by request/film fatales #31: spielberg (susan lacy, 2017)

A friend pointed out that if a documentary about Steven Spielberg makes it into the Film Fatales category, there may be something wrong with the selection process.

There is a lot to like here. The interviews are interesting and, at times, revealing ... Lacy has made a career out of interviews, she's great. And Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. I've always liked Close Encounters the most of all his movies, and I love that it's a "personal" blockbuster. Something like Star Wars is only personal to the extent it reflects George Lucas' connection to the movies of his youth, but Close Encounters is "about" Spielberg.

The film is also long enough that Lacy can cover most of Spielberg's career, from stuff he made as a kid to Bridge of Spies. And we hear from enough different people ... fellow directors, crew members, critics ... that you get a good sense of what it is like on a Spielberg set (while he can seemingly picture and entire movie in his mind, he is also open to suggestions from co-workers).

It really is a solid overview of Spielberg's career, with the interview format (and Lacy's skills, and Spielberg's willingness to go the extra step in his participation) working well to attach Spielberg-as-person to Spielberg-as-artist. I'm convinced now that Close Encounters was not Spielberg's only "personal" movie.

With all of this, I feel I'm being picky to note that despite Lacy's proclamations that she didn't intend to make a lovefest, Spielberg doesn't always stand on the better side of hagiography. Lacy seems to know this. As Greg Braxton noted, "The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg’s work. ... Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary. 'I am proud of the film,' Lacy said. 'Now I’m just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn’t critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that.'" Braxton then adds a telling anecdote: "What matters most to her is Spielberg’s stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, 'I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, ‘You have to know what this conversation means to me.’"

I certainly sympathize. I am a big fan of his movies, and I don't know that I'd have the whatever to be anything other than praiseworthy in his presence. But I think that admiration detracts some from Spielberg. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


by request/film fatales #30: wonder woman (patty jenkins, 2017)

I realized when watching Wonder Woman that I knew very little about the character, beyond the "Wonder Woman!" song in the TV show. I also hadn't thought about any useful contextual things. The one thing that occurred to me as I watched was, why is Captain Kirk in this movie? It really didn't need a man in the role. Chris Pine was OK, and given his character was unnecessary, they did a decent job of making sure he never took over the action or the movie from Wonder Woman.
 
The casting of Gal Gadot was somewhat controversial, although the real controversy revolved around the way Wonder Woman was presented. Did she need to wear such a revealing outfit? I barely noticed, to be honest ... she didn't seem much different than Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
 
A lot of attention was paid to Gadot's thighs ... perhaps because it was easier to single out one body part than to discuss her as a complete human. In one brief moment, Wonder Woman's thigh jiggled, and this set off a complicated discussion about the importance of that jiggle. One Tumblr user spoke for many:

There were absolutely NO eye candy shots of Diana. There were Amazons with ageing skin and crows feet and not ONE of them wore armor that was a glorified corset. When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled onscreen.

Did you hear me? HER FUCKING THIGH JIGGLED. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone.

Because she wasn’t there to make men drool. She wasn’t there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.

Or, as Zoe Williams wrote, "Yes, she is sort of naked a lot of the time, but this isn’t objectification so much as a cultural reset: having thighs, actual thighs you can kick things with, not thighs that look like arms, is a feminist act."

What I liked about Gadot was her believability ... much as I love characters like Buffy and Starbuck, it was good to see a woman who actually looked like she could kick butt. More than that, I thought intelligence showed on her face ... unlike some amateur actors, she didn't look like a deer in the headlights. She underplayed the humor, which I found perfect. She made me inclined to like the movie. I admit to being surprised. I didn't expect anything from her. My mistake.
 
And I'm happy for Patty Jenkins, whose career is a microcosm of the difficulties women are up against. Her first feature had an Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron. It had a budget of $8 million and grossed $60 million worldwide. Jenkins didn't direct another feature until Wonder Woman, 14 years later. (In fairness, she worked a lot in television, and her work was highly-regarded.) Now she's on track to direct the Wonder Woman sequel. 7/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)
 




the full blackboard

This is a story I think I've told many times, but I can't find any reference to it on this blog, where I've been writing since 2002, so maybe I haven't told the story as often as I thought. It also took place long enough ago that I can't really remember the context, i.e. where and when it took place. But I think it's worth telling, so I've dive in, even with the holes in my memory.

It took place in a classroom. I can't recall if I was a junior college student or if I was a university teacher, which means I can't remember if it was the 1970s or the 1990s or even later. And I can't remember if I had power in the classroom (teacher) or little power (student). And those things matter to the story, but again, not enough for me to shut up. I can say that I do think it happened when I was teaching at Cal, emphasis on "think".

The classroom discussion was about the participation of women in the classroom, or rather, the over-participation of men. This was a hot topic at one time ... sadly, I imagine it's still a topic, but it would be nice to think otherwise. As a teacher in a small, discussion-oriented class, we were taught to be inclusive when calling on students, and to beware of habits we might have that unconsciously tipped the balance of men and women speakers. In this case, at some point I realized that men (me included, of course) were dominating the discussion. So I had an idea (and this is one reason I suspect I was a teacher, because a student doesn't ordinarily get to make the kind of suggestion I'm going to describe). I decided all of the men should leave the classroom ... I forget how long, 10 minutes, 15 ... which would give the women a chance to discuss the topic without the men dominating everything. And so the men went outside for awhile while the women stayed in the room. I recall a couple of the male students were pissed off ... they didn't dominate discussions, the whole notion was ridiculous, and if women didn't want to speak up, you can't force them to do so.

After the allotted time, us guys returned to the classroom. One look at the blackboards (for there were more than one) told us everything we needed to know.

Every blackboard in the room was covered with writing.


the dreamers (bernardo bertolucci, 2003)

I love Eva Green so much from Penny Dreadful that I assumed I've seen her in lots of movies, but in fact, The Dreamers, which was her film debut, is only the second one I've seen (Casino Royale being the other). When the movie was released, it was noteworthy as the latest film from Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci. Until the film was complete, at which point the resemblance to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was evident. Most of the film takes place indoors, with people hanging out naked, having sex, with enough explicit shots to result in an NC-17 rating. Even now, the nudity seems to be on the edge, featuring not just full frontal but closeups of genitalia. For the first, but not the last time, Eva Green's sexuality smolders on the screen.

Yet some punches were pulled. The Dreamers is a story of 1968, with two Parisians, twins (Theo and Isabelle), and an American (Matthew, played by Michael Pitt) Most of the physical interaction is between Pitt and Green. The film hints at an incestual relationship between the twins, but a possible sexual relationship between the two men is only subtext. Bertolucci decided not to film scenes from the script that made that relationship more explicit, and given the openness of the presentation of the three, that decision is odd.

The three young people are infatuated with film, and viewers with a deep knowledge of film history will enjoy the references to that history. Asked if she is from Paris, Isabelle announces, "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysées. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!" Non-film buffs may be confused ... Eva Green is clearly not nine years old. But Bertolucci is quoting from Godard's Breathless, and to make his point more clear (and to help the non-buffs), he tosses in a brief clip of Jean Seberg in that movie selling that paper. These connections pop up throughout the film ... the twins like to play trivia games that require knowledge of film trivia. There are probably too many of those clips of other movies ... we get the point ... but the connections are meaningful, showing how the twins (and Matthew) are engulfed in film, perhaps at the expense of the "real" world.

The trivia games also connect to the sexual currents in the film. If you don't know the trivia, you have to perform some act. The first time we see this, Isabelle makes Theo masturbate in front of the other two to a photo of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Later, Theo makes Matthew and Isabelle have sex while he watches. The construct (film trivia, then sex) is odd, but the sexual freedoms of the three are so natural that we believe in them. There is no denying the erotic power, but Bertolucci takes it further, and his actors are perfect. In particular, much of the nudity is almost commonplace, co-existing with the erotic.

The irony is that all of this takes place in Paris in 1968, when revolution was in the air. Theo and Isabelle are half-hearted participants ... they'd rather watch movies. Matthew is like an American in one of Henry James' novels, seemingly innocent. The three of them live in the house of the twins' parents. One of the best scenes comes when the parents, who have been on holiday, turn up and find a completely messy house and three naked people sleeping together. The parents leave.

Of course, the innocent American must be abandoned in the end. Theo and Isabelle leave him to return to revolution. It is at this time, if we haven't already figured it out, that we realize the twins are playing at revolution, that, in fact, Bertolucci is only playing at revolution. Paris 1968 is a prop ... you wouldn't go to The Dreamers to learn about that time.

The Dreamers is as good as its spiritual parent, Last Tango, if just a bit below The Conformist. And I love Eva Green even more after seeing it. #989 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

This scene, in which Isabelle extends the "Name That Film" game to sculptures, includes one of the film's most remarkable images:



 


creature feature saturday: genocide/war of the insects (kazui nihonmatsu, 1968)

Ozu. Mizoguchi. Takashi Miike. Takeshi Kitano. Kurosawa. Hou Hsiao-hsien. These are some of the great names in cinema, and all of them had films distributed by the Japanese studio Shochiku. It is no surprise that Criterion released a four-film set called "When Horror Came to Shochiku." What is surprising is that Shochiku actually made four horror films. The Criterion site tells us:

In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment.

I watched Genocide from this set, "Genocide" being the title used by Criterion. That sounds like an art film. The original title translates to War of the Insects, and that sounds like a Creature Feature, which is why it ended up here. I seriously doubt that any Creature Feature show in the 60s would show a film called "Genocide", but "War of the Insects" fits right in.

I give director Kazui Nihonmatsu credit for his kitchen sink approach to his subject matter. The movie features hydrogen bombs (the kind that commonly turned up in Japanese horror of the time), Communists, American military officers presented in the worst possible light, an evil scientist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, a black American soldier who, when he goes crazy, visualizes stock footage of fighting in Vietnam, a hero who is cheating on his pregnant wife, and, of course, killer insects. Nihonmatsu stuffs all of this into 84 minutes (only 5 minutes longer than Booty Call), and "stuffs" is the right word, because there isn't time to delve into any of this in depth. There are general themes that run throughout the picture: Americans are powerful but concerned only for themselves, nuclear bombs are bad, and you probably shouldn't cheat on your wife.

The movie begins and ends with footage of a nuclear weapon exploding. At the start of the film, we are told, "The moment mankind harnessed the power of the atom, he immediately began to fear it." At the end, the Americans have set off another bomb, for the simple reason that they don't want it to fall into the wrong ("Communist") hands. Meanwhile, the evil scientist wants to wipe out humanity with her killer insects because in the camps, she saw what people could do to others.

And let's not forget the psychedelic scene where a man under the spell of the insects says they are singing to him, "The Earth doesn't belong to human beings alone. We don't care if mankind destroys itself with nuclear weapons, but we refuse to let you take us with you. Destroy the human race! Genocide! Exterminate all humans!"

All in 84 minutes.

It's a bit much. The special effects mostly suck, the plot is mostly nonsensical, yet it grabs your attention for those 84 minutes. It's the kind of movie that seems worse when you look back on it, but it was OK as I watched it. 6/10.