these are different times
carolyn cassady, 1923-2013

what i watched last week

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988). Morris deserves credit for expanding our notions about what belongs in a “documentary”. But he works too hard to be artistic, at the expense of his reputed subject matter. I once wrote about his movie about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, that “the ‘better’ the movie on an aesthetic level, the less believable it becomes as a documentary. A film like Battle of Algiers, of course, works in the opposite direction, using aesthetics to emulate a documentary feel. The odd result is that the fictional film feels ‘real’ and the ‘real’ film feels fictional.” Morris does not try to trick the viewer into thinking everything in The Thin Blue Line is “real” in a strict documentary sense … his recreation of events ensures that. And I suppose he can’t be faulted for withholding some information until late in the movie, in order to create a level of suspense. There’s just something about his movies that nags at me, and I like them … maybe if I could put my finger on what is bothering me, I wouldn’t like them as much. #319 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 8/10.

Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936). Not exactly a request, but I had it at #74 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and a few people requested that I take a look at my “also rans”. I included it on that list partly because it felt right having at least one Chaplin movie (Jeff Pike had me beat in that regard … he had Modern Times at #29 and City Lights at #1). I didn’t feel the same need to make room for Buster Keaton, because he was always going to be there … the only question was which one I would pick (Steamboat Bill, Jr., #27). Chaplin has always been #2 to Keaton in my pantheon. This isn’t fair to Chaplin, who made great films, himself (I could just as easily have selected The Great Dictator). But Chaplin’s sentimentality often gets the best of me. Having said that, the emotional pull of his best movies is often the main reason people respond to them. As Jeff wrote about the ending to City Lights, “At a stroke it opens up the scope wide for everything that movies can do: the reality of human kindness and pathos, cynicism disarmed, and the simple and persuasive case, I say again, for optimism and hope.” One reason I like Modern Times, though, is that the sentiment is less obvious, as Chaplin offers a brilliant, visual, physical, and funny critique of mechanized society and social unrest. There is a place for kindness, of course … as the Little Tramp walks away for the last time, he has a companion in the irresistible (to me, anyway) Paulette Goddard. Meanwhile, there is the ingenious scene where Chaplin speaks on screen for the first time. I’d explain it, but it’s worth the surprise if you’ve never seen it. All I can say is, I find it extremely pleasurable in repeated viewings. #43 on the TSPDT list. 10/10.

Night Tide (Curtis Harrington, 1961). The background behind Night Tide is interesting. Harrington began his career making avant-garde shorts, influenced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Night Tide was his feature-film directorial debut. The film cost $75,000, yet somehow David Raksin was brought in to do the music. Raksin’s career went all the way back to Modern Times with Chaplin; he had picked up his second Oscar nomination just two years earlier. The movie marked the first leading role for Dennis Hopper. The flute player in the jazz club is Paul Horn, who later gained fame for his album recorded inside the Taj Mahal (and who did the music for Clutch Cargo … I could go on, I better stop). The movie was made for American International via Filmgroup, the distribution company set up by Roger Corman and his brother. (Corman liked Harrington’s work enough to hire him to turn footage from some Soviet Union science-fiction movies into Queen of Blood and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.) Night Tide was marketed as a horror film that played the drive-in circuit paired with AIP’s The Raven. I came across it while looking through old program notes from the local Creature Features show I grew up with … on November 26, 1966 it was shown alongside How to Make a Monster. OK, enough already. Is Night Tide any good? Yes, it is. It is atmospheric, and shows the influence of Val Lewton on Harrington. The young Hopper is appealingly naïve, and the acting in general is underplayed more than the usual for horror movies. (Special shout out to Luana Anders.) I suppose it matters what expectations you bring to the film … it’s more commercial than Maya Deren, more subtle and arty than the usual Roger Corman, so fans of both might be disappointed. I felt it more than earned a 7/10.

Eat the Document (Bob Dylan, 1972). There is a lot to contest just in the few words that precede this sentence. Dylan is listed as director, and I suppose it’s his film, but it’s unclear if anyone actually directed it. And 1972 is the official release date, but it documents Dylan’s 1966 tour of Europe. The story seems to be that D.A. Pennebaker was in charge of shooting the footage, no one was really the director, and after Dylan’s famous motorcycle accident, he decided to edit it himself, a process which led Pennebaker to note, “You gotta know some of the rules and he didn’t know any of the rules”. If that sounds enticing, it’s worth noting that there is a difference between breaking rules you know exist, and ignoring rules because you don’t know them. The former is rebellious, the latter is willfully primitive. There’s something to be said for both approaches, but the truth is, Eat the Document would be unwatchable without the lure of its star at a crucial point in his career. Pennebaker also has a rarely-seen version called Something Is Happening (I’m not sure anyone has seen it as a complete work), that reportedly has more music and a more coherent structure. 5/10.

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