Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interiors (1978) - Directed by Woody Allen

Looking back on it, Interiors is one of the most drastic 180 degree turns that any cinematic director has taken. Coming on the heels of his Oscar-winning romantic comedy, Annie Hall, and prior to that, several really funny flat-out laugh fests like Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death etc., he turned to a film which was entirely dramatic and in fact a Bergmanesque homage, deliberately recalling the Swedish Master in both form and content. Yet Interiors was not just an homage. It was a coming-out party of sorts for Allen. It was a film that would allow him to explore other darker dimensions of the human existence, the likes of which he would return to again in everything from Manhattan, to Hannah and Her Sisters, Another Woman, September, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even Match Point. It’s not just Allen’s best dramatic film though, it stands as one of his best films period.

Interiors concerns an extended family. Geraldine Page stars as Eve, who had three daughters….Renata (Diane Keaton), Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), and Flyn (Kristen Griffith) and is an interior designer. Her marriage to Arthur (E.G. Marshall) started falling apart after she had a nervous breakdown and other psychological problems. References in the film to Eve’s ice-cold demeanor and calculated intentions throughout her daughters’ upbringing have left the 3 daughters floundering in their adulthood and in their relationships. When Arthur announces he’s splitting from Eve to “take a break”, it leaves Eve on the brink of suicidal despair, even though she hopes they will get back together again. After Arthur returns from a trip from Greece along with a woman named Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) with intentions to marry her, it sets the family on end.

Allen’s film examines all sorts of relationships here: husband to wife, father to daughter, mother to daughter, and sister to sister. It is remarkable how deeply the film examines the human condition in its most paralyzed, impotent state. So many of these characters are lifeless and cold, fearful it seems of even being able to get through the day. Even the set design and costume design, reliant on grays and tans, is drab and lifeless. Allen’s consistent fascination with death throughout his career is something he had in common with Ingmar Bergman, and it’s no wonder that Allen would make a film like this at some point. Allen also wants us to recall Bergman in those tremendous scenes near the end of the film at the beach house which recall Bergman on the island of Faro in so many films. But it feels like a springing-off point for Allen, not just an exercise, using his quick wit to inflict insults and verbal injury here in Interiors, where in Annie Hall those efforts were used to inspire laughter.

Allen’s sense of pacing is terrific, building to a climactic wedding party and fateful night at the beachhouse in winter, complete with gray, crashing waves. Pearl’s attempt to rescue a nearly drowned Joey, whilst wearing a bright red, waving nightgown allows for a striking use of thematic color. In fact more than once Pearl appears in the film is bright red, which is just about the only time the color shows up at ALL in the film. This use of red highlights her passionate and fun existence, exemplified by her discussions on rare steak, card tricks, and her carefree dancing, which are in complete opposition to the mother figure as portrayed by Eve, who is cold, anxious, fearful, regretful, bitter, and suicidal. This display of the human condition, the great acting turns from Page, Hurt, and Stapleton, and Allen’s rightful choice of utilizing Gordon Willis to create some spectacular cinematographic compositions make this one of Allen’s truly memorable films, and places right near the top of his canon. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bitter Rice (1949) - Directed by Giuseppe De Santis

When all Criterion films on HULU became free for streaming over President’s Day Weekend last month, I happened to find out if only a bit too late to take full advantage of it. I didn’t learn until Saturday evening, so it became a mad scramble to determine which films I hadn’t seen, and which of those were also NOT available via DVD. So once doing that, I settled on a few films, some of which turned out to be neorealist films from Italy, a movement in film that I really like. One such film I saw, was Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro), by Giuseppe De Santis. Not only was I completely surprised by the film, but I was wholly entertained by its near-lurid amounts of exploitation and camp, film noir, and of course that humanist quality found so often in neorealism. It is the odd blending of these elements that makes the film stand out and is really not like anything I’ve ever seen before.

Bitter Rice sets up a scenario whereby a thief named Francesca (Doris Dowling) ends up running from the law and boarding a train full of women who are being shipped up to the Po Valley in Italy to plant and harvest rice. She meets Silvana (a hyper sexed-up Silvana Mangano), a rice worker who takes Francesca under her wing. When Francesca learns she has to have a work permit to be able to work the rice fields, she is initially discouraged, but begins to work anyway, and along with several other women, begins to work harder than all the “legal” workers. Now this social aspect of the film, considering legal versus illegal workers and the moral implications of the situation would be a more typical scenario for a neorealist film. Yet it’s such a small component of the film in fact, as it quickly devolves into something else entirely.

About 1/3 of the way through the film, things seem to change and Bitter Rice veers away from a more conservative Italian approach to a more lurid Westernized romp. In fact, a surprising amount of shenanigans take place, from “cat-fights” (including some mud wrestling between women in the rice paddies), to love triangles, to late night talks (in lingerie of course) in the women’s barracks, to an absurdly fun fatal shootout (where the women do the shooting) which takes place in a meat processing facility, complete with cow carcasses hanging from meat hooks. It’s a wild movie and great fun and in fact contains a shifting point of view and conflicting sense of purpose not easily found in this era of Italian filmmaking. I suppose the closest thing to this might be found in the wild melodramas of Matarazzo of this era, but his films were more catholic-leaning in nature, portraying penitential characters forced to endure through trying life situations. De Santis is less interested in messages here and the film works on a more instinctual nature.

Apparently this film did really well internationally, and turned Silvana Mangano into an overnight sensation (how about all that armpit hair?). It’s not hard to see why American audiences would have found lots of things to appreciate here though, not the least would be the sex and violence. It’s an unsubtle film, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously and that’s why it works so well today. It’s hard to really know whether to consider this film a true masterpiece or more of a guilty pleasure. I actually think it’s both and really deserves to get attention, as it seems to draw future parallels in the films of Samuel Fuller and even Quentin Tarantino. But whereas Tarantino seems sometimes to be embarrassingly aware of his own provocation, Bitter Rice maintains an earnest dose of entertaining fun, without pretense.  For aficionados of noir, camp, neorealist or exploitation films, Bitter Rice is a goldmine.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The fleeting moments of life’s affirmations can occur so seldom that sometimes you forget they exist at all. They come at moments unexpected. It might be a word, a gesture, a look, a touch. And although often small, they can be as bright shining as the Sun. In that moment, your life can flash before you like a film playing in your own personal cinema. But you are watching from the seats. You see yourself in your own film....the directions you’ve gone in….and the choices you’ve made. You see yourself up there on screen and you think to yourself…."Is that me? Did these things really happen?" And in the moment of affirmation you are given the courage to say yes; that is me. I am me. These moments occur rarely, but they are needed in order to keep going….even if just for another day. They cannot be planned, earned, or bought. They are given as gifts. Enjoy them….whenever they may reach you.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Street Angel (1928) - Directed by Frank Borzage

A few weeks ago I went on a Frank Borzage binge, a deep dive into 7 films of his that I’ve never seen before. In fact, until that week, somehow I had managed to never see a Frank Borzage film…..ever. This was the list of films I watched: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, Bad Girl, After Tomorrow, and The Shining Hour. Borzage represents a style of filmmaking that would seem to me to have almost been completely eliminated from our consciousness. Here we have a director who pulls together some fantastically staged visual themes of love and sexuality, complete with some wonderfully expressive use of atmosphere: streets, apartments, rooftops. Yet he throws in heavy doses of wild melodrama. Now melodrama, in the hands of Sirk, tends to be something that modern audiences have received well. There’s something about Sirk’s use of color and tone that adds a layer of subversion to his melodrama. But Borzage tells his stories with a straight face, in black and white. There’s really nothing inherently funny or campy per se lurking beneath the surface. Borzage’s version of melodrama is irony free, and I don’t think today’s viewers know what to do with that.

Although 7th Heaven gets most of the attention, and Lucky Star is a hidden gem, Street Angel is Borzage’s best film of the bunch that I’ve seen and is a romantic masterpiece, standing with the greatest love stories of all time. It is the story of a woman named Angela (Janet Gaynor), who in need of some money to purchase medicine for her mother, attempts to prostitute herself on the street, and winds up getting arrested for robbery and sentenced to a year in a work house. She runs off before being imprisoned, and escapes to find her mother dead at home. She avoids the cops and runs off to join the circus, where she meets a painter named Gino. They strike up an awkward friendship, but soon bond and fall in love. Their blossoming love, and impending marriage is threatened when the police find her again. She is taken to prison while Gino is unaware. He thinks she is lost forever, and things get really interesting when she is released a year later.

Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayals in three films: Sunrise (1927), 7th Heaven (1927), and Street Angel (1928). AMPAS first designed these awards to be based upon an actor’s body of work for that entire year. If you had to ask me, I think her performance in Street Angel is the best of the three. I don’t think Sunrise capitalizes on her sincere and varied emotional qualities as well as the Borzage films, and in fact Borzage makes far greater use of melodramatic elements than Murnau ever did. She has a girl next-door quality about her and also a burgeoning sexuality that was not an easy combination to pull off for other actresses in this era like Garbo, Brooks, or Gish (all of whom were either too beautiful or too saintly for those descriptors to match up). She has great chemistry with her leading man, Charles Ferrell, whom she appeared with in a total of 12 films together! His performance here is very solid, and much more understated than in 7th Heaven. Her character hovers in the realm of the Madonna/Whore complex, which is used here to illicit some specific choices that Ferrell’s character must make regarding his view of her. She is in fact, neither all good nor all bad, but in fact, a real woman whom he must decide if he can love her the way she is.

Borzage’s use of wildly ridiculous melodramatic elements is to my mind, highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying, and part of what Borzage is all about: the obstacles thrown in love’s way forces us to sacrifice, make tough choices, and is a true test of how devoted one really is to one's lover. Love is not proven true, until it perseveres beyond adversity, and this is most apparent in his silent films especially: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Lucky Star. His emphasis on depth of field, set design, and lighting were also great choices. Street Angel includes some fantastic tracking shots and pans, use of silhouette and shadow, and of particular note, the intense scene among the thick fog along the docks at the end of the film. This is a spectacular shot, filled with suspense and romantic desperation that then culminates in a perversely emotional climax that finishes in a church. It is one of the greatest romantic endings to any film I’ve seen and caps the film with a feverish pitch. I wish that audiences of today could appreciate this stuff more, but we’ve been so trained to snicker and doubt the sanity of films like this. Street Angel is too well made, and too spectacular to be left by the wayside though. It’s a masterpiece to my mind.