Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Hud (1963)

Everything is bigger in Texas. That includes the assholes.

“Hud” is one of the big movies of 1963. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Actress (Patricia Neal), Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas) and Best Cinematography. It also has a reputation that walks well ahead of it and it was one of the movies I was looking forward to, going into 1963.

It is a movie that in many ways delivers. It is exactly the A-movie you would expect. Acting, photography, direction and gravity are all of a very high standard. Add to that a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein and the best black and white cinematography imaginable and it all starts to sound very promising.

Why is it then that this felt like a difficult movie to watch?

That is a personal question of course. Another person might have an entirely different experience. To me the answer is two things. First, this is essentially a portrait of a jerk, a Texas size asshole, in the shape of Paul Newman as Hud Bannon, the son of old rancher Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas). Hud does not care shit about anything or anyone but himself and his own gratification. He picks fight, drinks too much, sleeps with other men’s wives and treats everybody and everything in an underhand and selfish manner. He is a nihilist and an egoist and he is charming as hell. He is the central character of the movie and it is bloody difficult to have any sympathy for him or to root for him in any way.

Secondly, this is not a happy movie. On the contrary, it is a movie with a slow-moving doom that creeps in from the horizon and tramples everything underfoot. You can see it coming right from the start and you just know this will not end well. It is depressive as hell. Beautiful, important, intelligent and depressive. In many ways it reminded me of “The Grapes of Wrath” with that nostalgic pang of an era gone.

Homer, his son Hud and his grandson, through a now dead second son, Lonnie  (Brandon deWilde), lives on a ranch with house keeper Alma (Patricia Neal) and a few hands. One day a cow falls sick and dies and the veterinarian soon has the entire herd in quarantine under suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease. That is a serious illness, even today. I remember outbreaks in Denmark where loads of cattle got killed on the slightest suspicion of mund-og-klov-syge, as it is called in Danish. It is no joke (my sister’s husbond is a cattle farmer) and for the Bannons it is complete disaster. Their entire life is based on ranching and without cattle there is nothing left. Homer is of the old school and he is watching his entire life’s achievement getting flushed down the toilet. Hud wants to sell the herd before it gets quarantined to get the money and then lease the land to oil drilling. Essentially he shits on all the honor and principles of Homer, which is perfectly in his character. Lonnie admires his granddad, but he also thinks uncle Hud is pretty cool. For him this is a life deciding moment: Does he want the life of the principled and honorable, but doomed grandfather or the cool, rebellious, but ultimately empty life of his uncle?

The doom of the ranch may be the backdrop, but the real drama is the rift between Homer and Hud, each representing opposing worldviews, with Lonnie as the observer in the middle. It is a mean and bitter conflict, all the more so because it is family. It actually hurts to watch, and I suppose that is a quality of the movie.

This may be a western, but it is a modern one. Modern not just in the time it takes place in, but also for the realism. These are not gun slinging cowboys robbing the bank, or a lonesome cowboy on the frontier. No, these are just ordinary people trying to make a living in dusty, dry Texas. In that sense it is a movie that points forward to the realism of the seventies and as such feels well ahead of its time.

Watching “Hud” is not sitting down for a good time, this is not Sunday afternoon watching, but it a rewarding movie with gravity that will make you want to kick Paul Newman and taste the dust of West Texas. It is not my favorite movie, but it is a quality movie and worth watching, definitely.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963)

Jeg elskede dig igår
Even dealt the best cards imaginable, Godard can still mess up a movie.

The Book always promises me heaven when presenting Godard movies, but I have learned the hard way to mistrust it. In the case of “Le Mepris” (Contempt) the factual elements are so promising though, that I dared a little hope. Could it finally be that Godard would give me a movie to make me understand his fame and why movie critics wet themselves over his movies?

This time Godard gives us Brigitte Bardot as his lead actress. That counts for a lot, if for no other reason but the massive sex appeal surrounding her. For those unfamiliar with Bardot, she was the hottest girl of the period. Even in my childhood, in the eighties, when Bardot had turned into a strange cat woman, people talked about her with awe and in the “Le Mepris” we see why. Godard miss no opportunity to show her off to her best advantage, with or without cloth.

We also get a movie, ostensibly, about making movies, with Fritz Lang as himself and lots of references to other, famous movies. There are plenty of shots and talk about the movie making process and even some jokes about the pretentiousness of making art movies. This should be good.

Colors are beautiful, music is great. Actually better than just great. What could go wrong?

Well, incredible as it sounds it all comes to nothing.

First of all there is no plot and hardly a narrative. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a French writer who has moved to Italy with his pretty wife Camille Javal (Bardot), a typist, to write screenplays. He is meeting with an American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), who wants him to rewrite a script for his new movie, a movie on the Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang as himself. Jeremy is an arrogant womanizer and Paul casually throws Camille into his arms. Camille is hurt by this and for the major part of the movie they have an ongoing slow-burn argument going on about it.

The argument is largely pointless, based on (deliberate) misunderstanding and selfishness, throwing in some clichés about men not understanding women and vice versa. Finally, they go to Capri where the discussion continues and ends with Camille walking out on Paul together with Jeremy.

It is dull, pointless and stupid. I lost interest after 10 minutes and it never picked up. Yes, Bardot has a pretty butt and yes, it is nice to see Fritz Lang, but, really, what is the point? Watching people have silly arguments over whether they love each other is neither profound nor interesting, it is not even dramatic, just immensely juvenile.

Godard is also wading around in stereotypes. Jeremy Prokosch is maybe the worst as an arrogant, self-indulgent American producer, the image a European would have of a such. He is totally disconnected from his surroundings if it wasn’t for his translator Francesca (Giorgia Moll), yet he acts as the man in charge. Paul has to be the quintessential screenwriter, always wearing a hat and with ambitions of something else and Lang has to be the auteur with disdain for his script and his producer. It makes me wonder If I have been watching a satire, ironizing over the world of moviemaking, but if so, it is a wry and dull satire and certainly not a fun one.

The ending, I was told, would be shocking. I could not wait for that jolt to shake me out of my stupor, but alas, it was entirely as pointless as the rest of the movie.

As such, Godard managed to take all those promising elements and flush them down the toilet, giving us something as pretentious and empty as what he seems to be criticizing. Pretty girls and luscious colors can never save such a mess. Godard, je n’ai que du mépris pour toi.

Monday, 4 December 2017

8 1/2 (1963)

It is time for yet another Fellini movie, this time “8½” from 1963.

I have been lackluster at best when it comes to Fellini’s movies, so it may not say much, but I think “8½” is the best of his movies so far. Or maybe I have just gotten used to these Italian movies and lowered my tolerance threshold.

“8½” is a strange movie. One of those that are impossible to describe, you just have to see it. It sounds like a comedy: A director is trying to make a movie, but it is all a big mess. Actors and particularly actresses crowd around him asking him what their parts are, a monstrous spaceship set is being built on a beach, producers, critics and journalists are all jabbering for a attention and in the middle of all this both the mistress and the wife of the director shows up on set. Meanwhile the director has no idea what movie he is going to make, instead he is simply stalling.

This sounds familiar, as if at least parts have been used in other comedies, and it sounds hilariously funny, but in “8½” the angle is different, sort of. It is undeniable that there is a bitter humor to this, but Fellini tries to play it a lot deeper. His director, Guido, (Marcello Mastroianni) wants to make a movie about himself (with a spaceship!) and it seems as if Fellini wanted to make a movie about himself, making a movie about himself. Yet, Guido is more lost than we must hope Fellini ever was. He is constantly searching and in doubt. He seeks out women and cannot let them go again, something to do with his childhood supposedly, and that is both causing him endless trouble, but also make him look sad. Except that most of these women are phenomenally beautiful: Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele just to mention some of them. To me he reminds me of a child who ate too many cookies and got a bad stomach pain.

Guido is clearly stranded in his life, groping for meaning and answers. In his mind his dreams play out as surrealist movies, but they rarely provide any answers. The opening sequence with a man trapped in a car in a giant traffic jam only to finally break out and fly away, seems symptomatic for Guido. He is trapped in his life and in his role as a successful director.

So we have this odd combination of a setting that is clearly, outrageously so, comedic, and a story that is a lot more profound and even sad. It is both somewhat confusing and rewarding as if Fellini is using comedy to tell a serious story, or is making fun of his own problems.

Without revealing too much I think it is safe to say that the situation spirals out of control and when Guido finally finds release he has all the characters dance in a chain resembling the divine comedy, a fatalistic surrender to life as it is, accepting it instead of fighting it. Supposedly the right morale to draw from this.

The mix of normality and surreal dream sequences is inspired. They work very well to give us glimpses of Guido’s thoughts and they are all hilarious to watch, especially the harem scene. Ironically Guido’s reality is catching up with his dreams and is getting even more surreal than what his mind can concoct. I have more trouble with all the Italian craziness, of everybody shouting and throwing up their arms, but that is what you are in for, watching Italian movies.

Wikipedia writes that “8½” is now considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. I doubt I would go that far. Let me stick to “one of the greatest Fellini films of all time”.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Passenger (Pasazerka) (1963)

Back on the List I am continuing on the depressive strain to late. This time with the Polish movie “Pasazerka” (Passenger), a movie that largely takes place in Auschwitz. That, more or less, sets the tone.

“Passenger” is an odd movie in the sense that it is unfinished. The director Andrzej Munk died during the shooting of the movie and the end-product is a combination of footage and stills with a narrator filling the gaps. It therefore feels like half movie, half documentary about the movie. It is strange and I cannot say that worked very well. It certainly made me focus more on the process of making the film than the story of the film.

The story also drowns in the subject matter. Any movie featuring a death camp will overwhelm the viewer with the enormous tragedy of millions of people being systematically killed, and for the few who are not being killed outright, total degradation. I personally have a hard time with Holocaust movies and this one pressed exactly the wrong buttons for me. In one scene we see a large group of children walking into a gas chamber, completely oblivious to their imminent death, some holding hands with nurses guiding them there. Then a German guard prepares the poisonous gas, with no second thought for what he is doing. I felt like puking.

I have been to Theresienstadt, mostly because my wife’s great-grandparents were killed there, and that was bad enough. A real death camp I could not visit. It would be too much.

Somewhere there is a story, but I am not really sure about it. We follow a woman, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) who is a guard, an overseer, with SS tags and all. On a boat trip she sees a woman she thinks is a woman from her past and so she tells her ignorant husband an edited version of her past, something about that she saved that woman’s life in Auschwitz. Later we get the honest story which is something about that Liza and that woman, Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) waged a mental war of supremacy on each other.

This is where I had to let go of the story. I simply have no idea what this conflict was about and how it played out. It also seems of very little consequence with the pictures of all that misery around them. We see the barracks where the prisoners live, we see naked women being chased though the camp, we see prisoners play music for the staff and we watch endless columns of people walking to their death. Who cares about a story about a guard and a prisoner fighting for mental supremacy?

“Passenger” won awards in Cannes and, I think, Venice, but I think that was more for the subject matter than the quality of the film itself. A half-finished film with an obscure conflict? No, it is the pictures from Auschwitz that matters. Those are pictures I remember.

Frankly, I just want to move on to the next movie.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Charade (1963)

Off-List: Charade
The first of the off-List movies I have selected for 1963 is “Charade”. Thank you, Bea, for reminding me of this movie. It is not only a good pick for a movie that should have been on the List, it is also exactly what I need in a stream of otherwise depressive movies.

“Charade” was recommended to me by my parents-in-law about a year and a half ago and we watched it together back then. I remember wondering why this movie was not on the List when so much garbage seem the clutter the early sixties part of the List, so I started to look for flaws. Strangely enough I found almost none. Almost, because there is a bit of aging to this movie, but viewed in context with other 1963 movies the flaws are negligible. Here on second viewing I am even happier about it. This is movie that truly makes me smile.

“Charade” is a Byzantine maze of hidden identities and scams, an everbody-against-everybody, a free for all to get the coveted prize of 250.000$.

Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American socialite in France. She is vacationing in the Alps with her friend when she is approached, apparently innocently, by Peter Johua (Cary Grant). Upon returning to Paris her husband is dead and their apartment entirely empty. Turns out Reggie knew practically nothing about the late Mr. Lampert and all he has left her is a travelling back with four different passports and a letter that her dentist appointment has been rescheduled.

In this moment of need Peter reappears and helps her get back on her feet. Only, he is not alone. No less than four other men shows up, including a CIA man, Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), with a keen interest in her, her husband and an awful lot of money that he was supposed to have, but nobody can find.

What we learn over the following events is that very few are what they claim to be. One character in particular changes identity four times in the course of the movie! There are also very few limits to the extent these people will go to get the money, including murder. The confusion and mystery make for perfect ingredients both for comedy and suspense and “Charade” plays both horses very well. The comedy is largely borne by Grant and Hepburn. Grant for simply being his usual character (think Thornhill in “North by Northwest) and Hepburn for being, well, her typical character, somewhere in between “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Roman Holiday”. The ping-pong dialogue between these two is a reminiscent of the 1930’ies screwball comedy and it mostly work, though Grant’s lines misfires occasionally.

Where Peter Joshua is the jovial character, the three stooges, Scobie (George Kenedy), Tex (James Coburn) and Gideon (Ned Glass), are the sinister types that brings danger to the mix. The suspense largely comes from their side when they try to force a solution. Yet, maybe there is an outside player who is even worse…

Beside handling both comedy and suspense very well, “Charade” has an excellent pace, that keeps you seated and engaged throughout and, not least, tons of charm. A remake was made in 2002 (“The Truth About Charlie”) that goes only for the suspense element and in the process loses all the charm of the original. That one cannot be recommended.   

Of course there is a credibility issue. I doubt anybody would have handled herself as cool as Reggie does and I doubt State Treasury employee’s would go to those extents to bring back money, an army of lawyers would be more realistic, but that is not the point. In the world “Charade” takes place in, this story is completely credible, and we would not have it any other way.

“Charade” is a wonderful good time. It is an excellent opportunity to watch some of the best actors and actresses of the period do their thing and it is a travesty that this movie is not on the List.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Cool World (1963)

En by i New York
“The Cool World” is a movie about gangs in Harlem, but about as far removed from “West Side Story” as it is possible to get. Instead of glamour, color and dancing, we get grit, misery and despair, but also the coolest soundtrack imaginable.

Apparently there was a trend in the beginning of the sixties, likely inspired by the French new wave, to make attempts at filming reality, or to make fiction films in an environment as real as possible. This is something that happened far from the big studios and often at a fraction of their budgets, which both gave the freedom to do things differently, but also made them technically inept. There are quite a few on them on the List and “The Cool World” is one such movie.

It was difficult to find much information about the movie, the Wikipedia page is very thin, so I do not know much of the background for the movie. My guess is that this was intended as a movie about growing up in Harlem, underprivileged, poor and exposed to all the rough sides of life. It is fiction, but it looks real. Filming is clearly on location and the actors do not seem like actors at all, but locals being more or less themselves. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but I strongly suspects this is so.

We follow 15 year old Duke (Hampton Clanton), who is a petty thief with dreams of being a gang boss. He admires an older gangster called Priest (Carl Lee) and run some errands for him. At one point Priest asks Duke to keep his gun for him, while he is otherwise engaged. This fuels Duke’s dreams of reviving a gang, “Royal Pythons” and go after another gang, “The Wolves”. As he returns the gun his head is filled with thoughts of getting his own gun. He sets up the gang, get his own gang girl and prepare for the rumble.

As the rumble approaches however, he starts thinking that there is more to life than this. He sees what happens to junkies, his girl, LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez) makes him think of a different life and when Priest is killed he is seriously disturbed. Alas the rumble is unavoidable and ends poorly.

I was unable to find a proper copy of this movie. It is available on YouTube, but the quality is horrendous. Smeared pictures and poor sound quality combined with a very on-location feel makes it often difficult to figure out what is going on and understand the dialogue. That is a shame, really, because it is an interesting movie and I would love to watch a restored version.

While I often got lost in the actual story I had no problem following the scenery. The pictures from Harlem are filled with misery and poverty. There is a quiet despair in these pictures that sometimes explodes in violence or rage, but there is also defiance and an insistence on getting the best out of things. This is not just an exposé of the slum, but a movie that cares about the people it films. I have never been to Harlem. The few times I have been to New York I never ventured that far north, but somehow I would not be surprised if it did not look much different from this movie.

The real draw of “The Cool World” however is the soundtrack. This is the most awesome Dizzy Gillespie jazz soundtrack imaginable. I love this kind of music. It works perfectly with the scenery and the story, but it also works perfectly on its own. This is the kind of music I would put on for myself.

This is a depressing movie, and a very confusing one due to the poor quality, and I am not sure I would want to watch it again, but given a proper restoration this could be a highlight of 1963. If for no other reason than the music.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Blonde Cobra (1963)

Blonde Cobra
The best thing about ”Blonde Cobra” is that it is only 33 minutes long.

Sadly, that is the only good thing about it, I can think of.

“Blonde Cobra” is an experimental film about… I confess, I have no idea. Something about a guy going around in, what he thinks is, funny hats and a narrator telling stories, which he thinks are funny. The two things do not seem to have anything to do with each other, indeed at times the picture disappears entirely.

To me this looks like home video. Some people got high, decided to shoot some footage of each other, then smoked some more and narrated the thing, finally smoked themselves into outer space and edited the excuse for a movie.

The Book calls it a master piece, which makes me think that the editors smoked the same thing. I genuinely like film art. I like when the film media is turned upside down, but this is just stupid. A few years ago the List was revised and space was made for 50 new entries, but “Blonde Cobra” stayed!!! Unbelivable.

I think it is supposed to be funny. At least the narrator thinks so. It is also supposed to be provocative and very gay. Awesome, give me something gay and provocative and fun to boot. This is none of those things. Ah, yes, it is gay, I will give it that, but the lewd stories are so infantile that it does not count as provocative, merely of someone who could use some help battling his inner demons and maybe grow up a bit.

I also have to confess that have little idea what happened the last five minutes of the film. I had started looking into getting a new credit card and was wondering why my digital signature was not working any more…

For gay humor I prefer “Öresunds visan”. You may require subtitles, but it is largely self-explanatory.

Thank you, editors of the List, for wasting my time. I will add this to my list of Top 5 Useless Movies on the List.