Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I Married a Witch: The Wrong Aisle For Some Viewers

Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) is stupefyingly schlocky. Veronica Lake plays a 290-year-old witch that was burned by the puritans and buried under an oak tree that is to contain her spirit for eternity. A lightning bolt strikes the tree in the 1940s, however, releasing Lake’s ghost. Vengeful, she singles out Frederic March, whose ancestor was the one to burn Lake centuries earlier. She foils his marriage, clinches his election for governor, and then takes him down the aisle for herself. It should be ridiculous, but handled at Clair’s breakneck pace it finishes as fittingly absurd. Still, his earlier works such as À Nous La Liberté (1931) and Paris Qui Dort (1925) need less justification for their comedy to work. With I Married a Witch, you have to keep telling yourself, “Veronica Lake doesn’t look half bad for someone George Washington’s age.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You Can’t Teach an Oldboy New Tricks

Oldboy (2003) would be a whodunit, only the “who” is revealed before the film’s halfway point. So—it’s more of a whydunit, with a highly unsatisfying “why.” The story concerns a man who is mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years, and then released. Hunting down his captor, the prisoner rediscovers the youthful guilt that so inspired his captor’s revenge, Neither party can live with the guilt; one commits suicide, and the other undergoes hypnosis. Vengeance is whine.

The Racket: Robbed of all Potential

The Racket (1951) is one of those movies that should have been a lot better than it was. It has a great cast (Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott), but because of flaccid directing and dialogue copped from even worse pictures, this cops and crooks story is robbed of all potential. There is one great line, though: says Ryan to Scott, “You cheap, clip joint canary.” Typecast as the brutal criminal, Ryan was unable to make the better of his role in this picture. He plays the head of a racket that is paying off cops and politicians. Mitchum, playing the honest cop, is out to get Ryan first on the stand, then convicted, and finally behind bars. As the plot runs its course, the gangsters shoot all their cronies before they can confess, and the cops shoot all the gangsters before they can, too. So—in the end, it’s not like anything’s changed.

Flight of Fancy Crashes in Latest Kong Remake

You can’t have your chorus girl and eat her, too. Kong made his choice. Peter Jackson apparently hasn’t.

King Kong (2005) director Peter Jackson thinks big. He does big, too. Everything about his vision is big, and because of this he often overlooks the smaller, more important details of his movie. His rendition of the classic tale of filmmakers shooting on a mysterious island who discover a larger-than-life ape whom they bring back to NY only for it to escape and go on a rampage—all for the love a girl (Naomi Watts)—is even less believable than the original.

With a three-hour-plus running time, there should be ample room for even the slightest bit of character development, yet this is exactly what is missing from the film. Naomi Watts, as the actress, and Adrien Brody, as the writer, seemingly hate each other at first sight. At second, however, they are immediately in love. Brody, however, is no match for the ape, and Watts quickly chooses brawn over brains. These typical clichés clutter the movie more than its excessive action sequences.

On the other hand, with so little attention paid to the characters, it would seem as though it would be easy enough to achieve consistency. Here, too, Kong fails. Cheesiness and hokieness abound, it is difficult to tell whether the movie is supposed to be a spoof or a classic adventure picture. So much of the dialogue and so many of the scenes appear to mock 1930s cinema, the era in which the original King Kong (1933) appeared. Jackson seems to have watched the wrong 1930s movies, because his script has none of the wit or sharp commentary of an Anita Loos.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is how un-original Jackson’s re-vision is. Not that is takes so much from the original King Kong, but from movies like Tremors, Star Wars, Predator, Starship Troopers and his own Lord of the Rings trilogy. The choreography of the action scenes will make you scratch your head in wonder: where have I seen this before? The dinosaur stampede, with all those Tyrannosaurus Rexes, is decidedly reminiscent of Jurassic Park.

And the nameless, fat man with glasses still dies.

One could congratulate Jackson on the enormity of his picture, on its monstrous special effects and on its technological breakthroughs—they must be there, I just don’t know what they are—but this is what I’d like to know: what is the point of making the fantastic more realistic if, in the process, the story becomes even less so? The pathos for Kong is forced, and there are more last minute rescues than in a D.W. Griffith movie.

Jack Black, however, is very funny as the villainous director with the “heart of darkness.” (Yes, there is a character reading Conrad’s novel on-board the ship). But overtones such as these—turning flights of fancy into philosophical levitations—mar the comedy with a contrived seriousness.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Caché: Suspense Unfettered by Closure or Cell-Phones

It’s been a while since I heard an audience scream like that.

Not like the thrill-shriekers that love horror films like they love roller coasters, but like an audience watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955)—exactly like that—and you either have seen the movie and know exactly what I mean, or it would be disastrous for me to spell it out.

Watching Michael Haneke’s latest Caché (Hidden) (2005) is very much like watching a Clouzot picture, but Haneke differs in one crucial way: there is no resolution to the story, no villain to pin it on, no explanation to the mystery. If you are one who needs this type of closure, then Cache is not for you. Haneke provokes us through his unconventional storytelling and demands that we appreciate the vibe of mystery for its own sake. “It’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world,” writes Stephen King in the afterward to his novel The Colorado Kid.

King’s words ring ironic throughout Caché, because the films characters are unable to live with the mystery, and their wits are whittled away by the invisible hand of a blackmailer. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) begin receiving videotapes of them entering and leaving their house accompanied by child-like drawing of bloody faces. The threat is there, but not explicitly. Neither husband nor wife can figure out what the blackmailer wants from them, nor what he is blackmailing them about.

Is it even blackmail? Another videotape shows Georges’s childhood home; still another a hotel room. Georges tracks down the hotel room and discovers a childhood memory long forgotten: Majid, the son of two servants that worked for his family. Georges surmises that Majid and his son are behind these videotapes, but where is the proof, and where is the motive—and what are they after?

The suspense genre has been constantly evolving over the past fifty years. Think back to Diabolique: the mystery is resolved. Virtually all mystery/suspense pictures before the 1960s had a large degree of closure. Beginning in the 1960s, the genre began to show signs of dissent. Blow-Up (1969) leaves us wondering if he really photographed a murder, or whether it was David Hemmings’s imagination. Haneke continues the evolution by making the threat real, but by leaving the characters so far out in the cold that there’s little chance they’ll ever find the right path. The right path, in fact, never appears in the movie: all trails are as futile to Haneke.

The way the film develops, then, is through Georges’s psychological reaction to the tapes. Unsure of their intended meaning, his mind goes rampant through his subconscious, digging up all the guilt and shame that he had hidden for so long. The footage of him walking in and out of his house is meaningless, harmless, really, save for the fact that someone is nearby with a camera. Much like in Rear Window (1954) when Scottie’s gaze is returned by Thorwald, Georges’s subconscious becomes his outer-shell. His and Anne’s need for a reason, for a motive—needs much like the audience’s—surfaces their own lack of trust in one another.

The reason why Haneke is successful with Caché is that he hits at such a mundane vulnerability in us: there is nothing spectacular or fantastic about the terror; in fact, it seems to be created as much by Georges as it is by the mysterious cameraman. The mere sight of himself on film sets off a whole globe of paranoia.

Stephen King continues musing on the nature of mystery in his afterward: “Wanting might be better than knowing.” With cinematic villainy becoming increasingly more deranged and pathological, too, the stakes for the victims is changing as well. The innocent girl played by Ida Lupino in Out of the Fog (1943) that is being harassed by John Garfield is no longer the case: innocence no longer exists, except in the minds of others. Georges proves that he finds himself guilty; his struggle for exoneration is as much about proving his innocence to his wife as it is proving himself guilty to himself.

Haneke’s direction is fitting. He utilizes static shots that leave the audience wondering, “Is this going to be a videotape or not?” Flashbacks, too, are subtly intertwined as to avoid easy pinpointing. With the villain a filmmaker himself, Haneke has fun toying with the audience as to who is filming which shot.

It is impossible for people, when talking about Caché, not to mention the end of the film. And it’s no wonder—Hakeke is prevocational up until the last shot. People in the audience began shouting, “What? Is that it?” It’s been a long time since audience reaction after a movie could drown out a cell-phone. Speaking of which, not one went off during the entire movie. It’s been a while since that has happened.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Best of Youth (2003)

Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth (2003) begins in 1966 with two brothers, Matteo and Nicola, at the end of another semester. After their final exams, they are to meet up with two of their buddies for a long road trip. Matteo, however, arrives with Giorgia, a girl whom he helped escape from the mental hospital where Matteo works. Giorgia has been abused while in custody, given severe doses of electroshock therapy that Matteo deplores. Postponing their trip for two days, Matteo and Nicola try to bring Giorgia to safety.

They fail, however, and she is taken into custody by the police. Too, the brothers fail to go on their adventure: they never meet up with their friends, Matteo runs to join the military, and Nicola heads out on his own to Norway.

From the start, The Best of Youth structures its story on interruption, allowing for a whimsical feel that, for the most part, eludes feeling contrived and structured. That’s a hefty feet for such an epic film—it runs just over six hours—but a quality necessary for the film to succeed.

Much of its success it due to the writing by Sandro Petraglia and Sefano Rulli, who balance the audience’s want for drama, but also their plot-weary mentality. Brought up on movies, audiences can spot impossibilities like liver spots, and but for a few moments, the writing is sincere enough that even the best plot guessers won’t mind if they’re right, once in a while. The few moments I speak of are at the beginning of the second half, when the characters’ political alliances begin to clash: Matteo is with the police and Nicola’s wife is a member of the radical group the Red Brigades. However, this conflict doesn’t become the main focus of the film.

Instead, the film smartly focuses on family, playing close attention to every character and not allowing any of them to fall to the wayside. In many ways, The Best of Youth is similar to that other familial Italian epic The Tree of Wooden Clogs. That film, written and directed by Ermanno Olmi in 1978, tells the story a family of Italian peasants, working hard to make a living at the end start of the 20th century. Both films share a concentration to everyday survival, and the role that chance plays in determining our paths.

Too, the film develops thematically, not relying on only one to permeate the film. Hours into the film, new themes continually re-assert themselves, harkening back to moments from early on in the film. Photography is a key element to the film. Matteo speaks of his own ideas about photographing people, and how one should look for the mystery in gestures, markings that might escape our eyes. Early on in the film, it is Matteo’s eye that noticed scars just above Giorgia’s ears, and it is his photographs of them that first engage Nicola’s sympathies for the girl.

Director Giordana clearly shares this philosophy. Like Fellini, Giordana has a fondness for faces, and while they may not be as exaggerated as Fellini’s are, each character is given an individualistic look which helps distinguish them in such a long movie with so many different people.

Mental illness and politics all share time on screen, but the movie never falls back on didacticism for effect. They may surface throughout the film, but neither is the main point that The Best of Youth seems to be making. In fact, the point of the film is somewhat of a mystery that takes the whole film to fully evolve on screen. Ultimately, there are a lot of lessons that would sound hokey if I spelled them out to be found in The Best of Youth, but a pervasive capriciousness and pathos make them seem sincere—so that’s all right.

In the end, we get the feeling that we have actually seen the characters in The Best of Youth live, and thinking back to the beginning of the film, forty years or six hours earlier (depending on how you judge time) seems a lifetime ago--which is the way its supposed to be.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hitchcock Double Feature: Strangers on a Train and I Confess

I feel a certain futileness when describing "Strangers on a Train": my words are deficient in describing its excellence. Too, I am having great difficulty calling attention to a detail here, or a detail there, when so much of the picture was handled with great care. A pervasive humor seems to reach out from behind the screen and pinch us, reminding us (as Alfred Hitchcock oft said), "It's only a movie." For one thing, the writing balances within the story both drama and comedy, morbid jokes and adventure: the potentially ridiculous story of Guy Haines and his stalker Bruno Anthony could have more easily been moribund than lively. Guy, played by Farley Granger, is a stuffy sort of hero, stuck with the guilt of a murder he had nothing to do with. Bruno, a wickedly charming Robert Walker, is the real murderer: he strangled Guy's wife and is ready to pin it on him if Guy doesn't scratch Bruno's back (for a favor Guy never asked for): what Bruno wants is a murder in return.

Alfred Hitchcock's symbolic directing feels very much at home in "Strangers on a Train." He uses the camera to create parallels between characters and emphasize notions of guilt and anxiety. The casting is also full of animated faces, character actors like Leo G. Carroll and Hitch's own daughter, Patricia Hitchcock. She seems to be the omnipotent presence of director Hitchcock himself, pointing out all the morose details and giggling all the while.

"I Confess," on the other hand, suffers from being too heavy with not enough comic relief (the light touch that Hitchcock normally exudes). Hitchcock here falls prey to the severity of his subject, a priest (Montgomery Clift) who overhears a murderer's confession in the church is himself accused of the murder, only vows keep the priest from revealing what was said in the privacy of the confessional. The picture circles around this conflict very closely, rarely steering away from it, but with little to distract the audience from the story, they have ample time to find all its contrivances and plot holes. Much of the picture is wasted because of this: the writers spent too much time amassing superficial evidence as to why Clift looks guilty, and then how he ironically can't confess the truth because of his vows. In many ways, the film is as stiff as a corpse.

The film isn't entirely bad--its mainly the writing--and there is plenty to admire and entertain. The opening sequence of the film is inspired, however, by Hitchcock's deft handling of shadows and intrigue: the murderer, in priests clothing, hurries down the alley in true film noir fashion, with the garment's hem hovering just above the cobblestone street. Clift, as well, is the right actor for the role, and he executes the tension between guilt, shame and loyalty fittingly. Karl Malden, too, is wonderful as the smug cop, his squashed nose and pinched eyes working to their full advantage. Melodrama, as much Hitchcock's forte as mystery, suspense or comedy, proves overpowering in "I Confess" With little comedy or adventure to filter out the melodramatic pungency, the film ultimately lacks many of Hitchcock's usual touches. It seems as though his mind was someplace else during this movie.

Friday, January 06, 2006

This Week's Highlights

Even on the fifth viewing, Fassbinder's Whity (1970) gives me a sense of total dislocation. It's so hard to define its time and place--it avoids any attempt at pinning it down. Fassbinder works his magic in and out of the Western genre, mixing English slang with German dialogue, 19th century period costumes and 1970s glamour, and a soundtrack that references Morricone, Brecht and late '60s West Coast rock.


James Cagney plays a small-time, big-city gambler that hits it big: falling for Mae Clarke's scam and losing fifty bucks at a "nice, friendly game of cards," Cagney offers his services to her entourage, and together they make a killing off the city. All goes well until the killing becomes real and Cagney has to flee to California. Picking up the pieces as a Hollywood extra, he works his way to the top of the studios, only to be felled when his gang shows up wanting a piece of the action.

There's something a little raw about the humor of Roy Del Ruth's 1933 Lady Killer. Consider when Cagney returns home to his Hollywood mansion to find Clarke waiting in bed for him: in a single shot, he grabs her by the hair, and drags her across the room and into the hallway. Before the production code of 1934 (which upped the morals while lowering the morale), movies could get away with such brutality. Too, the bad guys could win. Such is how Cagney is implicated in murder, stealing, assault, theft, gambling and booze (the prohibition was on), and in the last frame still be on his way to Cuba to get married with his lover (guilty of the same crimes).


Anna Magnani carries Amore (1948) all on her own. The film, directed by Roberto Rossellini and scripted with the help of Federico Fellini, among others, comprises two short films. In the first, "A Human Voice," Magnani is the only actor on screen, save for a dog that is in no more than a few shots. Magnani is on the phone with her lover, far away and recently departed. This, it seems, is to be their last conversation. The second film, "The Miracle," was banned in the US and taken to the Supreme Court. Magnani plays a poor woman who meets a man in the woods one day who she takes to be Saint Joseph. He gets her drunk and, once unconscious, rapes her. Convinced that he was Saint Joseph, Magnani informs the town that her pregnancy was an immaculate conception. Ridiculed and run out of town, Magnani flees to the hills to bear her child alone.

The common theme seems to be one of faith, both secular and religious. In the first film, Magnani is dealing with her obsession for her lover, whom she shall never see again. Through the course of the conversation, she realizes that he has been lying to her: that he is not "at home" alone, and that he is cushioning the truth in order to make the separation easier. The facade breaks and her delusions fall away. Faith has to do with trust and fidelity, as well as our own projection of others, what they think and how they feel. In "The Miracle," the townsfolk and church do not buy into Magnani's tale, and they reject her own religious experiences. To them, she is a sinner, a liar, a whore, a hyprocrite, and a lunatic.

Communication, too, seems to be of concern. In "A Human Voice," the telephone is the only means of connection between the lovers, and the line keeps going dead--or does he hang-up? With the partner absent (literally, in the film, for even his voice is absent), so much is left to the imagination. And in the second--no one believes her. Her faith is ridiculed and since it doesn't conform to the mass's conception, then it is not accepted.


There is something cruel about Nicholas Ray's films, this inward hate that infests his characters. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, punching the desk, hoping that any expression of violence will curb its tendencies for the time being. Or Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar, the gunslinger who traded his pistols for the guitar, only to find his hand still goes for the nearest gun when trouble resounds. Too, in the same movie, Joan Crawford refuses to leave town, even though she knows the puritanical lynch-mob (headed by Mercedes McCambridge) is out to get her; when a young man accused of robbery is found hiding in her saloon by the mob, Crawford encourages the young man to lie and implicate her in the robbery if it would save him from the gallows. Self-destruction and circularity permeate Ray's films, with no easy exits provided.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Grand Central Murder: Half Hardboiled, Half Hyperbole

S. Sylvan Simon's Grand Central Murder (1942) is a yarn so good you might consider knitting a sweater out of it. It would make a great hand-me-down if it was anything like the movie--which I'd feel more comfortable recommending than a lot of better movies, such as Antonioni's noir-influenced Story of a Love Affair. Grand Central Murder is a comedy about a money-crazed actress found dead in her private train car. Sam Levene plays the detective assigned to the case. He rounds up the usuals--the understudy, the fiancé, the ex-husband, and the maid--as well as Private Dick Van Heflin, seen snooping around the crime scene around the time of the murder. The whole crew gets together and, in between accusations and heart attacks, recalls the downed diva's past life and a thousand reasons why she should be murdered. The conclusion to the tale is wonderfully anti-climactic: it is a quick "in and out" comic touch that differentiates from dramatic spectacle. Many such touches grace the film, including the liquor-starved Levene who is stuck with a dozen bottles of soda (and drinking straws, of course), and the cigar-smoking Swedish masseuse who was the deceased's maid. And then there's Van Heflin, the smart-ass P.I., who with great skill carefully balances hardboiled and hyperbole.

Monday, January 02, 2006

On Nykvist's Cinematography in Bergman's Winter Light

The first time I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light* (1963) it was during the peak of the summer in New York City. I had just moved into my apartment, and there were no shades in the window: the sun dusted by face like so many brooms. I would awake dazed, my head baked from the glaring sun. The title remained a mystery, and the photography little more than ‘beautiful.’

When I revisited the film, however, it was during a Maine winter, and certain things about Sven Nykvist's photography became clearer. There is a tendency—especially when it snows—for time to seemingly stop. Morning and afternoon all share the same, gray light: muted, but blinding. 6AM and 4PM do not seem so different. The shift to night is sudden and equally enigmatic. There is a larger sense of stasis in winter than in summer because it is more difficult to distinguish the hours from one another.

It is this stasis, a dislocation with life and time, that affects the characters in Winter Light: they are trapped and cannot any exit, and solution to their problems. A pastor, Tomas (Gunnar Bjonstrand), confronts his waning congregation and loss of faith, both in fellow people and in religion. Jonas (Max Von Sydow) approaches the pastor with his own loss of faith, and his increasing distress over nuclear proliferation. He seeks comfort, but the pastor is too caught up in his own problems to provide sufficient guidance. Parallel to Tomas’s spiritual rejection of Jonas is his physical rejection of Marta (Ingrid Thulin), the atheistic schoolteacher in love with him.

Dispersed throughout the film are long, still shots of nature: trees, frozen ponds, snowy fields: nature under the heavy weight of snow. Bergman’s direction, then, calls particular attention to the relationship between the photographic elements of the film and the story. Contrary to Peter Cowie, who described Bergman as, “eschewing the mechanics—the magic—of the cinema,” with Winter Light, I feel Bergman is achieving something intrinsically cinematic: elements of time, movement (or lack thereof) and photography combine to create an environment filled with meaning (118). These characters are at once in a barren, open landscape, but one that is seemingly endless with no exit. With their loss of faith, the physical world is their only life, yet for them it is a trap they are unable to escape.


*According to, the original title Nattvardsgästerna means "The Communicants". The relationship of cinematography to the story does not change, however. The English title of the film served as a lens for examining the film, not as the metaphor itself.

Cowie, Peter. Antonioni/Bergman/Resnais: Three Monographs. Holland: International Film Guide, 1963.

-Cullen Gallagher