film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Daisies (1966)

Seeing this did mean skipping ahead in the list a bit, but a local indie theater is screening a restored print of this Czech New Wave film, one I was having a little trouble tracking down. As a bonus, I also got to hear audience reactions – particularly those from a group of friends who sat behind me and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of them gave an especially memorable review immediately after: “That was like, ‘Intrusive Thoughts: The Movie’!”

I personally would have titled it “Id”, for our two leads – Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, non-actors both – are a pair of single women who are out to treat the world as one big cocktail party, just for them. They decide in their first scene that since the world is “spoiled”, with everyone fighting to get what they want, they will be “spoiled” as well.

From then on, the film is a freewheeling surrealist romp as the pair schmooze older men for dinner dates, get thoroughly hammered in a night club, take bubble baths in milk pilfered from neighbors, gorge on corn swiped from a farmer’s garden, and crash a banquet hall set up for a grand meal which they destroy by starting a food fight and swinging on the chandelier.

I know that this makes them sound like utter brats. But somehow the pair comes across as plucky and endearing as opposed to entitled; the men who woo them are only interested in their looks and expect them to “return their favors”, so they put on a wide-eyed little-girl act, dial the flirtiness up to eleven, let their marks shower food on them, and then sneak away at the last minute, laughing at the mens’ folly. Hey, it’s not their problem if some guys think any woman who smiles at them will automatically put out.

The visuals are also full of anarchic whimsy. In one scene, one of the girls is being wooed by a butterfly collector; she is doing a strip tease for him, and at one point grabs a display case off his wall, shielding her breasts with two strategically-placed butterflies.

Even more memorable is a scene where the butterfly collector calls to pledge his love while the pair are having breakfast; instead of hanging up or taking him seriously, they set down the phone and let him speak, giggling at his declarations as they gorge themselves on sausage, bananas, and hardboiled eggs, cutting each into pieces with a pair of shears just to amp up the Freudian metaphor.

Those same shears come into play again during an even more surreal scene where the pair cut each other into bits during a rare disagreement. And some of the visuals aren’t really “about” the film at all – scenes randomly jump from one to the next, the footage flips from color to black-and-white at random – sometimes mid-scene – and some scenes are shot with colored filters or are interspersed with clips of collages. It all gives the impression of the girls’ perspective of the world being a chaotic but generous place, where they’re free to follow whatever whim they choose and abandon it when it gets too boring.

At the time it was released, Czechoslovakia was suffering from food shortages, and the food fight scenes triggered a domestic ban over “irresponsible food wastage”. Director Vera Chytilova shrugged and agreed – but in later prints added a title card before the closing credits dedicating the film to “those who only get upset over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce.”

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Winter Light (1963)

One of my favorite characters in this film only appears in the first scene. We open in a small rural church in Sweden, as Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) sleepily presides over a very sparsely-attended Mass; only seven people are there, six adults and one child. And while the adults all sit quietly, giving Tomas varying degrees of attention, the child is either falling asleep, playing with a teddy bear, or – out of sheer boredom – licking the pew in front of them. ….I grew up Catholic, and I have been that kid.

My own childhood boredom came from youthful ignorance, though – deep philosophical questions don’t necessarily come to you when you’re only about seven. But in this congregation’s case, Tomas is giving a really lackluster Mass; everything feels rote, only one of the congregants seems to be there out of devotion rather than habit, Jonas and Karin Perrson (Max Von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom, respectively) seem preoccupied with something, and even the organist keeps checking his watch. It’s clear most of the people in that room would rather be somewhere else. And Ingmar Bergman lets this Mass scene stretch on for a good ten minutes, so we feel every second of this desultory Mass creep slowly by and are elated when it’s over. Sunday mass is supposed to be a joyous weekly high point for the faithful, but for everyone here, it’s just a boring chore.

And that, as we learn, is precisely the point. For Tomas has been having a crisis of faith for four years now, brought on by the death of his wife. Sure, he’s been occasionally hooking up with Marta (Ingrid Thulin), the local schoolteacher, but that’s more just a hookup. Even though she does occasionally also help him out with church duties or housekeeping stuff; it’s nothing serious, he doesn’t love her. And she’s atheist anyway, and the few times they’ve talked religion it’s made him uneasy because he’s started to think she has a point, and it’s made his doubt even worse.

And on this particular afternoon, following this Mass, things come to a bit of a head – the Perrsons drop in after Mass seeking Tomas’ counsel, since Jonas has been having some dark thoughts and Karin’s worried about him. Karin leaves them to talk in privacy, and Jonas confesses to suicidal thoughts, partly brought on by his own crisis of faith and partly the general pitiful state of the world. But Tomas isn’t able to offer more than some vague platitudes about faith in response – a faith he doesn’t seem to feel himself. And then he reads a letter from Marta she’s slipped him – one in which she passionately confesses that she’s found faith at last, but in Tomas, not in God. But can he return that faith, and in whom should he place it?

This is a slower-paced film, and it’s slower-paced for a reason. Its characters are examining questions that they really need to take their time with; a lifetime’s worth of thought, not just the couple hours between the morning and the afternoon Mass. Sometimes these questions are really scary. And sometimes the characters aren’t happy with the answers, and therein lies the tragedy in this film. This was one of three films Bergman made which address the question of faith, and this one takes a rather pessimistic view of things.

I’m not going to give away the ending; instead, I’m going to discuss two other things that the ending reminded me of, and those takes on the questions raised here.

I recently finally had the chance to see Martin Scorcese’s film Silence, in which Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson are 17th Century Jesuit priests covertly trying to spread Christianity in Japan at a time when Christianity was outlawed. One question Andrew Garfield’s character wrestles with is why God doesn’t seem to answer him when he calls out for help. Is it that God is suffering along with him, but is staying silent to keep him safe? Or is it that God isn’t even listening and he’s actually all alone?

A book I read years ago may have its own take on that question, and also shed some light on Winter Light as well. Cal is about a young Irish Catholic man in Ulster, at a time during the Northern Irish “Troubles”; Cal is loosely affiliated with the IRA, but a crisis of conscience (among other things) has been spurring him to get out. At one point in the book, Cal reflects on something a priest told him about how people ended up in Hell – that when we get to Heaven, some of us are so ashamed of ourselves and our life’s misdeeds that we can’t face God, and we tap out, unable to let ourselves reach out to God for forgiveness. We cut ourselves off from God forever as opposed to God doing it. And to a degree, that’s true of everyone in this film – they fumblingly try to reach out to each other or to God, but often their reach falls short – but maybe it’s because they’ve been pulling their hands back at the last minute all along.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Great Escape (1963)

So the danger with movies based on historic events is that people will often confuse the film’s events with “real life” – and as I mentioned back with Lawrence Of Arabia, the film will often have to take several liberties with the story. I’ve found a second danger – people who don’t even see the movie in the first place, but hear all about one part of it and assume that’s the whole of the story. I admit that that is exactly what happened with me and this story of the escape attempt from German POW camp Stalag Luft III during World War II.

The film does admit up front that they took some liberties with specific characters – combining several peoples’ stories into one, mainly – but that the details of the escape plot were intact. And from what I’ve turned up during a post-film browse, that’s sort of true. A total of 76 men really did escape from this POW camp, most of them British Commonwealth soldiers; and they really did escape by secretly digging three tunnels under the fence to the surrounding woods, dressing themselves in civilian clothes fashioned from bedsheets and old coats dyed with shoe polish and carrying forged travel papers. In the film, the whole operation is conceived and organized by an RAF officer named Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who recruits entire teams of people into the cause – organizing a whole team of forgers lead by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance), setting an American schmoozer named Bob Hendley (James Garner) to round up their tools and supplies (as well as chocolate and coffee to bribe Germans with), and pleading with a serial escape artist, American Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), to give them some idea of the surrounding countryside next time he breaks out – since Hilts usually gets captured and brought back.

This was McQueen’s breakout role, thanks to Hilt’s irreverent attitude and spunk; numerous other films have paid homage to Hilts’ habit of bouncing a baseball against the wall of his cell to keep himself busy. McQueen also has a cracker of a stunt scene, in which Hilts tries fleeing on a motorcycle and jumps over a barbed-wire fence. That’s the bit that my father remembered best when I mentioned I’d seen the film; and those are the bits I’d heard of before.

So I was surprised to learn that in the film, as in real life, McQueen was not the main character. He didn’t even have a lead role in planning the escape. I was also surprised to learn that the escape was a failure in many respects – less than half of the planned 200 men made it out, and most of them were recaptured. Only three men make it to safety – Officer Louis Sedgewick (James Coburn), an Australian construction expert, has the French resistance smuggle him to Spain, and two Flight Lieutenants (Charles Bronson and John Leyton) stow away on a boat to Sweden.

Ironically, I liked the film better than I thought I would as a result. I’d thought this would be the tale of a heroic victory – McQueen’s motorcycle jump being some sort of desperate-yet-brave act that finally broke down the camp wall to let the prisoners all go running out or something. But instead, this was more of a story of smarts and planning, with smaller and more human stories carrying the day – Hendley and Blythe becoming “escape buddies” and sticking together after they make it out, Bartlett’s meticulous problem-solving, and John Leyton talking Charles Bronson out of a case of claustrophobia. There’s even a scene that felt more suited to an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H, as the Americans in the camp spend a week making hooch out of potatoes and then dress up in makeshift Spirit of ’76 costumes for a grass-roots July 4th party.

So this film not only circumvented my impression of the history, but also my impression of itself – and came out a winner.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Cool World (1963)

For me, the real story of this film is told in the smaller, throwaway moments surrounding the main action.

Duke (Hampton Clanton) is fifteen, and a member of the Royal Pythons gang in Harlem. The Python’s leader Blood (Clarence Williams III) is losing favor with the others – some say Blood is getting a little too drugged-up – and Duke wants to take things over. But to really prove himself as a leader, he believes, he needs a gun. A local gangster named “Priest” (Carl Lee) can sell him one, but the price is steep and Priest won’t wait forever. So much of this film follows Duke’s efforts to hustle up the money for his gun, while simultaneously keeping the peace at the Python’s clubhouse, ducking police, running other errands for Priest, and courting the affections of LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez), a girl originally brought to the Pythons as an in-house prostitute.

Duke’s story is itself sadly familiar; we’ve had a lot of stories of teens feeling ostracized by society and embraced by a street gang, and in many of those stories some of those kids end up disillusioned by the end. Others get arrested, others die. Even the scene where Blood’s more studious college-age brother comes to give him a talking-to is something I’ve seen before. It is impressive, though, that the actors are all non-professionals – director Shirley Clarke took a page from the Italian neo-realists and worked with non-actors for this work, some of them actual gang members, and all of the kids do a bang-up job.

But it was some of the other bits Clarke included to set up scenes or give a flavor of Duke’s world that really drew me in. The whole movie kicks off with a tight closeup on the face of a street preacher, staring directly into the camera and decrying the sins which The White Man has done to African-Americans. Only after several seconds does Clark pull out to reveal the preacher is on a Harlem streetcorner, surrounded by passersby; some thoughtfully listening, some shaking heads dubiously.

Another scene sees Duke and some of his friends getting piled onto a bus by a harried schoolteacher, trying to keep order as he leads a field trip down to Wall Street. But even I thought his repeated appeals to the boys’ sense of pride, and his attempts to inspire them by talking about “George Washington walking on these same streets,” were completely misguided – especially when we saw later scenes of drudgery and poverty in the streets where these kids actually lived. The teacher thinks that behaving with dignity and being eloquent is what earns you respect; but Duke knows that where he comes from, that doesn’t mean anything, and respect only comes when you own a gun.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Hud (1963)

Making your main character an antihero can be a tricky thing. Audiences can get the wrong idea and think you’re celebrating the character you’re trying to decry; and if you make them too much of a heel, that just turns your audience off. If your antihero is played by someone as likeable and charismatic as Paul Newman, that just makes things even murkier.

Hud Bannon – the role Paul Newman plays in this film – wasn’t even the main character of the book which inspired it. But he was given top billing in this contemporary “revisionist Western”, the tale of the Bannon family and their ranch. Hud lives on the ranch with patriarch Homer (Melvyn Douglas), and Hud’s orphaned nephew Lonnie (Brandon deWilde). Lonnie idolizes Hud for being a carefree, charming ne’er-do-well most of the time, but also idolizes his grandfather Homer for his ranching skill and his honesty. Homer is also more compassionate than most – to everyone except for Hud, for reasons which both Hud and Homer refuse to discuss with him save for hinting that it’s something about how Lonnie’s father died.

The three have been living more or less peacefully – with live-in housekeeper Alma (Patricia O’Neil) helping to keep everyone settled – until the day Homer discovers one of their heifers has mysteriously died. Homer suspects foot-and-mouth disease and orders Lonnie to send for the vet to test the herd. But Hud stops him – a foot-and-mouth diagnosis would be devastating to the ranch, since they’d have to kill off the entire herd. And that would mean the ranch Hud’s due to inherit someday would be worth nothing. So instead – why not sell off all the cattle to all the other ranchers in town? Get some money out of it now while they still can? They don’t know it is foot-and-mouth after all…

The year before last, Roommate Russ told me a theory that with a really good film, you could look at just one early scene and that would tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the film. And for Hud, this conversation is that scene; it sets the rest of the film into motion, it is the first crack in the pedestal Lonnie has placed Hud upon, and it’s the moment where we learn Hud isn’t simply a loveable rogue but is selfish and cruel. We do eventually learn the story behind Hud and Homer’s feud, and Hud has even further to fall before the film’s end – in Lonnie’s eyes as well as our own – but this passing-the-buck moment, where he actually suggests selling their neighbors diseased livestock, is a damning character study.

In fact, the studio found Hud’s character so repellant that they tried to convince director Martin Ritt to change the ending and give Hud a last-minute redemption of some kind. But both Ritt and Newman agreed to leave things as-is, with Ritt flying to meet with studio executives and the producers personally to talk them out of it. Instead the studio tried to have things both ways with the marketing – posters featured nothing of the film save for a picture of Newman in a beefcake pose, next to a slogan that suggested his villainy was more cartoonish (“The Man with a Barbed-Wire Soul!”). Fortunately, even though the studio wasn’t quite ready for such a dark story, audiences were; some found it a refreshing change from older Westerns. Other critics even took the whole film as a warning about the evils of capitalism. And while there were a few critics who ultimately didn’t care for the script itself, everyone heaped praise on the performances.

In these post-Trump days, I’m inclined to agree with the critics who claimed this was a warning against unfettered capitalists – only because I’ve seen him make similar moves in real life, even from before the days he was president. But I’m more appreciative of their creating a more sincere anti-hero – admitting to the fact that sometimes some people are just shits, and sometimes they don’t get the real kind of comeuppance you want to see. They do lose some things, just not as much as we want to see them lose. And sometimes that has to be enough.