film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

I hadn’t ever seen this film before, but hoo boy did I know a lot about it. Anecdotes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry are legion, as are stories of “aging silent film star gone to seed and living in the past”. Fortunately, actually watching this film carried some surprises.

On the remote chance anyone is unfamiliar: the film deals with the lives of Jane and Blanche Hudson, a pair of sisters we first meet as girls. Jane is a vaudeville regular going by the stage name “Baby Jane”, best known for chirping out popular songs while sporting ringlets and frilly dresses as her proud father plays piano; he joins her for a dance break during her biggest hit, a sentimental ballad about “writing a letter to Daddy” and sending it to heaven. Off stage she is a spoiled brat, lording her fame over her more modest sister Blanche.

However, their mother urges Blanche to still be kind to Jane one day if their fortunes ever turn – which they do, during the classic-movie era of the 1930s. Blanche is now the star, with a number of studios vying for her work – but a clause in her contract forces studios to also give Jane some film work as well, a troubling prospect since the adult Jane can’t quite act and is also a bit fond of booze. But the studios grin and bear it – until one night after a studio party, when the sisters are driving home to their shared Hollywood mansion and get into a car crash, leaving Blanche a paraplegic in Jane’s care.

That’s all prelude to the bits you really want to see, and the bits you probably know about – Joan Crawford as the helpless Blanche, trapped on the second floor of their mansion and under the care of Bette Davis as Jane. But Jane’s care has been desultory, if not abusive – she still drinks to excess, she’s been hiding Blanche’s mail, and she’s been blowing through Blanche’s savings by forging her signature on checks. Jane hatches a scheme to revive her act, hiring down-on-his-luck composer (Victor Buono) to serve as her accompanist, but then learns that Blanche has been working with their housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) to sell the house, and get Jane some psychological help. Assuming (probably correctly) that this kind of help will require a hospital stay, Jane amps up the abuse – taking away Blanche’s phone, denying her meals, and even tying her up when Jane needs to run errands. And all the while Jane is descending further and further into self-delusion and madness.

Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar with this film – an acknowledgement which reportedly made Crawford seethingly jealous. And, honestly, I kind of think there’s something to Crawford’s complaint – because it’s almost not fair to compare the two. Both do perfectly fine with their roles, but Jane is written as such a larger-than-life character that it’s likely a ficus plant cast in the role would still have scored a nomination. Crawford’s Blanche is confined to showing varying degrees of distress and that’s it, but as Jane, Davis gets to simper and pout and shriek and cackle and rant and generally go full-tilt bugnuts. Davis even did her own makeup when the on-set team balked at giving her the laid-on-with-a-trowel look she wanted.

And yet in my favorite scene, Jane has to show some restraint – and I can see why the glory went to Davis. About midway through the film, Victor Buono’s “Edwin” shows up at the house for his job interview with Jane; he knows nothing of her history, he’s just desperate for a job. So much so that when Jane simperingly tells him that “I used to be Baby Jane Hudson”, he gushes out an instant “Oh, are you really?” and plays along, heaping praise on her singing and eagerly agreeing that yes, the public is just dying to have her back. That whole scene is a dance between Davis and Buono – two cons trying to con each other – and it was a delight.

In the end, the Best Actress Oscar went to Anne Bancroft anyway – but ironically, Crawford had offered herself out as the official Oscar-Accepter for any of the other nominees, and since Bancroft was appearing on Broadway on Oscar Night, Crawford got to sweep onstage (past Davis) and grab some of the spotlight anyway.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mondo Cane (1962)

The title of this film translates to “A Dog’s World” – which puzzled me for a long while, since there’s very little about dogs in it. But “Mondo Cane” is an Italian-language curse; somewhat equivalent to “Dammit”. And that….fits a bit better, but still isn’t entirely apt. But I’m not sure any spoken expression would fit as well as a cynical shrug.

Mondo Cane bills itself as a “documentary”, with a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning claiming that they were showing scenes from real life – unvarnished. “What you see will shock you, scare you, and challenge you,” a narrator breathlessly warns us, before pre-emptively absolving the filmmakers from any responsibility. They’re just showing us actual events – they’re just the mirror to society. So if we don’t like what we see, don’t blame the filmmakers.

The rest of the film consists of vignettes from around the world, some of which provide “ironic” contrast – an Italian movie star visits a clothes shop and gets mobbed by female fans, and in the next scene we see women from a New Guinea tribe chasing after the men there. A sequence at a pet cemetery, showing a grieving woman mourning her pet poodle, is followed by a sequence at a butchers’ shop in Taiwan where they have live dogs on hand for meat. A sequence showing Wagyu cattle in Tokyo getting force-fed beer follows a sequence showing geese in France being force-fed to produce foie gras – and then another New Guinea sequence showing some women getting force-fed tapioca to appease a tribal lord follows that. And throughout, the same narrator comments wryly on the action as we watch.

Pretty early on, though, I spotted this as being not quite true-to-life – some of the shots were a little too well-set-up and the action a little too “staged”. The narration also made claims that weren’t entirely supported by the action – one sequence is meant to depict how nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll had so thoroughly disrupted the environment that butterflies were dying in swarms, fish were living in trees, and sea turtles were getting so disoriented after laying their eggs that they got lost trying to find their way back to the sea and died. But…the only evidence we see for any of this is a few fallen butterflies, a couple of mudskippers, and a few shots of a lone sea turtle hauling its way inland on a beach, followed by a shot of a sea turtle flipped upside down and flailing. But mudskippers always have been able to make that jump from water to land. And as for the turtle – it actually looks like several turtles. And – how did it get flipped over anyway?….

So this “documentary” was clearly manipulated. But this kind of manipulation only happens when there’s a specific message the filmmaker really wants to impart. However, the only message I can glean from this film is a world-weary, nihilistic comment that “sometimes people kinda suck.”

Interestingly, though, most of the film’s criticism falls against the Western European mindset and culture. Throughout the film, the people in the United States or in Western Europe come out looking the silliest, meanest, or cruelest. One lengthy bit set on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district shows a whole lot of people drinking themselves legless, getting into drunken brawls, passing out, and then trying to stagger home with hangovers in the early morning. Another sequence depicts a couple dining at the exclusive New York restaurant The Colony, dining on exotic fare like bugs and canned rattlesnake. A lengthy sequence set in Hawaii shows a hula dancer at a hotel, trying to teach the dance to a bunch of tourists. After commenting on the sacred nature the dance held for native Hawaiians, the narrator wryly commented that “this is now the only such dance left in Hawaii” before panning across a crowd of paunchy tourists clumsily trying to follow along and joking amongst themselves.

Now – if the filmmakers had sustained that narrow focus, and made this more about class differences and Western-European cultural biases, this could have been a very different film. But for much of the film, the real watchword seems to have been trying to Freak Out The Squares with lots of gross stuff. And it is that element which had the most impact, leading not only to several sequels but a whole “mondo” film movement with plenty of exploitative content and “shocking” staged footage.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

So, it’s another Buñuel film. It’s a little more surreal than his earlier Viridiana, but only just – it hit my sweet spot of “weird enough to catch my attention but not so weird that I can’t figure out the basic plot.” And as plots go it’s pretty simple – a group of Spain’s hoi polloi gather for a dinner party, only to find that they can’t leave afterward. There’s no reason why they can’t leave, they just….can’t.

At first it looks more like the guests are either strangely rude or cripplingly polite – they know it’s late and they should be going, but no one really wants to draw attention to themselves by being the first to leave, so everyone sits around waiting for someone else to make the first move and everyone ends up falling asleep in whatever chair or couch they’re sitting in, even though the hosts have said that they can make up guest bedrooms. In the morning the hostess scrambles to give everyone some dinner leftovers and coffee as a half-assed breakfast, and several guests who’ve said they should leave now hesitate at the offer of coffee – but they really mean to leave after, seriously. Except they can’t. For whatever reason, they get to the threshhold of the drawing room, peer into the next room, and then turn back.

And so they stay. For days. The food runs out, a vase in a storage closet becomes the ad hoc toilet, another storage closet becomes the hookup privacy room. When one guest in frail health dies, still another closet becomes the morgue. The guests become increasingly desperate, hacking a hole in the wall and bursting a pipe to get fresh drinking water or luring some pet sheep into the room for food (why the hosts have pet sheep is unexplained). Someone’s stash of morphine gets confiscated to use to treat another sick guest, until another guest steals it back so he can trip out. And throughout the guests make increasingly desperate and weird efforts to escape – Kabbalah rituals, trying to push each other, holding hands and trying to jump. In time the guests accuse the host of somehow casting a spell over them all and start talking human sacrifice – surely if their hosts die, they will finally be able to leave.

So, we never find out why the guests are trapped. But there’s enough to suggest something supernatural – in the very first scene, before the guests arrive, the hosts’ various butlers and maids and waiters all sneak out one by one – they can’t say why they want to leave, they just have the sense they need to. One says he feels like he needs to take a walk. Another is compelled to visit an ill relative. The two cooks just wanna leave. However, they – like the relatives of the trapped guests – form a curious and concerned crowd outside the house during their captivity, and find themselves also strangely reluctant to go in. One little boy, the son of one of the guests, even tries a daring run up the driveway to the front door – but he stops halfway, uneasy, and turns around and runs right back. However, whatever that strange force is keeping the guests in and others out, we never see it, hear it, or learn of its cause. It’s just there, keeping the guests trapped.

This kind of “just surreal enough” is 100% my jam. It’s almost like the plots of very early X-Files episodes, where there is just enough science to give the supernatural elements a whiff of plausibility (there’s a smart house that’s going rogue and killing people? Well, current A.I. technology isn’t quite there, but we’re getting close… Or, some loggers disappeared after cutting down old-growth timber and disrupting some previously-unknown bugs? Well, we regularly discover new species the further we venture into old-growth forests….). The film even takes a sort of X-Files approach of solving the immediate problem (the guests do finally figure out an escape), only to see the issue crop up again elsewhere in the final scene.

And just like with the X-Files – I am satisfied leaving some questions unanswered. Other critics have speculated that the force keeping everyone in place is just societal conditioning gone haywire, or that the whole film is a Lord Of The Fliesstyle parable about how easily people will descend into anarchy when trapped. Roger Ebert even argued that the whole thing was a discourse on the class structure during the Spanish Civil War. But me, I’m happy with “we don’t know why they couldn’t leave, I’ll just go with it.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

L’Eclisse (1962)

Yeahhhh, Antonioni lost me with this one.

In a long and nearly-wordless opening scene, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) breaks things off with her fiancé for vague reasons; it’s implied she just isn’t into him any more. But the breakup upsets her enough to want some fussing-over from her Mama (Lilla Brignone). Vittoria heads to Mama’s latest hangout – Rome’s stock market, which Mama treats like a casino, pestering her stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) with frequent questions. In fact, Mama is so focused on stocks that she’s not really that much comfort to Vittoria.

At least Piero was cute, though. In fact, after a girls’ night evening with some of her neighbors, Vittoria drops by the market again to see him. He’s just as interested in her, and they soon start a relationship themselves. Although…neither one of them really seems into it.

And that’s it.

As with his two prior films, L’Avventura and La Notte, Antonioni is being deliberate with his “nothing really happens” approach; he’s attempting to show the inherent hollowness and meaninglessness of his characters’ lives. The “meaning” is all subtext – La Notte isn’t heartbreaking because there’s something poignant about Lidia meandering around her old neighborhood, it’s heartbreaking because she’s doing that right after visiting a dying friend and that’s probably weighing on her mind. L’Avventura isn’t infuriating because the leads are going to parties, it’s infuriating because they’re going to parties instead of continuing their investigation into a friend’s disappearance.

But with this film, I couldn’t get a handle on what the subtext was supposed to be. It’s implied that it might be something about the dreamy Vittoria being a romantic mismatch with the more flashy and superficial Piero; during one of their meetings, someone steals Piero’s car and crashes as he makes his escape, and Vittoria is surprised to hear that Piero cares more about the damage to his car than about the man who died. Antonioni also spends a lot of time following Piero’s “daily business” in the stock market (a bit too much time for my taste), but almost none with Vittoria’s job; instead, we see Vittoria doing dreamy things like cloud gazing at the airport, people watching out windows, or playing with her neighbors’ dog.

So…these are people who are trying to make a connection but they’re too different, and ultimately it doesn’t work. But – that’s much too common a story to my mind, so I’m left wondering why I was supposed to care about this particular instance of that story. There’s not even a dramatic breakup scene – instead, they make a plan to meet one evening “at our usual spot”, but then – as we see in a seven-minute wordless sequence – neither one shows up, and that’s the end of the film.

That sequence is lovely. It’s all scenic shots, showing the empty streetcorner where they are to meet or focusing on the empty bench where they might sit, or the streetlight winking on as it gets later, or another passersby walking past the fence Vittoria once studied. And had I cared one whit about Vittoria or Piero I might have been touched by that sequence – but I only felt detached.

Speaking of sequences – I should warn 21st century readers that the “Vittoria’s girls’ night” sequence has some bits that have not aged well at all; one of the women is from a colonialist family with property in Kenya, and has some less-than-enlightened things to say about the prospect of Kenyan independence. Plus there’s a bit where Vittoria dresses up in blackface and does “tribal dancing” as a goof until the colonialist friend tells her to knock it off; and honestly, if your blackface is so offensive that even the plantation owner says you’ve gone too far, you’ve really gone too far.