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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?

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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.

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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.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 4

It seems I like to keep things thematic – these two films both ended up being Coming Of Age pictures.

Coda

The title of this film is a bit of a pun – “Coda” is not only a musical term, befitting our lead’s musical aspirations, it’s also an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults, befitting our lead’s family life. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her fishing family, and throughout her whole life has served as the interpreter for parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). She also loves singing, however; mostly to entertain herself on the boat, belting out Motown classics as she hauls in nets with Frank and Leo. But years of bullying have left her too shy to sing in front of anyone else – that is, until the day when her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) joins the school choir. Ruby joins mainly to be near him, even though singing in front of hearing people scares her silly – what if she’s been a terrible singer all this time?….But her choir teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) assures her it’s quite the opposite – she’s good. Really good. So good that he encourages her to apply for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, like Miles is doing. Ruby is very tempted – but what will her family do without her there to help?

Strictly speaking, this is kind of a formulaic plot; you can probably predict exactly what’s going to happen at every turn. What saved this from feeling formulaic for me is the characters themselves – I may have been able to predict what would happen, but getting to know and like the characters made me care about it. Ruby and her family are a noisy, complicated, irreverent, outspoken and tight-knit mob – the kind who squabble amongst themselves one minute but have each other’s backs the next.

And they are funny. There’s one scene between Ruby and Jackie which starts off sentimental and poignant, as Ruby asks Jackie if she was ever disappointed Ruby wasn’t deaf like the rest of the family. Jackie surprisingly confesses she was at first; she’d been worried she and Ruby wouldn’t be able to get to know each other, and that Jackie wouldn’t be a good enough mother for her. Marlee Matlin’s monologue about her fears is moving enough – but then when Jackie ends by saying she hoped this didn’t make her a bad mom, Ruby jokes, “Nah – you’re a bad mom for different reasons.” It’s obviously a joke – but it’s the kind of joke you can only find in a family that knows everyone loves each other.

But Jackie isn’t the only one with a poignant child/parent moment. The family goes to Ruby’s choir concert as a visible show of support, even though they can’t hear a thing; during Ruby’s big solo, which we’ve been hearing her rehearse throughout the movie, the sound cuts out entirely as we watch Jackie, Frank, and Leo furtively glance at everyone else, reading their faces and reactions as it’s the only way they can tell how she’s doing. Frank takes Ruby aside when they get home to ask her to sing for him again. It’s a remarkably intimate scene; as she sings, Frank watches her intently and gently touches her throat and face, feeling her vocal cords and the vibrations of the music coming from her. The obvious joy on her face and the strength of her sound lead Frank to give serious thought to where Ruby ultimately belongs.

While there have been one or two nit-pickers who’ve said that some of the times Ruby “interprets” weren’t realistic (she’s dragged into one of Frank’s doctor visits, even though most doctors would have an ASL interpreter on staff), most members of the hearing-impaired community applauded the film – largely for depicting deaf characters as having way more agency than usual. They also appreciated Jackie and Frank having a very healthy sex life (much to Ruby’s chagrin once or twice). But most importantly – all of the deaf characters in the film were cast with hearing-impaired actors, largely at the insistence of Marlee Matlin. Troy Kotsur is up for a Best Supporting Actor statuette himself.

Licorice Pizza

This is also a bildungsroman like Coda – but it was a bit more opaque for me. My quip to Roommate Russ after I watched it was “it’s almost like if Paul Thomas Anderson had directed Rushmore instead.” It even has a similar retro feel as Rushmore – the whole film is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, and draws heavily on some 70s tropes, like waterbeds, pinball arcades, and the gas crisis.

Our lead is 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a former child actor aging out of his career. Acting gigs are few and far between now, and he’s back at regular public school – where he meets Alana (Alana Haim) on school picture day, as she toils as the photographer’s assistant. Gary hits on her, using his show-biz connections as clout – but Alana is ten years his senior and initially very unimpressed.

But Gary is so persistent she finally agrees to meet him for dinner. Alana is the youngest of three daughters in a somewhat strict Jewish family and has been struggling to “find herself” a bit – if nothing else, becoming friends with Gary will keep her from being bored, and following along with Gary’s harebrained get-rich-quick schemes will let her tell her father that she’s trying to find serious work. And maybe Gary’s connections will let her launch the acting career she’s thought of trying. But Gary’s obvious feelings for her are a constant source of tension – as are her own shifting feelings towards him.

Licorice Pizza is rather less straightforward than Coda was – and I’m afraid that I had a hard time following along in places. There are a few places where it feels like entire scenes were cut out of the film that would explain things like “why is Gary suddenly trying to sell waterbeds” or “what happened to the film Alana maybe was getting cast in”. Anderson has included some inspired cameos – Bradley Cooper is especially hilarious as a funhouse mirror version of Hollywood producer Jon Peters, one of Gary’s waterbed customers, while Sean Penn and Tom Waits have a kookoopants scene as (respectively) a washed-up actor trying to seduce Alana and the equally washed-up director trying to get him to restage a motorcycle stunt he’d done in an earlier film. But I would happily have traded any cameos for even just a couple extra scenes for Gary or Alana. Haim and Cooper do fine, the script just plain seems to have left some chunks of information out, and it feels more like a bunch of random vignettes instead of a story. Roommate Russ had his own joke when I asked him if he had trouble following the plot – “What plot?”

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An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Well, this is a new first – this is the first time a film has left me feeling personally insulted.

I can explain.

Chishū Ryū stars as “Shūhei Hirayama”, a widower in early 1960s Japan. He’s a war vet working a middle-management office job in Tokyo. He has three kids; eldest son Kōichi (Kenji Sada) is married and lives nearby, while the baby of the family – another son, Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami) – just got out of college. Daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) handles the cooking and housekeeping for himself and Kazuo. He regularly meets up with a cluster of high school buddies to drink and shoot the breeze. It’s a quiet, simple life.

Then one evening Hirayama and his buddies invite one of their old teachers, Mr. Sakuma, out to join them (Eijirō Tōno). Mr. Sakuma has a bit too much to drink and Hirayama helps him get home – and finds that Mr. Sakuma, also a widower, now runs a cheap ramen shop, and also lives alone with an unmarried daughter to look after him. Hirayama visits the shop once during the day to help Mr. Sakuma out a little, and notices Mr. Sakuma’s daughter is perpetually grumpy.

Mr. Sakuma says that it’s likely because he kept his daughter around to take care of him when she was younger, and now she’s too old to find a husband of her own and has been bitter about that. Hirayama starts to fear he’s doing the same thing to Michiko; he asks her about it later that night, but she insists no, she’s fine, and besides what would he and Kazuo do without her? But Hirayama isn’t so sure. Neither is Kōichi, who says that he thinks Michiko has a crush on a friend of his. Hirayama sends Kōichi to check things out there, and looks into another prospect on his own – or at least means to, because Michiko’s right, what would he do without her?….

…So, we have a lot of guys fretting about Michiko’s unmarried status, and taking it into their hands to find her a husband. We have many scenes about how Hirayama would handle living without her. We even get some feedback from Kōichi’s wife about things, and from Hirayama’s buddies.

But – do we ever hear from Michiko herself about the situation?

No. Incredibly, no, we do not.

The whole engine of the plot is “Michiko is single and Something Must Be Done”, and her wedding is the goal everyone is working towards – but Michiko is a minor character in this story. She gets that one mild protestation when her father asks if she wants to get married, and she gets a very brief moment where she wipes away a tear at some bad news, and – that’s it. Towards the end we se her in a wedding dress heading out to go get married, but we don’t even see the wedding or even learn the name of the guy she’s marrying. That reduces her to a mere plot device – and speaking as another unmarried daughter of a father, that is leaving out one hell of a perspective in this story. I mean – who is she marrying, first of all? Her crush? The guy her father picked? Some other guy? Does she even want to marry? Is she a lesbian, maybe? Who knows? And – the film implies – who cares?

And it’s not even like there wasn’t time for it. There’s a whole drawn-out subplot about Kōichi and his wife having a spat about money management, and there’s a whole weird scene with Hirayama getting dragged to a bar by someone who remembers him from the War and meeting a barmaid who looks like his late wife, and then bringing Kōichi to see her and they get into a debate about that. I mean, those scenes are cute and subtle and add color – but they add color to Kōichi and Hirayama, and meanwhile poor Michiko is given short shrift. But hey, she gets married at the end so it’s okay!….Doesn’t matter who she marries, she’s married and that’s all that matters, right?….And what a sacrifice Hirayama made letting her go, alas…

Come on. Now you get what I mean about feeling insulted by this film. And even taking into account that this was likely a very different time and a different culture and Japan was at a point where it was modernizing more – at least we can present Michiko’s opinion on the matter for just five minutes, instead of dwelling yet again on “how lonely Hirayama’s gonna be”.

Feh.

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Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Like Vivre Sa Vie, this is another French New Wave film that plays with time a bit – only going the other direction. Instead of dispassionate series of spaced-apart vignettes, we follow Cléo (Corinne Marchand) during a very specific window of time, almost in real time. But this is no random slice-of-life – this specific “5 to 7” window is time Cléo is anxiously wanting to pass before she calls the hospital to learn the results of a medical test for possible cancer.

And Cléo is not really the sort to do something productive to keep her mind off things. She visits a psychic hoping for a sneak peek at her future; she goes hat shopping with her maid Angèle (Dominique Davray); she has a desultory meeting with her sort-of-boyfriend José (José Luis de Villalonga) and then her accompanist for her night club act (Michel Legrand, who also composed the film’s music). She wants to be with friends, she wants to be alone. She wants to stay home, she wants to go out. She’s antsy because she wants to do something, but there is literally nothing to do but wait for time to elapse.

That’s a weird mindset, and one I know well. When I did theater, there was always a 15 or 20 minute interval before each show started, between the moment when we opened the doors to the audience and the moment we began the show; and it always drove me slowly bats because there was a whole host of things to be done, but only once the show started; and before that appointed time there was nothing I could do but wait for time to pass. I usually paced a lot, making repeated strolls across the stage to “check it was set properly” or jaunts down to the box office to “check if anyone was running late”, but really I was trying to burn off nervous energy (and quickly learned to tell the poor volunteers in our box office as such). You have a whole plan in place ready to launch, and you know it’s going to be a beast of a thing so you want to just get going already – but you can’t, you need to wait for the appointed hour. And it’s too much of a beast to let you fully distract yourself while you wait, so you end up pacing and antsy and following any whim you get for lack of not knowing what else to do with yourself.

As it turns out, you probably can learn a lot about a person from seeing what whims they tend to get in that state, so director Agnes Varda’s choice to give us these two hours from Cléo’s life still gives us a window into her character. She’s superstitious; she and her maid have a lot of shared beliefs in things like tarot and lucky numbers (they pass up a taxi at one point because it’s number 13), they are afraid of breaking mirrors, they don’t believe in carrying or wearing new clothes on a Tuesday. She’s a little vain; Cléo keeps checking herself out in mirrors throughout the day, and at one point tells herself that “as long as I’m beautiful I’m still alive” and while shopping she muses that “everything in here looks good on me”. She loves attention; José’s visit is ill-timed and perfunctory, but she still seems miffed that he’s leaving after only a few minutes. She plays up her “illness” to her accompanist so he fusses over her. While visiting a cafe, she studies the jukebox and selects one of her own records, subtly checking out the crowd when it starts playing – and is disappointed no one notices.

She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, basically, but every so often she remembers what she’s waiting for and her mood darkens. She tries rehearsing a plaintive ballad with her accompanist, but the lyrics are unusually dour and it just reminds her of her mortality and she stops. She tries to distract herself with a walk and runs into what looks like a funeral procession.

Only towards the end, when she runs into a soldier on leave from the Algerian War (Antoine Bourseillier), does she seem to find some peace. The soldier is at similarly loose ends, trying to kill time before he has to catch his train back to his base; he starts flirting with Cléo, but gradually realizes she’s Going Through Some Stuff and extends more of a sympathetic ear. He even offers to accompany her to the hospital if she’ll in turn see him off at the station. It’s enough to start snapping Cléo out of her self-obsession, and just before the final scene she even suggests they blow off the hospital and get coffee. “I’ll just call the doctor tomorrow, it’s fine,” she assures him. We still do get a resolution for Cléo before the end anyway – but we also get to see her find some peace for that restlessness, and I’m not sure which is the better outcome.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 3

Drive My Car

I think this is another case of “it’s good, but not Best-Picture Good”.

There’s a bit of an unusual technique here – the credits don’t start rolling until about a half hour in, turning everything before the credits into a sort of prologue, And it fits – that’s where we see the backstory for our main character, a Japanese actor and director named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). His wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a screenwriter who uses an unusual storywriting technique – her work is based on the stories she makes up and tells him after they have sex. But hey, it works – they’re both successful and well-respected in their fields. The only problems they have are the death of their four-year-old daughter several years prior….and Oto’s infidelity, which Kafuku has been dealing with by willfully ignoring it. But then one day, just before Kafuku leaves on an errand, Oto asks him if they can “talk” when he gets home, and he agrees, but uneasily postpones his return….and then when he does return, he finds Oto collapsed on the floor, killed by a sudden brain hemorrhage.

Then the credits roll and the main story kicks off. It’s two years later, and Kafuku is beginning a resident artist program at a theater in Hiroshima, where he will direct a production of Uncle Vanya. Kafuku has played the lead in Vanya in the past, so things should go smoothly. However, a couple of early problems crop up – firstly, one of the actors in the cast, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), happens to have been Oto’s most recent lover at the time she died (and Kafuku knows because he walked in on them once, but they were in flagrante and hadn’t seen him). And secondly – due to some vague insurance issue, Kafuku is not allowed to drive himself to and from the rehearsals. Usually the theater would enlist a full-on chauffeur, but since Kafuku brought his own car, the theater has hired a driver for that car instead – a sullen young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).

On paper the rest of the plot seems kind of predictable; Kafuku and Takatsuki gradually open up about their respective relationships to Oto, and Takatsuki and Watari gradually warm to each other as well. But happily the plot didn’t feel predictable as I was watching. Mostly this is because Nishijima and Miura give especially good performances; Nishijima plays Kafuku with a wonderful subtlety, giving him just enough gruffness so you know that he’s still a little wounded by his past but has just gotten good at hiding it. The script also isn’t afraid to have Kafuku be a bit of a jerk in rehearsals. And Miura plays Watari as a weirdo introvert, but in a way that gradually becomes endearing – and yet it never verges into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. There’s a fantastic scene where the theater’s company manager and his wife invite Kafuku over for dinner, and since Watari is there they also invite her in – and for the bulk of the scene the manager and Kafuku are caught up in a discussion about theater and the current production, and only after several minutes does everyone – even the audience – seem to remember that Watari has been awkwardly and silently sitting at the end of the table as well, picking at her food and occasionally patting the manager’s dog.

So it’s good. But…ultimately, kind of forgettable. I saw it a week ago, and when I sat down to write this…I actually had to think a couple minutes trying to remember anything about it. I’d even forgotten the film’s name. And I’m not sure this bodes well for its Oscar night success.

West Side Story

As things began, I thought this was going to be unusually faithful to the 1961 film – the opening also begins with the sound of the Jets whistling to each other, set over shots of New York streets, and then things move into the Jets gradually gathering for a prowl through their streets, one character or another sometimes busting out a dance move. But then the characters finally start speaking….and I realized that “oh, they’ve added some things.”

Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dive into the racial tensions fueling the Sharks and the Jets, in ways which the 1961 film only hinted at. During the gangs’ first run-in with Officer Krupke, after he orders the Sharks to leave the scene, Bernardo stares him down a minute – then starts defiantly singing “La Borinqueña”, the Puerto Rican national anthem, with the rest of the Sharks (and a few onlookers) joining in as they turn to go, turning their dismissal into a rallying cry. The whole setting is also moved to the former San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York, right at the time when the city is tearing everything down as a “slum clearance” move so they can build the current Lincoln Center cultural complex.

The Puerto Rican characters also get some development. Maria (Rachel Zegler) is a bit feistier and we see more of the family dynamic between her and brother Bernardo (David Alvarez). Bernardo is also given a career here – he’s not just the leader of the Sharks, he is also an aspiring boxer. And Anita (Ariana DeBose) isn’t just a seamstress, she is saving up to start her own business; and, she’s also Bernardo’s live-in girlfriend. And Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) isn’t a member of the Sharks – he is a college student.

An even bigger change is that a good deal of the scenes between Maria and Anita and Bernardo and any of the Spanish-speaking characters are all in Spanish – without subtitles. Spielberg has said he did so as a way to sort of de-emphasize the Anglo perspective – and I get it, but as a viewer it was occasionally frustrating. Most of the time I got the general gist of what characters were saying, but once or twice I could tell I was missing some nuances and really wished I weren’t.

Tony’s also been given a little more of a backstory – and that helps, because Ansel Elgort’s Tony otherwise felt a little…bland. He has a sort of reserved and overly-chill manner that works when he’s telling Maria about the year he spent upstate in prison….but doesn’t work when he’s singing “Maria”, and really doesn’t work during the balcony scene. His singing is technically good – and there are some really pretty shots and lighting effects there – but technically good is all it is. I didn’t sense any feeling in it – and for a song that Tony’s supposed be singing because he is head over heels in love, “technically good but no feeling” is just plain wrong. Fortunately his performance picks up a little towards the end when things are all dramatic and tragic, but this initial blandness bugged me.

There were some bits where it worked, though – and that was in his scenes with Rita Moreno. For Spielberg brought Moreno back, casting her as a new character, “Valentina”. In the original show and film, one of the Jets’ hangouts is a malt shop run by a longtime local named “Doc” – but here, the shop is run by Valentina, who is introduced to us as Doc’s widow who’s taken things over. The role is largely the same – the local shopkeeper who deep down believes that these gang members are just kids who are suffering from some hard knocks and deserve understanding, who urges them to straighten up, mourns when they turn bad and celebrates if they turn good. Turning things over to Valentina adds some extra nuance – Valentina alludes to the struggles she and Doc had themselves, and she’s able to warn Tony about that. She also mentions in one scene that the Jets seem to think of her as “a gringa”, but it’s only because of who she married – if she hadn’t married Doc they’d have seen her very differently. There’s even a moment of comedy – Tony has cornered Valentina and is asking her how to say various romantic declarations in Spanish, things like “I love you” and “you are beautiful” and “I want to stay with you forever”. Halfway through the lesson, Valentina quips, “have you thought of starting with something like ‘Do you want to go out for coffee’ instead?”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was about eleven. I was still a little young and unaware of some parts of British culture, so a lot of the sketches went over my head at first; instead, my favorite bits were Terry Gilliam’s cut-out collage-style animations. They were short, looney, and often looked like they were driven by random chance – a sort of visual free-association game based on clip art from vintage catalogs and classic paintings. In truth they were planned out to serve as the transitions between one live sketch and the next, but I didn’t realize that yet – I was too busy giggling about how an image of a Tudor nobleman ran off down a road, only to have a “killer car” chase after him for a while until the car got killed by a giant cat – only for the cat to end up in a clip-art meat grinder, with the resulting ground meat leading to tendrils of Boticelli’s Venus, who did a can-can before freezing back in place in time for the next sketch. They were completely silly and went in some unexpected directions, but still felt like they had a goofy logic all their own.

The typical Gilliam animation was only a couple minutes long, and took their cues from the preceding sketch before cuing the next one. Heaven and Earth Magic uses the same kind of cut-out style – but felt like what would have happened if the rest of the Pythons told Terry – “you’ve got a whole hour and we have no cues to give you, so go nuts.”

Apparently there is a plot – animator Harry Smith stated that the film was about a woman suffering from a toothache “consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon”, and consults with a dentist prior to a sudden tour of Heaven – with the heroine’s return to Earth prompted by “being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward the Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” However, the actual images are a surrealist hodgepodge, with eggs hatching into horse skeletons or a corkscrew sprouting an eyedropper for a head. A skeleton and a dentist chair play keepaway with a baby. A small dog chases the aforementioned watermelon throughout the film. A Victorian lady with stilts for legs looks on as a spoon judges a boxing match.

I had no idea what kind of plot or overall story those images were trying to tell while I was watching – but I didn’t quite care, since it was the same kind of freewheeling, improvised mayhem Gilliam would do with the Pythons. It’s entirely likely Gilliam saw this himself and was inspired. My biggest complaint, though, was that an hour of this kind of mayhem ran a bit long – about 40 minutes in I started feeling unmoored and my attention started to flag. But there still was enough there to tempt me back into focusing.

Smith wasn’t just a filmmaker, and he didn’t stay in film for long. He was a bit of a renaissance man fascinate by folk art and ethnography, but he didn’t fit into a traditional academic path and instead started a self-devised course of study, visiting different cultural groups or communities and watching various rituals or folk dances. He felt that the worlds’ disparate cultures had a lot in common, and strove to capture evidence of his theories. He was introduced to the Beats’ counterculture via a Woody Guthrie concert in San Francisco, and lingered to explore the art scene there – and try his own hand in film. But at the time he was better known for having amassed a huge collection of folk music recordings – so much so that when he tried to sell them to the Smithsonian to make some cash, they instead hired him to produce an anthology album of his own. Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was released a few years before Heaven and Earth Magic, and the liner notes included the same kind of clip-art vintage photos used in this film. Smith only kept at film for a few years before returning to painting and music collection.