Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934

Mae West's fourth spectacular movie. So far nearly all of her films I’ve seen are metashows—that is, their plots mostly involve West as a performer, surrounded by a romantic plot that allows her to be cynical and romantic at the same time. West wrote her own screenplays just as she did her own reviews, and why not play up what works best? This story's no different—she’s Ruby Carter, a St. Louis music hall queen with a boxer-boyfriend, the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). Antagonistic rivals plot to make him think Ruby’s two-timing him and he dumps her, so she goes off to New Orleans to work at the Sensation House, a club run by slick Ace LaMont (John Miljan). The best thing about this gig is the pit band—it’s Duke Ellington and co. The music Ruby sings consists mostly of blues and jazz standards, usually with updated lyrics, no doubt by West herself.

Ruby discovers another plot against her—Ace has conned Tiger into stealing her jewels (he doesn’t know it was Ruby he was robbing), so she sets out to punish them both by fixing the boxing match that Tiger would have won had she not slipped him a mickey finn. Ace is ruined, and then when Tiger figures the whole con out he socks Ace and he falls over, hits his head, and dies. Tiger doesn't run--he stays to argue his innocence in court, succeeds, and the movie ends with a marriage.

The movie features a lot of great costumes for West, and dozens of men also costumed in 90s styles and hairdos. They all flock around her, of course. There are a few great vaudeville routines, too. Only a few of the great Mae West zingers, but she manages to raise her eyebrows, roll her eyes, slink, flounce, and sidle into rooms as only she can. The New Orleans setting means there’s an obligatory massed-choir contrapuntal black camp meeting outside her window, and she sings a lonely song atop it. Anyway, it’s still fun.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Zemlya / Earth (Aleksandr Dovshenko, 1930)

In revolutionary Ukraine, the kulaks, or rich farmers, hold out stubbornly against progress, brought to the collective farm in the form of a new tractor, driven by Vassili. One of the kulaks murders Vassili at night, and the people hold a new sort of people's funeral celebration with new songs about the new life, instead of inviting the church to manage their grief. "There is no god," Vassili's father cries, and so the furious priest goes back to the church to curse the people. The murderer goes mad, crying out that he won't give up his land, spinning in circles, pressing his face into the plowed earth.

Because Soviet agricultural collectivism did not work, it is perhaps too easy to forget the condition of the common people before the revolution. They were landless serfs, bound to the landowners and living in the worst sort of poverty. Here, working the land together, their labour ennobles them and provides a promise of a better, more equitable future. The film is shot with lyrical human optimism, stunning photography of peasant faces, old faces with years and character, young smiling faces with strength and courage. The land, too, is lyrically portrayed, the film opening and closing with images of rain in the orchards, apples and melons, pears, leaves...

Some of the characters are photographed standing in grain fields, the low camera angle taking in the rippling wheat and the great white summer clouds. Vassili's bereaved fiancee hurls herself naked across her bedroom, tearing at the walls and calling his name. The people crowd the dusty lane marching and singing to lay Vassili to rest.

Zemlya is a beautiful movie; sometimes the narrative is a bit murky and hard to follow, and sometimes the photography (or the print) is dark, but the imagery carries the story as well as it does in any silent film.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch, 1926)

There isn’t much to this early Ruritanian musical, adapted from some sort of stage play to feature the singing of Maurice Chevalier, the rakish count Alfred Renard, and Jeanette MacDonald as Queen Louise of Sylvania. In the early sections the count is a cheerfully cynical Don Juan, and in the end Petruchio. That is, he is a libertine in Paris and gets sent home, where he marries the queen, but soon tires of being second and uses coolness and distance to teach her a lesson. The refeminization of the dominant woman—that is, stripping her of her power to leave her simpering—is rather unpleasant. MacDonald is earnest but unconvincing as a queen, largely because of her relaxed posture and her accent, though she sings like a good stage monarch. She and Chevalier do have the good grace to be self-parodic—he’s at his best explaining, with a charming grin, why he is the only one in the movie with a French accent. There’s a charming second couple, the count’s valet (Lupino Lane) and the maid Lulu (Lillian Roth), who parallel the queen’s courtship of the count with their own rather cruder antics. Also nice is to hear the rumbling voice of the great character actor Eugene Pallette, who plays a lamentably small part, but plays it well.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

White Zombie (Victor Halpern, 1932)

Bela Lugosi was very busy in the early 1930s. Here, in 1932, the year after his masterfully arch Dracula, he plays “Murder” Legendre, master of zombies in the creepy plantations of Haiti. The film's depiction of Haiti is troubling—all drums and cringing, frightened black men. In fact, practically the only black actor is the terrified coach-driver, and his friendly advisor-witch doctor is a white actor in blackface.

Anyway, Legendre has drawn the members of his troupe of zombies from his old enemies, including a witch doctor whose magical secrets he has stolen. Lugosi is wonderfully arch, with a fine sardonic look—everything ordinary people do amuses him—and a fine now-I-will-
control-your-brain look, magnetically focusing way up close on scary eyes.

The plot is creaky and utterly predictable: there is a triangle consisting of a clean-cut handsome man and his pretty bride-to-be and a desperate best-man-to-be in love with the girl. He contracts with Legendre to transform the girl to keep her from marrying, and she seems to die. Soon she’s whisked away from her tomb to—get this—a huge semi-ruined stone castle beetling over an immense precipice above the angry sea. In Haiti--go figure. Inside, the castle is not so much ruined as peculiar. There seems to be water flowing in the upper stories, since people cross a sort of indoor torrent and then walk down a grand staircase into the great room of the castle, a room maybe 80 feet high, with pillars and tall stained-glass windows and all the best gothic decor money can buy. There Legendre and the bad young man wear evening clothes and the girl plays Chopin on the piano, without any expression on her kewpie-doll face. Somebody has to stop this!

And the handsome groom-to- be appears just in time, assisted by a jovial preacher who appears on the scene from somewhere. But evil is very strong here. Utter ruin is about to consume every one of them, until at last the bad friend has a change of heart and saves his handsome friend and his bride-to-be. Of course he must purge himself of the wickedness of plotting against them, so he dies in the attempt, thereby redeeming himself.

Not a pretty picture, all told. It should have remained among the dead.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Some films linger at the edge of one’s con sciousness, important somehow even if we haven’t actually gotten around to seeing them. La Dolce Vita’s spectral reputation in the 60s was as a shocking, sexy, glamorous film; in fact it is not very sexy at all. Rather, it is a very beautiful, very sad film about witnessing glamour, a prescient look at the cult of celebrity, and an acute insight into the sense of wanting something just out of reach. Marcello Mastroianni, who is of course very handsome and is looking out at the world as we look at him, seems to be still even when he’s moving. What we see in him is the ache of watching, and this creates an oddly affecting loop. We don’t want to be him, even as he’s engaged in not wanting to be him as well.

The film starts with a to
ur-de-force set of shots, two helicopters passing over a new housing development, one hauling a statue of Christ dangling on a long cable, its arms outstretched as if by pure coincidence circumstances accidentally came together and an arbitrary symbol passes through the world. People below run after the phenomenal sight, and its shadow whisks up the side of a building, at the top of which is a roof garden where several pretty young women are sunbathing, and one of the helicopters circles around so Marcello and his friend Paparazzo can flirt with them. The movie swarms with journalists occupying a spookily unreal zone of more or less staged occasions. Perhaps the most impressive is the great scene of televised religious frenzy, in which two children fake seeing the Virgin. Or they may or may not be faking. Surrounding them are huge crowds of would-be believers and hordes of television crews and paparazzi, and scenes are directed for television, and when the rain and the children’s proclamation set the crowd in motion, for a just a moment real need, sorrow, and faith can be seen in the midst of the big con.

Marcello seems always to be really near contact with things, and what is more, he appears to be really there, which makes him a great social reporter, but he senses he should be something more, a serious writer perhaps, as his brilliant-seeming bohemian friend suggests. But he isn’t even close to real feeling about his suicidal girlfriend. He is momentarily enchanted by the visiting American actress, the voluptuous Anita Ekberg, who is spontaneous and lustily primal but somehow not wicked, and he is attracted to the self-destructive Maddalena (Anouk Aimeé) who, in a poignant hall-of-whispers scene, begs him at a distance to marry her, then declares that she wants to love him and she wants to stay the same, a whore, and as she says this a man begins to make love to her and Marcello cannot find her in the maze of the old castle. The friend he so admired cracks and kills his children and himself—Marcello speculates he was afraid. Of somebody threatening him, a detective asks? No, of himself. He was right to be afraid; the event bears out the fear.

There is a scene with a distanced father, and a break-up scene, and a long decadent party, slightly silly and slightly brutal, and the last scene on the beach where the partygoers see a huge monster fish dragged in. A beautiful young girl, the innocent one, waves at Marcello. He’d met her at a café where he was trying to write and she was working. She beckons and calls, he says he can’t hear her, she signals again, he is called by the other partygoers, he shrugs eloquently and waves goodbye to her, as does she, still smiling. A farewell to beginnings.

There are lots of other things in the movie, too much to detail here. Afterwards, I was filled with a great sadness; the movie so eloquently expresses proximity without closeness, anomie, and despair, covered over with glamour and a hectic pace.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)

From a Damon Runyon story—that’s where the snappy under- world dialogue comes from. Apple Annie (May Robson) has been writing to her daughter for years using borrowed hotel stationery, letting the girl think she’s a society dame. Meanwhile, she sells apples on the street, where Dave the Dude (Warren William), an investor and gang boss, thinks his luck depends on buying an apple from her when something’s developing. Annie’s daughter writes that she’s arriving with her fiancé and his father, a Spanish count, and the Dude swings into action, borrowing a huge, luxurious apartment and inviting nightclub owner Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to superintend Annie's makeover, and gentleman pool hustler Judge Blake (Guy Kibbee) agrees to play the part of her husband. Of course things get terribly complicated and almost go wrong, but when the Dude tells his “fairy tale” to the mayor, the governor, etc., they all flock around to support the scene, and all ends well. Though William gets top billing, he’s not really the most interesting figure. Both Robson and Kibbee are delightful—the Judge handles the problem of coming up with a dowry by betting double or nothing with the Count at billiards, and he doesn’t even stay in the room to watch as his near-impossible shot drops into the pocket. The big cast is filled with guys and dolls of various stripes, including the ever-faithful Nat Pendleton as the genial, muscleheaded sidekick Shakespeare, and especially Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the Dude’s manager. Sparks has cornered the market on the sharp-featured raised-eyebrow and startled look, the purely facial double-take, and he gets nearly all the great snappy lines. Even when he’s not talking, he’s great to watch—as things get more and more unlikely, he takes to whistling snatches of “The Prisoner’s Song” to let the Dude know his plan is not as simple as he’d thought it would be, so he's likely to wind up with jail time. Sentimental and populist (the street people and gangsters and politicians with hearts of gold) and very funny.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

Noir, of the caper-gone-wrong variety. Even the double-crosses fail, people with less nerve than required die, and so do people with nerve. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is a gambler and hooligan, waiting for one big win that will allow him to go back to Kentucky to be with the horses. He has friends, the hunchback Gus (James Whitmore) and the dancer Doll (Jean Hagen) loves him. Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh from seven years “behind the walls,” has a good plan for a heist, and brings in bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), and then lawyer Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern) as investors. Emmerich—who has a bedridden wife and a cute girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe)—tries and fails to cheat the crew. During the heist things go wrong, the safecracker, a family man, gets shot by a richochet bullet from a dropped pistol, the nitro sets off burglar alarms next door, and Dix gets shot a little later by Emmerich’s sidekick who’d attempted another cross. Cobby talks, Gus is arrested, Doc is arrested while taking a break in a cab ride to Cleveland as he watches a pretty teenaged girl dance, and Dix and Doll manage to get away and they drive to Kentucky—but he’s lost too much blood, and dies under the cloudy sky in a pasture, surrounded by horses. Most of the film is shot in classic noir style, largely at night, and it’s populated by grotesques and character studies. The writers inject a speech by the police commissioner to reporters, to the effect that without police on the job, even though some may be corrupt, the world would be nothing more than a jungle. Dix—played by Hayden mostly with a straight-up, calm power, a direct gaze, and one or two flickers of feeling—is really damaged, carrying the long hurt of losing his father, his home, and his world, and though he is tough and unafraid, he’s not mean, not brutal. He does what is needful and no more. But even that is too much.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Maladolescenza (Pier Giuseppe Murgia, 1977)

When Europeans make films about summer holidays, they often view the time and place as unknown zones. Away from home, people are sometimes on some kind of unknown time: the first or last happy time, the beginning of maturity, explorations of love, rites of passage. This film is like that. There are only three characters, Laura (Lara Wendel), Fabrizio (Martin Loeb), and Silvia (Eva Ionesco), and the story takes place in the forest near the young people’s summer homes. Laura and Fabrizio explore the forest and discover high in the wooded hills a ruined “magic” town. Laura is eager to see him after a year apart, and she notes he has changed: he’s sullen and withdrawn and increasingly given to teasing and tormenting her. The sexual tension between them is complicated by Laura’s desperate wish to please him and his pleasure in denying her any sort of satisfaction, even conversation or a modest kiss. They find a cave underneath the castle, and lost down there Fabrizio undresses her and they make love. Just that once. And then he’s back to his mean ways of frightening her or tantalizing her. This gets still worse when he discovers Sylvia, in some ways Laura’s opposite, confident, blonde, mean, and fearless. She and Fabrizio torment Laura some more, in increasingly cruel ways, threatening to banish her, frightening her, shooting arrows at her, pretending to throw her from a cliff, making her serve them, and forcing her to watch them have sex. Fabrizio seems to get steadily worse, obsessed with living in the forest, imploring Sylvia to stay with him. As the summer is about to end and she’s set to leave, he takes them into the cave again and tells Sylvia they’re lost—and she panics, weeping and saying she’ll go crazy and screaming. She can’t hear Fabrizio pleading to let their idyll continue. Laura, who feels confused by Sylvia’s vulnerability and by her own diffidence (because she knows the way out), comforts the other girl. And Fabrizio kills her, just as he’s killed helpless birds already. What starts as an idyllic season succumbs to a corrosive pattern of conflating sex and power, so experimental cruelty is inevitable, and then the pastoral turns gothic. Sort of. The movie looks wonderful, with gorgeous photography of woods and meadows and ruins, and the three young actors are very nice to look at. Wendel is soft-looking, anxious, expectant, longing—she’s the best actor among them. Loeb is not a petulant adolescent, but he seems dissatisfied with things any boy his age would celebrate forever. Ionesco is an odd mixture of radiance and plainness, her golden hair all cloudlike and her skin fine, but her face is also rather ordinary looking from certain angles, and there’s something almost unformed and childlike about it, though her ease before the camera makes it difficult to spot (she was the favourite model for her mother, a famous photographer). Wendel appears more attractive because she’s more delicate, more hesitant, and more sympathetic. Finally, it would be nice to see a film about young people discovering sex and love and joy without this sour undercurrent of punishment.