Movie Crash Course Review, movies, film

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.

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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.

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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.

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An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

So this was….strange.

In this Japanese period piece, Yukitarō (Kazuo Hasegawa) is an actor in a kabuki troupe. Yukitarō joined the troupe as a child, after his parents were driven to kill themselves thanks to the machinations of three other noblemen. But all this time Yukitarō has been plotting his revenge – and now that the troupe is in Edo, where the three men now live, Yukitarō decides it’s time to act. But one of the men now has a daughter, Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), who becomes infatuated with Yukitarō; he exploits her affections to get close to her father and facilitate his plan.

So there were some confusing bits about this – some of which was simply culture shock. Kabuki actors use stage names, some of which are handed down like a title – so for a good part of the film some characters were addressing Yukitarō by his stage name of “Yukinojō” instead. And to make things even more confusing, Hasegawa was playing a dual role in this film – sometimes appearing as “Yamitarō”, a petty thief who occasionally commented on the proceedings as a sort of Greek chorus. The similarities between the names “Yukitarō” and “Yamitarō”, combined with both characters having the same face, did cause me to lose my way a bit, especially since sometimes people called Yukitarō something else entirely. I confess that I finally gave up on keeping the names straight and started thinking of Yukitarō as “Effeminate Revenge Guy” instead.

And Hasegawa did indeed play Yukitarō in an effeminate way most of the film. But there’s precedent for that – at this time, women were not allowed to act, so some men like Yukitarō became onnagata, or men who specifically play womens’ roles.

Here’s where we go into a really deep dive into the culture shock – and where things really get interesting, and where I started appreciating the film more after the fact. I’d learned a bit about kabuki in college theater history classes – all I could remember was that it started out as an all-female art form, started by a temple priestess who organized skits for the fun of it in a dried-up Kyoto riverbed. Kabuki soon expanded to include performers of both genders, and it became a big attraction in Japan’s various red-light districts – which annoyed the moral-authority nobility, who sneered at the often saucy content and at the mixing-and-mingling of different social classes in the audience. Many of the actresses had side gigs as prostitutes, and some developed very passonate fandoms. In an effort to rein things in, women were banned from performing kabuki in 1629.

But that just lead to the rise of onnagata as a thing in kabuki, with particularly androgynous-looking young men taking on women’s roles (and some even taking on the same prostitution and fan followings the women had done). When the emperor banned onnagata in 1642, that just lead to a lot of kabuki plays about homosexual romances. That ban on onnagata was lifted in 1644, and authorities tried a different approach – requiring all kabuki actors, regardless of their roles, to wear the traditional adult male chonmage hairstyle with the shaved crown. Onnagata still found a way to work with this – donning a small purple kerchief known as a murasaki bōshi to cover the shaved spot. This gender-bending signifier went on to develop an erotic power all its own, of course; and soon after, the moral authorities gave up much of their policing and let onnagata do what they wanted.

There are a handful of scenes where Yamitarō indeed wears this kind of purple kerchief. And overall – the more I refreshed my memory about kabuki, the more it felt like the movie was itself echoing kabuki’s style. Hasegawa occasionally gives us Yamitarō’s inner thoughts in a breathy voiceover; or, he’ll narrate things in Yamitarō’s gruffer, bawdier patter instead. There’s a lengthy sequence where Yamitarō is trying to walk home through the streets of Edo at night and is stopped by two other robbers – instead of staging this in a street set, the actors are in a pitch-black set, with no other scenery. Other shots use equally-minimal staging, which to me looked much like the minimalist sets of a kabuki performance. There’s also a heightened-reality feel to a good deal of the plot, also befitting kabuki.

So, yes – this one was strange. But that’s fitting – as my theater professor told me so many years ago, the very word kabuki means “strange theater”.

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The Servant (1963)

This film….hmm.

Well, it’s dark, for sure. A rich London playboy named Tony (James Fox) buys a posh pad with his inheritance and hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant to complete the picture. At first all seems to be going well – Barrett tolerates Tony’s boozing and mess, anticipates Tony’s every need, and is quiet and efficient at his job. There’s some friction between Barrett and Tony’s fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig), exacerbated when Barrett “forgets” to knock on the parlor door and walks in on the pair making out on the couch; but both Tony and Susan speak to him separately about that, and peace seems to be restored. So much so that Barrett is able to convince Tony to hire his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as a second servant in the house.

Only…Vera isn’t Barrett’s sister; she’s his girlfriend. And once she’s in the house, she starts flirting with Tony too….with Barrett’s blessing, because Barrett has a plan.

I think the thing that frustrated me most about this film was that I couldn’t really get a sense of the specific machinations of Barrett’s plan. Tony’s a twit, and he’s easy to manipulate….and Susan has a classist chip on her shoulder. So both are ripe for a con. But it was unclear how much of what happens was Barrett’s idea, and how much of it was him improvising and reacting to how things were falling out. The scenes towards the end – as Tony moves into a final downward spiral – also felt strangely rushed and chaotic, and introduced a faintly homoerotic vibe that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. ….At least, it didn’t go anywhere to my 21st-century eyes; audiences in 1963 might have been more inclined to read a subtext into the dialogue in these scenes that I’m not.

On the plus side, things look gorgeous. Tony’s house is a genteel townhouse, empty and painted white at the start (Tony receives Barrett for his interview while lazing on a camp chair in the living room), but Barrett oversees the decor, turning it first into a posh gentleman’s residence – but then gradually making things darker and dimmer, occasionally adding some cheap art pieces you’d find in a bordello. Susan’s parents house – an even tonier mansion outside London – is lavish, but strangely sterile, and the one scene taking place there opens with everyone in such artfully languid positions it looks like they’re posing for a group portrait.

There’s also repeated shots involving one of those convex mirrors as things get more and more fun-house surreal.

Nevertheless I found I wanted to simply understand Barrett’s long game a bit better, if for no other reason than wanting to know just how slippery a fish he was.

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The Nutty Professor (1963)

I’ll be damned, it’s a Jerry Lewis movie I could tolerate.

In this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde parody, Lewis plays “Julius Kelp”, a nerdy, clumsy college professor of chemistry. When one of the football stars stuffs him into a locker – and he is rescued by another of his students, the pretty Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) – Kelp resolves to Improve Himself so he can fight back. But when his initial plan to join a gym doesn’t pan out, he decides to tackle the problem chemically, devising a tonic that instantly transforms him into a suave ladies’ man with a better haircut, better teeth, and a boost of confidence. Or, rather, a boost of ego.

In this new guise, Kelp presents himself as “Buddy Love” and starts hanging around the night club frequented by students, bossing around the bartenders and commandeering the piano. He also aggressively pursues Purdy, who is strangely attracted to him despite finding him rude, conceited and lecherous. Also he has a strange habit of running away unexpectedly (the effects of Kelp’s tonic are temporary and this is the only way he can think to cope when they wear off). Purdy keeps pining for Kelp – but the rest of the students become fans of “Buddy Love,” pressuring the Dean (Del Moore) to invite Love to perform at the student prom – the same prom at which Kelp will be serving as chaperone. Now what?….

In my last review of a Jerry Lewis film, I lamented that there was no plot as such – it was just Jerry Lewis Doing Stuff. This is more like it – this has a plot. It’s a ridiculous plot, and there are holes you can drive a truck through, but there’s still much more of a framework story to hang Jerry Lewis’ schtick onto. That alone was a vast improvement for me. But even better – Lewis isn’t playing another screaming, mugging manchild like he did in both The Ladies Man or Artists And Models, which was honestly a relief. He takes on two different characters instead – both larger-than-life caricatures, to be fair, but both also blessedly different. Kelp’s original persona is even a bit….likeable. “Buddy Love,” by contrast, was almost aggressively boorish – but he was supposed to be; he’s supposed to be Kelp’s unbridled id in a sense.

There was one unfortunate side effect to Buddy Love’s persona – this film came out shortly after Lewis had a contentious split with his creative partner Dean Martin, and many people (myself included) suspected that Lewis was basing his “Buddy Love” persona on Martin himself. Lewis insisted repeatedly that this was not the case, however; it was instead a reflection of Lewis’ own “bad boy” side. And now that I think about it – Martin’s own suave ladies-man persona was more a construct of their films, one that Martin ultimately came to resent, and now I’m wondering how much of a hand Lewis had in those characterizations as well.

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Méditerranée (1963)

So this….baffled me.

Méditerranée felt like it was an ancestor of one of those non-narrative pseudo-documentaries, like Koyaanisqatsi (which will be coming up later), where we see an assembly of footage from all over the world, and the juxtaposition itself tells a story. Here the footage is confined to scenes from around the Mediterranean; a Greek temple, Egyptian ruins, a Sicilian garden, a Spanish bullfight. An elderly man fishes. A young Greek girl combs her hair. Barbed wire fences off a cliff which drops down to the sea. A comatose woman is wheeled down a hall into an operating room.

…But we see these same clips again and again – we never learn what happens to the woman, we never see the girl do anything but comb her hair. The fisherman just rows his boat. The bullfighters just keep fighting bulls. I lost count of how many times we were treated to the same shot of the same orange on the same tree in that Sicilian garden.

And unlike the Qatsi films….there is a narration, of sorts. I actually went to some great lengths trying to find English subtitles for the French narration – but I needn’t bothered, because it was similarly repetitive, circular musings on time and history and perception. I actually may have been better served without it; the repetitive scenes, the contrast of the ruins with the more modern scenes, the ancient and the contemporary, make the filmmaker’s point just fine on their own. The Mediterranean Sea has seen scores of empires and countries rise and fall, and for centuries people have been born and grew up and got married and lived and died and were buried along its shores, and more would come after doing much the same, and the handful of clips repeated over and over make that point.

From what I’ve read – the director Jean-Daniel Pollet assembled this film after a road trip around the Mediterranean with Volker Schlöndorff, a German filmmaker. They stopped to shoot whatever looked interesting, and then locked themselves up in an editing room for several days – resorting even to sleeping on the floor – trying to figure out what to make of it all, and this is what they finally came up with.  It may have been an approach born of sleep deprivation, but it’s certainly an ambitious one; I just wish there were a bit more variety or resolution to some of the scenes.

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The Leopard (1963)

I might have enjoyed this film a bit more if either I knew more about Italian history or cared more about the pageantry and lifestyle of the royalty class. I might also have enjoyed it if the film cared more about this story. I neither know nor care about either one, and it seemed the film didn’t either, so this came across as more like a long and plodding filmic throwback.

Set in the 1800s, during and after the tumultuous Unification of Italy, “The Leopard” is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), a minor Sicilian prince. He has been leading his family through a sort of comfortably idle life; overseeing the daily family prayers, keeping the peace between his son and three daughters, coordinating family movements between their three mansions, and grooming his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) as the family heir; Tancredi is sweet on his daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), so it’ll serve the family even better. But when a war breaks out against the ruling class, lead by nationalist Giuseppe Girabaldi, Tancredi is swayed by the romance of the cause and joins Girabaldi’s ranks. And Don Fabrizio….just lets him, figuring he’ll get bored eventually and come home.

Fortunately Tancredi does. But the Girabaldis have done their work; Italy is now to be a unified nation, and the various ruling families have lost a good deal of their political power and prestige. Meanwhile, some middle-class families have gained some privilege – like Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), mayor of the small town near one of the Corbera’s mansions. Sedara pays a visit to the Corberas soon after Tancredi’s return, bringing his pretty daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale); Tancredi gets his head turned, and so does Don Fabrizio a bit. And when Tancredi announces he plans to marry Angelica instead….Don Fabrizio shrugs and figures eh, she’s rich, it’ll be a good match for Tancredi. Also, that kind of match makes a bit more sense in the new Italy.

That’s….kind of all that happens for much of the film, I’m afraid. Don Fabrizio notices something is changing, and he lets it happen, and life goes on. He’s offered the chance to join in the new Italian Senate, but turns it down, and life goes on. Tancredi changes his mind about who he’s marrying, Don Fabrizio shrugs, and life goes on.

And then there is a high-society ball which takes up nearly the final hour of the film. Tancredi is there to introduce Angelica to society; Don Fabrizio is there with his wife to carry on custom. And for a good 45 minutes, we watch as the younger couples dance and the older folks gossip, as Don Fabrizio aimlessly wanders around the mansion looking at the paintings and getting bummed out about the nobility getting tossed over. Angelica insists she dance with him at one point, and he does, but it doesn’t lift his mood. And the movie ends soon after.

Now, this ball scene was supposed to be a lavish look at the lifestyle which was on its way out, and I could tell I was supposed to be mourning its passing along with Don Fabrizio. But instead of lavish and genteel, it felt silly and pointless – and coming after Don Fabrizio’s relative inactivity throughout, I didn’t even get why he was lamenting its passing in the first place. If we’d seen a bit more about Don Fabrizio’s way of life before this – seen what kind of political influence he had, or seen him throw a livelier ball of his own – perhaps that would have made more of an impression. But putting the ball at the very end, after Don Fabrizio spent the whole film talking about accepting change, just made it look dull and vapid and reinforced that he’d made the right decision – so it made no sense he was upset about it.

So ultimately I was quite bored; this was a pretty adaptation of an ultimately dull story which I wasn’t all that interested in to begin with.

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Blonde Cobra (1963)

This film baffled me in two different ways.

It baffled me in and of itself. It’s a short experimental work, of the same ilk as the earlier Flaming Creatures – meandering, stream-of-consciousness snippets of a couple people in costumes, non-sequitur voiceovers, and snippets of old music. Jack Smith, who was in turn Flaming Creatures’ director, is the main performer here, although “performer” is a bit inaccurate; he doesn’t seem to “perform” so much as seems to just “do stuff”. He tries on dresses and hats. He mugs at the camera. He uses a chicken carcass as a puppet. He rigs a curtain up around a corner of the room and pretends to be a fortune teller. He pretends to eat a floor tile. He draws or writes things on a pad of paper and sometimes holds them up, pointing at them with an eager grin. Once or twice another man wanders into the shot and Smith pulls him into the fray. Sometimes the screen goes black entirely. And over all this, Smith’s voice keeps up a running stream-of-consciousness monologue, ping-ponging from personal anecdotes to quoting Greta Garbo to spinning a tale about nuns in an irreverent convent. The narration doesn’t match the action, and none of it makes any coherent sense.

The other reason this baffled me is – I wasn’t bothered by this the way Flaming Creatures bothered me. I wasn’t a fan, either, but….at the end I was surprised to find myself a tiny bit charmed by this film. Even though the narration gets pretty risque – Smith talks about things that qualify as sadism, necrophilia, or group sex in places – and even though Smith spends most of the film in drag, it felt strangely innocent.

Actually, comparing this to Flaming Creatures may be a good way to illustrate why. Both films looks like they were made by people trying to shock their audiences – but for Flaming Creatures, it felt like Smith was being more calculating. He specifically chose performers and set up specific shots so as to deliberately shock his audience; he wanted them uncomfortable, he wanted their buttons pushed. But Blonde Cobra felt more like a spontaneous thing director Ken Jacobs made while hanging out with Smith one day; “I’ll just run the camera, do whatever you want.”

That may have been what gives it that innocence for me. It looks like the goofy stuff that a bunch of 14-year-olds would make if one of them got a videocamera for their birthday and they were all bored; silly costumes, shakey camerawork, and technical hiccups galore. True, some such kids would immediately start writing a screenplay and their handiwork would have linear plots and dialogue and some rudimentary special effects, but most such kids would simply turn the camera on and point it at things, taking turns dropping one of-the-moment reference or another and people jumping in front of the camera whenever they got an idea for something to do or say. There would be that one kid who thinks of really edgy stuff to say that would make everyone laugh because dudes, our parents would freak if they heard us say that. There would be the occasional music break – either a popular song everyone knew now or something old and corny that was cracking everyone up at the moment because they’d caught their mom playing it and it was so dumb. One kid would slather makeup all over his face and put on one of his grandma’s dresses and it would be hysterical that he actually let them film him like that. There would be in-jokes that would only make sense to the kids involved and would be incomprehensible to anyone else.

None of what I’ve described is anything like how this film was actually made; on the contrary, Jacobs made it as a sort of homage to a 1940’s cult film called Cobra Woman. It completely fails in that respect, from what I can see – but its seat-of-the-pants, let’s-just-fool-around style endeared me on its own.

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The House Is Black (1963)

Apologies first for the long silence; I’d actually hoped to have this review up and written a few days ago. But after two years my luck finally ran out, and I finally got a case of Covid-19. Fortunately it was a mild case – my symptoms never got worse than what I typically get with a cold, and I very nearly talked myself out of the “just in case” at-home test I gave myself Saturday. But thank goodness I took it, and was able to isolate myself and warn Roommate Russ; and thanks to our caution (and both of us being vaccinated) he never got infected, and I am on the mend. I never even lost my sense of smell or taste – and given that my go-to cough remedy is a Canadian product that’s famous for tasting hideous, I briefly wished I had.

But I still went through four solid days of quarantine – confined to my room, and having to warn Roommate Russ each time I had to step out to the washroom or the kitchen. And by staggering coincidence, the movie I had just seen before this all happened was this 1963 documentary short about an Iranian leper colony.

Actually, I’m not sure whether “documentary” is the right word for this film; it’s more like a tone poem. There is a brief introductory message from the film’s producer, Ebrahim Golestan, stating that we are about to see “an image of ugliness”, but that we are seeing it in the hopes that we may therefore be moved to help ease the suffering we see. And then after that….we are simply shown various residents of Iran’s Bababaghi Hospice, going about their lives, with director Forugh Farrokhzad periodically reciting passages from the Q’uran, from Sufi poetry, or from some of her own poetry.

I realize that makes things sound really pretentious. But somehow it isn’t. Farrokhzad’s narration is minimal, letting the sights and scenes she’s captured carry most of the day; the young woman looking in a mirror, regarding the missing nose and ulcerated eye on her face. The man who has nothing to do but pace back and forth past a row of five cabins, lightly tapping each door, over and over. The women trying to spin yarn with stubs for fingers. The man in threadbare torn pants, one leg amputated from the knee down, walking with a sort of half-kneel on the bare stump. There are some moments of joy – people gathering for meals, a wedding celebration, kids playing football. But even in these scenes most people are dressed to hide their missing limbs or worn-away noses. Even some of the ball-playing kids are showing the sores of early-stage infection.

The lengthiest sequence is no more than two minutes long, and comes at the end – a brief schoolroom scene, where a teacher is firing questions at a group of giggling kids. After one student has recited a Muslim prayer of thanks to Allah for “giving me a mother and a father”, he asks one boy why you’d thank Allah for that. “I don’t know, sir,” the boy says with a smirk. “I don’t have either one.” Another boy is challenged to name “three beautiful things”, and then another challenged to “name three ugly things” – the three ugly things he names are “a hand, a foot, and a face!” to appreciative giggles from the rest of the group.

There are some brief scenes of patients getting treatment – doctors giving cursory exams, or one woman stoically letting nurses pile weighted pillows on her outstretched hands – and Golestan adds another title card that given adequate care, leprosy is completely curable, but the medicine is often too expensive and so leprosy has become another disease of poverty. But most of the narration, and most of the scenes, are simply scenes of the residents stoically making what they can of their lives, with Farrokhzad’s quiet voice occasionally quoting a Sufi lament or a Muslim hymn.

In the wrong hands, this kind of parade of grotesquerie and suffering could feel exploitative. But I could somehow sense that Farrokhzad cared deeply about her subjects – she was not showing us suffering lepers, she was showing us suffering people. Any of these people would have been completely healed with better medical care, better sanitation, better food, better housing; but they got the short end of the stick and they ended up here….and while the rest of the world was pushing them away and avoiding them, they were just stoically accepting their fate.

Journalist Joobin Bekhrad also thought of this film during the pandemic. He was writing in 2020, when it felt like we were all in an interminable lockdown and were all going stir crazy; for some, though, this kind of isolation would have been nothing new, and would never have ended. And then, as now, the people with out the money or the resources would have been more likely to be pushed off into the shadows and forgotten. In Iran of 1963, rich as well as poor might have been exposed to leprosy; but it’s the poor people who would have had more exposure, with less money to treat their own cases, and found themselves more likely to suffer the worst effects. Similarly, in 2020, it was those with service jobs who put themselves most at risk of exposure to Covid – grocery workers, gas station attendants, cab drivers – and these same people had the least access to health care. I lasted until 2022 before catching Covid, buying myself time to get three vaccine doses first and thus greatly lessening my case, and my isolation lasted only four days. Some people from 2020’s first wave who had no health insurance are still struggling with the isolation of “long Covid” to this day – and may end their lives there, as the rest of the world moves on.