film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

It took a bit of doing to find this one – I kept getting suggestions that I could find it on various Eastern European film streaming archives, but all the versions I found were only in the original Polish without any subtitles. Then Roommate Russ told me about how a cultural outreach program in Poland had just put a whole lot of classic Polish films online for streaming, and they did have English subtitles – and The Saragossa Manuscript was one of them. Yay!

So when I learned that this Polish film from director Wojciech Jerzy Has was based on a French book and that most of the action took place in Spain, that was a bit of a surprise. …But it ended up being pretty fun!

The manuscript in question is a lovely hardbound book a soldier discovers in an abandoned inn, where he’s come to take shelter during a battle in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. He curiously starts flipping through the pages, becoming captivated by the illustrations – to the point that when an enemy officer comes in to capture him, he waves his captor off – “I’ll come quietly, just let me have another look at these pictures first.” His captor has a look himself – and recognizes the author as his own grandfather, and starts reading his captive the story therein.

And that’s when we jump to the story proper – or, rather, the beginning of the first of the stories, because our main tale has a lot of other smaller stories branching off it like filigree. Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a captain in the Walloon Guard of Belgium, is traveling in Spain’s Sierra Morena Mountains, trying to find his way to Madrid. His two hired hands try to dissuade him from taking a certain passage, claiming it’s haunted; but Van Worden scoffs, traveling alone when his assistants flee. Van Worden comes upon an abandoned inn and prepares to strike camp for the night – but is surprised by an exotically dressed woman who leads him through a passage in the wall into a cave, where he is further surprised by a pair of two even more exotically dressed women, the Princesses Emina (Iga Cembrzyńska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jędryka). The sisters try to seduce him, getting as far as enticing him to drink from a goblet made of a skull….which knocks Van Wolden out until morning, when he wakes up on a hillside underneath a gallows, surrounded by piles of skulls.

Understandably spooked, Van Wolden finds his horse again and flees, taking overnight refuge in the home of a mysterious hermit. Then he’s captured by the Spanish Inquisition, but rescued by a mysterious group of bandits – who turn out to be Emina, Zibelda, and the hermit. The group celebrate their success, and Van Wolden once again is made to drink from the skull goblet, and once again finds himself back under the gallows. This time he’s joined by a man who claims to be a student of the Kabballah, and then by a mathematician, following them back to a castle where he meets an even weirder cast of characters – and discovers a strange book in the library…

As the film goes on, Van Wolden’s own tale actually takes a back seat to all the other characters, as they each add their own backstories and asides; the second half of the movie even sees a series of nested stories, with one man telling Van Wolden a tale about a man who told him a story about a man who told him a story. But not only was I able to follow everything (although I did wonder how far the nesting was going to go after a while), the stories all link up in surprising ways. And they’re all just plan fun – there are con men, travelers, aristocrats, nuns, scientists, priests, shiekhs, witches, hanged men, and ghosts all flitting in and out of each others’ stories as well as the main narrative, serving to confuse Van Wolden even further and distract him further and further away from his ultimate errand in Madrid (which I don’t think he ever completes). It kind of feels like what would happen if you gave a commedia dell’arte troupe hallucinogens and read them some ghost stories.

The convoluted story made it difficult for Has’ film to find a mainstream audience – but it got a fervent following among the “art film” crowd, as well as other members of 60’s counterculture; both parties appreciated Has’ meandering narrative, as well as the eerie music and surrealist imagery he used. One fan was Jerry Garcia – yes, the lead guitarist from The Grateful Dead, that Jerry Garcia. Jerry was actually trying to track down a copy of the film during the last months of his life, in an effort to restore and re-release it, and was even waiting on a print to arrive the day he died. Garcia’s team learned that the print was incomplete; but by this time Martin Scorcese had also joined the hunt, and finally tracked down a copy of Has’ personal print, paying nearly $40,000 out of his own pocket to copy, subtitle, restore, and rerelease it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1965)

This was a short, small, and deceptively meek little film – but with one scene that came as a bit of a slap that sent me off balance.

Govert Miereveld (Senne Rouffaer) is a teacher at a secondary school somewhere in Belgium. He’s married with two kids; and he also has a romantic obsession with one of his pupils, a beauty named Fran Veerman (Beata Tyszkiewicz). When we meet him, it’s the morning of the school’s graduation ceremony, and Govert has made up his mind that once the ceremony’s over, he’s finally going to take her aside and proclaim his love. He even stops by the barber’s on the way to the ceremony to get a haircut and spruce himself up some. But the general fuss of the ceremony gets in the way, and then there’s a pageant that the graduating students are presenting for the parents and he can’t interrupt that, and it wouldn’t be proper for him to break into her dressing room, and….and so he never actually gets the chance.

Govert falls into such a state of depression about Fran that he quits teaching altogether, taking a job as a court clerk in another town, toiling away for some years in what he sees as a boring and dead-end job as a sort of penance. Then one of his friends, the court medical officer, invites him along on an investigation; he’s been asked to do an autopsy on a body pulled from a river to try to identify the corpse. It’s a grim task, but it’s some distance into the country and the drive there might be a nice “road trip”. They spend longer than planned on the autopsy and are forced to stay overnight.

But right after they’ve gotten their room keys, Govert starts to head up to his room….and sees Fran, now a famous singer, coming down the stairs. Govert is overjoyed to see her again, and delighted that she remembers him….and even more delighted to hear that she wants to catch up a bit later that evening, after a concert she’s giving, and she’s staying in the room around the corner from him. Govert counts down the minutes until he can rush to Fran’s room and pour his heart out, telling Fran everything he feels about her. Fran takes it all in – but then it’s her turn to talk.

Honestly, the scene in Fran’s hotel room made the entire film for me. Everything that came before it felt slow and plodding, and seemed to drag on too long – Govert pacing backstage during the school pageant trying to work up the courage to talk to Fran, the stilted conversation as he and his friend drove to the autopsy, the autopsy itself. It felt like boring, inconsequential stuff from a boring, inconsequential life. The only times that Govert seems to hit any heights of passion or fervor was when he was thinking about Fran, or watching her sing, or pouring out his heart to her. She is a goddess to him, and he is her most devout and fervent acolyte.

And that’s why the scene in the hotel room is so devastating – because while Fran says she reciprocates what he feels, she also thoroughly destroys the idealized image he has of her. She is not what he believes her to be, and she never was. Director André Delvaux stages this scene with shots of Rouffaer and Tyszkiewicz each looking directly into the camera in turns as they speak to each other; Govert is making his declaration to Fran looking directly at us, and we see Fran’s reaction; and then we see Govert’s shock as Fran makes her own confession. It’s an affecting choice – Rouffaer looks so floored and wounded by the things Fran tells him that his next actions make total sense.

Even the long, dull bits that come before make sense. Some critics of this film teased Delvaux for being “The Man Who Would Not Cut His Film Short”, but I found that this just emphasized how timid and stuck in a rut Miereveld had become; which in turn explains how he got so obsessed with a young, beautiful girl to the point that it lead to disaster. Rouffaer also just looks like a dictionary illustration for the word “meek”; he’s small, shrinking, inconsequential. He’s in such a routine that Fran seems like his only chance to grab for beauty – and learns that expecting her to be his salvation is a huge mistake.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Sid Meniscus

Repulsion (1965)

So, this film was arresting in its own right. But Sid Meniscus made it – which gives an additional weight to things, given the topic.

Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a pretty, shy manicurist working at a high-end spa in London and sharing an apartment with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). She has a sort-of boyfriend, Colin (John Fraser), but is strangely unwilling to return his calls or accept his invitations for dates. Helen is having a bit more fun with her lover Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man with whom she’s having an affair; and Carol is often disturbed by finding Michael’s shirts and razors cluttering up their apartment, or gets woken up by their lovemaking. But then Helen brings Carol some potential good news – she and Michael are going to Italy for a vacation together, so Carol can have the whole place to herself for a week. Great news, right?

Except for Carol….maybe it’s not. On her first solo night, she starts making dinner…but then gets distracted by one of Michael’s shirts lying on the floor in the kitchen, and one of his shoes in the hall, and…and by the time Carol has cleaned his crap up, she’s forgotten all about making dinner. And then hearing silence at night instead of the by-now-familiar sounds of Helen and Michael schtupping just makes Carol hyper-aware of all the other noises she never noticed before – footsteps in the hall, creaks, someone whistling in the street – and she ends up lying awake in fright the whole night. She’s in such rough shape the next day at work – jittery and spacey – that her boss sends her back home, where she spends another sleepless night because now she thinks she sees someone lurking in the corner instead of just hearing things. And a few days later, after even more sleep loss and isolation revving her anxiety up, Carol starts hallucinating – men lurking in her bedroom and raping her, hands reaching out at her from the walls, mirrors and walls cracking all on their own. She’s so worked up that she avoids leaving the house for several days, prompting Colin to break in just to check on her. Unfortunately for Colin, that inspires Carol to take action and defend herself…

The visuals in the film are really well done. We’re often seeing things from Carol’s perspective, especially towards the end, and it’s a nightmarish place – the apartment’s center hallway stretches to impossible lengths, rooms where Carol has done frightening things start to look like stage sets, walls bubble and seethe. Intruders lurk behind every chair and around every corner, and even in Carol’s own bed. Hands erupt out of nowhere to grope and grab her – and to fondle her, for a good deal of Carol’s anxiety involves sexual assault. The apartment never really looks “real” until the end when Helen and Michael come home and discover exactly how Carol spent her week.

And Catherine Deneuve is excellent as Carol; initially we think that Carol is just a little ditzy and spacey, and only gradually do we start to realize that oh, no, Carol is traumatized. She speaks very little throughout, carrying most of the acting with just her face and body; a song she tearfully sings midway through the film is possibly her longest bit of speech.

The root of Carol’s trauma is never completely explained, but it’s very very strongly hinted at in the very end – and that’s what threw me, given what we know about the director. Because it’s implied that as a child, Carol had been sexually abused by an older family member. Sid Meniscus also wrote the film – and while he claims that he was inspired by a woman he’d met once who turned out to be schizophrenic, immediately following the film I was wondering whether I’d just seen a pre-emptive confession. Which is a shame – because if it had been anyone else directing, I’d still have been affected by the film itself.

I’d recommend trying to ignore who directed this if possible and let the film speak for itself.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

I’m back from my trip to Los Angeles, and my first-ever visit to a film festival – the Turner Classic Movies network has an annual classic film festival there. And while I wasn’t able to get into all the venues (a failing on my part – I didn’t read the fine print before selecting a festival pass), and missed out on a few films as a result, one venue I could visit was the TCM Chinese Theater IMAX (fka “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre“); so the three films I did see were in a venue that looked like this.

One of those films was Cool Hand Luke. I remarked on that when collecting my festival pass, and the staff at TCM made sure I got some festival swag to commemorate – a little ribbon that quoted Paul Newman’s line about eating fifty eggs. I’d also mentioned to my father that I would be seeing it in the festival; he was shocked this would be my first viewing.

…Ironically, I think my father’s raving about it and the festival’s focus on it built it up more than it should have done for me; and if everyone had left me alone I may have been a bit more impressed.

Not that I didn’t like it, mind you. Paul Newman was excellent as “Lucas Jackson”, a World War II vet we first meet drunkenly chopping down parking meters in small-town 1950s Florida. For this offense he is sentenced to a two-year stay in a Florida prison camp, doing road work as part of a prison gang under the watchful eye of the prison Captain (Strother Martin) and a warden with a penchant for mirrored sunglasses (Morgan Woodward). The Captain and the Warden rule the camp harshly, often using solitary confinement in “The Box” (a small shack barely big enough to stand in), but Jackson’s irreverence wins him a following among the other prisoners – to the point that they’re even willing to help him with an escape attempt.

So it’s a little bit Great Escape and a little bit Shawshank Redemption, with a side of 60s Counterculture Rebelliousness and a bit of a darker fate.

I also feel like Jackson’s irreverence was irreverence for its own sake – and that didn’t feel like enough, strangely. The gang in The Great Escape were trying to secure a breakout for everyone in the camp; Jackson’s just trying to get himself out. As for Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, he bucks the system to improve conditions for the other men – spiffing up the prison library, collecting evidence of the warden’s exploitation, and playing out a very, very long escape attempt. Meanwhile, in Cool Hand Luke – save for one instance when he encourages the other prisoners to finish paving a road in a day so they can have the next day off – Jackson’s irreverence is simply about Sticking It To The Man. Which ultimately felt a bit…childish.

But Sticking It To The Man was very much the zeitgeist of 1967, and Paul Newman is charming about it. He also has a telling monologue late in the film, an angry prayer in which he curses God for stacking the deck against him; he knows he’s a screwup, and he knows he’s been dealt a bad hand. And he blames God for all of that. But he’d been dealt a similarly bad literal hand during a poker game and bluffs so well that he wins; it’s the moment he’s given the nickname “Cool Hand Luke”. And after lamenting his bad hand in the larger sense, he falls back on what he’s always done – tries to bluff and charm his way out of it. His monologue is one of the few times he’s not smiling and putting up a cocksure front, and it’s affecting. …It was just also a little too brief for me.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Vinyl (1965)

Full disclosure: I watched this either the night of the day I landed in Los Angeles, or the next day; early enough that jet-lag may still have been a factor, anyway. However – I may still have been confused by this film even if I’d been well-rested.

Vinyl is an underground film, one of Andy Warhol’s works, loosely inspired by the novel A Clockwork Orange. Poet and artist Gerard Malanga plays “Victor” (the name changed from the original “Alex”), a juvenile delinquent subjected to an experimental treatment involving negative conditioning to reform him. That’s still the plot.

But the staging is….puzzling. Save for one very slow pullback right at the film’s start, the camera does not move at all. In lieu of credits, Andy Warhol reads the cast list from offscreen, and does so about five minutes after the film has already started. The sound quality is practically nonexistent. The video is too murky to see any action in the background. Edie Sedgewick sits on a trunk to the right of the frame for the entire film, just sort of….watching. Another extra watches from the left for a good part of the film, but then suddenly has a laughing fit and leaves. The bulk of Victor’s delinquency seems to be a sequence where he does nothing but dance wildly to the song “Nowhere To Run” by Martha and the Vandellas – twice in a row.

It just doesn’t look very much like what I would recognize as a film, in short. It looks more like Warhol simply told people what to do, and then only moments later turned a camera on and filmed it and then called it good. There are apparently a couple people in the dim background watching the scene who didn’t even know Warhol was filming what they were seeing, or that they would themselves be in his movie.

Now, this kind of thing can be a step on the way to an amateur becoming a filmmaker. You’re getting used to the camera, you haven’t learned that staging or lighting or blocking or sound are things yet. You also only have your friends and family to cast from and you haven’t really figured out how to coax a good performance from people yet. You’re still in the heady state of the excitement of just having a camera. But – you don’t necessarily show those works to anyone aside from family or friends. Or if you do, you don’t keep showing it. And people don’t consider it one of your finished films and keep circulating it. But somehow this…was.

So I’m honestly not clear why this is being held up as a pivotal work of underground cinema. A part of me wonders whether Warhol was messing with cinematic conventions at all – did films “need” to have credits? Or camera movement? Did the action have to follow a plot? Did we need to shoo away people watching in the background, or could we still let people watch to emphasize this was just pretend? Who says you can’t simply turn your camera on and let things happen? …But Warhol’s other films, as I understand, have more of an intent to them – KIss was made up entirely of 3-minute sequences of different couples kissing, Chelsea Girls was a documentary about the various women living in the Chelsea Hotel, Sleep was nothing but a real-time film of a man sleeping, Empire was a slow-motion film of the sun setting over the Empire State Building. For this, I’m not as convinced there was an intent.

So…yeah, I’m not sure it was the jet lag that was confusing me here.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

William Shakespeare really liked to write about a specific period in English history. Eight of his historical works – Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, Richard III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2 – all deal with the 15th-Century royal infighting for control of the English throne known today as The Wars Of The Roses. These eight plays were a sort of Tudor-era version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with events in some plays carrying echoes into the next, characters in some plays making guest appearances in others, and the whole collection of plays joining up to tell one enormous epic tale.

A handful of playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs have capitalized on this connection; they’ll pick one character that makes small appearances across separate plays and collect all the scenes dealing with them into a single work, thus “finding” a full play about that character hiding in plain sight; one of my regrets from my theater days was not having ever staged one such play that my colleague Colin found with Queen Margaret of Anjou as its focus. Orson Welles did something very similar with this work – except his focus was on the character of Sir John Falstaff, the aging, gone-to-seed former knight Prince Hal slums around with just before his father King Henry IV enters his final illness.

It’s clear – and poignantly so – why Welles was interested in the character. At first blush, Falstaff seems to be a figure of fun – he’s vain and boastful, he drinks like a fish, he drags Hal to the brothels. But he’s fiercely devoted to Hal and to the court; during a battle scene, even though he spends most of the sequence hiding behind trees and then fainting in fright, he still has pushed himself to show up. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s made some foolish choices and gone for comfort over struggle a few too many times, and deep down he probably knows that it’s cost him. But he trusts Hal is a devoted friend – even though Hal’s pulled pranks on him and has warned him that sooner or later he’s going to have to give up his carefree life – and so it’s heartbreaking when Hal finally rejects him at his coronation.

Welles was at a similar point in his career. After the early successes of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles spent the next several years struggling to produce first a film adaptation of Othello, then an adaptation of Don Quixote. In both cases the funding came out of his own pocket, and filming was often interrupted by Welles having to go off and appear in someone else’s movie or TV show simply because he needed money for his own works. Othello took three years to complete and received mixed reviews at best; and as for Don Quixote, Welles never finished the film. He’d also spent the previous 30 years juggling multiple lovers and two wives, and by 1965 his second marriage to Italian actress Paola Mori was on the outs. And after years of the crash diets he’d used to manage his weight in his heyday, he’d finally decided “screw it” and leaned into his love of food, alcohol, and tobacco, even though it lead to him ballooning up to 275 pounds. So – just like Falstaff, he could have made much better choices, in both his professional and personal career, but he’d favored ease and pleasure a little too much and he’d obsessed over the wrong things, and at some point along the way it had cost him. He still had the respect and acknowledgement of those in the know – but that respect often came with a grudging admission that these days he was a little bit too much of a handful.

Even though Falstaff doesn’t seem to have the self-awareness to realize his mistakes until it was too late, Welles playing Falstaff suggests that he does. He repeatedly makes Falstaff look ridiculous, such as with the aforementioned battle scenes or with a sight gag involving three pages struggling to hoist Falstaff atop his horse. The whores in the brothel and Hal’s other companions all have no problem laughing at him, and so neither do we; and Welles knows that. And then he shows us Falstaff’s moment of realization, during Hal’s coronation when Falstaff salutes him and Hal coldly says “I know thee not, old man.” Welles sets the scene up with Falstaff standing totally alone, with sniggering court members looking on, and looking utterly bereft; Falstaff is realizing just how cruelly he’s been betrayed, and just how much his own behavior lead to that; and I’m convinced that this is Welles’ way of saying he knows as well.

My only complaint about the specific print I saw was that the sound was a little too garbled; even though I’ve seen and read a lot of Shakespeare, it was still frustrating trying to hear the muddy dialogue in places. Fortunately I was able to see Welles’ cinematography well enough, as it was proof positive that even though Welles was admitting he was kind of a goof, he still was a talented goof.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Well, this was better than I thought it was going to be!

Don’t get me wrong, Citizen Kane it ain’t. It was made on a more modest budget, the dialogue is overwrought in places and it’s clearly meant to appeal to an audience that asks only to see busty women in tight clothing. But I thought it was going to be on an extremely low budget and a poor quality overall; one step beyond Ed Wood, basically. Instead, it had a plot with a bit of nuance, some decent performances and some equally decent stunt work.

Our three anti-heroines are Varla (Tura Satana), Billie (Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji), three go-go dancers in California. We only get a taste of their dancing during the opening credits – interspersed with shots of one of their customers, a frumpy older man hollering “Go!” at them – before they’re off the clock, each in her own car and joyriding on the desert salt flats. They run into Tommy (Ray Barlow), a fresh-faced auto enthusiast out to run a timed trial of his own car on a local course, assisted by his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard); Tommy and Linda are so clean-cut that the bemused dancers challenge Tommy to a race, and enjoy teasing Linda with jokes that sail straight over her head. It’s all good clean fun, though, until Varla and Rosie start playing keepaway with Tommy’s stopwatch, a prize from one of Tommy’s recent car shows. During the ensuing scuffle, Varla breaks Tommy’s neck, causing everyone to panic and load the hysterical Linda into one of their cars and sedating her as they flee the scene.

The plan is to stow the drugged Linda on a bus out of town and then scatter. But the nearest town is some distance off, and they need to fuel up. The chatty station attendant points out another customer to them – a huge beefcake of a guy pushing an older man in a wheelchair. The older man (Stuart Lancaster) had been in a rail accident, and was now largely isolated on his decrepit family ranch, assisted only by an older son Kirk (Paul Trinka) and this younger, mentally challenged son, cruelly nicknamed “The Vegetable” (Dennis Busch). Oh, and he’d gotten a big insurance payout, but had never used any of it and no one knew where the money was. Weird, huh?

Varla is intrigued enough by this information that she suggests the group take a detour to hunt for the old man’s money on the ranch. It’s remote enough that no one would be looking for them, and they’d be so far in the boonies that Linda probably wouldn’t try to escape. If nothing else they’d be able to get a ticket to send Linda even further away. And thus, they head for the ranch…

So – again, some of the lines in this thing are corny as hell. Varla is described as “a velvet glove cast in iron” at one point, and on the ranch Kirk gives into Varla’s attempts at seduction by babbling, “You’re a beautiful animal, and I’m weak and I want you”. When we first meet Linda, Varla has been teasing Tommy about his car, and when Varla quips that they ought to measure his run time “with an hourglass”, Linda suddenly pops into the conversation, simpering, “hey, did someone mention my figure?” And a narrator introduces the whole thing with a monologue about women and violence and sex:

“….Let’s examine closely then this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female, the surface shiny and silken, the body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, any time, anywhere, and with anybody. “

And yet there’s real skill on display with the camerawork and the fight scenes. And Varla and the others seem to fall back on “seducing people to get what we want” a whole lot, but from some of their conversations we know that they’re being intentional about it – they know it works, and it’ll be some fun, so why not? They have some agency in the whole thing. Linda also changes dramatically – she’s perpetually in the bathing suit we first see her sporting with Tommy, but she goes from being a ninny cracking jokes about her figure to a terrified and desperate, and plucky, survivor type (let’s just say that she didn’t share Varla’s opinion about the ranch being too far away for her to think of an escape attempt).

It’s still seedy. But it’s the kind of seedy that I can definitely see left an imprint on people like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino (both huge fans of this work). And I think I can get why it did; there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye.

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Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Sound Of Music (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Alphaville (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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