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And The Syllabus Grows

So!  Every once in a while the publishers release a new edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, with an amended list.  I decided that I was going to cover every movie that’s ever been in any edition.

There’s a new edition coming out within the next couple days, and advance word is that the new list includes the following:

  • The Greatest Showman
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • A Star is Born
  • Roma
  • Hereditary
  • The Favourite
  • Phantom Thread
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • BlacKkKlansman

In addition, it may also include:

  • Capernaum
  • Vice

Adding these to my syllabus now.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Louisiana Story (1948)

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As it turns out, this film can be paired with Nanook Of The North to serve as the bookends for a career.  Nanook was the debut film for director Richard Flaherty; Louisiana Story was his last film.  …That being the case, I wish I were a little more impressed with it.

Much as he did for Nanook – and for all his “documentaries”, to be frank – Flaherty directed more of a docu-drama, writing up a sort of “script” with various “typical scenarios” in it, and then casting non-actors to act them out. Here he turns his attention to a rural Cajun family in Louisiana, where he focuses mainly on a boy of about ten who lives in a cabin in the bayous with his parents and a pet raccoon that he paddles around with on his pirogue, fishing and exploring and trying to trap an alligator.  Early on in the film, his father sells an oil company the drilling rights to a portion of their property, and on occasion the oil workers and the boy swap fishing tips.

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And nothing else really…happens.

It’s the same model as Nanook of the North, actually – “show people going about their business”.  In Nanook there are sequences with seal hunts and spearfishing; here we see a sequence with the boy struggling to land an alligator.  In Nanook, the children play with sled dogs and are fascinated by other Arctic animals; in Louisiana Story, the boy plays with his raccoon and is fascinated by watching an alligator hatch.  Nanook has a “comedy” bit where Nanook shows himself to be unfamiliar with a phonograph; Louisiana Story has a “comedy” bit where the boy amuses the oil riggers with some folkloric tips for fishing, and takes them seriously when they joke that he should do the same for their oil rig.  With this film, it didn’t seem as fascinating; possibly because moviemaking itself is two decades older, or possibly because Cajun country is not as dis-similar.

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There’s also a whiff of propaganda to the film as well; and no surprise, as the Standard Oil company commissioned the film to promote its Louisiana drilling ventures. Not a whole heck of a lot happens with that either; other than the friendly banter between the boy and the riggers, and another scene where the boy and his father show off the skin of an alligator they’ve caught, we don’t see much of them. There’s a sequence with the oil drill striking a gas pocket and nearly causing an accident, but it seems to get fixed up awfully quick (and largely off-camera), with absolutely no environmental impact.  There’s also a scene towards the end with the father bringing home some new household items for the mother, presumably using proceeds from the drilling crew.

So I don’t really know whether it was the propagandizing or the film itself that made this feel like a non-event, and why it didn’t grab me as much as Nanook did.  Maybe I’ve changed a bit as well since watching that earlier film.

This being a Louisiana story, I’ll leave you with a lagniappe – a recent interview with Joseph Boudreaux, who was cast as the Boy in this film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)

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Alright, let’s all just say this once together and get it out of our system, shall we?

“Badges? Badges? We don’t need no STEENKEENG badges!!!”

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….Moving on.

Like half the planet, that one line (which is a misquote) is the very few things I knew about this film. I had a vague idea it was a Western-y thing, that Humphrey Bogart was in it, that was about it.  I went into this pretty blind.  And boy am glad I did, because what a fabulous surprise this turned out to be.  I had the idea this was a sort of Wild-West thing with Humphrey Bogart as the hero, set during ye olden frontier days or something. But instead, this was a gripping tale of greed and corruption set just before the Great Depression, and Humphrey Bogart is instead a major anti-hero.  As he famously quipped to a movie critic while they were filming – “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”

He’s not that bad at first. Bogart is “Fred Dobbs”, a drifter bumming around a Mexican oil town panhandling from other norte-americanos and doing odd jobs.  At some point he’s thrown together with another such drifter, Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), and they end up going in on a night for them both in a flophouse, where they meet Howard (Walter Huston, father of the director John). Howard’s regaling everyone with stories of his gold prospecting days, seasoning his tall tales with a frank confession that he quit gold mining because the greed was getting to him.  Curtin’s bemused at Howard’s stories, but Dobbs is…inspired.  So much so that when Curtin and Dobbs have a sudden windfall, they seek out Howard and talk him into leading them on one more prospecting expedition.

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After an exhausting few days of backcountry hiking – exhausting for Curtain and Dobbs, at least – Howard declares they’ve found the right spot, high in the Sierra Madre mountains.  Dobbs and Curtain are dubious – but after Howard gives them a quick gold-panning lesson, one which has yielded them a couple hundred dollars for short work, the other men are sold.  It’s not as easy as Dobbs and Curtain thought, maybe; they still have to dig and pan and put their backs into it, and they still have to camp out in the wilderness two days’ hike outside of civilization, but within a few months they’ve accumulated a small fortune.

Except as the money piles up….Dobbs starts to get greedy.  And his greed makes him paranoid; first he insists on splitting the haul up three ways each day, and making every man responsible for his own stash – so he can hide his from the others.  Then he starts to second-guess Curtain or Howards motivations for anything they do or anywhere they go.  He gets dangerously aggressive towards any strangers who come near their camp.  And in time, his aggression starts to turn towards his comrades.

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I was riveted.  This story isn’t so much about the gold and the thrilling adventure of finding it, so much as it’s about how jealousy and paranoia blow the whole thing apart, especially how it drives Dobbs completely bats towards the end of the film.  But it’s not an over-the-top mad scene – it’s been a long gradual slide, and one we’ve absolutely seen coming.  It’s also one Howard and Curtin have seen coming as well; for most of the film, Howard’s not so much teaching his fellows about prospecting so much as he’s babysitting Dobbs.  But at one point he’s called away – and finds an alternative life to pursue after prospecting – and that leaves Dobbs free to tip the whole situation over into chaos, leaving him pacing in circles in a jungle in one scene and arguing with himself about bandits, vultures, and tigers and ranting about whether it makes sense to have a conscience.

Everyone meets an unfortunate end; but only in one case is it a tragic one.  For the others it’s transformative, and even a little hopeful.  In a way, that was disappointing – it just felt like things were being tied up in a neat bow.  I’d almost preferred the film had ended just two minutes sooner – with two of the characters realizing that everything they’d tried to do had just collapsed around them, and all they could do was look at each other and laugh in the middle of the mayhem.

….Not bad for a film about “steenking badges”, eh?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Red Shoes (1948)

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As I work my way through the list, I’ve started to get more and more comments from my friends on Facebook.  I predict that this 1948 ode to art and passion-edging-towards-obsession is going to bring a bumper crop of reactions from my theater-based friends list.  The Red Shoes may be about the world of ballet rather than theater, but there are still definite parallels.

Just as there are parallels between the show-within-a-show and the main plot.  The original story of “The Red Shoes” was a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, in which a young girl becomes fascinated by a pair of cursed red shoes; when she puts them on, the shoes start dancing of their own accord, carrying her along with them and forcing her to dance for days to the point of exhaustion, and some retellings see her dance herself to death.  It’s not that big a leap to see this as being a story about obsession, particularly about obsession with art.  The story of the artist who is absolutely driven to paint (or write or act or compose or sing or dance or sculpt or what have you) is a familiar one, especially with the artist feeling like the work itself has taken them over, pushing them to work to the point of starvation, exhaustion, poverty, isolation and misery.

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The three main artists in our tale don’t seem quite that obsessed at first.  We kick things off at a ballet performance in Convent Garden in London, with a new work produced by the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). In the audience is a young music student, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who’s there because the score is ostensibly by his teacher.  Elsewhere in the audience is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballerina herself.  Page’s mother is a countess who spends most of the show sending messages backstage to Lermontov, trying to persuade him to give her daughter an audition; meanwhile Craster is realizing with horror that his teacher’s “original composition” was actually plagiarized – from Craster.  He leaves the show early and writes a scathing letter to Lermontov, demanding his due, as Lermontov finally relents and agrees to see Page dance.

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Of course, Page and Craster end up working with Lermontov.  And for a while things kinda truck along with Craster as an assistant rehearsal conductor and Page as a backup dancer, with bits that felt a lot like all of the backstage bits from the old Busby Berkeley musicals, all backstage sniping and in-jokes.  And sure enough, there’s the moment when the established star of the company has to drop out and both Page and Craster get their big break – Craster is tapped to write a full score for a new ballet based on “The Red Shoes,” with Page featured as the star.

But in a movie like 42nd Street that would have been the climax, with Craster and Page both hitting it big and the story reaching a happy ending.  Here, instead, it’s where we first see a mean side to Lermontov; the company’s prima ballerina isn’t dropping out from an injury, she’s simply taking a leave of absence to get married.  But when she announces the news and asks for leave, Lermontov fires her outright; he doesn’t believe that love and art can mix.  Page’s break comes only partly because of her talent – Lermontov also believes that she’s going to be more dedicated to art alone.  Craster too.

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….But then working on The Red Shoes and other subsequent works throws Page and Craster together, and sparks start to fly between them as well.  Lermontov  doesn’t take that well, taking out his frustrations on the pair; Craster pushes back, with Page caught in the middle and finally having to choose: love, or art?

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The details of Page’s choice are actually a little unfair; both Lermontov and Craster are giving her some cruel ultimatums.  But some time midway through the film, I stopped thinking of this realistically and started seeing it all as a parable – sure, the choice that Lermontov and Craster are asking Page to make would be a cruel one in real life, but for someone under the sway of the Red Shoes, it is exactly what a more realistic choice would feel like.  It’s very similar to a choice I found myself making years ago, when I was deciding whether to keep studying to be an actress or whether I should accept that maybe being a stage manager was a better fit.  Ultimately I chose to give up acting, since it would also bring a much smoother life path – I wasn’t good enough, frankly – and now, nearly 30 years later, I know that I absolutely made the right choice.  But back then, the thought that “if I just worked even harder I could keep chasing that dream” was awfully tempting.

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I realize I’ve spoken of this film as a parable, and not really addressed it as a film – so really quick, the look of it is gorgeous, with gloriously staged ballet sequences throughout, especially the big premiere of The Red Shoes that comes midway through the film.  And you do get to see the full ballet, in a 17-minute sequence that pushes the edge of what true stagecraft can do.  Busby Berkeley bent the rules of stagecraft as well, but where Berkeley was doing so for the sake of spectacle, here it adds to the fairy-tale magic of the film, with the famous Red Shoes magically tying themselves onto Page’s feet and a newspaper magically transforming into a person, and back again.   To be fair, if you’re not really all that into ballet this can drag a bit.  But it is beautiful to look at.  As are other scenes; there’s a sequence set at a restaurant where the head choreographer is throwing himself a birthday party, and I’m convinced that the look of the scene was inspired by Renoir’s painting “Luncheon Of The Boating Party“.

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But the film grabbed me most strongly as a parable.  At the very end – for reasons I can’t explain without spoiling the film – Page says to Craster, “Take off the red shoes.” What she’s actually asking him to do is to help her take off a piece of her costume.  But until he did so, I actually thought she was giving him some advice – urging him to reconsider his own priorities, and cast off his own pair of Red Shoes.

 

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rope (1948)

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Usually after watching a film, and before writing my review, I browse through other reviews to kind of whet the grindstone a little.  Not that I’m necessarily looking for guidance about what to say; more like, if I read something and think “huh, that’s an interesting idea” or “what, that’s nonsense”, that usually gives me a place to start.  If I have a violent opposition to someone else’s review, all the better. For Hitchcock’s Rope, what I noticed from the reviews was fairly interesting – they all seemed to focus on the aspect of the film I personally was least interested in remarking on.

I am indeed talking about how it looks like it’s all been filmed in one continuous take. It’s an interesting gimmick, sure. Hitchcock was inspired by a play about a murder, and how the whole story playing out in “real time” amped up the suspense; in translating that to film, he came up with a way to make it look like the whole thing was in a single take, using a specially designed set that allowed the camera crew to roll walls aside if they needed to move the camera more smoothly, or designing whisper-quiet motors to run lights.  The roommate told me there were also crew members on standby to sweep in and catch any errant props that may have been about to fall over so the noise wouldn’t disrupt a take.  (He also told me that one of the cameras accidentally rolled over one stagehand’s foot and broke it, and three other stagehands all frantically covered his mouth and dragged him offset before he screamed.)

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The reviews who don’t mention that deal with how the story owes its inspiration to an actual crime committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, a pair of wealthy teens, in 1929.  Like Leopold and Loeb, our leads Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) believe that they are intellectual superiors to nearly everyone else, and this superiority gives them license to commit murder.  And they’re doing precisely that at the top of the film – strangling a school chum named David with a rope and stuffing his corpse in a big trunk in David’s apartment. They need to wait until dark before stashing the body, and Brandon’s decided to secretly gloat a bit by hosting a cocktail party for David’s parents, girlfriend, and best friend, as well as Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), their house master at their old prep school.  Rupert had discussed the idea of Nietzche’s “superman” with them back in the day; and once, for kicks, shared with them a satirical essay on how murder could be considered an art.  But for Rupert, these chats were just an intellectual exercise; it seems that Brandon took them a little more seriously.  In fact, just before the guests arrive, Brandon spontaneously decides to move the table setting from the dining room to the the chest hiding David’s body.  That’s where Philip quietly starts to freak out – just minutes before the first guests arrive.

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Now, both of those elements of the film are things you may have heard of before.  I know I did, and I’d never even seen the film.  The one-take stuff was fun to see; and there was one moment that was surprisingly tense, towards the end when a maid is slowly and methodically starting to clear the dinner dishes and then the table linens off the chest, then gradually bringing stacks of books back in from the next room, preparing to stow them back into the chest; we’re listening to the other characters speak, but what we see is the maid at work, moving from the chest to the kitchen, then back, where she grabs a dish or two, walks back to the kitchen, then comes back, and…and the whole time I was on tenterhooks wondering “are you going to open the trunk or what now???”  But otherwise, the one-take angle came off as more of a clever stunt.  Effective and impressive, but still a stunt where I could see the mechanics.

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Instead, I was way more fascinated with simply watching Dall as Brandon. I don’t know enough about the Leopold and Loeb case; but here, Brandon is presented as the ringleader who’s talked Philip into going along with him.  He’s charming and suave, and perfectly poised for much of the film – as opposed to Philip, who’s nervous and edgy and who gradually falls apart.  But Brandon seems to have one tiny weakness – he’s desperate for Rupert’s approval, and just can’t help steering the conversation around to things Rupert had said in the past about murder and art.  Clearly it’d be foolish for him to tell Rupert what they’ve done, but….deep down he wants Rupert to know, and despite himself, starts dropping bigger and bigger hints.  But Rupert’s no slouch, and suspects something’s up early in the evening – and has decided to play it cool, spurring Brandon to show his hand more and more.

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Apparently, in the original play, there was some heavy insinuation that Rupert, Brandon, and Philip had all been each other’s lovers at one point (and that Brandon and Philip were still kind of involved). But this read much more like a child trying to seek approval from a teacher he admired, and the teacher just hanging back knowing that the child was going to spill his guts sooner or later.  Stewart and Dall are both remarkably subtle here; Dall never goes totally obvious with his hints, and we never see more than the slightest ripple in his calm.  And Stewart never gets histrionic about his suspicions until the very end; but much earlier, there’s a moment when Stewart is listening to Dall as Brandon talking about David, and the camera is focused on him listening with a thoughtful smile. He never breaks that smile – but at some point, as he listens, we can tell the exact moment when he realizes what happened.

So see Rope for the technical expertise if you like, but don’t forget to watch for what I found to be a tour de force performance from a pair of actors.