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#2: the sorrow and the pity (marcel ophüls, 1969)

(This is the 49th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

The Sorrow and the Pity is one of those movies with so much depth, you are truly rewarded with each new viewing. Those viewings shouldn’t come too close to each other; watching more than four hours of talking heads, with people speaking in French, German, and English, with subtitles and voiceover translations, takes a lot of mental work. But it’s the kind of mental work we are called upon to exercise so infrequently when watching movies, the result is invigorating, and your energy level actually picks up steam as the film continues on and each of the people featured in the interviews become more complete.

It’s a film about the Occupation years in France during World War II, told via newsreels and interviews with the participants (it was made in the late-60s, and many of those people were still alive to tell their tales). It turns every notion you’ve ever had about the Resistance and collaborators on its head, because, while it’s clear Ophüls has a point of view, he gives each interviewee the opportunity to explain their actions. Some famous figures come across as heroic, some not, but what really hits home are the “regular” people. Like the farmer, a former Resistance fighter who was denounced and sent to Buchenwald … he knows who turned him in, but he never sought revenge, because it would make him as bad as the other fellow. That sounds like someone who would fit nicely into Casablanca. And there are others like him.

But there are other Frenchmen and women who, while not doing anything that was outright evil, nonetheless participated in the Occupation, who didn’t cause trouble, who accepted the Nazis into their daily lives. There are far more of these people than you might have known about, and while The Sorrow and the Pity was made for French television, it wasn’t shown there until 1981, perhaps because of the implications about the reality of French life during the Occupation when compared to the myth of resistance.

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The film does not take a side, exactly. I mean, it’s anti-Fascism. But it doesn’t try to draw pictures of good guys and bad guys. It just gives us people, in all their complications, and let’s us think about them for ourselves. Anthony Eden gets the last word: “One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupying power has no right to judge a nation that has.”

 

There were plenty of comments on this one, but most were devoted to guessing what our #1 picks would be.


bechdel test

The Bechdel Test caught my eye recently, as it came up in connection with the Oscars and showed up on my Facebook news feed. The “test” came from Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For (the latter is where the test first appeared … it is attributed to Liz Wallace). The Movie Test goes as follows:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

As I say, the Bechdel Test was in my mind, and it’s an easy way of reminding myself that I tend to like “guy movies”. The Bechdel Test does not evaluate quality; it merely checks to see how much attention is paid to women in a particular movie. The value comes not so much from the result of one test, but of many … once you accumulate enough results, patterns emerge, giving another piece of evidence of how invisible women are in films (at least American films).

You can read about this and more at Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent web site, Feminist Frequency. Here is her take on the 2012 Oscars:

As it turned out, last night, Robin and I watched the new, quirky HBO series Luck, and SyFy’s new, quirky Canadian import Lost Girl. Luck has a sizable budget, the classy HBO imprint, and names like David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman, and Nick Nolte. Lost Girl has a small budget, the cheesy SyFy imprint, and names like … well, Anna Silk is making a name for herself with this series, but it’s safe to say there is no one like Dustin Hoffman working on Lost Girl. I find Luck fascinating, with great potential … I find Lost Girl entertaining, but too stuck in standalone episodes for my taste. I enjoy watching them both, but think of them on separate levels.

Well, as Luck began last night, I mentioned the Bechdel Test. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the clock, but it took several scenes for a female character to appear. There were only a few scenes with women characters (one of them played by Joan Allen … the show may downplay its female characters, but HBO still signs up the best actors it can find). There were no scenes where more than one woman appeared in a scene, much less talked to each other, unless you count (as Robin seemed to do) two women watching a horse race together and talking in the background.

Next came Lost Girl. The very first scene featured the heroine, her BFF, and a pizza delivery guy. This guy was the point of conversation at first, but he was quickly removed from the scene so the two women could talk. Since Lost Girl focuses on a woman, it obviously has lots of scenes with women characters. More to the point, the heroine and her BFF live together, work together, hang together, and in general are a step above the usual heroine/sidekick routine. And the heroine’s love life is split between the male lead (he’s not really the lead, there’s only one lead and it’s Anna Silk, but he’s the most-used male actor) and a woman doctor, so even when we get the woman/man hotcha sex, there’s a woman hovering in our minds (not to mention that lesbianism and bisexuality are treated as being no different than any other kind of sexuality). Anna Silk is most definitely set up as a sex symbol … she plays a succubus, after all, she dresses in hot outfits, and she is among the healthier-looking actresses, such that I never feel the need to offer her a sandwich. But Silk is there for everyone to gaze upon, men and women alike, and she does her fair share of gazing, as well. Perhaps the most remarkable trick Lost Girl pulls off is to set up a scenario straight out of the Guy Handbook (hot bisexual babe shows lots of cleavage and has lots of sex) and turn it into something quite different.

To get back to the Bechdel Test, clearly Luck fails, while Lost Girl makes the honor roll. I think Luck is a better show … in a recent comments thread, I listed six shows I currently enjoy watching, with Luck at #3 at Lost Girl at the bottom. But the Bechdel Test does offer some context … whenever you see me making lists of the best this or my favorite that, take into consideration that my taste preferences often lean towards works that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. As noted above, this does not mean Luck is a bad show and Lost Girl a good show. But the cumulative record points to a consistency in my preferences that should be attached to my lists as an addendum.


what i watched last week

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956). As a non-believer in the greatness of Kubrick, and as someone who I’m sure is tiresome when I engage in the topic, I always enjoy looking at the early period of Kubrick, for it is my opinion that he made some terrific films in the period that begins with The Killing and ends with Dr. Strangelove. Paths of Glory is my favorite, with Dr. Strangelove and even Spartacus close seconds, but this cheapie noir is pretty damn close, as well. Kubrick’s desire to pre-plan everything works well here, as he seamlessly blends the documentary realist style with the noir atmosphere and the fragmented chronology. (I love what Marie Windsor said about film noir: “I didn’t know I was doing film noir; I thought they were detective stories with low lighting.”) It’s fun for Bay Area viewers to see an incognito Bay Meadows used as a racetrack where 100,000 people attend a big race. The film’s construction is so tight that we want the crooks to pull off their heist … it seems like a proper reward somehow. But it’s Kubrick who is the winner: his film works like clockwork, which is more than can be said for the crooks’ plan. Sterling Hayden thought he had planned everything, but that role was reserved for the director.

Two things stand out, in comparison to Kubrick’s overrated post-Strangelove phase. One is that tightness … The Killing takes care of business in 85 minutes. The other is the quality of the acting, with a fine cast of B-level actors like the reliable Elisha Cook, the aforementioned Windsor, the ever-oddball Timothy Carey, and Vince “Ben Casey” Edwards. Not to mention Sterling Hayden in the lead. At some point (around the time Hal became the most interesting character in 2001), Kubrick seemed to lose interest in actors. Malcolm McDowell was good in Clockwork Orange because he was right for the part, but Jack Nicholson in The Shining was not his finest hour (and Kubrick had no idea what to do with Shelley Duvall), and the stars in Kubrick’s movies varied between extreme overacting and sleepy underacting, with no one resembling an actual human being. None of this was true in Kubrick’s early movies. Awhile back, I wrote, “Can the man who created such perfection as Paths of Glory really be the same person who gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut?” Substitute “The Killing” for “Paths of Glory” and I could ask the same question. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

House on Haunted Hill (William Castle, 1959). This week’s Creature Feature also has Elisha Cook, and with that, we can dispense with any similarities between this one and The Killing. William Castle already had a fairly long career doing B-movies, detective stories, Westerns and the like. But then he mortgaged his house and made a thriller, Macabre, for $90,000. He gave each person who saw the film a $1,000 insurance policy, to be paid if they died of fright during the movie. The film made back more than 50 times its cost. Castle learned his lesson. His next film was House on Haunted Hill, in “Emergo!” He hired Vincent Price to play the lead, added budding almost-stars like Richard Long and veteran character actors like Cook, and filled the cast with oddities like Robert Mitchum’s older sister. The entire thing cost around $200,000. And Emergo? In theaters, during one scene when a skeleton was being pulled from a vat of acid, a similar skeleton was flown over the audience using pulleys. (The skeleton got its name in the credits … I assume the one in the movie, not the one in the theaters.) Yes, I hear you ask, but is the movie any good? Well, it’s as good or better than the standard fare you’d find on Creature Feature shows in the old days. Even without Emergo, the film works … the plot twists are not too complicated, but enough so that you might not figure them out before they happen. It’s a 75-minute “people meet in a creepy house” movie, OK for what it is. Forty years later it was remade. The budget was $19 million, and starred Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, second-level stars like Famke Janssen and Taye Diggs, and cult figures like Lisa Loeb and Spike from Buffy. Just when you thought the entire thing had played out, a straight-to-video sequel to the remake came out in 2007. The Blu-ray version had interactive features which allowed the viewer to choose between competing plot lines. I mention this so I can quote this piece of trivia: “The mercenary character of Harue … is revealed, only in the special features of the blu-ray, to be a lesbian member of a cult that worships Baphomet and is in search of the idol for her own means.” Meanwhile, the original film gets 6/10. Next week’s Creature Feature: an actual cult classic, the original Carnival of Souls.


still wondering what’s next

A few days ago, I noted that I felt like running a continuing series of films to watch and write about. Right now, I post a weekly roundup of films I’ve seen during the week … these are normally just a paragraph long, although I’ve managed to go on a bit longer for occasional movies. I’ve also started including a weekly “Creature Feature”, but the truth is, most of those movies are awful. I have a soft spot in my heart for them, but I suspect what they really represent is some barely-hidden need for a film series. This all began when I was asked to take part in the Facebook group where we chose our fifty favorite movies. It was too much fun to leave behind. I’ve been reposting those movies on the blog, but next Saturday will be the last of them.

I listed various possibilities in my earlier post, before deciding that the best idea might be to take the movies that barely missed the cut on my Facebook list, and call it “Fave 51-79”. One person liked that idea. In the comments, I noted that I rarely included a movie from later than 1974 in my FB list. Since this blog is more than ten years old now, I’ve had a chance to write about many 21st century movies. So perhaps I should do a list of my favorites from 1975-2000. Another person liked this idea. Yet another comment let me know that folks might have individual requests, and I’ve always got a couple of movies people recommend that get lost in my Netflix queue, so I said, partly in jest, that I could do “By Request”. Soon after, I got an email from a friend who liked that idea.

I don’t know what I’ll decide, but the “request” idea is intriguing. The main problem is getting requests … I know there are people out there reading, but I also know they number in the tens, not the hundreds or even the dozens, and I’m not sure I’d get enough requests to keep me going. Having said that, I have a short list of requests I could start with: Lagaan, Ace Ventura, Semi-Pro, and This Is England. I could add my list of picks Phil and Jeff included amongst their own FB faves that I haven’t seen (I still have 12 to go).

Or I could just keep on doing my weekly thing, with the addition of one longer piece in each of those posts. The movies I watch are drawn primarily from three sources. Two are from the same website: I’m always looking to watch movies I’ve missed from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They “All-Time Top 1000” and “21st Century Top 250” lists. The third source is MovieLens, a recommendation site. I’ve entered 1525 ratings into their system, and any movie they suggest I will rank 4 stars out of 5 (or higher) goes into my Netflix queue. Between these three, I have just under 100 movies on my “watch list” … I add movies throughout the year, then start over in January or so.


#3: bonnie and clyde (arthur penn, 1967)

(This is the 48th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Bonnie and Clyde was the first movie that really entranced me, although I can’t say it was the first movie that taught me new things about film. I loved it very much, but in 1967, that just meant if someone asked, I could say it was my favorite movie. Later I learned about its roots in the French New Wave, and of course, after the fact one can see Bonnie and Clyde as the first movie in the Golden Age of American Cinema. And now I know that Pauline Kael’s epic, overlong review of the film helped give it a second life when it appeared to have bombed, and that this was the first time Kael had a real impact, but when I was 14, I’d never heard of Pauline Kael.

Gene Hackman is one of my favorite actors, and this is the first time I noticed him … he is terrific, as always. Dede Allen was one of the great editors, and Bonnie and Clyde is one of her finest works. It is a crime that the movie got 10 Oscar nominations (and won two), yet Allen got no recognition from the Academy.

As for why this movie is so close to my heart, I blame the romance between the title characters. They aren’t glorified (in fact, Entertainment Weekly trashed a reissue, accusing Arthur Penn of condescending to his characters). They are, in fact, a bit dim, never connecting their actions to the consequences. But they share an intimate relationship, with each other and with the audience, which may be why the film bothered so many on its release: love and violence are mixed in a startling fashion. (Humor and violence are also used in this way. Especially the first time you watch it, your reaction is something like funny, cute, funny, slapstick, funny, WHAM THAT GUY GOT SHOT IN THE FACE! As Kael noted, Bonnie and Clyde replaces the spoofy “we were only kidding” with the disruptive “and you thought we were only kidding.”)

When I watch, I always convince myself that they won’t die at the end. But Clyde himself explains why the movie will always end with their death. Bonnie asks him what he would do if a miracle allowed them to start over, clean with no record. Clyde thinks for a second, hems and haws a bit, and then says, “I guess I'd do it all different. First off, I wouldn't live in the same state where we pull our jobs. We'd live in another state. We'd stay clean there and then when we'd take a bank, we'd go into the other state.”

 

The comments were an inspired bunch of memories of the first time people saw Bonnie and Clyde. I couldn’t resist re-telling my own version: “When I saw Bonnie and Clyde when it first came out (or at least, when it first hit the suburbs), I wanted to see it so badly that I went, even though I had just contracted chicken pox. I didn't tell anyone until after I'd seen the movie (infecting the entire theater in the process, of course).”


music friday: david + david, “river’s gonna rise”

In 1986, David Baerwald and David Ricketts were a couple of SoCal studio musicians who banded together as David + David. Baerwald was in his mid-20s, Ricketts in his early-30s. They made one album, Boomtown, which contained a minor hit in “Welcome to the Boomtown”. The album’s sales were unimpressive, and the two broke up the band at the end of the year. Baerwald continues to make the occasional critically acclaimed solo album that doesn’t sell, both Davids do soundtracks, and both still work on other people’s albums. Their most famous such work was for Sheryl Crow’s debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was built around a casual group of musicians and featured songs co-written by Crow, the Davids, and others.

Boomtown was a far more interesting album than you’d expect from a couple of El Lay studio boys. The production by Davitt Sigerson makes the album sound “good” in that clean, studio musician way … Christgau said “it's got the goods technically--songs, hooks, subtle little touches.” It’s also something of a theme album, not a “rock opera” but a work that holds together thematically. The titles tell some of the tale: “Welcome to the Boomtown,” “Swallowed by the Cracks,” “All Alone in the Big City”. It’s not a peaches-and-cream look at the Reagan years, nor is it ironically funny like Randy Newman’s “I Love LA”. (Newman would write, “Look at those mountains, look at those trees, look at the bum over there, man, he's down on his knees.” David + David wouldn’t take as long to get to the bum.)

My favorite song from Boomtown has always been “River’s Gonna Rise”. It has a passionate vocal, effective sound, perfectly appropriate guitar solo, and lyrics about which I change my mind on a regular basis. The start is ominous: “God ain’t in his heaven, something ain’t right.” The song is full of apocalyptic imagery: church bells are ringing, a man is being dragged “by his insides through the broad daylight”, missions are packed with people “that got nowhere to go”, the curfew is on, and “all the proud things” are dying. All of this is evocative, but understandable: dark days have arrived. It’s the chorus that makes the song for me, and it’s the chorus that I’ve never been able to pin down:

The river’s gonna rise, it’s gonna rise
There’ll be dancing in the street when the river done rise

This chorus has always reminded me on “London Calling” by the Clash, when Joe shouts “London is drowning, and I live by the river!” He, too, is singing his way through the apocalypse, and the way I’ve always taken that chorus, the point isn’t that we’ll be saved, but that those of us who live by the river “have no fear” because drowning has always been our future. The joy of the apocalypse is knowing that everyone else is going to drown with us, including all of those people who thought they could escape. Similarly, in “River’s Gonna Rise”, people are dancing in the street because when the river done rise, everyone will be in the same boat (or, to properly agree with all these metaphors, everyone’s boat will be destroyed).

I don’t know why I think these are “happy” feelings, to believe not that we will be saved, but that we will bring down the powerful along with us. And, to be honest, I’m not sure my interpretation is “right” … I may just be imposing my own apocalyptic fantasies. I do know that, the last time I listened to “River’s Gonna Rise”, it occurred to me that perhaps this was indeed a hopeful moment, that when the river rose, it raised all of us along with it … the apocalypse would pass, and we would all be saved. I can’t say I actually believe this, but it’s a measure of the power of the song that more than one interpretation is possible. And if that is the case, what I hear in the guitar solo as the ecstasy of the apocalypse could be the joy of the saved.

Here’s a YouTube video of the song. I don’t think the imagery in the video works, but you can always just look somewhere else while the song is playing:

http://youtu.be/4iJpxTTw6tw

I’m never quite sure if I know how to do these, but here’s a Spotify URL to the song, if you don’t need the video:

http://open.spotify.com/track/5PJz77YORqV1ydBxcjedZ2

And here’s a MOG link:

https://mog.com/tracks/mn11374879/david-%2526-david/boomtown/river's-gonna-rise

And Rdio:

http://rd.io/x/QVskdDd2Jn0


what’s next

I only have a few more movies to go in my Facebook Fave Fifty posts. One thing I’ve realized as I repost those pieces is that I miss doing them. Yes, I have a weekly roundup of films I’ve watched, and I’m trying to stretch out a bit on at least one a week, but I wouldn’t mind doing something specific. I’d intend it to be a once-a-week thing, with no pressure if I miss a week or do two in three days.

I thought of a few themes. I could work on one of the many lists at I Check Movies. But I am too far from finishing any of them. For example, I often site the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They lists of the Top 1000 films of all time and the Top 250 films of the 21st century. But it was only last week that I passed the halfway mark on the former (I’ve seen 507 of the 1013 films on the list), and while I’m doing a little better with the 21st century, I’ve still only seen 161 out of 250. The idea of trying to watch 89 movies, some of which are likely impossible to find, is beyond even my level of obsessive-compulsion.

My best chance at finishing a list would be one of the American Film Institute’s selections. I’ve seen 95 of 100 on their “100 years … 100 movies” list, and 95/100 as well for their “100 years … 100 thrills” list. On the other hand, if I wanted to just watch movies 24 hours a day until I died, I could try to complete Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Films … there are 1018, I’ve seen 236, so only 782 to go!

What I will probably do is Fave Fifty, Honorable Mention. When I made that list of 50, I started with a long, long list. I trimmed it, and I trimmed it some more, until I got it down to 79. Those last cuts are all favorites of mine … they just didn’t make the final list. So I could do Fave 51-79, which would be a lot more viable, and which would guarantee I liked all of the movies. On the other hand, I’ve seen them already, so maybe I should try a list of films I haven’t seen. Movielens has a list of “The five most often rated movies that you have not rated.” Many of them I’ve seen, but in that long period before I got crazy about rating everything I saw. That list would give me a chance to see the favorite films of others, that I missed for whatever reason. Except there are reasons why I never saw Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, so that’s a dead end, too … why subject myself to watching Waterworld?


#4: rio bravo (howard hawks, 1959)

(This is the 47th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

You never know what will be considered a classic in the future. I first saw Rio Bravo on TV when I was a kid, and I loved it, as I have every time I have seen it since then. But it would never have occurred to me on that first viewing that I was watching a classic. Even later, Rio Bravo would have been a guilty pleasure if I believed in such things. Howard Hawks was an acclaimed Hollywood director (and over time, I came to realize he was one of my own very favorites), John Wayne the biggest of stars, but Rio Bravo wasn't thought of as their best work, alone or together. And the presence of actors like Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson didn't exactly help (they are all wonderful in Rio Bravo ... well, Ricky is only OK ... but really, do you think a movie is a classic if all you know is that Dean Martin plays a drunk, Ricky Nelson plays a gunslinger named Colorado, Police Woman is a woman of mystery, and everything stops in the middle of the film so Dino and Ricky can sing a couple of songs with Walter Brennan accompanying them?)

The thing is, Rio Bravo is fun ... maybe that's one reason it wasn't always taken seriously.

This is my third and final Howard Hawks film. It contains the basic elements that I like in all his movies: witty banter, communities of men, and the ever-present “Hawksian Woman” who is always the equal of the men, largely because she is a lot like the men. In the Hawks movies I have chosen for this list, the women have gone from Rosalind Russell to Lauren Bacall to Angie Dickinson, the male leads from Cary Grant to Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne. One reason I rank Rio Bravo above the others is the way Hawks plays with the image of John Wayne. Grant and Bogart are not that different in His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep than they are in other movies. In a similar way, in Rio Bravo John Wayne plays “John Wayne.” But, while Russell and Bacall influence their co-stars, Dickinson’s effect on Wayne allows for a remarkable opening up of “John Wayne.” Grant and Bogart have a lot of love and admiration for the leading women in their movies, but Wayne in Rio Bravo is constantly unsettled by Dickinson, flustered, fumbling for words, never knowing quite what to do with her.

The relationship amongst the community surrounding Wayne also subverts any notion we might have that Wayne is the solitary man of action who needs no help. John T. Chance keeps saying he doesn’t need help (by which he means amateur help … he welcomes the help of professionals). But Chance only accomplishes his goals because his friends help him. The drunk, the cripple, the shady lady, the hotel owner, and the gunslinger (a professional, but as personified by the still-teenaged Ricky Nelson, an anomaly), all of them rise to the occasion. And Wayne welcomes their assistance.

As the community works together, Rio Bravo becomes a generous movie. Bonded by humor and common goals, the characters accept each other with all of their flaws, and we in the audience are welcomed into their company.

 

No one had a bad word to say about Rio Bravo in the extensive comments, but the real topic of discussion was “what will his final three choices be?” Funny thing is, when I was formatting this post for the blog, I realized I no longer remembered what my #3 was.