film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965)

This was a short, small, and deceptively meek little film – but with one scene that came as a bit of a slap that sent me off balance.

Govert Miereveld (Senne Rouffaer) is a teacher at a secondary school somewhere in Belgium. He’s married with two kids; and he also has a romantic obsession with one of his pupils, a beauty named Fran Veerman (Beata Tyszkiewicz). When we meet him, it’s the morning of the school’s graduation ceremony, and Govert has made up his mind that once the ceremony’s over, he’s finally going to take her aside and proclaim his love. He even stops by the barber’s on the way to the ceremony to get a haircut and spruce himself up some. But the general fuss of the ceremony gets in the way, and then there’s a pageant that the graduating students are presenting for the parents and he can’t interrupt that, and it wouldn’t be proper for him to break into her dressing room, and….and so he never actually gets the chance.

Govert falls into such a state of depression about Fran that he quits teaching altogether, taking a job as a court clerk in another town, toiling away for some years in what he sees as a boring and dead-end job as a sort of penance. Then one of his friends, the court medical officer, invites him along on an investigation; he’s been asked to do an autopsy on a body pulled from a river to try to identify the corpse. It’s a grim task, but it’s some distance into the country and the drive there might be a nice “road trip”. They spend longer than planned on the autopsy and are forced to stay overnight.

But right after they’ve gotten their room keys, Govert starts to head up to his room….and sees Fran, now a famous singer, coming down the stairs. Govert is overjoyed to see her again, and delighted that she remembers him….and even more delighted to hear that she wants to catch up a bit later that evening, after a concert she’s giving, and she’s staying in the room around the corner from him. Govert counts down the minutes until he can rush to Fran’s room and pour his heart out, telling Fran everything he feels about her. Fran takes it all in – but then it’s her turn to talk.

Honestly, the scene in Fran’s hotel room made the entire film for me. Everything that came before it felt slow and plodding, and seemed to drag on too long – Govert pacing backstage during the school pageant trying to work up the courage to talk to Fran, the stilted conversation as he and his friend drove to the autopsy, the autopsy itself. It felt like boring, inconsequential stuff from a boring, inconsequential life. The only times that Govert seems to hit any heights of passion or fervor was when he was thinking about Fran, or watching her sing, or pouring out his heart to her. She is a goddess to him, and he is her most devout and fervent acolyte.

And that’s why the scene in the hotel room is so devastating – because while Fran says she reciprocates what he feels, she also thoroughly destroys the idealized image he has of her. She is not what he believes her to be, and she never was. Director André Delvaux stages this scene with shots of Rouffaer and Tyszkiewicz each looking directly into the camera in turns as they speak to each other; Govert is making his declaration to Fran looking directly at us, and we see Fran’s reaction; and then we see Govert’s shock as Fran makes her own confession. It’s an affecting choice – Rouffaer looks so floored and wounded by the things Fran tells him that his next actions make total sense.

Even the long, dull bits that come before make sense. Some critics of this film teased Delvaux for being “The Man Who Would Not Cut His Film Short”, but I found that this just emphasized how timid and stuck in a rut Miereveld had become; which in turn explains how he got so obsessed with a young, beautiful girl to the point that it lead to disaster. Rouffaer also just looks like a dictionary illustration for the word “meek”; he’s small, shrinking, inconsequential. He’s in such a routine that Fran seems like his only chance to grab for beauty – and learns that expecting her to be his salvation is a huge mistake.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Sid Meniscus

Repulsion (1965)

So, this film was arresting in its own right. But Sid Meniscus made it – which gives an additional weight to things, given the topic.

Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a pretty, shy manicurist working at a high-end spa in London and sharing an apartment with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). She has a sort-of boyfriend, Colin (John Fraser), but is strangely unwilling to return his calls or accept his invitations for dates. Helen is having a bit more fun with her lover Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man with whom she’s having an affair; and Carol is often disturbed by finding Michael’s shirts and razors cluttering up their apartment, or gets woken up by their lovemaking. But then Helen brings Carol some potential good news – she and Michael are going to Italy for a vacation together, so Carol can have the whole place to herself for a week. Great news, right?

Except for Carol….maybe it’s not. On her first solo night, she starts making dinner…but then gets distracted by one of Michael’s shirts lying on the floor in the kitchen, and one of his shoes in the hall, and…and by the time Carol has cleaned his crap up, she’s forgotten all about making dinner. And then hearing silence at night instead of the by-now-familiar sounds of Helen and Michael schtupping just makes Carol hyper-aware of all the other noises she never noticed before – footsteps in the hall, creaks, someone whistling in the street – and she ends up lying awake in fright the whole night. She’s in such rough shape the next day at work – jittery and spacey – that her boss sends her back home, where she spends another sleepless night because now she thinks she sees someone lurking in the corner instead of just hearing things. And a few days later, after even more sleep loss and isolation revving her anxiety up, Carol starts hallucinating – men lurking in her bedroom and raping her, hands reaching out at her from the walls, mirrors and walls cracking all on their own. She’s so worked up that she avoids leaving the house for several days, prompting Colin to break in just to check on her. Unfortunately for Colin, that inspires Carol to take action and defend herself…

The visuals in the film are really well done. We’re often seeing things from Carol’s perspective, especially towards the end, and it’s a nightmarish place – the apartment’s center hallway stretches to impossible lengths, rooms where Carol has done frightening things start to look like stage sets, walls bubble and seethe. Intruders lurk behind every chair and around every corner, and even in Carol’s own bed. Hands erupt out of nowhere to grope and grab her – and to fondle her, for a good deal of Carol’s anxiety involves sexual assault. The apartment never really looks “real” until the end when Helen and Michael come home and discover exactly how Carol spent her week.

And Catherine Deneuve is excellent as Carol; initially we think that Carol is just a little ditzy and spacey, and only gradually do we start to realize that oh, no, Carol is traumatized. She speaks very little throughout, carrying most of the acting with just her face and body; a song she tearfully sings midway through the film is possibly her longest bit of speech.

The root of Carol’s trauma is never completely explained, but it’s very very strongly hinted at in the very end – and that’s what threw me, given what we know about the director. Because it’s implied that as a child, Carol had been sexually abused by an older family member. Sid Meniscus also wrote the film – and while he claims that he was inspired by a woman he’d met once who turned out to be schizophrenic, immediately following the film I was wondering whether I’d just seen a pre-emptive confession. Which is a shame – because if it had been anyone else directing, I’d still have been affected by the film itself.

I’d recommend trying to ignore who directed this if possible and let the film speak for itself.

Administratia, Sid Meniscus

Introducing: Sid Meniscus

Back when I was starting this project, something else was also starting – the #MeToo movement.  #MeToo has brought long-overdue consequences onto the heads of major perpetrators of sexual assault in many industries – including the entertainment industry – and the greater awareness of sexual violence and harassment, and improved ways to report attacks, is slowly leading to a better working environment overall.  We still have a long way to go, but it’s become easier to punish perpetrators in the present, and prevent them from committing offenses in the future. 

But – what about the past?  What do we do about all the films that sexual predators made before we knew that’s what was going on?  That’s a more complicated question that continues to be hotly debated; and there are no straightforward answers.  Some people are firm advocates of “separating the art from the artist”, while others argue that consuming the art made by a sexual predator puts money in their pocket, and they’d rather not do that.  And because this is a matter of individual consumption, many people make up their own individual rules; just this past week while I was in Los Angeles I visited some college friends, and the Me Too fallout came up in conversation; one woman said she went by “who gets the money”.  When Michael Jackson was still alive, for instance, she avoided listening to his music; but now that he’s passed and his children benefit from the estate, she’s started listening to his music again.

For me, boycotting a known perpetrator’s films was never going to be an option; there are simply too many films on this list I’d have to give up, to the point that the project would be severely hampered.  I also had a front-row seat to an incident that reminded me how boycotting a perpetrator’s film can have innocent victims….

I’ve mentioned that I’m “Facebook friends” with the actor Colman Domingo. Colman and I worked on a play in about 2003, just before things started to take off for him, and he was one of the first people to send me a friend request when I joined Facebook a year later.  And so I’ve been honored to watch first-hand as he’s gone from doing extra work on film and TV, to character roles on Broadway, to a TONY nomination, to starring on Broadway, to character roles in movies and TV, to starring roles in TV – to where he is now, an Emmy-winning actor with his own production company, getting shortlisted for an Oscar this year, an upcoming travel show with Anthony Bourdain’s old collaborators, and his first starring role in a film coming up in the fall. 

Back in 2015 or so, he was working on a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – and he was delighted to be working on it.  He gushed often about how wonderful the writing was, the importance of the story it was telling, and how honored and grateful he was to be a part of this film.  He couldn’t wait for it to come out, and I couldn’t wait to see it.

But then that film, titled The Birth of a Nation, was released.  And soon after news started to swirl of a past rape allegation against Nate Parker, the film’s star and director.  That news dominated the movie’s coverage – even one of the film’s stars spoke out against Parker after hearing the news – and ultimately, the movie tanked.  Colman was philosophical about it all, but after having read how excited he’d been while filming, my heart broke for him.  Because while the truth about Parker’s acts are still a bit murky, I knew for a certainty that Colman hadn’t done anything wrong – and yet he was still being punished for Parker’s actions.  And that didn’t sit right with me.

And that informed how I approach a film with a questionable person – I remove that person from discussions of the film wherever possible.  So I’ll speak of Annie Hall as being a Diane Keaton film, or of The Usual Suspects as being a Gabriel Byrne film.  It honors their work, and the work itself, while not giving the single nasty character any attention.  …The only challenge there is – if I’m writing a review of Annie Hall or a similar film, I’m still going to have to refer to that nasty character somehow – it would quickly get very silly if I spoke of how Diane Keaton fares in her scenes opposite “that guy whose name I don’t want to mention” or suchlike.

So for that – I’ve come up with a slightly silly solution. 

For many years, directors used the pseudonym “Alan Smithee” if they wanted to publicly disown one of their works over a lack of creative control.  The Directors’ Guild frowned on directors using pseudonyms, but many directors have struggled with studios meddling with their work, in some cases to the point that they felt the finished film hadn’t really been “their” work.  So the DGA allowed that one pseudonym under those specific conditions.  It’s only been used a handful of times, and often only for the “edited for television” version of a given film; David Lynch used “Alan Smithee” for the broadcast television edit of Dune, for instance.

I’m going to start using a similar tactic.  Effective immediately, I’ll be using the name “Sid Meniscus” as a pseudonym for any actor or filmmaker who’s a known perpetrator of sexual misconduct.  I’m sticking to the actual perpetrators as well, as opposed to men who witnessed and said nothing; they didn’t help, but there are many reasons why someone could choose not to report attempted assaults (as many of the victims of sexual assault could tell you).  The next film I’ll be reviewing was directed by one of the better-known “Sid’s”, and it’s high time I introduced Sid to you all. 

….and I will not be linking to a web page with their actual name or anything like that.  In many cases, you’d likely be able to guess; and if not, you can always Google it yourself if you want to know that badly.  But – better you didn’t, let their true names rot in the dust.

So – I’m hereby introducing “Sid Meniscus” to you all. Unfortunately, you’re going to be hearing quite a bit from him.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

I’m back from my trip to Los Angeles, and my first-ever visit to a film festival – the Turner Classic Movies network has an annual classic film festival there. And while I wasn’t able to get into all the venues (a failing on my part – I didn’t read the fine print before selecting a festival pass), and missed out on a few films as a result, one venue I could visit was the TCM Chinese Theater IMAX (fka “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre“); so the three films I did see were in a venue that looked like this.

One of those films was Cool Hand Luke. I remarked on that when collecting my festival pass, and the staff at TCM made sure I got some festival swag to commemorate – a little ribbon that quoted Paul Newman’s line about eating fifty eggs. I’d also mentioned to my father that I would be seeing it in the festival; he was shocked this would be my first viewing.

…Ironically, I think my father’s raving about it and the festival’s focus on it built it up more than it should have done for me; and if everyone had left me alone I may have been a bit more impressed.

Not that I didn’t like it, mind you. Paul Newman was excellent as “Lucas Jackson”, a World War II vet we first meet drunkenly chopping down parking meters in small-town 1950s Florida. For this offense he is sentenced to a two-year stay in a Florida prison camp, doing road work as part of a prison gang under the watchful eye of the prison Captain (Strother Martin) and a warden with a penchant for mirrored sunglasses (Morgan Woodward). The Captain and the Warden rule the camp harshly, often using solitary confinement in “The Box” (a small shack barely big enough to stand in), but Jackson’s irreverence wins him a following among the other prisoners – to the point that they’re even willing to help him with an escape attempt.

So it’s a little bit Great Escape and a little bit Shawshank Redemption, with a side of 60s Counterculture Rebelliousness and a bit of a darker fate.

I also feel like Jackson’s irreverence was irreverence for its own sake – and that didn’t feel like enough, strangely. The gang in The Great Escape were trying to secure a breakout for everyone in the camp; Jackson’s just trying to get himself out. As for Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, he bucks the system to improve conditions for the other men – spiffing up the prison library, collecting evidence of the warden’s exploitation, and playing out a very, very long escape attempt. Meanwhile, in Cool Hand Luke – save for one instance when he encourages the other prisoners to finish paving a road in a day so they can have the next day off – Jackson’s irreverence is simply about Sticking It To The Man. Which ultimately felt a bit…childish.

But Sticking It To The Man was very much the zeitgeist of 1967, and Paul Newman is charming about it. He also has a telling monologue late in the film, an angry prayer in which he curses God for stacking the deck against him; he knows he’s a screwup, and he knows he’s been dealt a bad hand. And he blames God for all of that. But he’d been dealt a similarly bad literal hand during a poker game and bluffs so well that he wins; it’s the moment he’s given the nickname “Cool Hand Luke”. And after lamenting his bad hand in the larger sense, he falls back on what he’s always done – tries to bluff and charm his way out of it. His monologue is one of the few times he’s not smiling and putting up a cocksure front, and it’s affecting. …It was just also a little too brief for me.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vinyl (1965)

Full disclosure: I watched this either the night of the day I landed in Los Angeles, or the next day; early enough that jet-lag may still have been a factor, anyway. However – I may still have been confused by this film even if I’d been well-rested.

Vinyl is an underground film, one of Andy Warhol’s works, loosely inspired by the novel A Clockwork Orange. Poet and artist Gerard Malanga plays “Victor” (the name changed from the original “Alex”), a juvenile delinquent subjected to an experimental treatment involving negative conditioning to reform him. That’s still the plot.

But the staging is….puzzling. Save for one very slow pullback right at the film’s start, the camera does not move at all. In lieu of credits, Andy Warhol reads the cast list from offscreen, and does so about five minutes after the film has already started. The sound quality is practically nonexistent. The video is too murky to see any action in the background. Edie Sedgewick sits on a trunk to the right of the frame for the entire film, just sort of….watching. Another extra watches from the left for a good part of the film, but then suddenly has a laughing fit and leaves. The bulk of Victor’s delinquency seems to be a sequence where he does nothing but dance wildly to the song “Nowhere To Run” by Martha and the Vandellas – twice in a row.

It just doesn’t look very much like what I would recognize as a film, in short. It looks more like Warhol simply told people what to do, and then only moments later turned a camera on and filmed it and then called it good. There are apparently a couple people in the dim background watching the scene who didn’t even know Warhol was filming what they were seeing, or that they would themselves be in his movie.

Now, this kind of thing can be a step on the way to an amateur becoming a filmmaker. You’re getting used to the camera, you haven’t learned that staging or lighting or blocking or sound are things yet. You also only have your friends and family to cast from and you haven’t really figured out how to coax a good performance from people yet. You’re still in the heady state of the excitement of just having a camera. But – you don’t necessarily show those works to anyone aside from family or friends. Or if you do, you don’t keep showing it. And people don’t consider it one of your finished films and keep circulating it. But somehow this…was.

So I’m honestly not clear why this is being held up as a pivotal work of underground cinema. A part of me wonders whether Warhol was messing with cinematic conventions at all – did films “need” to have credits? Or camera movement? Did the action have to follow a plot? Did we need to shoo away people watching in the background, or could we still let people watch to emphasize this was just pretend? Who says you can’t simply turn your camera on and let things happen? …But Warhol’s other films, as I understand, have more of an intent to them – KIss was made up entirely of 3-minute sequences of different couples kissing, Chelsea Girls was a documentary about the various women living in the Chelsea Hotel, Sleep was nothing but a real-time film of a man sleeping, Empire was a slow-motion film of the sun setting over the Empire State Building. For this, I’m not as convinced there was an intent.

So…yeah, I’m not sure it was the jet lag that was confusing me here.

Administratia, Extra Credit

A Crash Course Field Trip!

So it’s like this – about a year ago I looked up all the various film festivals, to see if there were any that may appeal. Some I bookmarked as “someday” trips (Sundance is expensive) and some I quickly learned I had no chance (Cannes is largely for industry insiders). The New York film festival had one or two films I needed to see anyway.

And then there was the TCM Festival, launched by the Turner Classic Movie network. Lo and behold they also have a three day film festival in Los Angeles, complete with lectures and such, with a program covering about 100 years worth of film history.

My flight boards in 20 minutes and I will be seeing one, possibly two, films from the list as part of the festival.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

William Shakespeare really liked to write about a specific period in English history. Eight of his historical works – Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, Richard III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 – all deal with the 15th-Century royal infighting for control of the English throne known today as The Wars Of The Roses. These eight plays were a sort of Tudor-era version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with events in some plays carrying echoes into the next, characters in some plays making guest appearances in others, and the whole collection of plays joining up to tell one enormous epic tale.

A handful of playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs have capitalized on this connection; they’ll pick one character that makes small appearances across separate plays and collect all the scenes dealing with them into a single work, thus “finding” a full play about that character hiding in plain sight; one of my regrets from my theater days was not having ever staged one such play that my colleague Colin found with Queen Margaret of Anjou as its focus. Orson Welles did something very similar with this work – except his focus was on the character of Sir John Falstaff, the aging, gone-to-seed former knight Prince Hal slums around with just before his father King Henry IV enters his final illness.

It’s clear – and poignantly so – why Welles was interested in the character. At first blush, Falstaff seems to be a figure of fun – he’s vain and boastful, he drinks like a fish, he drags Hal to the brothels. But he’s fiercely devoted to Hal and to the court; during a battle scene, even though he spends most of the sequence hiding behind trees and then fainting in fright, he still has pushed himself to show up. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s made some foolish choices and gone for comfort over struggle a few too many times, and deep down he probably knows that it’s cost him. But he trusts Hal is a devoted friend – even though Hal’s pulled pranks on him and has warned him that sooner or later he’s going to have to give up his carefree life – and so it’s heartbreaking when Hal finally rejects him at his coronation.

Welles was at a similar point in his career. After the early successes of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles spent the next several years struggling to produce first a film adaptation of Othello, then an adaptation of Don Quixote. In both cases the funding came out of his own pocket, and filming was often interrupted by Welles having to go off and appear in someone else’s movie or TV show simply because he needed money for his own works. Othello took three years to complete and received mixed reviews at best; and as for Don Quixote, Welles never finished the film. He’d also spent the previous 30 years juggling multiple lovers and two wives, and by 1965 his second marriage to Italian actress Paola Mori was on the outs. And after years of the crash diets he’d used to manage his weight in his heyday, he’d finally decided “screw it” and leaned into his love of food, alcohol, and tobacco, even though it lead to him ballooning up to 275 pounds. So – just like Falstaff, he could have made much better choices, in both his professional and personal career, but he’d favored ease and pleasure a little too much and he’d obsessed over the wrong things, and at some point along the way it had cost him. He still had the respect and acknowledgement of those in the know – but that respect often came with a grudging admission that these days he was a little bit too much of a handful.

Even though Falstaff doesn’t seem to have the self-awareness to realize his mistakes until it was too late, Welles playing Falstaff suggests that he does. He repeatedly makes Falstaff look ridiculous, such as with the aforementioned battle scenes or with a sight gag involving three pages struggling to hoist Falstaff atop his horse. The whores in the brothel and Hal’s other companions all have no problem laughing at him, and so neither do we; and Welles knows that. And then he shows us Falstaff’s moment of realization, during Hal’s coronation when Falstaff salutes him and Hal coldly says “I know thee not, old man.” Welles sets the scene up with Falstaff standing totally alone, with sniggering court members looking on, and looking utterly bereft; Falstaff is realizing just how cruelly he’s been betrayed, and just how much his own behavior lead to that; and I’m convinced that this is Welles’ way of saying he knows as well.

My only complaint about the specific print I saw was that the sound was a little too garbled; even though I’ve seen and read a lot of Shakespeare, it was still frustrating trying to hear the muddy dialogue in places. Fortunately I was able to see Welles’ cinematography well enough, as it was proof positive that even though Welles was admitting he was kind of a goof, he still was a talented goof.