass the savings on to you! But, seriously, that’ll all be covered in the orientation.” The orientation video explains – or, rather “explains” – that the building which houses Lester Corp. was founded by a man who was married to a little person and created the office to fit her. Oh, and Dr. Lester is convinced that he has an indecipherable speech impediment because his secretary can’t understand a word that he, or anyone else, says.

One day at work Craig discovers a door and, exploring, finds that it’s a portal which transports you into the psyche of John Malkovich, allowing you to see the world through his eyes for 15 minutes before you're dumped by the side of the road. He and his co-worker, Maxine (Catherine Keener), with whom he’s infatuated, start a business selling people the opportunity to be John Malkovich and attract a variety of customers, including Craig’s wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), whose experiences inside the actor cause her to question her entire life. The business wreaks all kinds of havoc, not just for Malkovich and Craig and Lotte, whose marriage falls apart over their mutual lust for Maxine, but also for Dr. Lester who has business of his own regarding the portal. Dr. Lester has found the key to immortality, jumping from portal to portal for all eternity, and has decided to open the opportunity up to others. However, for this to work, they have to get Craig out of there.

On a superficial level, this is a very bizarre and funny film, perhaps never more so than during scenes involving John Malkovich and Charlie Sheen, both of whom brilliantly lampoon their own public personas and demonstrate admirable senses of humour about themselves (Sheen: "Maybe she's using you to channel some dead lesbian lover. Sounds like my kind of gal"). However, there’s a lot to this film beneath the surface as well. Through Malkovich and Craig’s hostile takeover of his body (he uses Malkovich like a giant puppet), the film comments on the nature of identity. Identity as it is presented here is performance, something acted out for the benefit of other people in order to hide what is really beneath the skin. This sequence finds Craig finally possessing the two things he most desires - Maxine and a celebrated career as a puppeteer - but having them as someone else. He begins to lose himself in Malkovich and considers allowing Dr. Lester to kill Maxine rather than give up being Malkovich. In essence, the performance has taken over the performer, and the character has usurped Craig's identity.

The film also – and quite effectively – explores conceptions of identity through sexuality and gender, most notably through Lotte. What would it be like to be a woman spending 15 minutes in the consciousness of a man (or vice versa)? What would it reveal, what questions would it raise? Lotte frequents Malkovich's portal and begins to think that maybe, on the inside, she's really a man. She also falls for Maxine, who expresses a similar interest but "only when you're in Malkovich." Is Maxine attracted to Malkovich's body when it's possessed by Lotte's spirit, or is she attracted to Lotte's spirit as she sees it through Malkovich's body? Is it essentially a same-sex or opposite sex relationship, and can a relationship be heterosexual in practice, but homosexual in spirit? And what does it mean for Malkovich to have a portal in the first place? "I think it's kind of sexy," Lotte explains, "sort of like he has a vagina. It's sort of vaginal, like he has a penis and a vagina. It's like Malkovich's feminine side." The film challenges rigid definitions of gender and sexuality, expositing that identity is something fluid rather than something that can be easily contained and categorized. In the end Maxine ends up with Lotte the woman, not Lotte as Malkovich and they're having a baby. "It's yours," Maxine tells Lotte, explaining that it was conceived while she was Malkovich. The word "lesbian" is never uttered by either because what they've experienced has made words like gay or straight, man or woman, meaningless. In the end, they're just two people and they're together.

This is a movie that forces you to ask a lot of questions but also keeps you thoroughly entertained. There is a scene where Malkovich enters the portal himself (and how, exactly, does one go about consciously entering their own consciousness?) and afterwards he tells Craig "I have seen a world that no man should see." Ah, but to see it is to believe it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Inherit The Wind (1960)

Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March

Generally speaking, Stanley Kramer is a filmmaker who always just falls short for me. His films always have their hearts in the right place, and they always have ideas, but the problem is that rather than dramatize those ideas, his films often explain them, and do so in a way that’s so intensely didactic that it verges on overbearing and patronizing. Inherit The Wind is the exception, perhaps because it’s a courtroom drama and therefore more easily and naturally suited to his less than subtle style of preaching.

The film is based on the Scopes trial where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fought it out over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Spencer Tracy plays Henry Drummond, the defence attorney based on Darrow, and Frederic March is Matthew Harrison Brady, the prosecutor based on Bryan. Dick York is Bertram T. Cates, the teacher on trial, and Gene Kelly is E.K. Hornbeck, a reporter for the paper funding Cates’ defence. Kelly is good as the cynical and sarcastic reporter, and York does what he can with a role that is essentially part of the scenery. This is really Tracy and March’s film where they face off on a number of different occasions, in different sets of circumstances and with different outcomes.

Kramer makes his own position, and the opposing position of the local community, apparent immediately. The local population is clearly on the side of Brady and Creationist theory – they harass Cates when he’s locked in his cell, they throw Brady a parade, and they generally think the trial itself is a waste of time. The film, however, places itself clearly on the other side, and the viewer has little choice but to follow when the community is shown to be bigoted, reactionary and anti-intellectual. What saves this from being a “big city thinker” versus “backwoods hicks” fight is the character of Drummond himself, who isn’t arguing for the validity of one way of thinking over another, but rather for the right of a person to decide for themselves what they think. In one of the many great speeches that Tracy must have relished, Drummond sums his argument up thusly: “If you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools. And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers… And soon, with banners flying and with drums beating, we’ll be marching backward - backward - through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind.” To Drummond this is not the moral issue that it’s been framed as; it’s an issue of intellectual freedom, and of the responsibility of every human being to think for his or herself.

Brady gets to make speeches too, but is always one-upped by Drummond’s retorts. What’s interesting about the way Kramer presents the story is that, even though Brady is on the other side of the argument and even though he’s characterized as impeding intellectual progress, he isn’t the villain. It’s the community that is villanized, not just by the way that they treat Cates and Drummond, but by the way that they treat Brady as well. The most tragic moment in the film is not the verdict, which inevitably finds Cates guilty, it’s the moment when Brady realizes that he’s lost his audience, that those people who were so quick to give him a parade could turn on him with equal quickness the second they realized that he, too, is just another imperfect human being. He stands in the court, attempting to make a speech while the people who once listened to him with rapt attention turn on him in disgust and the only person listening anymore is Drummond. Whether you agree with Brady or not, it’s difficult not to feel for him at this moment.

The court room scenes are the best in the film – alternately funny, frustrating and heartbreaking – but there are also quieter, more private moments that are very moving. Brady and Drummond, though adversaries in the court, have a long and friendly history outside of it. There’s the suggestion that Drummond harbours an unrequited love for Brady’s wife who is, perhaps, a little in love with him, too, though she’s devoted to her husband. And there’s a conversation between Drummond and Brady where they set out their basic arguments and it feels more like two old friends in a healthy debate than it does like mortal enemies poised to destroy each other’s world view. These scenes are important because they make the characters more human, rather than broadly letting them be painted as “Good Guy” and “Bad Guy.”

I can’t stress enough how good this movie is, especially from an acting standpoint. Tracy is solid and dependable as always, bringing his special combination of gravitas and lightness to the role, and March – an actor who is under-rated perhaps because he’s such a chameleon that you don’t always realize that it’s him (watch this film, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Sign of the Cross and you’ll get what I mean) – is equally great. It’s their movie, their showcase, and it’s a wonder to behold.

Monday, April 21, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels

Mia Farrow has never been nominated for an Oscar, a fact which I find astounding every time I watch The Purple Rose of Cairo. In just one look at the end of the film, she conveys a universe of emotion, expressing both the agony and the ecstasy involved in watching - and loving - movies. This is a wonderfully funny and heartbreaking fantasy film from Woody Allen in which his satirical edge, his brilliantly constructed dialogue, and a light touch of drama come together to form the backbone of a story that only gets more rewarding with each viewing.

The film takes place during the Depression and stars Farrow as Cecilia, a waitress who goes to movies to escape her dreary life with her unemployed, adulterous husband Monk (Danny Aiello). She lights up when she talks about movies – and movie stars, for that matter, so familiar with their “real” lives that she’s able to offer carefully considered opinions on why one relationship failed and another succeeded – and sees one in particular (the eponymous Purple Rose of Cairo) several times until, during one viewing, the film’s hero Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) turns to her and says, “Boy, you must really like this movie,” before stepping out of the screen and whisking her away. They run off together while the theatre patrons, and the studio executives behind the movie, freak out, and while the other characters on screen are left in limbo because the story can’t go on without Tom. Eventually, Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom Baxter, is sent to find his alter ego and finds himself competing with, well, himself for Cecilia’s affections, leaving her with a choice: the real man who might break her heart, or the perfect man who is unfortunately fictional.

Allen does a good job setting Cecilia up as someone trapped in poverty, who can’t leave her husband no matter how disillusioning her marriage is. She packs her bags, leaves and wanders the streets for a while, just long enough to see a couple of women (one played by Dianne Weist) preparing to prostitute themselves. She looks dazed then turns around and goes home, knowing that none of her options are good. When Tom comes along, he brings with him his fictional outlook on life, the life lived on-screen where there’s no Depression, where people have wonderful adventures and say perfectly witty things, and the hero is always faithful to the woman he loves, and his hair never gets mussed when he gets into a fight. Tom is a nice guy (“He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything,” Cecilia concludes), but is limited by the confines of his script. “Dad was a card,” he tells Cecilia. “I never met him. He died before the movie began.” Later, he expresses surprise that life doesn’t fade out when things get heated, and that his screen money, which is abundant, is worthless in the real world.

When Gil comes along, he offers Cecilia something that is both similar and different. He’s the person who created Tom (although Tom disagrees and he and Gil engage in a battle of semantics in which it is eventually agreed that the writer created Tom but Gil gave him life), but lacks Tom’s innocence. In place of that, though, he has carries bona fide Hollywood glamour and Cecilia is quick to fall under his spell. For a time, it seems that he, too, is falling for her, or at least the way she fawns over him and boosts his self-esteem. Sensing that he’s losing out, Tom takes Cecilia into the movie, which of course throws the whole story off kilter. Luckily the other characters don’t care that much since they’re finally moving forward again. Now Cecilia must choose between a fake life with a fictional character where she’ll have everything she could ever want, but none of it will be real; or a real life with a real person who might disappoint her and break her heart.

Farrow gives an excellently layered performance as someone who, in certain respects, is just as innocent and wide-eyed as Tom, but also knowing enough to recognize much of what he says as “movie talk” that doesn’t amount to much in the real world. She floats effortlessly from the comedic to the tragic, touching on both with only a movement of her face in close-up in the film’s final moments. Daniels is also excellent playing a dual role, creating two very distinct personalities for both characters. I’ve never really known what to make of his final moment in the film – is he remorseful simply because he’s given up Cecilia, or is it also that he’s realized that even with the benefit of the Hollywood glamour machine, he’ll still never be half the man that Tom Baxter was? – but it’s effective nonetheless.

The dialogue is as sharp as it is in all of Allen’s comedies, specially tuned in this case to it’s era (“I want to be free! I want out!” of the characters in the film within the film says. “I’m warning you, that’s Commie talk!” the studio lawyer replies), and it’s gentle in its post-modernism, couching it’s pointed, philosophical questions in humour. Which one is, after all, real: Tom or Gil? Gil is certainly the real person, but Tom is the one who will “live” forever via the medium of film, outliving Gil for as long as people watch the movie. And if people connect with Gil only through the film, by watching Tom, then doesn’t Tom usurp him as the real one, just as actors such as James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo exist to us now more as their screen personas than as actual people? But maybe it doesn’t matter at all what’s real and what’s fake, just as long as it’s there for you to escape into at the end of a hard day.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan

The Ox-Bow Incident is William A. Wellman’s short but powerful condemnation of mob mentality and vigilante justice. In recent years, it has seemed especially pertinent for the way it examines the harm done by Shoot First, Ask Questions later attitudes and knee-jerk reactions which demand the rounding up of someone - anyone - for punishment in order to satisfy society’s need for immediate justice. This is an angry film which examines an ugly subject.

It begins with Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) who drift into the little town just in time for the announcement that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. The Sheriff is out of town and the Deputy decides that instead of waiting for him, he'll form a posse and find the rustlers himself. The Judge (Matt Briggs) objects to the idea, but in the face of a gang of bored, rough and tumble men, this ineffective authority figure is easily over-ruled. Gil and Art go along, partly to avoid being accused of being the rustlers themselves through their dissention, but also as two of the handful of people who are going specifically to see that things don’t get out of hand. This handful ultimately proves to be futile against the rest of the mob. Three men are found, determined to be the rustlers and hanged without trial or proper examination of the evidence.

What’s great about this film is the way that it dissects mob mentality. We see the posse as it is forming, it’s members riled up and ready to deliver justice, but there’s the sense that what this is really about is a gang of bored people (all men, save one) who are excited about the chance to do something, don’t really take the matter as seriously as they should, and aren’t thinking about the fact that they’re excited about the prospect of maybe getting to kill other human beings. When they find the three men – which includes Dana Andrews as Donald Martin – their eagerness is still clear, though beginning slightly to ebb, especially as it becomes more and more apparent that the three men will be hanged without being brought back to town for trial. When the moment finally comes and the three men, nooses around their necks are placed on horses, Major Tetley (William Eythe) has a difficult time finding volunteers to get the horses off and running. No one really wants to be responsible for these deaths, which at some level they know to be unjust. Eventually the act is carried out and the three men die. The Sheriff rides up shortly thereafter, is horrified by what he sees and reveals that the farmer who was supposedly murdered is actually alive and that Martin’s story is true: he had bought the cattle, fair and square, which means that all three have been murdered to satiate the bored bloodlust of the town.

The dejected posse returns to town and sentiment begins to turn against Tetley, who is seen as having been the leader. There’s a suggestion that he ought to be hanged. “You sure are one for hanging,” Gil says with disgust. They’ve learned nothing. They still believe that there’s no problem that can’t be solved at the end of a gun or in the center of a noose. It is only when Gil reads the letter that Martin had written to his wife, which includes the lines: “They don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ’Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurting everybody in the world,” that the real weight of what has happened begins to settle upon the town.

The characters are well-drawn. There are clear leaders and clear followers who will never have the courage to turn against the leaders – at least not unless everyone else is doing it, too. There are also the men who stand against the mob, which include Tetley’s son, who is coded as being potentially gay and certainly “weak” in the eyes of his father, and who is forced to come along by Tetley’s belief that it will make a man out of him. Some of the characters, like Tetley and his son, Gil and Art, Davies (Harry Davenport) the leader of the dissenters, and Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) the lone woman in the posse, stand out, but this is ultimately an ensemble film and the size of the cast is always prominent in order to foreground the danger of a group of people who insist that you’re either with them or against them.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a short film, running just over an hour, but the economy of its storytelling is part of its power. This all happens fast, which is part of the film’s critique, because justice shouldn’t be fast – trial, arrest, execution in under an hour – it should be measured and certain. The focus is on the horrible act of the mob, but there are also hints about life outside this incident. There’s a woman Gil came back to town to see, whom he learns has run off and gotten married. They see each other briefly and he meets her new husband. The scene has nothing to do with the central story, but it does provide Henry Fonda with the opportunity to make one of the best The Hell? faces ever captured on screen. There are also suggestions throughout the film about Tetley, about his military experiences and his marriage. We never know the full story, but these vague suspicions help to cloud our view of him and suggest reasons other than the hangings for his own suicide at the end.

Made in 1943, this is a timeless work of art. It will always be relevant but seems especially so today when we read about injustices excused by the fact that a war is being fought on terror. Consider the scene where the posse questions the three men, going at them until they break down and give the answers the mob wants, even if it’s not the truth. “There’s truth in lies, too, if you can get enough of them,” Tetley states. This is a story that continues to echo in our own time.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Donnie Darko (2001)

Director: Richard Kelly
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell

Donnie Darko is a masterful blend of science fiction and psychological coming-of-age drama. Ostensibly concerning a tangent universe that must be contained and resolved by the title character before it collapses and takes our own universe with it, there is an undercurrent running through the film having to do with misplaced sexual desire. Donnie’s mission in the film isn’t just to save the world, it’s also to eliminate these sexually taboo elements.

The story begins with Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) being summoned from his bed by Frank, a rabbit from another dimension who speaks to him. This saves Donnie’s life since while he’s out, a jet engine falls from the sky and lands directly on his bedroom. The engine is a mystery, since no one knows where it came from (the answer is that it came from another dimension and came to this one through a wormhole). Frank continues to guide Donnie’s life, encouraging him to flood the school and burn down a house. He will also kill the real Frank and close the Tangent Universe in order to save the real one, the one in which Frank does not call him from his bed and he’s killed when the jet engine falls through his roof.

Through a book written by Gradma Death/Roberta Sparrow (Patience Cleveland) and read by Donnie, much of what is going on is explained. At midnight on the night the jet engine (“the Artifact”) falls through his roof, the Tangent Universe branches off from the Primary Universe, destined to collapse in 28 days due to its instability. Donnie is the “Living Receiver” who has the power to contain the Tangent Universe in order to save the Primary Universe from being eliminated with it. Those who die in the Tangent Universe but not the Primary Universe are the “Manipulated Dead,” the rest are the “Manipulated Living.” Of the other characters, Frank is the only one who seems to have some subtle understanding of what is happening, though I think an argument could be made that Donnie’s mother, Rose (Mary McDonnell), also has some sense that something is off-kilter.

Underlying all of this is the suggestion of forbidden sexual desires. Textually, there is the fact that Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) is found to be involved in a child pornography ring after Donnie burns down his house. Subtextually, there is the suggestion that Donnie harbours sexual desires for his sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Elizabeth’s boyfriend is Frank (James Duval), who will show up at Halloween dressed in the rabbit costume that haunts Donnie. Donnie and Frank are very closely connected because both have some awareness of the real and tangent universes and are able to communicate across their boundaries. In one scene, Donnie asks Frank “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” and Frank replies, “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” Both are hiding something beneath a fa├žade. When Frank removes his mask, showing us his face for the first time, we see a bloody hole in his eye, which we learn later has been made by Donnie. Donnie shoots Frank because he runs over Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen (Jena Malone), but he’s also eliminating his rival for Elizabeth.

Rabbits permeate the story, especially in Donnie’s English class, where the assigned reading is Watership Down. In a class discussion of the novel, Donnie asserts that being a rabbit wouldn’t be so bad because all they do is have sex, and that it’s difficult to feel badly for the rabbits who die in the novel. This foreshadows the death of Frank, who is presumably having sex with Elizabeth, and whom Donnie kills with barely a second thought. All of this is of course open to other interpretations, but the best evidence that there’s something sexually untoward going on inside of Donnie’s head is in a scene where he’s hypnotized. His therapist attempts to talk to him about his family, but Donnie wants to talk about sex, sheepishly telling her that he doesn’t fantasize about his family as his hand begins to go into his pants and the therapist quickly pulls him out of hypnosis.

Donnie Darko is a good film, but less successful than it is ambitious. It aspires to much more than it actually achieves, and some of its pieces just don’t fit together. It exists in two forms, the original cut and the director’s cut. The director’s cut more or less holds your hand, explaining what is happening as plainly as it could possibly be explained, while the original is somewhat elusive. Both are great, but my preference is for the original and if you’ve never seen the film, my suggestion is to see the original first and then watch the director’s cut in order to fill in the blanks.

Friday, April 18, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

The Apartment is perhaps the most melancholy comedy ever made. It is about lonely people, misused by those around them, clinging to the things that they think will make them happy, only to end up even more disillusioned than they were before. For Baxter (Jack Lemmon), the light at the end of the tunnel is the promise of a promotion in his future. All he has to do is keep letting the executives in his office use his apartment to meet their mistresses. Meanwhile Fran (Shirley MacLaine) is kept going by her affair with the boss, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), and his constant promises that he’ll leave his wife… just as soon as the time is right. That Baxter and Fran belong together is something that he can see immediately, but something she doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late.

The Apartment is a romantic comedy in which Baxter and Fran stumble towards each other through various misunderstandings and past a series of romantic entanglements. It’s also a drama about the need for human beings to connect to each other (“I used to live like Robinson Crusoe,” Baxter tells Fran, “I mean, shipwrecked among eight million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were”). And, finally, it’s a satire of big businesses and the men who run them. The men depicted in this film seem to be suspended in a state of arrested development, so obsessed with sex, and how to get it, and how to get more of it, that everything else in their lives is secondary. Even the sex itself is, in a way, secondary because it isn’t really the act that drives them, but the status they derive from running around with multiple women. They’re trapped in an endless game, little boys looking to dominate the world by having the most toys.

In the beginning, Baxter sits at his desk in the middle of a sea of desks that look exactly the same, and men who look just like him. These aren’t individual people, but a mass of parts in a machine. Baxter, however, has an edge on the other drones because he’s the go-to-guy for middle management. They call him “Buddy Boy” and promise to help him move up the ladder in exchange for him allowing them to borrow his apartment. Baxter keeps the appointments in a note book and keeps his place stocked with the liquor and food that the execs and their mistresses like. Sometimes they show up unexpectedly and Baxter is forced out of his own apartment and has to wait outside in the snow for them to finish so that he can go back upstairs and go back to bed. Because of all the activity (some of it noisy), his neighbours think he’s some kind of sex fiend. The doctor (Jack Krushen) who lives next door warns him that he won’t be able to keep up this pace much longer if he intends to live a long life. The scenes involving the doctor's reactions to Baxter's romantic entanglements are some of my favorite, never ceasing to make me laugh ("Mildred, he's at it again!" he exclaims upon hearing music from Baxter's place).

Baxter eventually gets the promised promotion and his new place in the world is symbolized by his receiving the key to the executive washroom, the ultimate status symbol. He wants to share his happiness with Fran, but finds out that not only has she been having an affair with Sheldrake, but that they’re two of the people who’ve been using his apartment. On Christmas Eve, Fran and Sheldrake meet at the apartment and he backs out of his latest promise to leave his wife. Later, and still at the apartment, she attempts suicide and Baxter finds her. The neighbours think she’s tried to kill herself because of Baxter and treat him accordingly, as does Fran’s brother-in-law, who gives Baxter a beating. Baxter, ever the gentleman, keeps the actual circumstances to himself in order to protect Fran, and she begins to realize how much she really does like him. Baxter, too, has a revelation when he sees that Sheldrake isn’t taking the situation with Fran seriously, brushing Baxter off when he tries to convince him to come and see her. Later, as a reward for keeping the truth about the situation to himself, Sheldrake offers Baxter another promotion, which Baxter turns down, not wanting to become the kind of man that social climbing makes you. This scene is played marvellously by both Lemmon and MacMurray with Baxter finally, and conclusively, standing up for himself and Sheldrake showing just how slimy he really is.

The next time Baxter and Fran meet, he’s in the process of packing up his stuff, getting ready to start his life over somewhere else, anywhere else. Fran, too, is ready to start over. There’s no great love scene, no big speeches or professions of love. Instead, they sit down to play cards, the way they did when she was staying at his place, recovering from the suicide attempt. He tells her he loves her. She looks at him. “Shut up and deal.” The ending is often the most deliciate part of a movie - a bad one can drag a great film down to just being good; a good one can make a bad movie worth watching - and Billy Wilder had a knack for them, as demonstrated by this film, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. The two lonely people connect - and it isn't schmaltzy or tacked on or unearned. It's a very genuine, very real ending that's perfectly suited to the story that unfolded before it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Greta Shroeder, Gustav von Wagenheim

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror isn’t an especially scary film, but it is a particularly haunting one. Directed by the brilliant F.W. Murnau, this is a horror film less concerned with gore and creatures jumping out from their hiding places, and more concerned with creating an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. Max Schreck’s performance as the vampire, Count Orlock, creates one of the most lasting impressions ever made on screen and adds immensely to the sinister genius of the film.

Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the names of the characters were changed in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit by Stoker’s widow - which didn’t work and her victory in court almost resulted in the film being lost forever. In the film, the protagonist, Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), is summoned to the dwelling (“home” is too warm a word for so dark a place) of Count Orlock. The mere mention of Orlock’s name is enough to cause dread in the hearts of the people who reside in the village below the manor, but Hutter carries on regardless. Orlock emerges from the darkness to greet Hutter and invites him to sit down to dinner. During the course of the meal, Hutter cuts himself (“Your precious blood!” Orlock exclaims) and Orlock looks lustily at Hutter’s wound, then sees Hutter’s picture of his wife, Ellen (Greta Shroeder), and transfers his lust to her (“What a lovely throat…”). His growing determination to have her will ultimately lead to his destruction.

Part of the reason why Nosferatu works is that it’s a very economical adaptation. Murnau and writer Henrik Galeen knew how to focus the story for maximum effect and cut out the parts of Stoker’s novel that aren’t really necessary for this kind of story, things like Stoker’s fascination with emerging technologies (incidentally, if you want to see a Dracula adaptation that fully embraces all the quirks and asides of the novel, I recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which may not be the “best” vampire film ever, but is a guilty pleasure movie if ever there was one). Another reason is the underlying sexual aspect to the terror. The most obvious sexual connotation of this film (and other vampire films) is that the menace comes in the form of an exchange of bodily fluid, and that the terror reaches its peak when the menace comes to visit a woman while she’s in bed. The anxiety that runs through this film isn’t an anxiety about death but about sex, specifically about the connection of sex to women. It’s interesting that vampire films begin here with sexual threat framed clearly as something monstrous, a “creature” who inspires revulsion from those around him, and evolve over time (beginning with Tod Browning’s Dracula) into the trope of the “seductive” vampire, to whom victims succumb almost willingly. There is nothing seductive about Orlock. He appears terrifying and inhuman – a assemblage of ugliness almost beyond imagining.

Murnau is a master of tone and style, creating here a film that is hypnotic in the way that it unfolds. The first sighting of Orlock is especially memorable and enduring, as he emerges from the darkness looking ghoulish and alien – the level of creepiness established here would have been enough to carry the film to its conclusion even if the story didn't take us into Orlock's mansion. According to IMDB, Orlock only appears in about nine of the film’s ninety or so minutes, which is startling when you consider how deeply his presence seems engrained in the film from beginning to end. It’s a credit not only to Schreck’s acting, but also to Murnau’s direction that the character is able to loom so large over the film, becoming larger than the narrative itself. By confining the character, limiting his space within the film, Murnau gives him license to run loose in our imaginations (off the top of my head I can think of two other big screen terrors whose limited time in the film has the same effect: the shark in Jaws and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs).

Nosferatu is a film that can be watched today without seeming dated because it exists so firmly in the realm of fantasy. It floats before us like a nightmare, touching on our deepest fears and twisting them into shapes all the more frightening for their unfamiliarity. This is a definite must see for anyone who loves movies.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Cabaret (1972)

Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Cabaret takes place during the dying days of the Weimar Republic, that chaotic period between Kaiser Wilhelm II and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. It is filled with characters who seemed determined to drown in excess before the coming political wave can crash over them and wash them away. The story plays out like a party being dragged on beyond it’s natural lifespan as those participating try to wring out just one more carefree hour of celebration even as the writing makes itself clearer on the wall.

The film centers on Brian Roberts (Michael York), a British student who plans on earning a living in Berlin by teaching English to Germans, and Sally Bowles (brilliantly embodied by Liza Minnelli), an American who performs in a local Cabaret and dreams of breaking into films. Sally is one of the great creations of fiction, a woman who is unconventional in only the most conventional of ways, an actress who has barely mastered the art of playing herself – or, rather, the image of herself that she wants to leave with others. Early in their relationship, she says something she thinks will scandalize Brian, then turns to him, asking ,”Did I shock you?” When he says that she didn’t, she’s disappointed. She’s very clearly adopted the role of the “Urbane Wild Child” (“That’s me, darling. Unusual places, unusual love affairs. I am a most strange and extraordinary person.”) but she overdoes it not only by sounding over-rehearsed in her “casual” witticisms and observations, but also by caring too much, and too openly, what other people think of her. Both of these aspects of her character make her ultimately unable to sustain that initial image of herself that she wants so badly to establish in the minds of others. She tells Brian that she wants to be a great actress like Liane de Pougy. Given her behaviour during the course of the film, you can’t help but wonder if she wishes to emulate de Pougy’s notoriety as an actress, which was minimal, or her notoriety as a courtesan, which was considerable. At any rate, she might have done well to consider the advice that the great Sarah Bernhardt once gave to de Pougy, to keep her “pretty mouth shut.” Late in the film Brian, who adores Sally, will lament that he wishes she could hear herself and the way she carries on.

Much of the story is concerned with Sally’s relationship with Brian, which evolves from friendship into a sexual relationship despite Brian being gay. There is a parallel relationship as a supporting storyline between Brian's friend, Fritz (Fritz Wepper) and Natalia (Marisa Berenson). Fritz is a fortune hunter looking to make a good marriage and sets his sights on Natalia, whom he meets through Brian. He falls in love with her in earnest but she, despite her love for him, won’t marry him because she’s Jewish and thinks that he is not. Through these characters (mostly Natalia, but through Fritz as well in the way that he’s seen it as necessary to hide his own Jewishness so completely) we encounter the anti-Semitism that would soon overrun the nation. The Nazis are always a presence in the film, occupying at first the very edges, but slowly encroaching more and more towards the center and finally taking over when a group of chillingly wholesome Nazi youth sing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” and gather the crowd of onlookers into their song. After this, the Nazi presence becomes so prominent that the main characters can no longer ignore it. The final shot of the film shows the Nazis as having, essentially, taken over the Cabaret. The way that the characters deal with the increasing presence of the Nazis works on both literal and metaphorical levels. Literaly, Sally and Brian, whose interests lie mainly in pursuing their own pleasures, are able to look away from the Nazis until it’s too late, while Fritz and Natalia, being Jewish, are constantly aware of the Nazis. Metaphorically speaking, the way that Sally, the American, and Brian, the Brit, close themselves off from what is going on around them can be read as a commentary on the way that the world was content to pretend that nothing untoward was going on in Germany until it was too late.

Cabaret was made after the heyday of the Hollywood musical and doesn’t play as a traditional musical. Characters don’t burst into song in the middle of the street or the middle of a scene. The musical numbers, with the exception of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” all take place on stage at the Cabaret. Which isn’t to say that the numbers aren’t good, because they are, but just to explain that this is a very contained musical. It ends with Sally performing “Life is a Cabaret,” which, on paper, looks like an upbeat song but when you see it performed in the context of the film, you see that it’s actually very sad. This is a song of desperation, a plea from a woman who wants life to be full of fun and joy but is consistently reminded that it is not, that the time for fun and joy is quickly passing. Even Sally, who has spent her life convincing herself that things are better than they seem, has to admit that the party is finally over, that the spectre that has been looming over the narrative is about to takeover and change everything forever.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

The Bridge on the River Kwai takes place during World War II, but it’s a war film in only the broadest of terms. This is a psychological film, a battle of wills between two men from different sides of the war who are equally proud and equally determined to be an example to their countrymen. On the British side is Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), on the Japanese side is Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who find themselves united in their obsession with building a bridge across the river Kwai.

The film opens famously with the British soldiers marching into the P.O.W. camp whistling the “Colonel Bogey March.” They are met by Saito and it becomes immediately apparent that he and Nicholson are going to clash. Nicholson, a life-long military man, clings to the sanctioned rules of warfare and attempts to impose them on Saito, whom he assumes is simply unaware of them. “Do not speak to me of rules,” Saito replies. “This is war! This is not a game of cricket!” The two are deadlocked. Nicholson is tortured in an attempt to break him and thereby break his men, but instead he endures and it’s Saito who must give in, agreeing that officers will not be compelled to participate in forced labour. With that out of the way, Nicholson goes about his next task, which is organizing the building of the bridge. He is shocked to find that his men have been sabotaging the effort in his absence and rectifies it, believing that the honest effort of building the bridge will be good for morale. “One day the war will be over and I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers,” Nicholson says. And while keeping up morale by giving the prisoners a chance to achieve and take pride in something is all well and good, as Major Clipton (James Donald) points out it also means collaborating with Britain’s sworn enemy. If the bridge is built – and built well – it will be used against Britain and the rest of the Allies, a fact which is lost on Nicholson in his determination to create a monument to British mastery.

As Nicholson and the British continue to build the bridge, Saito begins to come undone. In one scene he sits alone crying, unable to cope with the fact that Nicholson can build a better bridge than he ever could have hoped of doing himself. Saito isn’t a career soldier like Nicholson and slowly renounces his authority to the other man. In one exchange Nicholson lays out the necessities for finishing the bridge on time, which includes using some of the Japanese soldiers as labourers. “I have already given the order,” Saito says. Nicholson then suggests laying out a work quota for the Japanese soldiers. “I have already given out the order.” Saito is effectively broken at a time when he should be triumphant. The bridge will be finished and he won’t have to commit suicide in order to preserve his honour, but it’s spoiled because he has to rely on Nicholson’s knowledge and willpower to get it done. Guinness is wonderful as Nicholson and won the Academy Award for Best Actor, but Hayakawa (who was nominated as Supporting Actor) is more than equal to him, bringing a depth of humanity to the role that the film would have suffered without.

While Nicholson and Saito engage in their battle of wills, there’s another plot running through the film, that of the American P.O.W Shears (William Holden). Shears escapes through the jungle and spends time lounging on the beaches with British nurses before being persuaded to return to the jungle to sabotage the bridge. I’ve always found this plotline rather unnecessary and the character of Shears ill-defined. He’s not really motivated by anything except what the plot requires him to be motivated by at any given moment. And while it’s true that Shears and his team bring about the film’s resolution, in that they provide the means for the bridge to blow up, it just seems like they belong in a different movie than the one about Nicholson, Saito and their shared, mad dream.

And mad is the only word for it. “Madness! Madness!” These last words uttered by Clipton who still can’t believe that Nicholson doesn’t realize what he's done. Of course, what he doesn’t know – but we do – is that Nicholson does realize what the bridge means. “What have I done?” he asks then falls dead, landing on the detonator which blows up the bridge. In his last moment, he is redeemed, but what was the cost of his journey towards redemption? He and Saito are both dead, so is Shears, and the bridge, dedicated with a plaque to tribute the work of the British soldiers, is destroyed.


Monday, April 14, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Foreman
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce

Whenever someone complains about a film being historically inaccurate, I can’t help but think of Amadeus. Amadeus is not a film that presents the literal and factual story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but it is nevertheless a great and entertaining film. Does it suffer for its inaccuracies? Not a bit. In fact, the liberties that the film takes only make it stronger.

One of the reasons that Amadeus works so well is perhaps that it’s less a biopic than a story of two artists, one disciplined but of moderate talent, and another who seems to have been given a gift by God, but who wastes it through his wonton ways. This is a story that could be made about any two artists, creating in any artistic medium, at any time in history. This film just happens to be about Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the man who (according to the film) kills Mozart, but only succeeds in destroying himself.

The story is presented largely from Salieri’s point of view. We meet him as a reasonably popular and passably talented composer and regular at the court of the Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). He’s thrilled by the music of Mozart but appalled by Mozart’s behaviour. Salieri, who must suffer to produce something that he knows to be of average quality, sees Mozart produce beauty at the drop of a hat, with seemingly no effort, in between binges of drinking and partying and sex. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart’s ability consumes him and he sets out to destroy him. However, even when audiences turn away from Mozart, and even after Mozart is dead, Salieri still cannot find peace. It doesn’t matter that Mozart has fallen out of favour; Salieri, as a first class connoisseur (if not a first class creator) of music, knows how brilliant Mozart is, even if other people won’t acknowledge it, and he knows how average he himself is, even if the people decide, for a moment, to favour him. It isn’t the fame that Salieri wants, it’s the ability, and this is made apparent by his assertion that God is mocking him through Mozart’s talent.

The scenes of Mozart’s death are the best in the film, playing at different levels. On one hand, Salieri is “winning” because Mozart is dying. On the other hand, Salieri loses because Mozart’s Requiem, which he has dictated to Salieri while dying and which Salieri had planned to pass off as his own, has been confiscated by Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Berridge). Salieri wants Mozart to die because Mozart’s life and art are like a curse to him. But, as Mozart dictates to Salieri, as Salieri works in the presence of genius, there is also part of him that wants Mozart to live and continue creating the work that only he is able to produce. At some level, Salieri knows even before the deed is done that his rival’s death will solve nothing for him, but once the course is set, it must be followed through to its end.

There is a lot of darkness and pathos in Amadeus, but there is a great deal of joy as well. As a matter of fact, for a story about one composer who slowly goes mad and another who drives himself to an early and tragic death, this film is a lot of fun. The Mozart who is presented to us is like a modern day rock star who gains fame too easily at too young an age, overindulges in all manner of vice, and burns himself out – but, boy, does he have a good time doing it. Further adding to the rock star image is the punk aesthetic at play in the way Mozart is costumed, most notably in his wigs which are a shade of pink in contrast to the white wigs worn by everyone else. The impression that the film leaves you with is that Mozart was a fun guy who valued a good time over everything else and just didn’t know when to say when, and Hulce plays this aspect of the character for everything that it’s worth. There are more serious moments as well – when he’s dying, when he’s defending his music against critics – but for the most part, Mozart is at the center of all good times, of all laughter, of all ecstasy. Meanwhile, Salieri broods in the corner.

Abraham is pitch perfect as Salieri – alternately smug, envious, vengeful, sorrowful and, finally, mad. The film features one of the best endings in cinema, with Salieri in an insane asylum, being wheeled along a corridor while telling the other patients, “Mediocrities, I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.” At the end Salieri is free, having absolved himself not for killing Mozart, but for failing to be Mozart. The only downside is that he had to go mad before he was able to do it.