Saturday, September 16, 2017

CERTAIN WOMEN - #893


The rhythm of life is a quiet beat. For most of us, our day to day may feel dramatic, but to the outside eye, it likely lacks the energy and histrionics that we perceive from within our own sphere.
This is something that filmmaker Kelly Reichardt seems acutely aware of. Her films, even when drawing from events that seem ideal for a fiction plot, operate at a familiar tempo. Take her last movie, 2013’s Night Moves [review], about eco-terrorists--it’s told less like a crime film and more like a personal drama. Reichardt doesn’t feel the need to dress it up.

It seems only natural, then, that the director would turn her lens on genuinely quiet lives for 2016’s Certain Women. Working with stories from author Maile Meloy, Reichardt stitches together tangentially connected tales of four different women living in rural Montana. Laura Dern (The Master [review]) plays a personal injury lawyer whose lover (James Le Gros) is married to Gina (Michelle Williams, Reichardt’s muse in both Wendy and Lucy [review] and Meek’s Cutoff [review]), a mother adrift and in search of a natural experience. Gina’s path takes her by the ranch where a lonely Native American woman (Lily Gladstone) works, and after the girl makes a connection with Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria [review]), a young teacher, she also ends up brushing up against the lawyer.


Certain Women is essentially a movie about striving to connect with other people and not quite succeeding. In each section, the characters find themselves trying to form a meaningful bond with someone, and not having it go as planned, be it a coworker, a family member, or in the case of the ranch hand, we’re never quite sure if she is looking to Elizabeth for romance or friendship. It doesn’t really matter. All that counts is that she has found someone she can talk to, and who talks to her in turn. The film’s most vulnerable moment is when the rancher brings her horse to give her teacher a ride to post-class dinner, a grand gesture to both let Elizabeth into her world but also carry her into another of their own making. These are women who somehow don’t belong--the lawyer who feels she’s stuck in a man’s game, the mother whose family only indulges her, the farmer looking for a friend or maybe lover--and where each of them stumbles is in trying to carve out space for another, to find a sense of belonging by inviting someone else to their side.


What keeps Certain Women from being a downer is how resilient each character is despite their failure. In the lawyer’s coda, she tries to make amends with the client she couldn’t help (Jared Harris, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [review]); in Gina’s, she steps away from her family to enjoy a moment by herself. Michelle Williams is a soulful actor, and she can do more with this silent reverie than most of her peers. There is relief in her expression, in her body language, in her breathing--relief tempered by the weight of all that she still carries, it never leaves her shoulders, she never fully relents. Williams is perhaps so successful in her collaboration with Reichardt because she makes the most use of the space the director provides her. The actress seems to carry her every life experience into the film with her.

Not that her costars are slouches. Laura Dern tempers gravity with compassion, and Kristen Stewart’s distracted energy serves well to give her an aloof allure that draws the audience to her as much as it does the ranch hand. For her part, relative newcomer Lily Gladstone is a convincing observer, letting Stewart work around her, patiently establishing the interest her character has in the other woman.



This also might be a good way to describe Reichardt’s storytelling style: patient interest. She is content to just hang back and let the action unfold. Which isn’t to say she isn’t thinking about the image frame or an artfully composed shot. Right from the get-go, with the strikingly arranged divisions within the apartment that separate Laura Dern and James Le Gros, we can see that Reichardt and her longstanding cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring [review]) know that just because life is quiet doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. That’s why sometimes it might feel like they just set up the camera and let things unfold, like leaving it behind in the wilderness and recording nature as it happens.

When all is said and done, what sits with you about Certain Women is how intimate it is. Reichardt has let us in to share some of her subjects’ most difficult moments, and how they get through them. In each, there are also silent reflections, where as an audience we can sit with these women and empathize. We inhale and exhale in tandem. And though they never connect with each other on screen, we connect them in our watching, meaning that ultimately through our observation, we all end up in this together.


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


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

FESTIVAL - #892


I was about to write about the Newport Folk Festival as the stuff of legend, referring to it as an entity of the past, but a quick Google search reveals that it’s still going, an annual event where fans and musicians gather to enjoy a weekend of music. This past summer’s performers included Fleet Foxes, Wilco, Michael Kiwanuka, John Prine, and many more, bridging many generations and styles. From all evidence, it looks like a big production, its scale having evolved since its more humble beginnings in 1959.

It’s certainly more of a spectacle than what we see in Murray Lerner’s documentary, Festival, a compendium of performances from Newport, spanning 1963 to 1966. The material captured in this black-and-white film shows a modest stage and modest accommodations for the attendees, with barely anything separating the two levels, the audience from the musicians. As we witness from the footage and hear from the testimonies, this is by design. At that period, folk music was considered to be the music of ordinary people. The ones on stage look just like the ones in the audience. And the audience is not excluded from performing, there are spontaneous eruptions of song all around the periphery. The Newport Folk Festival was a happening where everyone was intended to be equal.


Not that it was entirely successful. The elevation of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan as “stars” contradicts this ethos, regardless of how much Baez tries to rationalize her own deification. Then again, they both stand apart as individuals, showing a certain style and wit not always evident in their colleagues. Dylan has the same undeniable charisma we see in Don’t Look Back [review], and Donovan still pales in comparison. Even so, the most interesting bits are not what Lerner picks up from the stage, but when he talks to the young fans and gets their takes on what folk music means and what they are seeing. Some find greater meaning and a social message, others just want to listen to music and turn off. One thing is for sure, though, white hipster kids always thought they had it figured out.

Festival is less a strict reporting of what went down and more a survey of all the things the Newport Folk Festival encompassed. Lerner wants to show you the breadth of it. He mixes up different styles, creating a collage of singers and songs. Some of his arrangement is meant for effect, such as juxtaposing white and black choirs or dancing performers versus static traditionalists to show the different levels of energy and interpretation. The oldest singers, many of whom were there at the roots of the craft, talk about tradition while the film cuts back and forth to Dylan doing a soundcheck for his electric debut, a scandal in the folk community.  Likewise, Son House schools us on the strict parameters of the blues in direct contradiction to guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s celebration of modern expansion. There is definitely a political commentary being made here, though Lerner seems to be more on the inclusive side, highlighting the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which Mike Bloomfield was a part of, right after. From this distance, however, Son House wins.


What’s interesting, and what Lerner’s montage demonstrates, is that audiences and performers alike believe they are seeing something authentic--and Lerner’s lack of adornment only enhances that ethic. Though, again, thinking about what Son House says, you may wonder if there is a sort of ghetto tourism at work. How do some of the urbane performers and attendees connect with songs about green corn and dead geese? What life experience are they drawing on, or are they imbuing these specific narratives with their own metaphors, and thus contradicting the experience...?

For its part, Festival tries to show everything. Multiple cameras move around the stage, focusing on different players--which highlights all, for the most part, though this sometimes means the film also highlights none. There are no indicators of who is who, no song titles proffered, so if you don’t recognize anyone beyond the obvious--Baez, Dylan, Judy Collins, Donovan, Johnny Cash--you may never know who you are seeing*. And the lack of complete performances means that one bleeds into the other, few have a chance to emerge, except maybe as we progress into different styles.

That all said, Festival is a beautifully photographed primer of Newport, and just like if you were there--or at any music fest, really--it won’t all be to your taste. Even so, it never bores, and with this new 2K transfer and uncompressed soundtrack, Festival on Criterion looks and sounds fantastic. Two major bonus features talking to the filmmakers and performers shed light on the production, both the in-front and behind-the-camera situations, and whether you’re interested in the music or just in seeing a snapshot of an intriguing cultural convergence, Festival is well worth checking out.


* I've been informed that there is a function on the disc that allows you to turn on titles, though the original release of the film did not contain them.

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


Monday, September 11, 2017

JUBAL - #656

You know, sometimes I think it’s giving the good Lord the worst of it to say He invented people.”


Loosely based on Othello, the 1956 western Jubal is a cowboy picture of intimate proportions. It focuses on Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford, Gilda [review]), a self-described victim of bad luck, who finds one good turn, only to be undone by another. From the sound of it, this is his circle of life. Same sheep dip, different day.

The script by director Delmer Daves (3:10 toYuma) and Russell S. Hughes, based on a novel by Paul I. Wellman, opens with a surprising image of a man falling down a mountain and onto the open road, where he is found nearly frozen to death before being taken to a nearby ranch to warm-up. This is Jubal, a lone wolf who left a gig sheepherding--a lowly position in the eyes of the other ranch hands--and stumbled into hard times on his search for someplace to hang his hat. The owner of the ranch, Shep (Ernest Borgnine, From Here to Eternity, and the star of the Marty motion picture) takes pity on the lost soul and offers him a job, despite the protest of one of his men, the acerbic Pinky (Rod Steiger, On the Waterfront, and star of the television version of Marty [review]). I suppose it’s just good instincts that make Pinky hate Jubal from the get-go, and not just the smell of lamb on him. Jubal is as honest as Pinky is craven, he is as hard-working as Pinky is shiftless.


So it is that Shep’s young wife Mae (Valerie French, The 27th Day) fails to seduce the new employee the way she did Pinky. Not that the truth matters. Pinky will later use the idea of an affair to turn his boss against his rival. He is the Iago who plants doubts in Othello’s head, only this time Desdemona has much to answer for, and the would-be Cassio takes center stage.

I would say that Daves works in broad strokes, but the charm of Jubal is not just how simple the plot  but how complex the characters. The landscape is wide, but the people are small and driven by specific mechanics. There is plenty of life being lived here, on the screen and off. Shep and Mae have a complex relationship, where he loves his wife completely, perhaps partially because he knows he is a bit of a Frog Prince and no one expected him to be the man she’d end up with--though, given that this is Borgnine performing at his most gregarious, we don’t begrudge him this good fortune. Jubal is the straight man, but he is also a bit of a brooding anti-hero, running from a trauma in his childhood, caught between the femme fatale and the sweet blonde who could give him a happy life (Felicia Farr, Kiss Me, Stupid). And just what the hell is wrong with Pinky? Steiger plays the bad guy with an indefinable weirdness. He has a certain charm, yet like everything else about him, it’s impermanent. Pinky is a chameleon of convenience, his lies transforming with such ease, no one around him seems to notice he is changing his story.



Even amongst the “Rawhiders,” ultra-religious nomads that end up on Shep’s property, Daves doesn’t paint an exact picture of moral goodness. In fact, their leader, Shem (Basil Ruysdael), named for the son of Noah who’s lineage gave birth to Abraham, notes that following the commandment of “love thy neighbor” is the hardest to stick to. The struggle of the characters in Jubal is to do right by one another. Jealousy, greed, and ego all threaten to knock man and woman alike from the proper path. Outside of the religious camp--which itself features dissenters and sinners--the most true to his code is Reb (Charles Bronson, Once Upon a Time in theWest). Even Jubal faces temptation and blinks (though just barely). Reb tells him, “You don’t have to play every hand you’re dealt,” yet Reb never once attempts to turn in his own cards and take care of himself first.

The ability to show how insignificant man is compared to the rest of the world is arguably exclusive to two genres: war films and westerns. In both, the landscape can overtake the individual, and the natural world tends to carry on while humans cut each other down. In Jubal, Daves and director of photography Charles Lawton Jr. take time to step back and enjoy the countryside. The widescreen photography shows the Wyoming wilderness in its full breadth, extending far beyond the petty concerns of the men who work it. Though we never see the characters going against the elements, there are hints of it, particularly how these transplanted predators are left to fear the unseen native predator, a mountain lion that is attacking their livestock. Pinky plays the wolf in sheep’s clothing when rescuing a calf whose mother has been taken down (maybe he’s the one who really stinks of sheep dip), and the cat is also used as a ruse to get Jubal alone with Mae on the night when it all goes wrong. But is that Mother Nature having the last laugh, or once again man using her as an excuse to do bad things?


The ending of Jubal has some predictable elements, but also some darker details. Punishment is meted out to just about all who’ve earned it (though Shep doesn’t really deserve his fate, and Mae’s comeuppance is disproportionate to her misdeeds, the usual outcome for a femme fatale), and happiness comes to those who deserve it, too. In that, it avoids being the sort of tragedy that gave the script its jumping-off point, but I guess that’s the Hollywood innovation on the classic, the addition of the American Dream to Shakespearian formula: in the saddle, the good guys usually win.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

THINGS TO COME - #660

You’ve got the subtlety of a bullfrog.”


I popped Things to Come into the player expecting to see a quaint vision of modern times as imagined in 1936, fodder for my own fantasies that the here-and-now could, indeed, be better. What I found was something altogether different, and yet also apropos in its own strange way. For this film, Alexander Korda enlisted H.G. Wells to adapt his own novel into a screenplay, and then charged effects man William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Bagdad [review]; Foreign Correspondent [review]) to direct. Seeing what they came up with, I find myself less concerned with how Things to Come reflects a potential 21st Century, and more fascinated by what it must have looked like to its original audience...and even moreso how they might have been shaken by it just a short while later.

Wells sets his story in the far-flung future of 1940, and the movie opens on Christmas of that year, with England on the brink of a second World War. Amidst pleas to focus on the yuletide, two men debate the prospect of conflict: John Cabal (Raymond Massey, 49th Parallel [review]) sees it as inevitable, while Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman, Rembrandt [review]) believes man will not make the same mistake again. Naturally, the more optimistic of the two is wrong, and Britain engages in a decades-long war with their aggressive neighbors.

H.G. Wells, actor Pearl Argyle, and Menzies on the film’s Everytown 2036 set.

Though billed as “Everytown” throughout the film, these opening scenes look distinctly like London, and so the wholesale destruction of the city must have been extremely disconcerting for contemporary British audiences, especially if they had memories of having seen Things To Come when the German raids on England began just a few years later. I imagine it would have been something akin to what we might have felt had aliens come and destroyed the White House after the release of IndependenceDay. Menzies’ attention to detail is still: the images of bodies amongst the rubble of a one-time thriving community deliver a potent anti-war message. And as the battles rage on for the next several decades, only coming to a sort-of end in the mid-1960s, I can’t help but think of the open-ended war America currently finds itself in.

The Everytown scenario ca. 1966 is one of tentative peace. The townspeople are still at war with the hillspeople, and true to Cabal’s predication that war will stifle progress, technology has taken a few steps back. Fuel is scarce, and machines don’t run. Cars are now pulled by horses, just like the carriages they are meant to replace. The remaining citizens have also just come through a zombie-like plague, “The Wandering Sickness,” conquered not by medicine but by brute force. His plan to shoot anyone infected has elevated the Boss (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]) to a place of leadership. More Donald Trump than Hitler, “the Boss” continues to rule through fear and bullying, mostly content to close Everytown off from the rest of the world rather than expand too far into other pterritories. It’s a successful plan, and he would have gotten away with if if not for an aged Cabal arriving in a high-tech plane, wearing spaceman armor, and touting a new peace under the rubric “Wings of the World.” The Boss naturally distrusts this man from the skies, as any tyrant opposes science and invention that he can’t bend to his will. Cabal promises there are more like him coming, and the future of civilization depends on whether Everytown will join this cultural elite or be crushed by them.


Looking back over the cycle of history, I wouldn’t exactly call H.G. Wells or Things to Come prescient. Mankind is far too predictable for that, it’s more that Wells has correctly identified a tragic cycle. Even so, it’s amazing to see how past generations grappled with their fears of oppression and being left behind by change, and how slow progress really is, war be damned. The key to putting Everytown back on the map is oil, and a battle is waged over a coalmine that will give them enough fuel to best their foes. Keeping the people ignorant is key to the Boss’ continued rule, and while men of skill are bullied into servitude, women’s ideas are still dismissed out of hand.


That Wells seems to be on the right side of these things speaks well for his philosophical character, but the future utopia he offers as an alternative seems ironically shortsighted. When Wings Over the World come in and unseat the Boss, using a “gas of peace” to put the townspeople to sleep, effectively removing their choice of whether to join or resist (and presented as a noble alternative to the poison gas we see in a depressing wartime scene early in Things to Come), it’s hard not to view the new management as more fascistic than what they’ve come to replace, good intentions opening the highway to hell as they do. This is even harder to ignore as we jump ahead in the 2000s and see the utopia that the airmen are ushering in: it’s sterile, impersonal, and referred to as “white” in a way that feels for more loaded than anyone intended, given that there is not one person of color in all of Things to Come. Likewise, the terraforming that makes this new civilization possible looks more like an ecological disaster now than the triumph of industry it must have appeared to be in the ’30s.

That said, the special effects that Menzies achieves, working with such talented people as production designer Vincent Korda (To Be or Not To Be [review]), special effects artist Ned Mann (The Private Life of Don Juan [review]), and director of photography Georges Périnal (The Blood of a Poet), are nothing short of astonishing, including the scenes where gigantic drills destroy an entire mountain. The future world that follows is a self-contained, towering labyrinth--reminiscent of Krypton, all artificial structures and impossible curves, brought to life by a nigh-seamless melding of models, rear projection, and full-size sets. This imaginative future is made all the more believable by the complicated tableau of Everytown. Menzies and his team give as much attention to the city in ruins as they do the world of tomorrow, bringing a realism to Shakespearian drama that essentially gives Things to Come its spine.

Here Theotocopulos looks more like an imposing fascist than what he opposes.

Even with all that to appreciate, though, it’s hard to tell what message Wells is trying to convey with his future society, and whether or not this brave new world is as difficult to maintain as other fictions have led us to believe. Things to Come creates a dissenting voice in Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke, Richard III), a man that asks if there has been enough progress, if we should not focus on the society that already exists, and the initial debate from the 1940 scenes is reignited via Cabal and Passworthy’s grandchildren (played again by Massey and Chapman). Yet, there is something sinister in Cabal’s dismissing of Theotocopulos as merely representing “artists” whose work will be made small by his scientific accomplishments, especially when Cabal wins, successfully launching a rocket around the moon with his “space gun.” In his closing speech, Cabal declares that mankind cannot be stopped, nor should they. “All the universe or nothing,” he tells Passworthy, his face in profile, framed by the universe in all its sparkly glory. Is Wells not merely trading an ignorant tyrant for an intelligent one? Hitler and Mussolini dethroned in favor of Gore Vidal and Neal Degrasse Tyson. (And is this not what Superman’s parents warned us about?!)

With nothing really to balance that ending out, we can only presume that Wells believed some of what he preached, even if his cohorts in Things to Come merely wanted to make a timely motion picture with some pretty cool special effects. Their speculative fable was likely a rousing glimpse of better times that would become much needed in their immediate lifetime. Now it is an inadvertent time capsule, not of history as it was, but as it could have been. It’s also no less a meaningful parable all these years up the road, if perhaps a bit more complicated and in need of a more nuanced interpretation.



Monday, September 4, 2017

IN BETWEEN DAYS - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007.


In Between Days sets itself up with a difficult premise. How do you capture a time of life where your main character is neither here nor there, no longer an innocent but also not yet fully initiated into adulthood? You can go for a standard plot, following well-worn narrative lines, and it may work; you can use the established tropes to get your point across. It's more difficult, however, to break from convention and create something that gingerly touches on the desired emotions and becomes more about the mood itself than any easily outlined story narrative.

The debut feature-length film of experimental artist So Yong Kim, In Between Days does exactly that. It recreates the life of a young immigrant as she transitions from her old life in South Korea to a new life in North America, changing culturally as she also changes inside herself. Newcomer Jiseon Kim plays Aimie, the adolescent girl in question. She and her mother have moved across the ocean and are struggling to get by. Aimee's father is absent, possibly still in Korea, possibly having left for parts unknown. Aimee communicates with him throughout the film, in voiceover that could be a letter to him or could just be a monologue masquerading as a dialogue in her head. She longs to see him again, longs for some kind of reminder of when her life had a certain kind of stability.

Aimee is attending school to learn English and become further assimilated into her new environment, but she soon quits her lessons to get her tuition back and buy her companion Tran (Taegu Andy Kang) an expensive bracelet. She and Tran are friends, largely platonic, but with an affection between them that neither feels comfortable sharing. He broaches the subject in a joking manner, usually as an appeal for sex. They speak Korean most of the time, though both of them are fairly adept at English. Their lives are pretty much isolated in the Korean sector of their city, and they pass the time aimlessly, playing videogames, drinking coffee, smoking, and occasionally boosting car stereos for a little cash. They don't talk about much, their friendship is built on how easy it is to be together.



The two flirt with other people, but whether they are really interested in those people or they are just trying to make the other one jealous is not really clear. Nothing is really clear, because they don't know how to express themselves. Most of our understanding of Aimie comes from the things she says to her absent father. She's rude to her mother, and kind of a brat, really. Yet, Jiseon Kim's big, soulful eyes and soft face are so tender, our hearts break seeing the pain behind the petulance. Eventually she will have to face the facts about her father and her feelings for Tran, but she's going to put it off as long as she can.

So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain [review]) co-wrote, edited, and directed In Between Days (co-writer Bradley Rust Gray went on to direct The Exploding Girl [review]). The movie was shot on digital video by cinematographer Sarah Levy, who also shot James Bolton's excellent indie drama The Graffiti Artist. This came as little surprise to me when I looked up Levy's name, as I was reminded of The Graffiti Artist while watching In Between Days. Both films have an unforced intimacy that is a combination of the minimalist acting, a director confident in having long periods of silence, and Levy's choice to move the camera in tight on the actors, nestling them in the image frame. Both films also play out on an urban landscape where the sounds of the surrounding city provide an ambient score and the absence of other people in most scenes suggests an environment that is both desolate and private.

In Between Days also made me think of the cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, particularly Millennium Mambo. In that film, Hsiao-Hsien also chronicles the changing emotions of a young girl, though Shu Qi is slightly older and a touch more glamorous in the role than Jiseon Kim is in In Between Days. So Yong Kim's film is the more everyday side of that story, wracked with more pain, and possibly more life altering for how small the catalysts for change really are. The bumps Aimie experiences along the way are tiny in comparison to the drastic decision she makes at the end of the picture, and the tears in her eyes during that final shot are not for what she lost, but how ill-prepared she was for the next stage.



Sunday, September 3, 2017

AMERICA AMERICA - FILMSTRUCK

This review originally ran on DVDTalk.com in 2011.


Elia Kazan had already had a long and distinguished--and oft controversial--career in both theatre and cinema by the time he made his most personal film, America America, in 1964. Known for making pictures that pushed the envelope in terms of subject matter, be it challenging moral taboos or exploring socially conscious issues, the filmmaker didn't necessarily abandon those things for his immigration epic, but he found a way to make them more directly about himself and where he came from.

America America is, at its core, a family story. Kazan wrote it as a tribute to his uncle, first in a book and then as this screenplay. Said uncle emigrated from Turkey to the United States in the early 20th century. The cinematic version starts out in 1896. Stavros Topouzoglou (newcomer Stathis Giallelis) is the eldest son in a poor Greek family living in the Anatolian Mountains. As Kazan tells us himself in an introductory voiceover, the area was known for a large Greek and Armenian population when the Turks moved in and took over. At the time of the story, both groups live under occupied rule, and recent Armenian activity has caused an ethnic crackdown. Though Stavros is Greek, he can't avoid being caught up in the unrest. He is business partners with the Armenian worker Vartan (Frank Wolff). They go into the woods together and get ice to sell back down in the village. They both dream of someday leaving Turkey and sailing the Atlantic to find new opportunities in the States.


Pinning their hopes on Stavros and with fingers crossed it might keep him from jail (or worse), the Topouzoglou family sends him to Constantinople with all of their valuable possessions and traditions. The plan is for him to join his uncle's business there and slowly bring the rest of the clan along once he starts making money. On his trek, he meets an opportunistic Turk (Lou Antonio) who chisels him out of all his goods, setting off a chain of events that puts the young boy way off course. Unable to take up with his uncle, he ends up on the streets trying to make his fortune, only to continually lose what little he makes, run afoul of violence, and generally screw up. The other men call him "America America" because that's all he can talk about--one day getting enough cash to go to the Land of Opportunity.

Unlike most immigrant stories, Kazan isn't concerned with what happens once Stavros finally gets overseas. This is the story of the long and difficult process of escape. America isn't a reality, it's a fantasy, an image in advertisements and on postcards. Stavros doesn't have a dream of doing anything when he gets there, his dream is just getting there. Opportunity will be opportunity, it doesn't matter what it is.


Kazan shot most of America America on location overseas. Though many of his previous films brought a new social realism into American cinema, as well as a new kind of performance--he worked with both Marlon Brando and James Dean, who became icons of method acting--America America has more in common with Italian Neorealists than it does A Streetcar Named Desire. Working with mostly unknown, untested talent, he was able to create a film that is grounded in naturalism, even as the script toys with more traditional storytelling, including the oral tradition that allowed family stories of this kind to be passed on from generation to generation.

Haskell Wexler's amazing black-and-white photography presents the harsh life without any varnish. The sets and locations can be majestic and elaborate, yet the poverty is evident. Most of the settings are broken down, and people live on top of one another. Likewise, the costumes are torn and dirty. We can see the effects homelessness has on Stavros. By contrast, glimpses of the finer side of life seem almost contrived. An American that Stavros briefly encounters looks like he pulled his immaculate period suit straight out of studio wardrobe. When Stavros joins a wealthy family, their life also looks like costume drama put together by a vast production team. Don't take that as a criticism. I think this was intentional on Kazan's part, he wanted to show how deep the divide between the classes and how unreal the reality of the upper crust could be.


These finer things are just another temptation to Stavros, and temptation is just a distraction. Also, short cuts are a danger. Surprisingly (or maybe not so), women prove to be the key to a lot of his actual success--and fittingly, the actresses in the movie stand out. Linda Marsh is heartbreaking as Stavros' understanding and long-suffering spouse, and Katharine Balfour draws pity in a whole other way as a sheltered American wife. Ultimately, though, Stavros' path to success is reliant entirely on him. He must maintain focus and never waver from his goal. In this, America America is both a cautionary tale and statement of hope. One must never forget the struggles and sacrifice of those who have journeyed to the States in search of a better life, and how that goes deep down to the core of what the country stands for and what it was founded on. The actual achievement is not a fairy tale, it is not always clean or even honest, but the impulse to be a part of the great experiment is always worthy of tribute.



Saturday, September 2, 2017

THE MARSEILLE TRILOGY: CESAR - #884


Though only made a few years after its predecessors, César moves The Marseille Trilogy forward nearly twenty years. Marcel Pagnol takes full control this time, both writing the original screenplay and directing. The results put the film somewhat at odds with itself. Of the three movies, César is the most comfortable in its own skin, yet so much so, it’s also a little too easy with itself and thus less realized, and at times even borders on self-parody when Pagnol is clearly pushing to deliver more of what everyone liked about Marius and Fanny [review].

The primary cast returns for this go-around, including Fernard Charpin as Panisse, the older sail maker who married Fanny (Orane Demazis) and accepted her son with Marius (Pierre Fresnay), Césariot, as his own. André Fouché (Playtime [review]) joins the film as the grown-up Césariot, and we are introduced to the boy as he returns home to visit Panisse on his deathbed. At the urging of the local priest (Thommeray), Fanny tells her son the truth about his parentage, stoking a curiosity in him. Who is this Marius, and why has he hardly been spoken of? And why doesn’t he have a relationship with his father, César (Raimu), who has been Césariot’s godfather this whole time?


Choice is an important driver in The Marseille Trilogy, and the choices made in Marius and Fanny come to consequence in César. Marius is justifiably upset by decisions that were made without his being kept in mind, but he also has to reckon with his willingness to go along. We find out that he and César fell out, and the older man has to wrestle with his decision to put his grandson ahead of his own child. And Fanny has to answer to Césariot for the years of deception. Not to mention Marius’ broken heart.

As is to be expected, Pagnol’s script really shines when it focuses on his principle characters in deep conversation. The past is scoured and hurt feelings exposed, and there is something compelling about listening to adults dig into actual emotions this way. They are unreliable and inconsistent in their expression, as most people are, and the flaws make them all the more real. Far less natural are the light-hearted scenes of César and his friends spending idle time together; a highlight of the first two films, they feel a little forced here.


Pagnol’s direction suffers from some of the stiffness of the early sound era, despite freeing his narrative from the stage origins of the first two films. His framing and the staging can be a little obvious, and the camera movements occasionally clumsy. Pagnol inherits less of the smooth hand of Marius-director Alexander Korda, and more of the realism of Fanny’s Marc Allégret. In fact, in a lot of ways, César feels like early Neorealism, with the film having an overall natural look and making use of the seaside locations to an even greater extent than Fanny.* It makes for an interesting mix, since much of the plot here, with Césariot visiting his father incognito and Marius’ business partner filling the boy with lies about their supposed life of crime, borrows from traditional comedies of error. This juxtaposition works incredibly well, with the tone being reminiscent of some of Jean Renoir’s best work.

Smartly, the auteur leans into the lighter side for his ending, making César a fine cap to the lengthy trilogy.


* A year before César, Marcel Pagnol also produced a short musical documentary called Marseille, showcasing the city and its culture. This short is included on the César disc.


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