Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pictures of You

I've been looking so long 
at these pictures of you
That I almost believe 
that they're real 

I've been living so long 
with my pictures of you
That I almost believe 
that the pictures are all I can feel

- Robert Smith

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Seduced and Abandoned (1964) - Directed by Pietro Germi

I must admit I’m not quite as familiar with Italian comedies as I'd like to be. If there are others as good as Seduced and Abandoned then you can consider me a fan, though. Pietro Germi’s film from 1964 is a whirling dervish of hilarious farce and satirical absurdities. And it’s all devilishly funny in a way that could only be funny coming from Italy. Somehow this film strikes me as uniquely Italian, playing on familial pride, Catholicism, and the workings and churnings of tradition. All of the comedy plays extremely effectively in the Italian language because the physicality is front and center. There’s not much subtlety here and this film is all the better for it. 

This film starts with a quick and sudden seduction of a 16 year-old girl named Agnese (Stefania Sandrelli) by her sister’s fiancĂ© named Peppino (Aldo Puglisi). After a large meal, everyone is konked out except for Peppino and Agnese. He grabs her and takes her into a back room where unseen things take place. She is quickly thrown into a tizzy by these proceedings and her suspicious behavior is picked up by her mother….who in a fit of fearful anticipation….ahem….takes an examination of her daughter and determines, yes she has not only lost her virginity, but is also pregnant. Of course her father Don Vincenzo Ascalone (a fantastic Saro Urzi whose performance is pure brilliance) soon becomes a raging lunatic: banishing her to the basement (where she is forced to beg to use the bathroom), pursuing and threatening the sexual predator and trying to force him into marrying the girl, concocting a scam in which his other daughter can get a replacement fiancĂ©, and generally trying to maintain some sense of rule and order within his clan.

This film is one of the best comedies that I’ve seen in sometime and it came out of nowhere for me. I had literally no expectations when sitting down to watch as I'd never heard of it. Much of the comedy comes at the satirical expense of Catholic traditions, and familial honor. The father’s sweaty, exasperated attempts to keep his daughter from ridicule and to allow the family name to have some semblance of respect is really the meat of the film. I’m sure that today, this film wouldn’t quite work in the modern's too morally antiquated for that. But seen as a nostalgic look back at a simpler time, it is really funny. Germi even includes plenty of surreal dreamlike sequences, adding a bit of the "Bunuel" to the proceedings. However the aim here is far more lowbrow and common than Bunuel. Germi is aiming at the gut.

Aiochi Parolin’s magnificent and crisp b&w cinematography adds an artistic bent, but not so much that it makes the film inaccessible. The visuals always seems at the behest of the comedy, not from any sort of artistic pretension. The use of the fish-eye camera at times adds to the circus-like proceedings. Germi, though, is careful never to dig the knife in too deeply. You can sense the affection for Italians here and he’s never particularly mean. These events are shown in a light in which the conniving and the ridiculing never quite overcome the power of the family and one comes away with an admiration for the zeal and care for which the father breaks his back for his family. His love is real and the family is the heart of the matter. What a joyful and funny film this is.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Overlord (1975) - Directed by Stuart Cooper

Stuart Cooper’s poignant and devastating anti-war film is a unique blend of surreal poetry and documentary-like realism. It is both a stark portrait of an individual obsessed with premonitions of his own death and also a gathering of the collective consciousness of war. Thus it feels like both a big picture and a very intimate one. Brought to distinctive life by director of photography John Alcott, this is one of the most stunning and visually effective war films I've ever seen. Alcott of course was cinematographer of choice for three Stanley Kubrick films. Overlord in fact recalls Kubrick’s penchant for dream-like setpieces, which of course this film is loaded with. There are non-linear and subconscious visuals interspersed throughout, becoming the central emotive device. Not to mention, there is the fusing of the narrative with actual aerial and battle footage from WWII, creating a swooning, impassioned lament for those who died in the war. 

Cooper’s film regards a young private entering basic training. We follow him from the time he leaves home, to boot camp, to special training site, to D-Day. In the hands of Cooper, Alcott, and editor Jonathan Gili, the plot is rife with moving and piercing images. Central to the film’s effectiveness is the running motif of the young private dreaming/imagining his own death. This occurs repeatedly throughout the film and although often in soft focus, these moments become glaringly clear as a foreshadowing. Several sequences near the beginning of the film actually presage Kubrick’s own Full Metal Jacket, a film that I think might be among Kubrick’s weakest. However, Cooper’s interpretation of the boot camp experience is less the opportunity for insanity to creep in (a la Kubrick), but more to allow the dread, foreboading, and certainty of death to overtake the individual. In fact the dehumanizing aspects of the war machine is better examined in Overlord than in any other film I can think of. 

This is far from an actor’s movie and in terms of character development, is almost nonexistent. We move from moment to moment through the camera lens and the blending of the documentary footage with the dramatic footage. The film is less about tangible moments and more about a feeling. If the effect Cooper was looking for was a deep melancholy and sadness, he certainly succeeded. But also one of the questions that comes up to me in films like this is should the visuals be allowed to be so beautiful in a film of such darkness and sadness? Does the beauty of the image denigrate the subject matter of the film? For me here the answer is no. I think the arresting quality of the visuals creates a deep sensory connection, pulling us into the film’s midst without the need for an emotional connection to the characters. The images are used here to replace traditional narrative and connection to individuals.

If all of this sounds rather highbrow and inaccessible, it’s not meant to appear that way. I don’t think it requires a great deal of dissection to understand this film. It is meant to be experienced from a sensory standpoint, both visually and audibly. Although originally designed to be a documentary, Cooper and Alcott seamlessly incorporated tons of actual battle footage with the narrative footage, often switching very quickly between the two without missing a beat. Their feats here create one of the greatest war films ever made. This is a unique film, containing deep meditations on the mechanics and machinations of war and also on death itself. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thieves' Highway (1949) - Directed by Jules Dassin

A few times a year I feel like I watch a film in which I have no idea where it’s going. Perhaps it’s the brilliant script, or maybe it’s the actors present in this film, but there is something very fresh and vital about this work. Thieves’ Highway comes in between Dassin’s other brilliant film noir works, Brute Force (1947) and Night and the City (1950). Like the others, it has an incredibly visceral quality. Dassin’s best work always seems to exert a sense of high stakes for those involved. There is also a deep fatalism and an emphasis on grittiness, sweaty palms, and heart pounding set pieces, rather than the brooding chiaroscuro and stylization of other noir directors like Tourneur, or Welles. Over the last couple years I’ve seen several Dassin films for the first time. I am more impressed with each film I view.

Part of the joy for me of watching this film was not quite knowing what was going to happen next. I really don’t want to get into too many details of the plot because in case you haven't seen it I don't want to spoil it. A short synopsis is that Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) is a war veteran who has come home from some world travels of his to see his girlfriend and family. He finds out his father (a truck driver) has been crippled and robbed of cash owed to him by a fruit vendor in San Francisco named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick postpones his engagement with his sweetheart to avenge his father’s injuries and determines to get even with Figlia. Throughout the film, there are twists and turns that border on the melodramatic, but there is always a streak of violence or sensuality around the corner that keeps the film grounded.

One of the central components in the film is the relationship that Nick starts up with a prostitute named Rica (Valentina Cortese). Her attitude is completely in contrast to the stuffy, proper appearance and attitude of Nick’s sweetheart Polly. When Rica asks Nick up to her room, we understand that she has ulterior motives. What is so striking and shocking is how suddenly their sexual chemistry kicks into gear and we sense that she is more interested in Nick than just for the money. It’s palpable onscreen and comes to full bloom during a moment after Nick takes off his shirt. She and he play a teasing game of tic-tac-toe with their fingers on his chest, she using her finger nails to scratch him and wipe the game away when she loses, only to kiss him passionately in the moments that follow. It's a perfectly acted scene. Another key relationship in the film is between Nick and the manipulative fruit vendor played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb as Figlia, using his typical bravado and vocal projection, exerts an intimidation that Richard Conte is willing to stand up to, brushing off Figlia’s wheelings and dealings with equal panache.

With a script from A. I. Bezzerides, from his novel 'Thieves’ Market", the film crackles and pops with great dialogue and one-liners and has a sense of epic importance. Even though the problems of fruit vendors seems small on paper, the film has a way of making the stakes seem incredibly high. Dassin chose to shoot many sections of the film on-site in the markets of San Francisco, giving the film a pulsing authenticity. There is a buzz to those scenes in the markets that just cannot be duplicated on a set. Although I’m sure many would not consider this film to be in the same league as Night and the City, nor Rififi (1955), I am of the inclination to believe that this film deserves recognition as one of Dassin's best and also one of the great film noirs of its era. Although it may not completely conjure film noir in all its aspects, there’s enough dark pessimism here to qualify on that basis alone. This is a tough film that doesn’t shy away from violence or sex and remains a thorough, fun surprise throughout its magnificent running time. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Lonesome (1928) - Directed by Paul Fejos

Wow is this film ever cute. I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s unabashedly sentimental and romantic, yet the earnestness of the filmmaking propels it onward and upward. It’s also one of cinema’s great romance films, a genre that appeals to me and one I’ve written about on several occasions thus far. Romance films can be accused of being too manipulative, sentimental, and slight. True they can be. However when done right, there is usually an intelligence and a keen perception of our humanity on display. I think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or even Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The two stars of Lonesome, Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon, don’t have nearly the same cachet as other classic on-screen pairings, but they sure give it the old college try in this lively and charming, late silent film masterpiece.

Lonesome is the story of Mary (Barbara Kent) and Jim (Glenn Tryon), two lonely single people living in NYC. She is a telephone operator and he a factory worker. They both separately have the afternoon off in preparation for the 4th of July weekend. They each decide to head to the beach and Coney Island. They each board the same shuttle car which will take them to the beach. He sees her on the car and takes a liking to her. Once off the car he pursues her. She retreats and they play a game of flirting for awhile. Then they meet each other at the beach and sparks begin to fly. They spend the entire day together, talking, laughing, and enjoying the amusements of Coney Island. That is until they are separated late in the evening and frantically search for each other, both of them realizing that they don’t know each other’s full names and that they may have lost each other for ever.

Paul Fejos is a largely forgotten director that got his start in the silent era. Although he was largely known as a director of documentaries and ethnographies, his work in Lonesome is fantastic in every way. Made in the same year as The Man With a Movie Camera (1928), the beginning of Lonesome parallels the great Vertov work, using a montage sequence of the city awakening at dawn. Fejos, as noted in an essay in the liner notes for the new Criterion DVD, has clear influences from the Russian montage and German expressionist movement. Being Hungarian born, Fejos brings a European cinematic flair to this Hollywood film, breathing tons of life into what is largely an oft-told tale. He uses tracking shots and roving camera work, superimposed images, sequences of color and even a few talking scenes within this largely silent film. There's even a great soundtrack incorporating lots of crowd noise and sound effects which blends nicely. This is a "kitchen-sink" kind of approach, but the film never devolves into distraction or abstract grandiosity. It remains grounded by its focus on the human element, always maintaining its sincerity.

What struck me about the few talking scenes that occur between Mary and Jim (which were added to take advantage of the new found appeal of sound) is something that I had never thought of before: the delineation between silent and sound cinema. When watching silent cinema, it’s very easy to allow oneself to view the proceedings and actors with a sort of distance. Because we can’t hear them speak, they somehow seem less real; they seem otherworldly and to sometimes appear to reach a sort of inhuman perfection. As an example, don't we approach the silent films of Garbo, Brooks, and Gish with a reverence? Can those actresses do any wrong in the silent medium? When I saw the first sequence in Lonesome where Mary and Jim talk with each other on the beach (with sound), they suddenly seemed very childlike and embarrassing compared to their "silent selves", perhaps even silly and sappy. They seemed flawed and human once I heard their voices. It was an interesting way for me to think about silence versus sound in cinema, as this film allows one to essentially see both types in the same film. All of this is superfluous though to how wonderful this film is. There is boundless charm and energy here. It is funny and romantic. It is sincerely acted by the two leads and directed by Fejos with great bravado. What a lovely discovery is Lonesome