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The Exiles (1961)

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This is another case in which I will dispense with the negatives first. Because if you track down this film – and you probably should – they will lead you to consider changing your mind and abandoning this film halfway through.

The Exiles is clearly and obviously an indie film by an inexperienced filmmaker, working with an inexperienced cast and crew. This is only Kent McKenzie’s second film; his first was a short-subject documentary he made during film school, which addressed a recent slum-clearance project launched in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles and how it impacted some of the longterm residents who would have to move. However, while he was working on that film, McKenzie met several Native Americans who lived in Bunker Hill; most of them young, broke, and outcasts. Instead of including them in his first film, McKenzie chose to make a second documentary just about them.

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It’s not really clear whether this is meant to be a documentary or a drama, however; it’s more of an indie slice-of-life thing, in the style of John Cassavetes’ Shadows. There’s sort of a plot – we follow a small group of people, many of whom seem to know each other, as they pass a “typical” night in their lives. Occasionally we hear them speaking over the action, talking about their lives; one woman discusses how she wishes her husband would get a job, because she’s pregnant and wants their kid to do better; another discusses how he joined the Navy to get off “the rez” but ended up here in Los Angeles without much to do so he just stayed put when he got discharged. There’s also some dialogue in the film – but it’s half-assed and desultory, the kind of inconsequential stuff people say when there isn’t much to talk about. (It’s also very clearly dubbed in, suggesting that the original footage had bad sound quality and McKenzie had to drag everyone back.)

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And it makes sense that there isn’t much for our cast to talk about because on this night, not much happens. The pregnant woman makes dinner for her husband and heads to a movie as the rest head for a bar. Another couple at the bar has a teasing debate about whether they should stay there or go dancing, and “going dancing” finally wins out – only when they stop at a gas station en route, he’s already too drunk to dance. A fight breaks out at another bar. One of the gang makes a detour back home to hit up his sister for money, helping himself to it while her family all stares listlessly at a TV program. Towards the end, as our movie-going lonely wife heads to stay with a friend, the others all gather on a hilltop for more drinking and dancing before stumbling home at dawn. Nothing much really happens; none of these people’s lives is ever going to really change.

That’s exactly the point, though.

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The Exiles was made at a time when most people usually only saw “Indians” as supporting characters in John Wayne movies, either to be revered or fought; meanwhile, McKenzie was saying, here were some actual “Indians” right there living among them, and they were just regular people who weren’t getting anywhere near a fair shake. There’s no dramatic moment of finger-pointing or blame here; no one curses “the white man” for taking their land long ago, nor is there any kind of trumped-up conflict between white snobs and our cast. It’s pretty ordinary, and boring, but that’s the point, that our cast’s lives are also ordinary and boring, in a heartbreaking way.

McKenzie makes an unfortunate tiny bid to the “noble savage” stereotype right at the beginning, with an introduction featuring historic portraits of various nation’s chiefs and some by-now familiar scenes of Sioux on horseback standing beside tipis as he intones that our cast’s ancestors had once lived free on this land before “the white man” forced them into reservations, cutting them off from their old way of life and leaving this current generation uprooted and aimless. But this introduction is brief, and it’s the casts’ own words that stick more in the mind – the pregnant Yvonne saying that she’s happy she is going to have a child of her own, since it’s what she always wanted, but then admitting that “I used to pray for things in church back on the rez, but I never got them – and so I stopped, and I don’t even say my prayers any more now”. Or her husband Homer saying that sometimes he picks a fight in bars “because otherwise you’re just sitting there doing nothing”.

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During its original release, The Exiles never got a truly fair shake either. It was part of the Venice Film Festival, but never got any kind of theatrical distribution; it was licensed only to be shown in schools. However, it had enough of an “underground” following – especially among other Native Americans hungry to see their lives represented accurately – that it helped fuel a cultural and activist movement in the late 60s and early 70s. The film itself fell off the public radar until the early 2000s, when another filmmaker used clips in a documentary of his own about Los Angeles depictions in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. People were struck by this film they hadn’t heard about, and ultimately Spokane-Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie backed an effort to restore McKenzie’s work and finally give it a theatrical release.

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The Ladies Man (1961)

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Three years ago now, I hit an unusual milestone – I had encountered a movie, Judge Priest, which I was very tempted to stop watching halfway through. For the past three years I have told people that was “the only film I was ever tempted to give up on”.

This film, a Jerry Lewis vehicle, is now the second film to earn that dubious distinction.

I hated this, y’all. Hated hated hated hated it. And this time the dislike wasn’t about the objectionable nature of the script (as was the case with Judge Priest); it was just plain bad. I also hated the previous film I’d seen with Jerry Lewis – but at least Artists and Models tempered things with some Dean Martin in the mix as well. In fact – it looks like The Ladies Man keeps all the things I hated most about Artists and Models, and threw out everything which made that film tolerable; Dean Martin and the plot are out, leaving only mugging manchild Jerry Lewis with an endless barrage of schtick.

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I mean, they make some kind of attempt at a plot at first; Lewis plays “Herbert H. Heebert” (the “H” is also for “Herbert”, he says at one point), whom we first meet on graduation day from his small town college. He has been waiting until graduation to propose to his sweetheart, but rushes to her immediately following to find her in the arms of the star quarterback. The shock is enough to break his heart and make him swear off women forever. So it is “ironic” that when he goes off to The Big City to seek his fortune, the only work he can get is as the super in a prestigious women-only hotel and boarding house.

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But that only occupies the first third of the movie; after Herbert is hired and underway, things just sort of….happen. Herbert knocks over some things while dusting. Herbert has a run-in with one of the resident’s dates, who happens to be a mafioso. Herbert has another run-in with another one of the resident’s dates, who’s someone famous that Herbert doesn’t recognize. A TV show comes to film live at the boarding house since the owner, Mrs. Helen Wellonmellon (Helen Traubel) is a former opera star, and Herbert repeatedly photobombs the event. Herbert meets the hotel pet, “Baby”. Herbert finally sneaks into the one room he has been told to avoid – only to find a woman dangling from the ceiling, clad in what I can best describe as “Spider Man Fetish Wear”, and then hallucinates an entire Big Band dance break. And so on and so on.

Maybe twice there are nods to a through-line – early on, Mrs. Wellonmellon urges the residents to come up with little things for Herbert to do so he “feels needed” and doesn’t quit on them. A bit later, Herbert has a scene with one of the residents, Fay (Pat Stanley), who’s just blown an audition; he gives her a bit of a cheer-up speech. Both of these points are totally dropped until the very last sequence, when a glum Fay spontaneously chastises the others for exploiting Herbert, and insisting they should treat him more fairly because “he’s a nice guy”. There is a “heartwarming” moment between Herbert and all the women, spearheaded by Fay, where they all insist that they genuinely like him and wish he would stay on. He agrees – and suddenly a lion starts roaming loose in the hotel, and I couldn’t tell you why.

That’s not a plot, that’s a bunch of random gags thrown together. I will grant that some of those jokes are funny; early on, during the “college graduation” scene, the professors name Herbert the class valedictorian, and the camera then cuts to a crowd shot of the graduates – with Herbert, seated towards the back, leaping excitedly into the air like an over-enthusiastic whack-a-mole. But then immediately after that we join Herbert’s parents outside in the campus green – where Herbert excitedly runs hither and yon shouting for his “Maaaaaa!” while Herbert’s parents stand in one spot, trying in vain to stop him. (There’s also a “sight gag” where we are kept from seeing “Ma” until the very end of the scene, where we see it is Jerry Lewis in really bad drag; I wasn’t amused.)

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But as funny (or not) as the gags are, there is simply not enough framework to hang them on, and there is no comeuppance from any of the hijinks Herbert gets up to. I’m not opposed to gags that go nowhere as a rule; the 1980 comedy Airplane! is similarly “a bunch of gags thrown together”. But there’s much more of an overall plot throughout, so it still feels like a single story as opposed to An Excuse For Jerry Lewis To Be Stupid.

Think about that. Airplane has a stronger plot than this film.

I was discussing this with some friends after, and used an interesting analogy: I was focusing on how Dean Martin wasn’t in the picture any more to hold Jerry Lewis back, and compared it to how John Lennon and Paul McCartney were ideal collaborators because each was a check on each other’s worst impulses, and so after the Beatles split up, “John no longer had a check on his weird, and Paul no longer had a check on his twee.” I then went on to say that this film was therefore “the cinematic equivalent of listening to Wonderful Christmastime for two solid hours”.

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Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961)

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So I’m going to do something a little different with this recap; this was a rewatch for me, and I was familiar with the movie and the novella it’s based on. And it’s a film that casts a long shadow, for both good and bad reasons. So – I am going to acknowledge some of this film’s warts first; and it’s got some fairly big ones.

Most people who see this story as the tale of a carefree society girl named Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and how finally finds love with her neighbor Paul Varjak (George Peppard) tend to gloss over one detail – both Holly and Paul are sort-of, kind-of prostitutes. Holly subsists on the string of dates with rich guys who pay her for “conversation” and slipping her money “for the powder room”, while Paul is a struggling writer being put up in his apartment by a wealthy older woman (Patricia Neal), who’s been discouraging him from working on any new stories so he can be free to “work on a novel” (and, conveniently, to fool around with her). Holly is even a criminal, even though she’s ignorant of that fact – she has no idea her weekly visits to a mob boss in prison, followed by a debrief with his lawyer, are their way of using her to communicate in code.

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This film also has one of the most blatantly offensive cases of “yellowface” acting in cinema – Paul and Holly’s landlord is a Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi, who is played by Mickey Rooney sporting a pair of hideously oversized prosthetic teeth. He is written as a total over-the-top caricature, a depiction so broad that even people back in the 1960s thought it was a bit much. I’m not even going to dignify that with an image.

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Speaking of yellowface – is there such a thing a “straightwashing”? Because this film engages in that too – in the original novella, Paul’s character was gay, and he and Holly were simply very close friends. They don’t end up as a couple in the end of Truman Capote’s work, they don’t fall in love, and at some point they even break up, kind of. Granted, a sympathetic depiction of a gay man may have been a bridge too far for 1961, so it’s not that much of a surprise they changed things – but it’s still disappointing.

….So. That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite all of that, this is still a sweet and enchanting film.

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Much of that has to do with Audrey Hepburn, who is absolutely delightful here. Ironically, Truman Capote thought she was all wrong – he had been gunning for Marilyn Monroe to play Holly, but Monroe ultimately turned the part down, and Capote never really got over it. As for Hepburn, she felt that she might not be up for the part, and throughout filming kept pestering director Blake Edwards asking for reassurance she was doing okay. I can see why Capote was hoping for Monroe – her character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is similarly on the hunt for a rich husband, and Monroe’s own past as a Kentucky girl named “Norma Jean” echoes Holly’s own early years as a rural Texan named “Lula Mae”.

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But I get the feeling that Monroe would be a little too….waifish for this part. Holly goes through some serious hard luck, and has gone through even harder luck before the film – and she’s also not looking to be kept as a pampered plaything. She’s doing that only because it gives her the money to have the freedom she really wants, but can’t have as a single woman. With Monroe, Holly would have been a woman looking to be a pampered plaything so she could be taken care of – with Hepburn, Holly is a woman who resorts to being a pampered plaything so she has the money to make her own choices. And Hepburn is tough, but also sweet and goofy and kooky – basically she is the Holly which the film and novella are talking about.

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As for Paul – well, George Peppard is….serviceable. But this isn’t really his fault; the part is pretty much a nonentity. He’s the straight man to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl here, and such roles are always a boring straight-man part; here especially so, since a lot of what made the character interesting in Capote’s novella had to be cut; Paul became a Straight Man in both senses of the word. So Peppard does the best he can with what he’s been given. (I did get uneasy a couple times when the love-smitten Paul insisted to Holly that she “belonged” to him, however.)

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But this is Hepburn’s film, anyway, and she outshines all of the flaws to the point that most people forget about them, focusing instead on how perfectly she embodies Holly and shows the sadness behind the blithe and carefree society girl. This is a film you definitely should go into with eyes open, but it is still worth it.

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Lola (1961)

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Lola (Anouk Aimée) has the title role in this French New Wave film, but we don’t actually meet her for a good while – and I’m not convinced she’s the lead anyway. Then again, she’s something of a lynchpin holding several very different – and still related – subplots together.

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One concerns Roland (Marc Michel), an aimless slacker living in an apartment above a sleepy cafe in the French town of Nantes; he keeps losing jobs because he blows them off, and is constantly borrowing money from the cafe owner and from a neighbor, a widow pining for the return of her own missing son Michel. While browsing in a bookstore one day, he meets Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette), shopping for an English textbook for her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cécile (Annie Duperoux). Roland has that very textbook and offers to give it to them free – remarking as he does that Cécile was the name of an old childhood friend of his. However, Roland does not include the detail that Cécile was also a major early crush.

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Meanwhile, across town, Lola is entertaining Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor in town on leave who is smitten with her. Lola’s been stringing him along a bit – she’s a single mum raising a seven-year-old boy, so she isn’t above a bit of quasi-sex work for the money. Also, Frankie also reminds her of her son’s dad – Michel. (Yep, same Michel). Frankie tries persuading her to come to the USA with him, but she refuses – she’s holding out hope Michel will return one day.

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These plots soon cross-pollinate even further, when Frankie runs into Cécile while she is out shopping for a comic book. He’s grabbed the book she wants before she can get to it, so he offers to share it – and she’s soon girlishly smitten with the handsome sailor. At the same time, across town, Lola and Roland run into each other – delighting Roland, for she is his Cécile, all grown up.

Roland confesses to his crush later, as they’re catching up – but Lola turns him down, admitting she is still pining for Michel. It’s enough of a kick in the pants to inspire Roland to try to get some kind of a Proper Job so maybe Lola will change her mind – but then he sees her with Frankie, and starts to feel he’s been played a little. But little does Roland know that Lola is still turning Frankie down for a long-term thing – something which drives Frankie out on a wander where he runs into Cécile again, who’s still just as smitten herself. And while all that’s going on, Michel’s mother keeps insisting she’s seen him in town…

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Other critics I’ve read suggest that this is a film full of coincidences and missed-connections, with Roland just so happening to run into Lola just after meeting Cécile, and then just so happening to see her with Frankie just as he’s resolved to straighten out his act. And Lola just barely escapes missing out on a connection of her own later.

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But I’m more inclined to think that this film is about how those early childhood romantic obsessions can really stick, and sometimes tend to mess you up a little. Roland hasn’t seen Lola/Cécile in nearly 15 years at the time of the film, but is still carrying a torch for her. Meanwhile, Lola is still tied to Michel – not because of their child, though; she still has some misty, rose-colored memories of a day when he ran into her at a carnival on her 14th birthday and went on all the rides with her, and he was just so darn handsome dressed up in a sailor suit and everything that she was hooked. And to emphasize that, Frankie and Cécile have their own outing at an amusement park, on Cécile’s own birthday, shot in loving slo-mo in a way that suggests that even though Frankie’s about to ship out back to the US, that Cécile is going to be swooning over Frankie’s memory for a long time to come – and this romantic fantasy may have some disastrous results.

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I do have one nit to pick – Alan Scott’s performance is fine, but throughout he speaks both French and English with such a strangely clumsy accent that I honestly thought he was a French actor who was trying to sound like an American who was bad at French. His clumsy French makes sense, but the clumsy English was puzzling – especially since Scott was American, born in New Jersey and living most of his life in New York before retiring to Connecticut. However, it also looks like he spent much of the 60s and 70s doing other French film and TV, so…maybe it’s just me. (Incidentally, in the US he and his wife were better known as commercial jingle writers who also did the odd song for Sesame Street. )

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The Hustler (1961)

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Lately, there’s been a bit of a lament amongst some film and TV fans, about how a lot of the films being made today are either reboots or sequels or relaunches of earlier works; the Candyman series got a sequel this year, as did The Matrix and Halloween and Sex And The City and Dexter and The Wonder Years and even Doogie Howser, and on and on. But this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened – in fact, I remember there being a similar relaunch/reboot/sequel craze in the 80s and 90s. In my review for Psycho I mentioned that I was already “spoiled” for a lot of it – part of how was spoiled was from remembering the reviews about the 1983 sequel, a much lesser-quality film. The 1980s saw sequels to plenty of other classics – Rocky, Grease, Alien, Caddyshack, and others – and while some caught the right spirit of the original (or in some rare cases even surpassed it), others looked a bit more like money grabs, leaning on the reputation of the more famous original to bring in viewers while simultaneously missing the point, and potentially ruining the originals for future viewers.

And I came very close to having had The Color of Money ruin The Hustler for me (see, that’s where I was going with this). What maybe saved me is that I never actually saw that sequel – only the clips used in the music video for Eric Clapton’s song from the soundtrack, which was in heavy rotation on MTV when I was about fifteen. From what I can see in those clips today, and what I’ve read since, it looks like that film is more about the pool playing and the hustle for money – and to my mind, The Hustler is about something quite different entirely.

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Don’t get me wrong – there is pool here. “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a young-and-hungry player, teamed up with his partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and traveling the country doing low-level hustles. But Eddie isn’t into the money so much as he’s into the love of the game – he is good at pool, and he knows it. He’s just into the thrill of doing what he knows he’s good at. In fact, he’s so good that he’s convinced he can beat the famous pool shark Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and turns up in Minnesota’s pool hall to challenge him towards the beginning of the film. Minnesota ultimately beats him, of course – but it takes him 24 hours to do so, and Eddie goes down swinging, only dropping out when he has no more money to lay down as stakes for any further games. But Eddie later discovers Charlie withheld some of their money for safety’s sake, and abandons Charlie, striking out on his own for New York.

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Along with getting his feet wet in small pool halls, Eddie meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a part-time student and part-time barfly who ultimately takes him in. Sarah seems to have him pegged pretty quickly – “I’ve got troubles and I think maybe you’ve got troubles,” she tells him early on, wondering aloud if they should “maybe leave each other alone”. But these two troubled people end up fitting together – he encourages her to give up drinking, she nurses him through some broken thumbs after rubbing some poolsharks the wrong way. She opens up to him about her sad past. He opens up to her about why he loves the game so much. They truly start to heal the broken bits in each other.

So that’s why it’s all the more tragic when Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) drops by; Bert is a professional gambler friendly with Minnesota Fats who heard about Eddie’s game, and wants to bring him back out on the road. He’ll be able to get Eddie back in on a game with Minnesota, for sure…

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I know that still sounds like a lot of pool. But for me, the heart of the film is actually Eddie and Sarah’s relationship, and how Eddie is torn between joy in what he does and disgust with what he has to do just to do it. There’s a lengthy speech he has in the middle of the film, while on a picnic with Sarah, where he discusses how his love of the game is at odds with the hustling he has to do: “Just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it’s great, when it’s really great. You know, like anything can be great [….] brick-laying can be great if a guy knows what he’s doin’ and why and if he can make it come off.” Pool playing is Eddie’s flow state – but the only way he’s ever known where he can exercise that flow state is to make a devil’s bargain with gamblers who exploit him for money. Sarah comes close to making him realize he doesn’t need to do things that way – but the lure is too great, and he gets pulled back towards his older habits, unaware what the cost might be until it’s too late. That’s the same story as The Red Shoes, in a way – and that’s how it landed with me.

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Piper Laurie and Paul Newman are of course heartbreakingly excellent here. But the real standout for me was Jackie Gleeson as Minnesota Fats – I’d only ever associated him with his TV role in The Honeymooners, all words and bluster, but here he is completely different – stoic, quiet, an oasis of perfect calm. He’s a Poolroom Buddha who’s obtained the very kind of enlightened state where pool is all he needs to worry about – the very state Eddie wants to reach. But Eddie misunderstands the path he needs to take to get there – which makes him a sucker for the tips and tricks and abuse that Bert and Charlie try to foist on him. But tips and tricks don’t get you there – it’s tapping into that flow state, only speaking when you need to and only doing what you need to, and knowing when to stop. Gleason speaks and does very, very little, but when he does, it’s flawless – and so when Minnesota praises Eddie’s playing, eventually, we know it’s sincere. The tragedy is that it also comes too late.

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La Jetée (1961)

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So, yeah, I knew the plot here already; I’ve seen Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a full-length film based on this earlier short. And if you’ve seen that film – or any of the TV series that followed – you know what happens. So watching this film was more of an experiment in studying technique for me.

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It’s not a total mirror image. In La Jetée, humanity now lives underground because of the aftermath of a nuclear war as opposed to 12 Monkeys’ eco-terrorism event. Our main character (Davos Hainich) is a prisoner of war recruited into a time-travel experiment to conduct a salvage operation, or maybe even go into the future. But as with 12 Monkeys, our lead has been haunted by something he saw as a boy at an airport – a beautiful woman (Hélène Châtelain) looking on as a man raced towards her and then was suddenly shot. This event had happened shortly before the war, and it was such a clear image that his superiors felt it a strong enough tie to the past that it rendered him a good candidate for time travel. And sure enough, on his first trip back in time he meets the woman. Each time he travels back he meets her, gradually building a relationship with her that leads to him wanting to escape and live in the past with her….

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The biggest difference between director Chris Marker’s original and Terry Gilliam’s remake is that Marker uses a bit of an unusual film technique – the whole story is told through a narrator telling the story over a series of still photographs. The only other sounds are some occasional music, and some moments during the various “experiments” where we hear urgent whispering in German. The only movement comes about two-thirds into the film, when after watching a series of still photos of the sleeping woman, we get a shot of her waking up and looking into the camera.

Marker filmed things this way largely because he was on such an extreme budget that he could only afford to rent a movie camera for a single afternoon. But it’s actually really effective – he edits the still photos together with the sound so cleverly that it tells the story just as well. It’s especially effective with the transitions from “the past” back to “the present”, heralded here by a crossfade from whatever image of the woman we happen to be looking at to an image of one of our lead’s captors looking down on us, and the sound of German whispering fading back in. (I really started to hate that guy.)

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Because the film was so short (only a half hour) I also indulged in the DVD extras – and learned a surprising quirk that Terry Gilliam also worked into his own film. Marker was a huge fan of the film Vertigo, to the point that he threw in a couple of shout-outs – the first time our lead meets The Woman in real time, we see a shot of her in profile which bears a close resemblance to the first time we see “Madeline” in Vertigo.

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Another scene shows The Traveler and The Woman studying a cross-section of a tree – much as Kim Novak and James Stewart also do in Vertigo.

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One of the DVD extras was a breathless piece from a French cinema studies site which speculated that this meant Chris Marker was really talking not about time travel, but about stepping inside the world of films instead. Personally I thought that was a bit of a stretch, and found it much more likely it was a simple homage. And even if you don’t catch those shout-outs, it was surprisingly effective.

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Viridiana (1961)

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Another film from Luis Buñuel here, which shows me up for thinking he was all surrealistic and weird and that’s it. However – I still didn’t quite come to grips with how things ended.

Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is an almost-nun, about to take her holy orders. But her estranged uncle Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) writes to the convent, asking if Viridiana can please come for a visit before she cloisters herself forever. Viridiana is reluctant – she and Don Jaime barely know each other, and he’d never reached out before this – but since he’s apparently supported her financially all this time, her Mother Superior persuades her to go.

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Things seem okay, if a bit odd, at first; Don Jaime has been living as a near-recluse on the family farm, in a Miss-Havisham-esque state of mourning after his wife died on their wedding day. At least there’s a few servants – chief among them Ramona (Margarita Lozano), a housekeeper grateful Don Jaime has been looking after her and her daughter Rita (Teresa Rabal). Ramona and the others give Viridiana a warm enough welcome, but Don Jaime and Viridiana both quickly agree that they don’t know each other very well and are near-strangers. Don Jaime apologizes, but Viridiana waves him off; the past can’t be heled. But it’s okay. She’s grateful for his support and will pray for him in the convent.

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However, Don Jaime can’t quite let things go – because Viridiana looks exactly like his late wife. And the longer she stays, the more Don Jaime becomes convinced he’d like her to extend her stay – and become the wife he’d wanted all those years ago. He appeals to her on her final night there; and when that fails, he drugs her, in an effort to at least get the wedding night he never got. Fortunately he comes to his senses before going through with raping Viridiana – but the shame drives him to kill himself, leaving the farm to Viridiana, and one or two other people.

Viridiana’s already been so shaken up by the experience that she was going to drop out of the convent anyway. The inheritance is the perfect chance to still Serve God, in a different way; she opens up the servant quarters as a shelter for the homeless and indigent in the main village, rounding them up and moving them all into the servant quarters, where she lives with them, dining with them communally and giving them odd jobs around the farm. Any plans she might have had to expand into the main house get dashed when Don Jaime’s other heir shows up – an illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal), no one knew about. Jorge accepts Viridiana’s shelter, on the condition that the main house would be his – Don Jaime also ignored him the way he ignored Viridiana, and he’s a little bitter. So he plans to fully enjoy the finery Don Jaime left behind, restoring the house to its former glory and enjoying his new life of luxury. The pair just need to cement the arrangement with Don Jaime’s lawyer, and head into town for an overnight visit, leaving Viridiana’s charges behind. And their curiosity about what’s in The Big House tempts them to break in and explore…

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So the very ending got to me. A good part of what came before seems to be about how Viridiana’s idealism and naivete about the world gets stripped away – she’s pretty innocent at the start of the film, to the point that even touching the cow’s teat in the barn squicks her out. She is so thrown by Don Jaime’s suicide that she considers herself no longer worthy of holy orders. She thinks that the villagers will be so grateful for her food and care and moral example that they’ll all immediately turn nice and pious. She is perfectly ready to live the rest of her life alongside Jorge, both of them staying perfectly chaste neighbors. And gradually each of these notions gets stripped away, as the villagers stay just as crude and corrupt as ever, and as Jorge starts flirting with her on top of everything too – she’s been completely wrong about nearly everything.

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There’s a really interesting sequence about midway through the film, where Viridiana is working with the villagers in a field while Jorge oversees some contractors working on the house. She rallies the villagers around her, announcing that it’s time for them to pray the Angelus . Buñuel cuts back and forth between shots of Viridiana and the villagers reciting the prayer, and shots of the contractors doing grunt work on the house – plastering walls, unloading lumber, mixing cement. Viridiana thinks she’s doing the real work, but on some level she really isn’t getting her hands dirty yet. And much later when she is forced to confront the real ugliness of the world, she has a hard time handling it.

And that’s what lead to my questions about the ending. She’s still living on the farm, and there’s a definite implication Jorge may start fooling around with her somewhere down the line, but Pinal plays Viridiana with a near catatonic blankness during the last few shots and I found myself wondering whether Viridiana had actually lost her mind. The gradual and utter disillusionment her character experienced would have certainly been enough to prompt it – and that made the final scene, where Jorge invites her in to “play cards” with himself and Ramona, a bit ickier for me than audiences already thought it was.

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The last scene was a last-minute addition, however – the film originally was supposed to end with Jorge inviting Viridiana into his room alone, and she was supposed to agree, willingly and with intent. Early audiences didn’t like that, so Buñuel threw in a new ending, where Viridiana dazedly walks in on Jorge making out with Ramona, and the pair cover by saying they’re playing cards – and invite her to join them. Buñuel gleefully thought this made the ending even dirtier, by implying Viridiana was now entering into a menage a trois. But Viridiana is in such a daze throughout the scene that I couldn’t shake the thought that she was being forced into it, making things all the more disturbing. I agreed that Viridiana needed to learn some hard truths about human nature – but somehow this seemed much too harsh.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Splendor In The Grass (1961)

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Sorry for the delay, all! Between holiday mayhem and extra work at work, I was overwhelmed by life a while. Fittingly enough – since our leads in this film both suffer from being overwhelmed, although in their case it’s by the double-standard and by parental expectations.

(That was not the most graceful of segues, I’ll admit.)

Wilma Deane “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) are high school sweethearts in rural Kansas, back in 1928. Deanie’s parents are pleased by the match – the Stampers are the richest folks in town, thanks to the oil wells managed by patriarch Ace (Pat Hingle). But Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) is also a bit concerned with her daughter’s virginal virtue, repeatedly reminding her of the things that nice girls don’t do with boys. Bud’s got his own problems, with Ace pushing him towards a degree from Yale so he can properly take his place at the head of the family business someday. Bud’s not exactly keen on the idea, but Ace reminds him that Bud is their best family hope – after all, his older sister Ginny (Barbara Loden) has run off and become a flapper and an art student. Quelle horreur!

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With all that pressure put on Bud, he naturally turns to Deanie for consolation and support – but Bud is also a teenage boy, so he’d very much like some of that consolation to be physical. Except Deanie keeps shutting him down because she feels she has to (even though Ginny tells the both of them that they can both fool around, for pity’s sake). But one sad night, Bud breaks things off with Deanie, knowing he can’t keep himself under control forever, and Deanie reacts badly – starting with a clumsy attempt to seduce Bud during a school dance, and ending with her trying to drown herself in a lake near town. Deanie’s parents send her to a sanitarium for treatment, while Bud gets packed off to Yale…will our lovers ever reunite?

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Reviews at the time focused on the sexual-ethics double-standard angle of the plot – how Deanie was being pressured to save her virginity for her wedding night, while Bud was given a free pass to screw around as long as it was with “the other kind of girl”. The whole virgin/whore double standard for women gets a lot of criticism here – Deanie blows up at her mother at one point for meekly asking whether Deanie is upset because “did Bud…spoil you?” Ginny also gets her say, letting loose a drunken rant at the guests at the Stampers’ New Years’ Eve party about how most of the men in town won’t speak to her in public “but in the dark, oh, they’re very familiar then!” Sadly, rather than feeling shame at this call-out, the single guys at the party use this as an excuse to try to gang-rape Ginny later.

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I’d known about this angle before the film; however, the whole plot seems to be not so much about teenagers coming to grips with sexuality as it is about flawed parents royally messing up their kids. Deanie’s mother is horrified by Deanie’s breakdown – to the point of denial, insisting for a long while that “there’s nothing wrong with her” and “she’s perfectly fine”. She hides Deanie’s breakdown from most of the town, she sweeps Deanie’s woes under the rug. She tries to lie to Deanie about where Bud is when Deanie finally arrives home. Only in one quiet moment does the denial slip, when Deanie is unpacking after her return home and her mother meekly asks whether the psychiatrist told Deanie to blame her for her troubles. “…You know I raised you the best I knew how, right? You’re not mad at me, are you?”

But at least Mrs. Loomis listens to Deanie on occasion. Ace doesn’t even do that much – he forever talks over Bud and Ginny and even his own wife, insisting that he knows what’s right for everyone. Even when Bud is flunking out of Yale, and desperately begs the dean to talk to his father and get him to understand he doesn’t even want a degree, Ace talks over the dean as well, insisting that Bud doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that someone just needs to shake some sense into the boy. He drags Bud off for a weekend in New York where he hopes to do precisely that – with some unforeseen results.

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I was honestly more impressed with this aspect of the plot than anything else – at the clear-eyed way it handled how thoroughly the parents had messed things up for their kids. Ace is clearly a narcissist and isn’t cut any slack for it; but Mrs. Loomis is clearly just ill-equipped to raise Deanie in a changing world. She does cause Deanie no end of trouble, but she’s only doing things the way she has been taught to do them. The new world and its changing rules is scaring her, and she doesn’t know how to handle it – but somehow still has to raise a daughter, and falls back on doing that the only way she knows how, even if it doesn’t entirely fit. She ends up a sympathetic character despite the trouble she’s put Deanie through.

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The title is taken from a poem of Wordsworth’s, which gets quoted in a pivotal scene in Bud and Deanie’s high school English class:

“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not; rather find
Strength in what remains behind.”

Both Bud and Deanie end up sadder but wiser by the end, and we’re clearly meant to feel that they were Supposed To Be Together But Fate Tore Them Apart. But I’m not so sure they both feel that way; and I actually find myself holding out a lot of hope for Deanie at the end, as she thinks back on those lines. She gets that nothing can bring back that splendor in the grass – but also seems to get that it’s not supposed to come back either. In an earlier scene Deanie observes that the poem is about losing one’s childish idealism when one grows up; but the Deanie I see at the end seems to get that that’s okay sometimes, and what lies ahead can still be full of promise.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Peeping Tom (1960)

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So you will remember back when I first saw Psycho I was trying to decide between it and another film; this was that other film. And the two films may have ultimately made for a good double-feature, because the psychological suspense I was missing from having Psycho spoiled for me was here, in this film.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a camera operator at a London film studio, living in genteel poverty in the top of his father’s old house and renting out other rooms to strangers. He makes a little extra money on the side taking racy pin-up photos, and spends all of his free time working on a documentary of his own – at least that’s what he says. Something about fear, he says it is. One night one of his tenants, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), spontaneously invites him in to the apartment she shares with her mother, where they are celebrating her 21st Birthday. Mark is a little too shy to join in, but Helen is so good-natured and friendly that he invites her up to his room instead for a quick visit. She wants to see one of his films, she says.

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That poses a problem – since most of Mark’s films are snuff films he’s made while killing other people.

Unusually – and thankfully, I must say – Mark’s motivation isn’t sexual. It’s a little more basic, and strangely even sadder – Mark’s father was a psychologist driven to study the effects of fear on childhood development, and used his own son as his test subject. So poor little Mark grew up with a father who would do things like throw lizards in his bed or push him off stone walls or subject him to other torments, filming everything and studying how Mark responded. Mark’s father got a whole book series out of it, but Mark was left with an enormous psychological problem. And while he does share some of the stories about his childhood with Helen, he tries to keep his current filmmaking habits under wraps – something that becomes harder and harder as the police start investigating an uptick in murders in their neighborhood – the most recent of which is in the film studio where Mark works…

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Peeping Tom was released only a month or two before Psycho, which quickly overshadowed this earlier film. And I understand why Psycho has the greater reputation of the two – Hitchcock’s attention to detail is slightly superior, and he gets better performances out of his leads than Boehm and Massey give us here. But only just barely so – Peeping Tom is still a good film, with an equally-good director at its helm (Michael Powell, who’s previously given us The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, among others). There are some throwaway moments of comedy, there’s a good deal of nuance in what makes Mark tick; there’s even some suspense in the audience gradually learning exactly how Mark kills his victims. We never see him actually committing the act – he has rigged up his camera to capture his victims in their death throes, and so instead we see the camera-eye view of their terror-stricken faces and their screams just before Mark strikes, with the camera cutting out before the final blows. Only towards the end do we see exactly how Mark does the deed.

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One thing that may have hobbled Peeping Tom, though, is Mark’s x-rated photography side gig. It’s obvious that he’s only chosen this job to scout for potential victims – the kind of girl who would pose for a topless photo probably is down on her luck and mightn’t be missed if she were to vanish one day. So Mark isn’t getting any sexual thrills out of things. But Powell still saw fit to show the audience exactly how topless these topless photos were, resulting in the first instance of full-frontal nudity in an English film. This gave British censors quite a shock, and the film also suffered from censorship in the US, Italy, Finland and a handful of other countries.

British censors were already uneasy about the subject matter as it was; British film critics were similarly shocked, one of them claiming that this film would “kill” Powell’s career. Another review compared Powell to the Marquis de Sade, and still another said that “the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.” All of which seems unnecessarily harsh – at least, to someone like me who grew up in the era of Friday the 13th or other slasher films. But the vilification actually backfired, making Peeping Tom a bit of a clandestine taboo cult film among the younger film students of the early 1960s – Martin Scorcese, for instance -who sought out chances to see this film with the scandalous reputation. Fortunately they saw what the earlier critics hadn’t, and urged later critics to give the film a re-appraisal. Powell later noted in his memoirs: “I [made] a film that nobody [wanted] to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it!”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Young One (1960)

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I’m going to get the cheap joke out of the way first here. ….When I finished watching this, my initial reaction was to joke to Roommate Russ: “This can’t have been a Buñuel film, I understood it!” But that reaction does a dis-service to what was a surprisingly nuanced film.

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The whole film takes place on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands, where we first meet Traver (Bernie Hamilton), an African-American musician fleeing from a lynch mob. He’s stolen a boat to make his escape, and paddles to the island after running out of gas and springing a leak; it seems a good place to lay low, since it’s a private hunting park, largely unpopulated save for the groundskeeper Miller (Zachary Scott), and Evie (Key Meersman), the naive granddaughter of a beekeeper who also lives on the premises. Or, rather, lived there – since he has just died. Miller now has to set out for the mainland to get a coroner and to see who should take care of Evie now – but before he leaves, he notices that Evie’s blossomed into quite the attractive teen and starts thinking that maybe keeping her around after all would be kind of fun. Fetching the coroner can’t be helped, though, so he leaves Evie behind with some vague promises of getting her a pretty dress and “a talk when I get back”.

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Evie may be past her childhood, but she’s still incredibly naive, and thinks nothing of it when Traver turns up asking for tools and some gas for his boat. She even gives Traver a gun and tags along to help him carry everything back, befriending Traver with idle chatter as he patches the leak. Traver intends to be gone by sunup – but oversleeps, and Miller finds him when he returns (innocently helped by Evie, who tells him everything). Miller gives chase, losing him in the swamps after shooting a hole in Traver’s boat. But Traver surprises him back at his cabin later, gun in hand, demanding more tools and the freedom to fix up his boat and leave in peace. It’s no skin off Miller’s nose, he decides – the coroner will be by tomorrow with a preacher to see to Evie’s grandfather’s burial, and if Traver oversleeps again, maybe they’ll capture him and spare Miller the trouble. And – hey, maybe he could even offer Traver Evie’s cabin for the night, which would be the perfect excuse to move Evie in with him so they can spend the night “talking”.

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Yeah, that “talking” is in quotes for exactly the reason you think it is. It’s fortunately not depicted (save for some icky kissing), but it is strongly implied that Miller rapes Evie that night, taking advantage of an innocence so profound that she literally doesn’t think anything of it and is nearly matter-of-fact when she speaks to the minister (Claudio Brook) the next day. But while she’s talking to him, Miller is talking with Jackson (Crahan Denton), the boat driver who ferried the minister over; Jackson tells Miller that back in town they’re all looking for a black musician who supposedly raped a wealthy white woman. Miller knows exactly who he means, and as he and Jackson conduct a manhunt for Traver, the minister brainstorms about how to rescue Evie…

There are a lot of moments throughout where a lesser film would have done things very differently – Traver might have taken advantage of Evie, Miller might have tried killing Traver sooner. Evie might have suddenly realized what Miller had done to her and had a tantrum. The minister might have made a dramatic exit where he swept up Evie to bring her to a convent. But instead, we get Traver and Miller talking about both being veterans over dinner; or Jackson also figuring out what Miller’s doing to Evie and teasing him about it; and we even get the minister and Miller discussing whether Miller could possibly marry Evie someday. No one is all good or all evil here; the minister is a bit one-dimensional and a lot of his lines sound more like caricature, but the scene where he confronts Miller is surprisingly nuanced.

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Buñuel also leans into Evie’s innocence pretty hard sometimes; when Miller and Traver are having a tense dinner in his cabin, Evie asks in wide-eyed innocence why Traver isn’t sitting at the table with them. “Don’t you like him?” she asks. “Why not be friends with him?” Key Meersman wasn’t an actress, and it looks like she only appeared in one other film after this before dropping back into obscurity; she maybe only had this one performance in her, and it’s practically a non-performance. I’ve found an article which mentions that Buñuel had so much trouble trying to direct her that he nearly packed in the whole movie in frustration. But Meersman’s nonchalant and flat line deliveries actually work here; she’s so naive that she doesn’t even know that her own rape is something she’s supposed to be upset about, so her mild bafflement is actually spot-on.

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On the whole, the future is pretty unclear for all of our characters by the end – no one is completely punished, rescued, or vindicated. But everyone’s tale comes to an ending that ultimately seems right for their specific situation – and honestly, when’s the last time you saw that in a film?