still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":


#1: the godfather and the godfather: part ii (francis ford coppola, 1972, 1974)

(This is the last 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.)

At last, the most anticlimactic pick of them all.

Anyone who knows me understands that my #1 choice was inevitable, as was my decision to treat two films as one. I don’t care if it’s cheating. Either film on its own would be a contender for my #1 slot. Together, they constitute epic greatness.

Part I (it’s not really called that, of course, but it’s easier for the purposes of this discussion) is a masterpiece of storytelling. It is hugely entertaining, but it is also intelligent, or perhaps better said, it does not insult the intelligence of its audience. The Godfather is filled with memorable set pieces and quotable dialogue that has long since entered the general vernacular. The casting and performances are so perfect it isn’t always clear where one starts and the other begins. In fact, at this point, the casting seems inevitable: of course Abe Vigoda is Tessio and John Cazale is Fredo and Richard Conte is Barzini. But at the time, it wasn’t so inevitable, with the obvious example being Marlon Brando, who was no one’s idea of Vito Corleone until we saw him in the movie.

Brando’s charisma is so great that Vito’s presence is felt throughout the film, even though he disappears after 45 minutes and doesn’t return until late. This allows for the gradual emergence of the character of Michael Corleone, the true center of the two films. Folks who have seen the direction of Al Pacino’s career might be surprised to revisit the first two Godfather movies, where Pacino keeps the vehement histrionics to a minimum. His performance over Part I and II is one of the greats of cinema history. At the start, he’s quiet and reserved; at the end, he is quiet and reserved. But the difference between Michael the returning war hero and Michael the Godfather is clear, and Pacino manages to show us this in his face.

The Godfather is superior entertainment; Part II takes things to another level. Without the sequel, The Godfather would not reach beyond its own basic excellence (which is no small thing in itself). The sequel gives the original a depth it doesn’t necessarily have on its own. If the first film begins with the lines, “I believe in America,” Part II shows us why Vito dismisses such sentiments by giving us the roots of the character. And the fate of Michael shows us beyond a shadow of a doubt just how corrosive the Corleone’s Sicilian heritage can be.

Part I is the story of a family, and it is understandable that some viewers saw in Vito the kind of benevolent lover of family that we wish was part of our own family. Part II gives the lie to such beliefs. It is unlikely that anyone, watching both movies, would wish they could be a Corleone.

The narrative structure of the two films, wherein we get the middle of the story first, after which we get the beginning and end intermixed, is also brilliant. The more straightforward first film allows for the kind of immediate response that leads to a popular classic, while Part II expands our understanding from both ends. And Coppola seamlessly blends the two periods, which is harder than it looks. Throughout, Coppola and his crew manage to create three completely believable periods in the 20th century, and also recreate several locations (New York, Sicily, Nevada, Havana) with seeming ease.

The character trajectory of Michael is the core of the films. Vito knows what he has done in his life, but he has done it for what he thinks are the right reasons: “I work my whole life, I don't apologize, to take care of my family.” Michael knows what he has done with his life, but he also knows he could have chosen another path, and he knows that in the name of family, he has destroyed his family. He knows he is a bad person, but still he continues.

When Michael commits his first murder, he takes the step from being the Corleone who would do something different to being the Corleone who would eventually become the Godfather. He hesitates just before leaving the bathroom, and in that hesitation, he takes one last moment to consider what he is about to do, while we in the audience, wanting him to succeed, become implicated.

 

The comments section was filled with “so, now what?” posts. It may be time to come up with an answer to that question.


#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.


#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).”


#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.


#5: the third man (carol reed, 1949)

(This is the 46th 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.)

I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotton as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.

Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.

Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.

And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.

Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.

 

In what I think is odd, considered how highly I rate this movie, the entire comments section is taken up with a discussion between Phil Dellio and I about Altman’s The Long Goodbye.


#6: the rules of the game (jean renoir, 1939)

(This is the 45th 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.)

I first saw Renoir’s two classic films from the late 1930s, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, around the same time in the early 70s. From that first viewing, I thought Grand Illusion was one of the greatest of all movies, and I haven’t changed my mind, even if for the purposes of this list I left it off so I could write about Rules (I have written about Grand Illusion in the past). But the first time I saw The Rules of the Game, I didn’t get what all the excitement was about.

Somewhere along the way, though, The Rules of the Game became my favorite Renoir movie. I wish I could explain why; I suspect one reason I haven’t written about it before is that I can’t put my finger on what makes it great. It’s not enough to just say “watch it and you’ll know what I mean,” especially since more than most movies, Rules of the Game rewards multiple viewings (and I don’t usually like movies that require you to see them more than once to appreciate them). I can tell you that Renoir’s use of deep focus is so complete and so subtle that you can watch the film over and over and get more out of it just by paying attention to what’s going on in the background. There are few better examples of how to make style work as substance than right here. Renoir isn’t showing off, he’s using unusual (for its time) techniques to give depth (no pun intended, but I wish I had intended it, it’s a good one) to his movie.

The Rules of the Game, hated so much when it was first shown to a French audience, is not as single-mindedly dismissive of the upper classes as you might have heard. There is a tendency when showing this film to modern audiences to explain the context of its production and subsequent negative reception: Renoir made the film as Hitler was preparing the moves that would lead to World War II, and the upper-class Frenchmen and women in the movie are so unconcerned with what is going on outside of their own world that Fascism is never mentioned. Renoir isn’t attacking Nazis here; rather, he is anticipating the French response to the near future and finding the French lacking. But Renoir has always been the cinema’s great humanist. So even the upper-class denizens of The Rules of the Game are allowed a depth of character that makes them, not exactly likable, but understandable. The tragedy of the film isn’t that these are evil people, but that they are ordinary people who exist at a remove from the rest of society, and thus don’t always understand the larger implications of their actions. Thus, the most quoted line in the film isn’t when Octave says that everyone lies, but when he says that “the awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”

 

To be honest, I wish there had been more comments, since (obviously) I think this is a great film, and because I think I did a nice job writing about it. A couple of people agreed that it was great, and another said he would be watching it soon in a film class.


#7: citizen kane (orson welles, 1941)

(This is the 44th 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.)

Just by making Citizen Kane #7 instead of #1, I’m making a statement that to some is untenable. For Citizen Kane must live with the burden of being “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” Happily, the film can bear that burden.

Many of us wish the same could be said of Orson Welles. Welles was 25 when he made Citizen Kane, and while he had a lot of great work ahead of him (I had one of his films at #23, and his acting is also very much present in my list), it’s pretty hard to top The Greatest Movie Ever Made. In 1941, though, it seemed as if there was nothing Welles couldn’t do.

Citizen Kane is a group effort. The “authorship” of the movie has been a matter of heated debate for decades (it seems most accurate to say that Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz are co-authors, but that Welles-as-director had a much larger hand in the film that resulted from the script). Gregg Toland might even be more important than Mankiewicz. Toland, the film’s cinematographer, was such an integral part of Citizen Kane that his name appears at the same time as Welles’ in the credits. The look of the film is endlessly fascinating. It looks intriguing even as stills on a page, but to fully appreciate what Toland pulls off, you must see it “in action.”

I had a friend … at the time he seemed old to me because I was only 20 or so, but he was basically around the same age I am now. He once told me that his hope for old age was that he could be like Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane. I particularly love the shtick of repeatedly asking for a cee-gar.

Perhaps my favorite moment in Citizen Kane comes when old Bernstein tells about the lady he saw many decades earlier. He caught sight of her once for a brief moment, she never saw him, and that was that. But, he says, a month hasn’t gone by in all the years since without him thinking of that lady. I think we all have such a lady in our memories, and I love the way Everett Sloane puts it across.

Welles said about Kane that he felt like he’d been given the best toy train a boy could ever want. Citizen Kane is great because of the talents of the assembled cast and crew. The miracle is that it was made at all. Welles was given complete control of the film. He got to choose the actors and crew, he got to develop the story as he saw fit, he got final cut … he got everything. He was 25 years old and he had never directed a movie. That’s a miracle.

 

This post got as many comments as any in my entire list of 50 films. Good ones, too … one person said it reminded him of a Lucinda Williams song, another added his voice to the praise for Everett Sloane.


#8: the wild bunch (sam peckinpah, 1969)

(This is the 43rd 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.)

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

Ironically, for a film that blasted away the past, The Wild Bunch is extremely nostalgic itself. The characters, and the film, pine for a time when a code mattered, and the characters, like the film, know that their time has passed. It is as if Peckinpah couldn’t bear the anguish of nostalgia; even as he felt it and expressed it on the screen, he was making sure the objects of our nostalgia would be destroyed.

Ultimately, The Wild Bunch is a confusing film. Kael claims that Peckinpah tried for so much, it overwhelmed him in the end, that what began as a realistic treatment became “an almost abstract fantasy about violence.” The bloody conclusion is orgasmic; these men love what they are doing, which may not have been Peckinpah’s intention, but then, he loved what he was doing, as well.

Peckinpah’s career was a mess. There were mediocre films, there were films where the studio interfered, there was the vile Straw Dogs. His attitude towards the women in his movies is bad enough that you wish there weren’t any female characters … absence would be better than misogyny. But at his best, and often at something less than his best, he was a great film maker, the antithesis of the efficient competence of Clint Eastwood.

Near the end, one of the Bunch has been captured by the “bad guys.” The gang has left him behind, because they are outnumbered 50-1, because to do anything else will result in certain death. But then, in a few minutes almost completely without dialogue, William Holden’s Pike Bishop knows what has to be done. Earlier in the film, he had famously said, “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished!” It was time to stay with their man. The exchange between Holden and Warren Oates is so simple, yet it tears at me every time I see it: “Let’s go.” “Why not?” The long walk was improvised on the set. As they walk, knowing what is to come … I’m not sure it has anything to do with “being a man,” but it has everything to do with the social construct that is “being a man.” Peckinpah romanticizes it, but nonetheless, it leads to their death.

 

There were more than a dozen comments on this post, although it was confined to three of us. Perhaps most noteworthy was my reminder that the group got its name from The Wild Bunch: “If They Move, Kill 'Em! Steven, Jeff & Phil Count Down Their Favorite Films.”


#9: a streetcar named desire (elia kazan, 1951)

(This is the 42nd 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.)

Marlon Brando at his best is the greatest film actor I know. And his best acting is in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was only his second movie, and he was the only one of the four main actors in the film not to win an Oscar (he lost to Bogart in The African Queen). All four are excellent, especially Kim Hunter, and more especially Vivien Leigh. But Brando … well, this is where he set the template for generations of future actors. As Scorsese said, there’s Before Brando and After Brando. As good as the others are in Streetcar, it is Brando who is historic.

A Streetcar Named Desire is probably my favorite play. The filmed version is faithful enough to the original, especially since a few minutes were restored in the early 90s. Most writers would be proud to create one character over the course of their career that resonated with audiences beyond the moment. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams gave us two: Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. They play off of each other perfectly, one saying “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” while the other made his wife, Blanche’s sister Stella, happy when he “pulled you down off them columns, and you loved it.” Stella did love it, but all Stanley’s behavior does to Blanche is send her over the edge into madness.

Leigh’s flighty performance nails what we would now call the bipolar nature of Blanche. Coquettish as a means of protecting herself, Leigh gives us the frailty of the character, and allows us to understand her life so that when she is brutalized by Stanley, we feel how it crushes her. Leigh’s performance is crucial, because Brando has such magnetism that he threatens to take over the entire film, taking a play that centers on Blanche and making Stanley our primary object of focus. Leigh’s acting style is so different from Brando’s, and the effect so perfect, that she manages at times to wrest the film away from Brando via deflection and flirting and mystery.

A Streetcar Named Desire tells us things about ourselves we might not want to know. Stanley is a brute, but he also loves his wife. Stella sees what Stanley is, but she also loves him, perhaps in part because of what he is. Blanche’s tenuous connection to reality leads not just to an attempt to create magic, but also to her ability to destroy the lives of people like her late husband. Despite the fact that each character seems simple enough to fit into a stereotype (the brutish animal vs. the delicate gentle lady), they are all more complex than the surface suggests. It is hard to get comfortable with Streetcar, because our feel for the characters slips so easily between liking them and hating them.

 

Only a couple of comments for this one, from people who also liked the movie.