Friday, December 25, 2015


This review was originally written and published in a slightly different form in 2014 for

Sometimes, with some movies, it makes more sense to drop the critical analysis, to forget studying technique or considering the construction, and just talk about how the story moved you emotionally, how it felt in your gut when watching in.

Inside Llewyn Davis, a more recent effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, is such a movie. When I saw it on its December 2013 release, Inside Llewyn Davis really hit me where I lived. The story of the struggling artist--in this case, the folk musician Llewyn Davis, played by Drive's Oscar Isaac [review], searching for his place on the stage in 1961 New York--is one that has been oft-told, but rarely with such brittle fragility. Llewyn suffers from the dual artistic fears of thinking deep down you might be a sham and alternately being convinced that no one will understand your genius. He is a singer determined to show he is an authentic voice in a field overly obsessed with authenticity, peddling traditional numbers, playing the same songs night after night. "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."

The old joke hits closer to the truth than Llewyn realizes. Everything he does has happened before and will happen again, but the pain of it will never stop feeling fresh. Llewyn is depressed, isolated, and doomed to repeat every mistake he's ever made. "You don't want to go anywhere," Jean (Carey Mulligan), one of the many people's he's wounded, tells him, "and that's why the same shit's going to keep happening to you, because you want it to." It's quite possibly the most important line of the movie, especially if you buy into the theory that Llewyn Davis is quite literally stuck in a loop. The Coens regularly reference mythology in their pictures, having built O Brother, Where Art Thou? on a Homeric foundation, and giving a shout-out to him here, as well. Llewyn's punishment is tragic in nature. For all the efforts he makes to fix things, no matter how much he ends up getting right, the circle comes back around. The incredible journey never ends. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't start with a flash forward, it starts at the beginning and ends the same way, two beatings happening a full week apart.

This is the irony of his trip in search of opportunity and, ultimately, himself. Because Llewyn Davis is the only person he can ever be.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens with the singer on the hunt for money, a place to sleep, and a place to play. He performs on a novelty record (losing a bigger payday through his short-sightedness) and travels to Chicago just to have the door slammed in his face. In the process, he is insulted by a fading jazz legend (John Goodman) for not being a "real" musician, and himself insults another singer (Stark Sands) for being too acceptable to the audience. Later, when faced with a true-blue singer from the American heartland, he rejects her for being too true to herself and where she came from. Like many a man of mythology, it's hubris that shuts Llewyn down. He expects the club promoter (F. Murray Abraham) to go bananas for his music, but Llewyn fails to perform. He is asked to show what is inside him--the name of the movie is the name of Llewyn's one solo record--but it appears he is lacking on that front. He chooses to play him a song about protecting tradition ("The Death of Queen Jane"), and his voice is laden with feeling, but is it an honest expression? Is he just going through the motions? Or is his art so "inside" that no one else can really hear it?

Many have speculated that Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens pranking the critics who have called their work cold and calculated and too reliant on cinema's past, answering their accusations with the most authentic movie about artistic inauthenticity possible. Llewyn's self-designed world is really a world of their design, the spiral pattern inside a seashell, twisting off toward a vanishing point. Amusingly, the one time Llewyn sings spontaneously--something he has resisted throughout the movie--it's for an audience of one, his father, and the reaction is for the old man to soil himself. The artist has given his all, and that's the best he can expect in return. To be honest, in this particular profession of mine, I vacillate between knowing how the old man feels and knowing how the Coens/Llewyn feel. I guess that's one of my loops to be stuck in.

Oscar Isaac is a revelation in this movie. Unlike Llewyn, he should have no doubt about his own abilities. Having grown tired of his villain routine in movies like Sucker Punch and Robin Hood [review] (back when the routine was fresh), I admit to having very low expectations when I heard the casting. He brings far more to the role than his previous parts have allowed him to show. Llewyn Davis is arrogant and caustic and his own worst enemy, but this is part of his façade. Isaac carries the hurt with him in every shambling step, refusing to let his disappointment with family, friends, love, and music take charge. The irony of the performance is how vulnerable the actor appears playing a man who refuses to be vulnerable.

Can we weep for Llewyn Davis at the end? Sure. Do we believe he will improve? No, and that is why we weep. Is that reaction real? You bet. Which may be where the Coens have really succeeded. They have exposed moviemaking as being most effective when it's outright manipulation. The facts and the details are not permanent, they can be free to get it wrong, fudging dates and blurring the edges of different stories, because that stuff has never been true anyway. The only truth is what we find of ourselves inside Llewyn Davis, just like the true meaning of myths was always how we saw their lessons reflected in our real world. This fable is my life story as much as his. I am Llewyn Davis, and he is me.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


After watching Lonesome last week, it seemed only fitting to chase Paul Fejos’ sublime tale of two lovers meeting on a day trip to Coney Island with Jean Renoir’s short 1936 film A Day inthe Country. It’s another romantic story, though one with complications and more social commentary than Fejos had to offer. If love and romance are true and real in the earlier film, they are a bit more questionable in Renoir, even if they can be just as strongly desired.

Renoir’s movie is based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. It details an afternoon getaway for the Dufours, a Parisian family of middle-class wealth, likely of new money. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello) owns a shop, and his wife (Jane Marken) and daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), don’t seem to lack for the finer things. When the group finds a little out-of-the-way inn along the Seine, they stop to get some food and enjoy the sights of nature.

These city folk are immediately spotted and sized up by the locals, and just as he would in his most revered film, The Rules ofthe Game, Renoir balances his story on the divide between the two classes. A pair of layabouts, Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius), begin scheming to steal the ladies away from their male companions--Dufour brought his dimwitted underling, Anatole (Paul Temps) along--and have a little fun before they move on. It could be a harmless action, or even comical, but there’s more motivating the boys than just lust. As they see it, Parisians are a bit like the cliché of “Ugly Americans.” They go where they want and do as they please and see the rest of the world as there to serve them. So for the more serious and dark Henri, this is a little bit about revenge. He quickly goes from being the reasonable foil to Rodolphe’s clowning, and morphs into a more sinister and calculating villain. He even goes so far as to shove his friend aside to get what he wants.

As the day wears on, it becomes clear that the perception of the Parisians is a bit skewed. Sure, they are demanding, but they are also looking to take part in the world around them. It may be a bit like slumming for them, but it’s also genuine. Dufour is a loudmouth and a boor, but he’s there to fish and enjoy what nature has to offer. When the boys finally engage the family, the out-of-towners are genuine in their friendliness. It’s the reverse of a country bumpkin being taken advantage of by the city slickers. The impending squall doesn’t serve as clear enough metaphor to warn Henriette out of the way.

Made in 1936, Renoir designed A Day in the Country as a short film. As he explains in the vintage introduction recorded for a later TV broadcast of the movie, he wanted to see if a short form film could be every bit as complex and artfully crafted as a longer feature, with the idea that three 40 minute movies could be strung together for an evening’s entertainment. Interestingly enough, A Day in the Country was not quite complete when Renoir was pulled away from the production to go make The Lower Depths (and Gabriello and Temps would go with him). It would be some ten years, and the director would have already moved on to Hollywood, before Renoir’s remaining team would assemble the footage and add a few explanatory title cards to hold it together. The final product doesn’t feel unfinished, not even remotely, you’d never notice it if you hadn’t read this (or the back of the Criterion box, or the intro put on the film--everyone wants you to know!).

On the contrary, A Day in the Country does exactly what a short film should: it draws its audience into its setting, orients them to the situation, and then leads them to a certain revelation or question, its compactness allowing for the storyteller to be simultaneously more direct and more ambiguous.

This plays out when we see Henri make his move on Henriette. She resists his suggestion to pull the boat into the tall grass by the riverbank and sit alone, but her defenses keep failing. Henri has an answer for everything. The young woman’s resistance continues on the bank, but his persistence proves stronger. Just how does Henriette feel about this? One can only judge by her expressions: refusal, acceptance, regret. There are many potential reactions and consequences to what happens, it’s not some afternoon fling whilst on vacation. A small event looms large, a point Renoir emphasizes in the film’s final scenes when he jumps ahead many years. Henri seems to have added some actual affection to his nostalgic view of what happened, but Henriette’s feelings remain unexplained. In a longer film, with room for a more conventional denouement, or perhaps in less capable hands, this is the moment when the girl would make her feelings explicit. We can only guess why she cries the tears she does, all we know is that she cries them for herself.

It’s kind of beautiful and brutal all at once, not unlike the remarkable tracking shots of the rain hitting the river that Renoir and his cameraman, his nephew Claude, managed to grab when their location shooting was overtaken by the weather, prompting a rewrite. One can only wonder how differently the sexuality might have appeared had they been able to stick to their original plan to shoot in the heat and sweat of summer. The moody gray makes Henri appear more cold, more predatory; the coupling is devoid of passion. The clouds and the rain recolor everything. The frivolity turns serious. Perhaps this is why Henriette ends up with Anataole, a man of no great significance, a capacity for more has been robbed from her. The lingering question of what might have been could go either way. Sylvia Bataille shows us how much the girl’s heart is broken, even if we could debate over what.

And it’s in this that Renoir elevates a lark into something grand and powerful. By stretching his movie beyond the one afternoon and peering across time, A Day in the Country proves to be something with lingering effect.

Saturday, December 12, 2015


What a lovely surprise. What a simple treasure. Lonesome is easily the most delightful Criterion title you’ve never heard of. You’re going to be sorry you waited so long to see it.

Lonesome is a 1928 silent film from Paul Fejos, a Hungarian transplant to Hollywood. Fejos led quite an interesting life, the many turns of which are chronicled in the autobiographical video essay included on this disc, and so it makes sense that the restless explorer would transform a straightforward script about two working-class New Yorkers falling in love into a lively, experimental treat.

We begin on a typical morning as the two characters roll out of bed and go about their routine. Mary (Barbara Kent) is a telephone operator, Jim (Glenn Tryon) is an assembly line worker. Both live alone, both trudge back and forth from work to their tiny apartments. On the weekend, when different couples they work with plan activities they can do together, rather than be a third wheel, both instead opt to travel out to Coney Island on their own for the Fourth of July. There, as fate would have it, they meet. They end up spending the day together, enjoying the pleasures of the beach and the spectacle of the holiday, only to be pulled apart by circumstance, unsure if they’ll ever meet again.

There’s not much to this summation, but there is much to what appears onscreen. Fejos pulls out all the stops, almost as if he is working his way through a wish list of special effects and innovations just in case he never gets to make a movie ever again. He superimposes images over each other to show the excitement of Coney Island, including the dizziness the lovers experience on the spinning wheel. He uses tinting and rudimentary color to show the spectacle of the lights and the fireworks. There is even a sing-along midway through, encouraging viewers to follow the bouncing ball and become a part of the outing. There are also several different dialogue sequences, added to capitalize on the growing trend of talking pictures.

Fejos mostly uses these special segments to show the courtship of Mary and Jim. We eavesdrop as they flirt and tease and make plans. The director keenly understands that the key to a romantic movie is that the romance be real, and so he capitalizes on the meet-cute, even going so far as to isolate his actors in an empty space, a metaphorical representation of the all-too-common feeling experienced by two people falling in love: it was like suddenly there was no one else around. Granted, this might have been born of necessity. With Kent and Tryon alone on a soundstage, there was no reason to worry about extraneous noise. Necessity equals opportunity in this case. The two performers prove to have excellent chemistry, and the intimacy of the technique makes us part of their blossoming love story.

It’s hard to imagine why Lonesome doesn’t have a larger reputation. Mostly lost over the years, its sweet take on the plight of modern singles was paving the way for countless “lonely hearts in the city” rom-coms to follow. Yet, it would never be done again with such little pretention or calculation. There is something natural and spontaneous to Lonesome, with the filmmaker making the most of the tools available to him: his actors, the setting, the feeling of falling heels over head. While in other filmmakers’ hands, the threadbare plot and anything-goes aesthetic might have seemed like showing off or being more concerned with show pieces than character, the naïve excitement with which Fejos approaches it all that makes Lonesome special. Mary and Jim aren’t merely common or simple, but rather, they’re relatable. In the days before online dating and texting, when young adults might go out on their own and meet people, the despair of single living could give way to the hopeful dream of love. Fejos isn’t judging his characters, nor is he playing it for laughs; rather, the director is a wide-eyed romantic, and he opens his camera lens just as wide to all the possibilities available.

Sure, there’s a certain formula to this, especially in the “will fate intervene?” ending, but Lonesome knows where it hails from. In one of their conversations, Mary and Jim talk about a rather fanciful Saturday Evening Post story they both read. Many good writers wrote formulaic tales for the Post, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who always managed to make a silly twist work through absolute belief and commitment in his craft. (My favorite is “The Offshore Pirate,” where the titular rapscallion turns out to be a rich playboy looking for love, because of course he is.) It similarly works here. Not just from Fejos’ efforts, but Kent and Tryon’s, too. They are 100% dedicated to the moment, and they play it with a winning sincerity.

Though barely clocking in over an hour, don’t fret, Lonesome is worth the price alone--but you also get some pretty impressive bonuses on the Criterion disc in the form of two other full-length Fejos features, both from 1929 (more or less).

Broadway is a full talkie, and a musical to boot. The film is based on a play co-written by George Abbott of DamnYankees fame. While its backstage-nightclub plot is nothing too intriguing, Fejos’ facility with the camera makes it fun, and his innovative use of a crane means the musical numbers are larger and more ambitious than other talkies of the period. Plus, the final song-and-dance was shot in two-strip Technicolor, rescued here by Criterion.

Storywise, Broadway crosses the standard love triangle narrative with early gangster tropes. The nightclub show is run by a would-be hood, who stirs up trouble both by taking out a rival and also hitting on one of his biggest stars. Glenn Tryon returns here as the song-and-dance man with his eye on Billie (Merna Kennedy), the hoofer who has likewise caught the eye of their tough-guy boss (Thomas E. Jackson). Also of note is the streetwise chorus girl played by Evelyn Brent, who previously starred in von Sternberg’s Underworld [review].

Fejos packs out the nightclub set with flappers and tuxedoes, and spends most of the musical performances either looking down from above or circling the room to capture the party crowd. He also opens the picture with an audacious recasting of New York as a mythological locale. The songs may be as forgettable as the script, but you’ll hardly mind.  

The third film in the set, The Last Performance had its silent debut slightly earlier than the others (1927), though it had sound added on wider release in 1929. That version is lost, and Criterion presents a Danish print of the original here. Stepping away from the New York locale for Europe, but sticking to the theatrical life featured in Broadway, Fejos helms a story of a stage magician and hypnotist, Erik the Great (Conrad Veidt, seen in The Thief of Baghdad [review] as Jaffar and later as countless Nazis in roles in films like Casablanca). Erik has designs on his pretty assistant (Mary Philbin, also Veidt’s co-star in The Man WhoLaughs), but so do other members of his entourage. When the girl’s attentions stray, Erik turns to trickery of another kind to try to bring her back around.

The Last Performance is the most conventional of the movies offered, which is funny since it’s the most fantatistical at the same time. Fejos sticks to a fairly straightforward aesthetic, though occasional shots do stand out, including a fairly imposing use of shadow, reminiscent of Soviet and German propaganda images from the era, in the scene where Erik discovers the infidelity. I also quite liked Fejos’ zooming back and forth between hypnotist and subject to show Erik’s influence over the crowd in his stage show. I quite like mysteries featuring hypnotists doing dirty deeds, as evinced by my comic with Dan Christensen, ArcherCoe & the Thousand Natural Shocks, so this is right up my alley. A melodramatic ending aside, The Last Performance is quality entertainment.

Paul Fejos

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Generally, when connecting the two sides of life, a la Shakespeare and the ages of man, babies and senior citizens are usually listed as mirror images of one another. The older person’s functions fail them, they return to helplessness, and also there is a perception of a reclaiming of innocence and naïveté. Watching Harold and Maude, however, one might make a different argument. In Hal Ashby’s 1971 comedy, it’s adolescence and old age that complement one another. They aren’t mirror images, but there is a healthy morbidness and a willingness for adventure that fit together quite well.

Bud Court stars as the titular Harold, a wealthy young man adrift and lacking in purpose. Or so his interfering mother (the fantastically named Vivian Pickles) would have us believe. She wishes Harold would find a good woman, or join the army and get some discipline. Harold isn’t interested in either. All that really interests him is death. He stages elaborate fake suicides to shock his mother--though she has become so immune to his pantomimes, she is more annoyed by the blood on her bathroom mirror than her son lying in the tub with his wrists cut.

Harold likes to attend funerals, and that’s where he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a woman in her mid-80s who also likes to crash the services. Maude is, quite aptly, an eccentric. She steals cars and smokes a hookah and liberates plants and animals into the wild. She takes a liking to Harold, and though he is skeptical at first, Harold takes a liking to Maude. A friendship develops, and then a romance.

Harold and Maude is a classic tale of outsiders, a black romantic comedy of misfits. Neither of the lovers fit in the world, but unlike Harold, Maude has created her own space within it. If she offers him any one important thing, it is that: an example by which he can embrace his own uniqueness. Maude has experience with life and death both, and neither scares her. Harold embodies the cliché adolescent feeling of believing he’d be better off dead than alive, which he even admits in a tearful confession midway through the picture, in what is probably Harold and Maude’s most emotional scene. Harold’s first near-death experience brought him both attention and a kind of peace, as everyone believed he really was deceased. For a brief pocket of time, he was in that rare state where people remembered him fondly. Though Maude sees her own time coming up soon, she offers the young man an alternative: an existential rejection of all things mortal. There is freedom living in a state of in-between, a state that Harold will find in the final scene of the film, which itself prefigures a very similar leap of freedom at the end of Quadrophenia [review] just a few years later.

For all this heavy thinking, Harold and Maude is not a ponderous movie. On the contrary, the script, written by Colin Higgins, who would later go on to helm a couple of Dolly Parton vehicles like 9 to 5, is lightly composed, its episodic structure allowing for the narrative to remain nimble and never be bogged down with one scenario too long. Together, Higgins and Ashby create a unique pocket universe for their characters to live in. It’s quirky and stylized in a way that would later influence Wes Anderson, but unlike Anderson, not nostalgic. Rather, it is very much of its time. The filmmakers weave in current events and important issues of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including free love, war, and technology. Harold’s uncle (Charles Tyner) is an army officer that promises him glory overseas; Harold’s dates, found via a computer dating service, bring glimpses of the outside world into Harold’s isolated existence. For instance, one is a political science student, and she is concerned whether or not Harold is “involved.”

My favorite of Harold’s would-be companions is Sunshine (Ellen Geer), an actress who is gung-ho to join in on Harold’s performances. He fakes hara-kiri in front of her, and she not only delights in the public spectacle, but takes the dagger and shows him how she died on stage playing Juliet. In a more conventional film, the script would diverge here, and Sunshine’s arrival would threaten what Harold and Maude have together. Instead, Ashby is content to let the sequence deliver one of the film’s funniest punchlines and then move on.

It’s kind of remarkable I never saw Harold and Maude until well into my twenties, because this would have been an ideal movie for me when I was a teenager. Its obsession with death, its quirky fashion, the flaunting of social convention--it seems ideal for Teenage Jamie. Of course, I didn’t have Rushmore [review] back then, either, and maybe fate was such that I could not be inspired by Harold and Maude, that was reserved for Wes Anderson--who makes no bones about cribbing from Ashby for his second feature. Max Fischer’s obsession with an older woman and his dramatic performances are directly borrowed from Harold and Maude. In a Tarantino-esque move, Anderson even goes so far as to crib some of the Cat Stevens tunes from the soundtrack. I imagine if we ever got to see Max’s first car, it would be a hearse.

What is perhaps most impressive about Harold and Maude--and there is a lot to be impressed with, not least of which are the exceptional performances by Cort and especially Gordon, whose every moment appears effortless--is how Ashby avoids allowing this strange world he’s creating to ever be precious or contrived. While careful thought certainly went into the details--the fashion, the set dressing, the locations--there is also a bit of a shaggy dog imperfection to it all, a trait that comes naturally to Ashby in all of his films. There is a raggedness that lends an air or reality to even the most unreal of proceedings. (See also Being There [review]).

When thinking again about the connection between adolescence and old age, I have to say there is something about how the young man connects to the old woman that appeals to middle-aged me. Perhaps it’s that the message of the movie extends beyond such specific time periods. Harold’s plight is one that many of us will return to again and again. Who am I, and what should I do with myself? If only we would all be so lucky to find a Maude here and there along the way. Or better yet, to wake up to the fact that our own personal Maude might just be us in the future, as we gather experience and wisdom, and simply just learn to be ourselves.

Sidebar 1: In a previous write-up for the Portland Mercury, I chose Harold & Maude as one of three films to watch alongside Rushmore. Read that piece here.

Sidebar 2: Check out more from Jordan Crane, the artist behind the cover and the menus, here.