Saturday 29 September 2012

La Regle du Jeu (1939)

Spillets Regler
Somehow I have ended up watching a lot of French movies lately. It was not really my intention, it just happened so. Seeing a lot of them makes me attuned in a way that probably makes me like them better than I otherwise would. “La Regle du Jeu” is a movie that I might not have liked as much if I had not been warmed up by those other movies. This one is different however. More modern if you like. I have seen later movies played out over the same theme, but not earlier and the chaotic meandering style seems rather novel for 1939.

True to form Renoir made a political film to expose the pointless and irresponsible life of the aristocracy in France in the late thirties. Where he aims at the middle class in “Boudu saved from drowning” he now goes for the super-rich. The idea is that you bring a bunch of idle rich people together and then we see how stupid they are and we can feel good about ourselves.

Well, this is the analysis I read. My own impression is a little different. We are introduced to a number of people who are all somehow involved with someone else and usually not their official partner. In fact their relationships are so confusing and complicated that only an hour into the movie did I have a reasonable idea of how they are all connected. This part is a bit on the boring side and frankly I am not really into movies about complicated relations. But then they all get together for a big party at La Coliniere, the Chateau of Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest. The movie now takes a turn and explodes in a hilarious disaster zone as all these relations run crazy while the party carries on around them as if nothing had happened, in a way not too different from “Festen”. The culmination is Schumacher, the gamekeeper, hunting down the waiter, former poacher, Marceau with a gun shooting at will among the dancing guests, because Marceau is making out with Schumacher’s frivolous wife. And Christine who in short order gets to declare her love for three different men. This totally changed the movie for me. Instead of being a half boring relationship move this became top class comedy. “The Party”, but with style.

I am not so sure this is as much an exposé of the rich class as a display of a lot of people with serious chaos in their love lives. It seems to me that Renoir is building up all these classy people only to let them meltdown into chaos.

It is curious how childish all these wealthy and important people act. Of course there is a party going on, but they really seem disconnected from any normal life and conventions as if all that is important in their life is their frivolous love lives and snatching each other’s wives and husbands. Lisette, the maid of Christine strongly prefers this life to the ordinary monogamous life with her husband Schumacher. André, the airman, has just broken a new record crossing the Atlantic, yet all he can think of is Christine and the fact she is not there to receive him, disregarding that she is after all married to some other guy. Octave, André’s and Christine’s friend is also in love with Christine and even though he is bringing them together he almost runs away with Christine. Marceau, the poacher who finally became a waiter, the job of his dreams, immediately starts hunting girls (Lisette) and ends up forfeiting his job on that account. And the Marquis himself, he takes it all in stride while he is having a mistress of his own.

Renoir is appearing as Octave and he is doing it quite will. It is more than a simple cameo as Octave is one of the central characters. I am not so familiar with the other actors, but while the setting is crazy the character are very convincing. You actually get to believe that this is the life of the rich and famous. And well, if we are to trust the tabloids it is not so far from the truth.

I read that “La Regle du Jeu” is considered one of the best movies ever, up there with “Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo”. I do not know if I would go that far, but it is certainly entertaining once we get past the first half hour.

Monday 24 September 2012

La Chienne (1931)

La Chienne
This is not a comedy and not a tragedy; there are no heroes and villains, just people: The man, the woman and the other guy.

This is what the puppets at the opening of “La Chienne” tell us about this movie.

Maybe that is so. I prefer other titles: The miserable man, the stupid woman and the asshole.

With such titles it is pretty clear that this is not the happiest of movies and the fate of these people is not kind.

The problem with the movie’s own labels for the characters is that it equalizes them and that seems not fair. Legrand, the man (Michel Simon), is the character I root for. He is a character I can sympathize with because I can share many of his emotions even if he is not particularly likeable. He is the quiet guy. The one who stand back and let life trample him. He is nice to people and honestly believe that if you treat people nicely they will be nice and fair in return. For Legrand however nobody treats him nicely, not his colleagues, not his monster of a wife and certainly not the two other character of the triangle. He finds his solace in his painting, probably not least because his wife hates those paintings. In every other way he is a prisoner in his own life. Until he meets the girl.

Lulu, the girl (Janie Marèze), is hopelessly in love with Dede despite the abuse she suffers from him. She craves him and does everything he asks of her which primarily is to “take care” of other men for his financial gain. He is a pimp and she is a prostitute, except that she does it out of love for Dede. When Legrand thinks he is saving her from Dede and falls in love with her she becomes his lover because Dede orders her to and sees Legrands genuine affection for her as him being an easy mark. Legrand treats her nicely yet it is he she scorns while Dede treats her badly yet it is he she wants. Add on top of it her general attitude which is slow witted and her ambitions which actually match Legrand quite well and you can only reach the conclusion that she does not know what is good for her, that she is, well, simply stupid.

Dede, the other guy (Georges Flamant), is a thoroughly unsympathetic person. He is a pimp, a parasite who lives from other peoples work and trust but only to his own gain. He is obsessed with being the tough guy with all the smart tricks and attitude and is thus not so different from the concurrent American gangster of movies like “Public Enemy” or “Little Cesar”, except there is no inherent fascination with his type in the movie. As a viewer we utterly despise him and that makes Lulu’s infatuation with him so much more tragic and idiotic. I am not saying the film is unbelievable in postulating this relationship, I am sure there are plenty of such relationships out there. Indeed it is part of the entire myth of women swarming over men who look smart and strong, but treat them badly and love them so much more for it, while the ones who treat them nicely are perceived as weak and pathetic. No, the story here is not unbelievable, it just makes us despise her as we despise Dede for not recognizing him for the bad person he is and that he will her nothing good. Dede takes the money Lulu gets from Legrand, he takes the paintings Legrand gave her and sells them. He even creates the fictional painter Clara Wood and claims it is Lulu, but none of the money goes back to Lulu and certainly not Legrand. While Legrand is sucked dry and Lulu is being scorned, slapped and coerced Dede is buying expensive cars and flashy suits and mingles with the rich and influential.

One can easily claim that they all deserve their misfortune, but while Dede gets it through his bad character and Lulu gets it through her stupidity Legrand gets it through misery. That makes a difference. When he meets Lulu he wakes up from the living grave he has been enduring and blossoms late in life. Now he finally tastes something of what it is like to be alive. It is so sweet this new life that he cannot see that Lulu is just exploiting him and when his wife’s real husband shows up he grabs the opportunity to cut the lines to his old life. In a later age he would simply have gotten a divorce, but alas, this is 1931. For Legrand it is a monstrous disappointment to realize that he has been fooled, that all this was just a dream. He simply refuses to believe it. I must say that I do not understand why he kills her, that is taking it a bit far and not really in his character, but it allows Dede to be caught and convicted for it and it allows for Lulu’s punishment for being the bitch (La Chienne) and finally explain why Legrand sinks so deep that he does not build a new life based on his paintings but becomes a hobo roaming the streets at the bottom of society, poor, broken but happy and free.

While I am uncertain of the ending I tend to like this one. It is deep and sad but also very strong. The characters are very clearly defined but not as unrealistic caricatures. Especially Michel Simon is outstanding. Seeing him also in “Boudu saved from drowning” and L’Atalanta” is difficult to believe this is the same person. He is so internal, self-effacing and hunched that he is practically the opposites of those other characters. Only when we finally see him as a hobo in the end has he become Boudu.

I often have a problem with French actors playing smartasses and tough. It just does not work for me. That probably just adds to my impression of Dede as a pathetic crook. His sweet talking and mannerism makes me want to puke and comes out not smart and strong at all. But then again that may be the intention.

Renoir loved to crucify the bourgeoisie and celebrate freedom, but sometimes I think he just likes to torment his characters, King Vidor style.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Movies on a Plane

Movies on a Plane: John Carter
In this post I am breaking my form. This has nothing to do with the 1001-movies-to-see-before-you-die list. Instead I want to share with you my experience from watching movies on a plane.

I have just arrived in Brazil on a job and that is an awful long flight from Europe (13 hours to be precise). There is really not much to do on a plane except for reading, eating and watching the movies the airline offers. Unless you are flying a super cool airline like Cathay Pacific the list of movie could be rather limited and you find yourself watching movies you might not otherwise have been watching. I saw Men in Black III, which was a bit disappointing, Brave, which is a nice if predictable family cartoon and John Carter which is the movie that made me write this post.

I actually like watching movies I have never heard of and thus have no expectations for. Those are the movies that often give me the best impressions. But sometimes the reason I never heard of it is because it is really awful. This is one of those cases. Normally that would not make me write a post on it, but this is so bad it was actually funny.

The movie starts by telling us that Mars is not a sterile planet, but quite livable though dying and currently inhabited by some people fighting a war. Then we see some aircrafts straight out of Star Wars manned by crews resembling pirates/gladiators/romans, well something in between, shooting laser beams and boarding each other in old school pirate style. The movie was not two minutes in and I was already considering switching to another movie.

There is a principle that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional with the breast size of the women, but quite proportional with the amount of cloth they wear. Following that principle “John Carter” is in the extreme low end. While the men are consistently sweating muscular warrior types there is a disproportionally large amount of gladiator women including the female lead, who incidentally later on changes to an even skimpier outfit that makes Princess Lea look overdressed at the sandpit. Add to that a male lead that does not make a lot of sense but act with the bravado of Ash in Evil Dead: Army of Darkness and I think you get the picture.

Speaking of Army of Darkness (which happens to be high on my list) “John Carter” really borrows a lot from it. Ash in Star Wars and throw the logic in the bin and there you have it.

So, John Carter starts out, in 1881, by sending a telegram and a young fellow shows up at his mansion. John Carter has died and the young man is given his diary to read, which is the story of the movie.

That story begins in 1868. John Carter, a cavalry man from Virginia is roaming the frontier hunting a gold treasure. He is an anarchist who breaks out of any prison and hunted by both the cavalry and a group of Apaches he hides in a cave with strange drawings. Toughing them summons a strange person that tries to kill him. John shoots first and grasps a mysterious medallion, which sends him to Mars.

On Mars John Carter is the incarnation of Superman. Courtesy of the low gravity John can jump 100 m high (at least) and swing around big boulders. Obviously the producers confuse gravity and mass. A 100 kg boulder still has the mass and inertia of 100 kg even if the gravity is only a third of Earths.

Immediately upon arrival John Carter sets off the hatching of babies of an alien species and is apprehended by the adult representatives of same. Their leader takes an unexplained interest in him and remains, no matter how hostile John Carter behaves, his protector. The aliens are green, tall and sporting 4 arms. Yeah! John has no clue what they are saying but then he drinks some fluid and they are all speaking English. That is even better than Antonio Banderas in “13th Warrior”, where he sits around the Viking’s bonfire until he suddenly speaks their language. These aliens live in a medieval society with guns carrying some resemblance to the Sand people of Star Wars. John Carter will later single handedly kill several hundred of them with a sword, but they still like him especially after he kills two giant apes in a gladiator arena with a chain. Again taken straight out of Star Wars.

When some planes appear with the traditional pirate boarding scene John jumps up, trashes the planes and saves a girl, who later turns out to be the princess. She is betrothed to a warlord from the competing town and has run away from home. She is also the übersexy heroine who compensates for mediocre acting skills with a voluptuous body.

The rest of the story from this point on is so obvious that I do not even have to elaborate. It is so cliché it is funny. John has been hurt when he lost his wife so he is reluctant to the girl but overcome it. She promises to help him go home but also really could use his super powers to crush the enemy and the enemy of course is controlled by super villains who like Agent Smith can appear out of nothing and defy all natural laws. Though for Carter that is no problem, he knows a lot of tricks. We even get the final moment of the wedding cliché, you know, that most dangerous moment just before the final yes where the wedding is always interrupted. If you want to get married you better hurry through that part.

Nothing really makes sense in this movie, the heroes are super smart, yet do really idiotic things and you can guess the story after 30 minutes. Yet it is so thorough about it that it becomes entertaining. I laughed a lot from all this. The lame one-liners, the psedo-science, the super human achievements and the shear wackiness of it all. And then it is actually based on a novel if you believe it.

Only on a plane! Man oh man oh man.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas
You are who you are. If you try to change it you may just be deceiving yourself.

That may well be the message of “Stella Dallas”.

In a way a rather depressing message. “Stella Dallas” is like a “My Fair Lady” story gone wrong. A woman who wants to be more than a blue collar wife, who wants to get ahead in life and be rich with the rich. But when she gets it she does not fit in that role at all, like a shirt three sizes too big. She is a working class woman with the tastes and manners and talk of a working class woman and no money or dress or husband can take that out of her. She is who she is.

 It is a good movie, but also a painful movie, because we know Stella will be hurt and we know she is deceiving herself. But Stella is also a strong woman and, like it or not, it also takes strength to remain yourself when things go wrong. But mostly Stella is strong because she does not give up. She fights, first for herself and then when she realizes she must sacrifice her own happiness for her daughter to be happy she willingly does that, not as a martyr but as a winner.

Stella, brilliantly played by Barbara Stanwyck, aims high and sets her eyes on the factory manager Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Stephen moves in the higher spheres of society and so represents all Stella aspires to be. Stella becomes Mrs. Dallas and they get a daughter Laurel.

While Stella goes into this with her eyes set on life in society’s upper stratums she soon turns her gaze the other way. The fun she likes is not the refined sort but the vulgar common kind as represented by Ed Munn, a fun but vulgar sort in the extreme, who starts out wealthy, but drops to the deepest abyss of pathetic misery imaginable. Stella prefers his company to Stephens and they get increasingly estranged. When Stephen is promoted to a position in New York Stella stays back with Laurel and so they live till Laurel has grown into a young woman.

Stephens’s old girlfriend, Helen, has been widowed and now lives alone with her three sons. Stephen and Helen start seeing each other and Stella soon realizes she is the third wheel. Her feeble attempt at winning Stephen back is sabotaged by a very drunk Ed Munn and a turkey and she soon sees herself in a competition, not so much with Helen, but with the life Helen and Stephen lead. Laurel is infatuated with Helen and while she loves her mother she also far more readily fits in to their world. On the other hand Stella is like a dog in a bowling game as is made evident on a holiday resort where Stella’s attempt at opulence, aimed at making Laurel proud of her, end up making herself the laughingstock at the resort.

Finally Stella realizes that she is in the way of Laurels happiness, so she schemes to get out of her life. She gets divorced from Stephen so he can marry Helen and places Laurel in their care with the excuse of going away with Ed Munn. Thus a happy family is united without Stella and when Laurel gets married, Stella watches on the street through a window.

We are not really angry with Helen. It is not as if she is imposing herself on Stephen. They just fit so naturally well together and Stephen actually seems to respect that he is still married even though he lives apart from Stella. It is Stella that does not fit into the picture and it is not a matter of being right or wrong, it is just sad.

Which leads us to the director, because who else than King Vidor, the master of painful, fatalistic accept-your-misery films, is behind this one? He did “The Crowd”, which have some common themes with Stella Dallas. In both cases aiming high just means that you fall deeper and you only get really satisfied when you accept your role in life and sacrifice yourself for your loved ones.

I do not think Stella Dallas is a movie I will go back to very often. Stanwyck is good and there are funny scenes though mostly bittersweet because it is usually the pathetic Ed Munn who is behind them, but the prevailing sadness really takes a special mood to see it. The final scene with Stella watching her daughter’s wedding though a window is heartbreaking in the extreme.

 But as a study in culture chock between social stratums “Stella Dallas” is excellent.


Saturday 15 September 2012

Ninotchka (1939)

Back when I had to get ”Camille” I found a box set with 6 features and a lot of extra material on Greta Garbo. It was basically the only way I could get Camille if I wanted to actually buy it instead of just download it or stream it. Not unusual really, I have built up quite an extensive collection of box sets. That procedure gives me a lot of extra film not on the list that I pack in in between list movies. I am only now finishing a massive W.C. Fields box set. So, I have been watching some “extra” Garbo movies, like Anna Karenina and Ninotchka. While Anna Karenina did not really work for me (like Camille) Ninotchka was a pleasure to see and I remember wondering why they put Camille on the list and not Ninotchka. Except that they did. I just had not checked far enough ahead. This pleased me immensely and now that it has become time for me to comment on it I have just watched it a second time and that did it no harm. This is a very pleasant movie.

Movie connoisseurs will probably ascribe the feel of the move to the famous, though elusive, Lubitsch tough. Yes this is the guy again with that famous tough. I must admit that I cannot put my finger on what is so special about his movies, but it is a common trait that they work and that they are very pleasing to see, and Ninotchka is no exception.

Greta Garbo is naturally the big star of this film and it was heralded as her first comedy, so “Garbo laughs” was the slogan, in the line of the slogan for her first talkie “Garbo talks”. Well she does not laugh so much in the beginning. In fact she is a caricature of a Russian stone-faced technocrat, sent to Paris to mob up after three screw-ups, Buljanov, Iranov and Kopalsky, who were supposed to sell some jewelry, but had to settle for a split with the former owner Gran-duchess Swana. In this role as Nina Ivanova “Ninotchka” Yakoshova Garbo is a communist Hardliner with capital H. She fires off all the commie lingo, is to the point, effective and obsessed with details, and most of all dedicated to the job, the party and the country. No smiles.

This changes when she meet Count Léon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), a seemingly broke aristocrat who nevertheless gets by in the upper society as an opportunist and with a weakness for Russian women. They meet in a random encounter on the streets of Paris and despite her coldness he is instantly drawn to her and in his smooth ways tries to woo her. It is not working so well, but he is insistent and actually ends up with her in his apartment kissing her when a phone call reveals their true identities, that she is the special envoy from Russia and he is the representative of Grand-duchess Swana, the fellow who caused the 50-50 split.

With her dedication to work, this will not do at all and she breaks it off. Léon however has completely lost interest in Swana and is now obsessing over Ninotchka. This leads to a number of funny situations. Léon’s butler is complaining over this obsession and that lately he even found a copy of Karl Marx of the table. When Léon tries to goad him into some class rebellion and finish by asking him if he would not like to demand that they share everything fair and square, the butler replies that he can live with not having been paid for to month but no way he is going to share his savings with Léon…

Leon follows Ninotcka to a simple restaurant (which actually looks fantastic, I want to eat there!) and desperately tries to make her laugh. All his jokes are wasted on her, but when he gives up and loses his balance on his chair she breaks and laughs hard with everybody else in the restaurant. If there is a single thing I have some difficulty coping with in the film it is this change. It is too massive, too suddenly. From stone-faced patriotic technocrat to sensitive, feminine and love-struck human in a split second. She is able to put on the hard façade again but never in the same cold manner. From now on she breaks out laughing and smile and do silly things like buying a silly (and probably expensive) hat. But she is charming and so are Léon, so it is okay.

We get the biggest laugh of the movie when Léon takes Ninotchka along to an exclusive dance restaurant and drunk on champagne Ninotchka tries to incite a revolution on the women’s bathroom.

Swana has lost Léon and schemes to win him back by offering Ninotchka that she can have the jewelries if she leaves the country immediately, and patriot as she still is, she painfully accept.

Now follow the last act because how will Léon and Ninotchka get each other if he is in France and she in a shared room in Moscow? I will not reveal that here.

The film is not just pleasing and romantic but also funny, not least because of the three clowns Buljanov, Iranov and Kopalsky. As a sidekick they are perfect. Representatives of the proletariat who are easily tempted by the corruptive luxuries of a western life in wealth but also in perpetual fear of what they will do to them back home. The script as well holds a lot of wonderful lines. “How are things back home?” “Excellent, the last mass trial was a great success. There will be fewer but better Russians”. Not funny in itself of course, but in the context it is hilarious.

I am not sure if Garbo was at heart a comedian. She was a megastar in Hollywood for her serious dramatic roles, but she honestly seemed to enjoy doing this film so I guess this was like a holiday for her. For us seeing it we can just enjoy that she finally did a comedy and started laughing.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Le Million (1931)

Two Rene Clair movies back-to-back. How can I avoid making comparisons?

And they are similar in some ways and vastly different in others.

Le Million is, like “A Nous la Liberté” a musical comedy. That is, a light comedy where people break out in song, usually in an entire choir and often with instrumental backing, all highly improbable and unrealistic, but apparently an established format already with the first sound movies. Indeed I have seen even recent movies following this format without claiming to be musicals and it never ceases to annoy me. In a musical you expect it and, well, that is how it works, but the illusion of realism flies swiftly out the window. I am not sure it works here. I would have been just as happy, had it been a soundtrack without pretending the characters were singing.

Grumpy grumpy.

The big difference between the two movies is the attitude towards earthly wealth. “A Nous la Liberté” claims that wealth is a burden and the striving for it are shackles that keep us in bondage. According to “Le Million” however wealth is the source of everything that is good and beautiful and certainly worth celebrating. Which they do. A lot. I cannot think of more radically opposite views and frankly that make me a little confused.

Well, “ Le Million” works best if you do not think too much but instead lean back and enjoy. Because it is actually fun. I found that the story and the outline of the movie, including most of the characters work well even today. I also feel pretty certain that there must be at least several remakes of it.

The story is so classic. Michel (René Lefèvre) has won a big price in the lottery but the ticket is gone! What to do? Well, he finds it, no worries. In fact we are told so at the very beginning. Two men crawl on the roof to a window to see where all the noise comes from and inside people celebrating. Talk about a spoiler! The story is then how all this came to pass, why they are celebrating tonight.

It gets a little complicated and I will save you from all the details.

We got two friends, the poor artists Michel and Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), desperately trying to keep their creditors off their backs, while they try to appear exclusive to lure rich patrons to get their portraits painted or sculpted. Then we have the two women, Vanda (Vanda Greville) one of these patrons whom Michel is also having a more amorous relationship to, and Beatrice (Annabella) Michel’s fiancé, who lives next door.

Beatrice is upset with Michel for wooing Vanda and Prosper would like to woo Beatrice. All the creditors would like money from Michel and the police would like to catch super crook Granpere Tulipe. Granpere Tulipe “borrows” Michel’s jacket while hiding from the police in Beatrice apartment and Prosper saves Michel by telling him they won the lottery only, where is the ticket? Well, in the jacket Granpere Tulipe has just taken.

Confused? It gets worse and involves hilarious scenes at the police station and in the opera, where the jacket has ended up as a prop for the famous tenor Sopranelli.

The two friends each want the price and are convinced the other will not share, so initial cooperation to find the ticket develop into a race where no dirty tricks are below them. Prosper gets Michel locked up in jail, Michel locks up Prosper with the (huge) primadonna at the Opera and both enter the stage during La Boheme to filch the jacket from Sopranelli. Granpere Tulipe suspects there is something fishy about the jacket he briefly wore and joins the hunt with his gang and we have an absolutely fantastic finale where the hunt for the jacket turns into a rugby game complete with spectators and whistles.

And just when everything seems lost Granpere Tulipe shows up with the jacket and the ticket and (quite unrealistically, but well, he promised Beatrice) gives it back to Michel. And the party is on.

I like the acting of the cast. The comic timing is good and the script works well and is even fun. My problem with the movie is these jumps out of character, particular when they absolutely have to sing. I have already mentioned it, to me it ruins the illusion and I am reminded that this is just a silly movie. I know this of course, but I like to be fooled.

Without that this would have been an excellent movie.

A curious detail, Raymond Cordy (Louis in “A Nous la Liberté”) is back as a querulous taxi driver and he is definitely one of the better characters here. Also he does not sing. At least I did not see him sing.

Definitely a happy happy movie for Sunday afternoon.

Sunday 9 September 2012

A Nous la Liberte (1931)

Leve Friheden
One of the famous film controversies of the thirties was whether Chaplin stole the story of ”Modern Times” from René Clair’s “A Nous la Liberté” (Freedom for us). Rene Clair and his group thought so and sued Chaplin’s camp, but lost, and thank you for that. Should the world have missed one of these two films it better not be “Modern Times”.

“A Nous la Liberté” is in my opinion far inferior to “Modern Times” and frankly I have some difficulty seeing the plagiarism here. Okay, they both accuse the mechanized industrial society to be demeaning to humans, who find themselves slaves at the conveyor belt and they make a comedy out of it. Well, this is a fairly important issue and would surely require more than one picture. Consider how many WWII movies there are? Is it all plagiarism? Did somebody buy the rights from Adolf? No, I think these are two very different stories, so let us for now just forget about “Modern Times” and focus on “A Nous la Liberté”.

The story is about two cell mates, who are free spirits and bent on getting out of the restriction of prison. They make a dash for it in the night, but Émile (Henri Marchand) lucks out and has to abort. Meanwhile Louis (Raymond Cordy) starts selling records and in time he has created an industrial empire with factories, retail, brand and all.

Then Émile gets out and somehow gets involved in the factory. Actually he is taking a nap on a meadow outside a factory and two guards from the factory (fascist types with a white band about the arm) thinks he is slacking and put him in a cell. If you do not work you are a criminal. Émile tries to hang himself, but in the attempt actually frees himself and so he is out again. He tries to hide from his pursuers by standing in line for job seekers at the factory and voila, he is an employee at the conveyor belt.

His attempts at telling the guards that really he has no intention of working fails and when he finds out that a pretty girl he saw earlier from his cell also works there he accepts.

At the conveyer belt he is a disaster. His total lack of discipline makes him hopelessly unsuited for the tedious and really inhumane job of putting screws into boxes. Factory life is exactly the same as prison life and they have gone to some length at describing a WWII forced labor camp, only this is several years before the Nazi came to power in Germany. This makes me think that maybe the German prison camp concept was not entirely unique. There was a certain fascist element around also in the years prior to Nazism.  The guards at the factory just need a swastika and a gun and they are complete.

In any case Émile becomes massively unpopular among the guards and escapes in a wild chase to the offices of upper management where he comes face to face with the top dog himself, Louis.

Louis at first pretends not to recognize him. Any association with his past could be disastrous for him. He and Émile retreat to his office and Louis tries to buy him off then threatens him with a gun, but then they reconciliate and are chums again. I did not really get that part. It is as if all through the movie they are afraid to speak up and so we have to guess what is going on between people and this is a transition I did not get at all.

Émile comes home with Louis and is just as big a disaster here. He makes himself and Louis unpopular among the snobbish upper class guest Louis’ wife has assembled and she too leaves with her lover and Louis and Emile are alone again.

The picture is getting clearer that Émile has to bring Louis out of this prison wealth and earthly prestige has created for him and return to the freedom of the dispossessed.  I do not really see that Louis is in such big trouble. His life seems quite sweet. The changes Émile brings are only for the worse, especially when he leads a gang of bandits on Louis trail and they come to blackmail him threatening to reveal his past. Now the deroute speeds up and Louise tries to get away at least with his money, but even that fails and it all ends with a chaotic scene at the opening of the new full automatic factory where a sudden storm sends hats, money and bonds flying around causing all sorts of chaos and Louis and Emile escape to return to the road as tramps.

Happy end, no?

I do not really think “A Nous la Liberté“ is funny. Yeah, in moments it is okay, but it does not really work for me. Also the message about freedom and poverty to be preferred for fascist work ethos seems a bit forced, especially when the man freed is the dude running the show. Why does he need to be saved? Then in the end as the full automatic factory sends out gramophones en masse the former employed are fishing and dancing. Do they really think they can keep their jobs and just do nothing? If anything a full automatic factory would create unemployment and poverty and only riches for the shareholdes. I do not really get the logic.

But then maybe the logic is that humans are not cattle. We are free spirits and modern (thirties) factory life is not the thing. It ruins people. I get that point and will try to stick to that.

There is a modern parallel to this movie: “Office space”. It is not on the list, which is a crime. It is basically the same story but way better: “I did nothing all day and it was all I ever thought it could be”. “Did you get the memo about the TPS reports?” Now THAT is a cool movie!

Saturday 8 September 2012

Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din
Now I know where they got the ideas for Indiana Jones  “Temple of Doom”!

This is where the Kali cult, the Thugee’s, the temple, the colonial master element, even the bridge sequence come from, not to speak of the beloved elephant.

Of course not everything is a rip off, but there can be no doubt that the scriptwriters of “Temple of Doom” saw Gunga Din at least once. Fortunately they did not decide to copy everything. Gunga Din is seriously flawed and at times I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

First of all, it is incredibly racist. I do not know if it is because it is an American film so it is easier to accept that the British are a bunch of colonial master race white supremacy loonies, but that is too simple. It is a lot deeper. We as viewers are supposed to accept that these Britons are in every way superior to the Indians and that it is totally all right to demean the Indians. At times I felt more sympathy for the Thugeee’s than the British, at least when they acted merely to shake off British rule. I shall not say that all this is so far from the colonial reality, but it certainly hurts the modern viewer to see the racial master and servant theme played out this blatantly.

Secondly we see a cast of mostly Americans giving it as English. Oh, man, we have come a long way since then. Not being a native English speaker I am at a natural disadvantage here, but it seems to me to be with much stiff overlap and so much upper crust that it looks more like a parody. In particular Douglas Fairbank Jr. as Sergeant Ballantine and Cary Grant as Sergeant Cutter looks somewhat out of their depth here. Lately I have seen quite a few movies with Cary Grant and this character is so different from any other thing I have seen him do. Odd.

Thirdly, the reasoning and logic behind the actions of the characters are often very strange, borderline stupid. Sometimes it is to show their superior courage as when doing battle with the Thuggees in Tantrapur or distracting the cult in the temple by walking in amongst them singing a jig. Other times it is just plain stupid as going only the two of them (Ballantine and MacChesney, Victor MacLaglen) to free Cutter and just walk straight into the temple with no plan whatsoever. The film would like to show how fantastic these British heroes are but to my mind end up exposing their stupidity and ignorance.

Now you might think that I find Gunga Din a totally hopeless film. Not so at all. It is actually all I love in a movie: An adventurous storyline, charming characters, quick dialogue and humor. Which is exactly why the above flaws bother me so much.

We are in India in colonial times and a rough estimate would place it at the turn of the century (based on the technology used). Our three super heroes are sergeants in the imperial British army, an army mostly made up of Indian cannon fodder and British officers (and sergeants). Oh, and a bunch of bagpiping Scots. Cutter, the funny guy, Ballantine, the romantic and MacChesney, the querulous guy, are sent out to Tantrapur with some cannon fodder to investigate a loss of telegraph connection. When they get there the town is empty except for an army of Thuggee bandits and soon they are engaged in a bitter struggle. The Imperial army of course prevails through glorious effort from our English heroes. Douglas Fairbanks would be proud of his son, this is right down his lane.

Back in the barracks we have two subplots playing out. The first is about an Indian bhisti, a low caste water bearer, who dreams of being a proper English soldier, but since he is considered less than dirt he has no chance in a million years to become a real soldier. Obviously the Imperial army has readily adopted the caste system as a low caste can only dream of being upgraded to cannon fodder. Yet Cutter feel sympathy for him and start treating him as a soldier and Gunga Din is so proud.

The second subplot is that Ballantine is about to be discharged from the army and get married. A terrible fate, and borderline treason according to Cutter and MacChesney, who plot to keep him in the army and set him up against his fiancé. Which is more important: Your brothers in arms or your coming wife? Both seem to think that that allegiance is mutually exclusive.

In any case, they are sent back to Tantrapur with a new army. Cutter and Gunga Din run off with MacChesney’s beloved elephant, Annie, on the hunt for a golden temple Gunga Din claims to exist a short way down the road. Unfortunately this golden temple turns out to be the hub of the Thuggee Kali cult. A sinister death cult obsessed with strangulation. In best Indiana Jones style they witness the Thuggee adulation of their Guru and as they realize the gravity of what is going on Cutter decide to send Gunga Din back with a warning. Cutter himself creates a diversion so Gunga Din can get out, the aforementioned jig.

Back in Tantrapur MacChesney and Ballantine react to Gunga Din’s warning by going the two of them to get Cutter home. Somehow the fact that Cutter is held by a not trivial amount of Thuggee’s is not discussed or considered. Instead our two super heroes wade straight into the temple and are readily captured. The torture they are subjected to include, besides whipping, a snake pit straight out of Indiana Jones “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (or the other way round). Somehow the Sergeants manage to take the guru hostage and take him to the roof. Here we get the speech of the Guru, which is supposed to show what a sinister guy he is, but with modern ears it sounds more like a manifest for freedom from oppression from their colonial oppressors.

In any case they end up in a stale mate. They cannot get away, but as long as they have the guru they are safe. The standoff is broken when the rest of the regiment shows up, bagpipes, gurkas and all. They are walking straight into a trap and the sergeants look on impotently. Instead Gunga Din climbs, badly wounded up on the spire of the temple and blow his horn in warning and thus prevents certain defeat. Instead the Imperial army wins the day, the sergeants are freed, but Gunga Din is dead.

The film ends with Gunga Dins burial and praise from the colonel, who reads a poem by Rudyard Kipling (the end of the original Gunga Din poem):

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

Though I've belted you and flayed you,

By the livin' Gawd that made you,

You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din



The reason of the praise is of course that Gunga Din saved the day and lost his life for it. The problem is that the film in general carries the opposite message. Yes, they praise him in the end, but all through the film we are led to feel superior not just toward Gunga Din, but also the Indians in general and their political and social aspirations. It seems a hollow praise when the film itself is convinced of white supremacy.

Ironical when Rudyard Kipling’s poem is exactly an admission that the lowly Indian is being abused by his lords and has more value than many of these.

Conclusively I enjoyed the movie, but was also greatly annoyed. If I had been 15 years I would have been a big fan. Unfortunately I am not.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Little Caesar (1930)

Chicagos Underverden
Last night I saw ”Little Ceasar” a second time, this time in the company of two good friends. It is funny how a movie changes when you see it in the company of others. I was bracing myself for a tedious round of boring gangster cliché, as this was the impression first round left me with. Instead I was genuinely entertained.

What a surprise. I mean, the film is the same, so what is new?

The thing is, we were enjoying all these gangster clichés exactly because they are cliché. That makes them fun to talk about or laugh about. Now, I would not say this experience was top notch, but it was a far cry from my first impression.

Story-wise “Little Ceasar” is as template as it gets. The rise and fall of a gangster hot shot.

Even on the specifics there is little new under the sun. Two friends decide to go to the city to make it big in the underworld. The crafty and ruthless one, Rico “Little Ceasar” Bandello (Edward D. Robinson) has his eyes set straight for the illustrious title as king pin with all the fame and trappings that come with the title including unlimited power. The timid one, Joe Massara, (Douglass Fairbanks, Jr.), just wants to get his dancing career restarted and wear some pretty cloth. He is not really cut for this entire gangster thing.

It strikes me as a bit of an odd couple; the hardboiled gangster and the effeminate dancer, but I suppose they wanted to create a contrast between the two. In  any case, they have hardly arrived in town before they drift apart and Rico gets himself a job in Vettori’s gang as a gunman with a reluctant Joe in tow, while Joe spend most of his time dancing at the Bronze Peacock club with his new girlfriend and partner Olga.

From this point the story follows two tracks: The advance of Rico toward gangster stardom and the widening gap between Rico and Joe.

An important crux in both tracks is when Vettori’s gang hit the Bronze Peacock and uses a most reluctant Joe as watchman. This puts Rico in a position to take over leadership of the gang, but it also prompts Joe to decide to resign from the gang.

As head of the Vettori gang Rico is now a hot shot and can let himself be celebrated as such. He made it and this is just the beginning. Unfortunately his success has also triggered the interest of police detective Flaherty. He is so over the top cold and slow speaking that he serves as a prime cliché of the police terrier who will not let go of its prey no matter how long it takes.

Rico has a ruthless streak, which we see unfold when one of his men turn repentant and seeks out a priest. He is shot down on the stairs to the church. When Joe finally tells Rico he is quitting he wants to leave town with Olga since he knows that Rico will not let him leave the gang. Instead Olga insists that they spill the beans to Flaherty and thus solve the problem the right way. Easy for her to say, it is not her who will get shot. And true enough before the police arrives Rico and henchman Otero show up to silence Joe. At the moment of execution Rico realizes he cannot do it and instead Otero pulls a shot at Joe before the police shows up and they make a quick escape through the window.   

Otero gets caught, Rico’s organization is unraveled and Rico himself goes underground, living in the gutter. Even then Rico gets provoked by being called yellow and challenges (stupidly) the police. They of course trace the call, show up and shoot him down like a dog, just below a huge billboard proclaiming the stardom of dancers Olga and Joe.

The thing about all these clichés, both in outline, detail and execution is that they all come from this movie. This is where it started. All those clichés are only clichés because they have been repeated shamelessly by countless stories since. What was new in 1930 has become gangster mythology since.

I think a movie like “Public Enemy” is better because it is more concerned with the characters, but there must be some credit to the movie that started this entire bloody fad.

Technically I must congratulate Warner on the restoration of “Little Ceasar”. This is a very early talkie, but both sound and picture were surprisingly crisp on my edition. That really helps. Still, no soundtrack, limited effects, overacting, stiff dialogue. Man, they made a lot of progress in the thirties starting from this point.

I would say that “Little Ceasar” is more enjoyable than good, but in good company, that is also enough.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Zemlya (1930)

I have a nagging suspicion that the editors of The Book have a wicked sense of humor. I would not at all be surprised if they are laughing their butts off when idiots like me are taking the list serious and actually see a movie like “Zemlya”. The only valid reason for it to be on the list is as a crude joke on us morons.

“Zemlya” is heralded as an achievement. I just wonder what sort of achievement they are referring to. The likeliest answer is an achievement in supreme boredom. But it could also be “most inconsistent storyline ever” or “most agitated reception of a tractor in recorded history”.

Somehow none of these achievements grant it much respect from me.

The film starts (slowly) with a man lying down. “Are you dying, Simon?”, “Yes, Peter”, ”okay”. Then Simon sits up and does not at all look like a guy who is about to die. Instead he asks for some food and get a pear, which he eats while watching some children. Then he put the pear aside, grasps his chest and lie down to die. “Simon liked pears” says one of the on-lookers. And that is it. End of Simon.

Then something happens. It simply be because Simon died, or it was something the rich bastards did, or maybe the rich bastards caused Simons death. In any case for the longest time people are very upset. I mean really really upset. Only topped a moment later when the tractor arrives. Suddenly everybody are totally ecstatic. You would never believe it till you saw it how excited villagers can be over a tractor. There is a moment of crisis when the radiator of the tractor runs dry, but that is solved with some determined pissing in the radiator.

For a while we get a tour of agrarian life anno 1930 in probably Ukraine, a bit like a museum exhibit.

Basil the happy young man driving the tractor is seen dancing down the road and then falls. Apparently he is dead and the blame is on the rich bastards. Now people are upset again. Basil’s father does not want a priest for the funeral but instead let the young people do it themselves and sing songs about the future.

Finally some shots of apples.


Not really, no?

I will admit that I laughed occasionally when it got too ridiculous, but that is not a sign of quality.

The worst thing is that this movie has now wasted my time twice because I had to see it again to write the commentary.

Zemlya = Home video + 1930 + Soviet propaganda à Garbage bin   

Monday 3 September 2012

Der Blaue Engel (1930)

Den Blå Engel
The twenties and thirties are full of movies with leads that fare badly and suffer a terrible ends. I do not know if it is the influence of the depression or The Book just picks out these films to be particularly artistic. In any case “Der Blaue Engel” falls safely within this category. What makes this one stand out is that the lead with the miserable fate is an absolute ass, the agent of the deroute is more interesting than normal and that despite the tragedy the film is not without humor. And of course the talented combination of Josef von Sternberg, Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich.

Yes, we are back in good ol’ pre-war Germany, the home of so many good movies during the golden age before the nazi regime quelled it all. And if you are expecting expressionism, interesting camera angles, lots of shadow effects and excellent direction you will not be disappointed here. Add a (quite) a few German clichés like the dark kneipe with beer drinking oversize cabaret actresses or the professor shouting “Halt, Halt” or “SIT!” at his students expecting DICIPLINE! from them, you got it about right.

The first time I saw “Der Blaue Engel” it was actually a painful experience. No matter how bad they are, nobody deserves the humiliation and degradation Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath (Jannnings) is suffering. Second time however I focused more on his character and by all that is holy he has it coming. Rath is a certified ass. He is the teacher from hell at the local high school, a true believer in the black school (I do not even know if that concept exists in English). He is only interested in obedience and his manner of teaching is to beat it into the students. There is a hilarious moment in an English class where he is shouting at a student for failing to pronounce the English article “The”: “Ze, ze, ze, can you not hear?”.

Of course his students react to this abuse in the way any teenager does, by rebellion. The latest thing is that they go to the local night club, which in this case is a real German kneipe, not unlike the bar used by von Sternberg in “Docks of New York”, where the wet dream of the students, Lola Lola (Dietrich) is performing.

Rath, getting a hint of what is going on, ventures to this place of lust and filth to extricate the boys and teach them (another) lesson of DICIPLINE. But instead of catching the boys Rath himself is caught by Lola. I will have to say that this is through no fault of Lola. Rath is simply a dirty old man at heart and also a very naïve and foolish man. He quickly (mis)reads Lola’s friendship as pure love and affection and he is sold. Already here this is so pathetic that it in all its tragedy is also funny and a bit sweet. He gives up his teaching job and marries Lola, clearly with no idea what he is getting himself into.

But what does a travelling show need a pompous professor for? Absolutely nothing. Instead he is given the most demeaning jobs like selling provocative photos of his wife and dressing like a clown as an assistant to the managers magic show, where his moment of glory is a shriek “Kikkelikii” when the magician extracts an egg from his nose and bang it on his forehead. Even Lola gets fed up with him and he is really reduced to nothing, not least in his own mind when the show returns to Der Blaue Engel and the manager announces to the town that their professor is back in town.

Rath (or Unrath, garbage, as his students call him) faces the ultimate humiliation, stripped of all power and dignity, facing his old neighbors and former students dressed as a clown with egg in his face while a “strong man” is shamelessly seducing his wife. He breaks and anything else would be strange and I will leave it to the reader to find out how that turns out.

Emil Jannings is really good. He is totally convincing as this tyrannical but also pathetic fool. There is some resemblance to his part in “Der Letzte Man”, where he also was a pompous, if a lot more sympathetic, fool who loses everything, especially his dignity. Except in “Der Blaue Engel” there is no recue from a sympathetic producer, no sweet prize at the end, only ruin and despair.

I have a more difficult relationship with Marlene Dietrich. She is good here, but she has more or less annoyed me in all the parts I have seen her in since. At least in German her singing is okay and her acting too. The signature song of the movie has a nasty way of insinuating itself into my mind so it cannot be that bad, yet she does not feel exactly right. Maybe it has to do with fashions. She would not really make it as a hot dish today and her sympathy, at least in the beginning, for the pathetic old pig Rath is… unexplainable.

But that is not a major problem. “Der Blaue Engel” is a highlight among many excellent movies of early German cinema and highly enjoyable if tragic. Hey, those beers look good!

Sunday 2 September 2012

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove
I will without blinking boldly declare “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” to be one of the best, maybe the best (and blackest), comedies of all time.

Done by lesser people a comedy about the destruction of the world might easily have been very bad taste and indeed few people have been able to pull this stunt (recently “Iron Sky” did an excellent job at it), but Stanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers and George C. Scott are up to the task.

According to the background material on the movie Kubrick was very worried about the prospect of nuclear war and wanted to make film about it. He found the story “Red Alert”, but while working on the script he and producer Harris started getting silly about it and realized that the best way to serve the message was as a comedy. That was a very smart decision. Because the setting is very real and the topic is very serious and deadly indeed, the comic characters work superbly and instead of deflating the message it becomes so much more poignant. It takes only so many nutcases and screw-ups to set off a nuclear war and destroy the world. We are all at the mercy of, well, humans and humans come in many different… types, and who is to say that we are not trusting our lives with a loose cannon somewhere?

The situation briefly is that General Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the commander of a wing of B52 bombers set off a nuclear attack on Russia. He has isolated the airbase and is convinced that he is doing the right thing to protect American bodily fluids (well, everybody has their own reasoning…). Now the President (Sellers) and his advisors are gathered in the War-room to deal with this crisis.

“Dr. Strangelove” works best when people have to explain the, erh, awkward positions they are in. General Turgidson (Scott) has to explain why this could happen in the first place and the excuse is of course really lame and paranoid, President Muffley has to explain to the Russian leader, Kissoff, that one of his generals went a bit funny in the head and, ups, we accidentally launched a nuclear attack on you guys and not least the Russian ambassador has to explain why they made a secret doomsday weapon that only can serve as deterrence if it is commonly known: well, it was cheaper and we were going to tell on Monday, the President likes to come up with surprises.

All these screw-ups seem to follow normal military doctrine, but in this context they become totally outrageous and insane.

This is one of those movies where it is difficult to point out specific favorite moments because there are so many and most of them you have to see, they cannot be explained.

A few examples:

Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) trying to call the President from a phone booth, but run out of coins and have to intimidate Colonel “Bat” Guano to shoot open a coca-cola vending machine: I hope you are right. Otherwise you will have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company. Well, they are just trying to avert a nuclear war!

The before mentioned phone call between President Muffley and President Kissoff: I am sorry too, no, I can be as sorry as you are…

Dr. Strangelove, the insane Nazi scientist (Sellers again) explaining as everything is going to hell that they will do just fine in the bottom of deep mine shafts and that the human race will survive as long as there are 10 women to each man and since these men must be performing heroically the women will have to be “stimulating”. So the future is not so bad after all…

And of course the final scene where the cowboy captain on the loose B52, Major “King” Kong (Pickens) rides the bomb as a huge fallos as if it was a rodeo horse.

Note the names of all these characters: Jack D. Ripper, Major “King” Kong,  Colonel “Bat” Guano, President Kissoff. They are hilarious.

And then there are all the details scattered through the movie. I never becomes lame low comedy like “Airplane”, it sticks to the context and becomes funny because it is so grotesque, but also bitter sweet for the same reason, like the end titles with a sweet version of “We’ll meet again” while the world is blowing up in multiple mushroom clouds.

When it comes to intelligent, dark comedy, it just does not get better than this.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Le Jour se Leve (1939)

-Og ved daggry
I have not really decided if I like ”Le Jour se Leve”. It is sort of a French film noir. Dark, brooding, fatalistic, but also beautiful and sensitive.  It is not a big story, but it is well told and even though this is not a classic happy-end movie, the conclusion is satisfying, given the mood of the movie.

Jean Gabin, the Brad Pitt of late thirties French cinema, is our working class hero, Francois, who has shot another man. That happens within the first 2 minutes of the film. The rest is the story of why he did that, told in a series of flashbacks.

Francois has barricaded himself in his little apartment while the police are waiting for daybreak to storm the place. While waiting Francois is utterly depressed and wonders why it got to be this way.

He met a girl, Francoise, who is innocence incarnate, and he loves her dearly. Yet, she has something going on the side. When he follows her it turns out she is involved with an animal trainer in a show. On the same evening the animal trainer’s female assistant quits her job and literally throws herself into the arms of Francois. Clara is the opposite of Francoise. She is dark, disillusioned and very sensual. No wonder that Francois in his disappointment accepts Clara instead of Francoise.

This is when it starts getting complicated. The animal trainer Valentin cannot let any of them in peace. He wants to get Clara back, he has a grip on Francoise and he has something strange going on with Francois and just will not leave him alone. He claims he is the father of Francoise and in this function insinuate himself into their life. When that story blows he shows up in Francois’s apartment with a gun and talks about how he corrupts women, what he does to them and what they let him do to them. He is a certified pain in the ass and eventually Francois grabs the gun and shoots him.

Something about what Valentin has been telling him has depressed him deeply, beyond the fact that he has just killed a guy, and I am afraid I did not really catch what it is. The film would like to be an allegory of the woes of the worker in depression time France, so that when Francois yells that there is no hope then it is for the French worker there is no hope. Well, I sort of got that from The Book. From the film itself it is difficult to see that parallel, except for the general hopelessness of the film. Exactly what the connection between an animal trainer humping innocent women and unemployment and lack of social benefits are I really do not know. To me it seems a bit dramatic to shoot the guy just for being annoying and I would also think that it should be the killing rather than all the events that led up to it that should cause despair, but I suppose there is logic to it somewhere.

As it is “Le Jour se Leve” is more a mental state, a condition you are brought into and that feeling is rather intense. So my conflict is basically form and atmosphere up against an internal logic I am not getting. Maybe when I fully understand it I will decide to like it. Until then… I am undecided.

A funny detail: When Valentin as the mysterious murder victim falls down the stairs in the beginning, he is shot in the chest, he falls in a bad way and is more or less dead as the lands, yet we see him hurt his hand on his way down and visibly wince. Somehow he probably has other things on his mind than pain in his hand. It is small mistake, but almost set the stage for an entirely different sort of film.