film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ordet (1955)

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I tell you what, going from the quiet realism of Pather Panchali to this Danish theological tale of the possibly-supernatural was some serious whiplash.

It was really tough to get into as well. Set in 1920s rural Denmark, Ordet is the tale of the Borgens, a successful farm family. Widower Morten (Henrik Malberg) is the head of the clan, father to three grown sons – Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), and Anders (Cay Kristiansen), who all live on the farm with him along with Mikkel’s wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) and two daughters.  But there’s a bit of interfaith tension in the Borgen household; Mikkel has been an atheist for some time, despite Morten and Inger quietly trying to nudge him back into the fold.  Anders has his own woes – he wants to marry the daughter of the tailor, but her family belongs to a much different denomination, and he’s afraid neither Morten nor the tailor will agree to it.  But no one is fussing about it that much – because they’re all too busy trying to keep an eye on Johannes, who went crazy in college and now thinks he’s Jesus, and is thus prone to wandering off to preach sermons in empty fields.  On a happier note, too, the family is occupied with the impending arrival of Inger’s third child.

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Things come to a head one day when Anders finally decides to seize the day, asking Inger to break the news to Morten and soften him up while Anders is off trying to do the same at the tailor’s.  Morten isn’t thrilled about things at first – but when a dejected Anders comes home, saying the tailor refused because “he says I’m not good enough because I am not in their church”, Morten’s so angry he swears that he’ll fix things, by God, and all but drags Anders back over to the tailor’s.  There he gets into a lengthy theological debate with the tailor (while Anders cowers in the kitchen) until they are interrupted with an emergency phone call from Mikkel, back at home.  Inger just went into labor, he says, and….it doesn’t look good.  The Borgens rush home, joining Mikkel in a nervous vigil, leaving Johannes to wander about the house warning the others he sees Death coming for Inger.  The only one who believes him, though, is one of Mikkel and Inger’s daughters – who isn’t scared, because Uncle Johannes can bring her mother back to life.  Because he’s Jesus.  Right?

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I kept feeling like I was missing something throughout the first part of this film.  Much is made of the difference between Anders and the tailor’s daughter, and their respective denominations; however, I honestly couldn’t tell you which denominations either one are.  We don’t really see any church activity as such; there’s a lot of talk about faith and dogma, and a scene where the tailor has an impossibly dour prayer meeting in his shop; there’s also a few visits from the new pastor at Morten’s church, and Johannes wandering around spouting scripture. But that’s it.  I may be approaching from a unique perspective – I was raised Catholic by a fairly devout mother, but she has always been just as committed to letting others enjoy their own faith paths, and would no sooner have told me not to socialize with someone of a different faith than she would have eaten her own head. So the whole furor over Anders and the tailor’s daughter seemed unnecessary and petty, and dragged on way too long.  Preben Lerdorff Rye also has a strange, breathy note to his performance as Johannes that I think was meant to be “insane” but instead just came across as “opaque”.

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And yet I can’t write this film off entirely, because despite the opaque theological talk I found myself wanting to know what happened next.  Would Inger be okay? Would Anders get his beloved?  What the hell was up with Johannes?  Could he bring someone back to life?… The story at the heart of all of this grew on me, particularly the ultimate fate of Inger – who does die, or at least gives every indication of doing so. And I wanted to know the impact of her death on the rest of the family.

Also, this film just looked striking.  Ordet was adapted from a play by Carl Theodore Dryer, whom we’ve met before in the haunting The Passion of Joan of Arc and the moody Vampyr. This film is similarly slow and stately, with a similar set of arresting images. One that caught my eye in particular was at Inger’s wake, when the parson delivers a sermon while standing over her casket; Inger is set by two windows, and the parson stands at her head just between them, framed by their light.  His frock, meanwhile, is an impenetrable black, so black that it looks more like Inger is lying in front of a void standing ready to swallow her up forever.

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In his own review, Roger Ebert admits that this is a really tough film to get into, but somehow gets under your skin if you hang in there.  I can’t say I was quite as affected as he was by this film, but I can definitely agree that you end up caring more than you thought you would.

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Pather Panchali (1955)

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This 1955 Bengali film is deceptively simple. There’s a plot, but the plot doesn’t really feel like the point – the point is the simplicity and the realism with which director Satyajit Ray tells his story; every detail is simple, but somehow feels exactly right.

 Set in rural Bengal, India, Pather Panchali covers a few years in the life of a poor family; father Harihar (Kanu Banjeree) is an aspiring playwright scratching out a living as a sort of itinerant priest or scribe while mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banjeree – no relation) struggles to keep their dilapidated house going, taking care of their two children daughter Durga and son Apu (Uma Dasgupta and Subir Banjeree, respectively, and Subir is also no relation).  Rounding out the household is Indir (Chunibala Devi), an impossibly old cousin of Harihar’s who bugs the snot out of Sarbajaya but charms the kids.

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A lot of the film’s action deals with the difference between the kids’ lives and their parents’. Not by calling attention to it, though – more like just….showing it. Sarbajaya is perpetually ground down by the family’s poverty – urging Harihar to please consider taking the family somewhere else where he could find more work, endlessly repairing the house, getting into huge squabbles with Indir when she steals food from Sarbajaya’s kitchen, holding her own against the rich neighbor who implies daughter Durga is a thief.  Meanwhile, Durga and Apu are just…being kids.  Bugging Dad for money for candy even though Mom said no, sneaking out without doing chores, listening to Indir’s ghost stories, having heated sibling battles when Apu sneaks into Durga’s things, going on hikes to see the train run through the cowfield.  Both storylines do come together towards the end, when Harihar is following up on a distant job lead and Durga falls ill, leaving Sarbajaya struggling to take care of her in a crumbling house and with no money.

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I’m fretting that I’ve made the film sound simplistic, because it isn’t. Its focus is just on the smaller incidental moments that make up life; lavishing attention on the little details without trying to tie them up neatly.  We don’t need to have it spelled out for us that Durga is starting to be aware of the family’s poverty; we just need to linger on the wistful look she gets when she and her other girlfriends are gossiping about one of them getting engaged and talking about her dowry.  We don’t need to have Sarbajaya’s love for her kids spelled out; we just see her nagging Apu to get his butt out of bed and get ready for school, but then beaming proudly as Durga helps him brush his hair.  Some of the scenes in Pather Panchali aren’t even about the family at all; there’s a sequence towards the end of the film, just before a monsoon, where we watch a group of water bugs flitting across the surface of a nearby pond, occasionally pestered by a lurking fish, until we realize some of the dimples in the water are from raindrops.  It feels more like a collection of impressions that you only realize make up a full story at the end, or if you stand back and squint.

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It’s clear that Satyajit Ray was inspired by the French filmmaker Jean Renoir.  In fact, Renoir gave the novice Ray a bit of a pep talk early on; Renoir was in India in 1949 on a location-scouting trip for one of his own films, with Ray serving as his tour guide.  As they traveled, Ray talked shop with Renoir, showing him the novel upon which this film is based.   Ray was also inspired by the Italian neo-Realists, in particular Bicycle ThievesRay’s biggest concern was finding the budget for a more mainstream production, so he was captivated when he saw it was possible to cast non-actors and film on location.  The “indie” realism of Pather Panchali makes it one of the earliest examples of the “Parallel Cinema” movement in Indian filmmaking; unlike most mainstream “Bollywood” films, which were lavish affairs tending towards melodrama and with plenty of dance sequences, the Parallel Cinema films were quieter and focused on more serious and often sociopolitical content.  But even here, Ray doesn’t club us over the head with the poverty underscoring Pather Panchali. It too is just sort of there, one of the elements that you see if you stand back and squint.  Ever-present, but….sometimes fading into the background, because even if you’re poor you can sit for a second and listen to the song Indir is singing to your kids and watch the sun dapple the ground in your yard.

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The Sins of Lola Montes (1955)

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This film, sadly, didn’t do all that well in the box office during its original release.  Partly this was due to the studio stepping in and making great and sweeping changes – but it’s possible another reason it didn’t do well is because it was gloriously and delightfully batcrap crazy.

In theory, this is a biopic of the life of Lola Montez, a 19th Century Irish dancer and courtesan. The real Lola Montez was actually born “Eliza Gilbert” and spent her early childhood in India, the child of an Anglo-Irish military family.  Her father died when she was only six and her mother remarried; but Montez was apparently a handful for her stepfather, and was sent to a convent school.  She eloped at age 16, kicked that husband out at age 21, and became a professional Spanish dancer soon after, trying to pose as a Spanish woman. But someone in one of her London audiences recognized her, and the ensuing scandal drove her out to other European cities; the whiff of impropriety followed, keeping her from full acceptance as a dancer but luring powerful men to seek her out backstage, with the composer Franz Liszt, writer Alexandre Dumas and the Bavarian King Ludwig I among her reported lovers.  Ludwig I was especially taken with her, granting her a castle and a title; but his subjects objected so strongly that Ludwig was deposed. This was effectively Montez’s downfall as well – she fled to France a while, in the hopes he’d join her, but then gave up and came to the United States, going through another few marriages and seedier dancing gigs before giving up to do social work.

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That’s fodder enough for a biopic, and director Max Ophuls could have done just a straight-up retelling and still had a grand epic on his hands. He took a bit of a different approach, however; Ophuls focuses on Montez’ dancing career, from her first years in Paris to her affair with Ludwig I, and ending with her downfall and years in the United States. However, he also stages much of her story as a surreal circus act, suggesting that her downfall was so total that she was reduced to marketing her very life as a lurid sideshow.

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It’s bonkers. Peter Ustinov is the ringmaster, narrating Lola’s story and setting up the tableaux detailing each incident from her life, as Lola (Martine Carol) mostly sits statuelike beside him as the audience gawks, or performs a series of fittingly acrobatic stunts (a trapeze act to demonstrate how she was tossed from lover to lover, a high-dive act to emphasize her downfall, etc.). It’s not all circus act, though; more traditional depictions of moments from Lola’s life are intercut with the circus stuff, and there are occasional backstage-at-the-circus moments where various clowns and roustabouts peer through the curtains and gossip about the audience or Lola consults with the manager about some dizzy spells she’s having.

It reminded me of the flips between “reality” and “vaudeville” that happened in the movie adaptation of Chicago, only with less of a clear-cut distinction between what was “real” and what was “stage”.  Events happen out of order, the ringmaster turns up in one of the “real life” sequences, and the whole film ends with a pair of clowns drawing a vaudeville backdrop across the screen, implying the whole thing may have been a performance.

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This fluid approach to reality, plus the poor showing at the box office, is part of what prompted the studio to make big changes in Ophuls’ work.  When the film flopped, the studios tried re-releasing it as a more straightforward biopic, with all of the flashbacks depicting Lola’s life re-ordered sequentially and only a couple of circus scenes at the end. Ophuls spent the next three years – his final three years on earth – fighting the studio to get them to change it back.  It wasn’t until 2008 that a team of film historians and preservationists worked on recovering and restoring the original print that Ophuls’ directors’ cut saw light again.

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In the studio’s defense, though, it was clear the studio sank a lot of money into this; it looks gorgeous, with lots of scenes set in richly-decorated palaces and concert halls and a series of Lola’s boudoirs over the years, plus the elaborate circus sets with fully-costumed acrobats and clowns and aerialists and teams of trained horses and such.  A good chunk of the budget also went to affording Martine Carol, who was something of a flavor-of-the-month It-Girl that French studios were trying to promote then. Many reviewers point to Carol’s performance as another reason for the film’s downfall, writing her off as “bland” and “wooden”.  I’d have to disagree, however; she wasn’t that great, but whether they were seeing blandness in the actor or numbness in the character is a question I think is up for debate.  Or, at least, Ophuls may have spun things so that Carol’s flat acting may have worked for the role.  Either way, it didn’t bother me, and it fit the character in those particular moments.

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Animal Farm (1954)

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There are a few reasons why my generation, “Generation X”, is the way it is.  The looming threat of mass human extinction through a nuclear war is probably the biggest one – but another likely influence is that we are the generation who was assigned mid-century dystopic fiction as class reading in our schools.  Most of us ended up reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; however, for school systems with more genteel tastes, you probably ended up reading Orwell’s Animal Farm.  It’s not quite as damning of current politics, but is rather more of a parable about historic events, so it’s a little easier to swallow.  Plus, hey, cute animals.

I’m likely not going to be able to separate my familiarity with the book from my response to the movie; so, I’m not even gonna try.  The movie is a genrally faithful adaptation – but there are a couple of alterations that did stick out.

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Really quick – this is the story of the animals on an English farm who revolt one day, inspired by the words of a wise pig named “Old Major” and fed up with the farmer’s cruelty. They happily figure out how to work together to keep the farm going, devoting themselves to Old Major’s vision of interspecies equality and mutual collaboration.  However, the leadership falls to the pigs, who quickly end up getting seduced by their power and start to subtly change the rules to their own benefit, and ultimately end up just as exploitative as their former human caretaker.

The film tweaks things a tiny bit – possibly because even though this was a British production, much of the funding came from the CIA.  No, really – funding for this film came from an early United States initiative to support anti-Communist propaganda.  There’s certainly some symmetry, since the book was such a blatant parable about how the Russian Revolution gradually gave way to Stalinism – but the CIA still couldn’t resist asking the filmmakers to play up just how bad life was under the pig “Napoleon,” the film and book’s stand-in for Stalin himself. They also dialed back the book’s relatively favorable depiction of the pig “Snowball” (Leon Trotsky) and wrote out some minor characters for clarity’s sake.  The film also has a happier ending than the book, but that may just be a function of “Hollywood”.

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Strangely, though, those aren’t the changes that stuck out to me. Instead – and I am surprised how much this bothered me – this film cuts out nearly all instances of the animals talking.  Some animals do still speak; in the very first scene, where Old Major holds a rally in the main barn to encourage the others to revolt, Old Major’s speech is intact (if abridged). However, Old Major goes on to teach the other animals a song called “Beasts of England”, which serves as an inspirational song and group touchstone throughout the story.  In the book, there are English lyrics – but in the movie, while the animals do “sing”, what we hear is a cacophony of their barks, howls, bleats, whinnies, and brays.  The sheep do bleat out the Animal Farm motto of “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad” at one point – but only at that one point, and never do we get to hear them get re-trained to bleat out “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better” when the pigs’ rule descends into oppression. Even the pigs don’t speak much.  There are some speeches here and there – mainly from the pig Squealer, the “voice” of propaganda for the other pigs – but most of the time, when the brutish Napoleon is issuing a command, he just squeals.

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This actually detracts from one of the more poignant plot points – the fate of Boxer, the loyal workhorse who believes so strongly in Old Major’s vision that he keeps plugging away despite the pigs’ leadership turning into oppression.  Old Major rallies him to the cause by warning him that their human master is likely to send him to a glue factory when he is old and worn out, so it’s especially cruel when this is exactly what Napoleon and his cronies do. But crueler still is the propaganda spread by Squealer, who concocts a hokey “death scene” story to tell the others which claims that Boxer died peacefully, despite having “the best medical care”, and that his dying words were a pledge of loyalty to Napoleon and a plea to his friends to “work harder”.  In the book, Boxer repeatedly pledges his trust in Napoleon so often that it’s a near catchphrase, so Squealer mouthing it seems a cruel betrayal.  In the film, however, Squealer still says that speech – but we’ve never heard Boxer saying anything. All Boxer has done is neigh.  So Squealer’s story comes across as more obviously fake, but less blatantly exploitative.

The animation is…eh, it’s fine.  There’s some cute bits of business showing how the animals all chip in, each in their own way, to harvesting grain and building a windmill and other such tasks, but it’s not wildly different from similar scenes in Snow White or Dumbo.  The pigs and people end up looking a little meaner, but that’s about it.

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Whether or not the omission of the animals’ talking was the CIA’s call, or the animators’ call, it’s hard to say.  Although if it was the CIA, I’m surprised they didn’t realize they were hobbling their own message as a result.

 

 

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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Okay.  Okay.

What in the bleeding heck.

…So, this is a film whose premise has really, really not aged well, I’d say. Based on a Stephen Vincent Benet story, which was itself based on or inspired by the Roman myth of the Rape of the Sabine Women, this is the tale of the seven Pontipee Brothers, all living in somewhat unkempt squalor in colonial Oregon.  While eldest brother Adam (Howard Keel) is in town one day, trading some of their farms’ goods at the general store, he decides it’s high time for him to get a wife, and sticks around town looking for a likely candidate. He spots pretty Milly (Jane Powell), a hired girl at a local saloon who can make a mean stew, and proposes to her instantly.  Milly is initially bemused, but accepts – something about the adventure of it all sweeps her off her feet.  So Adam doesn’t really get a chance to give her the fine print – that she has six brothers-in-law living under the same roof and that Adam’s essentially expecting her to carry on being a maid, only with no pay.

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Still, she accepts her fate readily enough.  Along with her cooking and cleaning, though, she also embarks on a campaign to shape up all seven brothers – in the hopes of reforming her own husband, and shaping up the other six so they can win ladies of their own.  The fluffed-up, new-and-improved Pontipees make their debut at a local barn-raising and impress six single lasses there – until jealous rivals pick a fight with them that turns into an all-out brawl, resulting in many cuts and bruises and the destruction of the barn they were there to build.

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The Pontipees hole up in disgrace. Finally Adam – sick of his brothers’ moping – tells them the story of the Sabine women which he’s just read about in one of Milly’s books and suggests they do the same – kidnap all six of their crushes and bring them back to their farm for the winter, where the snows will trap them until spring and giving nature a chance to run its course.  ….I have to pause here and share the actual lyrics from the song which spells out this plan:

“Rough ’em up like them there Romans do
Or else they’ll think you’re tetched!…
Them a women was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’,
Weepin’ a ton them sobbin’ women…
Oh they acted angry and annoyed
But secretly they were overjoyed
Them goin be a sobbin’ for a while
We’re gonna make them sobbin’ women smile!”

Again, I say – what in the bleeding heck.

…Okay.  To be fair, there are some things to say in the film’s defense.  Milly does intercede – after a fashion – when the boys turn back up with their women, evicting all the men to the barn and turning herself into den mother to the unwilling women all winter, looking after them and keeping everything on the up and up.  …True, she does quietly encourage her charges to spy on the boys out the window, and does quietly agree that yes, brother Ephraim is strong, and yes, brother Benjamin is tall…so it’s not quite the insta-marriage thing the boys had in mind, but Milly’s intercession just makes it a little more…proper.

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There’s also the dancing. Many of the other reviews I’ve read choose to skip over the sticky sexual politics altogether and focus on the choreography instead, and there’s certainly cause for it.  Choreographer Michael Kidd originally turned the gig down (“Here are these slobs living off in the woods. They have no schooling, they are uncouth, there’s manure on the floor, the cows come in and out – and they’re gonna get up and dance?”), but then relented, coming up with ideas for how to incorporate athletic, “farm-worker” actions into dance.  Kidd’s influence even extended to the songs themselves – for one number, Kidd all but ordered a song, telling composer Johnny Mercer he wanted something mournful for the bachelor Pontipees to sing as they chopped wood and lamented their singlehood.  Kidd was already working on some “wood-chopping” choreography to go with it.  And in short order, Mercer gave him the song “Lonesome Polecat”, which I have to admit I found kinda cute.

The dance at the barn raising, as well, is a showstopper – the six brothers start out competing with six other bachelors for the single lasses on a square dance floor, the competition growing fiercer and fiercer until it’s a full-on dance battle, each of the brothers doing showier and showier stunts to show up the other boys.

 

Director Stanley Donen made sure to cast top-notch dancing talent for the brothers Pontipee – most were primarily known as dancers rather than actors (and you can….kinda tell). This was clearly going to be all about the music and the dance numbers, rather than the story.  Still – I really really wish that Kidd and Donen had been working in the service of a much better, or at least a less oogy, story.

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Salt Of The Earth (1954)

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I actually think I’d get a kick out of a movie about this movie.  It’s a dramatization of a real labor union strike in New Mexico, made by a handful of blacklisted actors and filmmakers with the cast round out by actual miners (including one of the two leads).  Along the way, the filmmakers had to contend with the locals sabotaging their shoots, labs refusing to process their film, pushback from the cast about the script, and the lead actress getting deported.  It wasn’t screened anywhere in the US upon its release since the projectionists’ union refused to run it.  (On the other hand, it is the only American film to be screened in China during Mao Tse-Tung’s time in office.)  This is a film that really,  really wanted to get made.

The film was inspired by an actual strike that took place in a mine in New Mexico where Latinx miners were being treated quite differently from the Anglo ones.  Their pay was lower, they had separate locker rooms and canteens, their facilities were sub-standard.  Their wives were also complaining that the company housing provided to the Latinx workers had no indoor plumbing.  In the film, much of this is dramatized through its impact on one family – Ramon (Juan Chacón) and Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltes) Quintero, and their three kids. Ramon is one of the better miners at “Delaware Zinc”, but the ill treatment gets to him and he regularly takes his frustration out on Esperanza; not with violence, fortunately, but with a perpetual bad mood. He regularly attends meetings of their union and joins in with the negotiations for better conditions, but ignores Esperanza and the other women when they press the union to lobby for better housing on their behalf.

Ramon doesn’t even want Esperanza to show up by the picket line with the other women when the men go on strike; he only relents when he learns that none of the other women make coffee as well as she can.  Esperanza comes to relish being part of the movement – so much so that when the factory files an injunction ordering that any striking miners would be arrest immediately, she’s one of a small group of women pointing out that the injunction says nothing about arresting miners’ wives if they start a picket line.  Which they’d be happy to do.  …But let’s also add indoor plumbing for the housing to our list of demands, eh boys?

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There are times when the storytelling gets somewhat clunky.  We are effectively looking at a bit of propaganda, which isn’t always known for nuance in its characters or in its plot points. An early “things suck for us” spat between Esperanza and Ramon is a little didactic, as are some of the union meetings, and we first meet Esperanza as she is melodramatically begging forgiveness of the Virgin Mary for momentarily wishing that her unborn child would be stillborn so it doesn’t suffer with the rest of them.  I admit that I cringed a bit when I saw that “The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers” sponsored its production, as I was expecting precisely this kind of propaganda.

But there are also moments where we get to see the more human moments of community the miners share.  For all his crabbing, Ramon does rally the town to all come celebrate Esperanza’s birthday in the film (even if their son has to pull him out of a union meeting and remind him to do it), and the women have a fun sense of camaraderie both on the picket line and off.  (One thing that made me chuckle – at one point, one of the women is joking with the others about the way her husband wags his butt when he dances, and then several minutes later, when her husband brings her out on a dance floor, she looks at the other women and points significantly to his butt as they dance just to make them laugh.)

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Even more significantly, the film addresses the strength of the women’s support, and the problems some of the men have with accepting that support.  A late scene sees Ramon at the local bar in a sulk because Esperanza is at the picket line, leaving him to take care of the kids, but when he gets home Esperanza calls him on his nonsense and demands equality in their marriage, just like the strikers are hoping for equality at the mill.  It was a surprising nuance I wasn’t expecting to see addressed.

It’s possible that the film has such realism because the filmmakers were working with real miners. Screenwriter Paul Jarrico and director Herbert Biberman were flying by the seat of their pants with this production – Jarrico was blacklisted by Hollywood, and Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten, and had just gotten out of jail after serving his sentence for contempt of Congress. So they didn’t have access to the kind of production staff or actors Hollywood films did.  No matter – they took a page from the Italian neo-realists and cast most of the film with actual miners, many of whom had taken part in the strike that inspired the film itself. Juan Chacón was union president at his mine, in fact. The miners’ participation ended up influencing the script in ways both large and small – the original draft had scenes in which Ramon has an affair, or blows his last company paycheck before the strike on a crapload of whiskey.  The miners objected strongly to these plot points, and they were cut.

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As for the professional actors – there were only five; four blacklisted actors took smaller roles as the local sheriff or mine overseer.  Initially, a fifth blacklisted actress was due to play Esperanza – but she was Caucasian, and the company realized that having an Anglo lady play a Latina were kind of icky.  So instead they recruited Rosaura Revueltes, an up-and-coming actress in the Mexican film scene, to star as Esperanza.  Unfortunately Revueltes became a bit of a target during filming; Biberman and Jarrito’s reputation, along with the subject matter, earned the production several powerful enemies willing to exploit political connections.  One of those connections was with U.S. Immigration – who turned up on set one day saying that Revueltes had passport problems, and deported her back to Mexico midway through filming.  Undeterred, Biberman used a stand-in for several scenes and added some narration from Esperanza, which Revueltes recorded in a soundstage in Mexico and smuggled over the border to Biberman.

Sadly, the film itself got blacklisted upon its completion, and anyone who hadn’t been blacklisted already became thus.  However, it enjoyed an “underground” distribution amongst unions and leftist and progressive groups, with film historians, Mexican-Americans, and feminists soon joining the word-of-mouth throughout the 1960s.  Finally, 50 years after the film’s creation, it was granted a nationwide distribution at several film conferences by way of apology.

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Johnny Guitar (1954)

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This film was just so odd.

It’s clearly a low-budget B-film, but they have Joan Crawford starring.  And it’s a Western.  And the main antagonism is between a pair of women.  There are bandits and there are simple townspeople, but the townspeople end up being the bad guys.  Sort of.  And the bandits are the good guys.  Kind of.  And while there are some gunfight scenes, most of the drama is in deep emotional conversations.

Yeah.  Odd.

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Joan Crawford plays “Vienna,” owner of a saloon just outside a small Arizona town. She doesn’t really get much business, but she’s working a deal with a railroad to bring a track and a depot to the town.  The local cattle ranchers aren’t keen on the idea, nor are they thrilled with how Vienna has no trouble entertaining the outlaw known as “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady).  Local fussbudget Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) is especially scandalized as she heard Vienna used to date him.  Things are so tense that Vienna tracks down another old boyfriend, Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden), a gunslinger who has supposedly given guns up for music. Vienna hires him to play in her saloon, and officially frowns on his gunslinging – but secretly hopes that if things go sour at the saloon ever, Johnny can be some extra muscle.

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And things do go sour – but just outside town, when a stagecoach gets held up and Emma’s brother gets killed.  She’s convinced the culprits are the Dancing Kid and his band, and is equally convinced that Vienna is the mastermind – so she drags the marshall, the mayor, and a few other townspeople to Vienna’s saloon to make her accusations.  But not only are Vienna and the Dancing Kid able to present alibis, Vienna starts joking Emma maybe has a crush on the Dancing Kid herself.  Chastened, Emma slinks away, resolving to get her revenge on Vienna someday.  And when the town bank gets robbed – on a day when Vienna is conveniently making a deposit – Emma sees her chance, whipping the townspeople up into a mob bent on destruction, and all too eager to step in when the mob starts to have second thoughts.

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In his review, Roger Ebert calls this a “blatant psychosexual melodrama”, and he’s honestly not far off.  Vienna toys with both Johnny and The Dancing Kid, frowning on both their muscle but taking advantage of their protection. Emma is obsessed with bringing Vienna down to the point that some have suspected that it’s her, and not the Dancing Kid, that Emma pines for.  Either way, Emma is such a force of nature that the entire rest of the town gets caught up in her obsession; often all it takes to bring a doubter back into line is for Emma to bark a command at them.

Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford sort of works here.  She’s really not someone I pictured in a Western – her vibe has always seemed more 1940s noir, as opposed to bright technicolor and cowboys. But that noir energy is what she brings to a confrontation she has with Johnny mid-film, in which they re-hash some conflicts from their prior relationship, and it fits perfectly.

It’s still all just so odd. Fascinatingly so, though.

 

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Carmen Jones (1954)

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I am strangely conflicted about Carmen Jones. On the one hand, it’s an unusually  good movie musical with an all-African-American cast, with some fine performances and a plot that avoids a stereotyping trap other such films might have fallen into.  On the other hand – it seems to have some blind spots about its cast’s talents.

Carmen Jones is the filmed version of a stage musical, which was itself based on the opera  Carmen by Georges Bizet.  On the whole, it’s a fairly faithful adaption that changes the trappings and leaves the plot alone; instead of being a free-wheeling bohemian in Spain, this Carmen (Dorothy Daindridge) is a vixenish single gal working at a parachute factory near a North Carolina army base in the 1940s.  She could have her pick of the soldiers, but sets her eyes on Joe (Harry Belafonte), the aspiring young corporal who’s just gotten a spot in the flying school on base and is about to go on leave so he can marry his girl Cindy (Olga James).  Carmen conspires to get her hands on Joe by picking a fight, prompting Joe’s C.O. to order him to deliver Carmen to the nearest civilian jail, one hours’ drive away.  Along the way, Carmen first tries escaping, but when that doesn’t work, she tries seduction.  Despite himself, Joe does give in – only for Carmen to slip out after. Joe is stripped of his rank and briefly imprisoned, but even worse, he’s now haunted by the memory of Carmen.

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Strangely for Carmen, the feeling is mutual. She slips Joe some notes while he’s in the clink, telling him she’s taken a job at the local juke joint and asking him to look her up when he gets out. Her friends are puzzled by her newfound fidelity; even when the prizefighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams) takes a shine to her, she still turns him down, even after he offers her and her friends a free trip to his next match in Chicago.  She’s still holding out for Joe. Except when Joe does turn up, it’s only for a brief visit – he’s been reinstated in flight school, at a base 400 miles away, and has just enough time for one night to kick off what would be a long-distance courtship. Carmen tells him to stuff it and sets out for Chicago – prompting Joe to go AWOL and join her.

Though they’re smitten with each other, Joe and Carmen struggle in Chicago – Joe has to lay low to hide from the MPs, and Carmen suffers from the quieter lifestyle they’ve had to adopt; especially since Husky is all too ready to tempt Carmen to join him in more fun, more bling, and more freedom.   The more constrained Carmen feels, the more desperate Joe gets, and the more attractive an option Husky seems, leading this love triangle to a drastic end.

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When I saw the cast, I was rather impressed.  Hollywood has not always been kind to its non-white actors, including only a scant one or two in its blockbuster films and confining them to supporting roles. If there’s a film with an all-black cast, they’re often cliché-ridden farces.  But here was a film with an all-black cast where everyone behaves like, well, people – and it was made in 1954.  Director Otto Preminger deserves some praise for this – he suspected that the studios would balk at a film with an all-black cast, and figured out a way to get the film financed independently.  Preminiger similarly figured out a way around the Hays Code inspector who thought that Carmen was a little too lascivious – he rewrote some scenes that toned down her behavior and shot them alongside the original script.  Preminger showed those scenes to the ratings team, and after he got their stamp of approval, he swapped back in the original scenes.

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However, Preminger’s devotion to his vision lead to my biggest problem.  The film came about after Preminger attended a performance of the stage adaptation; while he liked the idea of a contemporary setting for Carmen, he found the theatrical adaptation dumbed the libretto down, and over-simplified the score out of deference to its non-opera cast.  So he resolved to put more of the “opera” back in, going so far as to update the score with more selections from Bizet’s work and adding back in more bits from the original plot.  Preminger also insisted that his leads sound operatic when they sang; but Daindridge and Belafonte, while they were singers, were not opera singers.  So Preminger had their singing dubbed, swapping in vocals by classically trained singers Marilyn Horne and LeVerne Hutcherson.  In fact, the only member of the cast who’s not dubbed is Pearl Bailey, as Carmen’s friend “Frances”, who gets a jazzy solo called “Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum”.

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Okay, Horne and Hutcherson are fine – and I understand Preminger’s devotion to his idea.  It’s true that Belafonte’s folk/pop style is not the same as opera.  But I’m so familiar with Belafonte’s own singing voice that it was profoundly distracting to see his lips moving and hear a totally foreign voice coming out, even if that voice was in a style that more closely matched the song.  (Besides, Aretha Franklin herself proved some years ago that you can sing an aria in your own style and still kick ass.)

So ultimately – I was intrigued, but I wished that Preminger had let everyone sing in their own voices.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

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The description that kept coming to my mind again and again while watching Sansho the Bailiff was “Dickensian.”  Which I admit is weird for a film set in feudal Japan.  But Sansho has a similar sympathy for the poor and downtrodden, executes similarly melodramatic twists of fate, and ends on a similarly sentimental note to many of Dickens’ works.

Heads up that the “Sansho” of the title isn’t even the main character, and he isn’t even a good guy – instead Sansho, played by Eitarō Shindō, is the villain for much of the story, and the catalyst that kicks things off.  In this period in Japan, it is explained, private landowners can kind of do whatever they want on their own turf, and the governors appointed by the emperor are supposed to respect landowners’ rights; but Sansho is a mean dude and the governor in his province tries to do something about it. The Emperor sides with Sansho, and the film begins as the governor is heading off into exile, sending his wife Tamaki (Kinuyu Tanaka) and two kids, Zushiō and Anju, to a safe house for a few years until they can join him.

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Tamaki and the kids set out a few years later, but run into some bad luck when the priestess who puts them up for a night turns out to be in cahoots with some slave traders, so the “boatmen” that are supposed to take them the rest of the way instead take Tamaki to a brothel in a distant island, while Zushiō and Anju end up as slaves on Sansho’s estate.  Much of the rest of the film concerns Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) trying to escape, find Tamaki, and get some payback; however, their zeal is often checked by their father’s teaching that “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” Zushiō’s success ultimately depends on how closely he can stick by his father’s teachings, even when the cost turns out to be quite great – and the temptation to get revenge is even greater.

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A lot of the plot twists seem to hinge on the kind of coincidental chance meetings that I feel Dickens uses a lot.  Sansho’s son Tarō (Akitake Kōno) hates Sansho’s cruelty and becomes a monk – and later, when Zushiō is looking for shelter, he turns up at Tarō’s monestary.  Anju makes friends with a new slave girl – who idly sings a song she heard a courtesan “back home” sing that mentions Zushiō and Anju, and that’s how Anju figures out where Tamaki is. Zushiō tries to appeal to the Emperor’s Chief Advisor for help, and is almost thrown out until the Chief Advisor recognizes something Zushiō has with him and realizes whose son he is.  And so on.

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So the plot has a bit of heightened reality to it.  The cinematography seems to put this even further into the realm of fable – wherever we are, whether it’s the grotty slave quarters on Sansho’s estate or the lake where Anju makes a sacrifice, it’s beautifully shot, composed almost like a painting.  For me, I think this helped; I’ve admitted that I’ve been kind of lukewarm on Dickens in the past, but here, if the tone was getting a little too melodramatic or the coincidence a little too pointed, I ended up getting distracted by the beauty of the shot and things went down a little smoother.  Also, director Kenji Mizoguchi favors a much smaller cast list, so there aren’t quite as many kooky outsiders to get in the way of getting aquainted with the leads.

So I still come back to Sansho being a lost Dickens work that somehow ended up going to Kyoto for a while.