film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

My Fair Lady (1964)

Yeah, you know this story – this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which a phonetics and diction teacher makes a casual bet with a friend that he can pass a Cockney flower girl off as a Duchess simply by giving her a series of elocution lessons – but he does so with little thought to how his pet project will fare after his little experiment is over.

And Audrey Hepburn is perfect as Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl in question; she’s got the sass and spunk Eliza needs before her transformation, and the regal bearing she needs after. I could always totally buy her in both guises. She also overshadows Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, the diction teacher seeking to mold her; he’s fine and all, but he’s got the sort of speak-singing habit that makes me dubious. He’s also playing a thoroughly unpleasant fellow to boot; in the original stage musical, as in Shaw’s play, Higgins is an unpleasant and selfish fellow, whom Eliza walks out on at the end. The musical tries to soften things with a happy ending, bringing Eliza back to Higgins after he’s sung an epiphany about how he misses her; but Shaw was opposed to this kind of ending in his original play, and Higgins is unpleasant enough that I didn’t buy it in the musical either.

I found I had a similar to-and-fro reaction to much of the rest of the film as well; loving some elements, repulsed by others. Some of the songs are delightful – I’ve always been fond of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On The Street Where You Live” (I even sang that latter song to myself one afternoon when a work errand brought me to the block where a new boyfriend lived). And the musical and film both preserve Shaw’s ideas about how providing aid to people needs to be more than just a cosmetic fix-up; and how in some cases it may make them worse off.

That last notion may be the whole point of Eliza’s father, Albert, and his inclusion in the play. But I honestly felt like you could have cut him out entirely without the story suffering at all; he’s absent from much of Eliza’s life, and appears only to sing a couple songs and then wheedle Higgins out of some money. His songs are fine and all, and Stanley Holloway does okay with them, but they could have been cut entirely from the whole thing and I wouldn’t have missed him. This story and this struggle is entirely between Higgins and Eliza, and Albert has little to nothing to do with it.

Also, I simply was bored by everyone’s musical performances save Audrey Hepburn’s – even though, ironically, she wasn’t the one singing; her voice was famously (and unnecessarily) dubbed by Marni Nixon, a singer who often provided the “singing voice” for other actresses in this period (we’ve heard her before in West Side Story as Maria, and we also hear bits of her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). It may be Nixon’s voice we hear, but it is certainly Hepburn’s performance which sells Eliza’s numbers. Compared to Hepburn, though, everyone else felt stagey and affected.

I realize it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise. I didn’t dislike it, though – I was more just lukewarm about it, and felt it went on a little long, with too much time in between Hepburn’s singing. And honestly, that’s one of the biggest reasons I wished they’d cut out Albert’s role – the whole film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes without him, and I think it might have improved; again, not because Holloway does poorly with the role, but rather because I don’t think the story itself needed to hear from him at all.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gertrud (1964)

There’s an interesting plot lurking in this film. And, I’ve also been intrigued by director Carl Dreyer’s vision in the past. But here it feels like either a weird mismatch, or Dreyer’s style feels like a bit of a throwback.

In Dreyer’s defense, the film world changed around Dreyer dramatically in the nine years since his previous film Ordet, and he’d also been trying unsuccessfully to launch other films in the interim. When his attempts to adapt works by William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill failed, Dreyer revisited an idea he’d had in the 1940s – adapting a play by Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg. Dreyer settled on Söderberg’s work Gertrud after reading a critic’s analysis pointing out how much of the play was driven by characters settling for trivial conversation instead of genuine communication. Struck by this observation, Dreyer chose to stage his adaptation in such a way that the dialogue was more important than the cinematography.

The problem is that it’s always been Dreyer’s imagery that’s struck me, so in a way he was abandoning his own best quality. The story itself also doesn’t really suit the all-talk approach; it’s a period piece and relationship drama, with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) struggling to balance her younger ideals about love with a disappointing reality. She’s currently married to Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a lawyer and aspiring politician, but previously had lived a more bohemian life as an opera singer and lover to esteemed poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode). Her life with Gustav is calm, but stifling, and Gertrud shocks Gustav one day by asking for a divorce. Gabriel is in town for a visit, and Gustav assumes she wants to return to him – but actually she’s got her eye on a younger man, a pianist and composer named Erland (Baarde Owe). But that goes to pieces and Gabriel tries to lure her back – prompting Gertrud to finally tell him why she left him, and why she then was leaving Gustav, and why Erland also let her down so.

There’s some really heady stuff in this, and Gertrud is ultimately a tragic character – so caught up in an idealistic vision of What Love Really Is Like that nobody was ever going to satisfy her. Dreyer adds an epilogue to the original play that suggests Gertrud found her way to some happiness in a single life; I’m likely to end up that way myself, and I found that a refreshing change from the usual depiction of “tragically lonely older women”. But Dreyer is still pretty frank about how Gertrud’s monomaniacal commitment to those ideals of love is what leads her to this single life in the first place, and that’s also some food for thought.

The problem is that nearly all the scenes are conversations between pairs of people – Gertrud and Gustav, Gertrud and Erland, Gertrud and Gabriel, Gustav and Gabriel, etc. – with very little action. And nearly all of these conversations are strangely passionless, with neither person looking at each other – everyone seems to stare at some point in the middle distance as they speak, rarely reacting to each other. The most gumption we see from Gertrud is when she’s telling Gabriel about a moment from their old love affair, and we skip to a flashback when she discovers Gabriel’s written something that displeases her – but all she does is angrily rip a piece of paper in half and that’s it. Gustav has a similar moment at one point, Gertrud and Erland kiss a few times, and there’s a weird moment at a party in Gabriel’s honor when a college student delivers a lengthy tribute speech – but mostly it’s just people talking about how disappointed they are with their love lives, but in a tone of voice more suited to talking about how you had to settle for a different kind of cheese because your favorite was sold out.

So ultimately this felt like more of an intellectual exercise than a film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Onibaba (1964)

Several critics have struggled over the years trying to categorize this film. Is it horror? A period piece? Fantasy? An erotic drama? Some combination? Me, I say – “who cares, just watch it.”

The entire story takes place in medieval Japan, in a reed-filled swamp near Kyoto where an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet during a civil war. All the men have been drafted into battle, and any surrounding farmland has been torn up in all the skirmishes, so all the two women can do is scavenge, prowling the reeds to find bodies of dead samurai so they can strip them and sell the armor on a black market run by a neighbor (Taiji Toyonama) and consistently nixing his suggestion that they try going into prostitution.

Then another neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satō), turns up at their hut one night. Hachi was drafted the same day as Kishi – the younger woman’s husband, and older woman’s son – and he breaks it to them that he and Kishi both deserted the army after several months of ill treatment, but Kishi had been killed. Hachi made it out alive and had every intention of staying that way, returning to his old hut and laying low for the rest of the war. Both women are distraught by Hachi’s news – at least, at first. The older woman feels Hachi was always a slippery fellow and assumes he had something to do with Kishi’s death. But the younger woman can’t help but notice he’s kinda cute. And Hachi thinks she’s kinda cute too. And well, she is single now…and before long, the couple are sneaking off for overnight hookups, causing the older woman great consternation. As the days wear on, she goes to greater and greater lengths to keep the pair apart, first with threats and then spying. Telling the younger woman folk tales about demons who attack adulterous woman seems to work – for a while. But then the older woman meets a lost samurai (Jūkichi Uno) wearing a creepy mask, and tricks him out of it. Maybe if she wears the mask herself and uses it to give the girl a good scare…

There is a rawness to this film, an earthiness that grabs your attention. The women often sleep topless in their hut, and it’s not presented with any kind of hubba-hubba titilation; they’re topless because it’s bloody hot. In one scene, Hachi is following the younger woman from the river towards her own hut; and as he walks, the camera gives us a shot of the younger woman’s backside, which is exactly what Hachi is looking at. And the older woman also gets an intriguing scene where she stumbles upon Hachi and her daughter in law coupling in his hut – but instead of just being scandalized, we realize she’s got some sexual frustration of her own she’s also working through; which may be part of why she’s propositioning Hachi herself a scene later. But most of her motivation is a fear of abandonment – she’s lost her son, she may lose her daughter-in-law, and then she’ll be truly destitute. The war has brought her to this, and that is likely also why she takes out her anger on the masked samurai mid-film – these high-class noblemen dared drag her son into a petty squabble and that just ruined everything.

It’s unlike any other period Japanese drama I’ve seen; it feels more like a folk horror piece, more like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in a way. It also avoids any kind of cliches about the lives of these peasants – they aren’t simple people, nor are they unusual noble or cruel. They’re just desperate and scared and tired and confused and willing to do just about anything to survive and thrive, and if that means putting on a creepy mask or hooking up with the skeevy neighbor, then fair enough.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Mary Poppins (1964)

So back when I reviewed The Wizard of Oz – another film I’d previously seen as a child – I was surprised that there were several scenes I had totally forgotten about towards the beginning. With Mary Poppins I had the exact opposite reaction – “boy, they are jumping right in with the songs and magic and everything right away, aren’t they?”

By all reports, author P. L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s efforts to make this film for years, and the songs and animation were exactly the reason why. Travers was very protective of her magic nanny (played here by Julie Andrews) who’s turned up to care for the young Banks children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber); Travers had based her depiction of Mary Poppins on people who’d cared for her as a child, and she’d feared Disney would shave off some of Mary’s strictness – a trait which Travers felt did her own family a world of good. She was also afraid Disney wouldn’t get that Mary was there more for the benefit of Jane and Michael’s father, a workaholic banker named George (David Tomlinson). But mainly she was dead-set against the idea of Mary cavorting about with animated characters and singing goofy Disney-studio-penned songs.

And…ultimately she lost that battle. I have actually read Travers’ book, and book Mary is very different – a good deal stricter and unfussy, still magic but much more practical. Book Mary would never dance with chimney sweeps on rooftops or let a chimneysweep like Bert (Dick Van Dyke) serenade her, with or without a backing chorus of penguins.

But I got the sense that this wasn’t so much about Mary Poppins anyway as it was an excuse for Disney to do a British music hall revue. The songs and dancing are front and center right from the first, when we meet Bert cavorting about on a sidewalk in a one-man band getup. And the next song comes just moments later, followed rapid-fire by a second, a third, a fourth…at one point I actually tried tracking how many minutes Disney was giving us between songs. And there ain’t much.

Fortunately there are many good songs in here – Bert’s ode to the life of chimneysweeps, “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, won the Oscar for Best Song, but there’s also rollicking singalongs like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “Step In Time” and “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, ballads and lullabyes like “Feed The Birds” and “Stay Awake”. There are so many songs thrown at you that it’s totally understandable that you forget the weaker ones (I never liked the “I Love to Laugh” scene, not even as a kid; the whole moment where a disapproving Mary demonstrates some different ways people laugh always felt forced).

Surprisingly, this rewatch made me feel like Bert is the real hero in this film. He introduces us to Mary Poppins, he does most of the elaborate dancing – and crucially, he is the one who finally gets through to George Banks about mending his ways. Mary has been bamboozling him and shaking things up, trying to snap him out of his rut, but Bert has the man-to-man talk with him that helps him connect the dots and realize he’s being a jerk.

That felt true of the performances as well. Mary Poppins is held up as the Platonian Ideal of everything – and don’t get me wrong, Julie Andrews is a fine singer and dancer. But Dick Van Dyke blew me away. Yes, his “Cockney” accent is broad enough to sail the QE-2 through and isn’t authentic in the slightest, but – my God can that man ever dance.

In fact, let me show you something. Here’s a clip from when the Kennedy Center did a tribute to Dick Van Dyke last year, with an ensemble into doing their own version of the “Step In Time” number.

They’re all fine… but the actual “Step In Time” number is bigger, faster, more energetic, more….everything. Even if you ignore the special effects and focus just on the dancing.

So, yes – it’s a jolly holiday with you, Dick.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

In some ways, this film is exactly what it says on the tin; it’s a dramatization of the Gospel of St. Matthew, adapted in Italian neorealist style by Pier Paolo Pasolini (who also directs). Pasolini – a lapsed Catholic – had gotten bored in a hotel and read the Bible, and been so captivated by the Gospel of Matthew that he decided to stage it exactly as it was – using exactly the same words and plot points that had caught his eye. But for me – a similarly lapsed Catholic – it was the neorealism bits that resonated the most.

I have to confess to dozing off a time or two during this; but notably, my drowsy moments seemed to happen when there was a lot of talking. After weekly Masses as a child, I am probably wired to associate recitations from the Gospels with boredom and sleepiness, having been woken up early on a Sunday and shepherded to church, and not understanding the priest’s sermons and looking out the windows half-awake and impatiently wanting to go outside and play or go home and sleep. I’ve heard those exact words spoken again and again, have heard those stories again and again.

But I haven’t seen them this way. And it’s the wordless scenes which caught my attention and woke me up, again and again.

One example: the very opening sequence, with Margherita Caruso as Mary and Marcello Morante as Joseph sadly staring back and forth at each other. The camera cuts from shots of one to the other, head-and-shoulders the only things visible, about three or four times – and then we get a wider shot of Mary, hugely pregnant, and understand viscerally the reason Joseph looks so upset. We don’t need words, we get the context.

Or the scene following His Baptism, when Jesus retreats to the desert for 40 days; Enrique Irazoqui, the non-actor who plays Jesus, is kneeling in solitude and stillness; hands raised, his white robe stark against the deep black of the landscape as the camera tracks closer and closer until we can see his face.

But even though Pasolini leans on the visuals for some of the storytelling, he doesn’t give in to elaborate special effects; his imagery is simple, but raw. When Jesus heals a leper, there’s no thunderbolt or light flash; there’s just a man with a disfigured face, and Jesus laying His hand over it – and then removing His hand to reveal a healed face. The Angel (Rossana Di Rocco) just appears now and then, stepping into camera; there’s no thunderbolt or trumpet fanfare, she’s just there suddenly, when before she wasn’t.

Speaking of fanfares – the music Pasolini uses is inspired as well. He chose music from several genres; his only concern was that it be religious or spiritual in some fashion. So the soundtrack jumps from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to the Jewish Kol Nidre, to a passage from the Congolese Missa Luba. The Adoration of the Magi is set to the sound of Odetta Holmes’ singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. A portion of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevesky Cantata scores another scene.

And Pasolini also has a good eye for picking the right face for each part. Irazoqui was an economics student when Pasolini cast him as Jesus; after the film, Irazoqui only had minor roles in three other films and then went back to his studies, going on to become an expert in teaching computers to play chess. Several of the apostles were played by writers and philosophers Pasolini admired. And in a slightly Oedipal move, Pasolini cast his own mother Susanna as the older version of Mary. No one’s performance is groundbreaking; but they don’t really need to be. They all somehow look exactly right for their roles.

The Bible passage about God speaking in a “still small voice” isn’t in Matthew; rather, it’s in the Book of Kings. But it’s a verse I’m thinking of connected to this film; the Gospel isn’t just the words, it’s the things we see. The things we see don’t have to be super-impressive; Jesus can look like a Spanish college student, His mother can look like any Italian nonna. Things can be simple. And – that’s kind of the point.