Friday, December 26, 2014

What happened to 2014?

To think that anyone has missed my blogging over the last 6 months is probably no reason to begin writing again. There are always numerous blogs and sites to get opinions from. Mine is no more valid than anyone else's. However, I have missed writing about films. Perhaps the reason is that I have not had the urge to write about any of the films I've seen lately. I literally haven't been inspired to write about anything because I seemingly have seen very little that has been worth writing about. To date, I have not seen one film released in 2014 that is worthy of being deemed a masterpiece. By this time last year, I'd already seen Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, To the Wonder, Wolf of Wall Street etc. In looking back at my 2013 list, I'm amazed at the number of magnificent films...

11. Fill the Void
10. Short Term 12
9. To the Wonder
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. Blue Jasmine
6. Prisoners
5. Laurence Anyways
4. The Act of Killing
3. Gravity
2. Before Midnight
1. 12 Years a Slave.

But getting back to the films released in 2014, I've been continually let-down. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and there is a buddy of mine who I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel with who is also a huge fan, and neither of us found it to be as emotionally resonant as his 3 best works (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). Or there is Ida, which is being so highly praised in many places. It was very good, but didn't blow me away. Under the Skin was highly repetitive throughout its runtime. It had some inspired spots, but it didn't shine throughout. Interstellar was solid, as was Mr. Turner. I also really liked Enemy, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I still haven't seen a masterpiece. This is not a complete list, but a sampling of what I saw and what I thought.

Out of 4 stars....

Interstellar ***
The Fault in Our Stars ***
Mr. Turner (UK) ***
The Grand Budapest Hotel ***
Hateship, Loveship ***
Ida ***
Calvary (UK) ***
Belle ***
Under the Skin (UK) ** 1/2
Snowpiercer * 1/2
Frank *
The Lego Movie **
The Theory of Everything **
Still Alice ***
The Double * 1/2
Enemy *** 1/2
Gloria ** 1/2
Blue Ruin ***
The Lunchbox *** 1/2
A Most Wanted Man ***
Chef ***
Tim's Vermeer ***
Joe ***

So I suppose at this point, the closest ones to being truly great were Enemy and The Lunchbox. But Enemy had a few spots that felt un-fleshed out, and The Lunchbox, though borderline a masterpiece, was a 2013 film in some circles. 

Maybe I am losing touch with the cinematic medium this year. I just don’t see how I could have 11 films I adored last year, and none from this year. It’s so strange. This is probably having more to say about me than anything else I suppose. Part of this disappointment with finding great films has caused my blogging to dissipate, as I mentioned. I just haven’t been inspired to write about anything. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Budapest and Mr. Turner or Interstellar. I liked them all. But they weren’t full-on masterpieces to me. There are still many films to see....Boyhood, Birdman, Foxcatcher, etc. I'm hoping for a great film soon. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) (1946) - Directed by Jean Cocteau

Few films brim with the kind of cinematic magic as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete. For it’s entire 93 minutes, Cocteau implores us to view the proceedings with childlike wonder and suspension of disbelief. His call to order in the prologue asks us to indeed suspend our disbelief, but even more than that, it’s a request to hearken to our recollection of fairy tales as children and to adopt that sense of respect for the significance of imagination. As children our first encounters with the concept of “falling in love” involve fairy tales, and stories of princesses and princes. These archetypal stories create a larger than life sense of grandeur and most often, unrealistic portrayals of true love. Still, our early lives can be shaped in this way. I’m often reminded of this when I watch films like The Little Mermaid or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with my daughters. Cocteau asks us to adopt this sensitivity when watching his film. Therefore, Belle’s compassion is unquestioned and The Beast’s good heart shines through and we know things will work out in the end. This is no knock on the film. For although La Belle et la Bete is a fairy tale with some predictability, the elements are plenty dark and sinister enough to lend themselves well to the sense of imagination and surrealism that Cocteau brought to his cinema. Thus, the sense of childlike wonder we adopt while watching it is coupled with our adult awareness of sensuality, carnality, and ambiguity, giving the film just enough of a subversive angle to mess with our heads.

Belle lives with her father and two sisters, Adelaide and Felicie, along with her scheming brother Ludovic and friend Avenant (Jean Marais). Her father goes to settle some debts in a nearby town and on the way home that night, stumbles upon a strange and sinister castle. This is no ordinary place. Doors open and close on their own. Candles are held by movable arms in the hallway. A lone hand pours him a glass of wine at a table. Faces peer out from the mantle next to the fireplace. He spends the night there but upon attempting to leave the next day, comes face to face with The Beast (also Jean Marais), a talking, lion-like creature who stands upon his two feet. The Beast sentences him to death, but provides him an out. If he gets one of his daughters to come live with The Beast, the father's life will be spared. The daughter who accepts this challenge, is Belle. Played by Josette Day, Belle is a beautiful and slightly mature woman (Day was 32 at the time of filming) who is keenly aware of the differences between herself and her sisters. They are manipulative, catty, and superficial. Belle seems to have a piercing sense for honesty and truth. Thus, her commitment to proceed to the castle attends a noble kind of cause. She realizes she is called to this challenge. Upon entering the castle, there exists one of the most gorgeous moments ever to grace the screen. Against a black hallway and the outstretched candles, Belle runs with her flowing cape in glorious slow motion through the corridor and up a flight of stairs. Then she seems to float down a hallway where the curtains blow in her path. These ethereal and otherworldly transportations heighten our sense of magic and mystery. When she comes face to face with The Beast, it’s almost HE that is more afraid than SHE. He can’t handle her looking into his eyes and will only meet with her every evening at 7pm to ask her to be his wife. Soon, she begins to see the good in his heart and the struggle within his soul, and is drawn to him.

There are really interesting psychological moments in the film which give keys to Belle's and The Beast's state of mind. There’s this point where Belle is hiding in a corridor and The Beast comes to her door, his hands smoking after he has killed some animal from hunting. He stops at her door, perhaps because he wants to enter her chamber and ravish her. When he finds the room empty, there is a sense of frustration on his face and then he peers into the magic mirror only to find that she has spied his entrance into her room. His pride is hurt. She gains the upper hand. Later, after another time of killing and hunting, he comes to her door, smoke pouring from his body and blood streaking his clothes. Again, the implication is that he is ready to continue his “hunt” by entering her chambers. Yet she confronts him boldly at the doorway, saying that his behavior is beneath him, sending him coldly away. She will stand for nothing less than respect. He returns this respect to her when he allows Belle to return home to see her father if she promises to return. He tells her if she doesn’t return that he will die. Belle is given a magic glove for transportation and a golden key to the Beast’s magical riches. When Belle returns home she finds her father very ill. Her sisters become jealous and steal the key from Belle, and then they set Ludovic and Avenant into action to kill the beast. Belle is detained beyond the 7 days which the Beast granted her, and when she returns, find the Beast near death from his broken heart and spirit. At the close of the film, by miraculous magic (per fairy tale lore), Ludovic and Avenant are foiled, the Beast is turned into a prince, and Belle and the Prince fly off into the clouds.

Cocteau uses lots of whimsical touches to infuse his film with the sense of the otherworldly. Many of the memorable touches involve rewound film during key moments, like when Belle uses the magic glove and appears in her house for the first time. Or there are quick editing effects, like when a tear falls from Belle’s face and her father catches a diamond in his hand. These creative illusions were one of Cocteau’s greatest strengths as a director. The magnificent camera-work by Henri Alekan is awash in shadow, deflected light, and flowing wardrobes. These effects upon the viewer often force us to confront the unknown….into shadows and down corridors where we aren’t sure what will happen. Jean Marais fares very well in the Beast costume. I’m often surprised at how much feeling he is able to convey through his eyes. Day is the perfect fairy tale heroine, both strong and feminine in her determinations. At the close of the film, Cocteau infuses a sensible subversion into our adult heads. The Beast is turned into the handsome prince, and right away Belle isn’t quite sure she likes the idea. She isn’t ready to trust him just yet and he looks like someone she knew once. She is disappointed and even acknowledges it before succumbing to tradition and flying away with the prince, which makes us wonder whether she would have been even happier with The Beast as he was! I’m always intrigued by the fact that she was ready to “commit herself” in love to the Beast. What that looks like in actuality isn’t so important as the sentiment behind it. That she looked beneath the surface and found his heart is the true act of love. She didn’t need the human likeness in him to achieve this epiphany.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

7th Heaven (1927) - Directed by Frank Borzage

My Darling Chico,

You have been away from me for nearly 2 years now at war. I simply can't believe you've been away that long. It's also been so long since I've heard from you. I miss you so much. We parted on our wedding day and I relive those last moments together as if they exist outside of time. I wonder how you are and pray to God that you will return home soon. I long for you to hold me in your arms. So many moments of our short life together come flooding back to me. I woke up on the street that day to you holding a violet over my face to wake me up. Words can’t express how much I wanted you to take me in your arms and carry me away to safety. I had hardly met you but quickly I knew you were something special. You so selflessly gave of yourself to me, saving my life, when even I didn’t think it worth saving. Claiming me as your wife to keep me from going to jail..... I could tell you had a good heart right from the start and I knew we were meant to be.

The moment we entered the building where you lived that evening and we began ascending level by level up to your flat, my heart raced with anticipation to when I’d arrive in your place. We just kept ascending as if we’d go through the clouds. I wanted to go higher and higher and let the world drift away and be only with you. If only you knew the joy that you brought me as we entered into a new world together. You believed in life and its possibilities and it made me so excited. That night I undressed in your room and slipped into your bed while you were outside. I secretly wanted you to be near me and hold me close and tender. I hoped you would come into bed with me after you removed your pants and shirt. I peeked over the covers as you were undressing and saw your bare chest and it made my body flush. I wanted your body to lie next to mine and feel your skin against mine. I got up to peek around the corner and you were just so cute and sweet to be lying on the balcony. It was a rush of affection and joy through my body just to know that you respected me that way even though I was desperate for your warmth.

But now my dear I am beyond desperate. I haven’t seen you in so long and I long to feel your hands caress my hair and cheek, to feel your kiss on my lips, and to feel your body press against mine. Every moment I’m away from you is so hard. Every minute that passes without you near me is endless. I will simply die if you do not come back to me. Life cannot continue on this way without you. I have shed so many tears for you that I feel all of my tears have dried up and I am empty. Now my body aches and my eyes hurt every time I think of you. The tears will simply not flow and I am overcome by a black emptiness covering over me for which there is no respite.

When I came to you on the balcony dressed in my wedding dress I felt so glorious….and then you told me that you loved me for the first time. I was so happy. You remember how happy I was? I was so happy! And then I heard the sound of soldiers in the street. I didn’t want this to break us apart, but I tried to be strong for the both of us. And then you picked me up and kissed me and held me so close to you for so long and you were so strong holding me and I whispered things in your ear. And I wanted you to take me to bed right then and there. It was the most glorious and romantic moment of my life to be in your embrace. When you told me you wanted to marry me at that moment I was overcome with joy and feeling. I wanted us to be one, to be man and woman for eternity. We placed the necklaces over each other and promised to be true forever. I cherish that moment and the neckless hangs from my neck and dangles between my breasts this very moment. Come back to me Chico. Please with all your might come back to me my husband. You parted from me at 11am. And I think of you as if you were touching me and talking to me every day at 11am and I chant your name over and over and over again and speak to you out there wherever you are. If only you could be here with me. I can’t bear to think of where you are or what kind of danger you are in. I simply can’t begin to believe how awful it must be for you and how much you must be longing to touch me and be back here in our little heaven. I truly wish God’s angels to be surrounding you and protecting you. Believe me when I tell you we are shoulder to shoulder my love. I am working hard each day at the munitions factory. Somehow it helps to pass the time and I think that if I work hard enough it will bring you back to me.

Oh my dearest Chico I must finish this letter as it is late and tomorrow I must be at the munitions factory at dawn. Please write to me Chico. I miss you so desperately and I am being strong for you but I need you to return soon. I know that you will return to me and I believe with all my heart that this day will come soon for us. And on that day when you return to me oh how the glories of heaven will resound when we are rejoined. You must believe Chico. You must believe that our Love will bring you through any and all odds and nothing will keep us apart. Not even hell’s fury itself will be allowed to touch you. Our love is pure and true and righteous and I just know and believe that you will return. Please Chico….please return home soon.

I love you. I love you. I love you.


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Quiet Man (1952) - Directed by John Ford

There are few romantic films that are as beloved and cherished as John Ford’s beautiful and heartwarming classic, The Quiet Man. Intended for years as a pet project, Ford hand selected the story, the stars and the setting of Ireland in order to bring together many elements that meant a great deal to him. Ford’s Irish heritage, and that of Wayne and O’Hara, turned the film into a sort cinematic expression of anthropology, extending the elements of the plot beyond simple mechanics and enlivening the whole film with a passionate and joyful sense of place, family, and tradition (all very consistent with Ford’s career). These elements reached into the lives of those making the film, and in turn, these personal connections become visible to the audience. In a sense, this film is as much a love story between Ford and his fondness for Ireland and for heritage, as much as anything else. But the fact that the film is buoyed by intense chemistry from Wayne and O’Hara, many romantic scenes, and a charming, sexually playful tone, it’s hard to top this film for sheer enjoyment.

Ford had read the short story by Maurice Walsh back in 1933 and had purchased the rights to the story but the film took years to take shape. It’s a story of an Irish-born man named Sean Thornton who has been living in America for much of his life, but who after giving up boxing on account of a fatal bout he participated in, ends up desiring to return to his birth-town of Inisfree to claim his family farm. Upon arriving in Ireland, he finds that another man in town, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), wants the land as well. Sean ends up gaining the rights to the farm, but earns an enemy in Will Danaher at the same time. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that Sean quickly has eyes for Will’s fiery sister, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Sean soon finds himself in a familial battle of wits, as he pushes against tradition in order to ask Mary Kate’s hand in marriage without consent from Will. Through some trickery from the townsfolk, Sean is able to wed Mary Kate, however Will holds back the dowry that is owed to her. Mary Kate then decides that she’s going to withhold…..ahem…..the goods from Sean until she gets her dowry back. Thus, the film then turns into a sly and farcical bit of romantic shenanigan-ism as the marriage remains unconsummated and the tension between Sean and Will grows. That is until the final showdown between Sean and Will to decide the fate of the marriage and to recoup the fateful dowry.

Even getting this film off the ground took a bit of doing for Ford. It took some time to get financing, and this finally came from Republic Pictures, who needed Ford and Wayne to do a moneymaking picture prior to filming in order to fund the cost of The Quiet Man. They embarked on making Rio Grande, which isn’t just notable for its standing amongst Ford’s westerns and the Cavalry Trilogy, but also because it paired up Wayne and O’Hara for the first time. It’s plain to see in Rio Grande that the two were a match made in cinematic heaven. It’s no wonder that Ford had eyed these two stars for The Quiet Man as well. Ford had of course worked with Wayne often, and with O’Hara years earlier in How Green Was My Valley. But Ford’s brilliant pairing of Wayne and O’Hara makes The Quiet Man into the memorable romantic picture that it is. Many have noted how Wayne and O’Hara make a great onscreen pair and it has to do with each having an equalizing presence upon the other, meaning that it never quite seems like one is overshadowing the other. Their chemistry together in this film forces them to have a physical and demanding experience together, whether swinging punches at each other, scrambling through creeks and over lush countrysides, and then squaring off in the bedroom for the rights to the upper hand. Their passionate quarreling is only rivaled by their passionate kisses. On multiple occasions, this film has some memorable kissing scenes. Probably the most iconic moment is when Sean enters his farm for the first time to find someone has been tidying up, and there’s a windstorm blowing. He manages to scare Mary Kate out of the house and as the door bursts open, she runs to leave, whereby he swings her back through the open door, then pulls her to him for a kiss. Spielberg’s use of this scene in E.T. made it extra iconic, but there are other memorable moments as well, like when the two kiss in the rain in the cemetery. It’s such a lovely quiet moment between the two of them with wordless interplay as O’Hara pulls in close to Wayne, with his shirt soaking wet. Then there’s the scene on the wedding night as Sean breaks down the door, pulls Mary Kate’s hair back and kisses her in a rough moment of passion. And that’s what makes Wayne and O’Hara such a striking match, as their physicality and passion is believable. So much so, that we can imagine what might happen were they to hop into bed. Indeed, the film has lots of fun, stalling out the consummation of marriage as long as it can possibly go for comedic effect. Like when Michaeleen Oge Flyn (Barry Fitzgerald) happens to stop by the house bringing furniture and catches a glimpse of the broken bed after the first night of marriage, saying, “impetuous”, quietly to himself. Little does he realize what caused the broken bed.

With many exterior shots filmed in Ireland, the film has a strong sense of place, and a beautiful, lush look to it. The wonderful cinematography of Winton C. Hoch adds much to the film and the on-location shooting is enlivened wih elegant framing. Victor Young’s score incorporates many elements of Irish tunes, giving the film a bouncing and jovial quality. Ford’s cast of familiar characters like McLaglen, Ward Bond, and Mildred Natwick add color and warmth to their roles, and many other parts were given to locals in Ireland as well as various bit parts to family members of Wayne, O’Hara and Ford. It’s Wayne and O’Hara that make everything shine, though, and their performances are some of the finest of their careers. A couple moments are noteworthy. Wayne has just had a beer tossed on his face and says in a rather matter of fact tone, “bar towel”. He wipes his face and then asks for the time. He’s told it’s half past five, and then proceeds to punch McLaglen. He does all this with such perfect tone that it confirms that Wayne’s sense of comedic timing was one of his most underrated skills. My favorite moment of O’Hara’s is the moment when Wayne comes to the door to come courting. She nervously comes talking to her brother at the table to ask for permission to go out with him. Her tone of voice here, and the way she is almost out of breath with anxiousness and nervousness seems real. You can hear the sexual charge within her, as she’s desperate to go out with Sean, but can hardly contain her nerves. Beautiful acting.

In the realm of cinematic pairings, the best ones are the ones in which you can believe the two really have eyes for each other, or at least create characters whom you believe really want each other. In the final moments of the film, Wayne and O’Hara are seen happily waving at Rev. Playfair from the edge of their farm. This moment to me is one of the brilliant examples of what makes this film work. Watching closely, we witness O’Hara whisper something into Sean’s ear. They’re both grinning and then she turns and begins to jaunt back to the house, with Sean soon running and tumbling after. And in my mind, there’s only one place where they could possibly be headed.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Smother me. Crush me. Destroy me. Do whatever you want with me. But let me have one thing. Let me be reborn......for just a the tear running down your cheek. Let me be as close to you as this. Then let me fall away.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Man's Castle (1933) - Directed by Frank Borzage

Although most of Frank Borzage’s best films finally saw release with the 2008 box set, Man’s Castle somehow didn’t make the cut. It’s a shame, as it’s his best film outside of his multiple silent masterpieces made with Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell. Man’s Castle again rekindles a kind of street-wise and jaded yet sentimental quality to the love stories he pioneered in the 1920’s, like 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star, and then continued into the 1930’s with his near masterpiece talkie, Liliom. Borzage is rarely written about these days, and if he is, it’s amongst the blogosphere almost exclusively, and even in that realm it’s hard to come by. Borzage, above any other director who’s ever lived, seemed to elevate romance into the spiritual realm, almost turning the transformative power of love into a religion, believing that if one is honest enough, kind enough, and loving enough, one can overcome just about any odds. No other director has ever conveyed with such unflinching, sincere regard, the belief that love can conquer all and inspire lovers to go beyond what they thought was imaginable.

In the case of Man’s Castle, we consider two souls, Bill (Spencer Tracy) and Trina (Loretta Young) as they sit on a park bench. He feeds the pigeons popcorn, while wearing a fancy suit. She eyes the popcorn with a hungry eye as she is obviously out of work, while he is seemingly rich and throwing food away. The content dabbles into typical pre-codisms, with Bill alluding to the fact that women shouldn’t be out of work (even in the depression) especially with the looks of a woman like Trina. Bill then takes her to dinner, where this film also sets up a sort of teacher/protege kind of relationship, a la, Pygmalion. Borzage brilliantly sets up the film positioning Bill as a rich man, until Bill reveals that his suit is a prop (an advertisement for a coffee house), and then brings Trina (Loretta Young) home to his shanty-town house, proving he's nearly as poor as she is and giving new definition to the term Man’s Castle. Touchingly, the film connects our two down-on-their-luck lovers ending their first evening together by skinny dipping in a river, equalizing their plight, stripping themselves bare and plunging into their relationship on equal terms. Amazingly, the film positions them as living together and joining into a sort of ragged union, rising above categorization because convenience doesn’t make time for such formalities. Their tender relationship is threatened when Trina becomes pregnant, forcing Bill to confront his sense of commitment to Trina and the life that he is aching to give her despite their hardships.

It’s hard to view this film with the right context under which it was meant to be seen. Most of us never experienced the Great Depression, and instead only understand it through the eyes of generations past, who’ve told tales to subsequent generations, or through books or movies. But honestly, it might be cinema that will most easily convey the Depression for future generations. Films like Man’s Castle, My Man Godfrey, The Grapes of Wrath…..these each convey a certain element of the times and a point of view that was, if not necessarily popular back then (it is reported that Man’s Castle did poorly at the box office), are great cultural examples of the time. For all the falsity that cinema often presents, these are the closest things to a living/breathing time capsule as we’ll ever have. Though Borzage can of course be accused of relying too much on sentiment regarding this topic (and indeed throughout his career), it is far too simplistic to label him as taking advantage of the situation. The fact is, many great directors honed their use of sentiment for great effect, including Chaplin, Ford, and Spielberg among others. What separates the good from the bad, is the sincerity of belief in the power of goodness and love at the heart of the sentiment. Borzage here utilizes the difficulties and trials of surviving during the Great Depression in order to reflect upon the resilience of romantic love and the courage to do the right thing under those circumstances. This scenario actually takes a genre that is sometimes stuck in the clouds and then blends in a kind of kitchen-sink realism that gives the film (and many of Borzage’s films) a superbly balanced romantic tone.

One thing I’ve always had an issue with regarding certain pre-code films (this one notwithstanding) is an unenlightened, seemingly sexist view towards women. I don’t particularly take well to the attitude that Tracy’s character delivers to Young, what with the “Come here” and “Hey stupid” kind of lines he throws at her, even if it is in jest. I’m not even sure this attitude matches well with Tracy’s acting style per se. However, there’s an alternate reading to this in that Bill’s ultra-macho attitude is partly a distancing technique, perhaps so that he and/or she will refuse to connect too deeply to the other. Borzage inserts a slightly overstated subplot that doesn't quite resonate as Tracy begins seeing a floozy on the side. It's almost like he’s trying a little too hard to keep the upper hand to avoid getting hurt but it comes across as a bit far fetched. However, most of the film is filled with beautifully wrought romantic longing and touching scenes. There’s this beautiful moment when Bill and Trina attempt to sit down for dinner and the blaring train whistle nearby seems to pierce right into Bill’s brain, almost causing his façade to crack, as he knows he's not providing the right environment for Trina's needs. The film is also remarkably progressive when it comes to the co-habitating relationship, complete with sex, but sans marriage in all its pre-codi-ness. Starting in 1934, this film would never have seen the light of day due to these elements. In fact, the film was re-released in 1938 with the studio being forced to cut out 9 full minutes, which have not been fully recovered since. It’s a shame we have lost some of this footage, as it’s hard to simply get enough of Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young and their chemistry together onscreen, as they are lovely and tender and sincere as anything else you will see from this era.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Camille (1936) - Directed by George Cukor

Greta Garbo is one of my favorite film figures and one of my very favorite actresses. I once had this desire that if I could sit down to a meal with anyone living or dead, I thought I wanted to dine with Garbo. I think I actually still do. I imagine that  our conversation would probably strain a bit between us, as I don't tend to be the most talkative person, and we would probably have more than a few awkward pauses. But I would still give anything to be able to see her and talk to her in person. Garbo became one of the greatest screen actresses and one of the essential romantic leading ladies of all time. It's not hard to believe, considering she built her career upon films with such romantic sounding names like: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, Love, The Kiss, Romance. It's almost comical how often she was the leading romantic lady. A few of her greatest works, like Flesh and the Devil, paired her with John Gilbert, someone whom she had great chemistry with. However, Camille is a film that is not only better, but contains a surprising amount of electric chemistry between a slightly older Garbo and a young Robert Taylor. Camille also contains what is probably Garbo’s greatest acting.

Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas (La Dame aux Camelias), George Cukor’s film stars Garbo as Marguerite Gautier, who is known as Dame Camille amongst her Parisian friends, as she attends parties and soirees. Camille is funded by Baron de Varville (Henry Danielle) who is a rather sexless and odd man, but is somehow obsessed with owning some stake in Camille’s life of excess and parties. Camille, much to her own startling chagrin, finds herself rather smitten by a handsome young fella named Armand (Taylor). He courts her and attempts to spend as much time with her as possible, as she and he slowly draw closer together, while Camille tries to keep their relationship hidden from the Baron. Camille has nearly decided to give herself fully to Armand, when his father (Lionel Barrymore) painfully suggests to Camille that she give up Armand in order to keep his name from being associated with her life of frivolity. In the meantime, she has also been suffering from tuberculosis, which progressively weakens her. She tries to spurn her lover Armand, but all to no avail…..he returns, with her on her deathbed, whereby she musters up one final exultation of joy and pleasure of being held in his arms right before her death in the tear-jerking finale.

Garbo notoriously was difficult to work with because she was terribly insecure and uncomfortable with performing in front of too many people. This film, though, allows for what is often essentially scenes just between her and Taylor, which garner an arresting and electric amount of chemistry. I always find Garbo most moving when she is in quiet moments by herself or with one other actor. As I was scanning the film for screen shots, it struck me just how often it’s just she and Taylor positioned onscreen facing each other in two shot. Cukor rarely cuts in this film when they’re facing each other, which continually gives us the feeling of intimacy and immediacy between them, whereby we can feel the romantic intensity. Garbo did wonders when the camera was in close-up on her. She was perhaps the greatest actress of all time regarding her work while the camera was in close. Pick any moment in the film when the screen is on her face and you will notice a subtle array of movement of her mouth, eyes and eyebrows, which gives you the impression that she is expressing a great deal of emotion even though she isn’t necessarily conveying it verbally. I think my favorite moment is when she’s lying on her bed, sick and frail, and her maid Nanine tells her that Armand has come to see her. Garbo presents this suddenly energized and tear-filled joy just through her eyes, while she simultaneously maintains the frail and sickly exterior of her body. It’s an impressive duality of emotion and physicality that Garbo pulls off in that moment.

One of the other interesting elements at play in this film is the fact that Garbo was about 6 years older than Robert Taylor in this film. Gone was the perfect face, unblemished and unwrinkled 10 years prior in Flesh and the Devil, where her face almost had a full and youthful projection. In Camille, she’s a bit thinner, more world weary, and there are lines here and there on her face. Yet, somehow, pairing her opposite the younger Taylor gives life to their relationship and the romance on display, with his vigor giving charge to her experience. It’s hard to say how Garbo would have fared had she stayed in film. Within 5 years of making this film, she would give up acting forever, and amazingly disappear out of the public eye. So....... getting back to that meal with Garbo, somehow I’m imagining that it’s not lunch or dinner, but breakfast we’re eating. She and I are meeting at a small café somewhere and we both sit down. She has sunglasses on and a warm hat and coat. She orders coffee and a scone. I sit there fumbling and trying to lighten the mood and then I mention my favorite parts of her movies. She says nothing behind the dark glasses and I'm pretty certain she's not hearing me. The waiter brings her the coffee and the scone and pretty soon after he leaves us, she takes off her sunglasses exposing her eyes, and seemingly her soul. She then leans over the table with a sort of uneasy expression on her face. I’m dumbfounded, trembling, somewhat fearful and awe struck and can’t believe I’m looking Garbo in the eyes. Then she opens her mouth and she says, “Please go...... I want to be alone.” I quietly walk out of the cafe. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - Directed by Victor Fleming

One of the great joys over the last few years has been introducing my children to some of the great, classic films that I have known and loved over the years. Some of them are films that I didn’t see until I was an adult, but figured they would really like them anyway, like Bringing Up Baby and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Others are films that I have watched since I was young, like Shane, Star Wars, Duck Soup, and now today, we watched The Wizard of Oz together. It was their first time seeing the film in its entirety. I had given thought to showing them the film a few years prior, but in discussions with my spouse we had determined to wait. I actually remember being extremely scared of the witch when I was a kid, and every year when the film came on, I seemingly only remember watching until that part of the film when the Wicked Witch of the West appears in Munchkinland for the first time, before I ran off to bed deathly afraid of finishing the film. I was probably only 5 or 6 years old. My daughters are now ages 6 and 4, so about a week ago, they started to beg to watch it. We felt like it was the right time.

My girls have of course known of this film for more than a few years, and even at one point wanted to be Dorothy for Halloween without even having seen the film. I would show them little Youtube clips from time to time, as I’m a huge fan of the film, and of Judy Garland and my girls loved seeing her in Summer Stock and in Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s appeal in the film, has not waned a bit. Every time I watch The Wizard of Oz, I’m amazed at the range and emotional depth of her performance, guiding the audience through this strange land with the clarity and honesty of a seasoned actress despite her being 16 years of age at the time of casting. Garland was always sort of an old soul though, and gives one of that all time great performances by any actress, and it’s partly because of the innocence and transparity of her emotions. There’s this little gesture she gives to Toto at the very end of the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sequence where she leans over in a sort of weary moment of melancholy. I don’t think I’d ever quite noticed the brief expression before this latest viewing. There’s that pure and open graciousness as she says, “Very well thank you,” to the Scarecrow. Or how about that moment when confronting the Wizard when she brazenly says, “You outta be ashamed of yourself!” It’s such a well-rounded performance and Garland’s approach was so true to the actress that she would in fact become throughout the years. It’s amazing how singular and effective is her style already at this young age.

There were some funny things about the film that I picked up this time seeing it. I maybe have seen the film 20 times or so in my lifetime, but it’s amazing what slips past your eyes so often. Garland has a moment right after she’s slapped the Cowardly Lion and he’s beginning to whimper where she nearly breaks a smile and almost begins to laugh but is able to hold it in. Check it out for yourself at about the 51 minute mark. Then there’s the part where the Munchkins are running after Glinda in the bubble and one of them is that “kid” with the horn hair from the lollipop guild. Well, the next shot shows him behind Dorothy in a moment of poor continuity. Then amazingly, in the scene when they are putting the cape and the crown on the Cowardly Lion and they’re walking up the little green carpet up the stairs, Garland almost stumbles over the edge of the carpet that curls over a bit after the others walk up before her. These imperfections are quite endearing in that it reminds me that the films’ power does not lie in its technical prowess nor in its filmmaking per se. One can count multiple moments of script incontinuity for instance. But it’s a reminder that sincerity, human nature, and talented actors can entertain as much as or even more-so than any special effects laden blockbuster can.

Sitting down to watch the film with small children who have never seen it before became an interesting experience in and of itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film for myself, but more so, enjoying watching their reactions and answering their questions. Such as, “Is this movie in black and white or color?” (“actually it’s both)…….“Which road of the yellow brick road is the right way?” (“you know what, I’m not sure”)…..  “Is the witch going to come back later?” (“Yes she will definitely be back.) …… “Why is that horse turning colors” (“because it’s the horse of a different color”). I also realized that they seemingly needed a bit of assistance to understand what was happening, and why she could get to this place called Oz and why Miss Gulch had turned into the witch. We discussed that even though it felt real, it was a dream and that she was imagining that Miss Gulch was a witch. Part of the intensity of the film though, is that it feels so hyper-real. Once the film enters the dream state, one is quickly absorbed into the world, and so thorough is this effect once the film bursts into color. One almost forgets entirely that it IS a dream as it feels so emotionally real and linear. Although we talked about the film being a dream early on, my girls were so believing that Dorothy was going to die that they began to get worried once the hour glass began to empty. Thus, much of the film’s power is brought about because of its dual power to both reassure us of what we know and to challenge us toward overcoming our fears. One of my favorite elements is in fact the way that Dorothy, the heroine, leads the group. She’s not quite so meek as she calls herself, as she is a leader of a rag-tag assemblage of “misfits”. I’m occasionally surprised at how often my children become conscious of the fact that they don’t “fit in” for whatever reason. This film reassures us that it’s okay to be imperfect and to make mistakes…..and also to keep trying and to take on the challenges that come our way. These are lessons that we all sometimes need to be reminded of. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Once (2006) - Directed by John Carney

 Note: This review is posted as part of the 101 Greatest Romance Films of All Time countdown occurring at Wonders in the Dark, coming in at #93.

Once is one of the defining romantic films of the new millennium, and the most touching elements are the chemistry and song writing skills of the two leads in the film. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had known each other for years, performing together as a folk duo prior to any involvement with this film. Hansard, as lead singer of The Frames, met Irglova back in 2001 in the Czech Republic when her father had organized a music festival, inviting The Frames to play there. Hansard, a veteran of the Irish music scene for years, began supporting Irglova and her piano career. Hansard and Irglova soon decided to join forces as a duo to write and record and play live as The Swell Season, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2006. On the album appears the seeds of Once, with the tracks Lies and Falling Slowly seeing their initial release. It would be on the backs of these and other songs, a real-life relationship unfolding, and the chemistry of hope and promise that would spur on this film that is touching, romantic and bittersweet and one of the best musicals of the modern era. It’s also a film that positions romance not necessarily defined by sex or declaration, but by inspiration, openness and friendship.

Irglova and Hansard were consulted by John Carney (former bassist for The Frames) for a film about street musicians in Dublin. Originally, Cillian Murphy was cast opposite Irglova, but pulled away from the project, unable to commit to singing Hansard’s songs. Hansard was then pulled in, creating an intimate opportunity for life, music, and film to overlap with astounding honesty and commitment. It’s about a Guy (Hansard) who’s Irish and a Girl who’s Czech (Irglova) who meet on the street when the Guy is playing songs on the sidewalk. They start off a tentative relationship, where she learns he repairs vacuums and she needs a vacuum fixed. The Girl and Guy begin to flirt and end up meeting again because of the vacuum, and then walk into her favorite music shop where she is allowed to play piano. He has his guitar and they both decide to play a song together that he has written. “Falling Slowly” unfolds before the camera as collaboration, mutual affection, and inspiration mesh in the lyrics and the eyes of the musicians. He is healing from a past relationship and she is living with her mother and daughter, while her husband is back home in the Czech Republic. This new relationship is a cautious but earnest dance of romantic yearning and companionship as they begin to play music together and share ideas. The Guy has several songs he wants to record and recruits The Girl and some other local musicians to rent out a studio for a day, where songs are recorded in one long session, creating a document of relationships, past and present. As the film ends, The Guy and The Girl part ways, he heading off to London to retrieve his old flame, and she, equipped with a new piano he buys her, is living again with her whole family, husband included. It is a delicately played finale, using hope and reflection as romantic climax.

There is no kissing or real romance on display whatsoever in this film, unless you count delicate eye contact, honesty, and friendship as romantic. Surely there are countless “romances” that never fully materialize for one reason or another in the fashion that most movies equate with the definition. It could be argued that some of the most touching and devastating romances in cinematic history, though, are defined by lovers not consummating the relationship or who don’t stay together at the end. Once is in this vein, but is even more restrained in its approach, almost to the point of emphasizing these are “just friends”. Yes, friends who are attracted to each other, but friends just the same. If the film achieves anything, it is all because of the utterly real chemistry of the two leads as they portray this friendship. Around the time of the making of the film, Irglova and Hansard became romantically linked and then on for a period of a few years. Thus, the film contains real, unforced, onscreen chemistry, like Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy. But it is not filtered through professional acting and instead reflects a kind of ragamuffin, honesty. Due to their unfamiliarity with being filmed, Hansard and Irglova were often filmed from afar as it made them more comfortable not being so close to the camera. One can see examples of their lack of polished acting, yet it almost works to the advantage in this cinema verite style of filmmaking, where imperfections in acting are leveraged by the filmmaker for greater effect.

Maybe the best way to convey what works about this film, is from a segment of an interview that Irglova did with The Huffington Post back in 2011:
Huffington Post: Along with Glen Hansard, you received an Academy Award for Best Song for the movie Once. Marketa, your on screen chemistry was amazing. Though your music was beautiful and the plot was special, I honestly think what drew people into that movie the most was the beautiful depiction of your relationship.
Irglova: Oh, thank you. Once is a perfect example of synchronicity and serendipity in life that happens when you're open. There are so many parallels between the film and real life and the lives of John Carney--the director and the screenwriter--and Glen and mine. The script was written and my character was developed before John Carney even met me, and there were so many similarities in terms of my life and the life of this woman and how the two characters in the movie meet and how Glen and I met, so it was this beautiful thing of the lines blurring in terms of what is real and what is fiction. I think that's, in a way, the perfect way to it to be because sometimes art imitates life and other times, life imitates art. It really walks this full circle, in a way. Working with the director on the film was most inspiring in a way that it was very much open. He recognized the friendship between Glen and I, and that was a big reason why he cast us in the first place--because he saw us play together in Dublin, and whatever chemistry we had together onstage was the one he was looking for in his film. So, once he cast us, he kind of allowed us to express the friendship that we naturally had and allowed for that to be felt throughout the movie within the context of the characters that he had written. So, I absolutely agree that there's something very authentic and sincere about the love between the characters and the love that Glen and I have for one another.”

Through collaboration and honesty, both The Guy and The Girl end up better people through the relationship. It is a film that defines romantic epiphany not through sex, but through inspiration, with the lasting document of this inspiration being the music they created together. Though they don’t consummate this love, they “birth” music and achieve a different kind of family unit together.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Touch of Evil (1958) - Directed by Orson Welles

I’m not sure if it’s the saddest tale in all of Hollywood, but Orson Welles’ fall from grace within the studio system surely left quite a large stain upon cinematic history. As I’ve grown older, I've become more attuned to the passing of time as both a marker of progress and of what was left unaccomplished. In the case of Orson Welles, we should actually count our lucky stars that we have what we have. There of course is Citizen Kane, made at the outset of a career where he was a wunderkind who quickly fell into a situation from which he never recovered, having film after film taken from his controls. Most consider the lost passages of The Magnificent Ambersons to have contained elements that may have made it even greater than Kane. Then there’s all the messiness of the rest of his career, loaded with unfinished films, bizarrely financed ones, the Shakespearean adaptations, the “documentaries”, and of course Touch of Evil. There is something just so gloriously cathartic and sad about an aging and paunchy cop in the throes of his own demise, made terrifically humanistic by Welles’ portrayal in this film. What makes it resonate even further, are the struggles that Welles had to even get the film released as he envisioned, something he never saw happen in his lifetime.

Welles’ Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir from the classic period. It stars Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a drug enforcement official for the Mexican government,  who has just been married to Susie (Janet Leigh). They witness a car bomb explosion on the U.S. – Mexico border and quickly, several investigators join the scene, including police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). The investigation leads to a suspect named Sanchez, who is interrogated in his apartment. 2 Sticks of dynamite are found in Sanchez’s apartment, but Vargas suspects that Quinlan planted the dynamite there to frame Sanchez. Vargas decides to look into Quinlan’s police records and determines many of his cases involved evidence that the accused was not aware of. Meanwhile, Susie ends up in some trouble of her own after she begins staying at a small, rather vacant motel (Psycho anyone?), where she is kidnapped and then used by Quinlan to try and ruin the name of Mike Vargas by framing her for the murder of a thug named Grandi and with drug involvement. Vargas is at the end of his wits when Quinlan’s assistant detective Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) notifies Vargas that he found Quinlan’s cane at the scene of the crime, thereby convincing Vargas that he was right all along, leading to the fantastic conclusion where Vargas and Menzies attempt to bug Quinlan’s conversation to incriminate himself in order to bring Quinlan to justice.

For all the convoluted-ness of the plot, it’s actually remarkable how well the film holds together despite the raggedness and disjointed qualities. Many key sequences of continuity were lost once Welles lost control of the editing of the film for its theatrical release. His 58 page memo to Universal Pictures detailed his wishes of what should be fixed in order to make the film complete. It was reduced to 93 minutes from his original 112 minute cut for original release. In 1998, the film was restored, to the best approximation possible to Welles’ information found in his memo to the studio. However one looks at all the different versions and incarnations of the film, what is so staggering is the look and feel of the film. There is so much kinetic camerawork that was filmed by Russell Metty with a few key tracking shots and shaky-cam shots giving a vibrant sense of discombobulation. Also, Welles’s prototypical Dutch angle shots and low angle shots predominate, along with low-lit scenes with deep amounts of shadows pervading throughout. Welles’s vision of creating a world where wrong outweighs right seems to reflect the bizarre and garish lighting and angles, along with Mancini’s pulsing and often atonal score. There is an uneasy kind of squeamishness to the whole film that is hard to look away from and is one of the reasons why I love the film so much.

What I love best though, is the performance by Welles himself, who here gives his greatest on screen performance. Welles was so often a vocal actor in his earlier career. His voice inflections carry so much weight that it’s hard to sometimes focus on the physical quality of his acting. Not so in Touch of Evil, where the sheer physical size of his presence and his bulbous and swollen face seem to be larger than life. The camera likes to over-emphasize this at key moments, positioning Welles’ face in grotesque close-up at sometimes odd angles. In fact, Welles seems to be relishing the opportunity to undermine his own sense of stardom, tossing off the trappings of youth and ambition and laying it all bare for the world to see, nearly deliberately making himself repulsive. Welles captures and embodies a kind of sad-sack persona in Hank Quinlan, a pathetic and previously confident man who is quickly seeing the end of a long run at the top of the heap. How Welles makes Quinlan such a compelling figure is a great feat of acting. Quinlan is such a sleaze-ball, yet I’m torn between wanting him to see justice and also feeling pity for the guy. Perhaps it’s because Welles toned down his vocal ticks and aggressive confidence in this film, which forced him to stretch for effect and emotion in other areas, like quietness and pensiveness and sadness and regret. It’s a terrific performance and not something to be ignored. I don’t think Touch of Evil is Welles's best film. That would be a hard argument to put forth. It’s just my own personal favorite of his. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Persona (1966) - Directed by Ingmar Bergman

I’ve deliberately avoided reading much analysis about one of my favorite films of all time. Persona stands as one of the canonical art house films of its time, and you'll find (from what little I’ve read), that the film is usually considered a kind of visceral and tonal response to the avant garde cinema of the time…..Bergman’s “anything you can do I can do better” response to the Antonionis, Godards, and Fellinis of European cinema. Of any reading I’ve done, perhaps it was Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review that spoke to me best where he comments that “Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries.” In my own life, I tend to return to this film every couple years just for these reasons. But, in a way, I’m not sure I ever truly hope to understand the film, even if it was possible to do so. Maybe it’s why I don’t read much analysis of the film. I want it to remain a thought process for me, a bafflement but an emotionally grounded bafflement at that. It is the constant hoping for understanding but the comfort of not truly understanding that makes me return to it…. that and the overwhelming beauty (and sometimes terror) of the images and the acting.

Bergman’s plot to Persona, on a literal level, is about a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is charged to care for a patient named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann). Elisabet, a famous actress, has suddenly and without warning, decided to become completely silent, refraining from all forms of verbal communication. All indications are that she has a husband and a young child. Alma, based upon the recommendations of the lead doctor, takes Elisabet to a secluded home near the coast where healing and rest can take place. Over time, the two women seem to bond, as Alma bears her soul to the silent Elisabet, conveying past sins and regrets and a whole host of expressions. However, one day when Alma is taking some mail to be delivered into town, she reads a letter that Elisabet is writing to her husband, whereby Elisabet admits that Alma is an interesting person to study. Alma becomes bitter and feels used by Elisabet. They begin to clash, with confrontations becoming increasingly violent and vitriolic. One day, the two women seem to have some kind of epiphany, where they seem to become one individual. From then on, it's open to interpretation on what it all means. 

The number of films that I would consider to be visually overwhelming, such that the frame is filled with a kind of immersive attempt to convey an obsession of intimacy to thus achieve a heightened emotional response. Only The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Double Life of Veronique come to mind, in addition to Persona. No more prevalent was this feeling than when I watched it last night on the new Blu-Ray Criterion release. I was struck by just how much of the film is shot in close-up, even extreme close-up. These large and detailed images of the faces of the actresses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, strike an intense awareness of intimacy for us, with a power appropriated to the images by us as we are not used to being this close and intimate with anyone in our lives….. except lovers or family members. If you are close enough to see every pore on someone’s face for an extended period of time, it is likely you are in some kind of close and intimate relationship. Indeed, Bergman and master cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieve a kind of orgiastic and sensual obsession with the human face. At the same time, there is a duality of nature to these beautiful images, though, in that they appear almost otherworldly, ghostly, horrific or even abstract. Thus, we are simultaneously drawn to and taken aback by the same images. One example of this occurs as both women’s faces look into the camera as they embrace during the dream sequence at night (ghostly), and then later in the film where their faces merge into 2 halves of a whole (horrific). I suppose the early sequence where the boy is face to face with a large and blurry screen with alternating faces of the actresses may also qualify here (abstract). He reaches out to touch the image in a queasy, sickening kind of love caress. I’m not sure if I’m able to articulate the intensity of feeling that the images of the faces convey, but there is something so shocking and intense about being so close to these images. You can show me a close-up of an animal or an object and I may respond mildly….but show me a close-up of a face and there is suddenly an intimacy, or even a voyeuristic projection from the audience into the images, especially if the images are only viewed in one direction, with the audience being in the position of anonymity.

I don’t come to surmise exactly how the film ends or what it all means, but there are moments where I believe I’ve got it all figured out. Moments of mistaken identity, and duality of nature seem to lead to conclusions whereby the women are two halves of the same self. I suppose this reading is enhanced if you view the end of the film when Alma leaves the house all cleaned up and boards the bus by herself, with no trace of Elisabet. I’ve felt on more than one occasion that Alma is perhaps the physical and Elisabet the psychological side of the same person and this would be my preferred interpretation.  I suppose it’s also possible that they are two separate individuals, but that Alma is developing some kind of schizophrenic personality, or that they merge into one being, hence they arrive as two, but leave as one.  But does it really matter? Part of the allure for me, as I mentioned before, is not understanding it, but experiencing it. Even if someone were to explain the film in totality, it would not add to the appeal for me. Bergman's masterpiece stands the test of time because of the imagery and the performances, not the structure per se. Liv Ullman’s near wordless performance in her first film strikes notes of openness and compassion despite her silence. Bibi Andersson gives the performance of her career here, and is likely one of the greatest of turns by any actress. Her voice, her facial expressions and her changes in tone from loving to hateful run the full gamut. Nykvist’s camera is the other star. Probing and framing with impossible perfection, the natural light and curvatures of the women’s faces in Persona is one of cinema’s greatest expressions of beauty. And maybe that’s what the appeal of the film boils down to. Nykvist is able to capture the beauty and texture of the faces while Bergman is able to command and utilize the inherent intimacy of such imagery for deep dramatic and emotional effect. That’s why the film is so powerful for me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Directed by Michel Gondry

As I sit down to write this essay, I realize that I haven’t written a thing in nearly 2 months. It is due to both a combination of not really being enthused about any films I’ve seen in the last couple months and also from the sheer burden of keeping up with life in all its vast responsibilities and possibilities. On any given day, it’s amazing how many choices we can make and how many different directions we can go in. It’s a wonder that most of us end up each night in roughly the same place as the night before, probably sleeping in the same bed, under the same roof. When you stop and think of the complexities of life, it’s amazing how our brains have a vast ability to keep us, for the most part, grounded. Some of us are faced with more challenges than others. Some of us thrive on change and pressure more than others. But, for the most part, there are routines that each of us follow, day in and day out. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is many things, but at it's core, it somehow captures a certain quality about how our brains work, and the choices we make (both consciously and unconsciously), while also remarkably capturing a vast humanist element at the same time. This coupling of a structural analysis and a humanistic decomposition of our mind’s process yields one of cinema’s most memorable attempts at capturing our existence. It’s also one of the most beautiful and poignant attempts to show the duality of love relationships….the beauty and tragedy of a life spent trying to preserve ourselves yet also at times risking everything for love and acceptance.

Gondry’s masterful film concerns the current mindstate of Joel, played with a relaxed and almost morose quality by Jim Carrey. At the beginning of the film, we see what looks like the beginning of a relationship between he and a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who happen to meet in Montauk, NY on a day when Joel has decided to ditch work on a random whim…..or maybe not so random. This initial sequence sets up a poignancy after we realize later that this isn’t the first time Joel and Clementine have met. It only FEELS like it to them. In the weeks and months prior, they were both in a relationship together that was filled with lots of beautiful moments and many ugly moments. It got to a point where both of them determined they wanted to erase each other from their memories. Thus, they each hired a firm called Lacuna to conduct such a procedure. Clementine has the erasing done first. When Joel learns of it, he decides to join her in the process. This premise sets up the beautiful second half whereby the Lacuna crew (played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Kirsten Dunst), attempt to erase each memory of the relationship from Joel’s mind. Meanwhile in Joel’s subconscious, non-waking state, he attempts to preserve and salvage some memory of Clementine as he realizes it would be far better to retain some of the good memories along with the bad memories, rather than remove all memory of their relationship altogether.

The recently deceased Alain Resnais surely must have seen commonalities between his works and Gondry’s film. Being that the screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, the film's look and feel is also as much his as Gondry’s, with Kaufman’s unique perspectives of reality on display, which are in turn leveraging processes and techniques that Resnais built back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Resnais was able to blend past and present into a commonality. He didn’t allow for a separation of past and present. As he once stated, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” It could be argued that Resnais’s singular, distilled essence was to emphasize this point. Gondry and Kaufman build upon this foundation, essentially turning the present and past into a common experience, inseparable from each other, with present and past intermingling to such a degree that there is no distinction. So often during the film, we witness Jim Carrey’s current perspective embedded in a past memory, such that he and Clementine exist in two states at the same time, or more simply put.....just a single state of being. In what might be the best sequence in the film, Joel attempts to find a place in his mind where he can hide the memory of Clementine so far deep in his brain that the Lacuna company can’t find it. He places himself and Clementine into a memory when he was 4 years old, hiding under the kitchen table and witnessing the interaction of Clementine and his mother, with Clementine taking the place of his mom’s friend. Clementine and Joel are privy to the fact that they are attempting to hide from Lacuna at the present time, while concurrently existing in an experience from 30 years prior. Thus, the past and present become one experience for them.

What makes the film so desperately romantic, is in fact the idea of a relationship which has gone off track and the duality of wanting to remember and wanting to forget at the same time. For Joel, what starts out as a desire to forget everything, ends up as a fight to preserve at least some of the good along with the bad. We can all recall relationships that either never got off the ground or crashed and burned over time. This film asks, "would we rather maintain the memories, both the good with the bad, or remove them entirely?" The poignancy of this question is posed in such a way that the film emphasizes the sensitive beauty and tragedy of our memories. Memories can stir such different reactions depending on what they are. But to erase them is a scary proposition, not just because of the loss of recollection, but for the loss of experience and learning. What happens at the end of the film, as Joel and Clementine realize the mistakes they made in the past, they learn to overlook the pursuit of the safe approach and choose the messiness of existence over sanitized love. They choose passion over perfection. This is such a relatable and poignant conclusion, it can’t help but conjure a hopeful, humanistic conveyance. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet provide a grounded presence throughout the film with their beautiful and varied performances. Winslet in particular conveys alternate approaches, particularly as she exists post memory loss, ending up in a temporary relationship with the Elijah Wood character, who is attempting to duplicate Joel’s courtship of Clementine. She has this way of appearing lost in a certain spatial plane that is neither here nor there. Gondry’s willingness to lose the audience for periods of time is brazen in his confidence in that he knows he will recover us later as things come together. I must admit it was 10 years between viewings and it’s amazing how beautifully the film comes together upon repeated viewing. Although there is already a dated, low-tech vibe to the film (no cell phones, primitive computer systems), the film hardly suffers from them, with the warmth of human contact taking center stage. Charlie Kaufman’s script is as loose and free as it is deliciously pragmatic. Once you watch the film, it’s amazing how intricately designed it is. No wonder he won the best Screenplay Oscar that year. What stands out for me, are the beautiful sequences as Joel and Clementine race to hide in Joel’s mind, attempting to preserve small semblances of their love and experience together, learning from these experiences on how to be better people and building a greater love and appreciation for each other. It is one of cinema’s most truly lovely expressions of romantic love.