Saturday 26 September 2015

Artists and Models (1955)

Artists and Models
With ”Artists and Models”, the first movie of 1955, we have moved into the extreme silly end of the spectrum, which is quite a departure from last week’s movie (”Sansho the Bailiff”). This is a colorful, even cartoonish, satire on 1950’ies pop culture and it is about as light and harmless as rice crackers and just about as noisy.

Let me reveal right from the beginning that I was not sold by this comedy, far from, but it is not without it’s moments and there are enough of them to make it not a complete waste of time.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were apparently an established couple in 1955 when they did this movie. “Artists and Models” was their fourteenth together, so I guess the audience knew what they were going to see when they went for one of their movies. A studio also only keep a duo alive this long if they sell tickets, so they must have been quite popular.

In this movie they are less than successful artists. Rick Todd (Martin) is a painter and Eugene Fullstack (Lewis) is an author of children’s books (or want to be). The reason for their lack of success seems to be Rick’s promiscuity and Eugene’s infatuation with comics, especially those featuring the Bat Lady. Add to that that Eugene act like an eight year old and Rick not ten years older and that may be the real reason.

Their luck turns when the real author (Dorothy Malone as Abigail) of the Bat Lady moves into their building together with the model that poses as Bat Lady (Shirley MacLaine as Bessie) who also happens to be the secretary of Abigail’s publisher. In a complex set of events Rick takes over Abigail’s job when she quits her job because her publisher wants more blood and gore in the cartoons while Rick and Abigail becomes an item on Rick’s insistence. Eugene meets his idol, the Bat Lady, while Bessie tries to win Eugene’s heart without revealing that she is actually the Bat Lady.

It gets really complicated and just to add to the mix the whole thing turns into a spy story when some Hungarian spies finds out that the cartoons seem to be revealing a secret formula and so set out to kidnap the authors.

Let me take the good things first.

It was a wonder to see Shirley MacLaine in one of her first roles. She is one of the few actors from this era who is still alive and active. IMDB has her registered for two movies in 2015 and another one in 2016. She is one of Hollywood’s great actresses and I love to see an actress spanning a lifelong career. That happens all too rarely. In “Artists and Models” she is definitely one of the highlights because she is genuinely funny.

Actually this movie is full of wonderful women. I guess the studio threw everything they could find in a dress into this movie and they do look great. From a male point of view they are a delight to watch, especially since they look like real women.

Then there are a number of jokes that actually work out. The massage room scene with at least five bodies entwined is a great one and the TV sequence where Eugene is presented as a retarded comic-aholic is inspired when the things he says suddenly turns so smart that they are above the host. There is a fun reference to James Steward in “Rear Window” and I bet there are a number of other reference thrown in as well.

On the negative is… almost everything else.

My problem here is that I do not care for Jim Carrey’s special kind of comedy and watching Jerry Lewis I know exactly where Carrey’s style comes from. This totally over the top exaggeration combined with total idiocy is clearly what is supposed to sell this movie and it just does not work for me. Instead of laughing I grind my teeth and that is never a good thing.  Because so much of the movie hangs on Lewis comedy that has a large impact on my general appreciation of “Artists and Models”. Martin is not that funny, but at least he is not annoying. Malone is not supposed to be funny as she is the anchor such a movie must have (and thank you for that), which leave MacLaine, who is the only one I find genuinely funny.

The plot is totally out there, on the silly side of ridiculous, and that is normally okay with me. I love the Airplane/Police Squad/Naked Gun series, but “Artists and Models” only rarely gets close. Maybe this is a matter of comedy simply having changed since the fifties, which does not bode well for other comedies of the age, or it is simply that I am too old. This is a very cartoonish movie and the director Frank Tashlin actually came from directing cartoons. Together with Lewis special kind of humor it aims at a very infantile audience. On the other hand the randiness of the movie with daring sexual references makes the target group much older, so I am a bit confused here.

Does it matter that the plot, the actors, the backstory, yeah, everything really, are completely inconsistent? Rick and Eugene, the two losers, suddenly getting top billed at the artists ball? Actors stepping out of the movie or showing skills inconsistent with the character? Or that uber-ridiculous spy story? Again had the comedy worked I would have laughed it off. Instead it annoys me.

What is left for me is the sexual innuendo, beautiful women and a few gags that actually work. Is that enough? I am not convinced.  

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Sansho the Baliff (Sansho Dayu) (1954)

Sansho the Bailiff
I am back home after nine days in Italy. This was a wonderful vacation and I can absolutely recommend the region around Alba in Piemonte. Only do not stay too long, it is not good for your waistline. Or your liver.

With me in Italy I brought the movie “Shanso the Bailiff” or “Shanso Dayu” as it is called in Japanese. This is the last movie in the golden year of 1954. By the middle of the week I had finished the movie although I tried to dose it and so I could spend the second half of the week contemplating it. That did not really work, I still do not understand it.

“Shansho the Bailiff” is Kenji Mizoguchi’s attempt at the epic scale movie and half way in it works beautifully. We follow the wife, son and daughter of a regional governor who are forced to flee when the governor is banished by a local warlord. The governor is a virtuous man and he implores on his children to uphold this virtue, especially toward the poor.

Before long however the family falls prey to slave traders. The mother is sold to prostitution and the children to a local steward or bailiff, the eponymous Shanso, who is running a veritable concentration camp.

This is downfall and hardship, but magnificently told using big pictures and a tragic, fatalistic tone. There is no overacting here, if anything there is an acceptance in the fate of life and therefore it is extra poignant to watch the family being separated and cry out for each other. The children actors are good and the cinematography is sublime.

About midway however the movie changes for me to the negative and there are to primary reasons for this.

The children as adults is one reason. We jump ahead ten years in time to when the children have grown up. Anju, the girl, into a sensitive woman who has not forgotten their parents and Zushio the boy, who has accepted life in the camp and figures it is better to punish than being punished. Their life changes when a new girl bring the first news of their mother since they arrived and the Anju is keen on leaving. When the change come however she sacrifices herself so Zushio can get away. Zushio leave for Kyoto, the imperial capital back in the Heian period (a thousand years ago) to plead for his father and the release of his sister.

It is very possible that I simply do not understand the cultural background well enough, but these two characters confuse me. Anju seems all too willing to sacrifice herself in a situation where there is real hope she will be able to get away. As she has no idea where Zushio is going but the general direction of Kyoto she cannot reveal anything. Why is she then so keen to die?

Zushio, who assumed a certain brute dignity in the camp completely throws dignity aside in practically every scene afterward, none more so than when he prostrates himself before the Chief Advisor. It is all screaming and crying and I really want to grip him, slap him on the face and ask him to get a hold on himself. I always thought the Japanese idealized self-control and took pride in their stoicism, but this dude has not of that. Even as a governor, the title he is eventually elevated to, he is shrill and can barely (and usually not) keep his hysterics under control. I probably misunderstood the cultural context completely, but that guy really annoyed me and I had some difficulty taking him serious as the hero of the story.

My second problem is where this movie is leading to. Okay, so Zushio get powerful enough to get back at Sansho and free the slaves and he manages to find his wreck of a mother, but that does not seem to be the target of the movie. Mizoguchi is trying to say something here and it eludes me. Is it that although Zushio tries to be virtuous he still looses everything? Or that life is torture as his mother sings? Or that slavery and disrespect of people leads to human ruin? I just cannot point my finger at where this is leading. A movie open to interpretation is often a good thing, but here it annoys me because I feel am missing the key.

Still, this is a beautifully made movie, slower than Kurosawa and more brutal than Ozu, this is a different niche in Japanese movie.

Curiously I recently read another story also taking place in the Heian period, Tale of Genji, which I reviewed on the book blog. That one takes the viewing point from the top rather than the bottom, but of the same society. It is interesting how much the viewpoint defines what you see.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Salt of the Earth (1954)

Jordens Salt
”Salt of the Earth” is according to the Book the only larger film made by communists in America and is about a famous strike in a zinc mine in New Mexico. If you guessed that there is a certain propaganda element to the movie and that this caused negative attention and trouble then you are quite right.

Why is it that propaganda movies, especially left-wing propaganda movies feels so tiresome? There are some clichés and stereotypes that we have to get dragged through: The cold and mean masters, the heroic worker, the common good and the collective effort. Here in the aftermath of world communism these elements as they were presented in the heyday feels way too simplistic to really be taken seriously and they often have the opposite effect, to make the authors look manipulative and outside reality. To my mind such movies would be far more successful in their message by toning those elements down and be less one-dimensional. Alas, this is the 1950’ies and an environment where you are either for or against with no room for middle of the road approaches.

In this case practically everybody involved in the movie were blacklisted and the movie feels like a reaction to that exclusion as if “to hell with it, we are blacklisted anyway, let’s make a real Commie movie”.

The movie is about a mining community that has to put up with the mine-owner’s penny pinching and unequal treatment of its employees. A large part of these are Hispanic and they are treated poorer than their “Anglo” counterparts. When there is an accident in the mine it triggers the strike that the community has been warming up to for a while and the rest of the movie is the resolution of that strike.

As long as the focus is on the miners and the strike the movie is tedious at best. As much as the miners have a good case the presentation of it makes it too easy to refuse it as propaganda. But then something clever happens that changes the focus of the movie. It becomes a movie about emancipation of women. Not just in the workplace as befits a socialist propaganda movie, but privately in the homes, culturally in Mexican versus Anglo families and as a part of the community. It made me sit up straight because this is a lot more interesting than a miners strike and something which reaches far beyond propaganda. In fact, because of this element I would rather call this a feminist movie than a socialist movie.

The key figures are Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) and Ramon (Juan Chacón) Quintero, a Hispanic couple with a pile of children. Ramon is a leading figure among the miners and Esperanza, the narrator of the movie, is his obedient and heavily pregnant wife. Theirs is a very traditional family with clearly defined roles and Ramon as undisputed leader of the household. Esperanza looks tired and apathetic, but over the course of the movie as events develop she finds her voice and her courage as she steps into action. The triggering event is when the miners are court ordered to abandon the picket line and the women step in and take over. Now it is them who fights the police and calls the shots and it awakens a confidence in them that changes their outlook on their roles in the community, but particularly at home and nowhere is that transformation clearer than for Esperanza.

Ramon and the other men do not like this. They feel challenged and it hurts their pride and feeling of macho that they are no longer the ones calling the shots. The two best scenes of the movie is Ramon and his neighbor hanging laundry while looking after the children and all them men lined up at the bar looking depressed while they stare at their beer. Such a bitter pill to swallow. Their reaction is to go hunting. Shoot some animals and get away from that new reality where they are no longer kings. Does that sound familiar? We men are a predictable lot.

The police who largely works for the mine owners (as they always do in left leaning propaganda, just look at Eisenstein) are at a loss how to fight the women. The men they can beat up, but can they be as brutal towards women? The collective strength of the women is a lot more than a socialist message but the first example I have seen on the List of feminism. Where the communist message feels backward already in 54 the feminist message is far ahead of its time. The classic 50’es values, even as referenced today are the old, static gender roles of the housewife and her husband, the bread-bringer. The message here is a revolt against those stereotypes.

“Salt of the Earth” may have been denounced as socialist propaganda, but the real subversive power is its feminist message. That is its value and significance and it is what makes it worthwhile to watch this movie even today.

Tomorrow I will be heading to Italy for some vacation with my family so I will be off the grid for a little while. When I am back it will be time to finish 1954. Chiao.

Monday 7 September 2015

Carmen Jones (1954)

Carmen Jones
”Carmen Jones” is a film version of Georges Bizet’s opera ”Carmen” set in war time America with an all-black (to varying degree) cast. Really?? This sounds like an idea cooked up while smoking some serious weed.

Does it work then? Njaeh… to some extent I suppose. The score is great of course. “Carmen” is a world famous opera for a reason and this musical was best when I closed my eyes and focused on the music alone. The lyrics are adapted to fit the story in this rendering and as the story is set in the black sub-culture we get all sorts of slang and inflections. Had this been a complete reworking I would have found this pretty cool and definitely a fresh take on a classic score, but they insisted on making this an opera in the classic sense and so it becomes a clash. Just plain weird, really.

I did not like this movie. Not at all actually, and for several reasons. Not so much for the music though. It is odd but I can live with it.

My main complaint is the story itself, which may seem unfair considering that it is surprisingly true to the original story. I do not like it when people ruin their lives and even less when they ruin other people’s lives and that is the essence of this particular story. The agent of all this ruin is Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge), who may be the most egoistic character in cinema history. Well, close at least. I fully understand that she is a powerful, liberated woman and all too often women have to follow the men and not the other way round, but Carmen is selfish by any standards and everything in her life is about getting what she want and to hell with the costs others may pay. She gets her comeuppance, but not before she has done her damage.

To start with we meet Joe (Harry Belafonte) and Cindy Lou (Olga James), a sweet couple about to get married. Cindy Lou is seeking out Joe on the army base where he is stationed just before he is leaving for flight school to become a pilot. Everything looks great for the two of them.

Then Carmen Jones happens. Realizing Joe is the one guy in the army barracks not interested in her she sets full sail on her seduction of him. She manages to get arrested for causing a row with the other girls and Joe is picked to take her to a civilian prison in Masonville, far far away.  For a while he manages to fend her off and when he ties her up I had to smile for I think the only time in the entire movie. Had he slapped her I could also have forgiven him. She was a job to get done so he could get back and get married.  

Alas, in the end her seducing ways succeed and Joe is turned to the dark side. Ah, well, his problem. She thanks him by running away so has to do time in the stockade instead of going to flight school. When he comes out they seek each other out, him with the good news that he can go to flight school after all, but that is not good enough for her. She want him close. What good is a man you cannot be with? So she coerces him into a fight that forces him to go with her, now as a fugitive from the army. Having sucked him dry Carmen now moves on to a famous prize fighter and starts on him instead leaving behind a wreck of a man.

This is the kind of story that forces me not to invest too much in the characters. One is not worth my care and the other is a lost case. I just feel sorry for Cindy Lou.

I also have an issue with the setup. This feel quite a lot like exploitation. The all-black cast feels like a gimmick. Maybe to allow the characters to be more daring, which is degrading, or to add some black elements to the music, which would have been great, but is mostly lost because of the insistence on the opera. The exclusion of white people also reminds of segregation, which does not feel good either.

Then of course there is the classic musical problem where reality suddenly shifts into a stage, but here I see that mostly as a minor problem. I was too happy to get away from the story and into some music.

“Carmen Jones” felt like an ordeal, something I just had to get over with and that is just too bad because I wanted to like it. For blackploitation I much prefer “Shaft”. This one just left me with a bad taste.

In case anybody takes offense with my reference to blacks and white instead of more politically correct terms, I apologize. This is a movie that moves in that sphere. The actors are black not because it is cool, but because it facilitates some degrading clichés.