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Escape to the Twentieth Century

On Film / The Daily — Apr 24, 2020
Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950)

2020 is not going well. Many of us are anxious to escape—in our minds, anyway—not necessarily to happier times but simply to times that aren’t right now. This week’s highlights range in subject from silent Soviet classics through Hollywood’s heyday and the Czech New Wave to the revolutions of the late twentieth century.

  • On Tuesday, we released Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969), and with it, an essay in which Jonathan Owen argues that the film is “the fullest realization of Herz’s macabre, grotesque, and ironic sensibilities.” Writing about Herz for the New York Review of Books, Jeremy Lybarger quotes from Avant-garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties, the book in which Owen emphasizes that “to focus overwhelmingly on overt politics in the case of the Czech New Wave would be to miss the point that the New Wave was frequently oppositional and subversive precisely for exploring themes and asserting ideas that were neglected and even rendered taboo during the previous decade.” For Lybarger, “Herz is a case in point. On the surface, his films are mordant fables about authoritarianism. More implicitly, they’re about the stranglehold of illusion—a misbegotten faith in love, honor, or loyalty that ultimately destroys us.”

  • Irina Trocan has edited photogénie’s second issue, a dossier that “examines the political role of cinema in its various phases of interdependency with history at large.” Three of the five articles focus on the impact of revolutions on three radically different nations and on their cinemas. Andra Petrescu shows us how Romanian documentaries made after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 reveal a “progression from hopefulness toward victimization.” Hossein Eidizadeh suggests that, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, “art-house filmmakers found ways to sidestep making propaganda films. How? By making a local version of Italian neorealism.” And Trocan argues that Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) succeeds by “adhering to the moral principles rather than the enforced realities of the Cuban Revolution,” and “long after the dust settled, it did not diminish into either outdated satire or didactic obviousness.”

  • In Monday’s books roundup, I flagged Peter Bradshaw’s ranked list of the top twenty-five “most compelling” Hollywood autobiographies in the Guardian. Coming in at #8 is Lulu in Hollywood (1982) by Louise Brooks, who “revealed herself to be a great writer” in her later years. Now Sight & Sound has pulled up an essay from its Winter 1966 issue in which Brooks traces Humphrey Bogart’s evolution from “a conventional, well-bred theater actor named Humphrey to that which complemented his film roles—a rebellious tough known as Bogey.” Because “once he grasped the idea that he too might achieve success with some version of natural acting, Humphrey went about its contrivance with the cunning of a lover.” Boozy anecdotes are anchored in astute analysis. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), for example, “gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character’s, the screenwriter’s, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.”

  • 1950 also saw the release of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, “the most pleasurable, most quotable film ever created about those who make their living on the stage,” as theater critic Ben Brantley puts it in the New York Times. “And for many people, including the ten-year-old, stage-struck me—who first saw Eve on television with eyes as big and devouring as Bette Davis’s—the movie became a definitive Bible of this business we call show, as sublime as it is ridiculous . . . And perhaps what I love most about Eve is its portrayal of the theater as a religion, a celebration of the divine mystery of what happens when a performance onstage catches fire.”

  • Alexander Dovzhenko, the filmmaker best known for his “Ukraine trilogy”—Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929), and Earth (1930)—was “a pagan mystic whose masterful films look as wildly experimental, as dreamlike, as hysterically funny, as fiercely tragic, and as beautiful today as they did a century ago,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum. “I would argue that Dovzhenko’s undeserved marginality derives in part from the marginal way we tend to regard country folk, especially when they display the unbridled freedom of avant-garde artists.” The Notebook has also posted Liam Hendry’s translation of Enrique Vila-Matas’s moving remembrance of Marguerite Duras.

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