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Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

The 1001 Movies list only includes two sports documentaries – and one of them was Leni Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the 1936 Olympics, so that’s a pretty high bar. Happily, Kon Ichikawa’s chronicle of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo does a decent job measuring up.

Ichikawa was actually the second director for the project. The Japanese Olympic Committee was really counting on the 1964 Olympics to be a sort of re-introduction of Japan to the world, showing how well they’d bounced back after the Second World War. So initially they tapped the most famous Japanese director for the project – Akira Kurosawa. However, their contract negotiations got bogged down by some of Kurosawa’s creative demands – for instance, he insisted on directing the opening and closing ceremonies as well. The Japanese Olympic Committee finally threw up their hands and fired Kurosawa, turning instead to Ichikawa, who at that time had a small reputation for successfully taking over other projects abandoned by other directors. Ichikawa was similarly well-respected outside Japan (we’ve seen his work before with The Burmese Harp and An Actor’s Revenge).

Ironically, the Japanese Olympic Committee wasn’t thrilled about Ichikawa’s final product either; but they disliked the very things most people did like about it. The Committee had been hoping for a straightforward, no-frills depiction of the Olympic events; but what fascinated Ichikawa was the emotional life of each of the athletes themselves, and the spectators in some cases. There’s still plenty of “sports” action – several of the swimming events, a handful of weightlifting and track events, and the final marathon, along with brief clips of less-flashy events like target shooting and sailing – but Ichikawa also shows us glimpses of life inside the Olympic Village and some of the other mundane realities behind the Olympic competition. One sequence covers the offerings in the Olympic Village cafeteria, showing all the myriad food options catering to athletes with a staggering variety of tastes and culinary backgrounds; he focuses on one lone athlete from (I think) Columbia, meekly making his food choice and then settling down alone at a table in the corner, too shy to mix with any other team. When showing us a bit of the rifling competition, he explains the rules a bit (the competitors are kept in a booth at one end of the range, and they have a set number of hours in which to fire a set number of bullets at their target), but then also mentions that because of this, the competitors have to bring a packed lunch into the booth with them. We see shots of one rifleman in his booth carefully loading and firing, and then pausing for a break and starting to unpack his bento.

There are also glimpses of some of the other structural “stuff” going on behind the scenes – contractors building the stadium, referees stepping in when a scuffle breaks out during a cricket match, teams changing the shot-up targets at the rifle range, police blocking traffic during the torch relay, officials setting up water stations for the marathon runners, paramedics rescuing injured athletes and loading them onto ambulances. There are also plenty of shots of the public around the many events – a bunch of kids front and center at one event excitedly waving Japanese flags, a group of fascinated older women on a country street pausing to watch the bicycle racers whiz past them. One of my favorite shots was of a small child on the front porch of their house who’d been playing with some toy, and had stopped, fascinated, watching a parade of racers whip past their house.

Ichikawa also manages to capture a unique aspect of the Tokyo Olympiad. The Decolonization of Africa was in full swing during the 1960s, and Ichikawa paid special attention to athletes from African countries during the opening ceremony’s Parade of Nations, celebrating these athletes able to represent their own countries for the first time. By a staggering coincidence, one such nation declared its independence on the very day of the closing ceremony – so Ichikawa made sure to capture the athlete carrying a sign with the new name of Zambia, the only country carrying a sign during the closing ceremonies. (This might not be a clip from the film, fair warning.)

This kind of “giving glimpses of backstory” approach has sometimes been brought in to more recent Olympic broadcasting; unfortunately, the thinking is that “this will appeal to women more”, so they focus more on drawing out sentiment with pre-recorded soft-focus “profiles” about the athletes as opposed to showing us the little human moments. But Ichikawa understands that it’s the candid, on-the-fly stuff that is much more interesting – the intimidated Columbian athlete in the cafeteria, the kids with flags flipping out, the awestruck athletes entering the stadium for the first time, the exhausted Irish marathoner who sits down for a break halfway through the race but still shakes hands with a well-wisher reaching over the barrier. Those are absolutely the kind of moments I watch for whenever I watch Olympics coverage – I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about the various events or the backstories of any athlete, but I remember moments like a Spanish athlete at the London Olympics Closing Ceremony grooving to “We Will Rock You”, snowboarder Shaun White watching in jaw-dropped fascination as a Ferrari races around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony for Turin, or Gabriela Andersen-Schiess coming in 37th Place in the first-ever women’s marathon, staggering and severely dehydrated but waving off the medical team, insisting on completing the race.

As corny as it sounds, it emphasizes that “athletes are people just like us”, and I get a kick out of that; I can identify with the athletes that way as well, to the point that I actually said “oh no” out loud when Ichikawa showed the last-place marathoner from Nepal having to drop out midway and get whisked off in an ambulance. The part I liked about Leni Riefenstahl’s focus was on the beauty of movement and the friendly spirit of competition amongst the athletes, and for this, what I appreciated are the unexpected and candid moments that come about when you have a host of athletes from around the world all converging on one city for fifteen days.

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The Sound Of Music (1965)

So, I’m not going to have very much to say about this one, I’m afraid. Not because it’s poor quality, or because I actively disliked it. Rather – I’m so familiar with it that I literally had no reaction to seeing it again this time. It got broadcast on television a lot when I was younger – once a year throughout the 1980s and 1990s – and more recently we’ve seen movie theaters screen it in a “sing-along” version. I was even in a production when I was eleven years old. (I think that’s my head dead-center in this picture, hovering in the back of this crowd of “nuns” on the stage in our school library.)

Actually, it was about the time I was in this production that I first started noticing the biggest nits I’m picking with this film. None of them are solely the film’s fault – in fact, the film is a bit of an improvement, cutting three of the songs I liked least from the original stage show and adding a couple extra bits in. The whole thing, however, is an over-romanticized take on the life of the actual Von Trapp family; a singing family who emigrated from Austria just before the Second World War and made a name for themselves in the US.

A quick word about the actual Von Trapps – Maria did intend to be a nun, and did get sent as a governess to the house of Georg Von Trapp, an Austrian widower with seven children. The family also did flee Austria just before World War II. However – Maria and Georg married more out of convenience, with Maria regretting giving up the church for a while afterward. And when the Nazis took over Austria, the Von Trapps took advantage of Georg’s dual citizenship in Italy and took a train to Rome.

However – the famous stage duo Rogers & Hammerstein were not inspired by Maria Von Trapp’s memoir. Rather, they were inspired by a 1956 West German film which had itself been rather freely and romantically adapted from it – making Georg a cold disciplinarian saved by Maria’s joie de vivre, dialing up the kids’ cuteness, introducing a star-crossed-lovers subplot between the eldest Von Trapp daughter and a budding Nazi Youth member, and setting up a daring escape, sneaking out of their debut concert at a folk music festival and hiking over the Alps.

Rogers & Hammerstein wrote the musical for stage star Mary Martin – but Julie Andrews won the role for the film, based on her work in Mary Poppins (reportedly, director Robert Wise visited the Disney studios to watch a rough cut of Mary Poppins before it had even been released, and within five minutes was telling screenwriter Ernest Lehman “let’s go sign this girl right now before someone else sees this and grabs her”). Andrews very nearly turned the role down, feeling the story was a bit sentimental – but Wise convinced her by sharing some changes he was planning to make to the musical, and to Maria’s character. Christopher Plummer also had a hand in fleshing out Georg von Trapp’s character a bit (although he still was no fan of the film, calling it “The Sound of Mucus” when he was amongst friends).

Still, the film is a lot like the musical. The basic plot is all there, as are many of the “cute” things the kids say are the same (like how the youngest girl, Gretl, refers to the Nazi flag as “that flag with the big black spider on it”). And most of the songs are still there. …And it’s the songs that are the high point here – because let’s face it, they’re excellent, especially when it’s Julie Andrews singing them. And the film’s staging is an improvement on the musical’s – opening up the “Do-Re-Mi” number by sending the Von Trapps cavorting throughout the streets of Salzburg, giving Julie Andrews a vast mountaintop as her stage for “The Sound of Music”, and giving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a sweeping orchestral backup.

Literally the only mis-step I saw was the bizarre use of “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” as the processional march during Maria’s wedding to Georg – think about it, how is that a song a bride would want to hear as she marches down an aisle? But just before that is one of my favorite moments from the film – just after Maria has been dressed and prepped by her former convent sisters, they shepherd her through the convent gate and then close the door behind her, staying inside the convent themselves. And before Maria starts down the aisle, she pauses to look back, giving her old way of life one last look; but all of the nuns are there smiling at her through the gate encouragingly, so she turns away to move on into her new life. Even when I was a kid I found that moving.

One last bit of trivia to end on – in 2015, the Academy Awards had a special salute to this film, which was then celebrating a 50th Anniversary. Julie Andrews was sadly not able to sing herself – a botched operation on her vocal cords in 1997 permanently damaged her singing voice. So the Academy went with a new talent – inviting Lady Gaga to sing for the tribute. At the time, Gaga was known primarily for avant-garde stunts like wearing dresses made of meat, so there were several eyebrows raised when she was introduced – but she pulled it off.

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Alphaville (1965)

So I had to watch this film twice to figure out what in the chicken-fried Judas was going on. I’m still not entirely sure.

I know I’m fond of describing films with humorous mashups, but this Jean-Luc Godard film really is a mashup of sci-fi, French New Wave and film noir. Eddie Constantine is “Lemmy Caution”, a private investigator sent on a case in the city of “Alphaville”. Alphaville is ostensibly governed by the scientist Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon); but in truth, it’s under the control of von Braun’s creation, a vast computer/AI network named “Alpha 60”. Free thought, emotion, and poetry are forbidden, under penalty of death. Caution is meant to first locate Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), another agent on a similar mission who’s gone AWOL, and then to arrest von Braun and destroy Alpha 60.

Sounds like a simple plot, yeah? But that’s the bit it took me two screenings to understand.

Godard depicts everything in Alphaville as just plain odd, with people speaking in repeated non-sequiturs (the phrase “I’m fine, don’t mention it” seems to replace “goodbye” for reasons which are never explained). Criminals are executed during synchronized swimming performances at the public swimming pool. Some of Von Braun’s henchmen try to capture Caution at one point, and they incapacitate him by….holding him at gunpoint and ordering Von Braun’s daughter Natascha (Anna Karina) to tell Caution a shaggy dog story akin to The Duck Song so they could grab him when he laughed at the punch line. Early on, there’s a bit where Caution accompanies Natascha to a lecture on math and allegory given by Alpha 60, but he leaves early to go wait in the lobby – and I laughed when he later told Natascha “I left because I couldn’t understand what they were talking about”, since I felt exactly the same way.

It’s all clearly meant to mean something; “Alpha 60” is constantly making heady-sounding pronouncements (many of them quotes from the poet Jorge Luis Borges), Caution frequently muses how “dead” many of Alphaville’s citizens look, and all of the “criminals” in the execution scene have been guilty of displaying some kind of emotion. Godard uses film noir tropes a lot – but felt like a sort of cargo-cult use, invoking them just for the sake of doing so (Caution is even reading from a copy of The Big Sleep in one scene). Caution soon makes Natascha a third mission for himself, proclaiming he is in love with her and urging her to break free of Alpha 60’s control and try to feel something. There’s a lengthy sequence in which Natascha stares into the camera as Caution circles her, stroking her face or caressing her hair, periodically stopping to stare into the camera himself so she can return the favor and….make gestures around him; and throughout Caution has a monologue in a voiceover opining about….love and freedom, I think? Or something.

But…honestly, I felt somewhat like this was that Star Trek Next Generation episode where the crew meets a member of a people who speak entirely in allegory and cultural references. If you’re privvy to the references in question, this can work – but if you’re out of the loop, you haven’t a clue what’s happening. I felt like Godard was assuming I would understand all the references he was making – the character “Lemmy Caution” is heralded as if I’d know who that was, in particular – but I was very much out of the loop, so it was thoroughly baffling.

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The Battle Of Algiers (1965)

This film was first and foremost made for a European – and predominantly French – audience, who would all have been very familiar with the events depicted in the film. So it’s a bit miraculous that not only did I understand the story, but that it was handled as fairly as it was.

The Algerian War for independence from France was more of a guerilla action at the beginning, with the group Front de libération nationale, or FLN, leading the action. Their campaign in the city of Algiers in 1956 and ’57 amped up the hostilities, calling international attention to the war and bringing the French a good deal of criticism, both at home and abroad, for how it handled the crisis. Filmmakers Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo focus the film on the FLN’s actions, particularly on one of its leaders Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag, a non-actor like much of the cast). La Pointe began as a petty criminal but joined the FLN while in prison, quickly rising up the ranks and helping to secure the Casbah section of Algiers for FLN control, spurring France to send in a platoon of paratroopers lead by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin) to suppress them.

A part of me wished there were more scenes of the everyday Algerians trying to cope with the chaos, but on the other hand, that might have felt a little too much like a docu-drama, and those can often feel too exaggerated. One exception concerns the under-the-table marriage of a young Algerian couple – the leader of the FLN presides, stating that they are on purpose excluding French government involvement from the proceedings. Otherwise, Pontecorvo takes a page from the Italian Neo-Realist movement for this – using non-actors, and a sort of television-news-piece approach to give things the feel of a documentary.

The film makes no bones about the fact that both the French and the FLN fought dirty. One lengthy sequence concerns three FLN women smuggling bombs into French-controlled Algiers and then leaving them in bars or cafes to ensure civilian casualties. But another depicts the torture French soldiers used on captured FLN members in an effort to track down and capture its leaders.

Now – I may not have grown up knowing about the Algerian War, but I’ve heard of the lengths that the CIA went to when tracking down Osama Bin Laden, and so I was probably most affected by the torture scenes, which pitched my sympathies to the FLN. But we’d also just seen the FLN committing terrorist actions, and I’ve had some familiarity with that as well (I have lived in New York City since 1988, let’s just say that). Still, it comes as no surprise to me to learn that the Pentagon screened it for a small audience of officers as a sort of cautionary tale about mis-steps to avoid in the upcoming war in Iraq. (I can only assume that they weren’t really paying attention.) But that’s just one of a long line of such “cautionary screenings”, warning people about what might happen in Vietnam…or El Salvador…or Nicaragua…or…Ultimately, the film celebrates Algeria’s ultimate victory in 1962, but I was satisfied to see it being honest about the cost.

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Juliet Of The Spirits (1965)

I learned the term Felliniesque before I ever saw a Fellini film. That tripped me up a bit – because the term is based on Fellini’s later work, all magic-realist tableaux and surrealist symbolism, clowns and parades and people speaking in non sequiturs. So his earlier films, like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, were somewhat unexpected; they’re the films that put Fellini on the map. This film feels more like the Fellini I was expecting.

I was equally surprised to find that…despite the wackadoo imagery, I kind of got it. Giulietta (Giulietta Masina) is a middle-aged housewife, frequently left alone by her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu). Occasionally she babysits her twin nieces, or visits her much more exuberant mother or sister, or entertains friends; but most often, it’s just her and the maids at home, tending to the house and the garden. Then the vivacious Suzy (Sandro Milo) moves in next door, giving Giulietta tantalizing glimpses of what looks like an elaborately decadent lifestyle. Giulietta is intrigued, but shy – but as her fascination with Suzy grows, so does the realization that her husband is having an affair. So maybe Suzy is someone she should get to know – she may be a good influence.

It’s a bare-bones plot, because here, it’s the imagery and fantasy sequences that are carrying the day. Giulietta dreams about her grandfather – who ran off with a dancer when she was a child – imagining him hijacking a stunt plane at a circus, as dream/child Giulietta watches the dancers and acrobats. She has visions of the nuns from her school, flashing back to when she was cast as the lead in a pageant play about a virgin martyr. Her hippie-esque neighbor drags her to see a spiritual guru, who advises Giulietta to learn how to be more decadent as Giulietta imagines the various tantric statues surrounding his seat all coming to life.

Those sequences are more definitively “visions” for Giulietta, but even “reality” can get a bit eye-popping – particularly when Giulietta meets Suzy, who always seems dressed in diaphanous dresses with short hems and billowing scarves. Suzy’s cat strays into Giulietta’s yard one day, and when she goes to return the stray, a grateful Suzy invites her in for a tour – showing her around a lavishly decorated mansion, introducing her to the friends lolling about (“we’re playing bordello,” Suzy says in passing) and showing her how the master bedroom has a slide leading down to an in-ground pool so she can go for a swim immediately after having sex. And just outside is a treehouse, equally as lavishly fit out and complete with a basket on a motorized pulley so she can bring her paramours up for a romp.

Suzy’s house is so gloriously over-the-top it came across as fantastical even though it was “real”. And in fact, that’s what finally made me realize that as wackadoo as Fellini was, it all had a point – we were looking at Suzy’s house through Giulietta’s eyes, after all, and maybe what we were seeing wasn’t clinically accurate, but rather we were seeing it through her own emotional filter. Suzy’s guests are all half-naked and constantly leering at her, Giulietta’s friends are all vapid and ridiculous; the visions of the nuns keep coming back to scare Giulietta into staying in her place. What we’re seeing here is Giulietta’s inner life, not just “wacky stuff”. And when I realized that, the somewhat sparse final scene – with Giulietta simply taking a walk in the woods – suddenly felt much more poignant.

It’s almost like Fellini knew what he was doing, eh?

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The War Game (1965)

When I reviewed Dr. Strangelove, I mentioned that I’d been traumatized as a child by some TV docudramas that depicted “what a nuclear war would actually be like”. The best-known among them is probably The Day After, an American film; but that film pulled its punches a bit to placate some nervous network executives, and a prim title card at the end of the film stated that the actual outcome of a nuclear war would be much, much worse. The two British films I saw had no such self-censor – When The Wind Blows and Threads, both of which are the absolute bleakest films I have ever seen in my life and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the Little Baby Jesus and all of God’s Angels that neither film is included in this list. Especially Threads – while I absolutely think everyone alive today should see it, I also absolutely refuse to watch it again myself. Once was enough.

So I was surprised – and a bit uneasy – to learn that there was a proto-Threads that made it on the list. The War Game was also intended as a telefilm; an hour-long docudrama taking the form of a news magazine show, complete with on-the-street interviews and talking-heads in studios. Only the topic addressed by this magazine was the impact and aftermath of a limited nuclear strike on the United Kingdom, particularly in Cantebury and Sussex.

And….well. You’ve seen the footage, you’ve heard the reports of the impact of a nuclear strike. Or at least you should have. How the flash of the initial blast can blind you. How the heat from the blast can cause instant third-degree burns and cause furniture to spontaneously combust. How the shock wave can level structures. How the firestorm from the blast sucks up all the oxygen, so even if you’re able to escape burning to death, you still will probably suffocate. How the radiation lingers for weeks afterward. How the casualties are so great that any kind of civil service or social program – first aid, shelter, law and order, food relief – is woefully unprepared, under resourced, under-staffed, and overwhelmed. How the people who do manage to survive the blast and the radiation would probably starve. How even the people who don’t starve have absolutely crippling PTSD. How law and order ultimately breaks down altogether amongst the scant few people left.

Still – and fortunately – it wasn’t as graphic and bleak as Threads, and the “news magazine” format of this film was a very welcome buffer. I also appreciated how the filmmakers seemed to point to how ill-prepared and ill-informed both the regular public and the country’s leaders seemed to be; in one scene, our “roving-reporter” films a man going door to door in a Cantebury street delivering copies of a Civil Defense pamphlet, urging everyone to read it immediately and follow its instructions for building a shelter. The recipients are shocked and alarmed – there’s too much to do, and nowhere near enough time to do it. The “reporter” also speaks with a shopkeeper who sells the various tools needed to construct such a shelter – burlap sacks and sand to make sandbags for shoring up windows, boards and metal sheeting to shore up walls – and asks him the various costs of each item. Then the “reporter” next speaks with a worried-looking woman, asking her how much she has to spend on the shelter. For the amount she has, the reporter says in a voiceover, she can buy about eight burlap sacks and two 3×4’s.

There are no mushroom clouds in this film; no extreme gore. They focus on the smaller details; the reporter gets denied access to a building, and a passing soldier waves him over and confides that the army is burning the corpses inside, as there are too many to bury. A man surveys a list of residents’ names, comparing them to the inscriptions inside a bucket full of wedding rings; it’s a desperate attempt to identify the many, many deceased. Early on, a woman listens as the civil defense tests its air-raid siren, and turns to give the reporter a terrified stare. Towards the end, the reporter speaks to a cluster of sad-looking orphans at a refugee center, asking them what they want to be when they grow up; they all say that they “don’t wanna be nothing”. An exhausted nurse tries to tell the story of a little boy with severe burns she tried to save, but is too haunted by what she’s seen to even finish.

Periodically the “reporter” will cut in to discuss some of what we’re seeing; how Dresden suffered a firestorm very similar to the one we see in the film, and how the Los Alamos team had given them the details about radiation poisoning. The use of rings to identify the dead was something that happened in Dresden as well. And the PTSD and nihilism was something they’d seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And – how some of the Pollyanna pro-nuke statements made by talking heads towards the beginning of the film were also based on actual statements made by British civil servants, scientists, and priests. “I believe that we live in a system of necessary law and order,” one man says, “and I still believe in the war of the just.”

I had to resist the impulse to punch my screen at that.

When BBC producer Peter Watkins showed his finished work to his superiors, they got cold feet and cancelled its broadcast, stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Instead, they moved it to a movie theater, screening it for three weeks before sending it on to various international film festivals. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It wasn’t until 1985 that it finally appeared on TV – as part of a double-feature with Threads to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

When he originally reviewed The War Game in the 60s, Roger Ebert suggested that we “should string up bedsheets between the trees and show [it] in every public park.” I agree – I think everyone should see this film, as well as its more graphic descendants like Threads. Especially now that the end of the Cold War is a distant memory and Putin and Kim Jung Il have started rattling those sabers again; looking at these sabers and knowing what they could do to us is the best hope for us all.

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The Shop On Main Street (1965)

This film ended up somewhere very, very different from where I thought it was going to go, and left me a little punch-drunk.

Set in 1942, this is a story about the impact of the Third Reich’s “Aryanization” program on occupied Slovakia. Henpecked “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is a carpenter, but is no fan of the local fascist government and has had some unemployment issues. His wife Evelina (Hana Slivková) keeps nagging him to get a job on the crew building a fancy monument downtown, but that would force him to work for his brother in law Markuš (František Zvarík), who’s an officer for the government on top of being a generally smarmy jerk. But Evelina convinces her sister, Markuš’ wife, to pull some strings – and Markuš awards Tóno a job as the manager of the local sewing supply store. The current owner is a Jew, Markuš tells Tóno, and the Aryanization program has been confiscating all Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to Slovaks.

But when Tóno heads to the shop to take over, he has a little trouble with the current owner – an elderly widow, Rozália Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Mrs. Lautmannová is very hard-of-hearing, and also a little fuzzy on reality – she knows nothing of the Aryanization programs, hasn’t heard a thing about the Third Reich, and keeps thinking that Tóno is a customer. Fortunately Imrich, a friend of Tóno’s, comes by while he is trying to explain things to Mrs. Lautmannová and steps in to help. Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) quietly clues Tóno in that the shop is actually more a fantasy; the whole thing is being secretly funded by donations from the Jewish community to keep Mrs. Lautmannová comfortable in her old age. They stock it with just enough to serve the community’s needs and give her a modest pension, but the business isn’t profitable in the slightest. However, the town’s Jewish leaders have noticed Tóno might be sympathetic to their plight, and are offering to quietly pay him a weekly “salary” as well if he helps them keep up appearances. It seems like the best possible option, so Tóno agrees.

Most of the film deals with this arrangement, and the growing friendship between Tóno and Mrs. Lautmannová. She still doesn’t quite get what he’s doing there; she thinks he’s come to be her assistant, but he’s so inept that she demotes him to “repairman,” asking him to occasionally fix squeaky doors or errant shelves. Tóno also starts repairing all her own furniture as well, and in gratitude she gives him one of her deceased husband’s suits. They gossip over customers; they talk about the neighbor kids. She feeds him lunch every day. Evelina keeps nagging him to “find out where Mrs. Lautmannová is hiding her gold, because she’s a Jew and must have some”, so he quickly learns to hide the truth from her, spending more time just hanging out with Mrs. Lautmannová instead. But all the while, the noose is slowly tightening around the town’s Jews – until the day Tóno goes to collect his secret weekly salary and is told that the authorities are preparing to gather up all the Jews in town on the following morning and “send them off somewhere in boxcars”. Even worse – Imrich is arrested for being a Jewish sympathizer, with Markuš making a public show of him and warning that any other such sympathizers will meet a dire fate. Tóno rushes back to the store to warn Mrs. Lautmannová and urge her to escape or hide or something – but an uncomprehending Mrs. Lautmannová thinks he’s having a fight with his wife and makes up the guest bedroom for him. Tóno reluctantly agrees – the roundup will be taking place in the town square, just across the street from her shop, and he figures he can keep an eye on her that way and figure out what to do when the time comes.

And….that’s when the film turns. I won’t say that much about it; but the half hour “roundup sequence”, in which Tóno panics over “what to do about Mrs. Lautmannová”, was a complete sea change from how the rest of the film was going, and was in turns heartbreaking, harrowing, shocking, and frustrating. I was anticipating some kind of “escape plan” getting cooked up at the last minute – something hare-brained and loopy involving a makeshift costume, or something heroic and adventurous; but you do not get that at all. Instead you get something far more chaotic as Tóno changes his mind – and, sadly, his loyalty – back and forth again and again, for a harrowing half hour.

It’s easy for people today to speculate about “what I would have done to fight Nazis” – usually claiming that why, of course they would have hidden people in their closet or helped them flee town or suchlike. So all those people who just turned away and let it happen – they must have been Bad People! …But until such a thing is literally happening outside your window, you can’t know what you’d really do – and what you’d really do, or at least consider doing, might be morally questionable. This film ultimately felt like a reminder that this ambiguity is very human – and tragic.

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Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean once again excells with his cinematography and music choices for this adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel; and once again, I’m a bit lukewarm about the story itself.

The “Doctor Zhivago” of the title is Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born in the Ural Mountains but orphaned as a child and taken in by a Moscow family. He grows up to be a doctor, writing poetry in his spare time, and marries his adoptive sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Elsewhere in Moscow, a young woman named Lara (Julie Christie) catches the eye of her mother’s lover, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger), who date-rapes her one night after a ball. Her mother attempts suicide when she finds out, and Komarosky calls on his own doctor to discreetly handle the situation. Coincidentally, Zhivago is his assistant, and Lara catches his eye there as well. But Lara really catches his attention when she later turns up at a Christmas party and shoots Komarosky. Komarosky refuses to press charges, Zhivago patches him up, and someone finds Lara’s boyfriend Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and urges him to marry Lara and get her out of town.

But this isn’t just a soap-y plot – this is all happening just before the First World War, at a time when Bolshevik sentiment is also causing trouble within Russia itself. And soon both the War and the Bolshevik Revolution throw even bigger wrenches into our characters’ lives. Pasha enlists and goes missing in action; Zhivago is drafted into service as a field doctor. Lara volunteers as a nurse to try to find Pasha, and is assigned to work with Zhivago; and while sparks fly for them then, they behave themselves, each returning to their separate homes after the war. Only Zhivago’s palatial home has been taken over by the Soviet government and turned into a block of apartments, and the Soviets have been throwing shade at Zhivago’s poems. He soon sneaks out with his family to his father-in-law’s country home in the Urals – just outside the town where Lara coincidentally now lives. This time the pair finally become lovers – except just when Zhivago realizes he needs to decide between Tonya and Lara, he’s kidnapped by a band of Communist soldiers and press-ganged into their ranks for another two years. When he finally escapes and starts heading home, he has an interesting choice – which “home”? Tonya, or Lara?

When the film came out, several critics grumbled that the film markedly diminished the importance of the Russian Revolution and the resulting political fallout. I’m inclined to agree – Zhivago seems to be able to escape Moscow awfully easily, and we get little to no clarification of who the two warring parties are in the Bolshevik Revolution; we just know that there’s the “Red Soviets” and the “White Russians”, but other than that all we know is that they’re making Zhivago sad and complicating things with him and Lara. I was also frustrated by a character played by Alec Guinness; he claims in the film that he is Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, and helps get them out of Moscow at one point, but…mostly he seems to be a convenient plot device and that’s it. I learned nothing about how he was Zhivago’s half-brother, which bothered me greatly for some reason. Pasternak’s book includes more of Zhivago’s thinking about the political foment, but the overwhelming focus of the film is on the Tragic Doomed Romance between Zhivago and Lara, and giving everything else short shrift got me lost a few times.

Fortunately there’s pretty stuff to look at – the grey of a mine shaft punctuated by a Soviet Red Star, Zhivago’s in-law’s abandoned mansion frozen over into a fairytale ice palace, a rare happy moment where Zhivago contentedly looks out at the country field surrounding the house where he and Tonya live to see it covered in newly-blooming daffodills. There’s also the occasional moment of unexpected comedy – early in the film, Yevgraf is talking to a young woman he suspects may be Yuri Zhivago’s daughter with Lara, who went missing as a child. But when he asks her what her mother’s name was, she says “Mummy”, and when he asks what she looked like, she says only, “She….was big?”

I think it really depends what you’re looking for when you go into this. If you’re looking for a complex analysis of a character struggling to find a place for himself and his family between a pair of warring political ideologies, you may not find that here; but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic epic, you’ve definitely got that.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Okay, it’s The Beatles. Playing themselves. What’s not to love?

Made at the height of “Beatlemania”, this comedy is a fictional take on “what being a Beatle is like”, following John/Paul/George/Ringo as they dodge screaming fans and then rehearse for and perform on a British TV program before being whisked away to their next performance. Norman Rossington plays “Norm”, standing in for Brian Epstein as the Beatles’ manager, and John Junkin is “Shake”, their hapless road manager. Rounding out the main cast is comedian Wilfrid Brambell as “John McCartney”, Paul’s cantankerous (and fictional) grandfather.

The film tries to get some ongoing plot threads up and running. Grandpa McCartney is a bit of a troublemaker, and Paul is insistent that everyone take a turn “minding” him – but he’s always able to make his escape. The Beatles’ anarchic sensibility and haphazard sense of timing causes the TV show’s director (Vincent Spinetti) frequent headaches. And every so often Norm tries lecturing John about keeping the rest of the band under control; something that baffled me, since everyone in the band seemed to be acting up and it felt like a weirdly forced note. But otherwise the film is just an excuse to let The Beatles jump between singing some of their biggest hits and indulging in surrealist or satiric comedy sketches – Paul flirting with girls on a train, John enacting naval battles in a bathtub, George getting cornered by an ad executive, Ringo sneaking out to play hooky and bonding with some schoolkids on a similar adventure.

And fortunately, the creative team behind the film realized this was likely the best approach. Director Richard Lester was hand-picked by the band themselves; John in particular was a huge fan of Lester’s film Running Jumping Standing Still, a surrealist short he’d made with Peter Sellers. They similarly were fans of screenwriter Alun Owen – Owen’s 1959 play No Trains To Lime Street was set in Liverpool, and they felt he captured their hometown right. But Owen won them over even more by spending a few days just hanging around with them and shooting the breeze; some of the things they told him during their talks actually made it into the script, like when Grandpa McCartney complains that his trip with grandson Paul thus far has just been “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room” – something Paul said the band’s typical tours felt like. Owen also used quips and jokes from actual Beatles press conferences for a similar scene in the film.

The admiration became mutual. Owen was a little more sympathetic, writing something that depicted the band as near prisoners to the machine of fame they’d been thrust into, while Lester came to appreciate their confidence and irreverence; they were unafraid of toppling some of Britain’s older institutions. “[Everything was] still based on privilege,” he recalled later; “privilege by schooling, privilege by birth, privilege by accent, privilege by speech. The Beatles were the first people to attack this… they said if you want something, do it. […] Forget all this talk about talent or ability or money or speech. Just do it.” Lester was also quick to come to the Beatles’ defense when a United Artists executive asked that The Beatles’ dialogue be dubbed in more “proper” English accents before the film was released stateside, sharing McCartney’s angry retort with them – “if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!”

So basically this felt like a mind-meld of Monty Python with a Beatles concert. And that’s a poignant note for this Beatles fan…For yes, I am one. Like many in my generation, I first learned of them as a child, starting with their later works; my father owned most of their albums, and for reasons I’m unable to ascertain, he always selected Abbey Road as the dinner music when we enjoyed special family meals. (I’m probably the only person alive to associate the song Come Together with steak and potatoes.) One of the few albums he didn’t have was Let It Be, but that was okay – our neighbors across the street had it, and they had a better stereo anyway. The Yellow Submarine movie turned up as a TV movie when I was about eleven and caused a mild craze for me and my friends.

But I also shared a birthday with George Harrison, and so throughout my childhood my birthdays often began with hearing the local radio station play Here Comes the Sun in his honor. My church also used his song My Sweet Lord as a hymn once or twice (albeit with some lyrical editing). I followed his solo career as well, and read up more on George the man as I got older, learning more about his friendship and rivalry with the others. When I learned about his fondness for Monty Python, I started to see him as a kindred spirit.

Then I read a bit about why he was a Monty Python fan. Sometime during the band’s tense final days, George went home one night brooding about how it looked like The Beatles were soon going to dissolve. He turned on some television to distract himself…and found himself watching the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He later said it felt like The Beatles’ old spirit of fun and silliness and irreverence had somehow been transferred to the Pythons, and he was tremendously comforted; that spirit was still in the world somewhere. George watched Monty Python constantly, later saying that it “kept him sane” during the Beatles’ breakup, and later befriended many of the Python members. Since the Python members had themselves been inspired by Lester’s work, this isn’t too surprising; but George took so much comfort from that, he felt compelled to return the favor. (But that’s a story best left for when we get to the Python’s own films.)

But this film is a glimpse at that spirit of fun back when it was living with The Beatles. And again – what’s not to love?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Before The Revolution (1964)

Somehow I feel like this was a perfect film for that weird week that comes between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a liminal sort of week where there’s no plan and things just sort of meander; a meme I’ve seen discusses how for most of December you’re feeling “festive”, and then in January you’re feeling you indulged a bit much; but for that one week, you’re “confused, full of cheese, and unsure of the day of the week”. There were a lot of good elements to this film, but somehow they didn’t gel, leaving me confused and unsure what I felt.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man in Parma, Italy in the 1960s; he’s from a mundane middle-class family, but has been spending a lot of time with Cesare (Morando Morandini), a teacher who’s turned him on to the Communist Party. And Fabrizio’s twenty-something zeal gloms onto that to the point that he’s considering renouncing his parents and his entire way of life up to that point – or, at least, that’s what he tells his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) one afternoon. Agostino seems to be troubled himself, but Fabrizio is too caught up in his Grand Life Plan to notice….so he’s taken by surprise when Agostino later drowns himself.

The shock knocks Fabrizio for a loop – which his mother sees as the perfect excuse to Get Fabrizio Some Help. She invites her sister Gina (Adriana Asti) for a visit; Gina is a good deal younger, closer to Fabrizio’s age, and Fabrizio’s parents think that she might be able to get through to him and sort him out. But Gina’s having a hard enough time keeping her own self sorted out. And so, instead of Gina giving Fabrizio some familial advice, the pair start hooking up. It does get Fabrizio’s mind off politics….however, that’s only because now he’s obsessed with Gina. He makes a half-hearted effort to turn her on to politics, introducing her to Cesare and encouraging her to join in their philosophical talk….and he gets jealous when Gina introduces him to an old boyfriend of hers, an older man she calls “Puck” (Cecrope Barilli). Fabrizio causes a scene at their meeting – but it’s unclear whether he’s scornful of Puck’s bourgeoise lifestyle or just jealous over Gina – and ultimately he’s left confused, full of conflicting ideas, and unsure what he believes any more.

So, I could tell that this film was trying to say a lot. And some of those things were indeed thought-provoking; good portions of the film suggest that Fabrizio’s idealism is misplaced and naive, but it’s not clear whether director Bernardo Bertolucci thinks this is a sad happenstance or just the natural way of things. (Although, there’s a late sequence at a Communist Party rally where two girls who are supposed to be handing out leaflets are more caught up in discussing Marilyn Monroe’s recent death, which suggests Bertolucci thinks the latter.) Gina’s situation is also left really frustratingly vague; there’s one scene in which she calls her therapist long-distance, and their emergency one-sided conversation suggests that Gina’s struggling with some fairly intense mental struggles. But – this is the only scene that alludes to that, and we never learn more other than she sometimes feels anxiety and can’t sleep. We never learn why. ….There’s also an uneasy moment right at the end when Gina fawns over Fabrizio’s younger brother in a bit of a creepy way (not that Gina and Fabrizio hooking up was all that fantastic, but at least both were adults).

So ultimately I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It was too good for me to write it off, but too unfocused for me to really sign on; and I simply couldn’t come to grips with it.