Sunday, February 28, 2010


After launching their YouTube channel last month, Criterion has now also started a Hulu channel, beginning with the first six Zatoichi movies. Details here.

Also, I reviewed a bunch of films over the last couple of weeks that I saw as part of the Portland International Film Festival, including such anticipated releases as A Prophet, Fish Tank, and Police, Adjective, and the new work of Ken Loach, Marco Bellocchio, and Bong Joon-ho. You can see all my pieces at my other blog, here.


* Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese's pulpy Dennis Lehane adaptation. Over-the-top B-movie excitement, sure to inspire debate.

* The Wolfman, needs to disappear gently into that dark night. What a tragic bore!

* The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke's Oscar-nominated black-and-white period piece. The most affecting morality play ever, or the most affected bunch of twaddle? Can't decide


* Buena Vista Social Club, a by-numbers reissue of the Wim Wenders musical doc, part of Lionsgate's Music Makers series.

* Eleven Minutes, a documentary about the (annoying) first winner of Project Runway.

* Orson Welles in King Lear, a somewhat stiff 1950s television broadcast.

* Rod Serling - Studio One Dramas, two live teleplays from the master writer.

* Sarah Silverman Progam: Season Two, Part 2, a hilarious collection of episodes skewering the sitcom format in Silverman's inimitable way.

* Split Second, a B-movie that drops a nuclear bomb on the crime genre. Directed by Dick Powell, who was Philip Marlowe once upon a time.

* Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs give us a wonderful documentary about the Wild Things author.

* Wild Oranges, a lusty King Vidor silent picture.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

HOWARDS END Revisited - #488

I last viewed--and wrote about--Merchant Ivory's 1992 masterpiece Howards End in 2005, when Criterion had first put it out on DVD and in honor of the death of Ismail Merchant, the film's producer. That old review is largely concerned with Merchant's passing and covers the excellent documentary that is a bonus feature on the double-disc set. At the time, it was part of the Merchant Ivory Collection, a sub-label of Criterion and not part of the collection proper; this 2010 reissue is a result of the film coming out on Blu-ray. It has now been folded into the main line, complete with the same extras, but getting its own spine number and everything.

Howards End is receiving this souped-up treatment because it won a public poll conducted through Amazon sometime last year. I forget now what other Blu-ray choices the movie was up against, but I do remember that it won hands down. Of all the Merchant Ivory films, this one has the most enduring popularity, and that's likely because Howards End best exemplifies what that pairing--named for Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, who were not just creative partners but life partners, as well--does so exquisitely. Every time I watch Howards End, I am reminded of just how much fun it is. Merchant Ivory have been wrongfully saddled with this reputation that they are stuffy old Brits who have no idea how to loosen the corset and give us a laugh. Not true. They are more than aware of how absurd some of this drama is. Helena Bonham Carter's character in this movie, Helen, is insufferably dramatic for a reason. We're not meant to take her entirely seriously, she's too much of a spoiled brat not to poke a little fun at.

The title Howards End refers to a country estate that is the center of all the commotion in E.M. Forster's 1910 novel. It belongs to the matriarch of the Wilcox family, willed to her by her brother long before she was married. He died in India, a rather romantic way to go. We don't know how he was killed, but just the very idea makes us think of the hero of an adventure serial. When we meet Ruth Wilcox (played with masterful reserve by Vanessa Redgrave), she is sick and soon to die. After an impetuous romantic misunderstanding between Helen Schlegel and Ruth's son Paul (Joseph Bennett), Ruth becomes friends with Helen's older sister Margaret (Emma Thompson at her very best).

The Schlegel girls are idly well-to-do, living on family money with their little brother Tibby (Adrian Ross Magenty). They are a soft parody of rich liberals with too much time on their hands, going to lectures about classical music and joining clubs in which the sole purpose is to talk about "important" ideas. They adopt any old cause that pulls at their heartstrings, including a down-in-the-mouth clerk named Leonard Bast (Samuel West). Leonard comes to their attention via a stolen umbrella and a jealous wife (played scrumptiously by Nicola Duffett). Leonard is a dreamer who studies astronomy and takes long walks because he read about a similar walk in a book. In truth, he's the perfect match for Helen, she's even read the same book, but he's betrothed to Jacky, despite his family being against it and her not having a thought in her voluptuous body (much less her head).

For as much satirical linework went into the film's portrait of the Schlegels, Leonard Bast is drawn with a much more serious eye. He is the reality of the film, and in a way its conscience--at least in terms of social class. He's aware of the divide between himself and the family who tries to help him, he understands that their notions of charity and self-improvement are luxuries that the real working class can't afford. It's easy to giggle at one of Helen's tantrums, until you see the horrible damage it can do to someone like Leonard.

As with many of the Merchant Ivory films, the screenplay for Howards End was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won an Oscar for this particular effort. Jhabvala has a keen sense of structure and has no trouble maintaining the balance of a multi-tiered story like Forster's. Her script forms its own perfectly ordered society. On one level are the Basts (lower class), on another the Schlegels (middle class), and on the top most, the Wilcoxes (upper class). Before she died, Ruth Wilcox wrote a note leaving Howards End to Margaret, a piece of paper that her husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and their children are quick to destroy. Even so, the very rich Henry Wilcox is surprisingly smitten by Margaret Schlegel, and after an unromantic courtship, he proposes to her. That proposal is also unromantic. "Would you like to let my London apartment? Or would you rather marry me and live here for free?"

Margaret is really the central character of Howards End. She is the one who grows up in the movie, even though she's already heading toward middle-age. Though Henry will ostensibly always be stuffy and greedy and Helen will always be flighty and self-indulgent, Margaret will learn to stop bending in order to please their moods and actually demand they start being more reasonable, changing herself and, to a degree, both of them. At the start of the picture, she is living carefree with her siblings, and they act rather adolescent, giggling at the expense of others and gossiping. Meeting Ruth gives Margaret a kind of role model to look up to (some even say she looks like Ruth), an example of what a more serious and grown-up life is like. Her engagement and eventual marriage to Henry ushers her over that threshold. As the true representative of the middle class, however, she must strike that balance Jhabvala has so meticulously laid out: she must bridge the gap. It's no wonder that Emma Thompson also won an Oscar. She's pitch perfect.

The plot of Howards End is dizzying and complex. Try to map it out. There are so many divergences and all these things circle back on themselves, and all of it works toward pushing everyone toward what, really, was predestined by Ruth at the start. The storytelling is so effortless, it's all told so matter of factly, you won't notice what a tangled mess of highways and byways it all is. In my review of Quartet, I wrote that I thought the key to James Ivory's directorial mastery is that he advances no significant style. He is as calm and mannered with his compositions as so many of his characters are with their feelings. One could say he even jokes about his own position amongst the proceedings, placing his director's credit over a shot of two maids working inside Howards End. He is here as a servant to the movie.

People always notice the gorgeous countryside around Howards End, photographed with a very wide lens by Tony Pierce-Roberts, but how come more isn't made of the marvelous re-creation of early-20th-century London? Look at the scene where Leonard chases Helen in the rain, or the one where he leaves Jacky to go to Howards End. We never know for sure what it is he plans to do there, just that he is looking for Helen. My guess is that he is resolved to leave his wife and take up with her. It's there in the slump of his walk, what was once the posture of defeat now being that of determination. But also look at the long city street he trods, of the detail on the building next to him, of the extras standing in the doorways. Getting the look of the country is easy, just find an open field and some trees; making current city streets look like long-gone city streets, that's where a director and his production department really come alive.

I wish James Ivory were working more. I assume the loss of his partner took much of the wind out of his sails. I'm happy to see he and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Anthony Hopkins have a movie coming out late next month called The City of Your Final Destination (hopefully not part of the Final Destination franchise), and that he is readying something called Ismail Merchant: Memorial Concert. Watching Howards End only reminds me of what an accomplished storyteller he is, and with his life experience, I am sure there are still a couple of good tales he could tell.

On a final side note, the old DVD of Howards End had a photo cover, this new one has a drawing by artist Andre Junget. It looks very much like an old paperback cover, like something I might find trolling the dusty aisles of a used bookstore. It inspired me to do a Google image search on E.M. Forster's novels, and I discovered that for the most part, they all featured some bucolic scene, nature isolated by the four corners of a book. Sometimes, such as this DVD cover, or this Penguin edition of A Room with a View, there is a lone figure that appears to be yearning to be a part of that nature. This article isn't about Forster exclusively, but scroll down for a couple of nice pieces from his books (and scan the other neat covers, as well). Though I didn't like Junget's illustration immediately, it does appear he did his homework. Looking at the artist's studio website, I find it contains a strange collection of precise, impersonal drawings designed for corporate use; in a weird way, that too seems spot on for Howards End.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


George Bernard Shaw was one of the pre-eminent playwrights of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. He is one of those rare animals who were never bound by form, having written novels, short stories, and criticism in addition to his more famous stage productions. It is unsurprising then that his work would make an easy transition into the newer motion picture medium--and do so with Shaw's approval. The author impressively survived to see the ripe age of 94, finally passing on in 1950. He even won an Oscar in 1938 for his contribution to the adaptation of maybe his most famous play, Pygmalion.

Pygmalion was produced by Gabriel Pascal, and it was part of a fruitful collaboration between the two men. In fact, after Pygmalion, Pascal, who had begun his career making silent films in Germany, only produced Shaw adaptations, and the remainder of his film career is represented in the three films in this boxed set, George Bernard Shaw on Film - Eclipse Series 20. His devotion to Shaw was often as much of an albatross around the filmmaker's neck as it was a boon. Shaw even encouraged Pascal to expand his horizons prior to his death, but the director/producer only outlived his beloved writer by four years.

The movies in George Bernard Shaw on Film - Eclipse Series 20 span eleven years, 1942 to 1952. They consist of one wartime love story and two historical movies, one an epic and the other an allegorical comedy. They are linked only in as much as they came from the same mind. Shaw had an interest in human nature, and he was particularly fascinated by and critical of inconsistencies in behavior. From a Salvation Army mistress intent on rescuing the lost from eternal punishment to the vagaries of kings and man's limited capacity for beliefs other than his own, Shaw dissected hypocrisies with a clever wit and often withering disdain.

Major Barbara (121 minutes) was made in 1941. It is an updated version of Shaw's 1905 play, brought into modern times, and though the signs of WWII are everywhere--much of the sets show the damage done in the Blitz, and in fact were shot during those attacks--the actual war is mentioned little. The Major is not in the fighting forces, but a soldier in the Salvation Army. Played by the wonderful Wendy Hiller, who also starred in Pygmalion, she is a firm believer in every man's right to earn forgiveness in the eyes of God. Fearless and forthright, she has yet to meet the sinner who can stand up to her. Even the cynical scholar in Greek classics, the unfortunately named Adolphus Cusins (Rex Harrison, who starred in the Pygmalion retooling My Fair Lady years later), is willing to go along, drumming in the Army band just to be close to his new fiancée.

Barbara also has the distinction of being the eldest daughter in the Undershaft family, a well-to-do clan whose estranged father has gathered their fortunes from the spoils of conflict: he manufactures cannons. When Andrew Undershaft (Robert Morley) returns to settle some family business, he is challenged by his daughter give her religious lifestyle a serious look. He challenges her in return to consider taking over his factory. When daddy and a whiskey magnate donate heavily to the Salvation Army, bailing it out of its economic tailspin, it challenges Barbara's belief in what it takes to set right one's soul.

Major Barbara begins with a handwritten letter from Shaw, asking audiences to trust his vision and see his film, which was directed by Gabriel Pascal with assistance by David Lean and cinematography by Ronald Neame, as a parable. Indeed, much of what happens is abstracted from real life, and except for the juxtaposition of the war-torn backdrop, there is little here that is not purely cinematic invention. Which isn't meant to say it doesn't strike some actual emotional chords; Shaw understands this canvas better than any other, and he builds a large cast that not only includes the Undershafts, but gets into the lives of the people Barbara intends to help. She squares off with Bill Walker, a cockney bruiser played by Robert Newton, who suggests there are more practical concerns in the here and now that take precedence over the hereafter.

The film takes a strange turn in its third act. After Barbara rejects her rank, daddy offers her an alternative: she can believe in industry. The Undershafts and Adolphus visit his factory, and we see all the steel products the symbolically named Undershaft and Lazarus manufacture--not just the end product, but we also see footage of the mills at work. Andrew Undershaft has built a community for his workers, a kind of modern utopia where families live and toil in one big compound. It's not exactly socialism, more of a moralistic capitalism, and when Barabara sees even Bill can get on the straight and narrow once he's got something to do with his hands, she envisions a whole new avenue for rescuing men from damnation.

This ending is a bizarre mix of patriotism, capitalistic propaganda, and pro-worker jingoism that is pretty close to Bolshevism. (Adolphus is also rallying for workers rights at the start of the picture, which is its own bizarre story point.) It's hard to know how to take it, though, because there is almost an ironic falseness to it. In the last shot, you practically expect Hiller, Harrison, and Newton to wink at us. How much of this is satire? It's weird and over the top, a la Tony Richardson's The Loved One (still more than 20 years off). It left me scratching my head.

It also didn't really matter. Though most of the cast is pretty much playing stock roles, Wendy Hiller is so good as Major Barbara, the script is practically secondary. She's plucky and attractive, but she moves Barbara away from being a type and into something more authentic after her break with faith. Scenes of her alone, contemplating her heart as a bombed-out London sits in shadow behind her, make the whole movie seem rich and complex where once it came off as a mere trifle.

As perplexing as some of the ending of Major Barbara might be, I'd give up clarity for good not to have to sit through Caesar and Cleopatra (1945; 128 minutes) again. Once again directed by Pascal, it is based on a play written by Shaw at the turn of the century. The historical pageant is the story of how Julius Caesar (a sleepwalking Claude Rains) went to Egypt and met the precocious, overgrown adolescent Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh, on loan from David O'Selznick, as her credit tells us). The fearful Egyptians flee before the Roman might, convinced they are cannibals, and they somehow let their queen run off by herself to hide inside the Sphinx. To add insult to the improbable, Caesar meets her when she interrupts his soliloquy to the monument. He is smitten with her ditzy ranting, and takes her under his wing.

As far as epics go, Caesar and Cleopatra lacks any blood or thunder. The gears of war are clogged in red tape. Caesar roams around stating his case with a blithe vocabulary. The Egyptians say he will never rule, Cleo's tween brother is the true king; the occupying Roman army that came before Caesar says they'll keep the country they've conquered for themselves instead. Meanwhile, a Sicilian artist named Apollodorus (Stewart Granger) wanders in and out of scene, sporting a tan and bleached teeth, looking like he's misplaced his surfing movie. There's a lot of talking, but not much seems to be said. The script has traded wit for circular conversation. It's all a ghastly bore, as Caesar's British slave might say.

I can see what must have appealed about the original script. Cleopatra has an interesting arc, learning to be a political animal under Caesar's Mr. Miyagi-style tutelage. He laughs at her silly schemes, sprinkles a few homilies like fairy dust, and then walks away so she can simmer in the message. By the end of the movie, she's no longer cowering behind his skirt, but instead sending her scary witch (Flora Robson) to kill her rivals. Vivien Leigh is pretty terrible in the role, however. The writing does all the growing for her. Her performance as young Cleopatra consists of wide eyes and bubbly tones; adult Cleopatra scowls and speaks with a hiss. Pascal's production is just as false. The Technicolor spectacle never really looks convincing. Its grandeur is that of a backlot set.

Apropos of nothing, though maybe it serves as its own commentary on Caesar and Cleopatra, after I finished watching the DVD, I left the still menu sitting on the TV screen while I got my computer and prepared some food, etc. I left it up for about five minutes before I realized the pug I was babysitting was barking at it and not something outside on the street. Was it the color of yellow on the graphic, irking him like a red rag to a bull? Or was he just so sick of seeing Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh, he couldn't stand anymore? Not sure where he gets off if it's the latter, since he got to sleep through most of the movie.

There's a theory, most notably advanced by Orson Welles, that color is not the filmmaker's friend, that it exposes blemishes and distracts from the essentials. Perhaps that's part of Caesar and Cleopatra's problem, because the other Roman drama in this set, 1952's Androcles and the Lion (98 minutes), and its black-and-white rebuilding of the Coliseum works in all sorts of wonderful ways.

Gabriel Pascal takes a backseat here, still smarting from the box office failure of Caesar and Cleopatra (the seven years between productions, apparently, was not by choice). Chester Erskine (A Girl in Every Port) takes over directorial duties, adapting the Bernard Shaw play with co-writer Ken Englund. They've brought the story to life with a light comedic touch. Alan Young, who is probably most famous as the owner of the talking horse on Mr. Ed, was typecast as a lover of animals from the get-go. He plays Androcles, a big fan of furry creatures and a persecuted Christian who is the top of an alphabetical list of Jesus freaks sentenced to a date with the lions. While on the run, the gentle and bumbling tailor runs across one of those dreaded lions in the wilderness. Said king of the jungle has a thorn in his paw. Androcles removes that thorn, he and the big cat become friends, and Androcles even names him Tommy.

Androcles is arrested shortly thereafter, joining a band of merry Christian soldiers on a trek to Rome and the Coliseum. They travel under the guidance of a stern but thoughtful legionnaire, known only as Captain (Victor Mature). These curiously happy prisoners make him curious about what makes them so joyful, especially when one of them turns out to be a rather attractive damsel. Lavinia (Jean Simmons) is a true believer who takes no guff but is truly tender-hearted. Also amongst the group is Ferrovius, a bruiser with a crazy reputation. He apparently is quite the effective missionary, though his methods may be slightly off script. He is played by Robert Newton, who does the same Keith Moon impression here as he did in Major Barbara (though, I guess it's more likely that Moonie nicked the routine from him, given that Keith wouldn't even have picked up a pair of drumsticks yet). His testimonials are a highlight of Androcles and the Lion, and his character is far more interesting than Simmons's. She is merely a pretty face, and the romantic subplot with her and the Captain is predictable and shallow. Alan Young is the humorous glue of the piece. He orbits the other characters, adding corny asides, biding his time until the climax when he is reunited with Tommy. Their tango in the gladiatorial ring is funny in good ways and bad. The editing is really poor, making it painfully obvious that Young isn't actually with the lion most of the time, and the guy in the lion suit when the two of them quite literally dance is unintentionally hysterical.

Androcles and the Lion is kind of an odd duck. On one hand, it's pretty good secular entertainment; on the other hand, it wears its messages on its sleeve. That message is less pro-Christian than it is pro-tolerance. In fact, the heavier the Christian rhetoric, the more clumsy it seems, particularly given the anachronistic nature of much of what is said. Though Shaw's play dates back to 1912, the fable's message against persecuting people for their ideas and beliefs is one that was fairly common in 1950s pop culture. Shaw disliked hypocrites, and the verbal victories that Lavinia and Ferrovius win throughout the movie are usually in pointing out how their persecutors could just as easily have their own religion turned against them were they not in power. Androcles's love of all animals is meant to promote a respect for all living things, a respect that was often lacking in the contemporary political climate (as it often is now).

The scenes where Androcles's faith is tested on the arena dirt are actually pretty powerful, at least before the dance sequence. The movie goes on a little too long after that, everyone missing their cue to exit, but Androcles and the Lion is still an amusing distraction. I found myself laughing enough to forgive its quaint foibles, and it makes a fine companion to Major Barbara, even if we must take Caesar and Cleopatra in the middle.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


It's rare that a movie leaves me completely dumbfounded. Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows I can go on at length regarding just about anything, whether I know what I'm talking about or not. All the more amazing, then, that when it comes to the 1977 Japanese horror freak-out Hausu (House), it's impossible to know where to begin.

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi (Sada, The Drifting Classroom), and allegedly based on a story dictated to him by his 11-year-old daughter, this movie is as nuts as...well, as a story told to you by an 11 year old. "And then they find a head in the well...and then it vomits blood...and then the skeleton dances...and then the cat's eyes sparkle green with magic...and then..." Like a triple-dog dare times infinity, Hausu is on a quest to continually one up itself. "You thought that shit was bananas, but no, this shit is literally bananas!" Obayashi directed the movie like he was only going to get one shot at this cinema thing, and he was going to make it count. No stylistic stone would be left unturned, no camera technique was too out there to try. It didn't matter if it made sense on paper; once it was in his movie, that was sense enough. From the animated opening title to the bucolic promo reel for the actresses that serve as the closing credits, anything goes in Hausu, and that anything goes all over the place.

The "plot" is one pulled out of the classic horror story handbook. Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is a high school student looking forward to summer vacation with her classmates, but her father, a film composer, has just returned from Italy ("Leone said my music was better than Morricone's") with a new bride to replace Gorgeous's long-dead mother. Distraught by the sudden life upheaval, Gorgeous decides to visit her aunt at her country home. When the plans for the other six girls also get derailed, Gorgeous invites them along.

The girls in the movie are like the seven dwarves, reduced to the types we normally expect in slasher pictures. In addition to Gorgeous there is Fantasy (her head is always in the clouds), Prof (she's really smart), Melody (likes music), Mac (likes to eat), Sweet (always nice), and Kung Fu (what do you think?). There is also a mysterious white cat named Blanche that appears just as Gorgeous informs the aunt of her impending arrival. Blanche is a signal of what is to come. The name has to be an intended allusion to A Streetcar Named Desire and its off-her-rocker main character. To tell you the truth, throughout this movie, whenever they'd say the cat's name, I'd think of that episode of The Simpsons where Marge was in a musical version of Streetcar, and the scene when Bart is swinging on the ropes shouting, "Look at me! I'm Blanche Dubois!" This movie is like how they make Blanche's dementia come to life on stage in that musical, but 90 minutes long.

Warning: Watching any clip is akin to a spoiler in a movie where ever scene offers something different.

Anyway, Auntie (Yôko Minamida) had a lover who was a pilot in the war. He went off to fight, never came back, and things have never been the same again. She has lived a life alone with her cat, numerous portraits of the fluffy creature covering the walls where family pictures would otherwise be. Her past is told as a silent movie, complete with title cards, and narrated by the girls themselves, as if they were watching it rather than just hearing Gorgeous tell the story. It's during a train ride, which itself looks like some idyllic marketing campaign come to life. The other passengers include a nun, a sailor, and a guy reading a book about horror movie monsters--the kind of diversity that would make any ad agency proud. (Indeed, Obayashi was a commercial director and responsible for the Charles Bronson cologne ad recently doing the internet rounds.) The train station also has many matte paintings that Obayashi uses as tricky trompe-l'œils, challenging our perception of reality. Is it any coincidence, then, that all the shots of the sky outside Auntie's house are matte paintings as well?

It's hard to say, actually. Maybe it is a coincidence. It's impossible to tell whether anything in Hausu is there by design. It stands on a line between an authentically bad movie and a hilariously intentional one. There are scenes of slapstick mixed in with some gore; there is lurid B-movie leering alongside heartfelt romance. Some of it is so completely gonzo that you can't believe Obayashi isn't playing a prank, such as the way the stepmom's scarf is always blowing behind her. Yet, I think Hausu is a sincere effort. It's the small details where a director truly reveals himself. What tipped it for me was the appearance of Andrew Wyeth's famous painting Christina's World in Gorgeous's bedroom. It's an image of a girl in a wheat filed, on the ground, half rising half sitting, her back to the audience, looking at a house on a hill. Painted in 1948, it has inspired much debate about who the girl is, where she is, why she is staring at the house. Does she see a hopeful life there? Or does she dread returning?

There are tons of stray details in Hausu. Every frame is packed with something, and if you don't let your eyes rove over the images, you might miss some of the odd touches. Objects move and come to life, things appear and disappear--you have to keep looking. Obayashi employs editing tricks to create loopy effects, as well as old-fashioned Fangoria gore, dumping buckets of blood on the floor and tossing rubber limbs around. Sam Raimi was 18 when Hausu came out. I don't know if he's ever seen the movie, but one can easily picture him wandering into a theatre somewhere as a teenager and having his mind blown. For all the laughs and the what-the-hell? moments, there are some isolated scenes in Hausu that are also genuinely scary and generally brilliant. The many inspired uses of severed body parts alone are enough to keep you up at night.

Hausu is such a bizarre curio, it's hard to imagine both why it has been buried for so long and why whoever was responsible didn't bury it deeper. I'm so baffled and in awe, I don't actually want it explained to me, there's no way a director's commentary could do it justice. It's a movie that just needs to be seen. It can only speak for itself, no matter how much I want to keep telling you more. The film is currently playing in various venues around the country, and I am sure a Criterion DVD will be here before the year is out. However it comes your way, if you get an opportunity, see it. You just have to see it.

Edit: That DVD is now here; read more about it in my updated review.

I originally thought this image from the recent Criterion newsletter was for Hausu, but further investigation reveals it is Fritz the Cat. Same month, maybe?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


The 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow is the story of Ma and Pa Cooper, an elderly couple who have been together for fifty years. They now find themselves as victims of their time, and Leo McCarey's sweet drama is also very much a product of that time. It reflects the economic state of the world the Coopers had aged into. Its title has an ironic double meaning: it's a hopeful looking ahead at change, but it can also be barked out like an order, telling the older people to get out of the way. Nowhere in the movie is this more sharply felt than when Ma and Pa step out on the dancefloor to waltz, only for the music to change to something faster they can't step to.

Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore) and his wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi) had five children together, and they summon the four of them that still live nearby to their childhood home to tell them that the bank is foreclosing on the house. Though they were given six months to vacate, they've waited until the last minute to tell anyone. The good son, George (Thomas Mitchell), realizes that any plans that can be made on the fly won't be ideal, they will have to split the old folks up. He will take his mother to live with his family, a three-hour drive, and his sister, the cold shrew Cora (Elisabeth Risdon), will put up their father. The plan is for the other sister, Nellie (Minna Gombell), to reunite both parents at her home in three months, something her husband (Porter Hall) quickly puts the kibosh on.

Living apart is hard on both the parents and the children. Ma is in the way in George's apartment, having to share a room with their teenaged daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) and encroaching on how George's wife Anita (Fay Bainter) runs her household. Pa gets sick while out looking for a job, and he doesn't much like Cora's care any more than she likes giving it. Something else is going to have to be done.

Make Way for Tomorrow is a much beloved film. The DVD has testimonies from filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Bertrand Tavernier. Roger Ebert recently wrote about it in his Great Movies column, noting how much heart it had and how tough it was. He rightly points out that were this a movie made today, there is no way it wouldn't get stuck with a clichéd happy ending. To be honest, though, for the first 2/3 of the film, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. I didn't dislike it, it was charming in a quaint kind of way. It moved at a slow amble, and people spoke pleasantly to one another even if the subtext was harsh. Everything about the movie was just so damned reasonable. Sure, the kids were begrudging in their charity and maybe didn't come up with the best plans for helping Ma and Pa out; at the same time, the old folks are kind of annoying.

It's only in the third act that everything starts to make sense, when we see at last why everyone is so brittle. Cora decides to use her father's chest cold as an excuse to ship him off to sunnier climes. He'll stay with the absent sister out in California. Knowing she can't go with him, Ma nobly makes a plan to check into an old folk's home, but only on the condition that her husband not be told. George accepts, but he feels like a heel doing it. On the day when Pa is meant to leave, he and Cora meet in New York City for a few final hours together. They are on their own, free of their children, and they start to reminisce. Fifty years prior they had come to New York on their honeymoon. Could maybe some of the old places they visited still be there?

Once the Coopers are back together, Make Way for Tomorrow takes a lovely turn. The spark that has been lacking in the earlier part of the movie was intentionally left out. It's because there is no spark when Ma and Pa are apart. Together, though, oh! What charming people! They are still romantic, still impressed with what makes the other one tick, and comfortable in the way they get along together. It's not just the audience that sees how wonderful their love is, but all of New York City. An oily car salesman gives them a ride, but he has no ill will when he discovers they are broke. The old hotel they stayed at as newlyweds rolls out the red carpet when they hear that guests of such a distinguished age have returned. All the things about this wonderful pair that their offspring could not see are obvious to everyone else. You'd have to be a pretty tough customer not to have tears in your eyes when the bandleader sees that Ma and Pa are lost in his up-tempo rhythms. The part I didn't tell you up above is that he stops the faster number and goes back to a waltz to give these aged lovers more time to enjoy each other's company.

As mawkish as this all may sound, Make Way for Tomorrow stays far away from obvious melodramatic tugs or soppy sentiment. Leo McCarey, working from a screenplay by Viña Delmar (The Awful Truth), who sourced it from a novel and a play, put their faith in the material and in their audience to understand that fifty years of personal history is a long time. It would be easy to mine their story for the easy emotional peaks, but personalities are so much more interesting than plot. Of course, it helps when you have actors as insightful and empathetic as Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Moore had been acting in movies since 1915, and Bondi was playing a part well ahead of her years; she would act well into the 1970s, and is maybe best known as Ma Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Both actors pull way back for their performances here, giving themselves over to the effects of aging, moving slow, speaking softly, but never slipping into caricature. How fun it is to see Ma Cooper eventually cut loose and have a couple drinks!

Make Way for Tomorrow is a portrait of America as it was still finding its way out of the Depression. On one side, the Cooper children are doing all right and finding prosperity again, but on the other is their parents, part of an older generation that never quite found their way back to the way things were. Part of the kindness the old people find in New York is likely down to people having sympathy for them and also being impressed that they have survived this long. Leo McCarey avoids visual flash in the same way his actors avoid histrionic displays of emotion. These are dark times he is depicting, and though he isn't exactly predicting the Italian Neorealists, he does try to show the world as it was and not how Hollywood dreamed it to be. He also avoids copping out at the ending. A cheerful conclusion would have seemed hollow when there were no easy answers waiting for any moviegoers outside the theatre. It's just like how Jason Reitman left us hanging at the end of Up in the Air, one of the few movies to portray the financial hardships of contemporary times. To say it's all going to be okay would be disingenuous.

It would also probably relegate both movies to the scrap heap. Had Make Way for Tomorrow ended with money raining from the sky, I doubt we'd be talking about it today, much less watching it in a Criterion edition. Hell, this movie even makes fun of those kind of movies, the way Ma Cooper describes the predictable genre picture she saw with her granddaughter. Honesty is what resonates through the ages, what makes a story timeless and universal. I find Leo McCarey's film more hopeful because it shows us two people who can make the best of the worst times, who are resolute, and who never let go of what matters, even if they have to say goodbye to it.

As always, Criterion has put together a great package, and the best part is that Make Way for Tomorrow has multiple new illustrations by one of my favorite cartoonists, Seth. His comic book It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is all about nostalgia for things lost, and recent projects like Clyde Fans and George Sprott: (1894-1975) deal with the effects of age and reconciling the life one has lived. This makes him a perfect choice to capture the charm and emotional beauty of Make Way for Tomorrow.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


"One day he asks her if she dare pose for him all in pink...She dares!"

Max Ophuls's final film is, by its own billing, a deconstruction of the femme fatale. The 1955 biopic Lola Montés is also a meta-cinematic tour-de-force of show-stopping entertainment. The real Lola Montés, Countess of Landsfeld, was a 19th-century woman of repute--some of it ill, some of it surely false. A self-constructed celebrity, Lola thrived on scandal, and despite apparently being possessed of little talent, furthered her own story by putting on productions of operas and plays that featured her as the star. In the Ophuls picture, Lola ends up working for an American circus, parading herself as the ultimate spectacle. She is the untouchable woman high above the adulation of her audience, eventually falling to the earth, thus fulfilling the fame cycle where all that go up are ultimately torn down by the same two-faced crowd.

I am not sure when the term "media circus" first came into play, but Max Ophuls clearly understood the nature of modern mythologizing. His three-ring entertainment is hawked by Peter Ustinov, a master of ceremonies who cares little for the truth. He tells Lola as much when the two parallel lines of the movie come together halfway and we see him laying the offer on her table at a hotel in the French Riviera. Lola is played by Martine Carol, whose beauty is austere and immaculate. She gives us a sex object that is never anything less than perfect, and in a bold move, rarely sexy. Ophuls teases us with the salacious details of Lola's adventures, but he keeps those mostly off screen. They are the tales the ringmaster tells, and they are even re-enacted within his circus tent. Yet, they are also the parts of the story of the most questionable truth, and perhaps of the least importance.

For all the early promises of lurid pawing through Lola's past, including an opening story of her affair with the composer Franz Liszt (played by Will Quadflieg), it's a bait and switch. Lola Montés is a more sympathetic character to Ophuls. She is not a victim of circumstance, more a creature of it. A master manipulator of circumstance. Her biography includes a sad early life--the mother who tried to marry her off to an old banker, Lola's own poor choice of an alternative husband, and the circumstances that led to her life in the theatre. Her first appearance in the gossip papers came as a result of her standing up for herself, and her eventual acquisition of her regal title came out of a love affair that had real love in it. Her extended stay with Ludwig I, King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), was the closest she would come to domestic bliss in her life. It all ended when the scandal caught up with her and revolutionaries chased her out of the country.

When Lola leaves Bavaria, she is accompanied by a young student she once romanced. This Latin-loving leftist (Oskar Werner) comes to her rescue because he sees Lola as symbol of freedom and love. By dancing her way across Europe unrestrained, she points the way to a more open future. I think this is how Ophuls sees her, too. A woman both too much of her time and also ahead of it. It's a high-wire act difficult to sustain.

Indeed, the lushness of Lola's romantic adventures is barely visible in the rundown circus. We see this kind of thing today, with the minor celebs who, after feeling the heat of the spotlight, do whatever they can to get back into it. If Lola thought the circus was bad, she should thank her stars there was no such thing as reality TV in the 1800s. Ophuls shows us the toll this lifestyle has taken on her. The ringmaster has to prompt her every line, as if her own belief in the stories is slipping away from her. Ophuls also has a mid-film interlude where a doctor comes to the circus to tell her boss (Friedrich Domin) that his star has a heart condition. Is there a more tragic ailment for an infamous lover to contract? Her heart was too weak to carry on. (The real Lola Montés died at the age of thirty-nine.)

In a bizarre twist of art imitating life, the film Lola Montés suffered much misfortune and misunderstanding, even as it was adored in some circles. After a disastrous premiere, the film's producers cut the movie down, restructuring it to fit a more traditional narrative. It would be thirteen years until a version even remotely resembling what Ophuls envisioned was put back together, and not until 2008 was a full restoration done. This is the version we are now getting on DVD.

Watching Ophuls's virtuoso filmmaking, it's hard to understand how more people didn't see how incredible Lola Montés was on its original release. It's like watching Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game or Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. (The latter's subplot with the Susan Alexander character being propped up in self-aggrandizing operas actually sprang to mind in regards to Lola Montés's similar theatrical follies.) These are films that look progressive and innovative even now, with more than half a century of cinematic and technological development coming after. If they are still better than so much of our contemporary best, how in the world weren't they adored in their own time?

Criterion started re-releasing the Max Ophuls catalogue in the summer of 2008, and it only takes watching a couple of his films to see the director's signature stylings emerge. He was fond of complex plots, ones that showed multiple layers of a story, effortlessly moving form one level to the next. We certainly get that here, with the jumping around in time, the stories within the story, etc. His ability to match that narrative agility with equally agile camerawork is a skill all filmmakers who have followed him should aspire to copy. He and cinematographer Christian Matras are as unbeholden to gravity as the trapeze-climbing Lola is in the film's final act. Ophuls loves to spin his camera around a scene, capturing the dizziness of a tale unleashed. Sometimes it's meant to invoke a loss of control, sometimes it's meant to show us a character letting go. He also loves to use depth of field, and to follow a character through the scenery. There are many memorable scenes of this type in Lola Montés, including tracking a young Lola as she zig zags down the many floors of an opera house or moving with her as she walks through a complex façade of a cruise ship. Ophuls discards practical limitations with as much confidence as Lola slays social mores. Indeed, Lola even tells us that her personal philosophy is to never stop moving, equating movement with life itself. No wonder Ophuls saw something in her story worth telling. (It also might be why he was protective of her, rather than exploiting her sexual escapades.*)

Lola Montés was shot in CinemaScope at a 2.55:1 aspect ratio, which means Max Ophuls had the widest possible frame to work in. He uses that size to open up our view of Lola's world, but also to contain it. Yes, we see the spacious fields of a garden party or feel the immensity of the circus' three rings, but Ophuls also regularly brings in the edges of the frame, opening and closing on different scenes like he is manipulating the curtains on a theatre stage.

Nowhere is an image of confinement more potent, however, than in the final shots. Lola is in a cage behind the circus tent, doted on by cherub-sized servants, reaching through the bars to shake the hands of male gawkers. She looks trapped in there, but she also looks like she is sitting on a religious throne, a madonna blessing her followers. It's Ophuls's final comment on fame. The onlookers trap even as they worship. His camera, still in flight, slowly moves back, levitating over the heads of the men trying to get their way to Lola. The line seems to go on forever. Arguably, it continues even now. Aren't we still gawking at Lola Montés today?

Lola Montés - Criterion Collection is a two-disc set. It comes in a nice cardboard book with an outer slipcase, and it features a stylish cover painting by David Downton. The artist also did design work on the trio of Ophuls films released last year (The quickest way to those three reviews is the "ophuls" tag on the posts), and by keeping the same design, collectors now have a matching Ophuls library.

* By the by, Ustinov's stories about how Ophuls viewed Martine Carol, as relayed in the excellent documentary Max by Marcel on DVD 2, somewhat contradict my theories about how the director viewed the Lola character.

Watch the trailer on YouTube

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.