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the bridge (bernhard wicki, 1959)

I first saw The Bridge almost 50 years ago. I found it to be an incredible emotional experience with a strong anti-war sentiment. But I'd never seen it since then, and it seems to have disappeared from popular discussion. It doesn't end up on many of those lists you see regarding great films. Director Bernhard Wicki has been largely forgotten ... he directed a film with Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner that I remember seeing in a theater in the 1960s, and he worked on the German segments of The Longest Day, but he doesn't even merit a listing in David Thomson's endlessly revised Biographical Dictionary of Film.

The Bridge, though, stuck in my mind for all these years, and now that I've finally watched it again, I can say with confidence that it hasn't lost a bit of its power.

Kael called the film "brutally cool and lucid", and that's on the money. The film takes place in Germany at the tail end of World War II. The Germans are losing badly, and they start drafting young boys to fill the ranks. Wicki spends the first part of the movie showing us the boys in their element, going to school, flirting with girls, talking bravely about war, bragging that they want to serve. Their mothers don't want to lose their boys, and many of the older men in the town know enough about war to hope that these youngsters will never know the reality.

Of course, they do face that reality, as do we in the audience. The early scenes establish how young the boys are, which makes the battle scenes that much harder to watch. Sometimes, a film will be called "anti-war" because it shows the brutality, but the heroism in the face of danger demonstrated by soldiers defeats the anti-war message. That doesn't happen here. Whatever braggadocio the boys show in the beginning falls apart when they are confronted with the actual war.

the diamond arm (leonid gaidai, 1968)

A movie completely out of my wheelhouse. I knew nothing about it in advance, so imagine my surprise when I found out The Diamond Arm is a Russian comedy/adventure about bumbling jewel smugglers. There is a lot of slapstick, which translates well across cultures but which is not generally my cup of tea, and I'm pretty sure there was a lot of clever wordplay that went right over my head because I don't speak Russian. It was a box office hit in Russia, and has since been recognized as a cult classic and one of the finest Russian comedies of all time. I laughed once. Put it in the Not for Me, Your Mileage May Vary category. The entire film is on YouTube in high quality, if you're interested.

music friday: 1973

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated our 49th anniversary. In honor of that event, here are a few songs from 1973 that I still enjoy:

Special non-1973 bonus: I read the lyrics to this song at our wedding. The great violin solo is by Sid Page ... this is his second appearance in these videos (he's playing in the Family Stone above).

what i watched

The Kid Detective (Evan Morgan, 2020). Someone recommended this to me, although I admit I have no idea who that person was. I doubt I would have seen it if the mystery person hadn't suggested it. It's written and directed by Evan Morgan, who is new to me, and stars Adam Brody, who I know little about. There were a couple of That Guys in the cast (Tzi Ma, Peter MacNeill), and Sophie Nélisse, who impressed me as the younger version of Melanie Lynskey's character in Yellowjackets. Morgan plays around a bit with the detective genre, and things move along nicely. It's a good enough way to spend 100 minutes, but I suspect in six months, I'll have forgotten I saw it. Here are the first nine minutes:

Geezer Cinema: Downton Abbey: A New Era (Simon Curtis, 2022). This one is easy to summarize: if you loved the show, you'll love the movie (and you've likely already seen it). If you know nothing about Downton Abbey, you don't need to watch this movie. Curtis and creator/writer Julian Fellowes take care of the fan base from the start. If you are a fan, you'll enjoy seeing all of the characters get their moments, and of the new cast members, there's Dominic West and Nathalie Baye to enjoy. I've been with Downton Abbey since the beginning, and while I have my problems with its representation of the class structure, it does suck you in.

film fatales #141: free solo (elizabeth chai vasarhelyi and jimmy chin, 2018)

Free Solo looks dazzling, and its subject matter, the "free solo" climb up El Capitan by Alex Honnold, is both inspiring and terrifying. The music by Marco Beltrami reaches a peak during the final segment when Honnold attempts his climb, adding immeasurably to the film and the spectacle. Honnold is a rather charismatic lead ... there's something a bit off-putting about him, and the case seems to be made here that he requires a certain distance from others if he is to accomplish his goal. In one of the film's most famous quotes, he says, "Anyone can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy." Honnold says things like this, but when he smiles, all is forgiven.

Honnold's then-girlfriend (now wife) Sanni McCandless has a lot to do with humanizing the film's representation of Honnold. They have an honest relationship, where she pushes him to be more open but understands that "happy and cozy" isn't what Honnold thinks will get him up El Capitan. When we watch Honnold and think "what the fuck", it's clear that a part of McCandless is thinking the same thing.

So it's gorgeous ... the logistics behind the cinematography must have been extremely difficult, which we see a bit during the movie ... great music, one-of-a-kind athletic performance. But ...

For all of McCandless' on-screen appeal, her role in the film never moves much beyond the supporting partner. OK, Free Solo isn't about her, and I'm not saying she is dismissed. But it feels like her most important role is to tell Honnold it's OK. Also, the film is directed by the married team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and certainly they made the decisions about how to present the documentary. But since Chin is part of the climbing team that photographs Honnold, we see a lot of him, and by the end of the movie, you'd be forgiven for wondering just exactly what did Chai Vasarhelyi do? I don't think there's anything intentional going on ... the secondary nature of the roles of McCandless and Chai Vasarhelyi are almost casual, and can go unnoticed. But the problem is there.

More important is the voyeuristic nature of what we are seeing. No one is suggesting that Honnold has a death wish, but we are reminded several times that Chin and his filming crew are worried about filming their friend falling to his death. We in the audience can't help but think about it, and if this was fiction, that would just add to the tension. But we're talking about a real person on the side of the mountain, and it's hard to escape the realization that, like watching an auto race for the crashes, part of the thrill of Free Solo is knowing what might have happened.

Having said all of this, I never quit being amazed as I watched Free Solo. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature ... I might have voted for Minding the Gap, but Free Solo is fine.

roger angell, 1920-2022

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

-- Roger Angell

random music friday

It's odd, I've changed the format of Music Friday many times over the years, but I never get around to dumping the concept entirely. I used to do random lists ... I'll do something semi-random here. As I type this, tells me the last song I listened to as I type this was "Better By You, Better Than Me" by Spooky Tooth. The website also tells me that Spooky Tooth is tied with five other artists for 310th place in the list of my most-played performers. So here are those six, with the songs I have played the most from each. First, Spooky Tooth:

Among the band members were Gary Wright, who had a couple of solo hits, and Luther Grosvenor, who later joined Mott the Hoople as Ariel Bender.

Curtis Mayfield:

Dire Straits:

The Eagles:


Tony Bennett:

Spotify playlist:

geezer cinema: rush (ron howard, 2013)

At this point, reviews of Ron Howard movies write themselves, i.e. I can just cut and paste from earlier reviews and it will make perfect sense. He has made movies I liked OK (Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon) and movies I really didn't like (Apollo 13), but I've never loved any of them. I once wrote of Howard, "Ron Howard is the great disappearing director of our times. He doesn't make bad movies, he doesn't make great movies. He makes movies that get 6 out of 10 and he makes movies that get 7 out of 10. In other words, I don't have the slightest idea what Ron Howard brings to a movie." And about Cinderella Man, the story of boxer James Braddock, I wrote, "When asked why he fights, Braddock says it's to keep milk on the family table, and there's Ron Howard in a nutshell ... while this movie has tiny pretensions towards statements about poverty, they are overwhelmed by sappiness, and the sap is never, ever balanced with even a bit of knowing irony ... Ron Howard believes in that glass of milk."

Not all Ron Howard movies are sappy, and as I say, once in a while he makes a good movie. But there is no way to tell in advance, because Ron Howard's directing is anonymous.

Rush is about the rivalry between two Formula One drivers in the 1970s, Niki Lauda and James Hunt. I admit I knew nothing about either driver, or about Formula One racing in general, which actually helped in a way ... I didn't know how the rivalry would turn out, so that aspect of the film had suspense for me. The movie centers on their relationship more than it does on the racing ... the racing is the background for the relationship, rather than the other way around. Hunt and Lauda are different kinds of people striving towards the same goal, and those differences drive the film (no pun intended) in good ways. The racing scenes seem realistic, although we're constantly being told by a track announcer what is happening, because it isn't always clear the way it is during a horse race. There are some women characters, but they are very secondary ... this isn't about them, except as they fit into the lives of the racers. Daniel Brühl and Chris Hemsworth give appropriate performances as not-too-perfect heroes. The editing of Dan Hanley and Mike Hill is effective, as is the score by Hans Zimmer.

There is no reason not to see Rush. It's appealing, it's not boring, it's got Thor. It's just that I've about given up hope that a Ron Howard movie will ever be better than "no reason not to see it".

woman in the dunes (hiroshi teshigahara, 1964)

Woman in the Dunes is the story of a Japanese entomologist who misses his bus while hunting for specimens among sand dunes, and is invited by the local village people to stay the night at a woman's house, prior to catching the bus in the morning. He is lowered into a pit via a rope ladder, and finds the woman living within the dunes in a ramshackle building. Here, he wakes up in the morning and finds the ladder is missing:

Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another) works with a great team here, including composer Tôru Takemitsu and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. There is a lot going on in the film, even if the plot itself seems almost stagnant. The entire setup is nonsense: a woman living in a sand dune, a trapped man joining her against his will. But it never feels like the setup matters in a realistic manner. We're watching an allegory. What's amazing, though, is that despite the enforced oddities of the setting, Teshigahara throughout convinces us that what we are seeing is real. The agonies of the scientist are no less upsetting because it's hard to imagine a person actually getting kept in a hut in a sand pit. Teshigahara always brings us back to the existential nightmare of the individual.

Capitalism itself comes under scrutiny, and again, the film doesn't make "real" sense but the critique is strong. It's confusing, but apparently the villagers can make money selling sand to a construction company. Don't think about it too hard ... instead, think about how the woman in the dunes (and her tenant) are trapped in the hut, performing endless, backbreaking work just so the construction company can make a profit.

And there's more. The sexual tension is alive, and both Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida do wonders with their parts ... they are a primary reason why the characters seem more real than allegorical. Meanwhile, Takemitsu's score is intrusive in the best ways.

I had put off seeing Woman in the Dunes for many years because it just seemed silly. But now that I have seen it, I can say that "silly" is the least important note about the movie. #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Here is a brief clip of Siskel and Ebert rhapsodizing over the film. It's ironic that they talk about how beautiful the movie is, given that the clip itself is just awful, but that's YouTube for you.