2012 DVD Talk Criterion Challenge

by Travis McClain

Created 09/10/12

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Looking Back

I came into this challenge excited to make use of my HuluPlus account. Strangely enough, nearly a third of my selections were actually DVDs I checked out from my local library. Oh, well. It's nice to make use of that resource, too! Also peculiar is the fact that I somehow never got around to a single Ingmar Bergman film this year! I put him off till the end, as a sort of reward for making myself explore other filmographies, and then I just kinda ran out of time, choosing to complete the checklist instead.

I began the challenge with À bout de souffle [Breathless], which I found kind of wanting at the time. Now, a month later, its weaknesses have already begun to fade and I think back on it as that time when I spent an evening lounging in bed with a gorgeous woman, caught up in an adventure I couldn't really afford. It's not high art at all. Rather, it's the kind of story that seems to be more important than it is when you're young and everything in the world is urgent, but then later in life you see how silly it all was but by then you just kind of enjoy being reminded of having once been young. It's a sort of faux-nostalgia, I suppose, and that's its real appeal.

Japanese Cinema
When I looked back on the 2010 challenge, one thing I noted was that I hadn't explored any cinema from Asia and that I wanted to try to get to some of that in 2011. That didn't happen, but I finally did get to a handful this year. I found Kakushi-toride no san-akunin [The Hidden Fortress] was likable enough, but didn't really wow me. I'll explore more Kurosawa in the future, but I feel like in order to really appreciate his works, that requires more of a commitment from me than I want to make.

I also streamed a pair of Ozu films, Hitori musuko [The Only Son], which I found timely and relevant, and Chichi ariki [There Was a Father], which I just couldn't get into for various reasons. What I appreciated about both films was that Ozu distilled large social issues to essentially the relationships within a single family. It's not easy to do that without being reductive about the issues or turning the characters into one-dimensional placeholders.

My favorite Japanese film by far, though, was Ai no korîda [In the Realm of the Senses]. I had some complaints about it in my review, but Eiko Matsuda's performance - easily the most powerful of all the films I viewed this year - was so captivating that I can overlook those flaws. It's an unapologetic, unflinching and brazen performance; it's the kind of performance that reminds us why film is considered part of the humanities.

I saw my first two Charlie Chaplin films, The Circus and the short, The Idle Class. I wasn't really taken with either and I'll likely forget them entirely. A cinephile pal of mine remarked at one point that she strongly favored Buster Keaton to Chaplin, and though my sample size is very limited, at this point I concur with her. These two just didn't really do much for me, though I'm willing to continue exploring his work.

Guinness and Fellini
I've wanted for quite a while to delve further into Alec Guinness's works, and this challenge afforded me two opportunities: Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Horse's Mouth. In the former, he plays all eight members of a family targeted for murder; he wrote the screenplay of the latter. Both films gave me an interesting look at the comedic sensibilities of the venerable character actor, and were quite fun.

La strada was my second Fellini film (I first saw Otto e mezzo [8 1/2] last year). I came to it with a sense of enthusiasm and I really enjoyed its richness of character and setting. It didn't quite resonate with me in the same personal way as did 8 1/2, but I thoroughly loved it all the same. It would make for a fascinating double feature with Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel, I should think.

All in all, this was a terrific challenge for me. I managed to make some progress on some personal goals, racked up a lot of checks on iCheckMovies and I had fun discussing both Bergman and 12 Angry Men here on the forum. I think this may be my personal favorite of our DVD Talk challenges, but don't anyone say anything to TV on DVD* or Historical Appreciation!

Favorite Film Overall: La strada
Favorite Performance: Eiko Matsuda, Ai no korîda [In the Realm of the Senses]
Favorite Music: Anton Karas's zither score, The Third Man
Funniest Movie: The Horse's Mouth
Best Way to Spend a Lazy Afternoon: Fishing with John
Most WTF Ending: À ma soeur! [Fat Girl]
Most WTF Moments: Ai no korîda [In the Realm of the Senses]

My List, Ranked by Entry Position on My Flickchart
0099 La strada
0132 Hitori musuko [The Only Son]
0144 The Third Man
0177 The Horse's Mouth
0194 Ai no korîda [In the Realm of the Senses]
0221 Kind Hearts and Coronets
0249 The 39 Steps
0251 Gimme Shelter
0253 Spoorloos [The Vanishing]
0354 Belle de jour
0368 À ma soeur! [Fat Girl]
0414 Les enfants terribles
0507 À bout de souffle [Breathless]
0570 The Hidden Fortress
0657 The Devil and Daniel Webster
0898 Young Mr. Lincoln
0937 Fishing with John
0949 The Circus
1017 The Idle Class
1074 Chichi ariki [There Was a Father]
1172 The War Room
1201 Secret Agent

Note: The DVD Talk Criterion Challenge allows titles that were originally released as part of The Criterion Collection on LaserDisc. I also watched the following films from that assortment:

Secret Agent (LaserDisc #023)
The Circus (selection in The Criterion Collection on Hulu)
The Idle Class (selection in The Criterion Collection on Hulu)

  • My decision to open this year's Criterion Challenge with À bout de souffle [Breathless] was largely influenced by its run time. I started around 10:30 after the Reds game ended, and I wanted something that would wrap around midnight so I could cleanly consider it a viewing for 1 September. That it was also one of those masterpieces of cinema that dominate my To See list was almost entirely incidental.

    Film scholars and critics have spent the last 52 years assessing the place of this film in history and I defer to them on such matters. What I noticed was that the film clearly held sway over Peter Hunt, editor of the early James Bond films. What drives À bout de souffle isn't the charisma of its leading actors (though that would be enough for most pictures), but the kinetic energy created by the editing. Leaps in the background tell us that we're seeing pieces of film cut together; there is no effort to hide that and convince us that we're watching something in real time. Were the different lines delivered in different takes? Were we meant to see this as an abridgment of the stammering of the characters, rather than something to do with the actors? Does it even matter?

    I specifically thought of Dr. No during the opening, with Michel nervously dashing through traffic. That whole sequence called to mind the similar sequence in Dr. No where Bond has arrived in Jamaica and is taken for a ride by the cab driver. Only where 007 dispatches the driver setting him up, Michel kills a cop because...

    Well, frankly, because he's an idiot. Michel is one of the least likable protagonists I've encountered in a while. I can admit part of my resentment toward him was that I've grown weary of competing with guys like him over the years. They're abrasive and exasperating, often going unchallenged because most people don't feel like engaging them in the matter of attrition of energy that it would become. Particularly irksome, though, is that there are all too often women just like Patricia who entertain and encourage them, validating their obnoxious approach to impressing women.

    I do have two storytelling qualms, though. The manhunt for Michel is unconvincing. It's in the newspapers - not that Patricia, who works for one, realizes this - and even scrolls on the electronic ticker, but we only see two guys doing any actual legwork to find him. Not only that, but the inspector on the case has all the urgency of a librarian calling to tell you that your special request has come in and they're waiting for you to come get it. He has some "tough guy" lines, but I remain unconvinced he even really cares about finding Michel.

    My other complaint is in the finale itself, when the inspector does indeed catch Michel (thanks to Patricia's betrayal). I suppose my biggest problem is that it feels too neat and perfunctory. In some ways, it's the obvious ending, set up throughout the film. In other ways, though, it seems the lazy way out - to just shoot Michel, and let him stagger down that impossibly long road until he finally collapses in the crosswalk. It's not like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even Bonnie and Clyde, the tragedy somehow feeling triumphant in its own way. Rather, À bout de souffle just kind of shrugs and says, "Should we shoot 'im? Yeah, let's just do that."

    I go back to the press interview, in which Patricia (twice) asks the author what is his ambition in life. Finally, he answers her: "To become immortal, and then die." It's a particularly artiste thing to say, and while I could mock it the truth is, I love it. The question then becomes, though, did Michel become immortal before he dies? I don't know that he did. Maybe to Patricia.

    There are, of course, several nods to Casablanca throughout. I cannot help but to contrast the endings of the two films. Just as Rick knows that Ilsa leaving Casablanca with her husband will completely put to rest their relationship, Patricia invites the police to apprehend Michel as a means of terminating her whirlwind relationship with him. Patricia needs the closure that she cannot be involved with Michel, and ultimately this is why he has to die on screen. I get it, but it still isn't very satisfying.

    One last note: I loved the breezy score to this one. At times, it called to mind Neal Hefti's theme from The Odd Couple. I was also reminded of An Education, and I'd be interested to re-watch that film now that I've seen this.

    Breathless entered my Flickchart at #507/1407

  • The story here inserts Daniel Webster into the story of Faust, so that in the end the famed Congressman can argue that it's un-American to capitulate to the devil. It's the kind of conflation of religion and politics that tends to grate on my nerves very quickly, and the outdated views on American history are particularly irksome for me.

    For instance, while preparing to oppose the devil in a trial for the soul of his client, Webster quips that "If two New Hampshire men aren't a match for the devil, we better give the country back to the Indians." That kind of racism makes me cringe whenever I encounter it. I am, of course, trained to distinguish between my contemporary values and those of the period being studied and for a film released in 1941 there's nothing peculiar about this.

    Furthermore, there's the nagging matter of Webster's real life legacy. He espoused anti-slavery views, but later helped Henry Clay craft the Missouri Compromise that sacrificed a confrontation over slavery to preserve the Union. We can, of course, debate the pragmatism of the accord but we cannot divest Webster of it to accommodate the character in this film by that name speaking of how an American is not property, a point noted in Tom Piazza's essay, "The Devil and Daniel Webster: The Devil Gets the Best Lines".

    Piazza is certainly spot-on as regards the character of Mr. Scratch (The Devil). The performance by Walter Huston is charmingly smarmy, a reminder that for all the talk of Hellfire and brimstone, The Devil is known not for intimidation, but temptation. He's genuinely likable here, despite the sinister undertones of being, y'know, The Devil.

    [I would argue, though, that the single best line in the film belongs to Webster. Jabez declines some rum while they await the arrival of Mr. Scratch to claim his soul, to which Webster counters: "Just because you've sold your soul to the Devil, that needn't make you a teetotaler."]

    Also engaging is Simone Simon as Mr. Scratch's cohort, the seductress Belle. Simon oozes sexuality every time she's in the frame, often distracting both other characters as well as audience. Her story doesn't really seem to go anywhere, though; she encourages Jabez to withdraw from his family and become more miserly and decadent, and clearly her endgame is to Jabez's utter ruin, but it's unclear whether she's actively pursuing a specific agenda or just along for the ride to ensure that Jabez is constantly surrounded by temptation.

    In his essay, Bruce Eder posits that the film represents an artistic triumph borne directly out of Citizen Kane. I can appreciate the influence that Orson Welles's film had on the technical elements of The Devil and Daniel Webster (now that I've seen it, anyway), but where the story of Charles Foster Kane was a mystery to be explored, the tale of Jabez Stone is so obvious and predictable that I found myself wondering when we would just cut to the chase and get to the inevitable trial. Then, once we finally got there, I felt so annoyed at the banalities that there was no satisfaction to be found in the payoff.

    I often hear the argument that "it's the journey, not the destination." As an explorer myself, I can appreciate the sentiment but this is an instance where the story is so clearly pushing its destination the whole time that it doesn't invite us to just enjoy the journey. Huston and Simon are enjoyable diversions, but we're so unmistakably headed for the trial that even their delicious scenes seem more to remind us to keep the story moving than to give us a moment to lose ourselves.

    The Devil and Daniel Webster entered my Flickchart at #657/1408

  • Last year, I picked up a 2-disc Hitchcock DVD set at Target for $2.00. The 39 Steps was one of the ten selections. I meant to watch it last year for the Criterion Challenge but for whatever reason, I didn't. I actually started after midnight with another of the set's features, Secret Agent, but I kept getting interrupted and distracted and gave up on it. Just as I was about to restart it from the beginning, I learned that it followed The 39 Steps in the middle of what some consider Hitchcock's "Spy Trilogy" (the third film is Sabotage). I decided to go to this film instead, and then come back to Secret Agent in its entirety later.

    It's easy to see how this story helped establish the paradigm for the spy genre, particularly the sub-genre of ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary machinations and intrigue orchestrated by insidious characters lurking in the shadows...and standing in plain sight before the world as pillars of their communities.

    Richard Hannay is the kind of character that nearly any of us can easily recognize as ourselves. He hasn't any special skill set, no training, no gadgets or even any real resources to speak of. He's driven not even out of curiosity, but rather out of desperation. Richard is the victim of Occam's razor; it's far easier for other characters to believe the superficial story (that he murdered the woman he knows as Annabella Smith) than it is for them to believe the truth (that he's caught up in a matter of life-and-death, national security plot). We've all had our day wrecked by someone else's shenanigans at times, and we've all had trouble convincing someone that the way things seem is not how they really are. Richard is one of us.

    Hitchcock himself said of the film that what he liked best "are the swift transitions" (quoted by Michael Wilmington in his 1985 essay), and I have to agree. More than once, I found that just as I was getting comfortable and thought I could take for granted where the film was headed, something abrupt would occur and instead of getting ahead of the film, I was now trying to catch up to what had just taken place. Perhaps the most jarring transition is when Richard is in the office of the Scottish sheriff, who professes to believe his story. It all seemed too easy, but by then I'd stopped trying to get ahead of the story. It's breathing, though, allowing me to begin wondering, "Where do we go from here, if Richard is finally square with the law?" And then, just as I've made the mistake of dabbling in speculation, bam! The sheriff brings in Professor Jordan's henchmen, masquerading as police, and I feel as jerked around as does Richard.

    It's this kind of constant needling and juxtaposition that gives The 39 Steps not only its structure, but its appeal. Hitchcock knew that the audience ought to be just ahead of the story, and the protagonist just a bit behind. With this one, though, he kept me off-balance enough that I was able to get lost in the yarn myself. It's inadvisable for storytellers to try to create that effect, because it almost certainly guarantees that the story either become too cute or impenetrable; here, though, the master deftly navigates between just enough and too much.

    One last note: the finale, in which Mister Memory is revealed to be the carrier of the secret information, triggered thoughts of The Lady Vanishes, where the secret is conveyed by melody. The Lady Vanishes novel was published a year after The 39 Steps film opened, so perhaps there was some measure of influence? I'm too tired to Google it to know for sure, but it seems plausible enough.

    The 39 Steps entered my Flickchart at #249/1409

  • This was one of two Criterion Collection DVDs I checked out from the Oldham County Public Library yesterday, selected specifically for this month's DVD Talk Criterion Challenge. The only bonus feature to be found is the original theatrical trailer, which has a rather disturbingly lighthearted tone. A recurring point of discussion in my movie circles is the giveaway trailer, so thoroughly summarizing the film that the audience finds little surprise. The aforementioned theatrical trailer for this film is guilty of being very forthright about the story, but this is an instance where there are some extenuating circumstances.

    Based upon a novel in turn inspired by an urban legend, Spoorloos [The Vanishing] begins already somewhat behind the 8 ball. We know from its very premise - traveling woman disappears, man searches for her - there are only a few possible outcomes. It's like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" with, like, three final chapters.

    Yet what director George Sluizer's film manages to do is concede the obvious and dares us to come out from behind our presumptuous cynicism and answer the question, "Do you really want to know what happened to Saskia?" As Kim Newman put it in her 2001 essay, "Rex’s revelation also indicts the audience’s culpability—after all, we too want above all to learn the answer, even if it is truly appalling."

    We're not tag-along detectives, seeking to help Rex find Saskia. We're sadistic voyeurs, enthralled by the brazenness of Raymond Lermorne in much the same way that our interest in Patrick Bateman supersedes any sympathy we may have for his victims in American Psycho. The truly interesting villains don't even see themselves as villainous, which is part of Raymond's intrigue. His rationale for abducting Saskia is dazzling: he wishes to prove that his moment of heroism would eclipse the darkest act he could think of performing, to test the absolute value of his goodness. It's the kind of intellectual exercise that, on paper, holds a lot of genuine interest. Thankfully, of those capable of appreciating the academic value of such hypothesis, scant few would ever consider actually trying to apply their curiosities.

    And that's really where Spoorloos finds its place. The film allows us to vicariously go in places our own values would discourage us from exploring. We're not here to ask how, in Rex's position we might handle the abduction of our loved one (though I do appreciate that the film shies away from making Rex out to be a righteous avenger, as has become the fetish in contemporary cinema best personified by Taken). No, Rex exists solely so that Raymond has a proxy for confessing and explaining everything to us.

    Spoorloos is not a film of the escalating depravity that characterizes American Psycho, but Raymond and Patrick are clearly kindred spirits. Patrick is more outrageous of the two, certainly, but there's something about Raymond that suggests he may operate on a "higher" level. His actions, after all, are couched in an admittedly repulsive philosophical argument about the nature of man's goodness, whereas Patrick kills more to test whether anyone in society is paying the slightest attention to what he does. There's that specific moment when Raymond dismisses the appeal of abducting prostitutes: they're willing to get into his car, and no one will miss them. There's insufficient challenge to the act of abduction, then, that prevents him from truly exploring the depths of his darkness as he needs to do. Patrick, of course, makes no such discrimination and indeed, favors prostitutes and other victims who will not be missed.

    On a lighter note, I kept thinking the whole time that Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (Raymond) bore a strong physical resemblance to Major League Baseball pitcher Eric Gagne and also to a former classmate I never liked. In some shots, Gene Bervoets reminded me of Christopher MacDonald.

    Spoorloos [The Vanishing] entered my Flickchart at #253/1411

  • One of the checklist items for the DVD Talk Criterion Challenge is to watch a Criterion DVD in its entirety. I freely admit, what put The Hidden Fortress to the top of the list of Criterion releases I wanted to consume so thoroughly was its inclusion of the video interview with George Lucas. I almost feel bad about that, embarrassed and a bit resentful that my being a fan of Star Wars should make me so pliable. Yet, Criterion clearly counted on that; the relationship between this film and Lucas's flagship franchise is plastered all over this release, from the inclusion of the aforementioned video to an outright declaration of its influence in the DVD synopsis. I figure if they're willing to pander to Star Wars fanboys, I can meet them halfway and allow them to pander.

    By the end of the first scene, I had already cottoned onto the most obvious parallel: the peasants (reincarnated as the droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO). I kind of enjoyed wondering whether R2 was bleeped because he was saying to 3PO some of what Tahei and Matashichi say to one another throughout the film. Of course, then we get to the scene where the two pick straws to see which one will leave and which will get a chance to sexually assault the sleeping princess and I found myself irrevocably disgusted by the pair of them for the duration of the film. I know it was played for laughs and to remind us how base the two are, but I just could not forgive them that.

    Wipe transitional edits also stood out as a common element. There were the shots of enemy forces gathering in the trees with an odd horn sounding (borrowed for both Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace). And, of course, the whole idea of the princess hiding behind decoys was recycled in The Phantom Menace, as noted by Armond White in his 2001 essay. Still, I wasn't trying to keep score of similarities between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars; I was trying to enjoy and appreciate The Hidden Fortress for what it is.

    I did appreciate the grand, old-school adventurousness of the story. It's great fun. As David Ehrenstein notes in his 1987 essay: "Overall, there’s a sense of sheer 'movieness' to The Hidden Fortress that places it plainly in the ranks of such grand adventure entertainments as Gunga Din, The Thief of Baghdad, and Fritz Lang’s celebrated diptych The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb." This is a very kinetic film that moves at a brisk clip from start to finish. The premise is ultimately that this is a sort of "road" picture, and the key to such films is to keep things moving. That generally means one setback after another to befall our protagonists, and that's precisely what The Hidden Fortress offers.

    Outside of the aforementioned peasants, I did like the three other principals. We quickly accept Rokurota as a bad-ass, knowing that this is not a guy to be underestimated or crossed...and secretly, we hope someone is fool enough to make him demonstrate why. I particularly enjoyed his relationship with Hyoe Tadokoro: adversarial, but bonded through mutual respect. I've always been a sucker for those kinds of relationships in stories, where people are able to connect with one another despite the schism of allegiances and causes, etc., between them. Hyoe's eventual defection was obvious, but triumphant all the same.

    Princess Yuki's exasperation at Japanese stoicism and fealty to her and the class system is surprising, and also humanizing. Yet, there's something about the always-angry performance of Misa Uehara that's entirely incongruous with the character. Yes, I get it; she was raised to be masculine and she lacks the softness of femininity. Just the same, there is a surprising lack of subtlety to her anger and forcefulness that prevents me from fully accepting Yuki as a developed character.

    There was greater room in the story to develop the character of the farmer's daughter, rescued from slavery by the princess (by way of Rokurota). Of course, her role in the film is obvious: the loyalty she shows the princess is earned, not instructed. She represents the kind of relationship between sovereign and subject that Yuki can respect and appreciate, a stark contrast between the mindlessness she accuses Rokurota and others of according her.

    Yet, even though she's there facing execution with the princess in the end, I find myself disappointed that we don't get a sense of her fate once they've safely reached Akizuki. (Or, if we do, I missed it because I had to yell at the cats.)

    Of course, I also come to the film with virtually no meaningful exposure to Japanese culture or cinema. I did study Japan in a cursory fashion years ago when I took a course on East Asian history & politics, so I have a sense of the basics but it's certainly a blind spot for me.

    DVD Bonus Features

    Lucas on Kurosawa (8:08)

    This was, of course, the big draw for me. It's actually perfect: in eight minutes, Lucas emphasizes that The Hidden Fortress isn't his favorite Kurosawa film, or even in his top four, and that the only thing he really borrowed from it for Star Wars was the point-of-view of the peasants/droids. Lucas acknowledges the parallel of escorting a princess through enemy territory, but quickly dismisses it as more coincidence, noting that his princess, Leia, "is much more of a stand-and-fight" character than is Yuki. Leave it to Lucas to take a lot of hype and quash it.

    Original Theatrical Trailer (3:47)

    An alright trailer, I suppose, though I confess I'm not sure seeing it would have necessarily made me any more eager to see the film. Trailers are really difficult to appraise this far removed from their original era. I did catch where the subtitles misspelled "couldn't" as "coudn't" at one point. That made me cringe.

    The Hidden Fortress entered my Flickchart at #570/1412

  • This is one of those iconic films that manages to come to the attention of pretty much anyone interested in film. It's been on my radar since my adolescence, when it was always conspicuously prominent for some reason at the local movie rental place. Maybe it wasn't conspicuous and I just gravitated toward it? I don't know. But as an adolescent, I knew I couldn't ask to rent it and by the time I was in my teens it just seemed intimidating.

    I finally decided to stream it this morning, though, after almost watching it yesterday afternoon. Typically, I prefer to watch amoral films about sexuality later at night, but since the premise of this one is that Séverine is a daytime prostitute, it seemed appropriate to watch during the daylight hours.

    There's quite a lot here to enjoy and appreciate. There are several surprises throughout, including that jarring first scene. Initially, I thought perhaps it was going to be one of those things where the film starts at the present and then jumps backward to explain how we got there. I was somewhat relieved when it turned out to be a sordid daydream. That set the tone for the rest of the film, and I was mostly satisfied with its consistency.

    [By far the, strangest scene has to be the older guy who hires her to lie in a coffin as his deceased daughter. Seriously: WTAF?!]

    I enjoyed the performances, too. Every person in the film felt authentic; Catherine Deneuve is rightly praised for her terrific turn as Séverine. Whole volumes of praise have been written about her work here, and I'll defer to those. I will say that what I appreciated most is the subtlety of her performance. Her surreptitious facial reactions and her body language imbue the character and the film with a great deal of depth.

    One of the hardest things about adapting literary work to film is that interior thoughts are very difficult to put on screen. Really, the only way is through voiceover and that's often a very cumbersome technique. Deneuve's performance here stops just short of narrating Séverine's internal thoughts while still conveying them. We know what she's thinking and feeling, but only because we're in on it with her. It's the voyeuristic equivalent of sharing an in-joke in front of other people.

    I also particularly enjoyed Pierre Clémenti as Marcel; simmering in every shot, imposing yet captivating. Credit also to Geneviéve Page for her meticulous and cool Madame Anaïs. Even when she's off-screen, she sets the tone for everything at the brothel, and by extension, the entire film.

    Despite some rich characters and several genuine surprises along the way, Belle de jour suffers in the end from feels like a rushed finale. We're headed toward problems with Marcel all along, and he's clearly a bad apple, but shooting Pierre and then being shot himself? It happens so quickly that it feels as though we're now mindful of the clock and need to wrap things up. It's not even the sequence itself that's the matter for me so much as the editing. It's unclear whether Marcel knew Pierre would come by soon, or if it was a crime of convenience. It's too abrupt and tidy for my liking, particularly after the first hour and a half was spent exploring things so off the beaten path.

    I also feel a bit cheated out of the story of Séverine & Pierre's relationship. I feel that too much was told, not shown. Séverine appears frigid, but why? What is the basis of their relationship? It's clearly not sex, so what then? It would have given me a greater sense of the context of Séverine's self-exploration had I better understood her life before we meet her - and if we'd checked in more intimately on her and Pierre throughout the film.

    I rarely think of how to recast a film and rarer still do I think of such things while watching, but this time through I couldn't help but come up with some contemporary cast choices:

    Séverine Serizy - Jeri Ryan

    Pierre Serizy - James Marsden

    Madame Anaïs - Samantha Bond

    Marcel - Cillian Murphy or Benicio del Toro

    Belle de jour entered my Flickchart at #354/1413

  • My mom's brother, my Uncle Stuart, drowned as a teen a few years before I was born. Growing up, I heard often that I was a lot like him in personality and in interests. A few years ago, my grandfather cleared out a crate remaining at his house containing my uncle's record library. I didn't get the records; I'm too low on the totem pole for that. But I did go through and write down a list of every album he left behind and it's been a goal of mine to listen to all of those albums to see what I might learn about him through his taste in music.

    The two bands most heavily represented in his library were The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I've heard he loved them both, but favored the Stones. I grew up without a lot of exposure to the Stones. Mom listened to the oldies station, but in my youth they focused on the music of the 50s and early 60s. I was introduced to "Paint It, Black" in the 80s because it was used for the opening credits of the TV show, Tour of Duty. My dad, a Vietnam veteran, watched it. By then I wasn't really going for the biweekly visitations very often so even that exposure was minimal.

    That's pretty much the context in which I came to this documentary, which I checked out on Criterion DVD from the Oldham County Public Library this afternoon. Directors David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwern kept the narrative focused and engaging. A lot of music docs kind of meander, often unsure how to balance on-stage performance footage with behind-the-stage moments of candor. Gimme Shelter is not harangued by those uncertainties. From start to finish, this doc is concerned exclusively with the frenzy that erupted at the free show at the Altamont Speedway that culminated in the stabbing death of a concert-goer at the hands of a Hells Angel.

    The editing is taut, the footage candid and Gimme Shelter never stumbles. It's one of those perfect zeitgeist works. Even without the unfortunate notoriety of the killing, the kind of access afforded the filmmakers ensured that this was going to be a fascinating look at not just a popular rock band on a hot tour, but a microcosm of the entire counterculture movement. The montage of the audience waiting for the show to begin suggests that the full footage could easily constitute an intriguing film all its own. (A woman gave birth, for crying out loud!)

    I came away from Gimme Shelter with a much greater understanding of the infamous concert; prior to this, I was only peripherally aware of it. Moreover, though, I found myself wondering what my uncle would have had to say about it as someone who surely would have wanted to be in attendance himself. It's not at all the kind of scene where I ever pictured him. In my mind, he's always holed up in his bedroom either illustrating or reading something. The idea of him at an event like the Altamont concert is almost laughable...except that then I think of some of the places I've been and the things I've done and I'm reminded in a new way that he and I really are/were/would have been kindred spirits.

    The Criterion Collection DVD

    The film is compelling by itself, but the bonus content on the Criterion Collection DVD is top notch.

    Audio Commentary

    Documentary commentaries are rare, and for good reason: anything the documentarian wishes to say ought to be in the film. The passage of time, however, invites Maysles, Zwerin and Goldstein to try to place the film in its proper context - whether as a document of the concert, of the social zeitgeist captured on film, or even the place of Gimme Shelter in the annals of documentary films.

    The appeal, then, is not to glean more about the content of the film - explored in depth throughout the Criterion DVD's generous other bonus content - but in this perspective of those who made it, making sense of just what they made. Zwerin, we learn, was the one who proposed editing the film around the notorious killing. Cutting back and forth from the road to the Altamont concert to the aftermath imbues the film partly with its structure, but also with its soul. Zwerin notes that had they simply put it together as a series of chronological events, when it was over, audiences would wonder just what they'd seen. Structuring it this way, however, gives the film its dark focus. We know from the outset that we're going to bear witness to the calamity.

    As commentary tracks go, this is one of the stronger ones I've heard. There aren't many lulls or ramblings. Some information is extraneous because I'd already heard about it elsewhere in the bonus content, and not every tidbit of insight is as intriguing as the rest, but on the whole I was kept engaged. It certainly added to my understanding and appreciation of the film, and that's the objective of every commentary track.

    1969 KSAN Radio Broadcast

    Four hours of radio time on KSAN were dedicated to covering the concert, originally conceived as a tie-in to the good times. When things went south, however, the call-ins became a treasure trove of primary source recordings from firsthand witnesses and key figures from critic John Burkes to photographer Jim Marshall, and two members of the Hell's Angels. Particularly fascinating is the call from Sonny Barger, a member of the Oakland Hell's Angels, a firsthand witness and participant in some of the day's escalating skirmishes. That call is not found on the Blu-ray Disc release of the film. This is easily among the compelling bonus features in the entire Criterion library.

    Outtakes (22:02)

    The highlight here is a shot of Mick Jagger caught up in the energy during a recording/mixing session of "Little Queenie," absentmindedly dancing along to the music.

    Images from Altamont

    I'm not a big fan of stills galleries on DVDs, and I confess that while Bill Owens and Beth Sunflower snapped some great photos, I still found myself unable to really connect with their work on my TV screen the way I could in a book.

    Maysles Films Trailers

    The original trailers for Gimme Shelter didn't do much for me, though the re-release trailer was a bit more attention-getting. Salesman, however, really piqued my curiosity and I've added it to my ever-growing To See list. Grey Gardens seems...weird.


    Another DVD feature I never really cared for: text pages of filmographies. Not much to say about these lists of the works of both the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. Today, I'd just hit IMDb.

    Restoration Demonstration

    It isn't particularly technical, but this brief demo does a great job showcasing the before & after work of film restoration. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't make a DVD today because we've seen similar contrasts in commercials for DVD releases and theatrical re-issues often enough that Joe Sixpack gets it now: the original masters have faded and the new prints look gorgeous. Still, it's a truly impressive demo to behold and well worth the few minutes.

    "The Rolling Stones, Altamont and GIMME SHELTER"

    The DVD I checked out from the Oldham County Public Library is missing the 44 page booklet, but fortunately The Criterion Collection website archives the essays. Like the film and other bonus content, it runs the gamut from firsthand witness testimonials to retrospective criticism of the events and the film itself. One of my favorite passages is from Stanley Booth's essay, "Gimme Shelter: The True Adventures of Altamont" -

    The violence at Altamont, being completely unexpected, came afterward to seem inevitable. The assassinations of the sixties had aged us—we who were, as the seventies dawned, still under thirty—but they had been random, isolated events that didn’t involve the rock-and-roll generation. Altamont was nothing we could shrug off, and somehow we all lacked the will to rise above it.

    The other essays are well worth reading, but I think Booth's was the strongest. I was also quite partial to Georgia Bergman's "Gimme Shelter: Snapshots from the Road".

    Gimme Shelter entered my Flickchart at #251/1414

  • I checked out this DVD from the library when I picked out Gimme Shelter, solely on the fact that it featured the late Sir Alec Guinness. I didn't even read the synopsis on the back of the DVD package. I have read Guinness's autobiography and both of his published journals, but whatever discussion he may have made about this film in those pages failed to resonate with me. I came into this film knowing literally nothing about it. It was great fun watching him in the eight roles of the D'Ascoyne family. Some of the makeup was particularly effective; I had to look twice when I first saw him on screen as The Banker to be sure that was him.

    I enjoy a nice black comedy, and that's precisely what Kind Hearts and Coronets is. I did briefly become concerned once we meet Edith D'Ascoyne that there would be some attempt to persuade us that the family isn't really bad, just misunderstood; that kind of thing. I was relieved (because I'm a terrible human being!) that no, the film does not attempt to sell us on any message of making peace.

    For this year's challenge, I've already watched Spoorloos [The Vanishing] and earlier this summer I watched all of Downton Abbey, so it was fun to combine the serial killer with the British class system. I'm not an Anglophile per se, though I'm familiar enough with British social history that I can follow along with most stories set there.

    I was fortunate that the library had this on DVD as it is presently out of print and not available to stream on HuluPlus.

    The DVD

    American Ending

    The on-screen text introduction informs us that an extension was tacked onto the ending of Kind Hearts and Coronets because of film standards in America that insisted "crime cannot be shown to pay." When I saw the actual ending added, though, I could only roll my eyes. The original, proper ending ought to have been entirely sufficient. Only we Americans have to have everything spelled out for us. Morons.

    Original theatrical trailer

    Despite what many have come to believe, spoilers have been part of trailers longer than the last five years. It is with that knowledge in mind that I do not watch trailers on DVDs until after I've watched the film. There are some spoilers in this trailer, though at least they omitted pretty much everything about the deliciousness of the twisted relationship between Louis and Sibella and the machinations of their relationship.

    Photo Galleries

    Yawn. Nice photos, sure, but photo galleries are second only to filmography lists as the most boring bonus feature on a DVD.

    "Ealing's Shadow Pride"

    I did not find in Philip Kemp's essay anything particularly informative about Kind Hearts and Coronets that I hadn't already observed for myself, but what I did find was some interesting insight into director Robert Hamer and the nature of Ealing Studios. I knew the name of Ealing, but nothing of its history or storytelling aesthetics. Also, I found it helpful to learn about the source material, Roy Horniman's novel, Israel Bank and why some of the changes were made in the course of adaptation.

    Disc Two: The Supplements

    The two bonus features are a feature-length documentary about Ealing Studios and a 70 minute radio program featuring Sir Alec Guinness. Given that these are tangential to the feature, I'm electing to skip them right now since I have to return the DVD to the library today.

    Kind Hearts and Coronets entered my Flickchart at #221/1415

  • Another one of the Big Ones that's been on my radar for years, The Third Man also has the distinction of being on the short list of great films that actually lives up to its hype and reputation. I'm always a bit intimidated by films with this kind of reputation and prestige, because I worry when I'm not enamored with them that the fault lies with me rather than with the film.

    Of course, the very first thing that struck me was Anton Karas's zither music! That was not at all the score I had anticipated for this film, and I absolutely loved it. So much so, in fact, that I've gone to Amazon and bought "The Third Man Theme" and am playing it as I write this review. No wonder Criterion included this in their Great Soundtracks themed section!

    As a longtime Bond fan, what struck me most was how influential this film clearly was on The Living Daylights. I'd heard about the relationship between the two, of course, but it's not the same as actually seeing both films, is it? Even the setting of Vienna, and that Ferris wheel, were clearly selected for the purpose of evoking The Third Man...though Bond clearly had the better time in the Ferris wheel!

    The downside to seeing and enjoying a film of The Third Man's stature is that there's nothing left really to be said. If I had hated it, or even been bored by it, there would be an opening for me to focus on what didn't work for me. There's not much satisfaction to be found, however, in merely echoing decades of praise penned by critics more articulate and observant than me.

    The Criterion DVD is chock full of bonus content, including two commentary tracks. Being that I only have one more day with it, I don't know that I'm going to even try to explore the supplements right now. We're halfway through the challenge as of tomorrow and I'd like to get to more films, particularly after having only just watched the entirety of the Gimme Shelter DVD.

    The Third Man entered my Flickchart at #144/1416

  • Montauk with Jim Jarmusch

    I have never liked fishing. Fishing shows are even more dreadful to me than fishing itself, and I've had to sit through some over the years because my brother enjoys them. I decided to check out this short-lived TV series because 1) it qualifies for the DVD Talk Criterion Challenge (yes, there really is a Criterion Collection DVD release of this show!), 2) it's streaming via HuluPlus and 3) I figured the run time (just under half an hour per episode) means I can break this up and get to it when I want to take a break from feature length films. That it's a farce of a fishing show also inclined me toward it.

    This first episode, "Montauk with Jim Jarmusch," set a nice tone. John Lurie and Jim Jarmusch have nice chemistry, being real life friends and all, and Robb Webb's narration is spot-on: he sounds like a fishing show narrator, but what he actually says is fairly absurd. I confess, I didn't think they were actually trying to catch a shark at first. But then, sure enough, there they were with one in the very end.

    My brother and nephew (not my brother's son) would both get a kick out of this, I suspect. The next time Barnes & Noble run their 50% off sale on Criterion titles, I may have to scope it out for their Christmas gifts.

    Jamaica with Tom Waits

    I knew going into this episode from Wikipedia that filming this episode so strained Tom Waits & John Lurie's friendship that they didn't speak to one another for two years. Obviously, we're only privy to an episode with a run time of 27:35 so plenty was said and done that we never get to see. But from what is in the episode, I don't understand just what right Tom Waits had to become indignant. After all, he's the guy who put a fish in his pants.

    Waits is genuinely, naturally funny but the fish-in-the-pants gag was so over the top that I confess, it made me a tad uncomfortable. That aside, this was a noticeably stronger episode than the first one with Jim Jarmusch.

    Costa Rica with Matt Dillon

    This was a particularly weak episode. The episode meanders way too much, punctuated by a bit where Lurie and Dillon - who have very little in the way of entertaining banter - "study" some kind of folk dance for fishers. It knows it wants to be a satire but it never quite commits to whether it's mocking moronic Lurie & Dillon, or if it's mocking the Costa Ricans.

    It's fortunate this was the third episode because if it had been the first, I think I'd have stopped watching entirely.

    Maine with Willem Dafoe

    Maybe it's partly because I've always like Dafoe, but this episode rescued the series for me after the disappointing third episode, "Costa Rica with Matt Dillon." As with the other co-fishers, Dafoe has terrific chemistry with Lurie. Ice fishing in Maine frees them from the kinds of distractions that have gotten in the way at times in previous episodes.

    It's fun watching Dafoe tease about things like putting together their sleeping bags and lighting up at seeing a red flag on one of their drilled sites. Throughout his career, Dafoe has generally played sourpusses so it's been rare to glimpse this more laid back and even somewhat mischievous side of the guy that has lurked beneath the surface in many of his performances. It's that sense of candor that Fishing with John showcases well, and the reason it's so likable is that the camaraderie on screen is not at all created by celebrity status. These episodes could have just as easily been made with my friends, or with yours. It's authentic and that's why the show is so engaging.

    Thailand with Dennis Hopper, Part 1

    This episode had some of the best gems so far. The banter about Easy Rider, the ping pong game, catching a stingray, and voiceover quips such as:

    "As always, night turns into day."

    "Out of kindness, and for old times' sake, John and Dennis pretend to hear one another."

    Good stuff.

    Thailand with Dennis Hopper, Part 2

    I felt this episode was a step down from Part 1, and even from "Maine with Willem Dafoe," but it has its moments all the same. What struck me most here (and I'd kinda noticed it in the first part) is the striking resemblance between Dennis Hopper and a friend of mine's dad, Bill. The weird thing there is that my friend, his dad and his young son don't even look like three generations of a family, but one guy at three different stages of his life. Ergo, my friend looks like a young Dennis Hopper. Never made that connection until this. Weird.

    Fishing with John entered my Flickchart at #937/1423

    note: I had to mentally consider the entire 6-episode series as a singular entry

  • I've never read the entire Jungle Book, though I'm familiar through audio performances and various screen adaptations with several of the tales. I'm sure the most obvious comparison is with Disney's animated feature adaptation but because I viewed this as part of the Criterion Challenge this month, I find myself contrasting it more with The Thief of Bagdad. Beyond the obvious similarities between Kipling's Jungle Book and the 1001 Arabian Nights as source material, there's the matter that the screen adaptations in question are of the same vintage.

    Both films are tremendous visual achievements, from costumes to production design. I found myself seeing more of the metaphorical seams of the production of Jungle Book than I did with Thief, but there's still quite a lot to appreciate in this film - particularly the footage of live animals, and the enormous Hidden City set.

    Unfortunately, where Jungle Book falters is in its actual storytelling. The characters are all so one-dimensional, the performances so perfunctory and the story so straightforward that the film fails to live up to the striking power of its visuals. Even the structure is a bit askance, with Shere Khan built up early as the nemesis of the film, but then quickly dispatched in what is alternately one of the more embarrassing special effects shots and somehow also a truly gruesome scene.

    Jungle Book entered my Flickchart at #1222/1419

  • I began viewing this film three nights ago. Between Internet connection issues and not feeling well, I wound up having to watch it in sections. Not ideal at all, but it couldn't be helped. I saw my first Fellini film last year: 8 1/2. This was only my second, and it was interesting to go from the heavily autobiographical film to one of his actual stories. It's much like reading an author's memoir before reading any of his novels.

    I was reluctant to even come back to this film tonight. Earlier today, I lost a friend of mine. I'm still stunned and saddened, but I needed a respite from my grieving friends and somehow, given her taste in film, it seemed an entirely appropriate way to step aside and get my bearings again. I don't have anything insightful to say about the film at this time, though I would like to note that it threw me every time I heard Nina Rota's two themes. The circus theme, I recognized from its re-use later in 8 1/2; The Fool's theme, I recognized because John Barry swiped it for The Man with the Golden Gun and every time I heard the string arrangement in this film, I immediately began to hear Barry's work.

    I was, of course, ultimately captivated by Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina. Her entire performance is steeped in the traditions of stage theater and silent film, and her facial expressions are perfect. Despite all the talk throughout the film of her "ugliness," I found Masina quite lovely, particularly when she smiled. She exuded a very touching warmth, not at all unlike Audrey Tautou as the titular Amélie.

    Martin Scorsese on La strada (13:43)

    Not really a lot to say here, except that I enjoy listening to Scorsese talk about film. Even though this was just my second Fellini film, I understand what he meant that this is the perfect microcosm of Fellini's pre-8 1/2 work.

    La strada entered my Flickchart at #99/1421

  • I knew precious little about this other than that it had quite a lot of buzz once upon a time. I decided to stream it just now for this year's Criterion Challenge, selected entirely because I needed something from the 2000s for my checklist.

    Holy. Damn.

    This is a coming-of-age tale by way of Hitchcock. Every step of the way, ominous events are foreshadowed (much of it through the commentary of Anaïs). The frank sexuality of her sister, Elena, is almost recognizable as universal exploration except that she's fallen for an obvious predator in Fernando. I'm sure there are more than a few male viewers who would applaud the Italian cad's "triumph," but I personally found him revolting. I had hoped every minute he was on screen in Anaïs & Elena's bedroom that someone would catch him and give him quite a thrashing.

    Seriously, exploiting the sexual immaturity of Elena is bad enough...but to have sex with her in the same room as Anaïs? Who does that?! Also, I confess that I was taken out of the film by the relative ease with which Fernando penetrated Elena during the anal sex scene. No previous experience, no work-up, no lubricant? I'm not buying it.

    Of course, the most disturbing plant of information is when the girls balk at the idea of their mother driving them home. We know this can only invite disaster. Not since the end of The Sopranos have I been so riveted just watching a car move quietly in traffic. Every change of lanes, every turn taken, every semi passed seemed to be one more skirmish with death. Just to exacerbate the anxiety, Elena goes and tells Anaïs how she wishes their mother dead - and herself along with her. And then we stop for a respite in a gas station eerily similar to the one in Spoorloos (a universal design of French gas stations, or a cinematic contrivance?).

    When the windshield shattered, I was certain it was Anaïs having a nightmare of some sort, or perhaps even a twisted daydream. The longer it continued, though, the more I began to realize that it was very much happening as part of the story. The rape of Anaïs is particularly disturbing here not only because it's a heinous act, but because it takes place in the context of her own ongoing discussion of sexuality. Clearly, she will not be falling in love with her assailant; he's essentially disposable in a way. But it also conflates the violent act of rape with sexuality; rape is not actually about sex, but an abuse of power. For Anaïs to perceive her attack as an act of sexuality is perhaps the most upsetting thing of the entire film.

    Reboux's performance as Anaïs is unnerving. She is the conveyor of nearly all of the warnings of the film, for one thing, but also there's that persistent blank stare. We see her facing away from her sister's bed, where Elena is being humiliated without realizing it. Though she's crying at her sister's activity, feeling the shame that she knows her sister later will feel, there's a sense that crying is not her natural reaction. Emotion comes unnaturally to Anaïs, it seems, which is why her bizarre acceptance of having been raped at the end of the film is both consistent with her character and all the more shocking.

    Praise must also be lavished upon Roxane Mesquida for delivering an extremely bold and vulnerable performance as the sensuous and naive Elena. She is really the engine of the entire story, not only as the character, but as the actress to whom everyone else on screen reacts. IMDb tells me she was 20 years old at the time the film was released, and that it was only her third feature (and fourth credit overall, after a short film).

    I tip my hat to Catherine Breillat not so much for the coming-of-age portion of the film, but for crafting what emerges as a very dark "thriller" of sorts. I wondered about the title, since I studied French enough to know that the on-screen title, À ma soeur!, does not in fact translate to Fat Girl. Breillart explains in her essay that Fat Girl was her original title and the one under which the film was sold, but that sensitivity toward Anaïs Reboux and French audience screenings had led to À ma soeur! I'm glad that was clarified, but I'm disappointed that Breillat commented on nothing else about the film in her essay. The Blu-ray release includes a pair of interviews with her, though, and I assume they contain story-centric remarks.

    Fat Girl entered my Flickchart at #368/1424

  • I have a low threshold for "aw, shucks" hokum, being a Southerner and often insulted by the pandering to an obsolete stereotype about our "simple ways," and there's way too much of that from start to finish in Young Mr. Lincoln. I rolled my eyes several times in the first 20 minutes, unsure whether I could stomach the balance of the film. Eventually, though, the murder trial plot took shape and while this isn't in the same league as 12 Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, I was able to see the cinematic heritage between this film and those.

    The off-screen death of Ann Rutledge was jarring in its abruptness (one scene, Abe is professing his interest in gingers, the next he's over her grave) and it's particularly distracting given that no explanation is even offered for how she died. It's peculiar that a film this steeped in melodrama would go so far out of its way to avoid that matter.

    This Abraham Lincoln seems more like Linus putting up with Sally than a guy who has any actual interest in Mary Todd. It's as though she was in the film only because they knew viewers would have decried her absence, but there really wasn't a place for her in Lamar Trotti's story. The rivalry between Lincoln and Stephen Douglass fares a bit better, as at least Douglass exists here to represent the higher level of law and politics to which Lincoln aspires.

    Still, much like Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, it was nice to see a story about our 16th President that focused on a part of his life before the well-documented events. It would have been nicer still were there more actual fact than fiction, but it was 1939. My hopes for authenticity weren't high.

    Perhaps the two most distracting things for me throughout were seeing a strong facial resemblance between Henry Fonda and Willem Dafoe (and, in one shot, to Jim Carrey), and the fact that Alfred Newman's oft-repeated theme sounds a whole lot like the Jerrold Immel's theme from Dallas.

    Young Mr. Lincoln entered my Flickchart at #898/1425

  • Les Enfants Terribles is a cinematic ancestor of both Amelie and Wild Things and I would never in a thousand years have thought there would be any shared DNA between those two films. This film lacks the sweetness of the former, though, and is even more contrived than the latter.

    In fact, what makes Wild Things so much fun is that it celebrates its contrivances. Each plot twist is so obviously a gimmick meant to surprise us that we roll our eyes early and begin to laugh along at the joke once we get that that's what the film really is. Les Enfants Terribles escalates in a similar fashion, but lacks the sense of humor that makes it palatable to be so contrived. Their mother dies, but they continue to share a bedroom? Where did Michael even come from? Paul's health status is almost entirely arbitrary; he can chase his sister in one scene and no one bats an eye, but he needs constant vigil the next?

    As with Wild Things, though, there came a point rather early on where it became obvious that I would need to simply cast aside such scrutiny and go along with the story toward its inevitably tragic conclusion. I was never quite able to fully suspend my disbelief enough to settle into the film, but I was able to find things to appreciate about it.

    The obvious praise should go to the cast, particularly to Nicole Stéphane as Elisabeth. It's not often to simultaneously sympathize with someone who makes you uncomfortable, but somehow she pulled it off. It's a truly remarkable performance, alternately tender and sinister. We become exasperated with - and because of - her.

    The production design and costumes were also terrific, creating a very specific environment in both homes. This is also one of those films that pretty much had to be shot in black and white, and the effect is genuinely striking in any number of scenes. Perhaps the best example would be when Paul tours the gallery alone, with the rotating spindle(?) casting its ominous shadows across him and the room.

    Story-wise, I feel this is chiefly an average film; its intriguing premise is hamstrung by its improbabilities. The execution, however, elevates the material and I suspect that when I reflect upon it later, I will generally forget my disappointments and recall only the intensity of Stéphane's performance and how visually arresting the film is.

    Les Enfants Terribles entered my Flickchart at #414/1426

  • I'm down to just a handful of items left on my 2012 DVD Talk Criterion Challenge checklist, and I needed something in the spine range #151-200. I picked this primarily because it stars Alec Guinness, whom I last saw in Kind Hearts and Coronets, where he played eight characters from the same family.

    The Horse's Mouth is easily my favorite outright comedy first-time viewing of 2012. From start to finish, I found myself amused, often surprised and a few times I even laughed aloud (which is very rare for me when watching a film alone).

    Guinness himself wrote the screenplay, adapting Joyce Cary's novel. Credit the source material, obviously, but also to Guinness. For one thing, there's no greater challenge to writing a novel than to write a comedy. Adapting a comedic novel to film is one of the rarest things in cinema, partly because of the scarcity of viable source material but also because it's so easy to get it wrong and so difficult to get it right. Guinness's screenplay is pitch perfect, carried by his own impish charisma on screen.

    Gulley Jimson's outbursts decrying art are, of course, familiar to anyone who has ever listened to artists discuss what they do for a living. The most commonly offered advice is always "Don't do this." It's more universal even than "Believe in yourself" or "Keep trying." Every artist - be it a writer, musician, painter or anything else - does it because they have to do it, not because it's fun or even particularly rewarding. Gulley personifies that, as we see him go from viciously discouraging Nosy from even being around him to lighting up with manic enthusiasm at the prospect of painting a wall.

    It reminded me a bit of an exchange Guinness recounted in one of his diaries, in which he encountered a mother and son in San Francisco once. The boy was ecstatic to meet Obi-Wan Kenobi, eager to share that he had seen Star Wars "over a hundred times." Guinness asked him if he would do him a favor, which the boy quickly said he would. Guinness asked him to never see it again.

    "He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. 'What a dreadful thing to say to a child!' she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.'" (A Positively Final Appearance)

    I see that same perspective of Guinness's present in Gulley Jimson. Here's an artist who alternately worships at the altar of his craft, but bounces between self-loathing and self-praise at any given moment. It would have been perfectly in keeping with Gulley's character had he admonished the Beeders to promise to never again look at the wall in their home upon which he had painted the rise of Lazarus. He was, after all, the guy who personally drove the bulldozer that demolished the Last Judgment mural he had conceived in hopes of saving the dilapidated church ruins! Praise itself is of little value to Gulley - only the work matters.

    The dialog is terrific, the kind of stuff that would generate Internet memes if it caught on with the right contemporary viewers.

    Gulley Jimson: "Of course you want to be an artist. Everyone does...once. But they get over it, like measles and chicken pox."

    Constable: "Have you just sent a telephone message of a threatening character to Mr. Hickson of Portland Place?"

    Gulley Jimson: "I only said I'd burn his house down and cut his liver out."

    There was an essay written in 1989 for Criterion's LaserDisc release, and three more written for their 2002 DVD release of The Horse's Mouth. The most interesting anecdote of all four is the focus of the essay penned by the film's director, Ronald Neame, in which he recounts Guinness having a vulnerable episode of frailty on the set. It called to mind a similar bit of insight into the egos of actors shared by James Lipton in his memoir, Inside "Inside".

    The Horse's Mouth entered my Flickchart at #177/1427

  • The synopsis ("Less a work of pornography than of politics, In the Realm of the Senses is a brave, taboo-breaking milestone.") suggested a sort of Story of O-descent into debauchery, but set against an increasingly turbulent political climate of 1936 Japan. I was rather disappointed that the time and place are almost entirely irrelevant to the film's narrative, though being a based-upon-a-true-story film, the setting was relevant to the original events being recreated. In any event, that narrative [I]is[/I] a very graphic depiction of escalating sexual kink and depravity so at least that part was accurate.

    Eiko Matsuda is fearless as Sada Abe (how perfect a name, evocative of the Marquis de Sade!), a woman with a truly insatiable sexual appetite. It's easy to dismiss the film as pornography masquerading as art, especially early on in the film when the sex is all still in good fun. As the story wears on, however, and as the sex takes its toll on Kichi (a charming and game Tatsuya Fuji), we realize that the whole impetus behind dramatizing the 1936 scandal is to create a cautionary tale that too much of even something as pleasurable as sex can, indeed, be unhealthy.

    Donald Richie argues in his essay, In the Realm of the Senses: Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography:

    "This wasn’t two actors trying to titillate us, as in the pink film; the hard-core film Oshima was inventing would be about two real people who are titillating each other. He wanted a politicized eroticism rather than a pornographic performance."

    Richie is quite right. Whatever excitement the viewer may find in the sex on screen is incidental. We're not watching a performance by exhibitionists seeking to engage us. We're not even voyeurs here, because neither anyone on screen nor the camera care that we're there. It plays more as a documentary than as anything intended to arouse us.

    It is unfortunate that the film eschews Sada's biography in order to focus exclusively on her sexual cravings that led to her notoriety. Of course, I also just watched Young Mr. Lincoln which only teased about Honest Abe's courtship of Mary Todd or his famed debates with Stephen Douglass, focusing instead of a (fictionalized) part of his life rarely considered part of the lore. Ai no korîda elected instead to showcase only the parts of Sada's story that were already well-known because of their sensationalist nature.

    Beyond its scarcity of information about Sada, I also have to ding the film for some plot points that go unresolved. For instance, Kichi's actual wife is brought up by a terribly jealous Sada throughout but we never see anything further about her. Does she even care that Kichi has left her? For that matter, what of Sada's husband?

    Perhaps the most peculiar scene in the entire film is the one in which Sada sits on the floor as two nude children run around her in circles. The scene ends with her grasping the boy's penis, causing him to yell about it hurting. Beyond the shocking nature of the scene, it's also a complete non-sequitar. Who are these children? Why are they even with Sada, much less nude? What came of the incident?

    Story-wise, then, I confess to being rather unimpressed by Ai no korîda, which squandered a lot of content would have certainly elevated the film. Still, it's not fair to critique a film for what it isn't, and for what is on the screen I have to confess: it's genuinely captivating and I don't imagine I will ever forget the intensity of Eiko Matsuda's performance. It's the power of her performance that doesn't just make the film work, but resonate.

    Ai no korîda [In the Realm of the Senses] entered my Flickchart at #194/1428

  • It wasn't really intentional that I should follow In the Realm of the Senses, a Japanese film set in 1936, with Hitori musuko [The Only Son], a Japanese film made in 1936. Rather, I came to discover that I could knock out three of the few remaining checklist items for my Criterion Challenge if I watched this and its companion piece, There Was a Father.

    Watching The Only Son in 2012 is nearly surreal. It's as timely now as it ever was, which is frankly discouraging. Otsune is a working poor widow pressured into sacrificing even more of herself to scrape up the money to send her son, Ryosuke, to school. She's made to see that without an education, her son will never have a chance to better himself and certainly not if he remains in their quaint, dead-end town.

    However, when we catch up to Ryosuke as an adult, we discover that for all her sacrificing and all his hard work, he's no better off than he would have been otherwise. He's a night-time teacher, living in what could charitably be described as a dump with his sweet wife, Sugiko, and their infant son.

    We watch as he scrounges to put on airs to impress his mother, trying to wow her with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. He borrows money from colleagues to effectively rent some status symbols to validate his mother's investment in him. She sees through the charade, however, and more importantly - these are not things that she values. It means nothing to her to watch a talkie film.

    It's simultaneously amusing and deflating to see the cliche of the struggling academic living off ramen noodles dating as far back as this film, but sure enough Ryosuke buys three bowls of it for dinner one night, trying to impress his mother that things are just fine. It's not only his mother, though; it's Ryosuke himself who feels disappointment and shame at not having lived up to his end of the bargain: to become "a great man."

    How familiar is it to hear Ryosuke's frustration that all his hard work means nothing? That he had already tried to make it, only to be stymied by an economy that shut out so many that success is a bottleneck in which scant few really have even a chance? That he's just one of millions to see their ambitions and talents dashed on the shoals of an indifferent economy? The only way it could be timelier is if Ryosuke still had massive student loan debt and a medical condition.

    It isn't until Otsune sees her son forfeit borrowed money to help his neighbor after her son is injured by a horse that she is comforted. Finally, this is something she recognizes and values. Though she has defied his capitulation to circumstance, arguing that he's still young and that he is wrong to give up on himself now, she is able to return home confident that her son has, indeed, turned out well. She discusses him with her coworker, and we can tell she's trying to put a nice spin on his circumstances and her visit, but when she reflects on who he is, rather than where he is, we recognize genuine maternal pride.

    So many stories about characters in similar straits devolve into the kind of "bootstraps" rhetoric that's as insulting as it is saccharine, but The Only Son nimbly avoids those pitfalls. We're left with Ryosuke resolved to go back to school and become a high school teacher, but we know it's going to be challenging. How will he even pay for it? How will they manage while he's in school? These questions are left unanswered. We've seen enough to know that this is not a happily-ever-after resolution.

    Rather, what matters is that we see Ryosuke embraces the challenge. Each generation sacrifices to improve the chances of the next, and we see that while Ryosuke won't be the one in the family to "make it," he will continue the generations-long task and that maybe, just maybe, his son will get a fair roll of the dice.

    Hitori musuko [The Only Son] entered my Flickchart at #132/1429

  • This is considered a companion piece to Ozu's 1936 film, Hitori musuko [The Only Son]. Several themes and even specifics are recycled but this time the story follows a father and son, and the emphasis is on the divide between them caused by the father's unfailing work ethic.

    I confess, I didn't get into this one. I had an uncle who drowned as a teen a few years before I was born, and that cast quite a shadow in my family. I grew up with a pronounced understanding of the frailty of life and a strong belief that while work should be done professionally, it should not be more important than investing one's time in the relationships that really matter. There's also my own estranged relationship with my dad, which makes me particularly antipathetic toward father/son stories.

    At the conclusion of The Only Son, we're left with the idea that perhaps the next generation will enjoy the fruits of the labors of the parents. Though the characters and stories follow different tracks, they converge on the same ultimate point: to do right by one's family. In The Only Son, this means living up to one's potential; in There Was a Father, it means carving out time for one's family. Taken as a duology, the theme plays out very clearly and touchingly though, as I've indicated, I was much less taken with this film than with its predecessor.

    One last throwaway note: I couldn't help but to feel a strong sense of a gay subtext to this one. Hirata particularly seems to have some kind of unspoken attraction for Horikawa. There are numerous looks between the two, and then there's the ambiguous description at their reunion dinner of a going away party Hirata threw for Horikawa. Also, Ryohei seems to have little interest in Fumiko and even his relationship with his father seems to veer away from outright hero worship and into a sort of odd longing. Maybe this isn't in the film at all and I'm just coming to it with too much Fat Girl and In the Realm of the Senses swirling about my head.

    Chichi ariki [There Was a Father] entered my Flickchart at #1074/1430

  • I picked this as my penultimate check mark in this year's Criterion Challenge partly because of its run time but primarily because I'm a political junkie and I figured I could sort of zone out for the familiar stuff and get a kick out of anything I hadn't already heard or read about over the last 20 years.

    There really isn't a lot of room for commentary. Condensing the entire 1992 campaign into just under an hour and a half means that the doc only surveys and doesn't go in depth into much of anything. We see a few minutes here or there of strategy sessions, with James Carville, George Stephenopolous, et al., brainstorming with some footage of same folks scurrying backstage at a rally or debate.

    The absence of narration means that the footage has to speak for itself, which would be okay except that even for a viewer as enthused about the content as I am, there's a pervasive sense of "Yeah? So?" about what we're being shown. Released in 1993, the doc could afford to make assumptions about our familiarity with the key players and events, but 19 years later the film hasn't done itself any favors by abstaining from providing context either in the form of on-screen captions or a narration.

    The big thing really is that it was amusing to be reminded that James Carville used to have (some) hair. I never made the connection until tonight, but I think Seann William Scott could play him. There's also a strong physical resemblance to Patrick Flueger (who played Shawn on The 4400), but I think Seann William Scott has the right kind of energy to balance Carville's laid back nature with his manic excitability.

    The War Room entered my Flickchart at #1172/1431

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