Saturday, 28 September 2013

Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937)

Den Store Illusion
This week my DVD player in my laptop finally called it the day after several weeks of being quarrelsome. That is a total bummer. I really like to watch the movies with my headset on and really get immersed. Alas, it is back to the big ol’ television, the sofa and the ever present risk of falling asleep.

Not so with this movie on though. “La Grande Illusion” is one of the better films of the thirties and one I have no problem staying awake for. This is the second time I see it and whereas I was totally excited the first time I am a bit less blown away this time round. And no blaming the television. I have some problems pointing my finger at what was less good this time, it is still a very good film, but maybe I have just started noticing some flaws. Or what I would consider flaws.

On the surface “La Grande Illusion” is a war/prison camp film. A theme used relentlessly in cinema since. The film has hardly opened before we find our leads in captivity and from then on it is all about escape. Curiously, considering the enthusiasm for escaping, the prison camps are not really that bad. These are for officers and due to parcels sent from home the French prisoners even eat better than their guards and spend their time gardening or setting up a cabaret show. Certainly not KZ fare. Yet escape plans flourish so our prisoners end up in a max security prison which is actually a medieval castle on a mountain and the story climax with a spectacular escape.

See, that does not sound that interesting, does it? In fact it seems a bit cliché or even boring.

Well, it is actually quite entertaining, but that is because this is not really the story at all. The actual story is about people and social class. People across social classes and nationalities who happen to be caught up in the great disaster called WWI.

We have Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a lieutenant of working class origin, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish lieutenant of wealthy background and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic captain. Three people who outside the war and probably even outside the prison camps would have had nothing to do with each other. Each of them has a “natural” dislike and certainly distrust for each other, but in this environment of being imprisoned those class terms break down. Not so that they disappear, oh no, they never forget who they are, but they get behind the surface of each other and see that what is beneath is not a stereotype but a real human being with qualities that may be inherent to their background, but is for the good, not to be scoffed at. Maréchal is loyal, persistent. Rosenthal is resourceful and generous. And Boeldieu turn the aristocratic honor into a commitment to group when he makes the ultimate sacrifice.

On a technical level the film starts out with the characters playing their types, but as the film progresses the types get blurred and they are, not reduced, but elevated into men. The war setting is simply the catharsis the characters have to go through to realize their true potential. Jean Gabin is the naturalistic actor representing the common class, whereas Pierre Fresnay is quite the opposite. He is affected and studied and looks and speaks as if he was on a stage. Seeing them together in the same scenes their acting style clashes so they seem almost badly casted, but it serves well to highlight their fundamental class differences.

On the German side we find a number of wooden henchmen. Exact, disciplined soldiers who are just that. At least to all appearances. And then we have von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). He is an aristocratic officer who meets Maréchal and Boeldieu twice. First when they are taken captive and secondly he is the commander of the prison fortress. Von Rauffenstein and Boeldieu belong to the same class and live by the same code. In that sense their relationship goes beyond borders so that it almost seems as if Rauffenstein and Boeldieu are together against the mob rather than at war with each other. This is the sentiment at their first meeting, but at their second meeting it is different. While Boeldieu has evolved out of his type Rauffenstein has not. Rauffenstein with his corset (due to a war injury), stiff manners and bleak medieval fortress is a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. He does not understand what has happened to Boeldieu and so he represents the past as Boeldieu is, or at least give way to, the future. The future in this case is the worker and the Jew who get a shot at building a future across borders, social as well as national borders.

It was a scoop that Renoir got Stroheim to play von Rauffenstein. I have said it before; he is a horrible director but an excellent actor. Stroheim happened to be in Paris at the time and agreed to play the part and as the story went even helped develop the character. Stroheim IS the Germanic aristocrat to the bone. Only problem was that his German was actually miserable. Whenever he speaks German he does so with a horrible American accent, which he tries to drown out by mumbling. Not good. Also from time to time he switches to English, which I did not entirely understand. His character speaks perfect French, so I did not really see the need. One possibility might be as a reference to their social class. Being able to speak English with Boeldieu separated them from the rabble.

Actually the language part was an asset to this film. French speak French, Germans speak German and English speak English and all do so (with the exception of von Stroheim) fluently and with a natural ease so we believe they are who they are. This is nowhere more so than in the farm house with Elsa (Dita Parlo) and her totally adorable daughter Lotte. Language is used as a barrier, but one that can and should be surmounted. Maréchal understands more from Elsa than he ever learned from the German guards. That is also significant.

Finally a few words about the castle. The castle scenes were filmed at Haut Königsbourg in Alsace, France. It was a contested area between France and Germany for centuries and during WWI actually belonged to Germany. The castle itself is medieval and it is totally awesome. I have been there and I can testify that if you ever knew a quintessential medieval mountain fortress this is it. In fact Alsace is one of the nicest places I know and the wine and food is just excellent… hmmm…I digress… Anyway this is a really cool set.

“La Grande Illusion” may not be one of the greatest war/prison camp movies ever, but it is one on the great humanistic films of all times. I would recommend it any day and it is a good entry into the works of Renoir.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The new edition

The New Edition
A new edition of ”1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” is out as I think most readers of this blog is already aware of. That has a bit of an impact on this page as well.

First of all around 50 new movies were added. I skimmed the list and some look interesting, some look bland and already I get the impression we got a few of “How-the-hell-did-that-one-make-the-list?” entries. Meanwhile I am looking in vain for a number of my favorite films. Ah, well.

For the first time a revision does not simply add a bunch of films to the rear part of the list, the end which will only be a concern for me in some 15+ years from now, but sprinkle the goodies all over chronology. That means that they actually thought it over this time, but it also mean I will have to go back a bit.

I have been playing catch up on the first 113 films on the List. That was where I started the blog. The next review of “La Grande Illusion” was to finally close that gap. Now I will have to postpone the party as another 10 movies has appeared in the gap. But I am not complaining. We got some very interesting stuff there. Finally a Valentino movie, how on Earth did that miss the first 9 editions? There is a film about the expeditions to Antarctica and my mouth is already watering (or frozen overJ) and “The Lady Vanishes” is there as well, a Hitchcock film I cannot wait to see.

So in the coming weeks I will continue my alternation between progressing chronologically and filling the gap.

A less pleasant consequence of a new list is that I need to update my own list. Chip Lary (thanks, man) has done a great job compiling the new list, but without getting into technicalities a combination of trying to keep my hyperlinks, Blogspot’s ridiculous formatting capabilities and a totally inadequate upload speed from my home office means that my list ended up butt ugly. I have been cursing it for the last 30 hours, but it will have to do until I get to a better connection so I can upload the list in one go. I apologize, but promise it will only be for the next 3 weeks.

With a new English edition out I tried to find out what will happen in the Danish edition. Well, there will not be any. In fact it looks as if my book was the only edition ever released. I was a bit surprised to learn that and I still find it hard to believe, but at least it makes it easy for me to compile a list of Danish additions.

Anyway, plenty of interesting movies coming up.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Laura (1944)

Today’s film is Laura. A film I, as is mostly the case from this part of the list, knew almost nothing about going into it. And again a film for which I had no expectations turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

“Laura” is at the surface a murder mystery, but includes a number of deeper elements that moves it from the trivial to the special. Well, trivial is a bit harsh. It is actually an interesting murder mystery, an excellent whodunit which a number of candidates to pick from.

“Laura”, the title character, played by Gene Tierney, is a young and pretty career woman who has been found murdered. We are presented with an acerbic and rich journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who has taken Laura under his wing as a mentor, a young, handsome (and pretty useless) playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) who were supposed to get married to Laura next Thursday, Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who also has some sort of relationship with Shelby and finally Bessie (Dorothy Adams) the maid who found the body. All of these people have a relationship and a motive to kill Laura and we learn about Laura as they are interrogated by the police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). All of them adore her. All of them could have killed her. But who did it? And was it really Laura who died?

The dialogue driven plot revealing hitherto unknown aspects of the characters seems to be typical of the period and in “Laura” it is very well done. We really get to see these people. The scariest, but also most entertaining of them must be Waldo Lydecker. He is an arrogant ass. Initially he is most unsympathetic as he spits venom left and right, but then we get to see a more caring and passionate side of him. As he describes Laura in loving terms we even forgive him and get to like him until we realize that this care has become obsessive. He treats her not as a lover but as a narcissistic mother would. Everything is about him and he runs her life as if he was her and so she can and must focus all her interest on him. Like a mother he keeps her in a bondage of guilt. She must be grateful for all he does for her and when he sabotages all her relationships to other men it is for her sake, to protect her. As the story progresses we get to see even more of this demented man, but I will not reveal too much here.

Clifton Webb had played silent films before and was quite a name in musicals on the stage, but this was his first sound film. It gave him a name and he was forever typecast as the acerbic old gentleman. It is a fascinating character and Webb does it really well. Some of his lines are pure genius, the kind of things I would love to be able to say in a pinch, but which I thankfully is too inhibited to actually say. His first lines to Laura in the restaurant are pure gold.

Another character worth mentioning is Ann Treadwell. If you wonder where you saw her before then think of “Rebecca”. Yes, Judith Anderson was Mrs. Danvers, the demonic housekeeper on Manderley! As Treadwell she is very different. Distinguished and brittle, but also vain and pathetic. And her motive to kill Laura is so thick! When I looked her up I found out that she even had a part in a Star Trek movie. How is that for range!

Dana Andrews as the police detective McPherson is a key character who ties together the story. We learn of Laura and her life as he hears of it and we know no more than he does (mostly). Therefore he is our representative. For that part Andrews was a good pick. Both character and actor exudes integrity. We saw that in “The Ox-bow Incident” and it is no less here. Until a certain point. McPherson apparently falls in love with Laura. On the surface that is deeply unprofessional and to begin with it annoyed me. It seems like such a Hollywood cliché. The policeman and the leading lady always make for a romantic interlude. Blahh… In this case however it serves a purpose. An underlying theme is the unwitting girl who leads men and to some extent women into disaster through allure, envy and fascination. A theme previously explored in “Die Büchse der Pandora” with Louise Brooks as the girl. Following that theme it seems logical that also the policeman must be drawn into her net.

That leaves us with Laura herself. From the stories, reactions and emotions of her surroundings she must be quite an icon. There is a huge painting of her in the apartment (actually a brushed-over photography) presenting her as a goddess. What in image to fill! Gene Tierney is pretty, but if there is a tiny thing I am unhappy with in this film it is her. Maybe fashions have changed, I do not know, but she is no Louise Brooks or Laurel Bacall for that matter. I found her a bit unexceptional. The most interesting thing about is her character. Despite the pedestal everybody places her upon she is actually a modern career woman who wants to fend for herself, make her own choices and fulfill professional rather than romantic ambitions. Almost as if they got the wrong girl. Is that on purpose? If so they chose well in picking Gene Tierney. But for an unwitting seductress she is rather pedestrian.

I like this movie a lot more than I expected and it is one of those films you can see again and find more interesting elements. The DVD version comes with excellent commentaries and I much recommend listening to them. Fascinating stuff. Is it film noir? Maybe. There are a lot of noir elements. But noir is not an objective in itself, but a means to get there and in terms of elegance, darkness and secret agendas this film has plenty.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)

Ye Ban Ge Sheng
“Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is the first Chinese entry on the list. The English subtitle is “Song at Midnight” and it is a Chinese version of the phantom of the opera story.

“Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is a celebrated film in China. A Chinese colleague of mine told me it is well known and still aired regularly by Chinese television. A revered piece of art. I therefore hope that any Chinese readers will forgive me when I say that it did not really work out for me.

The story is interesting enough. The original phantom story has been transplanted to China which is interesting in itself, but also the motivations and the plot has been changed. The monster is no longer a jealous lover, but a caring lover who got disfigured by a local feudal kingpin who felt fingered in a political play and wanted the actor’s lover. As a result Sun Dangpin did not want to let Xiaxiao see his now hideous face so he feigned dead and became the ghost. He still sings for at night in the garden and Xiaxiao, who never stopped loving him is going out of her mind. Okay, freaky, but interesting.

Now 10 years later a new theater troupe has arrived at the theater with a lead actor of limited skill but good looks. He is also called Sun by the way. Dangpin decides to coach him to become a star. In return he must go to Xiaxiao and become a physical lover for her. Of course it does not really work out and that resolution is quite interesting to follow.

Having said all that I am having some difficulty with this film. Obviously this is a Chinese film with a lot of Chinese sentiments permeating it. I find it at times difficult to understand what or why the characters are doing what they seem to be doing and a lot of the remarks, exclamations and emotional outbursts seem to happen out of nothing. I am sure a Chinese would be more attuned to this and so my criticism may be unfair. However the worst damage to the movie are technical issues.

Man, I do not even know where to begin. Everything technical about this film is abysmally poor. While the acting quality, which to my inexpert eye is amateurish, may be explained by cultural differences, there is no way to excuse the rest.

The copy I have is in very bad preservation. Yet behind the flicker and noise it is clear (or unclear) that the cutting technique is poor both in the picture that often jumps or shifts abruptly and in the sound that appears and disappears, vary in strength and is often distorted. This includes the curious effect of people taking with no sound. It is mentioned in the Book that the film has adopted light and shadow techniques from the German expressionists, but I think they just mean shadow as the entire film is presented in a dark haze where it is often not possible to see anything.
The film combines a number of Chinese elements with western elements. They young actor is thus very “western” – read: modern in his cloth and style, he plays classic Spanish guitar music and the plays look very… French. Obviously the film juxtapositions traditional and western elements as a conflict between old and new. Unfortunately this includes the soundtrack. Western music is often used or abused thematically in a way that is almost comical. Bach’s Air as the melancholy of Sun Dangpin or a track when the young actors girlfriend undresses that almost sounds like boudoir seduction music, although she is just changing between acts. The biggest laugh however was the final climactic scenes where The Sorcerer's Apprentice  was used as theme. I know Fantasia was only made a few years later, but really, I could not help seeing Mickey Mouse fighting a lot of brooms and water. Indeed the scene with the cripple barring the door of the angry mob is so similar to Mickey trying to stop the demonic brooms from entering the gate. Unfair, I know, but what can I do?

The biggest issue I have with “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” is not even the fault of the movie itself. It is the subtitling.

Anybody who has been to China must agree with me that the Chinese have a very relaxed, even sloppy relationship with English. It is often even worse than my English. The phenomenon is often called Engrish and results in some very peculiar texts (try Google Engrish). I actually love this and have a large collection from my trips to China. Even large corporations use English translations that sound absurd. Often the explanation is that it is not aimed at foreigners at all, but because the Chinese thinks it sounds cool. When it comes to technical writing or subtitles for films it starts getting really annoying though. This is not about coolness, but about using automatic translation. Google Translate and similar services are NOT for subtitles. Yes, it is funny in the beginning, but when you start getting confused because you just have no idea what these people are trying to say to each other then the film loses value. This was a case in the extreme.

Beneath all these technical difficulties is a movie of some quality and I am sure I would be more positive if I obtained a good copy with proper subtitles, but even then it is clear that in 1936 Chinese cinema was far behind many other countries. At this time Mizuguchi made films of much higher quality in Japan for example.  

As it is you would probably get the best experience with “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” if you ignore the story and the actors as such and just focus on the ridiculous subtitles. If they do not annoy you, you might actually find them funny.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

To Have and Have Not (1944)

At Have og Ikke Have
Usually I can and do find faults with almost any film. Not because they necessarily are bad, but because that is just the nature of things. There is always something good and something less good. However this time with “To Have and Have Not” I cannot find any faults with this film. Or rather, I will not find any faults. In my eyes this film is perfect. I love it, as simply as that.

What makes this film so perfect is the pairing of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Steve Morgan and Lauren Bacall as Marie “Slim” Browning. Individually they steal the scenes. Together the burn the celluloid. I cannot think of a Hollywood pairing as hot as these two. Humphrey Bogart is more man than most can ever dream of being. Tough on the outside, mushy on the inside and very very competent at whatever he is doing, which in this case is handling a boat, line fishing, handling the local authorities and incidentally treating gunshot wounds. Lauren Bacall need no competence, she is presence enough on her own. She is of course drop-dead gorgeous, but different from most of her contemporaries. Although in many ways “To Have and Have Not” links back to “Casablanca” Bacall is really what makes it different. Where Bergman is a submissive type, caught up in conflicting interests and unable to let go, Bacall is the opposite. Bacall’s characters in general and “Slim” in particular create their own world. She does not submit, but make the stage and people on it submit to her. Not like a bulldozer or with manipulations, but by sheer presence. She is there and she takes control and put her together with a man who got his act together we get a worthy tango. That dance, played out through the entire length of the film is 80% of “To Have and Have Not” and I need no more than that.

Take the “whistle scene” for example. Who is in control? Bacall? Bogart? Well, she is calling the shots, but he is dancing along and when she says “You do know how to whistle, don’t you” and give him that sultry look, we know something extraordinary may happen in that bedroom and Bogie you are the luckiest guy in the world. And he knows it.

The story itself, yes there is a story and it is a worthy one, was written by Hemmingway. Howard Hawks boasted that he could turn the worst of Hemmingway’s junk into a successful movie and chose “To Have and Have Not”. The story he actually shot however was heavily modified, from criminals on Cuba to La Resistance on Martinique. The Roosevelt administration did not want to insult it neighbors, there was sort trouble enough as it was with a war going on, but the Vichy collaborators on Martinique was another matter and very handy when you need some bad guys: French AND nazi collaborators. Ah, that is not really fair. La Resistance are the heroes of the story and while they are described as a bunch of amateurs they fight with honor and integrity and in the end do make an impact on a self-sufficient Captain Morgan.

In this story Bogart is again an expat in enemy controlled land, this time making a living as a captain of a fishing boat taking wealthy clients fishing for big game. Again Bogart is strictly neutral. He complies with the rules to avoid trouble and in this way stays under the radar. All very Casablanca. His toughness is first demonstrated with his client, a Mr. Johnson (Walter Sande), who is trying to avoid paying for two weeks of fishing, while his soft side is demonstrated by his care for Eddie (Walter Brennan), his generally useless assistant on the boat. To begin with I was a bit annoyed with Eddie. What was the use of this character? Bogart does not need a funny sidekick. But Eddie is like a child to Captain Morgan, part of his luggage and a representation of his caring side. Without Eddie Morgan would have been too harsh a character.

Three things happen to Captain Morgan simultaneously that changes his life:

“Slim” Browning walks into his life. Do they know each other? Probably not. But they fit so well it seems they go way back. “Slim” is a wanderer and now she is stranded on Martinique apparently without money. While we get to know very little of her past it is hinted that there is stuff there she would rather forget. She is in other words as homeless as Morgan, staying on a hotel in enemy territory. The two of them take an immediate interest in each other although they are loath to admit it.  

Secondly Morgan is contacted by La Resistance. They urgently need him and his boat. Morgan has no interest in this certain source of trouble and persistently rejects them until the third incident. Johnson gets killed by a stray bullet before he gets to pay Morgan and whatever funds Morgan has are confiscated by the mean looking police inspector Captain Renard (Dan Seymour) leaving Morgan broke. Several members of the cell who tried to employ Morgan die in the attempt at contacting him and a combination of these events persuades Morgan to act. In Casablanca it was a woman begging him, here it is brutal circumstance.

Once involved Morgan is committed and “Slim” rather than trailing along is his companion. It turns out Morgan is pretty good at this line of business indicating that he too has a past better left alone. His expert knowledge of gunshot wounds is testimony of that.

An indication of the strength of Bacall and her character are the scenes with Helene de Bursac (Dolores Moran). She is one of the two Resistance people Morgan has to pick up. Originally she was supposed to have a larger role as a potential romantic interest for Morgan, but pretty as the might be, she is a dwarf next to Bacall and “Slim” eats that kind of women for breakfast. Hawks wisely reduced her role. Where she faints at the sight of the gun wound, “Slim” is entirely cool and makes herself useful. No one needs to carry her around.

If you are still not convinced check out Bacall with the band in the hotel bar. To excellent jazz accompaniment Bacall sings her way into the pants of everybody there. That deep sultry voice, wow. Bogie, you were a very very lucky fellow.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Things to Come (1936)

Krigen Der Kommer
Most movies have some positive and some negative attributes. At least I usually find a bit of both in most I have seen. What is special about “Things to Come” is the extremity of these attributes. This is at the same time a horrible film and a grand visionary work. Confused? Well, you ought to be, if not, just watch the film and you will be.

Let us start on the negative side, shall we?

The form of storytelling in this film is very disjointed. There are 3 chapters (1940, 1966-70 and 2036) “tied” together by vignettes of what happens in between. The three stories are too short to really get anywhere and the characters presented bump in and out of the film before we really get to know them. There is an attempt at connecting the characters, at least by their names, but it does not really work. Character-wise it is a story that goes nowhere. Instead the aim of the film is to tell the story of mankind in the framework of historical progression. In that much bigger picture the characters are merely representatives of types and drown out individually. Anybody who has read the works of Edward Rutherfurd will know how this can be done successfully, but the concept does not translate well to the screen. The problem for the viewer is confusion and sadly boredom.

Secondly the acting is terrible. It is done in a proclaiming style that would have made Shakespeare green of envy. Even on a stage this would have been over the top but in a movie you get that very clear impression that the characters are giving speeches for the camera. The villain of the second chapter, the Chief (Ralph Richardson), is the only one who manage to act as if he is in a film and not at a political meeting. In the other end of the spectrum we have John/Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) who always speaks like a lecturer with his gaze into the horizon, full of pathos and ideology. That may suit his character, but it makes him absolutely intolerable and, well, he is our hero.

On the other hand “Things to come” is one of the first real science fiction films around. Together with “Metropolis” it helped define the science fiction movie lending us a number of concepts and visions that we are still in debt of.

As a fable of the future it is particularly interesting, especially when compared with “Metropolis”. “Things to come” sets up a conflict between the barbaric human nature that drags us down and back and on the other side civilization in the form of science, where science is both the tool and the target that can and will take humanity to Utopia. Man will have to go through a catharsis process that break down everything and take us to the brink of destruction before we are ready to embrace the light and live under the rule of science, logic and reason. In this view the barbarism is still vivid in memory from WWI and indeed the second chapter looks a lot like a WWI battle field with craters, ruins, machineguns, gas and pointless death. We even get the pestilence reminiscent of The Black Death and the Spanish flu (which raged the world near the end of WWI). In the thirties war was already brewing again and as usual all preparations were for the previous war. That Wells choose 1940 as the breakout of war was quite remarkable, but considering all the signs he was seeing he would probably have gotten it right +/-2-3 years anyway. It is however remarkable that he envisioned the war as a catharsis event. Even though the real WWII only lasted 6 years and not 25 years, the destruction was comparable and it did lead to United Nations and at least the idea that conflict should be avoided. The EU can be seen as a “Wings over the World” project that has worked remarkably well, built on the idea that integration and progress (well, economical progress) will prevent another war.

Science is the solution in “Things to come”. This reflects a very positivistic world view that was developed in the western world since Descartes and which reached a highpoint around the turn of the century. In those first decades of the 20th century the positivistic view cracked in a number of places, but in Britain the scientist/explorer/engineer was for long revered as a modern day knight, carrying the torch of progress. A view that only really got a blow with the nuclear bomb. In Germany, traditionally the most technocratic of all nations, Lang already envisioned the dark side of technology in the twenties with “Metropolis”. There technology and machinery keeps people in bondage and reduce humanity to slaves. Science is a tool for abuse. Chaplin took up the torch in “Modern Times”, but was to some extend ignored. Compare that with the shining future of mankind in “Things to Come”. Nobody does physical labor, machinery is colored in a bright palette and it serves to help us, not the other way. Despite the horrors in “Things to Come” it is fundamentally an optimistic film.

Yes, there is a rebellion in the last act and it does remind of the rebellion in “Metropolis”. People are rebelling against Big Brother who is ruling their lives. But where in “Metropolis” the rebellion is a just rebellion against tyranny, the rebellion in “Things to come” is a warning that no matter how advanced we get there will always be resentment and those who seek to take power through violence. The mob is misguided and must be turned or at least prevented from doing damage to progress.

A curious detail is that the solution in “Things to Come” is a new –ism. In a period in history full –isms; socialisms, communism, nazism, fascism, liberalism and what not, “Wings over the World” is simply another totalitarian –ism, which like its real counterparts promise a golden future for every like-minded person and a brainwash of everybody else. A procedure fully acceptable in 1936. As virtuous as their intensions and promises are it is still a very singular agenda and it is still processed by force. The difference is that a war-weary population is rather easy to convince.

See, that is a lot of words and thoughts triggered by a terrible film. So, bottom line, is it so bad after all?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Mød mig i St. Louis
No doubt this is one of the CLASSIC film musicals. The fact that I had not seen it before must be ascribed to my general ignorance and my only recent affinity for musicals. Probably everybody else on the planet has seen “Meet me in St. Louis” before.

As with most musicals its asset is the music and in that respect “Meet me in St. Louis” is quite overwhelming. The catchy tunes and evergreens are stacked very high and even the lesser known songs still rummage in the back of my head. “The Trolley Song”, “Meet me in st. Louis, Louis”, “Skip to M y Lou” and of course, the biggest of them all, “Wish You a Very Merry Christmas” and that is just an extract. It is not just that these songs are catchy; they are performed with an exuberance of emotion (usually happiness) which is absolutely contagious. You are happy with the happy songs and sad with the sad songs and always emotionally involved.

The assets extents to the cast and the set. A film with Judy Garland and Mary Astor (Hail Mary!) is already a film I must see. Garland is as iconic to this film as she was to “The Wizard of Oz”, though Astor is a bit more anonymous as the mother of the family. It is however the youngest of the daughters of the family that I will remember when all else has faded from memory. Margaret O’Brien as little Tootsie is a gem. She is a firecracker, a disaster zone, a bandit and the cutest little girl you can imagine. She reminds me of Calvin of the “Calvin and Hobbs” cartoons. In a film where everybody are tied to their type and role she is the maverick who really says what she thinks, does what she want and express her emotions in an entirely unpretentious manner. Not surprisingly she got a special Oscar for that achievement. I want to adopt her right there.

The set is another highlight. This is a reconstruction of 1903 St. Louis filtered with cozy-cozy filters. There are so many details from cloth to furniture to buildings that I never tire of looking at all the stuff there. “Meet me in St. Louis” is in Technicolor and it is so elegantly done that all these many details stand out, not glaringly like in the Wizard or Robin Hood, but smoothly and friendly like a painting. It is a pleasure to look at.

Unfortunately this is also more or less where my endorsement ends.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is a girl’s movie in my book. That is not meant as some evil stamp or disqualifying quality, but simply mean that I do not understand it. I feel it is not aimed at me and often it fails to generate the feelings or sympathies it is fishing for while I believe that women in general and the nostalgic minded in particular would be far more receptive to it.

Let me try to explain. This is a family of five children. The only boy is quickly shipped off to college only to return near the end, leaving us with four girls. While the two youngest are too young it seems that the lives of everyone else including mother, maid and grandfather revolves around prospective husbands. That is all there is really. The women all wear these grand costumes, which only get slightly more practical when working in the kitchen, their single diversion from finding, evaluating, luring and dreaming of men. Truly these are princesses and they live on their beautiful castle, their house is no less than that. They speak and act like princesses and, it seems to me, live in a bubble disconnected to the real world. The anchor to reality is their father (Leon Ames), the working husband who has to pay for the menagerie. He is the “king”, yet the women, obviously thinking that his earthly ways is an interruption, frequently keep him out of the loop in the family. He is accepted but ignored. Symptomatic his news of his promotion, added wealth and opportunity for the family is met with rejection and hostility. He should not touch their world and the fact that he is the one that makes it all possible is flatly ignored. The movie itself has chosen side here. We are with the women and supposed to feel that moving away, indeed any change from this paradise on earth is a grave mistake and disaster, which makes this the crisis of the film. I know this is a feel-good musical, but a crisis that I do not even consider a crisis, but an opportunity, is hardly enough to cause drama.

This is a movie that celebrates the home, the old ways, the rosy dreams of marriage and family in an age where everything was better and less confusing, much like modern films use the fifties as the ideal time to have a family. That is all very nice, but it tends to get a little too sweet at times and outside of Christmas season I am not sure I could stomach this again.

The backdrop of “Meet me in St. Louis is the Second World War. This is 1944 and the war is raging all over the world. Women are working in factories. Men are overseas. The future is very uncertain and whatever else it will definitely be different. No wonder in such an environment it is wonderful to bury yourself in the fantasy of a better, simpler and more beautiful age. That I can surely understand

If I could just get the music, the scenery and little Tootsie I would be just fine. That I do not mind at all. Tootsie rules.