lon simmons
throwback liz phair and jewel

what i watched last week

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011). Arnold deserves credit for offering a Wuthering Heights that differs from all the others, and I'm guessing that the resulting film is pretty much exactly how Arnold wanted it. Gloom piled on gloom, with plenty of closeups of the actors, of which the main ones are neophytes with the exception of Kaya Scodelario as the grown-up Catherine. Some of Arnold's earlier work has been compared to Dogme 95, and I can see that, although that isn't necessarily a selling point for me. I guess everything is supposed to be smoldering here ... the characters' excesses of passion are rarely let out to play, but the actors' faces may be expressing inner turmoil. Mostly, they are pretty, no matter how dirty their clothes. And pretty doesn't make passion all on its own. Some find this masterful ... it's #483 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Me, I'll give it 6/10. For a double-bill, go for overkill and watch the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011). I admit I struggle with the idea of Woody Allen these days. Not sure why ... if Roman Polanski made a great film tomorrow, I would have no trouble recognizing it. Midnight in Paris is both slight and complicated, and the combination works well to get "Woody Allen" the tabloid person out of my mind for an hour and a half. It helps that Owen Wilson plays the Woody stand-in ... it's a funny impersonation, more Wilson than Allen. There are a lot of impersonations going on in this fantasy-that-is-never-explained, some better than others, and all of them more rewarding to ex-literature students. Among my faves: Corey Stoll as Hemingway, who talks like Hemingway writes (wasn't the old line always that Hemingway's dialogue was hard to translate to the screen?), and Adrien Brody as Dali. The cameos run deep ... even Djuna Barnes turns up briefly. And so the film enthusiasts aren't left out, there's a funny little scene with Wilson's character and Luis Buñuel that is a bit like when Michael J. Fox plays "Johnny B. Goode" in Back to the Future. Not everything works ... maybe Rachel McAdams is just playing her character as Allen desired, but her rich bitch is annoying and demeaning. Luckily, Marion Cotillard is around for balance. (And a tip of the cap to whoever cast Audrey Fleurot.) #482 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10. The film reminded me at times of Linklater's "Before" movies ... it's not as good as those, but they might work well as a quadruple-bill.

Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1968). In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s, I read and reread a book (I've forgotten the title) that was about film theory. A good portion, as I recall, was given over to cinéma vérité. I was fascinated by the concept, although I'm not sure I'd seen anything that qualified other than Gimme Shelter and Don't Look Back. (Wait, I saw Titicut Follies, too.) I wanted to make cinéma vérité movies myself, and my first short film was indeed a "real life" representation of one woman's life. For those brief moments, I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution. #432 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. For a companion, try anything by Frederick Wiseman.

The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940). So smooth, you might not notice how well it all works. The primary reason for this is the interplay between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. The plot is a hokey bit of nonsense, but it makes a perfectly fine frame for the two stars to work their way through the romance at the center of the movie. It is hard to imagine someone not liking The Shop Around the Corner, which if nothing else is finely appealing. Ten films were nominated for Best Picture Oscars; none of them was The Shop Around the Corner (the winner was Rebecca). There were 20 performers nominated in the acting categories; none of them came from The Shop Around the Corner. Is it the greatest movie ever made? No. But it ranks with the best of its kind, and it's hard to know why it didn't get any Oscar love. In fact, the film won no awards until it was added to the National Film Registry in 1999. Its reputation has increased over the years, and it is now #270 on the TSPDT list of the top films of all time. 8/10. For a double-bill, try one of the other Sullavan-Stewart films: Next Time We LoveThe Shopworn Angel, or The Mortal Storm.