Thursday, July 28, 2011

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Directed by Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s melodramas are elegant and precise films that appeal directly to the audience’s emotions, featuring wildly entertaining stories that contain improbable circumstances that have you wondering whether you should smirk and laugh at the events taking place. But….and this is the genius of it…. in that split instance before you laugh, you realize you are already invested in this story. You also realize you like, even love the characters you are watching and you are wrapped up cozily in a Technicolor dream world, one in which you really don’t want to leave. So instead of laughing at the moment, you become filled with childlike innocence and you grab your blankie, curl yourself up and become even more absorbed. You are totally entranced and you can’t help it. You completely submit to the charm and you worship at the alter of melodrama and Douglas Sirk, embracing the wild swings in plot and emotion and are begging for more, more, more.

Okay so maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not by much. I don’t know if any director leaped so headlong into true and classic melodrama as Douglas Sirk, embracing it both as glorious entertainment and artistic expression. He is truly the Godfather of Melodrama and all those after him who utilized it - Fuller, Fassbinder, Almodovar – owed him gratitude and in many cases, made direct homage to his work. Magnificent Obsession is Douglas Sirk’s first great foray into melodrama. He would follow it with more artistically and thematically ambitious films, like All That Heaven Allows (1955), but I think this one ranks up there among the best of his work, if for nothing other than the script itself. It's easily the wildest plot that Sirk ever filmed. I don’t even want to go into the plot much because part of the real fun of the film is not knowing what will happen next. To set up the story, playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) wrecks his boat and needs to be resuscitated with the only resuscitator machine in town. It so happens that Dr. Phillips, who is loaning the equipment, has a heart attack the same day, and dies, probably because the resuscitator was not available. Enter Helen (Jane Wyman), Dr. Philips’ widow, who crosses paths with Bob Merrick and they soon become linked together, as Bob tries to somehow repay her for the grief he has seemingly caused.

Rock Hudson’s character Bob Merrick is fascinating in that we’re never sure exactly why he feels so compelled to repay Helen and make things up to her, and ultimately lots of other people as well. Is it for love? He seems to be able to get whatever girl he wants with the money he has and those looks, so that wouldn’t seem to be a problem for him. Is it to clear a guilty conscience? This option is quite likely although we’re never really convinced that he’s ever felt guilty about anything in his whole life. He meets up with an Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), an artist, who becomes a sort of angel-like mentor to him, dispensing advice, caring for him after a night of drinking. This old guy convinces him that doing good and repaying others, without asking for anything in return, creates a Karma of sorts that can be addicting. It seems it’s more this latter option, that Merrick embarks down a path of doing good and cannot stop, that makes the most sense. He seems like the obsessive type, and this giving to others becomes his new impulsive obsession, and we see this type of impulsiveness play itself out in the film at other times as well. Hudson's counterpart, Jane Wyman, was never the most beautiful of actresses. She is good at playing the wholesome, honest, average woman type. Here this comes to great fruition in that we believe her and the actions that she takes in the film because she’s not too glamorous, giving her credibility in this convincing role, necessary for a melodrama of this stature. We have to believe her because the film rides on her ability to convey and project an inner calm and goodness. It should also be mentioned that Barbara Rush gives an incredible performance as Joyce, Helen's stepdaughter. She's as emotional and as fiery as it gets and provides a good contrast to Wyman's stoic poise.

Sirk’s melodramas never feel like reality to me. I think that’s why they succeed so much. There’s no hiding the fact that the stories take place in their own movie world, devoid of apparent realism for the most part, despite the fact that they highlight prejudices and repression in some of his films. The glossiness of the films only superficially covers over the underlying themes. But beneath the gloss you can see truth. This camouflage allows Sirk the ability to not hold back. You can’t go half way with a melodrama, otherwise it comes across as contrived. When you sell it 100% and don’t pretend you’re trying to be something else, it really works. Taken as a whole, Magnificent Obsession requires some leaps of faith, but the leaps come in several smaller increments so that by the time you would question the reality of what you’re seeing, you’re already so invested and love the film.  As I mentioned, Sirk would become more ambitious in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) regarding themes. But, Magnificent Obsession is a glorious entertainment in its own right and a worthy introduction to Sirk’s films.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Judy Garland - Suddenly You're Older (An Article by Dan Callahan)

Dan Callahan of posted this great article on Judy Garland, covering her career, her acting style and her vocal talent. I loved the article so much that I had to post it as a link here and I direct anyone who is interested in Judy to read it and even if you're only interested in cinema I think it still has some fascinating elements regarding her work with Minnelli and Cukor. Dan's honesty and in-depth analysis of her singing are brilliant stuff. There's also a ton of great YouTube videos embedded that kept me busy for an hour. I especially love the duet Judy had with Barbra Streisand. It's a fun one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - Directed by Alain Resnais

I’ve never been comfortable with any associations that were made between Alain Resnais and The French New Wave movement. Although his most popular films came out at the same time as Godard and Truffaut were taking off with Breathless (1960) and The 400 Blows (1959) respectively, the connection had to have been based on his being French and making innovative films. Other than that, his films share little in common with the movement. Night and Fog (1955) was Resnais’ coming out party, a painfully moving documentary on the Holocaust, filmed at Auschwitz, it was a haunting piece on the lingering aftershocks that such a horror can leave. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) was a beautiful love story between a Japanese man and a French woman who seem to be connected cosmically through both personally tragic moments, and larger scale horrors, like the bomb on Hiroshima. Somehow Resnais was able to make the connection between past and present in both of those films in ways that are original. I’ve always felt Resnais had more of a kinship in a way with Jean Cocteau, the surrealist director of Blood of a Poet (1930) and Beauty and the Beast (1946). The way Cocteau played with mirrors and time and space are reflective of what Resnais does with his masterwork, Last Year at Marienbad.

Though not as tragic or humanely compelling as his previously mentioned works, Marienbad is one of cinema’s great enigmatic puzzles. It’s a rule-breaking kind of film that was structurally innovative then and in its own way, still compels, exasperates, and inspires deep reflection of what film can be. Resnais’s film opens with a cryptic repeated voiceover as we’re introduced to a grand and stately hotel through tracking shots down the halls, replete with visions of the gilded and artful ceilings. There is almost no one seemingly occupying the place. After several minutes of this, we see people. We have no idea who they are or what their purpose is but they are watching a play of sorts. It's the presence of a noticeably artificial stage play presented to the audience that should be a clue to us as we watch Last Year at Marienbad. What we are about to see cannot be trusted. 

We’re introduced to a woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a man “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), and another man “M” (Sacha Pitoeff). We witness scene after scene of questions that X asks to A, exchanges of cryptic dialogue, moments between them that may have happened last year or may have not, remembered as if they just occurred a moment before, or didn’t at all. Then of course, M comes into the picture and throws the whole thing for a loop, creating a love triangle perhaps. Resnais directly plays with our consciousness of time in that he cuts directly from one moment that may have been to another moment that either may be, or may have been as well. There’s little delineation between what happened, what is happening, or what might have happened. It appears that M is married to A and their interaction reflects a jealous husband suspecting a cheating wife. My question is whether A knows X at all from any previous interaction. Sometimes it appears like they are remembering their happenings from one year ago, and at other times we think they’re meeting for the first time.

Of course the whole thing could also be interpreted as a grand ghost story. More than once, there are indications that one or two of the characters might be dead and that we are witnessing their ghostly interactions. Although there are numerous other people filling the old hotel, they feel distant from the action as if they are wandering aimlessly, filling up the scenery but not really there. Adding to the haunted house quality would be the weird/ghoulish organ music composed by Francis Seyrig, played nearly constantly over the soundtrack. Resnais’s film holds a kinship with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), where the reality of what we see cannot be trusted. Also several more recent films play with reality in its many forms like this: Shutter Island (2010), Inception (2010), and several of David Lynch’s films like Mulholland Drive (2001). Last Year at Marienbad still feels innovative and unique though because of its never ending ability to puzzle us and unlike the films I mentioned, it doesn't really tip its hand, as far as I can tell, leaving the viewer to bask gloriously in the mystery even after the film is over. It's a cold and distant film emotionally, but its artful and carefully composed shots, the smooth pans of the camera through the glorious hotel, the labyrinthine structure, and the haunting ambiguity are a testament to Resnais’s unique vision, making it an art-house classic that continues to beguile us.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Barry Lyndon (1975) - Directed by Stanley Kubrick

While watching Barry Lyndon, I was torn between disliking the protagonist and sympathizing with him. I was rooting against him in one scene, wishing for his demise and then quickly wishing for him to succeed in another. Stanley Kubrick’s film is many things, but it is surely a masterpiece of the highest level. Kubrick challenges us with our feelings for Mr. Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in that he is a lout, but also deserving of pity. That he is divisive is what makes the film so propulsive. It’s a maddening, gorgeous epic that stands with the other great works Stanley Kubrick made and is one of his two or three best films in my opinion, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I’m only a recent convert to this one though. I’ll admit that when I first saw the film 10 years ago, it did not grab me. This time, however, it grabbed me by the throat and did not let go and had me thinking about it for days.

Kubrick wrote his screenplay based upon William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. On the whole, the film is divided into two parts. In the first, titled “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon”, we are introduced to Redmond Barry, played by Ryan O’Neal, in 1750’s Ireland. We see his first exploits at love, his challenge to a fellow suitor, and his enrollment in the army, including his involvement in the Seven Years War. Through some fortuitous events, he comes under the mentorship of Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), whereupon he meets, courts, and weds the beautiful Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Ryan O’Neal, for me, is a fascinating choice to play Redmond Barry, and probably a very calculated one by Kubrick. O’Neal’s screen presence here, to me, is somewhat inarticulate and bland. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, it’s that he doesn’t seem to fit. His accent (for playing an Irishman) is weak at best. He usually has the same blank expression and seems to be acting scene to scene with uneven results. What’s fascinating is that all of this works toward the film’s end goal. Redmond Barry is basically a fortuitous doofus. He has no money of own so he cheats, lies and schemes his way through life, and through mostly luck ends up in a place of seeming prosperity. O’Neal actually portrays and enhances these characteristics through his acting or lack thereof. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a lead protagonist, one in which I can think of few that compare to it. There are a few moments in the first half of the film that are comical, featuring Kubrick’s dark and playful sense of humor. In the funniest scene in the film, Redmond Barry dresses up as Chevalier de Balibari, unannounced to us the audience. It’s funny because the scene is so dryly filmed, yet is hilarious due to O’Neal’s get-up.

In the second half of the film, the tone turns darker though, as the title card reads, “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon”.  Here Barry Lyndon gets his comeuppance, something that I was waiting for with anticipation and I generally felt like he was getting what he deserved. And yet, I found that I had some pains of sympathy for him, as the marriage crumbles, fortunes are erased, and family accidents occur. I wasn’t expecting to feel as much as I did for him, but the film becomes so sad and melancholy that it’s hard not to feel pity. It’s not only a sympathy for him, but it’s a sympathy for the entire family as he brings down their name and fortune with such tragic consequences. I don’t know if there’s another Kubrick film that involves the viewer as emotionally as Barry Lyndon. Paths of Glory (1957) has moments that are very humanistic, but there is a definite detachment of feeling in Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange (1971). I think overall the themes in Barry Lyndon of being a pawn in life, that no matter how hard you try to control your destiny, there is a larger hand at work is similar to his other films, but there is the human edge and tragedy to it here that are more emphasized.

Visually, Barry Lyndon is one of the most beautiful films ever shot. I would probably put it in the top 5 best photographed color films of all time. Also on my list would be Black Narcissus (1947, Powell and Pressburger), The Red Shoes (1948, Powell and Pressburger), Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick), and The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski). John Alcott, cinematographer here as well as on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining (1980) does a masterful job at framing exterior shots and lighting interior shots using candles alone in many scenes. Apparently at the time, Alcott and Kubrick utilized some unique cameras to capture these low-lit scenes. They really stand out and are a beautiful addition to the film. Many scenes are reminiscent of paintings and the period detail is in a word, exquisite. I noticed that there are numerous moments at the beginning of a scene where the camera will be pulled in close and then slowly pull back showing you the wider angle of the scene, simultaneously giving you the impression of grasping the full details of the frame while giving one the feeling that the entire frame is slipping away. Kubrick utilized this in other films as well, like A Clockwork Orange. There’s also a short reverse tracking shot during a war scene inside a bombed-out building that recalls Kubrick’s long, iconic reverse tracking shot in Paths of Glory. Kubrick was a master director, making brilliant films in numerous genres that are equally compelling: war, film noir, sci-fi, period piece, thriller etc. It’s remarkable that through all of them, the common threads of technique, attention to detail, and motifs are shared, creating a cohesive canon of films that vie with any other director worthy of being called the greatest. Barry Lyndon is one of his crowning achievements.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bigger Than Life (1956) - Directed by Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray's towering masterpiece Bigger Than Life is a story about a man pushed to the brink and is an affront to the image of the perfect 1950's family unit that most films and television shows portrayed during that time period. Ray was always telling unique stories about unique individuals. In a Lonely Place (1950) was a film noir that looked at hidden secrets and a doomed affair between a hack writer and his sexy neighbor in an apartment complex. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) highlighted youth culture and rebellion, making James Dean into an icon. Even his brilliant Western, Johnny Guitar (1954) is atypical of the Westerns of the day, featuring campy innuendo and lurid performances. In Bigger Than Life, James Mason stars as Ed Avery, school teacher and family man. His family includes his wife Lou (Barbara Rush), who is cheerful and caring, always looking her best, and his son Richie (Christopher Olsen). After a dinner party that goes badly, Ed is taken to the hospital after a fainting spell, where he is diagnosed with a life threatening disease. He is told though, that Cortisone can be his cure, and so he begins regular doses. We quickly realize that Ed begins to have behavioral problems. He's unable to relate to his family the way he used to and begins to display erratic behavior. He also begins to take the pills more often and buys them in larger doses. The rest of the film is a wild ride following his addiction and family decline. This is a story that did not play well with audiences in 1956 and was considered a flop. Only after the Cahiers du Cinema writers (Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette etc.) began to hail Ray's and the film's praises did it start to gain acclaim.

I can think of no other film that exposes the facade of perfect 1950's suburban life as well as this one. One aspect that gives the film a creepy sterility and artful paranoia is the space created by the screen. CinemaScope, the lens created by 20th Century Fox in the early 1950's, created a massive widescreen. Scope ratios for these new widescreen formats at the time went up to 2.66:1. Bigger Than Life was a huge 2.55:1. As a comparison, widescreen ratios used today are usually no bigger than 2.35:1. With this expansive wide framing, Ray gives us deep shots within the Avery home, creating distance from husband to wife to son, emphasizing the chasm and disconnect that Ed creates for himself. We also sense the bigness of the home, with all the furniture laid out perfectly, every aspect of the home attended to. Their home feels devoid of genuine warmth and instead feels like they are people trapped within a geometric nightmare disguised as a home. This house becomes an ominous, manicured madhouse, filled with dysfunction as Ed's addiction escalates. It's a beautiful film and one filled with gorgeous images even though most of the film takes place indoors. Color is emphasized with mostly gray used to parallel the state of the family dynamic, occasionally punctuated by bright colors which highlight the clashes between the father, mother and son.

James Mason probably gives the performance of his career as Ed. This film was a labor of love for him as he co-wrote (un-billed) the script and produced the film as well. He is convincing as a straight-laced family man of the 1950's, but also an addict swinging out of control while trying to maintain a facade that appears normal. At times, I think the film stretches his character pretty far, but the extreme emotional swings make sense and are used effectively to highlight the hypocrisy of a suburbia where everything must be maintained in order to appear normal. Barbara Rush as his wife Lou also comes out well in this film, convincing as a wife trying to do the right thing and sweeping the issues under the rug as best she can. In fact she's the strongest figure in the film and is an interesting contrast to Mason's portrayal of father/husband who is basically lost. Rebel Without a Cause also features a pathetic father figure where Jim Backus is the helpless, doting father to James Dean's character Jim. Backus' portrayal along with Mason's both suggest a disconnect between the needs of the family and what the fathers can provide. Barbara Rush is almost more of the "father figure" in Bigger Than Life, as she's the strong one who carries the family through, holding it up under impossible circumstances. My favorite scene in the film comes during a confrontation that Ed and Lou have at the dinner table right in front of their son, starting out arguing about milk and ending with hateful proclamations as Ed's addiction and psychosis take it's toll. It's one of those staggering moments where you realize the film is going deeper than you expected.

Nicholas Ray was one of the most challenging directors working in Hollywood during the 1950's, making a string of films that have a unique voice, vision and a striking sense of truth in the moment. During the last 15 minutes of the film, there is a massive roller-coaster ride of emotion and action, capped at the end by a tagged-on ending that actually doesn't feel right. One gets the sense though that the studio had a hand in the conclusion. Bigger Than Life might be Ray's best film, where performances, direction and script all come together to make it unforgettable, shocking, and surprisingly relevant today, as it presages what would become the normal revisionist outlook on family life in the 1950's and which would continue into future decades of film where dysfunctional families became the norm.