Friday 29 January 2016

A Man Escaped (Un Condamne a Mort S'est Echappe ou le Vent Souffle ou il Veut) (1956)

En dødsdømt flygter
The French director Robert Bresson is generally considered to be a true auteur. Or rather the director about whom the term was coined or at least defined. A man who made his own films and did not care shit what other people thought of them. True, Erich von Stroheim did not care shit either, but Robert Bresson was so arty in that way most normal people understand arty. Stroheim was just arrogant.

I watched a documentary about Bresson and it struck me that when people talk about incomprehensible and intellectual highbrow French movies it must be Bresson they are thinking of. He seemed to be deliberately cryptic and obsessing about principles and ideas that are too exotic for the rest of us. That sort of attitude tend to be repulsive to the mass audience, but excites movie critics and movie intellectuals, either because they actually understood it or because they are afraid that other people will find out that they did not understand it.

A year ago or so I watched “Journal d'un curé de campagne” and I found very little to love. Most of it was incomprehensible, what I did understand I did not like much and the protagonist was a fool.

Now I have watched my second Robert Bresson movie “Un condamné à mort s'est échappé” (A Man Escaped) and that was a radically different experience. I liked this one a lot and many of those weird ideas Bresson had actually makes sense in this movie. Dare I call it a little masterpiece?

First of all this is a super tight story. In about one hundred minutes this is about a guy who wants to and finally does escape from a prison. From the outside it sounds impressive that such a simple story can take so long, but not when you are in it. By focusing narrowly on this story Bresson gets so deep into it that it really works.

Fontaine is arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and imprisoned in an infamous prison where we are told 7000 people died during the war. From the outset it is clear that Fontaine wants to escape. He tries and fails already on the way to the prison and the experience makes him a lot more cautious about his next attempt. Of course the fact that prisoners are summarily killed means that you want to keep your head low. Fontaine establishes small lines of contact, through knocking on the walls, letters lifted out of the window and whispered talk during the daily wash-down.

He never knows exactly what is going on and field of view is always limited. In fact his main sensory input is what he hears and so we often see him on his bunk just listening. This is entirely in line with Bresson’s ideas of limited view and actions taking place outside the frame. There are many sounds and they are all important, but we rarely see the source. The result is that we are subjected to the same sensory input as Fontaine. That also enables us to feel his nervousness, the claustrophobia and the increasing need to get out, made urgent by the death sentence he receives with twenty minutes to go.

The claustrophobia is particularly noteworthy. I was often reminded of the movie “Das Boot”, where the submariners are listening to the pings and cracks of the enemy destroyers while they are stuck inside a small barrel. Fontaine’s situation is entirely the same.

Because of these elements the movie manages to keep up an impressive tension level on par with Hitchcock, the usual measure of such things. Those hundred minutes went surprisingly fast.

Prison escape movies usually have that in common that they are very inventive. The prisoner has to work out an escape plan not anticipated by his captors and that means something novel. This is also the case here. Fontaine has to be resourceful, detail oriented and imaginative. He is all that, but focus is not so much on his actual achievements as on his need to do this. It is the only thing going on in his mind, probably the one thing that keeps him sane.

Based on what I now know of Bresson I am surprised there is not any more religious motives in this movie. They seem to be essential to him and for “Journal d'un curé de campagne” they take over completely, rendering the movie practically absurd if you are not entirely into religion. I have read that “Un condamné…” have religious motives as well, but I fail to see them. Instead there is a lot of psychology, which of course can be understood and religion without the mysticism.

I would not say I have converted to a Bresson fan. From what I see of his later movies I am a bit worried. Not exactly the kind of movies I look forward to. But “Un condamné…” is really good and absolutely worth a watch.

Friday 22 January 2016

The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers
John Wayne was one of the most iconic western actors ever. John Ford was one of the best western directors ever. Combined it almost cannot go wrong if you like westerns.

I am okay with westerns. There is enough boy in me to appreciate the adventure of the frontier and I did play cowboys and Indians as a child. A good western can be a great experience partly because it can tap into that dream. But westerns can also be incredibly formulaic and primitive and I am usually prepared to be disappointed. So far the Book has had a lucky hand with the westerns in that even on the simpler stories there has been enough to recommend them.

Then comes “The Searchers”.

This movie gives you a lot of classic western tropes, certainly enough to make you feel right at home, but in a wrapping that takes your breath away. Ford loved to use Monument valley for it scenic attractions and this time Monument Valley is in Texas. I am not sure of the realism of that, but it sure works as eye candy. Blown up in wide screen color this is just magnificent. In fact the technical side of this movie is so good I had to check a second time that this was the movie I was supposed to watch and not a production twenty years younger. Only the obvious studio shots gave it away.

While the visual feast is a solid asset this is really all about John Wayne and his character Ethan Edwards. His returning war veteran is both a straight hard-hitter and a complex man full of secrets and demons. In fact he may be the most interesting character Wayne has ever portrayed.

Ethan is returning to his brothers home in Texas long after the war ended, still wearing his confederate uniform. We are never told what he has been doing, but he has money and a soup of pain and anger boiling inside of him. We can only guess what has caused it but a good guess would involve Indians.

The family of his brother is a happy one. Mum, dad, an older girl with a boyfriend, a young cocky boy and a darling girl. The household includes an adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an eights Cherokee, and although it was actually Ethan who brought him to the family the sight of him is enough to set off Ethan’s anger. First hint that he has a serious problem with Indians. Within the first twenty minutes this family is killed in an Indian raid and the two girls abducted. Bum, just like that. The way the family was presented leaves us very exposed to the pain that is Ethan’s and Martin’s when they return to the ruined home.

This sets the stage for the majority of the movie. Ethan and Martin will search high and low, come snow and rain for the youngest girl Debbie (the older girl is raped and killed shortly after the raid). Such a search could easily have become tedious to watch and that was a real concern on my part, but while the search is indeed eventful, it is also an internal journey for Ethan and Martin. Something is happening to them, both personally and in their relation to each other.

The movie starts out with a very clear division into good guys and bad guys. The Texas settlers are the obvious good guys and the Indians are those faceless savages that roam your nightmares. Ethan seems justified in his hatred and no mercy attitude towards then. As the movie progress however the picture gets more detailed and we gain some insights. First of all Ethan obviously knows a lot more about the Indians than a genocidal outsider should. He speaks their language and know their customs to a degree that only an insider would. There even seem to be some respect, but something must have happened in his contact with the Indians to trigger the hatred. Then we the audience start to meet the Indians in a setting different from the raid party and the image presented is anything but warlike (“Look”, the wife Martin accidentally buys). In fact some of the white contacts turn out to be untrustworthy backstabbing bastards (Futterman), who tries to take out Ethan and Martin in the night).

At this point the movie is turning truly interesting, for the quest to save Debbie, the internal transformation and the uncovering of Ethan’s character. Unfortunately “The Searchers” settles for the first plot line and leaves the other two hanging in the air and that is a damn shame. I was dying to find out what Ethan had in fact been doing since the civil war and what his relationship with the Indians were (Was he actually Martins’ father? There are a lot of hints in that direction and my guess is that Ethan was married to a half-blood who was then killed by Indians) and after we have just settled that raiding Indian camps murdering women and children is just savagery no better than the Indian raids, this is exactly how the movie ends. I was more than a little baffled by this and disappointed. The setup here is great and I would have loved it to follow it through rather than settle for the simpler storyline.

We get a sideshow with the Jørgensen family parallel to the quest story. The Jørgensen family is closely connected to the Edwards.  Brad Jørgensen was engaged to the older Edwards daughter and Martin and Laurie Jørgensen are betrothed, with or without Martin’s consent. Lars Jørgensen, whose name betrays his Danish ancestry despite his Swedish accent and references, and his family seems however misplaced in this grim tale and the whole wedding interplay seems intended as comic relief and I am not sure this movie needs that. My guess is that Ford and company got afraid of where this movie was going and needed to lift the mood a bit.

All this criticism does in no way mean that this is a bad film. It is in fact excellent. The best I have seen with John Wayne since “The Stagecoach”. The potential was just there for something even better.

As an added bonus we get Nathalie Wood in a small but important part as grown up Debbie Edwards, first unwilling to be saved but then more than willing. Again, nice, but what just happened there?

Thursday 14 January 2016

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto) (1956)

War movies typically come in two distinct categories: Heroic war movies (good against bad guys) and anti-war movies (war is stupid and terrible). Since the seventies these two categories have fused into a third category, the heroic anti-war movie in which the protagonist is heroic despite war being stupid and terrible. The other two groups are still around, but heroic war movies are now exclusively against vile aliens or Nazi pigs (Darth Vader is sort of both).

“The Burmese Harp” (Biruma no tategoto) belongs to an entirely different category, one I do not remember having seen before, the healing war movie. That makes this, at least in my experience, a unique experience.

Let me say flat out that I am mighty impressed with this movie. Not just for showing me something I have not seen before, but for the very delicate way it handles the theme. I feel a better person just for watching it.

A platoon of Japanese soldiers are fighting in Burma when they get the news that the war ended three days earlier. The British are mopping up stray units and that is touchy business as the Burmese theater is essentially guerilla warfare with very little communication. The platoon is led by Captain Inouye (Rentarō Mikuni) who has a musical background and has trained his unit as a choir. They sing as a way to keep up morale, but also as a bonding agent and for signaling. It is exactly through singing that a touchy encounter with a British (or actually Indian) unit is resolved peacefully instead of a useless blood bath. The singing is a civilized counterpoint to the barbary of war.

One of Inouye’s soldiers, a Private called Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) has taken up the Burmese harp and accompany the singing of the platoon. The harp is also used for signaling and so he has become the scout of the platoon as well as its mascot. It is noted early that in Burmese cloths he blends in completely. When a Japanese unit entrenched on a mountain refuses to surrender it falls on Mizushima to tell them the war is over.

This turns out to be a life changing experience for Mizushima. The unit refuses to surrender and it is instead massacred, leaving only Mizushima alive. He is saved by a Buddhist monk and decides to pose as monk as a way to return to his unit. On the way he is witness to what the war has left behind. Countless of dead soldiers left around to rot. Pointless death. Demeaning death. A desecration of life. He is so overwhelmed by this combined with his experience in the cave that he decides that his life mission is to clean up after the war. So he goes about burying the corpses, giving them the proper rites and in the process he is transformed to a real monk.

His platoon keeps looking for him and in a number of encounters they believe they see him, but it is the Captain who finally realizes what has happened to Mizoshima and comes to terms with it when they finally find him.

All along the harp is the healer, or the symbol of healing. Mizoshima is a virtuoso on the instrument and therefore also at healing the souls. It is as if his skill marks him for this mission. There is a conflict in him between the call and returning to his friend, but hard as it is he is committed.

It may not be clear from my clumsy writing, but this movie is extremely good at communicating its sensibilities. The German word gefühl is a very precise descriptor for “The Burmese Harp”. Despite my lack of understanding of Japanese culture I can feel the healing Mizushima provides for the dead soldiers, but also the catharsis the Japanese must go through after the war, not unlike what happened in Germany. The soldiers are in a strange limbo after the war and the trauma is never far away. The singing is medicine, but Mizoshima takes it a lot further and in the process lifts a weight from his fellow comrades in arms.

I admit that I know nothing of director Kon Ichikawa. I never saw anything from his hand before, but if this movie is symptomatic for his production, then I can add another director to the growing list of Japanese greats. There is intuitive understanding here that only marks the truly great directors.

Technically this is also a master piece. Although the movie is in black and white Ichikawa has an eye for the tableau that makes the scenes a feast for the eyes. Or a horror. I believe you would understand this movie without subtitles simply from the imagery itself.

Only drawback I can see is that he suffered an acute lack of western actors. Several actors are obviously reused in different roles and in places British soldiers are played by Japanese actors with dreadful accents. It is a minor thing, a mere curiosity, and it does not detract from the overall picture that this is a brilliant movie.

Sunday 10 January 2016

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet
I love old sci-fi movies.

I cannot say exactly what it is about them that fascinates me, but it is probably somewhere between the imagination that went into them and the kitschy helplessness of the production. They are fun to watch and sometime the more stupid they are the better I like them.

“Forbidden Planet” ticks the first two boxes and fortunately not so much the third one. This being the second fifties sci-fi flick on the List I must say that the editors have pick the less stupid of the lot and I guess that is a good thing. Then I can always pick something up off list to hoot at.

The movie take place a few centuries into the future where mankind is flying through space in flying saucers (yup, those UFO flying saucers people keep seeing are probably just future humans flying back in time) and the spaceship C-57D is sent to the planet Altair IV to look for survivors of the Bellerophon mission that disappeared there twenty years ago. Headed by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) the C57D finds only one survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira Morbius (Anne Francis).

Morbius is a most reluctant host believing that the crew is in danger of whatever horror killed the rest of the crew of the Bellerophon, yet he has no need to be rescued. He is immune of that horror he claims. He has also found the treasure left behind by an ancient species called the Krell, including a brain booster and technology enabling him to build a robot called Robby.

The doctor’s greatest asset however is his daughter. Alta is a most innocent blonde knock-out totally devoid of inhibitions and wearing a skirt not suited for bending forward. Her impact on a crew locked up in a spaceship for years is quite predictable.

Commander Adams dilemma is that he cannot just leave the doctor and all that treasure behind, yet the doctor do not want to be saved. Also there is Alta. So he stays put and soon after his expedition is attacked by a mysterious monster, leaving a wake of death.

“Forbidden Planet” is both in color and Cinemascope and some of the sets are quite elaborate, but otherwise this is definitely a B production. Back then sci-fi was not the big expensive productions they are today. Compared to A productions of its time this movie has a lot of problems. Acting is an issue, only Walter Pidgeon was star material at the time. Leslie Nielsen later developed into one of the funniest actors in Hollywood, but in 56 he was just a TV dude. The rest of the cast are miserable actors and the direction is not much better. The script is a hoot. If you love Star Trek techno-babble then this is a treasure trove and the lines fed to the actors are often hilarious.

Yet “Forbidden Planet is a lot more than that. Even at surface value you can see that a lot of imagination went into this one. The Krell laboratory looks like “Metropolis” and “Frankenstein” in color, it is huge and very elaborate. Robby, the robot may look antiquated today, but at the dawn of computers he is quite exciting and certainly more robot material than Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (though he certainly had a more demonic side). There are also interesting special effects when the monster attacks the space ship and is held back at the fence by the ray guns of the ship crew. It may look quaint by today’s standard, but for 56 it is quite spectacular. As is the fully electronic soundtrack with eerie sounds and blips made on custom made electronic devices.

For the most interesting aspect of “Forbidden Planet” however we need to dig a slight step deeper. Science fiction is always most interesting when it hold up a mirror to ourselves and let us take the view from a different angle than we are used to. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” did that and so does “Forbidden Planet”. The message here is that the human subconscious holds the seeds for our own destruction. That without reins we are terrible beings. (Spoiler alert!) The Krell technology has enabled Morbius’s subconscious to take physical form and it is not pretty, yet he seems completely unaware of this. Where normally humans save their demons for their nightmares and keep a lid on things through a layer of civilization and behavioral codes, the Krell technology removes all those barriers.

Robby is another such example. He is just a machine, but the space crew project theirs fears and desires on him and he simply returns them. He is not evil, he is what you make him do. Alta as well. She is harmless, but she triggers instinctive reactions in the all-male space crew. Only the discipline of the commander prevents a disaster, but he eventually falls in love with her himself. All three, the Krell machinery, Robby, the robot and Alta can unlock the human potential for atrocity and disaster.

This is a pretty advanced theme and it is not always presented elegantly, but even in crude form it is quite impressive.

Then there is the heritage of “Forbidden Planet”. Just try to Google it and you get an immense amount of hits. This is a movie that has influenced pop culture and scores of movies since then. Not bad for a 1956 B-movie.    

I had a lot of fun watching this movie. It may be toe-cringing in the beginning, but that wears off. Instead I got exactly what I hoped for with “Forbidden Planet”.


Monday 4 January 2016

Oklahoma! (1955)

After last week’s decent into bleakness with ”The Man with the Golden Arm” this week’s ”Oklahoma!” feels like the antidote. Gone is the heavy weight of the world, ugliness and unsavory drugs. Instead we have open skies in beautiful colors, pretty girls and handsome men with nothing in their heads but who they are going to marry.

It felt like relief… for about fifteen minutes. Then I started groaning.

I know, I know, this is a musical, it is all about the music and a musical should be happy and gay. But this is just super, super gay. In both senses of the word. I do not use this term often and I have nothing against gays, I just cannot describe this in any other way. Somewhere between the dancing cowboys, the colorful and very elaborate dresses and the sugar-laced sentiments on display this movie went far beyond my tolerance.

In earlier posts I have declared that I was turning around to actually like musical, but those were largely back in the thirties. The musicals of the fifties are in quick order reminding me why I disliked the genre in the first place. Where is the charm of Fred Astaire in “Top Hat”? Or the likeability of “Love me Tonight”? The tunes are fine enough, at least if you have a penchant for peasant romantics, it is the wrapping that is the problem.

The deep and engaging story is that the community of Whatever-town in Oklahoma is having a social event to which everybody, though mostly young and very agile people, are going. Curly (Gordon MacRae) and Laurey (Shirley Jones) are sweethearts, but teasing each other to the extent that Laurey instead asks farmhand Jud (Rod Steiger) to take her to the dance. Jud who has the hots for Laurey jumps at the opportunity and is over the moon. He is the brooding type and therefore a bad guy so when he declares his love for Laurey she feels assaulted and drops him off on the way to the ball. See, she was only using him to get back at Curly for being fresh with her. At the dance Jud challenges Curly in a bidding game for Laurey’s lunch box and losses since everybody is against him. He gets pissed off and it end with a fight.

This takes about two hours and fifteen minutes to unfold which allows for plenty of singing and dancing. It is telling that most unusually the Wikipedia entry on “Oklahoma!” does not include a plot synopsis.

There are only two interesting characters in this movie: Charlotte Greenwood’s Aunt Eller, who has an acerbic comment to everything, extremely welcome against all the sugar, and Jud, who is the only one of the lot who looks the part of a country boy and is annoyed with all those morons. I am supposed to be scared of what he will do to Laurey and Curly, but I found myself cheering for him, hoping he would cause a lot of trouble.

There is a side story with the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Alberts, who apparently thinks that a Persian accent is something like Irish) and the frivolous Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, would you believe it?), but that is just incredibly stupid and seem mainly to function as a humorous sidekick and to allow Ado Annie to say “Purty” as many times as possible. Now, I am not really sure what that word means, but I bet it is (giggle) naughty.

Of course I am focusing on the wrong things here. I should be writing about the singing and the dancing, so let me give it a shot. The singing… well I suppose it is nice enough, I just do not care much for peasant romantics (I dislike Country and Western music with a vengeance) and would have much preferred some Frank Sinatra. The dancing: that is something I much prefer to do rather than to look at it, so I cannot really comment on that, except, you know, dancing cowboys?

My wife surprised me by actually knowing “Oklahoma!”. She shuddered by the mention of it. Apparently it represents everything she despise about the fifties.

I had a thought (actually many, there is plenty of time for that) while watching the movie. This would make an interesting double feature with “The Grapes of Wrath”. The fantasy and the bitter reality. Wonder what the Oki’es of the depression thought of “Oklahoma!”?

Done with ’55. Now it is on to ’56.

Friday 1 January 2016

Happy New Year 2016!

Happy New Year 2016!
It is the first day of 2016 and therefore time for a big HAPPY NEW YEAR! to everybody reading this blog.

The beginning of the year also marks an anniversary for me since it was New Year’s eve 2009/10 that I made the crazy decision to watch all these movies and went right ahead to order a compilation from film pioneers like Méliès and Lumière. Six years later and I am closing in on the 1/3 mark (the List is growing so that point keeps moving away).

At this point I am 314 movies down the List and a single movie from finishing 1955 (Oklahoma!). I know most of my fellow bloggers would have finished the list in that time, but I take it slow and I also only started writing about them in 2012 (poor excuse). Still the pace suits me fine and I will now stop complaining about it, I promise.

In 2015 I processed 64 movies from the list and a few more if you count Danish entries and a few extra movies I reviewed. This took me from 1951 to 1955. There are a lot more movies each year now and 1955 covers a staggering 20 entries. Fortunately the quality is generally good and although it is slow going it gives a more in-depth view on each year with lots of entries. Also it allows space for world cinema, which in the post war period was lagging behind Hollywood at least technically.

So, what was the greatest experience of 2015 movie wise? With so many excellent movies that is an awfully difficult choice, but I will go with “Seven Samurai”. Although it was a re-watch it overwhelmed me in a way I did not expect and in a great year like 1954 it takes a lot to stand out.

On the book list I did not do so well. Four books is nothing to brag about. Partly this is due to poor planning on my side (finishing a book without having the next one ready), but also these old books make for very slow reading. However I am busy reading again and hopefully I can pick up the pace there a bit.

Finally I wish to thank my readers and especially those commenting on my writings for doing just that in 2015 and wish you all the best for the new year.