Thursday, November 25, 2010

Day 34 and 1966

As he did for 1965, George allowed 1966 four titles, Alfie, A Man and a Woman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Blow Up. Two are based on plays and two come from acclaimed foreign directors. As such, the former pair are heavily dialogue driven and the latter have long wordless sections. I don’t have much here for pithy contextual analysis, so let’s just dive right in.

Alfie is directed by Lewis Gilbert, written by Bill Naughton(based on his play), and stars Michael Caine. From a cursory sweep, I can’t find anything particularly remarkable about Gilbert or Naughton, career wise or artistically speaking, other than Gilbert going on to direct three Bond Films and a couple of other play adaptations I’ve heard of. He’s worked steadily, won a few industry awards, but doesn’t seem to have a specific voice of note. As for Naughton, he’s got 12 IMDB credits over 50 years, two of which are a sequel to and a remake of Alfie. I say none of this to diminish their work here. I just wonder how it is that their paths led them where they did. Because this absolutely belongs on the list. As noted, it’s heavily dialogue driven, in part because Alfie is constantly talking to the camera, scarcely ever taking a breath before explaining to us exactly why he does what he does, his philosophies on life, etc. He starts this from the very beginning, explaining to us that we’re not going to see any opening titles after the main title card. It almost seems as if he’s warning us we’re going to have our expectations confounded at every turn. We see a handsome and charming young man and we might assume he’s going to find a young lady, perhaps quarrel with her a bit and by the end they’ll both skip away into the sunset. But this is not a romantic comedy. And Alfie, though ostensibly the protagonist, and indeed a handsome and charming young man, does not behave as we expect such men in movies to behave. The opening scene has him fumbling about in a car with a married woman, then immediately after explaining to us why this is the best situation for all parties involved, including the husband. We see Alfie flit about London, impregnating one woman, and never taking responsibility for it, have a brush with death, then turn around and betray a friend(if Alfie has any true friends) by knocking up his wife and setting up the abortion. All the while he winks at the camera, smiles at us and justifies his behavior. He has the occasional glimmer of humanity, such as when he starts to gain affection for his son, when he confronts his own mortality, when he realizes for a moment that he’s actually aging, and when he catches a glimpse of the aborted fetus that might have been his child. Well, maybe not humanity, exactly, but a pause where he seems to briefly doubt his course. At the end of the film, it seems that these moments of realization may have changed him slightly, may have a modicum of influence on his path, but probably not. I told my friend Adam I was watching this film and he said something about how bleak it was. I agreed that Alfie’s outlook might be bleak, but the film, in large part due to Caine’s performance, didn’t feel bleak to me. It says something for Caine that he made me mostly enjoy spending two hours with someone who, in real life, I probably wouldn’t want to spend two minutes with, let alone let him near my wife or girlfriend. Then again, I also allow that it’s hard to match three of the last list films, The Pawnbroker, Alphaville, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold when it comes to bleak. But that does bring me to another theme I’ve noticed. Many of these titles have flawed male protagonists. Steiger and Burton’s chararacters essentially seemed to be just waiting to die, but were so drained of existence to lack the will to cause it directly. Alfie, on the other hand, was a pleasure to be around, all things considered, though it probably won’t be pretty to watch as he gets older and the charm wears off. I also could see a direct line between this grinning amoral sociopath and Alex from one of my favorite films upcoming on the list, A Clockwork Orange(#45).

Admittedly, there isn’t much to Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. In plot, it’s a fairly straightforward love story. Boy meets girl, etc. From my, as usual, minimal research, this was very influential in future romantic films. Generally speaking, I have little patience for the films it supposedly spawned. Many critics, though acknowledging its influence, insist it hasn’t aged well and seem to be somewhat. Maybe I’m a sucker for visual style, as I’m certainly not one for this genre. But I found this extremely compelling. Admittedly, this was largely due to the visual style. It shifts between color, black and white, and sepia tone. It includes numerous flashbacks with varying degrees of subjectivity, one even turning into an extended musical sequence. So, I suppose, it’s not always the story, but the storyteller. In addition to the visual style, the lead actors, Jean-Louis Tringnant and Anouk Aimee, are quite natural, believable, and watchable. I also think that the hesitancy of the would be lovers lends it a lot more credence than a film that just dives in to the relationship and is all about being in love, letting us bask in the seemingly eternal happiness. This isn’t about being in love. Or even necessarily falling in love. It’s about two people wanting to love, but, on some level, not sure if they can. Even the ending, though optimistic, is preceded by what looks like the opposite. As a result, it achieves an ambiguity that’s easier to swallow. It ends with a moment of happiness but it’s far from certain what’s next for these two. Oh, yeah, and it looks great, too.

It’s probably been 25 years since I last saw the film version of Edward Albee’s brilliant play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But it’s time to declare some baggage. It’s one of my favorite plays of all time by one of my favorite playwrights. I saw the 2005 Broadway revival with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin twice. I even started to convince myself that Irwin’s interpretation of George was a more valid one than Burton’s. Not surprisingly, I was looking forward to revisiting this one with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed. Not only were all the performances riveting and compelling, Albee’s dialogue is given all due reverence. This was Mike Nichols film directing debut, previously better known as a performer and a theatre director. It’s very fortunate that he and the producers were wise enough to respect the fact that Albee’s writing was the most essential part. Apparently, the screenplay, adapted by Ernest Lehmann, was thrown out and replaced by all of Albee’s original dialogue save two lines. There are a few attempts to open it up, as the play took place all on one set. Though these attempts, particularly one to a roadhouse, are hardly necessary, they don’t detract from the power of the work at all. I could go on and on about this one. Perhaps the best work ever done by Taylor and Burton. Beautifully shot in black and white, both emphasizing the starkness of this existence and successfully masking the attractiveness of its two stars. Well, not entirely. Taylor is still quite attractive, but successfully pushed in the other direction to appear past her prime. I do want to say one last thing about my previous misconception about Burton’s performance and that of Bill Irwin’s on Broadway. Though revisiting this one reminded me of its power and I no doubt appreciated it more fully than I did in my teenage years, it in no way diminished the impact of the brilliant stage version. If anything, it reinforced how great the writing is, being malleable to all sorts of power dynamics. Two different but equally valid interpretations.

From a 130 minute film where the dialogue is almost nonstop, I moved on to Blow Up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film about a young, brilliant, and temperamental photographer. Though artfully scored by Herbie Hancock, this film also has long sections with no dialogue and no score. I first saw this at a revival house only a few years ago, and this was one of the things that most impressed me. It’s hard to imagine contemporary audiences having the patience for this, when so many films are overscored and indicative, frequently cueing the viewer how to feel. When Hancock’s score was used, it reminded me, coming on the heels of Alfie and The Pawnbroker, how effective jazz can be as a scoring device. Unlike traditional film scoring, which, to some degree was parodied in Alphaville, jazz creates a mood in more of a subtle way. At least it does in these examples. This also continues the theme of antisocial young man mentioned in Alfie. David Hemmings character gets away with all sorts of horrible behavior, both in the way he treats his subjects, and in the way he constantly seems to be trying to keep people off balance. In one restaurant scene, he stops a passing waiter, simply points to a plate, indicating “I’ll have one of those” and merely says “and a pint.” Presumably he gets away with this because he’s a brilliant artist, and of course, this is always tolerated, especially in the fashion industry. One particular memorable version of this is a scene where he’s telling Vanessa Redgrave about his “wife.” As he tells the story, he keeps changing it, indicating that he’s married to her, but not, that they have kids, but not, that she’s easy to live with, but not, and that’s why they don’t live together, etc. This scene is also notable in the fact that Vanessa Redgrave is topless for a good portion of it, and Antonioni comes up with endless ways to shoot her without exposing her breasts. The nude scene in Austin Powers must have been partially inspired by this. Anyway, Hemmings discovers that he may or may not have witnessed a murder and in his investigation into this, his attitude changes entirely. As he tries to uncover this, he only gets further away from what may or may not have happened, and kept me second guessing what I had and hadn’t seen. The film finishes with more questions than answers. A murder mystery with no resolution. Some commentary I have read suggests it to be a criticism of 60’s youth culture. The cavalier and callous character perhaps representing young people mocking society and reevaluating when confronted with something real. If so, this represents a rather conservative point of view, as it ignores the very real social protest movement which was more than merely a rejection of norms but a confrontation of what was wrong with the system. Or that could be all bullshit. In any case, this is a very compelling film and I was glad to revisit it. Admittedly, the pace is rather slow at times, and I found I was more prepared for this on a second viewing.

Overall, I found 1966 to be one of the strongest years to date. I find the more films I screen that I’m truly engaged in, the less I find myself concerned with contextual analysis, re: why it’s on the list, how it fit into the climate, etc. And I’m not especially concerned with that. If the tone changes from entry to entry, if I’m inconsistent, I think that’s just how I want this to organically evolve. Certainly one of the most freeing things about the blogosphere is that I can make up my own rules. And then change them. Anyway, hope anyone paying attention out there is enjoying this. Just passed 100 hits and have acquired one follower. Not much in the scheme of things, or anything, but it is what is. Be back soon with 1967 part 1.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Day 28 and the delayed end of 1965

Progress is slow. It’s Day 28 And I’ve made it through 11 films. I’ll try to accelerate the pace soon. For what it’s worth I also saw four 2010 films since I last checked in. We’ll see if there are any parallels to be had as I pontificate over Clooney’s four choices from 1965, The Pawnbroker, Alphaville, Cat Ballou, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Aside from three of these titles getting Best Actor nods(including the winner), these titles didn’t figure much into the Oscars. The big winner that year was The Sound of Music. I’m grateful, though he did include one mass audience studio film, this was not included.

The Pawnbroker fascinated me on many levels. Rod Steiger’s performance was phenomenal, not only for his central performance, but playing two other distinct versions of himself in several brief but haunting flashback sequences. Interestingly enough, almost all the titles in ’64 and ’65 are in black and white. Perhaps coincidentally, the two that aren’t are my least favorite of the batch. In addition to Steiger’s gifts as an actor, black and white affords a 40 year old man the ability to convincingly play someone more than 20 years his senior for most of the film. As a New Yorker(adopted as I’ve only been here 13 years), I also found the location shooting fascinating, especially in the sequences where Steiger roamed the streets of Harlem, including a shot of the Apollo, where the massive marquee advertised such talents as Nina Simone and Flip Wilson. Although there were a few sequences where overly manipulative underscoring tended to intrude, for the most part, Quincy Jones’ score was a compelling character in itself. This may seem like little more than a trivia question, but I had no idea that, though not written for this film, Jones wrote the classic instrumental tune Soul Bossa Nova, included in one of the nightclub scenes. This is better known to contemporary audiences as the Austin Powers theme. None of this would matter if it weren’t for the incredible storytelling abilities of Sidney Lumet’s direction. As much as has been made of the young iconoclasts blazing the New Hollywood auteur movement, Lumet was over 40, working in the system for over a decade, starting in television, and created some of the most vital work out there. Coppola and Bogdanovich are still struggling to create anything close to what they had in this period. Somehow Lumet hasn’t waned.

I consume a great deal of cinema. And yet I have blind spots. Though I’ve often intended to change this, Godard is one of them. Alphaville was my first Godard film. I was fascinated from the beginning. The bleak futuristic vision looks like it cost about a buck fifty. The punctuating score acts as a parody of film noir detective films. Occasionally, there are long passages where voiceover stretches go on too long to establish the philosophy. And yet. I couldn’t take my eyes from this film. I occasionally backed up scenes to make sure I fully comprehended what was said. Though it was occasionally didactic and polemical, the style kept me off balance and intrigued. It does a wonderful job of showing a future that’s a little like our world but extended to the absurdist extreme. All decisions are made by machines. It, to some degree, is an extension of the nuclear nightmare scenarios from ’64. If we have the power to destroy the world, we can’t possibly make that decision ourselves. We must program machines to make these decisions logically. And, of course, when logic is pushed this far, it becomes illogical. People are executed for not being logical in bizarre rituals involving water ballet. Forbidden words are constantly being established, meaning new editions of dictionaries are issued almost constantly. It’s Phillip Marlowe, 1984, and a little Heart of Darkness all rolled into a campy philosophical treatise on the evils of mechanized society. Though uneven at times, I’m very glad this one was on the list.

Cat Ballou is the Technicolor studio film represented in 1965. It’s a crowd pleaser. A silly western goof, with singing troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye functioning as a singing Greek chorus, Jane Fonda as the title heroine, and Lee Marvin in a dual role that won him an Oscar. I think the reason this is here, aside from being a bit of comic relief in a year with oppressive and bleak titles, is that it’s more subversive than it appears at first glance. The lead character is a woman who doesn’t accept injustices nor her role in society. The town is horribly corrupt, with the sheriff providing an alibi for an assassin, all to protect corporate interests. It even has a positive, though very silly, portrayal of a native American(though that term wasn’t widely used at that point). Though perhaps not as artful, in its own way, this is in the same family as Dr. Strangelove, as it uses humor to portray some of the worst elements of our culture. Apparently, the Farrelly brothers love this movie. Its influence is clear in There’s Something About Mary. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have Roger Miller’s singing chicken in Disney’s animated Robin Hood without this one. But the first thing that I thought when I saw Cole and Kaye cheerfully warbling about Cat Ballou’s imminent hanging in the opening scene, was Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Cannibal the Musical. Not a film I think I need to see again. Probably the weakest this year. But a good deal of fun.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is our last title from 1965. Martin Ritt directs Richard Burton in a film based on John LeCarre’s novel. At a time when James Bond was at his peak, LeCarre’s Alec Leamas couldn’t be more removed from the glamorous world of Ian Fleming’s 007. He’s world weary and ready to be done with this business. Even his superiors freely admit that, though they think they’re working towards something good, there’s no real difference in tactics on either side. British espionage techniques are just as despicable as those of their Communist counterparts, but it’s presumed that the ends justify the means. Probably. When Leamas is told this by his superiors, they don’t even seem that convinced of it themselves. Rather than Bond’s dapper suits, scantily clad women, and swanky casinos, Leamas gets a cover of working class drudgery, rearranging books in a library. Though he is given a love interest, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of joy in the relationship. No martinis here, Leamas’ drink of choice is cheap Scotch he has to bully the local grocer into giving him on credit. Ultimately, it turns out the mission he is given is not even what he’s told it is, resulting in a series of double and triple crosses. And the very government he’s given his life and, indeed his very vitality to, sets him up to sacrifice the woman he loves and, ultimately, himself. Ritt is another director who came up from ‘50’s television and came to be very well regarded for being an actor’s director, perhaps owing to his work in the Group Theater. Based on this, I’d say this is also because he’s not especially adventurous with technique, but lets things unfold in a very naturalistic way. Ritt, though not as prolific as Lumet, went on to other highly regarded work, the best known perhaps, being Norma Rae. He doesn’t show up on the list again until near the end with The Front. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

So, two years, and 11 titles in, how do these four contribute thematically and to the evolution of cinema? As to the latter, I’m not prepared to go there yet. I need to wait for that pattern to emerge. As to the former, the antiauthority theme remains and is perhaps growing. Those we’ve been led to trust are corrupt and corrupting us. The Pawnbroker has a man believing he’s been running a legitimate business for years which he discovers is a front for a local crime syndicate. Alphaville, well, it’s pretty much the whole movie there. Cat Ballou has a corrupt government bowing to corporate interests with much of the townspeople eagerly falling in line to accept it. And The Spy Who Came in From the Cold questions the very nature of whether any element of the Cold War is worth it. Perhaps the very nature of the conflict is our governments dragging us all into the gutter. So that’s it for 1965. On to 1966. Hopefully I won’t keep you waiting nearly two weeks this time for another entry. But, as its been very clear to me, there’s no predicting. Only good intentions. Until next time.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

In 1964, well, a lot of stuff was going on. I just looked at the Wikipedia page. Apparently, years have their own Wikipedia pages, and honestly, there’s way too much for me to pick what’s important. So let’s stick to the world of film and extrapolate from there. I will mention the Oscars. Not because they indicate any sign of real quality, but they do give some indication of the cultural zeitgeist of the time. In 1964, the best picture nominees were Becket, Dr. Strangelove, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and Zorba the Greek. Of these, only two show up on the Clooney list. The one that won and the one that should’ve. Though it appears that the movie musical was on its way out, three of these titles were musicals. Including the one that won. The titles that round out 1964 on the list are A Hard Day’s Night, Fail Safe, and the aforementioned My Fair Lady. Thanks to Justin for joining me on the latter two.

I enjoyed A Hard Day’s Night. I’m a big Beatles fan. Though, admittedly, more of the later period than what was evidenced here. According to Wikipedia, Bob Dylan turned them on to weed in 1964, so I’m sure that was a crucial part of their artistic development. I actually saw this one a number of years ago, but I don’t think it made much of an impression on me. I will also concede that certain of the songs in this film such as the titular track(apparently only composed after it was chosen as the title for the film) and If I Fell certainly hint of the sophistication that is yet to come. I did find this film very enjoyable and I’m envious of what it must have been like to experience it at the time. In a year when three Elvis movies were cranked out, expectations for pop star vehicles must have been excruciatingly low. And yet, here are the Beatles, essentially playing themselves in an absurdist take on a day in the life of burgeoning pop sensations. Yes, they burst into song at peculiar times, but everything’s peculiar about the world of this film. That’s part of its charm. Though I didn’t necessarily appreciate it on a visceral level, I think I understand why it was important at the time. And, oddly, the more I research it and write about it, the more I look forward to seeing it again.

I first saw Fail Safe just a few years ago and looked forward to revisiting it. It was released by the same studio as Dr. Strangelove, but Kubrick had enough clout to insist that his film be released first. Though it received respectable reviews, it wasn’t embraced by audiences. In the wake of Strangelove, it was hard to take seriously. It got unintentional laughs. Henry Fonda, who played the president, even said that if he had seen Strangelove first, he probably wouldn’t have done Fail Safe. The plots are eerily similar. A number of planes accidentally are sent to attack the Soviet Union. The president negotiates with the Soviet premier. Crisis appears to be averted but one plane gets through resulting in catastrophe. I should be clear that everything just described occurs in both films. To be fair, Fail Safe is quite a remarkable film. And it also marks director Sidney Lumet’s first of five appearances on the list. Lumet is as prolific as Kubrick was perfectionist. He has 72 directing credits(mostly in film and some in television). Every decade Lumet worked in has remarkable examples of his work. His most recent film, 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is as vital, if not more so, than directors half his age. Fail Safe could feel stagey or talky as it is heavily dialogue driven, yet it is always very cinematic and looks great. The cast, ranging from veterans to young up and comers always feels fully invested and the situations are riveting. In fairness to 1964 audiences though, I can understand how, after seeing Strangelove, the solution in this film might seem absurd. The president agrees that, if Moscow is destroyed, he will destroy New York City in exchange for the Soviets not retaliating. And then he does just that. Like the Kubrick film, it highlights the absurdity, though using a completely different technique. It’s amazing Lumet was able to sell this as believable. In an odd way, Fail Safe almost feels more optimistic about humanity. It ends very abruptly. And I felt for these seemingly good men who had to make this horrible choice. Strangelove, on the other hand, ends with the generals in the war room scheming about how, in 100 years, when the survivors emerge from the rubble, the Americans can start figuring out right away how to start getting the upper hand. In Kubrick’s world, the carnage is greater. Humanity is wiped out. But we had it coming.

The last 1964 film on the list is My Fair Lady. Winner of 13 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. I promised when I started doing this that I’d check my baggage upfront. I’ve already mentioned that Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite films of all time. Truth is, it’s also the type of film I’m more inclined to like. Every other film on this list from 1964 is one I’m more inclined to like than this one. This is a studio picture directed by a man born in the 19th century who even described himself in such terms as “not an auteur” and “perfectly competent.” The casting for this film was based on who would sell tickets as opposed to who could do the job. As a result, Audrey Hepburn’s singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon. Baggage declared. That being said, I don’t feel like I went into this with a chip on my shoulder. It’s on the list. I wanted to give it a chance. And I liked it. For awhile. Though I thought Hepburn was overacting a bit in the early scenes, I often found myself laughing at her mugging in spite of myself. I found the film thoroughly engaging for the first half and a bit beyond. I enjoyed the acting, the music, the stylized approach. It actually has something in common with A Hard Day’s Night in the sense that it totally exists in its own world. I also appreciated the liberal use of Shaw’s dialogue from Pygmalion(the play it was based on). As a result, it certainly has a much better script than many musicals. Justin, my viewing partner for this one, was essentially on the same page as I was. Not inclined to like it, but curious nonetheless. In fact, he told me that one of the reasons he attended the screening is that he couldn’t imagine he’d choose it on his own. We were both charmed as the plot unfolded. As Eliza went from cockney flower girl to refined lady. It also occurred to me how Shaw was in a sense ahead of his time. That perhaps the sly social commentary on class anticipated the civil rights movement that was beginning to unfold. But maybe I’m giving it too much credit. Maybe this was just being in the right place at the right time. My point is that I liked it better than I expected. For a long time. But not long into the second half, we both started to tire. And when I say second half, I should point out that this is a nearly three hour film including an intermission. I’m not opposed to three hour films. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, no good film is long enough and no bad film is short enough. But it just didn’t feel like this one had enough story to justify its length. In the last half hour(perhaps more) it just started to feel a little self indulgent. Every song, when I thought it was over, just kept going. And going. I’m glad I saw this. I really think that these six films paint a picture of what was going on in cinema in 1964. But I must also add that of all the films on the list so far, it’s the one I’m least likely to want to watch all the way through again.

So that’s 1955 and 1964. Seven films. Five days. And ten days of other stuff happening. I promise to get this thing going again as soon as I can. You’ve been very patient, blogosphere. I promise I won’t let you down.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Unexpected Delay

So I'm on Day 13 and I've only posted reports on four titles. I've watched three more and am preparing an entry. But something's recently happened. Here's where the ish comes into the 100 days(ish). A medical situation has come up regarding someone very dear to me. It happened very suddenly and unexpectedly and has been consuming me. Forgive me, blogosphere, if I leave the details at that. I know I said I would write about either the project or whatever was happening to delay the project. But first, this isn't really about me. And second, we're just getting to know each other and I'm not ready for intimate sharing. I really enjoy the time we've spent together and hope we can get to know each other better but I need to take it slow right now. I hope this doesn't scare you away. I do look forward to deepening our relationship, but right now it's just too soon. For what it's worth, the fog of this situation seems to be lifting nearly as quickly as it arrived. So I plan to post the next entry soon and return to the mission as soon as it feels right. Keep watching this space. More to come. Hope you understand.