May 2007

Sugar Cane Alley (1983, Euzhan Palcy) – Video Essay

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925. America, America (1963, Elia Kazan)

screened Sunday May 27 2007 on Warner Brothers VHS in Astoria NY

TSPDT rank #787 IMDb

Elia Kazan’s most personal film is ostensibly a recounting of his Greek uncle’s prolonged journey from Turkey to the U.S., but as with On the Waterfront [TSPDT #80], there’s an autobiographical subtext beneath the hero’s struggles. Played broadly by Stathis Giallelis (fashioned as a Greek James Dean but with far less expressive range), Kazan’s uncle Stavros is perpetually stifled by the demands of others — whether a man trying to bilk him with whores or a propsective father-in-law pushing marriage on him — en route to making the coveted passage across the Atlantic. The tone of the film is one of constant struggle, not only with others but with one’s own conscience, though you might glean this less from Giallelis’ limited capacity to emote than from the subtext of Kazan’s checkered past of naming names for the HUAC in order to preserve his own career. Kazan works from his own rich albeit episodic script that often seems at odds with its own efforts to promote the myth of the heroic immigrant. Stavros is guided by an almost animalistic urge to freedom, commiting murder, adultery and jilting a would-be bride along the way. This complex characterization could have been seen through by a stronger talent than Giallelis; as it stands the film never quite coheres emotionally around his blank reactive presence. Cinematically, this is one of Kazan’s more experimental efforts, enlisting a young Haskell Wexler to attempt a decidedly European late neo-realist look, often claustrophobic in its tight frames on anguished faces. The film’s gritty, unglamorous look does little to take the edge off Kazan’s characteristically strident direction, and the film’s happy ending is unconvincing, but there are a number of powerful moments along the way that soberly examine the necessity and virtue of brute determinism to find a better life. This very well could have been Kazan’s Barry Lyndon [TSPDT #79]
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924. The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

screened Sunday May 20 2007 on DVD in Astoria NY

TSPDT rank #800 IMDb

For all of his Oscars, William Wyler’s career is more interesting than inspiring in that he managed to make some respectable, even masterful films while effacing virtually any trace of an authorial personality from them (unless that personality is of a self-effacing nature, in which case we may be dealing with a coldly Bazinian ideal). Directing from his own adaptation of a stage play which was in turn adapted from Henry James’ Washington Square, Wyler is in peak form showcasing his abilities to dramatize material with potent efficiency. He does this chiefly through subtle but expressive deep-focus camerawork (along with Hitchcock he can be said to have pioneered the staircase school of suspense cinematography), and of course by working with A-list acting talent. The Heiress offers a particularly fascinating case study in clashing acting styles — Olivia de Havilland’s hapless spinster-as-demure Hollywood damsel is beset on one side by Ralph Richardson’s stern patriarch realized with Shakespearean authority, and on the other side by Montgomery Clift’s inscrutable 19th century suitor whose brooding Method mannerims suggest that he stepped out of a via time machine. Whether by design or chance, Wyler benefits from the clash of these styles informing the character conflicts onscreen. The climax and famous ending, while certainly dramatically uncompromising, still feels a bit too pat to this viewer (for the same reasons that I was let down by the ending of Polanski’s Repulsion). If anything, by literally shutting out an expressive Method actor’s attempts to break into a scene, it offers a visual metaphor to Wyler’s hermetically sealed approach to impeccable filmmaking.

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923. Rue cases nègres / Sugar Cane Alley (1984, Euzhan Palcy)

screened Saturday May 19 2007 on New Yorker DVD in Astoria NY
TSPDT rank #793 IMDb

The only Caribbean film in the They Shoot Pictures 1000 (not counting films from Cuba) was the first feature by Euzhan Palcy, who went on to become the first Black woman to helm a major Hollywood production (A Dry White Season). Based on a novel by Joseph Zobel, the film follows a young boy growing up with his grandmother among the sugar cane workers in 1880s Martinique. By a combination of conscientious guidance by his elders and his own talent, he is able to pursue a formal education and rise above consignment to the cane fields. From scene to scene, the film more demonstrative than illustrative — the sepia compositions and earthy period authenticity barely conceals the rhetoric bent of the film. The episodic narrative feels like a series of object lessons each with a singular point to make about the perils of post-colonial life. The overall effect however is an elaborate discourse on the need for education and artistic expression, not so much to escape poverty but to give voice to it.

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922. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah)

2005 “Special Edition”: screened Sunday May 6 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ1988 “Turner Preview Edition”: screened Tuesday May 8 2007 on mp4 on video iPod en route to Washington DC

TSPDT rank #797 IMDb

Title screen from the Turner Preview Edition:

Title screen from the 2005 Special Edition restored and edited by Paul Seydor.

Information and comparison on the three different versions of the film

Peckinpah’s final film set in the historical West was edited to distribution without his participation; for years he kept his own preview version, which was made public after his death, but a recent re-edit commissioned for the film’s 2005 DVD release further complicates the issue of an authoritative version.  The latter two versions are both available on the DVD, and as narratives, neither of them are fully satisfying.  There’s less a sense of a developing story as a series of slight variations on the well-worn myth of uncompromising gunslinger Billy vs. his ex-buddy Garrett set to sell him out.  Kristofferson’s Billy is an impenetrable amalgam of approaches fumbled between the script, direction and acting (though it still looks favorable to Bob Dylan, with whose character Peckinpah seems to be toying reproachfully).  Coburn’s chiseled, grim performance as Garrett gives his unsavory character a fair degree of dignity – he’s a much more human and compelling a presence than the pedestalized legend he’s pursuing.  But the real star of the film seems to be the dirt-pigmented settings and gristled supporting characters that give the film the immensely pleasurable texture of mud-splashed leather.  At times Peckinpah seems to actively resist advancing the story for the sake of lingering on sparse, idle chatter and indolent moments among his exemplary company of Western stock characters (Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, L.Q. Jones, etc) before the majority of them succumb to violent ruin.  It’s a vision of the West falling apart at the seams, and all he can do is bid each stich and swath an adoringly self-destructive adieu.  As with his other films, the ideology on display is as highly problematic as it is seductively eloquent.
Here’s an analysis of the film’s best scene:

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The same scene, played at half-speed, if only to linger upon it further:

[youtube]M49ObQEN560[/youtube]

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Depression halts Von Trier films

Having my own periodic bouts of creative funk, I find it perversely reassuring that someone as gifted and seemingly prolific as Lars has his down times.  I wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to watching The Boss of It All to hold myself over until he’s back in the ring with another stimulating provocation.
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/entertainment/6652151.stm
Danish director Lars Von Trier has described how depression has left
him unable to work, and said he was unclear when he would make another
film.
He had lost focus after being admitted to hospital at the start of
this year, he told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper.

It felt “like a blank sheet of paper”, explained the 51-year-old, who
is known for productions such as Dogville.

“It’s very strange for me, because I’ve always had at least three
projects in my head at one time,” he added.

“You can’t make a film and be depressed at the same time.

“They say that it can take a couple of years to recover after a
depression – but let us see.”

He also said he was unsure if he would be able to begin work on a
horror movie called Antichrist, which he had planned to start filming
toward the middle of this year.

The film depicts Satan, rather than God, as the world’s creator.

“I assume that Antichrist will be my next movie,” he said, “but right
now I don’t know.”

Von Trier is known for creating the so-called “Dogme principle of
film-making in the mid-1990s.

This banned props, lighting and sound editing, as a way of stripping
down the production process.

921. Louisiana Story – Video Essay

Part 2 of my exploration of Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story [Read Part 1]

[googlevideo]-2214746163097312549&hl=en[/googlevideo]

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Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin)

screened Sunday May 13 2007 at Village East Cinemas, New York NY IMDb

This is the view from my seat. The orchestra is dressed in black on the left, the three live foley artists (who used such implements as steel brushes, a full-size slamming door, and celery sticks to create the live sound effects) are dressed in white lab coats on the right, and narrator John Ashbery is in the center shaking hands with Guy Maddin on the right. (I have a closer shot of the two of them but it’s pretty blurry). Not pictured — the castrato who was sitting in the box seat to my left the whole time, and got up to sing all of one minute’s worth of screen time.
Needless to say, with all of this activity south of the screen, it was damn difficult to devote my full attention to Maddin’s latest, a campily disturbing (or disturbingly campy) faux autobiography about a man named Guy Maddin’s traumatic childhood in an orphanage, raised by a domineering mother and infatuated with a cross-dressing lesbian teen. As par for Maddin’s crazed course, it’s both intimate in its perversity yet coldly detached in its silent era formalism. Verdict is out on the film, as it was clearly upstaged by the event — every time a sound effect was issued, I instinctively looked at the foley section to see the sound of wind generated from a wooden wheel, hands splashing in a pool to simulate the lapping of waves, and the crunching of a melon for the sound of a woman’s teeth biting into a child’s flesh.

But best of all I got to meet my favorite living poet, John Ashbery, whom I described to Robert Cargni, film curator at the International House in Philadelphia, as the Jean-Luc Godard of English language poetry. To wit, here’s the opening of “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”:

Something strange is creeping across me.

La Celestina has only to warble the first few bars

Of “I Thought about You” or something mellow from

Amadigi di Gaula for everything–a mint-condition can

Of Rumford’s Baking Powder, a celluloid earring, Speedy

Gonzales, the latest from Helen Topping Miller’s fertile

Escritoire, a sheaf of suggestive pix on greige, deckle-edged

Stock–to come clattering through the rainbow trellis

Where Pistachio Avenue rams the 2300 block of Highland

Fling Terrace. He promised he’d get me out of this one,

That mean old cartoonist, but just look what he’s

Done to me now! I scarce dare approach me mug’s attenuated

Reflection in yon hubcap, so jaundiced, so déconfit
Are its lineaments–fun, no doubt, for some quack phrenologist’s

Fern-clogged waiting room, but hardly what you’d call

Companionable. But everything is getting choked to the point of

Silence.

somehow over the course of the poem we get from this narrowly manic mallardian stream of conscious monologue to a bird’s eye view of life’s splendrous variety and acceptance of our finite place within it.

Not what we see but how we see it matters; all’s

Alike, the same, and we greet him who announces

The change as we would greet the change itself.

All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny

Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the

Missing link in this invisible picnic whose leverage

Shrouds our sense of it. Therefore bivouac we

On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by

Veiled scruples, worn conundrums. Morning is

Impermanent. Grab sex things, swing up

Over the horizon like a boy

On a fishing expedition. No one really knows

Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts

Were vouchsafed–once–but to be ambling on’s

The tradition more than the safekeeping of it. This mulch for

Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,

Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants–what maps, what

Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our

Life anyway, is between. We don’t mind

Or notice any more that the sky is green, a parrot

One, but have our earnest where it chances on us,

Disingenuous, intrigued, inviting more,

Always invoking the echo, a summer’s day.

921. Louisiana Story (1948, Robert Flaherty)

Before I issue this week’s entry, I’d like to thank those who’ve posted their positive feedback to the ever-developing format of these TSPDT entries – first with the text and image compilations of writings found on the internet for each film, then the embedded video clips, and most recently the video essays.
Recently I received some feedback from a couple of my friends at IMDb who’ve read my reviews for years, and they’ve found these new extended blog entries to be overwhelming to absorb, partly because of their length and partly because at times it’s hard to tell what is my own writing or opinion on the film. For those reasons they feel disinclined to respond or take up a conversation. Not sure if this is the impression others have had, but I’m going to try to address this by resuming the format that I used for my reviews for years, the capsule summary, modeled after the great Chicago Reader Brief Movie Reviews. Hopefully that will give readers a succinct and evocative sense of what I think about the movie, and as a result will elicit more of a response. But I’ll also keep the video essays and the annotated bibliographies because I do think those have value. Perhaps this three-tiered project seems ambitious, but worthwhile. I’m thinking of conducting a brief feedback survey to see how this project has come off so far.

Moving on to the film in question:

screened Monday April 16 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
and on Home Vision Entertainment DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #880 IMDb
The last feature made by cinema pioneer Robert Flaherty depicts life in the Louisiana bayou, as seen by a mischievous Cajun boy, just as an oil drilling company arrives to scout the swampland. The film was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company to showcase the oil industry’s contribution to modern civilization; such circumstances would make the film seem dubious in light of today’s increasing concern for the environment and cynicism towards corporate spin. But the film was heralded at the time, both in its story and its technique, as a triumph of modernist cinema in depicting the reconciliation between man, nature and technology (it was even voted one of the ten greatest films of all time in the first ever Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll). Indeed, the film showcases the Flaherty aesthetic at its finest. Flaherty is often considered a documentary filmmaker, but he’s clearly after more than just filming reality; he’s looking for the moment that’s realer than reality, where time seems to stand still and the world and the camera lens combine to reveal beauty, in the swampand, in human faces, even in the rhythmically mechanical routine of the oil drillers. That the film succumbs to narrative demands by the end, with a gratuitous alligator hunt sequence followed by a hokum plot twist, underscores the difficulty of sustaining such a high level of cinema, but the film’s first half does plenty to justify his art. Indeed, by the end of the film, one wonders if the implicit conflict raging in this film is not just between man, nature and technology, but between Flaherty’s non-narrative visionary impulses and the prosaic narrative demands of the public.
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Adrian Martin writes back on Peter Ibbetson (TSPDT project #919)

I’m pleased to report that Adrian Martin replied to my request for a blurb on Peter Ibbetson (I wrote him requesting some reflections, as he was the only critic or director who voted for it in the most recent Sight and Sound Top Ten Greatest Films Poll). Herewith:

I have indeed lived with this remarkable and very singular movie for around 30 years. It was beloved of the Surrealists – and was one of the two favourite movies of Jean Rouch (I think it was his recommendation, published in the late ’70s, that first got me onto it).
For an obvious reason: it celebrates the triumph of the imagination over ‘mere’ reality, which is viewed as a social prison. But the more you explore the film, especially via the astonishing Georges du Maurier book it is derived from (he’s from the Daphne du Maurier family, thus a ‘father of melodrama’), you get into its incredible psychoanalytic and poetic depths. It is a great, very strange film (Henry Hathaway never did anything else quite like it!): what other movie of the period, or even since, has gone so deeply into male melancholia, into ‘childhood love’, into supernatural fantasy … Every element in it clicks so perfectly, from a brilliantly concise and elaborately patterned script, to Cooper’s acting (sublime) to the music and design, A true comet of a film.

Visit Rouge, the online film journal edited by Adrian.

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