Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon

A germ of an idea formed a couple of months back, when I did a blog commentary on Ace in the Hole. It grew a bit larger when I recently screened Sunset Boulevard for my wife. I am now reading Ed Sikov’s biography, so the time has come to announce filmscreed’s Billy Wilder Blog-a-thon, on March 1-4.

Is there a more natural choice for such an examination? Wilder’s fingerprints are all over American film, from Film Noir to the courtroom drama to the romantic comedy. In most of the genres he touched down in, his films became the template.

A few of my favorite bloggers have been invited to participate, but everyone is welcome. Just drop in and leave me a comment letting me know what you would like to blog about. For me, I think it’s time to revisit The Fortune Cookie….

Hope to see you there.

Jeff

Moments of Distinction

The Film – Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder.

The Set-Up – Joe Gillis (William Holden) has just left the New Years Party thrown for him by Norma Desmond. (Gloria Swanson). He arrives at a party in progress at the apartment of his friend Artie. (Jack Webb)

Gillis stalks out of Norma’s house.

He arrives at Artie’s

Artie greets him with a few good-natured wisecracks, and then comments on the coat he is wearing. “Nice coat – Is it mink?”

Getting ready to party, Gillis rolls the coat up in a ball and stuffs it into the bookcase.

A bit of background is required here. Gillis left Norma Desmond’s party because of her inference that since she was letting him stay there and outfitting him in expensive clothing, he owed her something in return. When Gillis treats the expensive coat like an oily rag, it’s his little way of sticking it to her.

This is such a tiny little detail that many people might not notice it, but to me, it’s where the final threads of the film really start to come together. Gillis calls Norma’s mansion and finds out that she has tried to kill herself. Thus, Norma begins her final slide into madness. In this light, Gillis’ treatment of the coat as a surrogate for her seems especially mean-spirited and petty.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stalker

In sitting down to write a commentary on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I have to confess feeling inadequate to the task. Don’t get me wrong - I love the movie, but this is a film that gives the viewer the gnawing feeling that everything he thinks he knows about it could be completely wrong.

Made in 1979, Stalker is ostensibly a Sci-Fi film about two men who venture into a mysterious “Zone", with the help of a guide called a stalker. A prologue tells of how a meteorite hit the earth, how soldiers went to check it out, and never returned, and how the area was closed off. It would seem to be the launching point for a story of the adventures that the three men encounter in the dangerous zone. The adventure that the two travelers undertake isn’t fraught with monsters and guns, however, but rather with hard existential questions.

The two men are a writer and a scientist, who are simply known as Writer and Professor. Their reasons for wanting to go to the zone are easily understood. The writer, a hard drinking, womanizing burnout, wants to rekindle his passion. The professor wants to confront something unknown and learn from it, as is the wont of a scientist. There’s another goal, as well - A room in the Zone where all dreams come true.

The zone itself is not what we might expect. The film’s opening passages are filmed in a sepia tone, but when it moves into the zone, it switches to color. It looks a lot like the kind of beautiful country setting where you might go hiking, except for the charred shells of tanks and other military vehicles that are lying about. What happened to the tanks? The film doesn’t tell us, and doesn’t seem to be very interested in the so-called dangers present in the zone.

The stalker is a curious fellow – Did I mention that? He is an ex-convict who makes his living guiding people into the zone. He is full of warnings and threats against the other two about what will befall them in the zone if they don’t listen up, but it gradually dawns on us that for a place with such a fearsome reputation, the Zone is pretty tame. There’s a scene where the men see the destination they are seeking just a couple of hundred yards away, but the stalker insists that they have to approach it from another direction, rather that the short way. There’s also a scary-looking tunnel called the Meat-Mincher, which turns out to be, well, just a tunnel.

The story that is really being told here is about the process of enlightenment, and the quest for a spiritual summit. That’s why the room had to be approached from a different route – It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. The room represents the Holy Grail, and as they get closer to it, the two men start to question if they really want it. The writer talks about how art comes from suffering, and if he were able to have anything, what the hell would he write about?

The stalker talks about a figure known as Porcupine, who was his mentor, made it to the room, became rich, and then committed suicide. Stalker is never more murky and impenetrable than when it concerns this character. There’s never any real detail about him, such as who he was or where he came from. He simply exists as a reminder of the pitfalls of being given everything you want. I think.

Stalker is a difficult, yet rewarding film. It illustrates how we work towards what we perceive as our own spiritual utopias, and how we are so hard to satisfy. There’s a marvelous little scene where the Writer has survived a potentially dangerous passage, and the stalker congratulates him. “You’re going to live 100 years!”. The Writer replies, “But why not forever?”

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Thursday, January 25, 2007

And Also Starring...

It’s pretty simple, really. If you have watched a movie or a TV show, you have seen Royal Dano. The Internet Movie database lists 169 credits for the scarecrow-like character actor in a career that began in the early fifties, and continued right up till his death in 1994.

Dano lent his spectre-ish presence to scores of Westerns, often as a heavy. He’s there in the background as one of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang in Johnny Guitar, or in Anthony Mann’s Bend in the River and The Far Country. His TV resume touches on all the high points of the Golden Age of TV Westerns: Bonanza, Rawhide, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun, Will Travel, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian.

Dano didn’t find his signature role, however, until late in his career. That was in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. He has very little time onscreen, but his “Angel of Death” (The man who informs the families when one of the pilots perishes) is one of the truly memorable images in that film. With his undertaker’s mien and his black suit, Dano is the last man you want to see coming up your driveway.

Other Dano film credits include: The Trouble With Harry, Moby Dick, King of Kings, and as a sputtering lunatic in Kaufman’s The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Marquee

Raining Stones, 1993

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Watch us Well"

A Happy Birthday to the First Lady of the French Cinema.
Jeanne Moreau was born on this day in 1928.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lighthouses

You weren’t old enough for the World War, were you, John? No, of course not. You would have been just a kid. I was. I was just ripe, and rarin’ to go. You know what my old man did when I joined up? He joined up, too! Got to be a sergeant. And here’s kick for you – We were in the same outfit! Funny, huh?

He was killed, John. I saw him get it. I was right there and I saw it with my own eyes. Me, I came out without a scratch.

But I’m a sucker for this country. I’m a sucker for The Star-Spangled Banner, and I’m a sucker for this country. I like what we got here! I like it! A guy can say what he wants and do what he wants, without a bayonet shoved through his belly. And that’s all right, huh?

You betcha.

Well, we don’t want anyone coming around changing that, do we?

No sir.

No sir!

When they do, I get mad. I get boiling mad, and right now, John, I’m sizzling. I get mad for a lot of others guys besides myself. I get mad for a guy named Washington. And a guy named Jefferson. And Lincoln. Lighthouses, John - Lighthouses in a foggy world.

Meet John Doe, written by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"This nice man is scared of me."

"There must be something wrong with us, to do what we did. ... .... We heard there was $10,000 in that house. Once we tied up everybody and searched all over, I knew the guy that told us about it was wrong. There was no money. Dick wouldn't believe it so he went tearing through the house, banging on the walls, looking for a safe. When he was done, he said he was gonna go up to Nancy's room and have his way with her. I wouldn't allow it. And I told him that. So I sat with her. Dick came up and got me. We turned off the lights and went down to the basement where Mr. Clutter and the boy was. He kept saying, "No witnesses," but I, I figured if I waited him out he'd give up and we'd leave 'em tied up there. And we'd drive all night, they'd never find us. We tied Mr. Clutter's wrists to a pipe over his head. And he looked hurt, so I cut him down. I put a box out there so he'd be more comfortable. He asked how his wife and daughter was and I said they were fine and they were getting ready for sleep, and it wouldn't be long till morning when they'd find them. ... He was just looking at me. Looking into my eyes. Like he expected me to kill him. Like he expected me to be the kind of person who would kill him. I was thinking, this nice man is scared of me. I was so ashamed. I mean, I thought he was a ... very nice...gentle man. And I thought so right up till I slit his throat. ... I didn't know what I did till I heard the sound."

Capote

Sex 101

Jean Simmons

The Marquee (Peckinpah Division)

On Location

John Wayne gets gome tailoring done on the set of Red River.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Funny Guy

Really funny. Really funny.

Whattya mean I'm funny?

You're just funny, y'know, the story. It's funny. You're a funny guy.

Whattya mean? They way I talk? What?

It's just, y'know, it's just funny, you know the way you tell the story and everything ...

Funny how? I mean, what's funny about it?

Tommy, no, you got it all wrong ...

Whoa, whoa Anthony! He's a big boy, He knows what he said. What'd you say? Funny how?

What? Just, you know, you're funny.

You mean, let me understand this ... cuz I ... maybe its me, maybe I'm a little fucked up maybe. I'm funny how, I mean funny, like I'm a clown? I amuse you. I make you laugh? I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? Whattya you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?

I don't know just ... you know how you tell the story.

What? No, no I don't know. You said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me. Tell me what's funny?

Goodfellas, by Martin Scorcese and Nicholas Pileggi

The Marquee

The Crimson Skull - 1922

With an "all colored cast". This poster is a relic from an all but forgotten era, when there was a small black film industry running parallel to Hollywood. In those days, mainstream Hollywood mainly confined black performers to small, caricitural, "Stepin Fetchit"-type roles. The black film industry sprang up as a counter-balance, routinely featuring black casts in conventional stories.

In the coming weeks , I'll feature posters and images from the "other" Hollywood. Check out the website Midnight Ramble for more info on this era.

On Location

Sergio Leone holds forth on the set of Once Upon a Time in America.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Maborosi

Ikuo and Yumiko seem like the perfect young couple. They are playful and affectionate with one another, and outwardly seem not to have a care in the world. This masterful 1995 debut from the Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu accompanies Yumiko after her life is wrenched apart in a completely unforeseeable way.

Maborosi opens with a somewhat peculiar side-story. An old woman leaves home, against the protestations of her family, because she wants to die in her hometown. She wanders away and is never seen again. This section of Maborosi is completely unrelated to the balance of the story, and is never referred to for the balance of the film. So why is it there? The film is, I believe, foreshadowing for us an instance where a family member is suddenly simply gone.

Hirokazu doesn’t rush into his story. The film stays with the young couple, as they live their lives. We watch them eating meals, going out for coffee, and enjoying a nighttime bicycle ride together. There’s a cryptic little conversation that they have where he speaks of a retired Suno wrestler who has come to work at his factory, and hasn’t cut his topknot off yet. When Ikuo confesses, “Seeing his topknot depresses me” it’s such a strange comment that we step back a bit. It seems like an admission that Ikuo is troubled by something more than a hairdo.

Then, tragedy strikes. Yumiko is waiting at home when the police come to the door to inform her that Ikuo has committed suicide. There is no indication of the reason for this act to us or to Yumiko, and there is no outpouring of grief. It’s left to the viewer to guess at her feelings.

Then, the film skips forward a few years, and Yumiko is preparing to go away to meet a new husband. This appears to be an arranged marriage, although the film is vague on this point. Her new life will be with a man named Tamio and his young daughter in a small fishing village many miles from her Osaka home.

The contrast between her old and new lives is stark, and Hirokazu accentuates it with long Ozu-like “pillow” shots of the fishing village and the sea. Tamio is a good man, who has lost his wife, and he and Yumiko settle into a comfortable life together. Again, the film settles back and watches the two newlyweds as they grow together. There are also moments with the two children as they play together, bonding quickly as only kids can do. There’s a gorgeous extended scene where the two children run beside a mirror-like reservoir, laughing in delight as they go. These scenes point up the fact that the children have accepted each other, and are just getting on with things.

Yumiko then makes a trip back to Osaka for her brother’s wedding, and being in her old home triggers a flood of remembrances of Ikuo. She visits the coffee house where they used to go, and the server tells her that Ikuo came there the day he died. She goes to his old factory and peers in the window, recreating a tender moment that they shared on a day he was working there. She stops by their old apartment building. Again, there is no outward indication of what she is thinking during these visits. That’s left to us to ponder.

She returns to the village and resumes life, although now the buried emotions of Ikuo are at the surface, and Tamio senses that there is something bothering her. There’s a marvelous little scene where she fondles a bicycle bell that she had bought for Ikuo, and quickly hides it when Tamio comes into the room.

The film has one more instance of a person vanishing out of Yumiko’s life. This time it’s an elderly fisherwoman who goes out alone to catch some crabs and gets caught in a storm. The village waits for word from her, but Tamio’s father reassures Yumiko that she will be all right. He states, “She’ll be okay. She is immortal.” and sure enough, she comes back home safely.

Yumiko is walking along the water one day, when she encounters a funeral procession. In an exquisite long shot we see that she joins in at the end of it, and then Tomio comes to find her alone on the rocky shoreline. Here, finally, is where the floodgates open. She cries, “I just don’t understand – Why did he kill himself?” and Tomio replies with a legend about how fishermen are sometimes lured out to sea by a maborosi, or ghost light.

Maborosi is a soft and beautiful film about how we process grief, and how we have to sometimes get on with our lives without knowing all the answers. Tamio’s story doesn’t really answer Yumiko’s question, and it’s not really supposed to.

If I have made this film sound depressing and dark, it’s anything but. It lingers on scenes of quiet domestic bliss, like the family eating watermelon together, or of Yumiko combing her new daughter’s hair. The film’s coda is such a moment as well, and it is pitch-perfect. The camera observes from across the water as Tomio teaches his son how to use his new toy – a bicycle.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Moments of Distinction

The Film - The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, dir. Jacques Demy

The Set-Up – The one-time lovers Guy (Nino Castelneuvo) and Genevieve (Catherine Denueve) meet by chance at his gas station.

Guy enjoys a moment with his wife Madeline, and his son Fran├žois.

The wife and son go out to look at toys in the store windows. A black car pulls up to the gas pumps.

Guy goes out to look after the customer. Neither he nor Genevieve has seen the other yet.

Now they do.

Guy and Genevieve go into the office.

Genevieve says that this is the first time she’s been in Cherbourg since she’s been married. She comments on the tree.

Guy says that his wife did it. “It’s mainly for the kid.” The camera frames their daughter in the background between them. Guy asks what she named their daughter. She replies “Francoise”, and tells Guy “She’s a lot like you.” She asks, “Would you like to see her?” He quietly shakes his head, and she leaves without another word being exchanged.

The movie ends as Madeline and his son return to the station.

There is so much packed into this gorgeous little sequence, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s the moment when Deneuve looks up and sees him for the first time. There’s the little headshake when Guy indicates that he doesn’t want to see his daughter, a moment that always just tears my heart out. And there’s the moment where Genevieve stands next to the Christmas tree, and looks so beautiful that she takes your breath away.

That is what is up on the screen. The stuff that is unsaid could fill another movie. How Guy has given his son the name that he and Genevieve had talked about for their child. How Genevieve makes a point of saying that she took a detour into Cherbourg “For no reason” and “I never expected to meet you.” and perhaps sounds a bit less than convincing. Why is Genevieve is traveling alone, and not with her husband? When Madeline tells Guy that she loves him, why doesn’t he say it back to her?

A lot of this sounds like conjecture, right? Guilty as charged. One of the great pleasures of this film are the theories that you can build up around it.

The Marquee

Repulsion - 1965