film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

I hadn’t ever seen this film before, but hoo boy did I know a lot about it. Anecdotes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry are legion, as are stories of “aging silent film star gone to seed and living in the past”. Fortunately, actually watching this film carried some surprises.

On the remote chance anyone is unfamiliar: the film deals with the lives of Jane and Blanche Hudson, a pair of sisters we first meet as girls. Jane is a vaudeville regular going by the stage name “Baby Jane”, best known for chirping out popular songs while sporting ringlets and frilly dresses as her proud father plays piano; he joins her for a dance break during her biggest hit, a sentimental ballad about “writing a letter to Daddy” and sending it to heaven. Off stage she is a spoiled brat, lording her fame over her more modest sister Blanche.

However, their mother urges Blanche to still be kind to Jane one day if their fortunes ever turn – which they do, during the classic-movie era of the 1930s. Blanche is now the star, with a number of studios vying for her work – but a clause in her contract forces studios to also give Jane some film work as well, a troubling prospect since the adult Jane can’t quite act and is also a bit fond of booze. But the studios grin and bear it – until one night after a studio party, when the sisters are driving home to their shared Hollywood mansion and get into a car crash, leaving Blanche a paraplegic in Jane’s care.

That’s all prelude to the bits you really want to see, and the bits you probably know about – Joan Crawford as the helpless Blanche, trapped on the second floor of their mansion and under the care of Bette Davis as Jane. But Jane’s care has been desultory, if not abusive – she still drinks to excess, she’s been hiding Blanche’s mail, and she’s been blowing through Blanche’s savings by forging her signature on checks. Jane hatches a scheme to revive her act, hiring down-on-his-luck composer (Victor Buono) to serve as her accompanist, but then learns that Blanche has been working with their housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) to sell the house, and get Jane some psychological help. Assuming (probably correctly) that this kind of help will require a hospital stay, Jane amps up the abuse – taking away Blanche’s phone, denying her meals, and even tying her up when Jane needs to run errands. And all the while Jane is descending further and further into self-delusion and madness.

Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar with this film – an acknowledgement which reportedly made Crawford seethingly jealous. And, honestly, I kind of think there’s something to Crawford’s complaint – because it’s almost not fair to compare the two. Both do perfectly fine with their roles, but Jane is written as such a larger-than-life character that it’s likely a ficus plant cast in the role would still have scored a nomination. Crawford’s Blanche is confined to showing varying degrees of distress and that’s it, but as Jane, Davis gets to simper and pout and shriek and cackle and rant and generally go full-tilt bugnuts. Davis even did her own makeup when the on-set team balked at giving her the laid-on-with-a-trowel look she wanted.

And yet in my favorite scene, Jane has to show some restraint – and I can see why the glory went to Davis. About midway through the film, Victor Buono’s “Edwin” shows up at the house for his job interview with Jane; he knows nothing of her history, he’s just desperate for a job. So much so that when Jane simperingly tells him that “I used to be Baby Jane Hudson”, he gushes out an instant “Oh, are you really?” and plays along, heaping praise on her singing and eagerly agreeing that yes, the public is just dying to have her back. That whole scene is a dance between Davis and Buono – two cons trying to con each other – and it was a delight.

In the end, the Best Actress Oscar went to Anne Bancroft anyway – but ironically, Crawford had offered herself out as the official Oscar-Accepter for any of the other nominees, and since Bancroft was appearing on Broadway on Oscar Night, Crawford got to sweep onstage (past Davis) and grab some of the spotlight anyway.

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Mondo Cane (1962)

The title of this film translates to “A Dog’s World” – which puzzled me for a long while, since there’s very little about dogs in it. But “Mondo Cane” is an Italian-language curse; somewhat equivalent to “Dammit”. And that….fits a bit better, but still isn’t entirely apt. But I’m not sure any spoken expression would fit as well as a cynical shrug.

Mondo Cane bills itself as a “documentary”, with a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning claiming that they were showing scenes from real life – unvarnished. “What you see will shock you, scare you, and challenge you,” a narrator breathlessly warns us, before pre-emptively absolving the filmmakers from any responsibility. They’re just showing us actual events – they’re just the mirror to society. So if we don’t like what we see, don’t blame the filmmakers.

The rest of the film consists of vignettes from around the world, some of which provide “ironic” contrast – an Italian movie star visits a clothes shop and gets mobbed by female fans, and in the next scene we see women from a New Guinea tribe chasing after the men there. A sequence at a pet cemetery, showing a grieving woman mourning her pet poodle, is followed by a sequence at a butchers’ shop in Taiwan where they have live dogs on hand for meat. A sequence showing Wagyu cattle in Tokyo getting force-fed beer follows a sequence showing geese in France being force-fed to produce foie gras – and then another New Guinea sequence showing some women getting force-fed tapioca to appease a tribal lord follows that. And throughout, the same narrator comments wryly on the action as we watch.

Pretty early on, though, I spotted this as being not quite true-to-life – some of the shots were a little too well-set-up and the action a little too “staged”. The narration also made claims that weren’t entirely supported by the action – one sequence is meant to depict how nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll had so thoroughly disrupted the environment that butterflies were dying in swarms, fish were living in trees, and sea turtles were getting so disoriented after laying their eggs that they got lost trying to find their way back to the sea and died. But…the only evidence we see for any of this is a few fallen butterflies, a couple of mudskippers, and a few shots of a lone sea turtle hauling its way inland on a beach, followed by a shot of a sea turtle flipped upside down and flailing. But mudskippers always have been able to make that jump from water to land. And as for the turtle – it actually looks like several turtles. And – how did it get flipped over anyway?….

So this “documentary” was clearly manipulated. But this kind of manipulation only happens when there’s a specific message the filmmaker really wants to impart. However, the only message I can glean from this film is a world-weary, nihilistic comment that “sometimes people kinda suck.”

Interestingly, though, most of the film’s criticism falls against the Western European mindset and culture. Throughout the film, the people in the United States or in Western Europe come out looking the silliest, meanest, or cruelest. One lengthy bit set on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district shows a whole lot of people drinking themselves legless, getting into drunken brawls, passing out, and then trying to stagger home with hangovers in the early morning. Another sequence depicts a couple dining at the exclusive New York restaurant The Colony, dining on exotic fare like bugs and canned rattlesnake. A lengthy sequence set in Hawaii shows a hula dancer at a hotel, trying to teach the dance to a bunch of tourists. After commenting on the sacred nature the dance held for native Hawaiians, the narrator wryly commented that “this is now the only such dance left in Hawaii” before panning across a crowd of paunchy tourists clumsily trying to follow along and joking amongst themselves.

Now – if the filmmakers had sustained that narrow focus, and made this more about class differences and Western-European cultural biases, this could have been a very different film. But for much of the film, the real watchword seems to have been trying to Freak Out The Squares with lots of gross stuff. And it is that element which had the most impact, leading not only to several sequels but a whole “mondo” film movement with plenty of exploitative content and “shocking” staged footage.

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The Exterminating Angel (1962)

So, it’s another Buñuel film. It’s a little more surreal than his earlier Viridiana, but only just – it hit my sweet spot of “weird enough to catch my attention but not so weird that I can’t figure out the basic plot.” And as plots go it’s pretty simple – a group of Spain’s hoi polloi gather for a dinner party, only to find that they can’t leave afterward. There’s no reason why they can’t leave, they just….can’t.

At first it looks more like the guests are either strangely rude or cripplingly polite – they know it’s late and they should be going, but no one really wants to draw attention to themselves by being the first to leave, so everyone sits around waiting for someone else to make the first move and everyone ends up falling asleep in whatever chair or couch they’re sitting in, even though the hosts have said that they can make up guest bedrooms. In the morning the hostess scrambles to give everyone some dinner leftovers and coffee as a half-assed breakfast, and several guests who’ve said they should leave now hesitate at the offer of coffee – but they really mean to leave after, seriously. Except they can’t. For whatever reason, they get to the threshhold of the drawing room, peer into the next room, and then turn back.

And so they stay. For days. The food runs out, a vase in a storage closet becomes the ad hoc toilet, another storage closet becomes the hookup privacy room. When one guest in frail health dies, still another closet becomes the morgue. The guests become increasingly desperate, hacking a hole in the wall and bursting a pipe to get fresh drinking water or luring some pet sheep into the room for food (why the hosts have pet sheep is unexplained). Someone’s stash of morphine gets confiscated to use to treat another sick guest, until another guest steals it back so he can trip out. And throughout the guests make increasingly desperate and weird efforts to escape – Kabbalah rituals, trying to push each other, holding hands and trying to jump. In time the guests accuse the host of somehow casting a spell over them all and start talking human sacrifice – surely if their hosts die, they will finally be able to leave.

So, we never find out why the guests are trapped. But there’s enough to suggest something supernatural – in the very first scene, before the guests arrive, the hosts’ various butlers and maids and waiters all sneak out one by one – they can’t say why they want to leave, they just have the sense they need to. One says he feels like he needs to take a walk. Another is compelled to visit an ill relative. The two cooks just wanna leave. However, they – like the relatives of the trapped guests – form a curious and concerned crowd outside the house during their captivity, and find themselves also strangely reluctant to go in. One little boy, the son of one of the guests, even tries a daring run up the driveway to the front door – but he stops halfway, uneasy, and turns around and runs right back. However, whatever that strange force is keeping the guests in and others out, we never see it, hear it, or learn of its cause. It’s just there, keeping the guests trapped.

This kind of “just surreal enough” is 100% my jam. It’s almost like the plots of very early X-Files episodes, where there is just enough science to give the supernatural elements a whiff of plausibility (there’s a smart house that’s going rogue and killing people? Well, current A.I. technology isn’t quite there, but we’re getting close… Or, some loggers disappeared after cutting down old-growth timber and disrupting some previously-unknown bugs? Well, we regularly discover new species the further we venture into old-growth forests….). The film even takes a sort of X-Files approach of solving the immediate problem (the guests do finally figure out an escape), only to see the issue crop up again elsewhere in the final scene.

And just like with the X-Files – I am satisfied leaving some questions unanswered. Other critics have speculated that the force keeping everyone in place is just societal conditioning gone haywire, or that the whole film is a Lord Of The Fliesstyle parable about how easily people will descend into anarchy when trapped. Roger Ebert even argued that the whole thing was a discourse on the class structure during the Spanish Civil War. But me, I’m happy with “we don’t know why they couldn’t leave, I’ll just go with it.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

L’Eclisse (1962)

Yeahhhh, Antonioni lost me with this one.

In a long and nearly-wordless opening scene, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) breaks things off with her fiancé for vague reasons; it’s implied she just isn’t into him any more. But the breakup upsets her enough to want some fussing-over from her Mama (Lilla Brignone). Vittoria heads to Mama’s latest hangout – Rome’s stock market, which Mama treats like a casino, pestering her stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) with frequent questions. In fact, Mama is so focused on stocks that she’s not really that much comfort to Vittoria.

At least Piero was cute, though. In fact, after a girls’ night evening with some of her neighbors, Vittoria drops by the market again to see him. He’s just as interested in her, and they soon start a relationship themselves. Although…neither one of them really seems into it.

And that’s it.

As with his two prior films, L’Avventura and La Notte, Antonioni is being deliberate with his “nothing really happens” approach; he’s attempting to show the inherent hollowness and meaninglessness of his characters’ lives. The “meaning” is all subtext – La Notte isn’t heartbreaking because there’s something poignant about Lidia meandering around her old neighborhood, it’s heartbreaking because she’s doing that right after visiting a dying friend and that’s probably weighing on her mind. L’Avventura isn’t infuriating because the leads are going to parties, it’s infuriating because they’re going to parties instead of continuing their investigation into a friend’s disappearance.

But with this film, I couldn’t get a handle on what the subtext was supposed to be. It’s implied that it might be something about the dreamy Vittoria being a romantic mismatch with the more flashy and superficial Piero; during one of their meetings, someone steals Piero’s car and crashes as he makes his escape, and Vittoria is surprised to hear that Piero cares more about the damage to his car than about the man who died. Antonioni also spends a lot of time following Piero’s “daily business” in the stock market (a bit too much time for my taste), but almost none with Vittoria’s job; instead, we see Vittoria doing dreamy things like cloud gazing at the airport, people watching out windows, or playing with her neighbors’ dog.

So…these are people who are trying to make a connection but they’re too different, and ultimately it doesn’t work. But – that’s much too common a story to my mind, so I’m left wondering why I was supposed to care about this particular instance of that story. There’s not even a dramatic breakup scene – instead, they make a plan to meet one evening “at our usual spot”, but then – as we see in a seven-minute wordless sequence – neither one shows up, and that’s the end of the film.

That sequence is lovely. It’s all scenic shots, showing the empty streetcorner where they are to meet or focusing on the empty bench where they might sit, or the streetlight winking on as it gets later, or another passersby walking past the fence Vittoria once studied. And had I cared one whit about Vittoria or Piero I might have been touched by that sequence – but I only felt detached.

Speaking of sequences – I should warn 21st century readers that the “Vittoria’s girls’ night” sequence has some bits that have not aged well at all; one of the women is from a colonialist family with property in Kenya, and has some less-than-enlightened things to say about the prospect of Kenyan independence. Plus there’s a bit where Vittoria dresses up in blackface and does “tribal dancing” as a goof until the colonialist friend tells her to knock it off; and honestly, if your blackface is so offensive that even the plantation owner says you’ve gone too far, you’ve really gone too far.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

When producer Alan Pakula first proposed a film adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, studio executives asked him what story he was going to tell with it. “Have you read the book?” he asked them. They said yes. “Well, then you know the story,” he said. You likely know the story as well; it’s been assigned reading in United States classrooms for years.

Pakula was wise – when you are working with source material this good, the best approach is a minimal one. So this is a very faithful adaptation of Lee’s work – with the adult Jean “Scout” Finch recalling her Alabama childhood, back when she was six and then seven; when she (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) got into mischief alongside Dill (John Megna), the nephew of one of their neighbors. Most often the three would dare each other into spying on the creepy neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a recluse about whom the kids had spun many a tall tale.

Meanwhile, Scout’s widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck), the town lawyer, was caught up in a case defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating poor (and white) Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), even though the majority of the evidence points to Mayella’s father Bob (James Anderson) doing the beating part. Robinson is found guilty nevertheless, but Bob Ewell still feels slandered by Atticus’ case, and vows revenge – leading to a scary confrontation bringing both stories together.

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that some of the richness of the kids’ lore is missing. But with good reason – Lee simply wrote so much about their shared superstitions, conversations and thoughts that including it all would have made for an impossibly long film. Fortunately what is here is still rich enough, and the kids playing Scout, Jem and Dill are all perfect. Badham is particularly memorable as Scout, a spunky kid who’s just as likely to beat up a classmate for insulting her Pa as she is to snuggle with Atticus on the porch swing for a talk when she’s confused about what Bob Ewell was saying in court. She’s a tomboy, but she’s also fond of her daddy.

And with Atticus as her daddy it’s easy to see why. While at times he’s depicted a bit too rosily, Atticus is patient, fair-minded, nurturing, wise and even-tempered. This was Gregory Peck’s favorite role – reportedly he instantly said “yes” when offered the part – and the role for which he is best known, even today. Pakula, as well as several friends of Peck’s, have speculated that this is because Peck was playing himself; or, at least, an idealized version of himself.

I’m very familiar with both the book and the film, having seen and read them both before. And this time around some of the detail in the Tom Robinson subplot struck me afresh; there’s a moment when Atticus learns that Robinson was “shot while trying to escape” a police escort. I didn’t even remember that scene from earlier viewings, but this time, after years of seeing real-life instances of police brutalizing black men and women – Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – I found myself distrusting the man who’d brought Atticus the news. Harper Lee may not have meant for me to suspect Robinson’s “accidental” shooting was staged, and some years ago I might not have.

But that’s part of the power of the film. It’s ultimately about Scout and Jem growing out of innocence and learning some of the harsher truths of the world; that their Pa wasn’t all-powerful, that sometimes people are unfairly treated, that some people are dangerous. But they also learn that sometimes the creepy neighbor is just shy or that sometimes doing the right thing when no one supports you is its own reward. And that sometimes there are no easy answers, and that growing up is a work in progress – both for a girl and for a country.

There’s a running gag about aspiring writers setting out to write “the Great American Novel”, but arguably I would say that Harper Lee already did, and this is the film made of it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

There was a lot going on here, and ultimately I was fascinated by this film.

During the Korean War, Major Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) is in a platoon captured during a skirmish with Chinese forces; but three days later, he and his comrades return to their home base, with Marco stating that they were saved by squad leader Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), save for two men. Shaw deserves the Medal of Honor, Marco insists – for he is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The others in the squad say the same – and, oddly, they use those exact words. But Shaw is thus honored and the men all discharged from combat.

Marco is assigned to a position with Army Intelligence. But he seems to have been affected by his capture – for instance, he keeps having weird dreams about his platoon all sitting in on the stage in some kind of amphitheater, being discussed by a group of observers; at some point, he dreams Shaw is ordered to kill their two missing platoon members as everyone coldly watches. The spectators at this event are an odd bunch as well – sometimes he dreams they’re a ladies’ gardening club, but other times he dreams they’re a bunch of Russian and Chinese diplomats. Marco chalks it all up to shell shock – until he gets a letter from another fellow platoon member, claiming he’s having the very same dream. The coincidence is enough to prompt Army Intelligence to interview them both, showing both men photos of known Chinese and Russian spies. When both men recognize a couple as figures from their dream, the Army realizes they’re both actually flashing back to a brainwashing scheme – one which has set up Shaw as an assassin.

Marco agrees to cooperate with the continuing investigation. He first visits Shaw, who has since left the Army and become a reporter – against the wishes of his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather John Iselin (James Gregory). Iselin is best known for McCarthy-like anti-Communist stunts, but Eleanor is the real power figure in the couple, and the more liberal-minded Shaw wants nothing to do with either. But Eleanor seems to know an awful lot about exactly how Shaw was programmed and how to trigger his conditioning, and Marco races to discover how to deprogram his comrade and what Eleanor’s ultimate plan is, before it’s set in motion.

One of the things that struck me about this film is just how weird it got in places. Marco’s dream sequence starts out looking like that garden club, with Marco and Shaw and their comrades sitting impassively on a stage surrounded by women speaking intently about breeding hydrangeas. But after a couple minutes, suddenly we see the women have turned into a group of men, discussing mental conditioning. And then when Shaw is ordered to kill his first comrade – we cut back to the women’s club applauding politely. But then it’s the women talking about mental conditioning. And then the men about hydrangeas. And the whole time Marco and his comrades are sitting there looking bored, even when Shaw is choking one of them to death. It’s a lot to take in – but not so much that it would turn off anyone, and is instead exactly enough to provoke curiosity about just what the hey is going on.

Other similarly weird moments crop up throughout – particularly when Shaw has been “triggered”, including one moment when he’s set off accidentally and heads to Central Park for a swim.

Eleanor’s ultimate motivation is an intriguing mystery as well. For most of the film she comes across as a sort of 60s version of Lady MacBeth, pushing both Shaw and Iselin into attaining the political notoriety she wants but can’t have as a woman. And yet there’s a moment that lead me to suspect her motives were even more complicated still – it’s best I not divulge – but even though the matter isn’t quite cleared up by the film’s end, I was still intrigued they even just raised the question.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was Frank Sinatra himself. His work in The Man With The Golden Arm already caught my eye – but his performance here completely overcame my last lingering pre-judgement of the man. In my defense – I’d grown up at a time when Sinatra, like Bob Hope or Dean Martin, was kind of seen as a has-been – a dude who’d been popular when my parents were kids but now was out in Las Vegas doing retreads of his older work for other older folks reminiscing about their glory days. But the thing with “has-beens” is that they once were something, and finally seeing what he had been was illuminating.

My one complaint with the film was that the two romantic subplots get short shrift; Janet Leigh has an all-too-small role as “Rose Cheyney”, a woman Marco falls in love with after a brief and baffling conversation on a train, and Leslie Parrish is “Jocelyn Jordan”, a free-spirited socialite Shaw marries against his mother’s wishes. Jocelyn is little more than a plot device, and Rose is even less of a presence. But these are small complaints compared to the rest of the film.

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Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Movies or plays based on “history” have long fascinated me – particularly the liberties that they sometimes take, and why they take them. One of my favorite books, Past Imperfect, is an anthology of essays by historians, each of which chose a different “historical movie” to review – and in all cases, these reviews compare “here’s what actually happened, and here’s what the movie says happened.” Some essays go even further and discuss “and here’s what was happening when they were making the movie, and here’s how that influenced things.” All historical films adapt the story somewhat, even if only for the sake of dramaturgy; a straightforward depiction of things “as they actually happened” would be either dull or confusing, since things rarely happen at a drama-worthy pace and often there are false starts and red herrings as the story unfolds. ut sometimes looking at how a filmmaker tells such a story – what bits they emphasize and what they sweep under the rug – can also be telling.

Lawrence Of Arabia is more of an adaptation of an adaptation, basing itself on the real T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his time in Arabia. To sum up very quickly: the real T. E. Lawrence was a British officer during the First World War who was stationed in Egypt, and who was tasked with supporting (or, rather, encouraging) an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, a move which would in turn impact control of the Middle East and the Levant. Lawrence was one of several British intelligence officers and diplomats assigned to this task, but his approach was particularly impactful, as he was able to unite two of the major tribal factions into a single force. He also coordinated a number of Bedouin tribes’ fighters into a guerilla army, making regular attacks on Ottoman railways and the smaller towns surrounding major cities. At one point he was captured during a scouting expedition in the Syrian city of Daraa, and was tortured by the Ottoman officer there – he was definitely whipped, and was possibly sexually humiliated. At another point, he and his party came upon a retreating Ottoman platoon, and he gave the order to “take no prisoners” as punishment for the Ottoman massacre of a nearby Bedouin settlement. Following the war he encouraged the British government to grant the Arab nations independence after the Ottoman Empire fell, but the U.K. and France already had their own plans for the post-war empire, and his efforts came to naught. He returned to England and lived a bit aimlessly for the next 15 years – writing his memoirs, joining in a stage show about the Arab Revolt, and even trying to re-join the military under a pseudonym. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

That’s the “real” story. Lawrence’s own account, and the story the film wants to tell, goes something like this:

Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) had long been fascinated with Arabia and had finagled his way into a post with the Arab Bureau during the war; but ended up stuck in a dim office for a good while. He felt he had a unique understanding of the Bedouin culture and wanted to put it to use. So when offered the chance to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the Syrian revolt against the Ottomans, he jumped at the chance – and ignored the orders to stay impartial, offering Prince Faisal some military strategic advice instead. Faisal is impressed, as is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), one of the Bedouin tribal leaders serving Prince Faisal; after a particularly impressive victory, Ali gifts Lawrence with a set of Bedouin robes to wear in lieu of his British military uniform.

Ali is Lawrence’s “sidekick” for much of his ongoing campaign – keeping peace amongst the various tribes, tending his wounds after Lawrence is beaten by the Ottomans, trying to stop his massacre of the retreating Ottoman army. He is skeptical when Lawrence assures him the British will surely give the Arabs their independence, but is among the last to leave when Lawrence’s attempts to set up an Arab-run government fall apart. Lawrence goes to appeal to Prince Faisal, to urge him to demand independence – only to find that Faisal already knew about British and French plans to divvy up the empire, and had resigned himself to it.

It’s actually not that far off the facts. The film leans heavily into Lawrence’s love of Arabia and the Middle East, implying he was a bit of an outcast in England who’d found a family among the Bedouin. It draws a little bit of a veil over Lawrence’s torture, but implies that this fuels some anti-Ottoman sentiment in him which leads to the bloody Ottoman troop massacre. It does play a little fast-and-loose with some of the non-Western characters – in particular, it implies the Bedouin leader Auda abu Tayi (here played by Anthon Quinn) was more of a mercenary than the team player he actually was.

The film really shies away from commenting on rumors about Lawrence’s sexuality – just before the film’s release, a play about Lawrence addressed rumors that he was gay. And while film Lawrence does have a couple of close friendships among his Bedouin comrades, the film plays really coy about whether these are lovers or comrades-in-arms.

Ultimately, though, the film seems to suggest that Lawrence may have ultimately been unknowable. Things start off a bit like Citizen Kane does – we first see the motorcycle accident which caused his death, then we eavesdrop on various mourners’ chatter following his state funeral. A reporter is on the scene trying to find someone who knew Lawrence well – but cannot. Everyone has an opinion on the man, but no one can say that they really knew him. One particular admirer of Lawrence’s says that he “had the honor of shaking his hand once in Damascus” – but when we see the actual incident towards the end of the movie, we learn that the officer in question had actually insulted Lawrence when he was in Arab dress just moments before.

Visually, the land itself might be the real star of the film. Director David Lean filmed in the then-new “Super Panavision” technology, sort of a grandfather to IMAX. Super Panavision called for bigger screens, and quick cuts on big screens were making audiences nervous – so Lean opted for longer, panoramic takes which were perfectly suited for sweeping desert vistas. Honestly, if you put anyone against a backdrop that beautiful – and added in Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score – they would end up looking as larger-than-life as Lawrence became after this film.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Alright, we’re done with Oscars talk, seriously. I really appreciated Daniel Radcliffe’s comment in an interview right after the Oscars; he was asked his opinion on the Will Smith scandal and he said that he’d become so “dramatically bored” reading everyone else’s thoughts that he didn’t want to weigh in at all. It is ironic, though, that this next film examines the ethics involved with resolving disputes with violence.

Actually, the glib review I gave Roommate Russ was that it was “like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington‘s Western grandpa.” James Stewart is “Ransom Stoddard”, the Senator for an unnamed Western state. At the start of the film he has made a return visit to his home town of “Shinbone” with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of their mutual friend, rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Their visit attracts the attention of the local newspaper, and the editor corners Stoddard to ask how the esteemed Senator knows a low-stakes rancher like Doniphon.

Stoddard’s tale takes up most of the rest of the film, told as a flashback to when Stoddard was an idealistic newcomer to Shinbone, eager to start a law practice and assist during the territory’s transition to statehood. He’s held up almost immediately by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the thug who’s been terrorizing Shinbone for the past handful of years at the behest of the local bigwig cattle ranchers. The one person Valance respects is Doniphon – mainly because he’s the one person in town who’s a better shot than he is. The penniless Stoddard takes a job as busboy in the local inn, washing dishes alongside Hallie – who was then Doniphon’s girl.

Stoddard insists on opening his law practice as soon as he’s more settled, even though Doniphon warns him things work a bit differently out west. But Stoddard stubbornly insists that violence isn’t the way to solve disputes. He also insists on opening a school once he learns that Hallie – along with several townspeople – can’t read and are generally uneducated. Doniphon isn’t impressed by the way Hallie seems to be taking a shine to Stoddard – and Valance is unimpressed by Stoddard’s civilizing crusade, ultimately challenging Stoddard to a showdown on Main Street one evening. Hallie and Doniphon both urge Stoddard to leave (although, likely for different reasons) but Stoddard takes him up on it. And to everyone’s surprise – Valance is shot.

Stoddard becomes the hero of the day, with the town going so far as to nominate him as Shinbone’s delegate in Washington. But he’s uneasy with how the town is celebrating him more for his one violent act than for his legal work. However, Doniphon pays him a secret visit to tell him his showdown with Valance didn’t quite happen the way he’d remembered it did…

I liked this a little better than I thought I would. Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart seem to be playing caricatures of themselves at first – Stewart as the idealistic do-gooder, and Wayne as the sharpshooting macho cowpoke. Doniphon’s habit of calling Stoddard “Pilgrim” even made its way into countless “John Wayne impressions” for years after – I recognized it as a trope impressionists used back when I was a kid. And director John Ford had to forgo his usual epic location shoots and filmed the whole thing on a backlot. Wayne and Stewart were also starting to get a little long in the tooth for their parts, and in fact many believed Ford had filmed in black and white to hide their ages.

But both men still end up doing decently enough, as does Vera Miles; she gives Hallie a good deal of spunk and sass, and a forthrightness that convinced me that Hallie was genuinely starting to warm to Stoddard as opposed to it being a script convention. And let’s face it, both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart looked old even as younger men, didn’t they?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Lolita (1962)

At the time of its release, a lot of the advertising for this film played up the titillation by asking a question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” As many viewers through they years have found out: they did it by editing out a loooooooooooooooooot of oogy parts.

To recap quick: the original novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is presented as a confessional tale, written by a professor, “Humbert Humbert”, who is in prison for murder. But his was a crime of passion – passion for a twelve-year-old girl, Lolita. Humbert was secretly a pedophile and Lolita had been the daughter of a landlady; Humbert married her to stay close to Lolita, but his wife found out the truth one day and killed herself – prompting Humbert to sweep Lolita up on a whirlwind cross-country tour for a year or so, moving from place to place and skipping town just before anyone figured out that Humbert and Lolita were maybe a little too intimate to be father and daughter. Then one evening Lolita disappears, leaving Humbert heartbroken for three years – until she writes out of the blue, saying that she’s now married and pregnant (and about 16) and she and her husband need money. Humbert rushes to see her and learn the truth of how she disappeared, and her confession is what drives him to kill.

The film follows the basic plot, but makes some fairly important tweaks to make things more palatable. The biggest change is in Lolita’s age – here, she is fourteen instead of twelve, and played with some knowing sass by newcomer Sue Lyon. She’s still immature, but still not quite as immature; she’s the one who seems to instigate things with Humbert (James Mason), suggesting to him with a sly smirk that maybe the two of them could play a “game” she’d learned from a boy at her summer camp. Blessedly, another change is that we don’t see any sexual scenes between Humbert and Lolita – director Stanley Kubrik lets the audience’s imaginations and familiarity with the book carry the day, leaving the film to show nothing more than some slightly-too-fervent kisses or cuddles, with the camera cutting away when there’s a chance things could go further. The most intimate thing we see Humbert do to Lolita is paint her toenails.

Kubrik also seems to have made up for the lack of sex by adding in comedy. Shelley Winters is in the largely thankless role of Lolita’s mother Charlotte; she’s supposed to be bawdy and abrasive, the kind of overly-sexualized adult that Humbert usually shuns, but Winters manages to make her come across as funny instead of just crude as she puts poor Humbert through some painfully awkward seductions. Paradoxically this also makes Charlotte more sympathetic in the scene where she finds out what Humbert really feels about her.

The biggest surprise for me in the film, and also one of the biggest changes, concerned the role of the character Clare Quilty. In the novel, Quilty only turns up at the end – he’s the man Humbert kills – but Kubrik promotes him to a main supporting role, played by Peter Sellers. Kubrik also starts the movie with Quilty’s murder, and only then skips back in time to show Humbert and Lolita’s story. But Quilty is there too, as a smarmy playwright whom Charlotte has also (unsuccessfully) tried to seduce. He keeps turning up throughout Humbert and Lolita’s travels – puzzlingly disguising himself as everything from a police detective to a school psychologist to a poll taker – and knowing his ultimate fate, I kept trying to figure out how Quilty fit into the overall story. This also distracted me, fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), from Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, as well as giving Peter Sellers a chance to shine quite brightly.

Still, at the end of the day – this is a story about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with an underage girl, and letting Peter Sellers flex in the service of that tale is pretty much akin to lipstick on a pig. Fortunately our society has made some big changes since the days this film was made – I should note that when you do a search for Lolita in Google right now, the very first thing you see is a toll-free number for an organization working to combat sexual abuse of minors.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dog Star Man (1962)

So. Um.

So when I wrote my digression on experimental film, this was one of the reasons why. I’d actually tried to watch a bit of it prior, on an evening after work, but the imagery and technique was so opaque that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it and tried again later. It’s not something you can give a casual glance at all.

I could tell that I was supposed to be getting some kind of plot or message from this film. The whole thing is completely silent, and consists of a chaotic jumble of frequently-recurring shots – a man and a dog climbing a mountain in the snow, the moon over a woody landscape, lights from cars on a city street at night, astronomical footage of solar flares. Every so often we see a nude woman’s torso or a baby. Towards the end the man reaches a tree and gets to work chopping it down.

The problem is that filmmaker Stan Brakhage intentionally altered the physical film with scratches or holes, superimposes one image on another, or uses color washes or slow motion or weird super-high-focus closeups – so most of the time I could have spent puzzling a story out of the images I saw was spent squinting at the screen trying to see what the images even were. Was it dog’s fur I was looking at, or the man’s beard? Or the woman’s vulva? Or moss? Or just scratches in the film again, or – wait, now we’ve shifted to the city street, is this – and it’s gone, and we’re looking at the baby again. Or – are we? Is that a baby or the moon?

I wanted to understand this film. I really did. I saw enough of it to get tantalized with the idea that it might be a poetic metaphor of sorts – that maybe the man was struggling up the mountain in search of firewood, and the repeated shots of the woman and baby were his thoughts about his family and the repeated city streets were maybe a life of comfort he’d abandoned for this starker one. Or maybe this was a post-apocalyptic tale. The problem was that I felt I was missing parts of the story, simply because I couldn’t see them – and I was left frustrated and confused.

This apparently was Brakhage’s style, though. Or at least it became his style. I did something a bit unusual and looked up an earlier film of his, one not on the list – Window Water Baby Moving, a short experimental film about the home birth of his daughter Myrrena. That film is short, and has similarly disjointed images – but those images are on the whole much clearer: his wife Jane’s pregnant belly in the birthing pool, her face as she cries out in pain, his hands entwined comfortingly in hers, Myrrena’s head crowning. And poignantly, at the end, there are several shots of Brakhage laughing into the camera, dazed and wonderstruck. There’s a bit of scratching on the film in some places, but you can still see what the hell it is you’re looking at.

By contrast – sometime after that film, and after Dog Star Man, Brakhage made another film, Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, about the birth of his third child. He felt that Window Water Baby Moving somehow didn’t capture his emotional response accurately enough, and considered Thigh Line Lyre Triangular to be closer to the mark. But from the reviews I’ve read, Brakhage piles on even more of the kind of scratching and film altering that caused me so much frustration with Dog Star Man – to the point that you can’t see anything at all except for abstract patterns.

Somehow it feels like Brakhage wanted to have things both ways – that he didn’t want me to see the very thing he was showing me. Ultimately I was left frustrated and dissatisfied, and wondering why he’d bothered.