This past winter I wrote about how the appeal of David O. Russell’s American Hustle seemed to me to be rooted in its sense of fun—in the pleasures of watching good-looking, well-liked Hollywood stars dressing up, mugging for the camera, and making each other laugh. The Fun Factor isn’t always enough to win a movie a Best Picture Oscar (it didn’t work for American Hustle), but it was in 1973, when George Roy Hill’s The Sting beat out more Serious fare such as The Exorcist and Cries and Whispers. The Sting was also something of a reunion film for Hill, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman, who had previously collaborated on the popular (and similarly Fun) buddy Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. A caper comedy set in Depression-era Chicago, choreographed to the music of Scott Joplin (in jaunty new settings by Marvin Hamlisch), The Sting sells itself as a delicious soufflé. And it mostly succeeds as one. If while watching this movie it’s sometimes hard to decide who is sexier, Newman or Redford, that’s because the star power of each is so great that you can’t help but feel a little blinded by both of them. Watching them work together to tag-team a con artist of legendary stature, dressed to the nines (in costumes designed by Edith Head, no less), it’s impossible not to feel a kind of giddy joy.
Things changed up for this week’s Movie: instead of screening a classic Sunday night at home, my boyfriend, a friend and I caught a 35mm screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday. It’s actually not the first time I’ve had the good fortune to see this film screened theatrically; I caught a revival screening at Athens, OH’s Athena Cinema some five or six years ago, which was attended by myself and only a handful of other people, two of whom being a pair of bewildered (and noticeably frustrated) undergraduates. Not surprisingly, the audience last night at the HFA was larger—the screening room looked to be almost sold out—and a good deal more receptive.
I don’t think I’d seen Contempt since that screening in Athens. Turns out it’s still a masterpiece. Breathless may be cooler and sexier, Les Carabiniers and Weekend more pointed politically, but Contempt strikes me as probably Godard’s most beautiful movie, filmed on location in Rome and on Capri and lushly photographed in Technicolor by Raoul Coutard. Georges Delerue’s plangent score is so good that one doesn’t even mind hearing Godard repeat the same fourteen-bar phrase approximately ten times in the course of thirty minutes. It also may be the most accessible of any of Godard’s films, or at least the one in which his desire to experiment with style, editing, sound, dialogue, story and ideas—in other words, to re-order the very elements of narrative cinema—is done so elegantly and cogently that it never feels like he’s straining to make his points or to be difficult for the sake of difficulty. Call it a perfect synchronicity of form and content. In his very good piece on the film from 1997, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that Contempt may be seen as an example of how Godard “fails as a storyteller, as an entertainer, as an essayist, and as a film critic in the very process of succeeding as an artist”—which is one way of saying that Godard’s genius lay in taking the pieces of cinema apart, finding a new way to put them together, and making the whole thing greater than the sum of its parts. There may be films that tell the story of a dying marriage more movingly, or that make a point about the struggle to reconcile art with money more sharply, or that deconstruct the grammar of film more daringly, or that are funnier in their send-up of the greed of the film industry, but I can think of almost none that so perfectly fuses these elements into a single whole, and I can’t really think of any other filmmaker but Godard who would have been able to do so. Contempt very well may be the summa of the European art film’s golden age.
Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, consists of only eleven shots, each one running some ten or eleven minutes, filmed in 16mm. Each shot is taken from inside a cable car as it moves toward or away from the top of the Nepalese holy mountain Manakamana, carrying one or more passengers at a time. The film documents six rides up, followed by five rides down. Passengers include an elderly Nepalese couple bearing flowers and a rooster; two women who, laughing, struggle to eat a pair of melting ice cream bars; a trio of teenage rock musicians carrying a kitten and posing for selfies; and a herd of confused-seeming goats. Some of the trips unfold quietly, the only sound being the creak and rumble of the cable wire overhead. Others are noisier, as passengers chat and make observations about the journey, some of which (“my ears are popping”; “look, that’s the sal forest”) repeat throughout the film, creating subtle rhythms and repetitions.
Abuse of Weakness is, in keeping with the rest of Catherine Breillat’s filmography, an intellectual S&M film about a very unlikely couple. The dominant partner is a figure for Breillat herself, a strong-willed French writer and filmmaker named Maud. While recovering from a debilitating stroke, Maud finds herself curiously drawn to a brutish ex-con named Vilko, whom she sees being interviewed on TV late one night. She contacts him and tells him she wants to cast him in her next movie, keeping him around in the meantime to help her run errands and share meals. In return, she agrees to write him a series of checks for increasingly large sums, which eventually drive her to the edge of bankruptcy. (She’s played by the legendary Isabelle Huppert; he’s played by the French rap artist Kool Shen.)
Watching Out of Africa earlier this week, in which a young Meryl Streep appears as Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, dressed in various period costumes from the late 1910s and early 1920s, I was struck by just how much she looked like Virginia Woolf. The round, hooded eyes, the slyly pursed mouth: how is it possible that Streep actually appeared in a film about Woolf (The Hours, dir. Stephen Daldry, 2002) in which she was not cast as the author in question? Of that film’s three female leads, Nicole Kidman—who does play Woolf, and who somehow won a Best Actress Oscar for doing so—gives what is arguably the weakest performance. I can’t help but imagine how different (read: better) the film would have been if Streep had been moved into the role and another actress had taken over her own as a latter-day Clarissa Dalloway.
Robert Rossen's All The King's Men is maybe not a great film, but as far as Best Picture-winning movies go it comes as a breath of fresh air: lean, dark, tough, rough. Its cinematography is grainy, its editing is quick and at times unpolished, its worldview is grim and its ending is abrupt. It may be the closest thing to a B-movie ever to win Best Picture. (Rossen's previous film, the John Garfield boxing drama Body and Soul , is just as rough around the edges.) Perhaps even more shocking, All The King's Men succeeded in spite of Rossen's outspoken Communist sympathies, which inform the film's excoriating critique of political corruption and the twisting of populist rhetoric in order to manipulate the American working class. The script is said to have enraged John Wayne, who was originally offered the part of the monstrous Willie Stark (it eventually went to Broderick Crawford, who effectively snarled his way to a Best Actor Oscar). In an utterly bizarre turn of events, Rossen was later chewed out by fellow Communist filmmakers and future blacklistees Herbert Biberman and Alvah Bessie for having made a film that indirectly criticized the totalitarianism to which the Communist Party was itself susceptible. For more, see J. Hoberman's excellent An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.
It occurred to me while re-watching Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette this past weekend that what her critics may find potentially maddening/offensive/objectionable about her films is not her politics, per se, but her occasional willingness to sacrifice both plot and character for the sake of mood, tone, and the primacy of images and sounds, in order to evoke a particular place and time (in this case, the Versailles of Louis XVI). Especially in its second half, when, its expository business now out of the way, the film relaxes into a more languorously indolent pace, Marie Antoinette comes to feel downright experimental. Coppola reimagines the historical costume drama by drawing on such non-narrative forms as advertisements and music videos, in which the textures of experience (how the light catches a landscape, what a piece of clothing feels like) replace sequential chains of narrative action. The shocking thing is not exactly that Coppola lets wealthy, privileged, reckless figures like Marie Antoinette off the hook; it’s that she pulls them loose from the context of the historical film altogether. When Coppola’s actors run through the Versailles gardens at dawn, they don’t signify as real historical figures or even as individuated characters—they’re merely a drunk, happy, careless teenage girl and her friends. What’s audacious about this film is Coppola’s decision to engage with historical material only to cut away its weight. She doesn’t give us History with a capital H; she gives us the wealth of tiny details, moments, and objects that make up the environments in which history plays out.
Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, the favorite movie of a million old Catholic ladies, swept the 1945 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Best Screenplay, Best Story, and Best Song (“Swinging On a Star”). I found it odd that the title song, “Going My Way,” is performed twice in the film—once by “famous contralto of the Metropolitan Opera Association” Risë Stevens—even though within the film itself it is agreed to be not very good. Why not milk the value of the vastly better “Swinging On a Star,” which only gets played once?
Anyway, it got me thinking about Leo McCarey, many of whose films suffer from at least one utterly terrible musical number, even (especially?) when they’re not musicals. I don’t particularly mind the songs in Duck Soup (1933), which add to the surreal vibe of the whole thing, but I still can’t get over how bad the “Tiny Scout” number is in An Affair to Remember (1957). I remember watching that one with a kind of pained embarrassment for the movie itself, thinking, “please let it be over soon.” It begs the question: did McCarey actually believe in the cheap pap he was selling in songs like “The Tiny Scout” and “Going My Way” and My Son John’s “If You Don’t Like Your Uncle Sammy,” and even “Swinging On a Star” (which, while catchy, is unabashedly didactic), or were these just requisite concessions made to the studios? They turn up so frequently in McCarey’s work that I’m inclined to believe the former may have been the case. He has his defenders (the great Jean Renoir apparently was a fan), and he has made a handful of masterpieces, including Make Way For Tomorrow and The Awful Truth (I’m actually partial to My Son John, a Red Scare movie so out-there it verges on the psychotronic). But many of them, Going My Way included, seem compromised by I want to call a politics of kitsch—the type of conservatism that takes dumb songs, cornball platitudes and “cute” kids as its objects. The multiculturalism of the kid songs also strikes me as vaguely suspect; every close-up of a child of color singing about good citizenship seems to carry the subtext, “I'm a credit to my race!” Whether or not McCarey was strong-armed into putting this into his films, it’s there, and it’s cringe-worthy.
Pictured above: a brilliant image from The Golden Beetle (dir. Segundo de Chomon, 1907), which I watched last night as part of a program of silent shorts that also included films by Melies, Porter, Edison, Griffith, and les frères Lumiere. The Golden Beetle is a good example of early cinematic spectacle: it exists solely to wow its audience with its colors and special effects. Meanwhile, the appeal of something like the Lumieres’ Baby’s Breakfast (1896), pictured below, has to do with the recognition of some inconsequential bit of human business—in this case, a baby offering his cracker to the parents who are trying to feed it to him, and also maybe to the camera operator. Before the movies had complex plots and stories, their power lay in individual images that either exchanged reality for the spectacular (as in The Golden Beetle) or found spectacle in the texture of the everyday (as in Baby’s Breakfast).
By the time you get to Griffith—as I did in the second-to-last film on last night’s program, The Girl and Her Trust (1912; pictured, bottom)—you can see how the human touches of Baby’s Breakfast have been extended to whole characters and stories, in this case a two-reel action thriller in which Our Girl first fends off pesky suitors, then a pair of varmints looking to rob the train station where she works. I had forgotten that the film is book-ended by two bits of throwaway business that are so funny they both made me laugh out loud. In the first, a slack-jawed yokel carrying the torch for Grace woos her by making her a gift of a bottle of soda (and a straw). In the second, having been rescued by the more capable and handsome of her admirers, Grace cheerfully agrees to share his sandwich with him. It’s not just a cheap joke on which to end the film—it’s genuinely funny because of the off-hand way in which Grace and her new beau, both breathless with relief, suddenly realize they’re both hungry. It was this fusion of narrative drive with rich and subtle humanity that would come to dominate the next hundred years of world cinema.
Frank Capra made plenty of great movies over the course of his career, It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life being the best of them. But he developed a reputation for making sentimental pablum (“Capra Corn”), and his less successful films—like this one—are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. It’s a populist fable in which Jimmy Stewart, playing the son of a pompous capitalist, falls in love with Jean Arthur, who comes from a family of boisterous, free-spirited, lower-middle-class kooks. The title of You Can’t Take It With You gives away the argument of the whole film: love is more important than money; meaningful work should trump financial gain; the genteel poor are happier than the idle rich; and so on. In other words, there’s little here that couldn’t be conveyed more efficiently by an embroidered pillow. Ordinarily Stewart might be counted on to carry a film like this, but his character is oddly passive and plays a rather minor role in the plot, the real conflict of which plays out between the two fathers, played by Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore. (Barrymore’s performance here as the happy-go-lucky Grandpa Vanderhof does make a striking foil to his better-known turn as the crotchety Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.)
The thing that’s weird about this movie has to do with its being a pretty obvious adaptation of a stage play. Written by Kaufman and Hart, You Can’t Take It With You had run for years on Broadway and won a Pulitzer Prize by the time the film version was released by Columbia. As such, Capra’s direction feels somewhat perfunctory, even awkward at times, and it seems as if he lacks personal investment in the material. The same could arguably be said of his 1944 film version of the hit comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Side note: I have now seen every film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture between the years 1930 and 1939.
This biopic of the French novelist and activist not only won Best Picture in 1937, it was also nominated for nine other Oscars. But it’s not much remembered or talked about these days, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s mostly slow going, with lots of grandiose speechifying. Paul Muni, who was one of Warner Bros.’ biggest stars in the 1930s, was a very good actor but has had little staying power. It’s a liberal social-problem picture, and its targets include anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, corruption, and obstruction of justice. It’s also a good seventy minutes shorter than The Great Ziegfeld, for which I was grateful. That said, it’s a film that is probably best watched while doing something else.
The Great Ziegfeld is tough going, mainly because it’s long. As in, at least ninety minutes too long. At the time, it set a record for the longest sound film ever made in Hollywood. (It runs 185 minutes and includes an overture, entr’acte, and exit music, in case you’re wondering.) A biopic about the long and fabled career of Broadway showman Flo Ziegfeld, he of Follies fame, it stars William Powell as the man himself, Luise Rainer (who won a Best Actress Oscar) as his first wife Anna Held, and Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, who became the second Mrs. Ziegfeld—and who was, of course, still working as a Hollywood actress in 1936, which I find hilariously weird. (Can you imagine a modern-day equivalent? “Jennifer Lawrence as Edie Falco in The James Gandolfini Story!”) But one of the weirdest things of all about The Great Ziegfeld is the way in which it pays homage to cultural forms (here, vaudeville and the musical revue) that the movies effectively worked to supplant, but to which they also remained indebted. There would be no Busby Berkeley, no Broadway Melody or Gold Diggers, without Ziegfeld—and yet by 1936 Busby Berkeley and Broadway Melody had already begun to render Ziegfeld’s chorus lines and stage spectacles outdated and irrelevant. It’s a little bit like the way Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (Best Picture 1952) stages a cinematic spectacle that’s supposed to make people long for the good old days when people went to the circus instead of the movies, or something.
I began with Wings (1927) and have been progressing chronologically since, which means that I’ve been spending most of the past several weeks watching winners from the 1929-1938 range. Not the Academy’s finest hour. But they’re getting better…slowly. Tonight I finished up Mutiny on the Bounty, from 1935, which is a considerable improvement on 1934’s Cavalcade, even considering that they share the same director, Frank Lloyd. Having just finished slogging through Cavalcade, I wasn’t looking forward to another two hours of ham-fisted montage sequences. But I was happily surprised to find Mutiny a good deal more fun than I had expected: it’s got a workable script, and it benefits hugely from the star power of its lead actors. Clark Gable is reliably dashing as the mutinous Fletcher Christian, though I didn’t believe for a second that he supposed to be a native of Cumberland. And Charles Laughton is suitably loathsome as the sadistic Captain Bligh. It’s a magnificent performance, with Laughton’s pear face and down-turned mouth making him look more than ever like a John Tenniel illustration. Did I mention that this is roughly ten times better than Cavalcade? Seriously, though, it was slim pickings back in 1935. Take a look at the list of Mutiny’s Best Picture competitors and you’ll see that there’s not a clear winner in the bunch—though the test of time has made clear that Top Hat is the best of them. Be sure to check back later this summer when I rank my favorites from worst to best.
My boyfriend and I recently spent some time in southern California and decided to spend a day or so touring Hollywood. Our tour included a visit to the Warner Brothers studio, where our very helpful guide took us around to see the soundstages and the back lot, pointing out which sets and locations have been used in such-and-such films and TV shows. While I wasn't so interested in hearing about where, say, Pretty Little Liars and Friends were/are filmed, I perked up whenever our guide pointed out a location that had been used in Joe Dante’s Gremlins, of which there were a fair number. As she showed us the picturesque town square used as Kingston Falls, the house where Mrs. Deagle meets her untimely end, and the mailbox in which a hidden gremlin surprises an unsuspecting local trying to mail a package, I found myself smiling at the mere recollection of the film, which incidentally, my boyfriend had never seen. So we decided to watch it together on Sunday.