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revisiting jules and jim (françois truffaut, 1962)

I had intended to watch my final Johnnie To movie, but that got postponed with the news that Jeanne Moreau had died, prompting another viewing of Jules and Jim.

This one has been championed by everyone from Jean Renoir to Stephen Hawking. Paul Mazursky made an homage/remake with Willie and Phil, where the title characters meet coming out of a theater showing Jules and Jim (Margot Kidder has the Moreau part in that one). It's my favorite Truffaut movie if you don't count Close Encounters. And it feels as fresh today as it ever did.

The three main characters (Jules, Jim, and Catherine) are not equal, and the title of the film doesn't give a clue to the imbalance. Catherine is the center of their lives ... as Jules says, "She is a queen. Let me be frank. She's not especially beautiful or intelligent or sincere... but she is a real woman. And that is why we love her... and all men desire her. Despite this, why did she make us a gift... of her presence? Because we treated her like a queen." This hints at her power and magnificence, but it also points to a problem with her character. For Catherine is defined by men ... by Henri-Pierre Roché, who wrote the novel on which the film is based; by Truffaut; by the male characters. Why is Catherine a queen? Because Jules and Jim treated her like one.

The reason this works is because of Jeanne Moreau. The men involved both behind and in front of the camera create fantasies out of Catherine, and try, in a gentle way, to define her through their fantasies. Catherine only partially returns their desire ... she is willing to be their fantasy until it no longer interests her, at which point she moves on to another man's fantasy. As many have noted, Catherine is barely a character ... she is an idea. But Moreau brings that idea to life. She demands that we see her (Catherine, and Moreau) as a person, not someone's idea. The character is drawn in a fuzzy enough fashion that we can't always get a handle on it, but we never doubt Jules and Jim's feelings towards her. And by her, I mean Jeanne Moreau. It's not that she is playing herself, but she is filling in the large blanks in the character as written with her own sense of self.

Perhaps because of Moreau's death, I'm focusing on her. I haven't said anything about the brilliant use and subversion of the language of film, or about how Jules and Jim is a crucial part of the French New Wave. All of that is true. But today, I'm thinking about Jeanne Moreau. #82 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

 


johnny guitar (nicholas ray, 1954)

As was occasionally true, this Nicholas Ray movie is famous as much for its backstage drama as for what we see on the screen. Sterling Hayden hated working with Joan Crawford. Crawford hated working with Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray said, "Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning."

The movie itself invites multiple interpretations. As the venerable TV Guide wrote, "Johnny Guitar has been called everything from a feminist statement to a gay camp-classic to an anti-McCarthyism allegory." I'm not entirely convinced about the film's feminism ... at the least, I'd argue it's unintended. The film centers more on gender identities, with the men sliding into the background in the face of the indomitable Vienna (Crawford) and the frightening Emma (McCambridge). I've never felt qualified to identify what makes something camp, although I admit I laugh a lot when watching Johnny Guitar (and again, I don't know if those scenes are meant to make us laugh). The McCarthyism angle is clearer. The script was co-written by a blacklisted author, Ben Maddow, and there is one scene, where the mob badgers and threatens a man to give up his friends that is terrifying in that early-50s way.

Crawford's fears were right in one respect: McCambridge blows her and everyone else off the screen. Another piece of trivia from the IMDB:

[T]he crew broke into spontaneous applause after one of Mercedes McCambridge's powerhouse scenes, which infuriated star Joan Crawford. According to Nicholas Ray, he then began shooting the younger actress' scenes in the early morning before Crawford got there. After the star witnessed one of these early shoots she flew into a rage, broke into McCambridge's dressing room and slashed her clothes to shreds.

Since Johnny Guitar is ripe for so many possibilities, it is endlessly watchable. For my money, though, the one thing that lifts it above other films is Mercedes McCambridge. Her love/hate feelings towards The Dancing Kid and, more importantly, towards Vienna, drive an intensity that Crawford admittedly matches. They make a fine team, no matter how much they might have hated each other.

It's all rather loony. If I don't take it as seriously as some, I certainly appreciate the ways it might work on others. #240 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


music friday: women

Earlier this week, NPR posted a list of the 150 greatest albums made by women. It's a discussion starter, and it definitely worked ... people are coming up with "the next 150", "150 albums by men that sucked", and the like.

The list was accompanied by a great essay by Ann Powers, "A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story", which I highly recommend. I was inspired to make a short list of my own. Here are ten songs by women ... according to Last.fm, these are songs I've listened to lately:

Fleetwood Mac, "I Don't Want to Know"

Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools"

Cowboy Junkies, "Sweet Jane"

Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time"

The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"

Lucinda Williams, "Are You Alright?"

Sleater-Kinney, "Modern Girl"

Ella Fitzgerald, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"

Pink, "Just Give Me a Reason"


the bare-footed kid (johnnie to, 1993)

As far as I can tell, this is Johnnie To's only period martial arts movie. It's a remake of Disciples of Shaolin, a mid-70s film. Not having seen the original, I have nothing to add to that.

On the face of it, there are a lot of appetizing elements to The Bare-Footed Kid, beyond it being a Johnnie To film. The cast includes the legendary Maggie Cheung, Kenneth Tsang (who has been in close to 200 movies), and Ti Lung, a star in many of those 70s martial arts movie (he had the skills) who had a career resurgence in A Better Tomorrow. The title character was played by Aaron Kwok, a huge star who I admit I'd never heard of. The cinematographer was Wing-Hang "Horace" Wong. And the stunts were directed by Liu Chia-Liang.

Yet during the early parts of the movie, I felt a bit unimpressed. The look of the film was gorgeous, especially the vivid colors, and I'm always ready to watch Maggie Cheung. But to my untrained eye, Wong had to work hard to make Aaron Kwok look like he was kicking ass ... lots of cutaway shots and wire-fu.

But The Bare-Footed Kid grew on me. As is usual for me, I had a hard time following the plot, but since everything looked good, I couldn't complain. And Cheung and Lung were acting at the highest level ... they gave the film class. A rather violent ending was a bit surprising, but overall, Maggie Cheung and Ti Lung made me forgive a lot. And did I mention the colors?

One final note. I found this streaming on Amazon, and the only option was dubbing. It was kind of appropriate, like I was watching something from the 70s. Except the dubbing was actually pretty well done. 7/10.

 


rudderless (william h. macy, 2014)

Feature directing debut for Macy, who also co-wrote the screenplay and plays a bit role. Billy Crudup stars (favorite anecdote: when Crudup had trouble calling up the emotions for a particular scene, Macy said, "looks like you have to fake it"). Rudderless played at Sundance, and it has a Sundancey cast, including Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Kate Micucci, Anton Yelchin, and Laurence Fishburne.

The film ambles along, a low-key study of grief, with Crudup as a father whose son dies in a college shooting. It's too low-key ... when Crudup finally breaks down, it feels deserved, but it still plays as too hyped-up compared to the mellow feel of the movie until then. Crudup is fine, and Yelchin is the best thing about the movie as a young, aspiring rocker. But there is a plot twist ... and it is crucial to the movie, but I don't like giving spoilers. Suffice to say that when the twist comes, it is quite startling, even impressive (at least if, like me, you never see these twists coming). But after it happened, I felt abused by a cheap ploy that existed only for the shock value. It doesn't grow organically out of the narrative. Information is kept from the audience until the moment when the emotional impact will be greatest, but I don't like being worked over that way. (Stephen Holden in the New York Times called the film "dishonest, manipulative and ultimately infuriating".)

Rudderless is listed as a musical, but it's a musical the way Almost Famous was a musical: it has musicians playing music, but they don't drive the film. (And, of course, Crudup was in Almost Famous as well. He was more charismatic in that movie, but that isn't really called for here.)

The acting is fine ... Fishburne has a minor role, but I enjoyed seeing him (in fact, he's the reason I watched in the first place ... I wanted to see something of his that was new to me). If it wasn't for that stupid plot twist, Rudderless would have been a decent picture, shallow but tolerable. ("Shallow" compared to, say, The Leftovers, which set the new standard for presenting grief.) It's not an embarrassment, it just rubbed me the wrong way. 6/10

 


once again: he's always sucked

I google this blog to see if I had ever written anything about John McCain. I only found two examples. Here's the first, from 2004:

Mccain always sucked

In the second, aptly titled "fucking dickheads, john mccain edition", from 2008, I added, "McCain was never one of the good guys; I confess to puzzlement over the positive feelings many progressives seemed to have for him."


three (johnnie to, 2016)

This is Johnnie To's most recent film, and he certainly hasn't lost his touch. Three is an economical 88 minutes long, and despite the previews, it takes more than an hour for the special To violent scenes to really burst. Until then, Three is a medical drama that takes place in a hospital. There is some tense suspense, because one of the patients is a dangerous thug with information the police want, so even as the movie seems dedicated to sticking with the medical angle, you keep expecting something awful to happen.

Actually, something awful happens right away, as an overworked doctor (Zhao Wei) botches a brain surgery. The three main characters of the title are the doctor, a cop, and the thug, and they are all working their own agendas, with the doctor and the cop trying to save people and the thug just going for what he wants. Various other patients also have distinctive personalities ... it's amazing how many characters we get to know in such a short movie.

The simmering pot finally boils over in the last 20 minutes, including a remarkable shootout in the hospital that seems partly like an homage to Hard Boiled. After To spends most of the film seemingly hiding in the shadows, he cranks up the style (this has also been compared to The Wild Bunch, for the way it takes its time getting to the slaughter).

Zhao Wei (aka Vicky Zhao) is great as the obsessive doctor, but Wallace Chung has the showiest role as the thug, and he plays it just this side of over the top. This is one of To's better movies. 8/10.

 


the mad monk (johnnie to and siu-tung ching, 1993)

The Johnnie To marathon continues with this one, which came between The Heroic Trio and Executioners. (Ching worked on all of these, as well ... he's the stunt guy, i.e. the martial arts director, i.e. wire fu). Probably the key collaborator here is star Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), a massive star in Hong Kong who later crossed over into U.S. popularity. Rumor is that Chow and To did not get along, although I can't see evidence of this one the screen. But it feels more like a Chow movie than a To movie, which doesn't help me, since Chow's specialty is comedy that doesn't always translate well across cultures. (There is a term for this, Mo lei tau, which refers to the kind of humor, often verbal, that involves nonsense and puns, just the kind of things that don't travel.)

There were a few things I liked. Maggie Cheung is always welcome at my house. The same goes for her Heroic Trio co-star Anita Mui, whose two appearances amount to an extended cameo. Anthony Wong is different than I usually see him (he plays "Nine Lives Beggar"). The less said about the loony plot, the better. If you like these movies, you'll like The Mad Monk OK, I suppose. But I'm giving it 6/10.

 


music friday: eric clapton, 1974

On this date in 1974, we saw Eric Clapton at the Cow Palace. The opening act was a band called Ross, about whom I remember nothing (they were label mates of Clapton at the time). Clapton was touring behind 461 Ocean Boulevard, which suffered, as every album he ever made after 1970, from not being Layla. Still, it was a good album in the laid-back mode that Clapton eased into around that time, with a hit single in Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff". Clapton was finally off heroin.

For the concert, Clapton almost disappeared. He wore shades and, at least part of the time, a floppy hat. His band:

George Terry - Guitar
Dick Sims - Keyboards
Carl Radle - Bass
Jamie Oldaker - Drums
Yvonne Elliman - Backing Vocals

My memory is that he let Terry take too many solos.

The setlist:

"Smile" - the Charlie Chaplin song
"Let It Grow" - the best song from 461 Ocean Boulevard
"Can’t Find My Way Home" - from his Blind Faith days
"I Shot the Sheriff" - 461
"Let It Rain" - from his first solo album
"Willie and the Hand Jive" - Johnny Otis song from 461
"Get Ready" - 461
"Badge" - the first Cream song of the night
"Matchbox" - the Carl Perkins song (see below)
"Layla" - the biggest disappointment of the night, but you can't bring Duane back from the dead
"Tell the Truth" - also from Layla
"Blues Power" - another from his solo debut
"Have You Ever Loved a Woman" - Layla
"Steady Rollin’ Man" - by his muse, Robert Johnson, from 461
"Crossroads" - perhaps the Cream song most identified with Clapton, also written by Johnson
"Little Queenie" - finishing with Chuck Berry

Derek and the Dominos, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, "Matchbox":