Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

22 June 2012

Sizzling in the Southern Sun: Cool Hand Luke Revisited

I don't know if this happens to all film lovers or if it's just a sign of some character flaw in myself, but of late my passion for the movies has waned a bit. I suspect/hope that it is just part of a more general need to step back and chill at the end of a long academic year and that my mojo will return soon enough. I simply haven't felt much like watching (or writing about) movies. I've been catching up on some favorite TV shows, watching entire seasons of Treme, Mad Men, and Foyle's War, but not many movies. In preparation for writing about Goodbye Solo, i did watch Taste of Cherry (1997) and Umberto D (1952): two great movies, though admittedly, watching them was like tossing ice cubes on the already sputtering fires of my joie de vivre. I also finally watched Red Desert (1964), which arrived from Netflix in April and sat on top of the DVD player until early June (not a very economical use of a Netflix subscription, to be sure). I admired it greatly in that way that we recognize and admire great works of art in a museum, where there are guards and alarm systems to ensure that we stand at a safe distance: no running your fingers along the textured surface of a painting, no standing a half-inch away to inhale its scent, no holding your tongue to it to taste the paint. I confess that at least in part what was ailing me was the need for something a little more visceral. 

And this past Wednesday night i found it. We've gotten so accustomed to having movies available to us all the time and in such a dizzying array of formats, that it's sometimes hard to remember the sheer visual impact of seeing a movie like Cool Hand Luke (1967) in all its technicolor splendor on the big screen. But last night i had the opportunity to revisit that pleasure -- and got a nice reminder of the kind of films that started my love affair with the movies in the first place. I sometimes get so caught up in art house and indy films that i forget what a great and beautiful machine Hollywood in its heyday could be. If i were going to get all film scholarly on you, i could talk all about the homoerotics and Jesus-metaphors in Cool Hand Luke, but i'm not going to. I'm going to talk about heat. Everything in this movie is hot, with the obvious exception of the title character with his unflappable sense of cool and his iceberg blue eyes. Those eyes and that sudden flash of a smile are the cool center around which the rest of the film seems to swelter. Paul Newman, well, Paul Newman was hot long before Paris Hilton turned the word into a meaningless cliche. Paul Newman was a beautiful man, and this movie never for a moment lets us forget that. 

Cool Hand Luke is one of the most embodied movies ever to come out of Hollywood, filled with bare-chested men sweating in the southern sun, lusting after a rustic Lolita in an unforgettable car-washing porn parody, even offering a few glimpses of exposed male posteriors that remind us what a watershed year 1967 was in its gleeful smashing of the rules of the Production Code. But male tushies and naughty girls washing dirty cars were not the only ways in which Cool Hand Luke broke the rules of classic Hollywood filmmaking. The heat in the film is not solely or even primarily due to the presence of all those sex-starved, sweaty men. The real Prometheus here, stealing fire from the gods and putting it on the movie screen, is Conrad Hall, cinematographer extraordinaire. Connie Hall was a visionary who used the "mistake" of letting the sunlight flare the camera lens to great effect, making the men on the chain gang seem ready to burst into flames like hapless ants being incinerated on a sunny sidewalk by some juvenile sociopath with a magnifying glass. In the decades since the release of Cool Hand Luke, we've become so accustomed to the use of lens flares as part of a film's visual rhetoric that it's hard to remember that this technique was once such a startling way of shooting a scene. But even today, our jaded 21st century sensibilities are no match for the scorching heat of Connie Hall's camerawork. 

Postscript: The documentary Visions of Light (1992), an invaluable source of information about the  cinematographer's art, contains this interview with Conrad Hall in which he discusses his iconoclastic approach to his craft. The first minute shows a few clips from Cool Hand Luke that demonstrate the powerful impact of the use of lens flares in the film. 

06 June 2012

Happy Birthday, Tattered Film Palace!

I started this blog one year ago today as a way of combatting an extended case of writer's block by writing about one of the things i love most in this life. Have i succeeded? Who knows? The writer's block has subsided though not disappeared, as the sporadic appearance of new posts and my often lengthy silences will attest. 

The writing has been fun, and has not occurred entirely in a vacuum: the stats confirm that i have at least a few readers (as well as a few hits from spam and phishing expeditions). The biggest surprise has been seeing which posts are the most popular. Thanks to the amazing and very kind Monte Hellman, who liked what i had to say about his film Road to Nowhere and posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page, that post got a lot of traffic. Getting a shout-out from one of America's most iconic directors was the high point of my blogging year.

Surprisingly though, that wasn't the most popular post. That honor goes to my entry on Black Narcissus. Who would have thought that an old classic like that one, released sixty-five years ago, would still grab so much attention? Judging by how many of the hits on that entry come from spots all over the globe, i like to flatter myself that my critique of white actresses in brown face has been the source of at least some of the interest. Unfortunately, i suspect that the post has also left at least some readers disappointed; those would be the people who were directed to my site through Google searches of terms like "nubile Indian girls" and "erotic nuns." Seriously. 

The one aspect of this experience that has been a little frustrating is the lack of feedback from my readers. I'm really curious about who is visiting this blog and whether anyone has actually watched a movie as a result of reading it. I haven't decided whether or not to continue writing it, or if i do, whether to change the direction in some way ... maybe plot summaries in rhyming couplets or haikus about cinematography. At any rate, thank you for reading my blog, i hope you've enjoyed it.

05 June 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 3: Goodbye Solo

In his first two feature films (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop), writer/director Ramin Bahrani explores the difficult life of the displaced and marginalized in New York City. For his third film, Goodbye Solo (2008), Bahrani moves the setting to his hometown of Winston-Salem and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Along with the change in location, there is a marked change in tone in this film; despite its exploration of serious themes like loneliness and suicide, a feeling of hope permeates the film, largely due to the warmth and optimism of the central character, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an immigrant from Senegal who works as a cabdriver but aspires to a career as a flight attendant.

The film focuses on the unlikely and uneasy friendship between Solo and one of his passengers, a bitter and isolated elderly man named William (Red West). William is gruff and taciturn, every year of a tough life etched into his face; Solo is a large-hearted and gregarious man who seems to know everyone in Winston-Salem. The film opens with Solo and William in the cab discussing the latter's offer to pay Solo $1,000 to drive him to the peak of Blowing Rock (pictured above) in the near future. It is clear that William is planning to commit suicide there, and Solo sets himself the task of saving William's life by breaking through his self-imposed isolation. He arranges things so that every time William calls for a cab, he will be the one to show up; thus he sees how William is methodically getting his affairs in order: selling his apartment, closing his bank account, and returning night after night to the same movie theater, where each time he exchanges a few words with the kid in the ticket booth, never revealing to the boy that he is his grandfather. 

Solo is a generous man: generous with his time, his possessions, his affections, and his words. He's a nonstop talker, shifting effortlessly (sometimes mid-sentence) between English, French, and Wolof. In contrast, William's words are few and seem to erupt only out of his anger and need to keep others at bay, rather than from any desire to communicate. The differences in the two men seem to go beyond their individual personalities, and speak to larger issues of culture. While Solo is well-acculturated into American life, there are aspects of this culture that baffle him, especially the lack of community exemplified by William's solitary life. Early in the film, he questions why William does not return to his family rather than living in a seedy motel room. "Yo, why families don't stay together in America?" he asks. In Africa, he tells him, "Families stay together, man. We take care of our parents, our old people." Later, when Solo and his wife argue, he asks William if he can stay with him for a few days. William responds that his place is too small for the two of them, but Solo jokingly replies, "This place is huge, man. In Africa ten people can sleep in here." Even when William relents, he does so in the most negative terms, growling at Solo: "Stay out of my stuff! Keep your shit over there and leave me alone!" William's life is defined by a carefully maintained set of boundaries between himself and everyone else. In contrast, Solo rejects the very notion of such boundaries; for him, life is a shared experience. 

What saves Goodbye Solo from becoming a trite sort of Driving Mr. Daisy is the richness and complexity of Solo's life and the lack of easy solutions to the problems confronting William. Solo doesn't exist simply so that he can magically give meaning to the life of this angry old white man, although he tries his best to help him. But of the two, Solo's life is the one we see in the most detail and complexity: the immigrant with dreams of a better job and a better life, the married man going through a bumpy patch with his wife as they await the birth of their first child, the loving step-father assuring his step-daughter that he will always remain a part of her life. We know little of William's past because he refuses to share it. The only detail he divulges is that he had a wife who left him thirty years earlier. We don't know why. Solo's every attempt to find out more about William's past is rejected; his attempts to bring William into his own life meet with only a small level of success. There are moments when Solo's relentless good humor breaks through William's reserve, as in a scene that takes place after William has spent the night with Solo's family. But those moments are so brief and so likely to be followed by a violent retreat into his carefully guarded privacy that they never approach the kind of feel-good, happy resolution that would undermine the integrity of this story of a tough, sad man. Ultimately though, this is not William's story so much as Solo's, and in the film's final moments shot amid the brilliant autumn colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we know that for Solo life will go on. Maybe he'll succeed, maybe he won't, but he'll live a life filled with people and stories to share.

For more information on Goodbye Solo, visit the official site.

View the official trailer here.

Postscript: I would be remiss if i ended this post without saying a bit more about Red West, the actor who portrays William in the film. In a departure from Bahrani's usual casting of non-professional actors, his choice here is a man with experience with a capital "E." Though not a top-rung movie star with a familiar name and face, West has been in show business for over fifty years. A personal friend and bodyguard to Elvis (yes, that Elvis) Presley, West has also had an extensive career as a stuntman and character actor. Here's a link to an article about him that accompanied the film's opening in his hometown of Memphis. His portrayal of a man who finds nothing left to live for in Goodbye Solo is a powerful one, and his face   -- ah, what a face! -- makes me wish i were a sculptor. 

Red West (rt.) with Elvis, 1973 - © 1978 Gary Lewis.

Red West in Goodbye Solo © 2008 Lions Gate  


01 June 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 2: Chop Shop (2007)

In Ramin Bahrani's second feature, Chop Shop (2007), he again explores life on the margins of the American Dream, this time focusing on Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a tough Dominican street kid, trying to look after himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez) in a gritty corner of New York City.

The influence of Italian Neorealism is as strong here as in Bahrani's earlier film, Man Push Cart (2005). The opening scene, in which Ale stands with a group of men on the side of a highway hoping to pick up a day's labor, immediately invites comparison to the beginning of Bicycle Thieves (1948), where a large crowd of men vie for the few available jobs offered to them. The New York of Chop Shop has much in common with the Rome of Bicycle Thieves. There's no hint here of the New York in the tourist brochures: no Times Square, no horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. The iconic Manhattan skyline appears only briefly in the opening scene, obscured by smog and foregrounded by rusting fuel tanks. The only enduring hint of New York's grandeur is Shea Stadium glowing in the distance. Like Mussolini's soccer stadium in Bicycle Thieves, Shea Stadium is off limits to Ale and his friend Carlos, and the source of temptation. It is the place where people with money go to enjoy themselves, a place where a poor boy might be tempted to steal a hubcap or a purse. By night the streets of Ale's New York are desolate and dark; by day, dirty and chaotic. 
The Willets Point setting of Chop Shop with Shea Stadium in the background dominating the scene.

Rather than romanticizing or heroicizing young Ale as a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, latter-day Horatio Alger, the narrative structure of Chop Shop emphasizes the repetitive tedium of the struggle to get by day-to-day, similar to the recurring scenes of Ahmad pulling his cart through the rainy Manhattan streets in Man Push Cart. Ale's attempts at progress, at making a better life for himself and his sister, come to naught in the brutal world that they inhabit. Yet, there is something very heroic in this skinny kid who has taken on the challenges of adulthood without the adult guidance or the experience to succeed. His mentors, such as they are, are tough men who treat Ale, not like the little boy he is, but like someone who needs to pull his own weight in a dog-eat-dog world. One of those mentors is Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the protagonist of  Man Push Cart. We don't get a lot of detail about how he ended up here, but for those who recognize him from the earlier film, it is clear that Ahmad has fallen a few rungs in his own pursuit of the American Dream and lost some of what was best in himself along the way. No longer a melancholy figure selling coffee and bagels to sleepy midtown office workers, he's become hardened and cynical, making his living as a chop shop operator and part-time pimp. 

Isamar and Ale inspect their newly purchased food truck.

A huge sign on the side of the stadium seems to be directed specifically at Ale, urging him to "Make Dreams Happen." Ale's dream is a simple enough one: to buy a lunch wagon so that he and his sister can support themselves. He sees the broken-down van with a child's eyes as filled with potential and only needing a little superficial cleaning and painting to make customers want to flock to it. As he and Isamar playfully argue over what color to paint the outside of the truck, it is Ahmad who points out how ludicrous this dream is. In a moment that confirms for the viewer that this is in fact the same Ahmad as in Man Push Cart,  he alludes to his past experience in the food cart business, explaining to Ale that the equipment in the truck he's bought is hopelessly deteriorated and that it would cost another $10,000 before it could pass the health inspection. Ahmad doesn't try to soften the blow: he calls Ale stupid for agreeing to buy the truck on an as-is basis and then offers to buy it off him for less than 1/4 of what he paid for it. Eventually we see Ale literally dismantling his dream as he helps Ahmad to strip the truck down for scrap. 

The character of Ale calls to mind another Neorealist classic, Shoeshine (1946), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bahrani was influenced by that film's similar treatment of the sad impossibility of innocence and dreams for children in a nation devastated by war and economic hardship. Ale is a child who struggles quixotically to protect and provide for his adored big sister. With a child's imagination, he  envisions their stark room above the garage as a real home, a place where there is always plenty of soda pop and microwave popcorn. He has seen enough to knowingly quote the price of a blow-job and offer to buy one for his best friend, but is devastated when he recognizes that the young woman performing that act on a truck driver is his sister. There's no real place for a child in Ale's world, and over the course of the film we see this skinny and industrious kid lose the light in his eyes, and we wonder if it is inevitable that this world will change him in the way that it has changed Ahmad. 

There is no happy ending, but Chop Shop ends on an ambiguous note that suggests a reconciliation between Ale and Isamar. The final shot shows pigeons taking off across the sky, and for this viewer at least, Ale is a lot like those pigeons: tough, resilient, adaptable, and capable of moments of grace.

Watch the official trailer here.

31 May 2012

In Bruges

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell enjoying the medieval splendors of Bruges.

Today is Colin Farrell's 36th birthday, and the lad has certainly packed a lot of living and a lot of movies into his life so far. In honor of the occasion, i urge you to watch In Bruges, one of my very favorite movies! This movie truly has everything: guns, drugs, redemption, a beautiful medieval setting, and a bargeload of bad language, political incorrectness, and the darkest comedy you could ask for. If that's not enough, there's also a grandly psychopathic performance by Ralph Fiennes, as well as Colin Farrell and his magical Irish eyebrows.

The trailer, which you can view here, is an awe-inspiring exercise in f-bomb bleepery.

27 May 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 1: Man Push Cart (2005)

A Pakistani immigrant strains to pull a heavy snack cart through the predawn Manhattan streets, a young Dominican boy supports himself by drumming up business for a Queens chop shop, a garrulous Senegalese cabdriver befriends a taciturn old man. Each of Ramin Bahrani's three feature-length films is about the immigrant experience in America, but while there are similarities in tone and theme, what makes his movies among my favorites is the way that they insist on looking at characters not as interchangeable types, but as individuals each trying in his own way to make a place for himself in America. 

Man Push Cart, Photo by Jon Higgins

Anyone who knows anything about my relationship with the movies knows how much i love Italian Neorealism, not just for the films that are a direct part of that tradition (though many are among my favorites), but also for the movement's influence on later independent and developing-world filmmakers. The Neorealists rejected the glamor and high budgets of the Hollywood and prewar Italian film industries and instead attempted to tell the stories of real people living in the real world. Their aesthetic rejected finely crafted sets, elaborate lighting, and big stars, in favor of the grit and compelling humanity of city streets and nonprofessional actors. Ramin Bahrani's films show that the Neorealist tradition is alive and well and still has the power to tell compelling and powerful stories.

Inspired by Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Man Push Cart (2005) tells the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), who makes his living selling coffee and bagels from one of those ubiquitous aluminum carts that line the streets of Manhattan and other major American cities. He is one of the invisible people whose lives often go unremarked by those in need of that quick jolt of caffeine on the way to the office. In the opening scene, we see him struggling to pull the cart by hand to his spot on the street. It is a moving and moody scene, contrasting the bluesy beauty of that moment before the city comes to life with the physical struggle of one man whose day begins too early. He continues on his way as the sun rises and the traffic increases in volume, and the peril and hardship of his life becomes tangible. The cart is designed to be towed by a vehicle, not pulled by hand, and so instead of being part of the increasing flow of traffic, Ahmad is in danger of being hit by a truck at any moment. 

There's a sadness about Ahmad, the causes of which are revealed only slowly and never completely. By the end of the film we know a little more about this man, but are still left wondering about many of the details that led him to his current situation. Ahmad has a son, but the child lives with his maternal grandparents. He had a wife, but she died some time after their arrival in America; we never learn the details of her death, but her family holds Ahmad responsible and seems to be punishing him by keeping his son from him. When he is befriended by one of his customers, a fellow Pakistani and apparently wealthy businessman, we learn that Ahmad was a successful rock musician in his native Lahore. His is the reverse image of the rags-to-riches immigrant tale; he's a guy who seems to have had it all and lost it when he came to America. 

Although the production values in the film are not what you would find in a well-financed studio film, the use of locations contributes a raw visual power to the film. Often the action is obscured by the darkness of the setting, but then the brilliance of Manhattan, with its glittering shop displays and holiday lights, dazzles the eye, reminding us of those obscured lives playing out in the shadow of the metropolis (Bahrani explores this visual rhetoric even more effectively in the contrast between the seedy streets of Willets Point, Queens and the bright lights of Shea Stadium in his second film, Chop Shop). Like Antonio Ricci, the central character in de Sica's Neorealist masterwork, Bicycle Thieves, Ahmad is struggling to make a living on the economic fringes of the city; and like Antonio, he gets no Hollywood ending. But what we as viewers get is a touching and powerful reminder of the depth, complexity, precariousness, and dignity of the lives of those who too often go unnoticed. 

Theatrical trailer.

For more information on the films of Ramin Bahrani, click here.   

10 April 2012

Méliès Redux

Georges Méliès
I had the great good fortune to see the newly restored, full-color print of A Trip to the Moon (1902) tonight, along with Le Voyage Extraordinaire (2011), a documentary that looks at both the film career of Georges Méliès and the recent restoration of his best known film. My earlier post on Hugo talks at some length about Méliès and the remarkable discovery of an existing (though badly deteriorated) color print of A Trip to the Moon found in an archive in Spain. When i wrote that post, i never expected to see the film itself (although i hoped that eventually a DVD might be released), so when i learned that it would be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago this week, i nearly needed to be sedated. I have seen A Trip to the Moon at least a dozen times and never tire of it. I love the playfulness of it: the chorus line of sexy female Marines in their short shorts and sailor hats, the magic tricks that make the acrobatic Selenites (moon creatures) disappear in a puff of smoke, the iconic image of the rocket poking the man in the moon right in the eye; i even wryly roll my eyes and forgive its undercurrent of colonialist aggression against those poor moon critters. But what i didn't realize until tonight was that i had never actually seen a good, clear print of it projected on the large screen. It was so beautiful and so full of the most minute and charming details that i had never noticed before! There is no narration with this restoration, which instead has a surprisingly effective electronic soundtrack from the French band Air.

The accompanying documentary was also a revelation, containing clips from several of Méliès' other films, a fascinating account of the hand coloring process, and a close look at the tremendous and potentially disastrous job of restoring a canister of volatile, 100 year old celluloid. The documentary also includes interviews with leading directors like Costa-Gavras (Z), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), who all speak of Méliès' contributions to film with great admiration and affection. The restoration of A Trip to the Moon was clearly a labor of love, and what could be more appropriate? For if there is one thing i feel comfortable in speculating about Georges Méliès, it is that he must have completely and utterly loved making movies. The sheer joy that he displayed in bringing his magic to the brand new medium of film is testament to that, as is, sadly, the symbolic equivalent of self-immolation he performed when his career began to crash down around him, throwing all his films and all his props onto a bonfire. You can only be hurt that badly by a very great love indeed. 

If you are in Chicago, A Trip to the Moon and Le Voyage Extraordinaire are playing Gene Siskel Film Center until Thursday.

19 March 2012

My Left Foot Revisited

Watching My Left Foot (1989) for the first time in a couple of decades, i could not help but reflect on how powerfully our own experiences of the world play into our relationship with film. As anyone who knows me at all will attest, i tend to be a wee bit political, and i couldn't escape that even while watching this very uplifting biopic. Most often, when people talk about this film, what they talk about is Daniel Day-Lewis's tour de force performance as the inspiring Christy Brown, a Dubliner born with cerebral palsy who forces the world to see him as something more than his disability. Indeed, that was very much my reaction the first time i saw the film.

This time, however, i found myself constantly returning to the figure of his mother, a role for which Brenda Fricker won an Academy Award. The sainted Irish mother is a familiar trope, especially in Irish Catholic circles, and indeed, at least as her character is presented in the film, Mrs. Brown appears to have been a good mother, one who refused to accept the doctors' diagnosis or the opinion of her neighbors and husband that her son was intellectually impaired and would never move beyond the developmental level of a small child; nor did she keep him behind closed doors in shame as was sadly too often the case under similar circumstances. Instead, she made every effort to see that young Christy was included in the activities of his many siblings and that he got whatever opportunities she could provide to encourage him and help him improve his ability to communicate.

But it's those many siblings that stopped me in my tracks while watching the film this time. Poor Mrs. Brown is hugely pregnant through most of the film, and in one very dramatic scene she even collapses and falls down the stairs when she goes into labor shortly after carrying young Christy (who appears to be about nine years old at this point) up to his bed. As is briefly mentioned late in the film, Bridget Brown raised thirteen children, and lost another nine in childbirth. The math is simple: the woman gave birth to twenty-two babies. I'm not certain if there were any twins in the Brown family, but even assuming that there were, poor Mrs. Brown would have spent over fifteen years of her life pregnant. Imagine that! Fifteen full years of morning sickness, backaches, and swollen ankles, followed by two-hour feedings, colic, and sadly, in the case of Mrs. Brown and countless other women in similar circumstances, terrible loss. I must admit at this point that giving birth is something i've never done or had much desire to do, but i've been around my share of pregnant women and newborn babies. And as much as i love the sweet little cherubs, carrying and caring for that many of them over that long a span of time seems to me more onerous than serving a similarly long stretch in prison for committing one of your more elaborate felonies.

The Browns were poor, surviving on the ill-tempered Mr. Brown's meager salary as a bricklayer. The film adds a sort of nostalgic charm to the challenges of raising such a huge family on such meager resources. As one example, in a few scenes the boys are shown humorously arranged four to a bed in an alternating head-foot-head-foot pattern; in another, the boys grumble as their mother serves them an especially unappetizing mess of porridge for their supper, because it is all she can afford to put on the table (Note that it is the boys whose situation and reactions seem to be the ones that matter. The girls are presumably sleeping in similarly cramped conditions and dining on the same unappetizing slop, but they are uncomplaining saints-in-the-making, preparing for lives of self-sacrifice and never-ending pregnancy, just like Mam). All of this is done, of course, in a way intended to arouse the sympathies of the audience and thus evoke even greater admiration for both Mrs. Brown and young Christy for overcoming their many obstacles and adversities. Fine. Be nostalgic for the good old days of huge families and porridge for supper, if that makes you feel better about the human race. But nostalgia is one of those things best left safely compartmentalized right next to fairy tales. Would you want to live like Mrs. Brown? Would you wish her life on your wife, sister, daughter, or niece? Even in Ireland, which routinely has the highest fertility rates in Europe *, the double-digit family is largely a thing of the past. Meanwhile, here in the US, i thought we'd settled the debate over women's reproductive rights decades ago. Yet in the year 2012, we are inexplicably returning to the oppressive rhetoric of restricting access to reproductive health care for American women. We have political campaigns and reality TV shows that focus on the barefoot-and-pregnant version of "family values." And so the overtly simple tugging on the heart-strings of even a very compelling, well-crafted, and well-acted movie like My Left Foot is tainted for me at least for the time being. A film that i've loved in the past, today just pisses me off, and that in itself pisses me off even more. 

18 March 2012

Prologue to My Irish Film Fest and a Brief Plea to Save the Portage Theater

Because i don't drink, i'm always left with the dilemma of finding some new and interesting way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day that involves as little contact with the rowdy hordes of revelers as possible. Some years this can be as simple as staying home and baking Irish soda bread, but this year i decided to hold my own private movie marathon of films that either are filmed in or are about Ireland and the Irish. This did involve one daring foray into the outside world, a harrowing ride on the L and walk through Lincoln Park to the Chicago Public Library to find what is apparently the last existing copy of The Commitments (1991) in existence. It wasn't easy, but a true quest never is; so i braved the roving packs of pie-eyed twenty-somethings in their green teeshirts and Mardi Gras beads (When did that become a St. Patrick's Day tradition?), dug through racks of DVDs at the library, and finally made it back to my safe and sober domicile with my prize. The other films in my marathon (all of which i will write about at greater length in the coming days) were The Field (1990), My Left Foot (1989), The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), and Ondine (2009). All were more readily available, either because i have them in my collection or could get them streaming online. But The Commitments was the prize of the day: the movie i went to the most effort to get because i couldn't imagine my idiosyncratic film fest without it. 

The difficulty i had in finding a copy of The Commitments really took me by surprise and made me think about how much we take for granted in this marvelous digital age of ours. I'm old enough to remember having to scour bookstores, thrift shops, and libraries for some obscure book, or having to wait literally years for a favorite film to play at one of those wonderful little art house movie theaters in obscure corners of the city. I could here burst into a song of praise for the TLA and long-departed Bandbox in Philadelphia, where i fell in love with Cocteau, Buñuel, and Herzog, and forever changed my relationship to film, but i'll save that for another day. I could sing a similar paean to those classic art houses that still survive like the Music Box in Chicago, where i've spent many an evening. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, better than watching a classic film in a classic theater. The Portage in Chicago is one such theater that is currently in the greatest danger of not only closing, but having its lovingly restored architectural features eradicated. The owner of the building that houses the theater has put it up for sale. A church group, the Chicago Tabernacle, hopes to purchase the theater and turn it into a place of worship, eliminating or destroying key elements of this wonderful vintage theater, which was built in 1920. The local alderman, John Arena of the 45th Ward, is trying to block the zoning change, while making it very clear that the church itself is very welcome in the community at a more appropriate site. Please take a moment to read about the current threat to the Portage and then send an email to Alderman Arena expressing your support of his opposition to the destruction of this gem of Chicago's cultural scene. 
Click here for an article about the Portage Theater in the Chicago Tribune. 
Click here for the Portage Theater's website.
Click here for Alderman Arena's website.

26 February 2012

2011 Academy Awards

Let me start by acknowledging that i am tragically lacking in cynicism every year at Oscar time. Sure, some of my favorite movies of the past year weren't nominated. Scroll through my older posts and you'll find effusive praise for Road to NowhereMelancholia, and The Interrupters. None of them got even a nod. Still, predictable as the Oscars can be, and disappointed as i usually am in the outcome,  i can't help but get caught up in the glitz and hoopla every year. I'm better prepared this year than i've been in the past few years: i've seen quite a few of the films that are nominated. And despite all the grumbling about the quality of movies this year, i found plenty to love. 
I have no intention of predicting who will win; what's the point of that, beyond a sorry mix of bragging rights and disappointment? But here are my thoughts on the nominees for best picture:

The Tree of Life--If i ruled the world, or at least the Academy, this would win best picture. It is vast and daring, and yes, frustrating, as art should be. I am thrilled that it actually got three nominations! I don't expect that it will win. Well, maybe Emmanuel Lubezki will get the award for cinematography. Say what you like about my personal deity, Terrence Malick, the man has an extraordinary sense of visual aesthetics. 

The Artist--Completely charming! If there were an award for Best Eyes Belonging to an Actress in a Supporting Role, Bérénice Bejo would win it in a heartbeat!

The Descendants--I liked this movie, but not enough to give it an Oscar.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close--Didn't see it, but i enjoyed David Denby's scathing and child-loathing review in The New Yorker.

The Help--Haven't seen it yet.

Hugo--I really enjoyed this movie and loved the homage to the wonderful Georges Méliès. 

Midnight in Paris--What a delightful movie! It reminded me why i used to never miss anything by Woody Allen. Who hasn't indulged in a few fantasies of stepping into a time machine and being transported to Paris in the 'twenties? Which reminds me, why wasn't Kathy Bates nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Gertrude Stein? 

Moneyball--Haven't seen it yet.

War Horse--Haven't seen it, and don't have much interest in it.

In the acting categories:
I haven't seen enough of the performances to make any informed comparisons, but here are a few that i thought were very good:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: 
Gary Oldman should probably win in that way the Academy has of giving Oscars to actors who should have gotten them a long time ago. I found Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy kind of boring, but since Oldman should have gotten an Oscar for Sid and Nancy, i will understand perfectly if they give him one now.

I have to confess that i was a bit underwhelmed by The Descendants. As i said earlier, i liked it, but that's about it. Clooney was good. I won't throw things at the TV if he wins.

Jean Dujardin--I confess to a case of pencil-thin mustache fever. The man was delicious in The Artist.

I still need to see Moneyball and A Better Life.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: 
Michelle Williams is absolutely luminous as Marilyn Monroe. Just give her the Oscar, for goodness sake!
I also thought Rooney Mara was very good in Dragon Tattoo

I haven't seen The Help or Albert Nobbs yet. I have no intention of watching The Iron Lady at any time in the near future; I'm sure Meryl Streep is brilliant in it, but that does not change the fact that it's a movie about Margaret Flippin' Thatcher.

Supporting Actor:
Christopher Plummer was wonderful in Beginners. End of story.

Supporting Actress:
Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. Can we please reward someone for doing comedy well?
Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, for that lovely scene with the jacket...and those eyes!

A few other categories:
Best Documentary: 
Pina: This movie was in my top five films of the year. I thought it was breathtaking for its use of setting and music, and was touched by the poignant circumstances of its making. German choreographer Pina Bausch,  the subject of the film and friend of director Wim Wenders, passed away shortly before filming was scheduled to begin. Wenders went ahead with the film, now transformed into a touching elegy for a visionary of modern dance.

But let me repeat my complaint: Why wasn't The Interrupters nominated?

Best Screenplay:
All i can say is, "Are you kidding me?" Where is My Week with Marilyn? The dialogue in that movie was so delicious that people were scribbling lines in the dark so they wouldn't forget them. 

Midnight in Paris was a very good original screenplay. 

The Artist? Really? Is that a joke?

Best Foreign Language Film:
Confession, the only one I've seen yet is A Separation. It's an excellent film. 

Cinematography: The Tree of Life. Amen.

17 January 2012

My Flight (of Fancy) Has Been Diverted from Hawaii to Paris

I finally went to see The Descendants yesterday. I enjoyed it and thought George Clooney's performance was good, but what i liked most about it was that the voiceover narration in the beginning reminded me of another film where Alexander Payne uses this device: the segment on the 14e arrondissement in Paris, je t'aime (2006). A collection of eighteen short films by different directors, each set in a different Paris neighborhood, Paris, je t'aime is a montage of impressions of the City of Lights from different perspectives, using different stylistic approaches. Some segments made a stronger impression on me than others, but the one directed by Payne remains a sentimental favorite. In it, Margo Martindale plays Carol, an American postal worker from Denver fulfilling her lifelong dream of visiting Paris.
Carol (Margo Martindale) strolls the streets of Paris.
The film is organized as Carol's account of her trip, delivered in tone-deaf French to her continuing ed class. The voiceover narration reveals her struggles with the language while the visuals show her making her way through her final day in Paris. The film touches on all the stereotypes of American tourists in Paris: Carol is middle-aged, overweight, and badly dressed; she even sports a fanny pack. The trip seems to have been something of a disappointment up to this point. After five days she is still feeling tired and jetlagged; as she comments that the food did not live up to expectations, the camera reveals the remnants of a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. Dutifully following her guidebook, she visits the Cimetière de Montparnasse, pausing at the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In explaining the importance of the grave to the class, she confuses Beauvoir with Simón Bolívar.

In other hands, this slight story might have easily lapsed into mean-spiritedness.  But the combination of Payne's gentle humor and obvious affection for the character turn it into something very charming, a true love song to Paris. Martindale's face is wonderfully expressive and beautifully balances her deadpan delivery. At the end of the segment, Carol sits quietly on a park bench, no more museums to visit, no more need to consult her guidebook, and in that quiet moment, Paris and she finally find each other.

You can watch the entire segment on YouTube:
Margo Martindale in Paris je t'aime

14 January 2012

Searching for Méliès

It isn't every day that i go to a PG-rated movie, especially one in 3-D, but for Hugo I made a happy exception. The fact that it was directed by Martin Scorsese and paid homage to one of my heroes, the brilliant Georges Méliès, went a long way in leading me to overcome my usual aversion to being seated in the immediate vicinity of anyone under the age of 12, what with all the squirming and fidgeting and repeated trips to the snack bar and the bathroom that people in that age group tend to require. I suffered a brief moment of panic and almost headed for the exit when i realized that the woman and two adorable moppets standing in front of me in line were going into the same theatre as i. Fortunately, i overcame my curmudgeonhood in time, and my reward was a perfectly magical afternoon at the movies.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz) with the newly repaired automaton
Adapted from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the film is the beautifully executed tale of young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan leading an adventurous life in a Paris train station. He spends his time tending the station's many clocks, purloining the occasional croissant to sustain himself, eluding an over-zealous policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his inexorable Doberman, and stealing parts and tools from a toyshop in order to restore a beautiful automaton that is his last connection to his late father. He is befriended by Isabelle (Chlöe Grace Moretz), the goddaughter of the ill-tempered toy shop owner (Sir Ben Kingsley), and the two children set out to solve a mystery that eventually leads them to Georges Méliès, the pioneering French filmmaker, whose name today is usually followed by the words "father of ...," as in father of special effects, father of fantasy film, father of science fiction movies.

Georges Méliès
The first half of the film has plenty of action and adventure to satisfy young viewers, and even a cynical old celluloid addict like myself couldn't help but be drawn in by the wonderful sets, the Dickensian plot, and the presence of  Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee, the one who scared the bejeebers out of me in The Mummy when i was a wee sprout). But it is in the second half, when Scorsese the film lover springs into full action, that this movie had me weeping in my seat. From the moment that Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a movie theatre, and we see the look of wonder overtake Isabelle's face as she watches her first movie, Hugo becomes a celebration of early cinema. They are watching the famous scene from Safety Last! (1923) in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from a clock high above the street, a scene that will be replayed by young Hugo later in the film. As the two uncover the mystery surrounding the remarkable automaton, the narrative unfolds into a beautifully executed lesson in film history, bringing to life the first days of the cinematic era. We share the thrill of an unjaded audience watching in awe and terror as the Lumière brothers' train hurtles towards them, and experience the unfettered playfulness of Méliès. Hugo is both a celebration and an elegy to early film, delighting in the magical works of those first filmmakers and our good fortune in still having access to so many of them, while also making us painfully aware of how many more of the earliest films have been lost and how important it is to preserve and restore those that remain. I'll return to this topic at the end of this post with a few links to sites devoted to film preservation.

Georges Méliès was a magician by trade and seemed to delight in exploring the ways that the emerging technology of film could be used to bring magic into a new century. It is fitting then that a film that is so much imbued with the spirit of Méliès and his age should also make use of the latest in filmmaking technology. And although i remain ambivalent about 3-D in general and its use in Hugo in particular, for the most part, opinions about its use in the film have been very positive. My reservations were reinforced before the film even began, as i sat through an almost endless series of previews for animated movies that seemed to use that technology for the sole purpose of hurling weapons, birds, and other random objects in the direction of the viewer. Admittedly 3-D can be used to much better effect, as was the case in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). In Hugo, it is also used very well, for the most part, and contributes nicely to the feeling of vast space and kinetic energy in Hugo's clockwork surroundings. The technology, however, seems much better suited to deep rather than shallow focus. The focus in 3-D is so sharp, that in a shallow-focus shot the out-of-focus elements of the frame can sometimes seem distractingly blurry. This was especially the case in a few shots where the focus was on the middle ground, and a figure in the foreground appeared as a hazy blot in the composition. That being said, the film also contained a moment where the use of 3-D is so subtle and wonderful that it took my breath away: At the end of the film, when Méliès' rediscovered movies are being screened, you suddenly realize that he was experimenting with a form of 3-D himself and that the effect has been enhanced to accentuate the movement of the moon as it seems to approach the viewer. Is this sacrilege, messing with the cinematic pantheon? I have to think that if anyone would appreciate this playful application of new technology to his work, it would be that great innovator, that great magician, Georges Méliès. The cinema is magic and always has been. The Lumières brought the magic of the everyday to the screen, but Méliès brought the magic of the imagination, using all the tools at his disposal to take his viewers from the mountains of the moon to the depths of the sea, from the smoky chimneys of Paris to the land of dreams and impossible creatures.
The marines preparing to launch the spaceship to the moon
A Trip to the Moon (1902) 
A few words on film preservation:
The preservation of our film heritage is a subject close to Martin Scorsese's heart and one that he addresses quite movingly in Hugo. In a tragic moment in the movie, we see the disenchanted Méliès selling his old films to be melted down into material for the making of heels for women's shoes. He believes that his works have all been destroyed, but later, he (and we in the audience) discover that many of his movies had survived. And, just as in the film, miracles happen and movies that were long considered lost forever are rediscovered, often in the most surprising places. In one of the most celebrated and recent cases, an intact copy of the full two-and-a-half-hour version of Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927), unseen in its entirety for over eighty years, was discovered in the vaults of Argentina's Museo del Cine. The first three reels of Hitchcock's first film, The White Shadow (1923), were discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2011. A year earlier, the same archive yielded a veritable treasure trove of early American films. The discovery of these "lost" films in such far-flung locations as Argentina, New Zealand, and Russia is a reminder of the global impact of the cinema even in the early years of the last century.

Even when these long-lost films are rediscovered, however, often the real work of their recovery is just beginning. The cellulose nitrate stock on which films were recorded until 1950 was a notoriously unstable and highly combustible medium. At some point in the past, while researching early film, i recall coming across an article (maybe in Motion Picture World) that talked about old films being bought up and used to produce nitrate-based munitions during World War I (Unfortunately, this is just a vague memory and at this point i can't document or confirm that information; i don't know if it's accurate or apocryphal, so i'll just toss it out there in case any of my readers want to look further into the topic). Many of the old films went up in flames, but many others suffered a slower deterioration and require painstaking efforts to restore themVoyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), the most famous of Méliès' more than 500 films, was never lost, and is a staple of many film studies classes.The image from the film of a rocketship landing in the eye of the man in the moon, is a familiar one, found everywhere from teeshirts to music videos.
Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon
But until recently, A Trip to the Moon appeared to have survived only in black-and-white or monochromatically tinted prints. In 1993 a hand-painted color print was discovered in a private collection in Barcelona. After a long and meticulous restoration process, the color version of the film was presented to great acclaim at Cannes in May, 2011. For the purpose of comparison, click on these links to see the full black-and-white version of the film and a clip of the restored version of a scene in which the astronomers land on the moon and encounter the Selenites (inhabitants of the moon) for the first time.  As inventive, comical, and enjoyable as the black-and-white version is, seeing it in color--as Méliès envisioned it--adds a whole new level to the experience and underscores the importance of film preservation.

Postscript: Here are a few of Méliès' other movies that show how, as early as the 1890s, he was using techniques like stop-motion animation to produce special effects:

Cendrillon (Cinderella) (1899), i include this because of the clock motif which figures so prominently in Hugo as well.
L'homme a la tête en caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head) (1901), and this one i include just because i think it's funny.
Jeanne D'Arc (Joan of Arc) (1900)
Barbe-bleue (Blue Beard) (1901)