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Archive for February, 2009

The blogging opportunities haven’t really been presenting themselves this week, sadly.

On the bright side–I do have a line on one of the pre-“Jennifer Jones” Isley performances, so perhaps the delay in launching my star persona analysis project can be construed as fortuitous.

But I thought I would take this opportunity to direct your attention to this stuff that I wrote on Watchmen (the comic), a while back. I’d say that I stand by about 70% of it (especially the idea of altruism-as-aphrodisiac in the coffee-serving scene–my personal favourite–will it make it onto the screen?)

I have pretty low expectations for the movie , but will, of course, be going to see it as soon as it hits Montreal. Luckily, Frank Miler’s The Spirit has already secured a lock on “worst comic book adaptation ever filmed,” so Snyder has averted that danger by default.

good afternoon friends!

Dave

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very busy lately, unfortunately–but will check in soon with a post on Warner Brothers’ amazing companion piece to They Won’t Forget in the 1937 anti-lynching sweepstakes– Michael Curtiz’s Mountain Justice (starring the very very unjustly neglected Josephine Hutchinson), which I saw over the weekend.

For now–just wanted to mention that I actually watched the entire Oscar ceremony last night, for the first time in my life (I attended a party devoted to the event). I had absolutely no rooting interest, but was glad to see Kate Winslet win (even though I haven’t seen The Reader; she should have won a long time ago–for Jude) and liked Penn’s speech (although I haven’t seen Milk yet)… but oh that Sophia Loren appearance was painful… I don’t usually make snarky comments about plastic surgery, but that job pushed me to brink of apoplexy. At the very least–I’ll be Oscarred for life… Why the hell did she do that to us?

good afternoon friends!

Dave

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we-were-strangers-subsamp

Short post today

More in the nature of a public resolution, actually.

To wit–I want to explore the star persona (as pseudoteurial node of meaning) of Jennifer Jones (nee Phylis Flora Isley).

Best way to do that, of course, is to revisit all of her films–so that’s what I’ll do (probably not one after another, although that would certainly be intense!)

I wonder if I’m alone in liking every item in the oeuvre (and in believing–at least in anticipation–that there’s something really worth discussing in each of them)?

One of the motivating factors for my project is this (excellent) Dan Callahan post, which (apart from his dislike for Portrait of Jennie–which the Siren addresses in the comments section), I think, articulates the consensus opinion on Jones (and Selznick). A consensus that I don’t entirely concur with, obviously.

But the primary source of inspiration is the lingering impact of my last encounter with Gone To Earth, which I love more with every neuro-trackback!

We’ll see how it turns out.

I leave you, for now, with a link to a dubiously dubbed clip from one of my favourite items in the oeuvre–Ruby Gentry (directed by King Vidor).

good afternoon friends!

Dave

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dark-picaresque

They can’t all be winners.

Michael Powell’s (screenwriter Emeric Pressburger is not co-billed in triplicate on this one) 49th Parallel certainly has its moments–unfortunately, some of them aren’t GOOD moments.

In conception, this thing is truly ingenious: a dark picaresque tale that moves the (Nazi) highwaymen to center stage, beset by all manner of complacent Canadians (most of whom come to Rick Blaine-style epiphanies through their encounters with Fascism in the flesh–a development that the filmmakers hoped to inspire in the minds of American audiences… the film was made and released prior to the events at Pearl Harbor in December 1941).

It’s beautifully shot–and definitely treats the Canadian landscape well (although, as many have complained, it doesn’t exactly convey the most nuanced portrait of the country).

fields1

Don’t get me wrong–sure I’ve lived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada almost my entire life, but I have absolutely no investment in Canadian (or any other) national identity, and I don’t judge films set in my country on their mimetic fidelity (if I did, I’d be no better than Leslie Halliwell–whose whining about Hollywood’s Britain never ceases to annoy me)

Besides, how can you stay mad at a film that begins with this earnest message?

dominionYou just can’t.

But you can’t ignore its follies either!

To me, one of the most interesting things about the film, in general, is the way it thwarts expectations by stocking its renegade U-Boat crew with recognizably British actors, none of whom affect an accent. This is a stroke of genius that reveals the German nationalist project (and ALL ethnic nationalism) for the vicious delusion that it is. You really don’t understand how insane the Nazi dream was until you hear Eric Portman haranguing an audience of Hutterites with the same voice (albeit in a higher decibel) that he will later use to describe the wonders of the Kentish countryside in A Canterbury Tale.

That’s the kind of propaganda (which makes war on the very idea of ethnic distinctions) that I can get behind.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise (as I’ve described it) is jeopardized by ONE wacko performance:

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Pourquoi, Larry?

Pourquoi?

Again–this performance (spectacle) might have been fine (well no, let’s face it, it could never have been fine–but at least it might have been a little less out of place), in a movie in which the Germans are all played by Sig Rumann (or even by Joseph Tura in his Teutonic mode). But Olivier’s courreur-de-bois just doesn’t make sense in the grand unaccented scheme that I’ve attributed to the director.

This might be your cue to remind me that Powell probably didn’t even think about this stuff in 1941 (or maybe he did–I think I’m gonna have to read his autobiography soon!)

Anyway, I suppose you can’t really blame Olivier (and you know–I actually love his equally wacko take on a Russian engineer in The Demi-Paradise, because it actually suits that film’s fish-out-of-water narrative)–someone obviously gave him a thumbs up on this “acting choice”–but I do wish they had considered this feeble masquerade’s effect upon the delicate cultural critique proffered by the rest of 49th Parallel. (in some ways, Raymond Massey’s ultra-colloquial–and actually Canadian sounding–turn at the end of the film also dilutes the critique, but not nearly to the same extent)

Still, there’s a lot to like here. The city scenes, in which the German trio (fresh from executing their wayward comrade Vogel) sell their field glasses for diner fare, are very fresh and involving. And all of the Hutterite stuff plays beautifully, I think.

Anton Walbrook contributes a dry run for his extraordinary monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:

anti-fascismus

Glynis Johns is lovable (as always) in a very early part:

glynis

And Niall MacGinnis walks off with the film’s top acting honours by somehow putting flesh on the liberal democrat’s wet dream–the fascist who listens to reason. (And who–in the most jarring moment of the drama–is later executed for baking bread)

i-say-bread-you-say-dead

On the other hand, while I’m a big fan of both Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, and can appreciate the gusto with which they munch their scenes, I can’t exactly claim that I was moved by anything in their respective sectors of the journey.

are-you-a-mann-or-a-mousemassey-for-the-masses

Does anyone else see Howard’s transformation as a dry-run for Vincent Price’s extraordinary antics in His Kind of Woman? As he marched boldly into danger, I kept saying to myself–“Mark Cardigan.”

good afternoon friends!

Dave

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fox-fence

Gone to Earth represents the confluence of three of the most important elements in my mental universe: Powell & Pressburger, Jennifer Jones, and (proto-)animal rights (linked–as in the novella I’m launching tonight!–to a critiique of patriarchy). So don’t expect anything resembling objectivity from me on this one (or at any time, really–I hate prescriptive criticism, and I don’t practice it!)

But I suppose we can start by praising something that even the film’s detractors (and they are legion) agree upon–the cinematography by Christopher Challis. I think the above image speaks for itself, no?

If not–how ’bout this one?

tree-shadow

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does a better job of conveying the frankly mystical connection that human beings have to the landscape of their chosen home (Melville called it the “all-feeling”), WITHOUT sentimentalizing it. Those woods are lovely, dark and deep–and so are the characters who inhabit the area, and the narrative.

The film may travel under the guise of a mid-Victorian melodrama, but its guts are deeply existentialist. For me, the key to reading Gone to Earth is the double-character of Hazel (JJ)/Foxy. There’s no question that Hazel’s extraordinary flight across the hunting grounds is intended to recall the scene of Eliza and her baby on the ice floes (in Uncle Tom’s Cabin)–but it’s the differences that matter.

Hazel castigates Squire (squire!) Reddin (Farrar) for “having blood on him,” but she and her surrogate child aren’t blameless either–on several occasions, we see Foxy invading the chicken coop, and Hazel herself bites into a drumstick, early in the narrative. These two are implicated in an economy of horrific violence, just like everyone else in our world. Not for a moment is the protagonist presented as “defenseless,” in classic melodramatic terms. Jennifer Jones is pretty much incapable of playing a weak human being anyway–and her oeuvre, as a whole, constitutes one of the most sweeping feminist critiques of the 20th century. In almost every one of her films, her natural authority and vivacity (Foxy’s “woof”) are warped by patriarchal discourse. Her protean spirit is NEVER broken, but is always in danger of being channeled in an unproductive direction. Often, the best the world has to offer her is an escape hatch–as here, when all of her hopes go down the drain, at the film’s startling conclusion. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that, because Hazel refused to dive into the foxhole of a prescribed gender role, she and her fox have no place to go but into a black hole in the narrative (and in the culture). That’s an extraordinarily damning statement–and one that’s pretty hard to disagree with.

And yet–it’s a beautiful world, and there are many good things in it–worth desiring. “Keep yourself to yourself”–that’s what Hazel’s mother recommended–and it sounds like good advice, but it’s not a sound philosophy. Powell and Pressburger are NOT ascetics. They treated that life option with a great deal of dignity in Black Narcissus (in the figure of the holy man–who successfully ignores the landscape–but at what cost?), but in Gone to Earth the closest analogue is Reddin’s evil-minded servant (a cousin of Wuthering Heights‘ Joseph):

fucker

Renunciation is explicitly renounced by the narrative–and I think Edward (Cyril Cusack), is absolutely correct when he takes the blame for setting the narrative’s tragic chain of events into motion by offering Hazel a marriage without sex. Yes, she calls him “her soul”–and what she really means is that she trusts him to take care of her real soul–Foxy… but, again, at what cost? Foxy’s cute little fox house (like the minister’s own cottage–complete with colonized mother), is clearly a prison of sorts. And it’s to Edward’s credit that he comes to understand his role as jailer–after a violent fit causes this knowledge to bubble up into his conscious mind…

But how about David Farrar’s stock “evil squire” Reddin?

squire-root

Well you know, I’d say if you had invested in that stock, you’d have lost all of your money by the end of the film. Reddin is, in fact, the site of the film’s most ingenious (and even subtly hopeful) subterfuge. The character’s inconsistent behaviour reminds us that patriarchy imposes roles upon MEN too. He’s a violent sleezeball, there’s no question about that–but once he and Hazel consummate their strange passion (and here I want to disagree–despite the undeniable surface similarities, introduced in order to pull us into the skewed gender paradigm of Harlequin style romance–with critics who claim that this relationship depends upon Gone With the Wind-style “women want to be raped” foundations… Jennifer Jones is not Vivian Leigh–and she is NEVER cowed/overpowered by Farrar in this film… she does respond to his clearly focused desire–I fervently believe that every human being wants to be desired–but when she finally embraces him, it’s on her own terms), he exhibits none of the qualities of his melodramatic genus–when the pair are alone

Unfortunately, for all concerned, he reverts to type when society, in the form of Edward, invades the sanctum:

mise-en-abomination

In one split second–and this atmospheric jump cut is the key to the film’s critique of the genre it ostensibly participates in–the Squire appears to remember that he is supposed to be the villain of the piece, and, as Shelley (in The Masque of Anarchy) would put it, adopts the mask of Castlereagh:

hound1

“…One by one, and two by two

He tossed them human [and Foxy] hearts to chew”

The film presents social existence as a terrible fox hunt through a lush countryside–in which our roles are preordained by economic and gender imperatives. This is perhaps most shockingly dramatized by Hazel’s refusal to give up the role of prey to the hounds, when the Squire (outfitted in the gestapo outfit of the huntsman) makes a sincere last ditch attempt to pull Foxy out of her arms, to safety… And yet, the very fact that we observe moments of ontological tenderness between these overdetermined stock characters seems to suggest that this tragedy (and the one we are currently living together) might have (and, for us, might still?) ended differently…

Yesterday night, I gave this an A/A+… but I think I’ve talked myself into the full A+!

fun

good afternoon friends!

Dave

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traffic

I’ve really been Powell and Pressburging my luck lately–revisiting some old favourites and filling in the gaps. Absolutely no disappointments so far. Quite the reverse, actually. I’m more fascinated by these guys than ever before!

Case in point–The Small Back Room (1949).

How’d I ever miss this one?

(I know how–it just wasn’t available in North America until Criterion released a beautiful DVD last year)

I just watched the film yesterday, and I already can’t imagine life without it–which is not to say that I’ve figured out where it fits in the P & P canon.

Just some impressionistic rambling then…

Byron and Farrar–astonishingly good (and about as far from their Black Narcissus characterizations as you can get):

a-woman-maybe

Apparently, the film repulsed British cinemagoers in 1949, prompting director Powell to suspect that he had done TOO GOOD a job of exposing (in extreme close up) the guts of a less-than-perfect-but-intense relationship between a man and a woman… Speaking as a once(and probably future) co-dependent individual, I have to admit that the couple’s scenes were hard to watch, but also magnificently compelling and true. And the fact that the narrative’s “happy ending” presents the triumph of the antithesis of what the self-help books would call “healthy love” can’t have helped!

have-a-drink-sammy

Oh yes–love is neurosis and shared delusions.

And when one person pulls out of the tale-spin (say, by removing her picture from the frame), the other one is often doomed to self-scrutiny…

man-in-the-mirror1

Which usually isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Thank goodness the bombs are still ticking! (they help to drown out the clocks…)

One of the most amazing things about the movie (which I certainly consider a film noir, even if many wouldn’t) is the way it brings the essentially pre-adult aspects of Hawksian “professionalism” into sharp focus (yes, we’re venturing into Leslie Fiedler territory here).

The contrast between the beautifully noir compositions of the scenes from Sammy and Susan’s private life (in their flat, at the local pub, at the Hickory Club, inside Sammy’s brain), and the brilliantly even lighting of the (physically) dangerous scenes on location is hard to miss. Only the thrill of doing his job keeps Sammy off the sulk (and the ever-present threat of the bottle). People (especially Susan) are forever speculating about this guy’s psychological age (with the numbers ranging from six to ten)–but is it really “grown up” to run off and play in the sunshine (even if the game involves the possibility of dying)? I’m not saying that it isn’t important to do a thing well–especially when what you do can help to save lives–but I don’t think it’s MORE important (as in Hawks) than figuring out where you stand with the people who are closest to you (as Byron/Susan asks: “Why am I the only person you can get tough [I think she means petulant] with?” … that’s not a question that would come up in a Hawks film–Susan’s job in the HH universe would be to learn to appreciate the superior importance of his calling)

From the little I’ve read about the film, people seem to be quite annoyed with the expressionistic presentation of Sammy’s struggle with the bottle and the clocks.

teutonic

It seems “heavy-handed”? Of course it does–it’s the phantasmagoria of a self-pitying brat. I find it extraordinarily appropriate. The next time I watch Only Angels Have Wings, I’ll keep this waking nightmare sequence in mind. It might help me to understand the behaviour of the characters in that movie–although not, of course, in the way the director would like us to.

And then again–some of Sammy’s “childishness” really bears interesting fruit. Most notably his comment, when refusing to get up and participate in the main social activity promoted by the Hickory Club, that: “Men and women are all the same when they dance.” On the one hand, it’s a Ramones-style “I don’t want to grow up” moment–but it’s also a remarkably pithy summary of the fear that neuro-biology is painting us into a corner (of life’s dance-floor)… Perhaps there’s no difference between the sides of the coin that I’m attempting to mint here–but my own (almost certainly neurotic) sense of Sammy’s meaning here is that he’s grasping for a romantic relationship that is absolutely shorn of all cultural prescriptions.

Of course–in that end–they fail miserably.

However, at least they get to live with this awesome cat.

snowball1

Oh–before I hit “publish”–I feel compelled to mention one of the greatest soliloquy set-pieces in P & P’s oeuvre… In the tradition of Anton Walbrook’s narrative of his journey from Nazi Germany to his beloved (and now deceased) wife’s homeland, Renee Asherson tore my heart out with her short-hand notes from an experiment gone awry.

renee-didnt-walk-away

I love that woman (although I must admit, when she first appeared on the screen, I thought she was Glynis Johns–whom I also love…)

Good afternoon friends!

Dave

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Fifty…okay, fifty-two

I like the way Wendymoon presented her interesting top 50 at Movie Viewing Girl (divided up into idiosyncratic categories), and I’m going to steal her format here! It’s a wonderful way to declare your judgments and your biases (and man have I got biases!) at the same time!

Disclaimer: if questioned on this matter tomorrow, I might very well come up with a completely different set of films. I’m etching these babies in cyberspace, not in stone.

But now–to the 50 (that’s 52 in Canadian)

Frank Capra:

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

The Miracle Woman

It’s A Wonderful Life


David Lynch:

Mulholland Dr.

Inland Empire

Lost Highway


William Dieterle:

Portrait of Jennie

Love Letters

The Devil and Daniel Webster


Frank Borzage:

Little Man, What Now?

Moonrise

Strange Cargo


Powell & Pressburger:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Red Shoes

Black Narcissus


Douglas Sirk:

All That Heaven Allows

Imitation of Life

Written on the Wind


Early Hepburn:

Alice Adams

Stage Door

Holiday


Preston Sturges:

Christmas in July

Sullivan’s Travels


Martin Scorsese:

After Hours

New York, New York


Val Lewton Productions:

The Seventh Victim

The Curse of the Cat People


Alfred Hitchcock:

Vertigo

Shadow of a Doubt


Nicholas Ray:

They Live By Night

Party Girl


Noir All-sorts

Murder, My Sweet

Out of the Past


Vincente Minnelli:

Meet Me in St. Louis

Some Came Running


Warner Brothers:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

Three on a Match


King Vidor:

The Wedding Night

Ruby Gentry


Luis Buñuel:

Abismos de Pasion


Fritz Lang:

Scarlet Street


Marcel Carne:

Le jour se leve


Jean Arthur:

Easy Living


Carl Theodore Dreyer:

Gertrud


Ingmar Bergman:

Persona


Leos Carax:

Pola X


Relatively Recent Releases:

Joe Vs the Volcano

Groundhog Day

Punch-Drunk Love

Lost in Translation

Bamboozled

Starship Troopers






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