Monthly Archives: August 2014

August 27, 2014

59. The Night Porter (1974)

2000: 059 box 1


directed by Liliana Cavani
screenplay by Liliana Cavani and Italo Moscati (in collaboration with Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani)
story by Liliana Cavani, Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani

(Some sources have it that the proper “original” title is the Italian Il portiere di notte, I guess because it was produced in Italy, but to my mind that’s not sensible. The dialogue is all in English and so are the title cards.)

Criterion #59.

“Night porter? I hardly know her!”
(Oh, wait a minute, I do know her! From when I used to rape her in that concentration camp. Right.)

This movie sucks.

It’s not trash because the material is offensive. It’s trash because if the material weren’t offensive, there’d be no movie. Being able to épater le bourgeoisie is meaningless; anyone can if they want to. Everyone’s got an asshole. The question is not whether you can manage to take a picture of it. The questions are 1) why you’re taking it, and 2) how good the picture is.

As for 2, this movie sucks. It’s completely static and undramatic. It doesn’t live properly. Very bad looping of worthless dialogue. Clumsy, plodding pacing and editing. A general and constant impression of second-rateness.

As for 1:

First of all, let me digress and say that I don’t much like the term “exploitation film.” People who use it tend to specify what’s being exploited, but not what it’s being exploited for, which is just as important to the concept of exploitation. The implied answer, I guess, is: “for attention, which equals money.” But that’s rarely the psychological reality. Often, in fact, the purveyors of such stuff are profoundly fond of the thing they are selling, and eager to get it out there. Not cynical at all, and certainly not indifferent to the questions of degradation that the term “exploitation” is intended to expose; it’s just that they truly don’t think that what they’re doing is damaging to anyone. Critics need to remember that pornographers really do approve of pornography, and very often the subjects don’t perceive themselves as being exploited or degraded either. So “exploitation” is sort of a leading term, part of a missionary moralism that tries to save e.g. pornographers and their subjects and their audience from a system that none of the parties involved think is bad for them. Only their critic-saviors do. It’s sort of a Marxist term that’s too often used as an aesthetic term.

(Alternately, it’s sometimes just used to mean “low budget film,” with the rather offensive implication that when a major studio tries to profit from a movie about X, that’s simply the upstanding world of business, but when the little guy tries to profit from a movie about X, that’s an attempt to “exploit” the popularity of X to make a quick and dirty buck: sleazy coattail riding. Thus the same term can be Marxist and elitist.)

That all said, I do feel like this movie is exploitative. It chooses intentionally offensive material as a way to win prestige and attention. I don’t much hold with the concept of “taste,” when I can help it. But it’s all too obvious that this is quite deliberately “tasteless.” If you just imagine this same movie with the swastikas removed — imagine that the guy was just a run-of-the-mill peacetime rapist — it becomes instantly transparent how absurd and pretentious all the languorous self-seriousness is.

I found it immensely boring. The only interest it held was a kind of bated breath about how offensive it would, presumably, reportedly, eventually be. But you have to watch for a whole damn hour before it gets to the Nazi sex. Yawn! And who are these characters apart from being the figurines in this scandalous tableau? They’re nobody. What am I supposed to care about other than my own sophistication?

It’s a narrow fantasy of “difficult material” just as pornography is a narrow fantasy of sexuality.

Yeah. Hm. That gives me a thought. So actually, I take it back. Maybe it’s not necessarily exploitative after all. I can imagine it as uncynical, as just clueless and asinine. It feels a bit like “dark” comic books often do: like hopelessly constricted minds doing their best impression of going exploring.

It’s possible that the filmmakers really didn’t understand the difference between sadomasochistic sex fantasy and actual torture.

My inner Herr Doktor Freud says: the people who get turned on saying stuff like “I’ve been a very very naughty girl” are the ones who can only conceive of freedom in terms of disobedience, because they have a complex: they can’t help but constantly project a disapproving authority above themselves. This projected authority is an imaginary party to all their acts and will thus figure in their fantasies, in various guises. This movie is about Nazis who are just such projections, Freudian functionaries. That’s considered tasteless not because the emotional impulse is horrific — it’s not — but because there were also real Nazis who killed real people, people still remembered by the living… So for the sake of a publicly exhibited movie, why couldn’t you get your Freudian function fulfilled elsewhere, just as a courtesy? For example, how about a movie about a meek young director and a viciously authoritarian censor who suppresses her film, who have hot sex when they meet 20 years later? I would be fine with that. (Though it too would be super-boring if it were made as badly as this.)

So yeah, this is sort of like fan fic from a gross webpage with a black background and flame gifs. Fifty Shades of Gruppenführer. (Don’t go googling! I’m sure it’s out there.)

The saddest thing, the greatest offense, is that when I make the effort to really give the material the broadest possible benefit of the doubt, I recognize that the scenario does have real potential. The subject is private meaning, private emotion, which does not respect taboo. We must hole up with our private selves for as long as we can until we are inevitably hunted down by society’s unfeeling concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, guilt and justice. And Stockholm syndrome/S&M are categories of emotion that are at least somewhat problematic to most people: the more taboo the material feels to the audience, the more urgent our sense of that conflict. Okay. I see the rationale. But this movie does not have anything even close to the skill necessary to make good on that potential. It’s like the sophomore drama society, in way over its head.

They wrote it too. Script sample. After the night porter has sex with his giggling former victim, he goes down to the hotel bar, opens a beer, and soliliquizes: “When all seems lost, something unexpected happens. Ghosts take shape in the mind. How can one pull away from it? This phantom with a voice and a body: it is a part of oneself.”

That shit is deep! And mad challenging, yo, ’cause he’s a Nazi, what?

The photography’s okay. Dirk Bogarde seems to be trying very hard to make something of this, and Charlotte Rampling is, obviously, very game. In the abstract it’s admirable professionalism. But I didn’t watch it in the abstract.

Ties to the preceding movie: 1. Yet again, camera = rape. 2. The Magic Flute, recording conducted by Karl Böhm.

I’ll admit that some of my anger may be Criterion inflation. This is in many ways just a B movie with pretensions. If I saw it with no expectations in the course of screening random Italian films from 1974, I might say, “That wasn’t for me, but it was certainly weird and daring.” Maybe. But I would still have wished it had been a short, instead. (And a smart, too.)

It’s like a performance artist whose act is lying naked on stage for 2 hours, and who keeps peeking up to see if you’re shocked yet. I freaking get it, all right? What else are you going to do???

This movie can go night port itself.

Music by Daniele Paris. Here are the end titles. The music runs 30 seconds too long for the actual credit roll so some black leader is appended. Thus the movie manages to be clumsy all the way to the bitter end.

Furthermore, the editor screwed up and cut out a few seconds of music by mistake, leaving a jolt in the soundtrack. I have restored them from the main titles, which use the same recording (though with sound effects, so you’ll hear subtle traffic sounds for 2 seconds). You’re welcome.

So it would seem that Liliana Cavani is a lesbian. Gauche as it may be to admit this: that offers me a way of making some sense of this thing. From her perspective, this is all allegory; not just the Nazi and the prisoner but the man and the woman too. The real story is elsewhere.

August 26, 2014

58. Peeping Tom (1960)

1999: 058 box 1 (out of print since 4/10)


directed by Michael Powell
story and screenplay by Leo Marks

Criterion #58.

I kept thinking of what Martin Scorsese said about Powell’s The Red Shoes, so here it is again:

What I like about it sometimes: it seems out of control, that their emotions are out of control. Not the characters but the people who made the film. That the passion is out of control and I think that’s something that’s very rare. Something very rare is created when that occurs.

This movie is also certainly something rare. As with The Red Shoes, the most striking thing is that it was made at all, in this particular spirit. Michael Powell must have been a very strange person. This madman slasher movie feels like a plea or a confession, like something fraught. Just the opposite of Hitchcock and Psycho, to which it is sometimes compared, apparently. Hitchcock was never, ever out of control.

(Well, I can’t speak for Frenzy because I’ve never seen it. Word is it’s very bad. From what I gather, it actually has more in common with Peeping Tom than Psycho does, but I may be wrong about that.)

Nowadays, the sicko serial killer genre has been very well established for decades. All such movies belong comfortably to a tradition; when someone makes a new one, it’s essentially a ritual act within that tradition, and thus unremarkable. But Peeping Tom came first, so it feels peculiarly purposeful. They created it deliberately, out of the infinite field of all potential movies. They really meant it. That’s why it remains creepy today: not because of the creepy goings-on, but because of its free and fervent interest in them.

I’ve said before that I generally find cheap, trashy movies much scarier than glossy prestige movies, because I do not trust their judgment. Well, Peeping Tom is certainly not itself seedy; rather, it’s a classy production that is determinedly fixated on seediness. But that ends up being similarly distressing. It is untrustworthy at one remove; it is dressed normally and speaking intelligently, but is making very strange conversation, all about madness. “I tell you this because, as an artist, I think you’ll understand.” Its intentions feel composed but unhinged.

So in the “will he or won’t he kill?” moments, whenever our protagonist drifts into a Peter Lorre trance while in conversation with an unsuspecting woman, I experienced a special kind of unease, different from anything in, say, Silence of the Lambs. In ordinary thrillers, I definitely squirm when the hook is put in me, but I know why I’ve been hooked: for the spice and the savor of it. I’m comfortable with that, within reason; that’s fair play. But at several points in Peeping Tom I had a more itchy and uncertain feeling, like maybe someone had only hooked me as bait for something else, whatever he was personally fishing for.

This is a portrait of a cameraman = voyeur = sociopath = murderer, made with an emphasis not so much on the horror as on the pathos of those equations. I’m not sure that I think those equations make much sense outside the confines of a horror movie. But this movie certainly takes its ideas quite seriously. It is a passable murder movie, but it is principally a psychology movie, an apparently heartfelt and sometimes intensely sentimental one. As such it’s very, very odd.

Psycho is a great murder movie that makes a hollow gesture toward being a psychology movie. I basically don’t believe in Norman’s rationale and never have; as far as I’m concerned, Norman Bates is just a type of villain schtick. Yes, each kink in the psychoanalysis at the end of the movie makes some sense, but it’s like three kinks too elaborate for the creepshow of the movie. If you take the time to follow the explanation and really think it through, Norman’s pathology as described is fascinatingly layered and interesting. But I’ll be frank with you: I had never fully and seriously thought it through until just now, because the movie doesn’t actually give a crap; it just knows it needs to unload that stuff so that the recipe will work out.

Lines like “Mother isn’t quite herself today” are only cute; they’re not a serious indication of anything. A Psycho that took Norman’s pain seriously would be quite a different beast. A harder movie to deliver, I think. The Silence of the Lambs devotes much more screen time to explicating Buffalo Bill’s mind, but it still comes off as mechanical (and/or prurient) rather than rich and humane and difficult. Our standard sympathies are never actually troubled. Peeping Tom really sincerely tries to care about what it’s like to be crazy. So it’s a little crazy.

In the Joseph Stefano screenplay for Psycho, after the psychologist is done explaining Norman, we read:

Lila begins to weep softly, for Mary, for Arbogast, for Norman, for all the destroyed human beings of this world.

But that sure doesn’t happen in the movie! (Hitchcock: “Who said anything about human beings?”) It happens in Peeping Tom.

Phase two of this response. Because I’m willing to go deeper if that’s what’s required of me! (Hint: nothing is required of me.)

Let’s return to the Duane Hall reference. The joke of the scene, essentially, is that Duane is obsessively troubled by his own ordinary capacity for perverse thoughts (e.g. driving into traffic) and unable to make peace with this part of his mind because he has been brought up in an emotionally-repressed WASP household. When a Jewish writer appears in his life, Duane imagines that this person will be more emotionally open and sophisticated, and so sees in Woody an opportunity to establish a sense of his own social normalcy, something that his family cannot provide. But the joke’s on him, because actually Woody is more terrified of Duane’s perverse thoughts than he is, because he is a completely fear-based person and in the Hall household is already completely preoccupied with his sense of being on hostile ground. His passive-aggressive punchline about being due back on Earth is a rigid refusal to dare to take Duane’s appeal seriously. Depending on the audience member’s psychology, the comedy in the scene is either that we are similarly fearful and passive-aggressive, and feel the relief of identification with Woody’s predicament (“Yeah: we’re all due back on planet Earth, weirdo! Sock it to that creep, Woody! Sock it to fear itself!”) or that we feel a compassion for Woody-as-author’s implicit self-recognition (“Yeah, it’s hard for cowards; one has to smile, sadly, at the pathos of all the coping he does just to deal with ordinary reality — and at the sad fact that people don’t understand this, and constantly expect more of him.”)

Anyway, above I invoked this moment to try to get sympathy for my uneasiness about the psychological needs of Powell and Marks as sublimated in Peeping Tom. But in so doing I’m just being a coward like Woody. The filmmakers offered up their fears to see what was out there. (Which is what the antihero of the movie can’t quite bring himself to do.) In historical reality, the critical condemnation of this movie basically ended Michael Powell’s career: “We’re due back on the planet Earth,” said the press. Do I really have to be part of that mob? If Michael and Leo happen to feel like perverts and psychopaths, like M, when they retreat behind their pens and cameras, and they’re brave enough to share those feelings, why can’t I sit here and take it? Gosh, guys, that’s interesting. No, I don’t think you’re as bad as all that; there’s no need to worry so much about this stuff. But it’s certainly an interesting nightmare you had. Thanks for making a movie of it.

In fact I can sit here and take it, and did, and got something out of it. I heard what they were saying and took it seriously. So this isn’t a fair critique of me, me.

A third possible reading of the Annie Hall scene, the one that I think probably best describes the way I tend to see it, is that there is something fun, savorable in itself, about this sort of fear-tinged social confrontation. “This is my room.” Woody has wandered someplace strange and now something strange is confronting him. Strange is kind of fun! Strange is satisfying!

So actually I think that’s what I was trying to say above. Yes, Peeping Tom isn’t just weird but also weird for being so weird… but that can be satisfying. Because any kind of distinction can be valuable, can be valued. Positive vs. negative judgments are a false paradigm. More true to experience is what Marty said: “Something very rare.” Rare is a nice word.

I know, this has really wandered off and I’ve talked about Annie Hall almost as much as Peeping Tom, but I can do what I like.

Music by Powell & Pressburger regular Brian Easdale is part of the oddness; there is some orchestral underscore, but the protagonist’s psychosis and the snuff films that embody it are always accompanied by clangy “modern music” piano solos, which sound like something between a dance rehearsal and a tied-to-the-railroad-tracks melodrama accompaniment. Often these are not really very compositionally expressive, though I’m not certain how intentional that was. To me they functioned more like an ambient anxiety, like a descent into the claustrophobic conservatory practice room of his diseased mind. Here then is the main title, surely one of the most bizarre main title cues ever written for a commercial movie. Piano performance is by Gordon Watson.

Lead performances by Carl Boehm (son of Karl Böhm!) and Anna Massey are quite good, in the way of this movie. Second-billing for Moira Shearer doing a single 14-minute scene, in which she finds an excuse to dance, seems like a commercial calculation, but I like her. (She dances to “Percussion Number by Wally Stott.” Wait, where have I heard of Wally Stott again? Oh right, he’s Angela Morley). Pamela Green as the pinup model has a nicely casual presence; I learn that she was an actual pinup model and left this chatty memoir of the making of the movie, which I find completely credible and which substantiates my impression that the movie is odd because Powell was odd.

Commentary, taken from the original 1994 laserdisc, is by Laura “the male gaze” Mulvey, a genuinely distinguished film scholar for a change and a fitting choice. She gives a very film-studies gender-studies critical-theory type reading, but it’s palatable enough, because she isn’t addicted to jargon or counter-intuitive claims. And because, of all movies, this one really does seem to invite it. It is literally about the Freudian psychology of a woman-murdering cameraman, it is literally about pornography and studio films in parallel, and is full of references to the actual filmmakers. And it’s pretty much titled “The Male Gaze.”

Watching it a second time behind the commentary, I see that it is a bit of a second-time film. The problem with the first time is that one is waiting for the chills and shocks and reveals, which are all reasonable enough but not actually the movie’s strongest suit. It works much better as a “text” to be returned to than as a show to be watched, probably because that’s how it was felt while it was being made. It makes perfect sense that this movie would have crashed and burned on first release, and then been substantially rehabilitated later: later is when you’ll like it.

Further thought. At the deep emotional level where I want to be when I watch movies, the complexities of this movie don’t ring true for me. I can’t find feelings here that I can use, other than the very simple horror movie feelings. At a high intellectual level I do understand all the games and ideas, but somehow they don’t manage to filter down to the ground floor. To me that’s the ultimate test of whether those ideas are valid: if the irrational, instinctual mind believes them too. Here I suspect that they are not valid because they are the rational preoccupations of the filmmakers rather than the irrational shadows they purport to be. The real irrational mind simply isn’t as complicated or dangerous as all that.

My simple mind watches this movie and feels the dual pull: the movie tells me that this man is a monster to be feared, who might hurt me if I were around him, and it tells me that he is sympathetic and good, that this is a movie where he’s allowed to kill these women. My deep mind feels this duality, but does not find an emotional way of making use of it. It only feels like a mistake, or a simple fork in the road: well, I can either like him or not. How do you want me to do this? Do you want me to alternate? It doesn’t really matter to me! There will be plenty of other movies, so the stakes are low.

At this level I think it fails to be what it aspires to be, which is interesting as a movie. It’s definitely interesting as a text. It’s not bad as a movie, but it’s no Psycho. And no Annie Hall for that matter.

And a final thought, now that I’ve seen everything on the disc. Better than the commentary is the UK “Channel 4” documentary from 1997, with satisfying appearances by all the right people. Much is made of the enigmatic personality of Leo Marks, who is certainly a fascinating figure, someone straight out of John le Carré. His sensitivity to psychology, as seen in the screenplay and in his interview segments, seems quite clearly genuine and distinctive: he is a dabbler but also certainly a “real artist” of some kind. But his veiled, obscurely but confidently composed personality — his guru-like demeanor — is exactly the gap in his technique. The documentary filmmaker understands this and frames him accordingly: the man is certainly a mystery, but it’s probably only because he carries his own obsession with mystery around with him everywhere. A codebreaker looks at the self and sees codes. But self-knowledge is not the same as self-decipherment; quite the opposite. Candor is not a form of cunning. The movie is eager to decode, but not to admit.

That’s its own kind of danger, and governs its own sort of thriller. I expect I’ll enjoy the movie next time I see it, because now I know: it is the patient. But I am safe with it. It wouldn’t hurt a fly.

August 21, 2014

57. Charade (1963)

1999/2004: 057 box 1 2010 Blu-ray: 057 box 2


directed by Stanley Donen
screenplay by Peter Stone
story by Peter Stone and Marc Behm

Criterion #57.

I wish I loved it. I do like it quite warmly. It’s a cheery, imperfect movie.

Here are movie stars. Movie stars are people so splendid that they can watch their own movies as they’re happening. Like us. Life is a movie and we fall in love while we’re watching ourselves in it. This is the essence of romance and feels very true. Romance is to be together in the dark while a movie starring you is going on.

The meaning of this movie, it seems to me, is in that scene, in the lines: “Do you realize you’ve had three names in the past two days? I don’t even know who I’m talking to anymore.” / “Well, the man’s the same even if the name isn’t.” Key to this exchange is that neither party is distressed; to the contrary, they are Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on the boat in Charade, at the very pinnacle of ease and romance. The message is: who’s to say what it means to care, or not care, about the intricacies of this particular bauble of a plot, these particular identities… or, for that matter, identity in general? It doesn’t change the underlying ineffable reality of whatever it is that’s happening for “Regina” and “Brian,” or for Cary and Audrey, or for us watching, or even, perhaps, for the late Mr. Leach and the late Ms. Ruston. What is it that’s happening for them? Life, happiness, the unknown. Maybe a mystery story. Something.

Like I just said about Hitchcock in the previous entry: all film is essentially surreal. And since we recognize ourselves in film, perhaps all life is surreal too.

It’s nice for this to have come right on the tail of The 39 Steps. This is exactly the same charade, but with that extra layer of self-awareness added: where Robert Donat never tipped his hand more than to smile with preternatural aplomb, Audrey and Cary stop after nearly every scene to savor their pleasure at being alive and a part of this game. Charade is happy to be a movie, and is happy that we are happy that it is a movie. For all his playfulness, Hitchcock held to a kind of British propriety in not letting his characters openly admit, within the frame, that none of it mattered, that all of the intrigues were simply a form of joy. (But he finally, finally, eventually, got there, in the very last second of the very last thing he made.)

On the other hand, sometimes this movie feels like a thriller starring a tulip in a vase. (I don’t mean in a Magritte sense, though that does sound interesting. I just mean professional tulip Audrey Hepburn and Miss Hepburn’s Clothes By Givenchy.) At one point we cut to Audrey alone in her room, momentarily to hear Cary Grant at the door. She is lying on her bed perfectly poised with her pointy arms behind her head, in acutely stylish clothing, placidly staring. I’m not saying I object to watching this; nobody would object to watching this. I’m just saying it’s often not at all like watching a mystery, or a comedy for that matter. It’s like watching a tulip in a vase. Very pleasant!

The tulip meets a mahogany humidor. After an hour of mostly thrills and goofs, she quite seriously says “I think I love you” to Cary Grant. This is the moment in movies when my defenses usually snap up: “Seriously??” (Yes, I know, whatever that says about me. But whatever it says about me, I’m not alone in it.) But here it was okay. It was right that she loved him. The one thing we really believe about Audrey and Archie — or at least their avatars — is that they are both committed to this pleasurable bantering distance from any real troubles — not just as a performance of cool, but as a mode of encountering life. In each other, within the script, they find a fellow traveler through the cinematic darkness. So of course they love each other.

On movie terms, that feels like a very real kind of love. Such love doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of kissing, or getting married at the end, or really anything in particular. They seem to know that too. They don’t need anything from each other. That’s why I believed it.

More concrete link to the previous movie: the housekeeper finds a dead body, screams directly into the camera. Link to the movie prior to that: Audrey Hepburn and Juliette Binoche are very closely related types. Link to the movie prior to that: Hm. I guess that Walter Matthau was in JFK with Kevin Bacon and Kevin Bacon was in Apollo 13 with Apollo 13. Link to North By Northwest: all of it, obviously, plus Cary Grant talks to someone from the opposite end of the same bank of telephones. Link to To Catch a Thief: really, truly, all of it. And I note the inclusion of Princess Grace Commemorative stamps when the stamp dealer inventories the cheap packet he gave the boy. Seems intentional.

Did Hitchcock like Charade? Was he flattered or annoyed or indifferent or what? What did he have to say about it? Why isn’t this easy to find out?

My quibble with the movie is essentially that it is loose sometimes when it wants to be tight and vice versa. But that’s the price of charm; if you want to catch it in a bottle, the bottle needs to be various different sizes. Or a vase. The whole thing plays much better on second viewing, when it no longer has to work.

Also, the last act is rhythmically stronger than the rest, which is helpful to the overall impression — thanks to a considerable assist from Henry Mancini, who hits all the necessary nails squarely on the head for 15 minutes straight.

Here’s the main title, which accompanies the great Maurice Binder animated titles. I love credit sequences like these, not just because I love abstract animation anyway, which I do, but because I love the idea that this world of abstract imagery somehow is the movie, is somehow an approved translation into dream-terms of the very DNA of the live-action movie that follows. The idea that a movie can have a subconscious, and that it is right to begin inside it. I enjoyed many things in Charade but the single moment that most excited me may have been when those arrows first snaked onto the screen at the very beginning, to the sound of pure percussion pattern. This is a story, it says, but first and foremost it is a pattern. Cool. That already makes me feel good. Can’t you feel your “cares” begin to drop away with the recognition that underneath all the things of man and Hollywood are these arrows and colors and stripes and a steady beat?

One other thing about these credits. Charade, notoriously, happens to be in the public domain, and thus legal to distribute freely. How did this top-class studio release fall through that particular crack? This is how. Look close. The copyright notice lacks the word “copyright” or the (c) symbol. Even though it’s very clearly, obviously, intended as a copyright notice. Even though it announces the date of publication, explicitly reserves all rights and specifies their owner. Can you believe the law is really so vindictive as to immediately place this film in the public domain upon its first commercial exhibition with this faulty notice? Well, it’s not any more, but it used to be.

So thanks a lot, Maurice Binder and/or unidentified Universal employee(s), and thanks a lot, U.S. law prior to 1978. Anyway, be warned: don’t pay for any release of this movie other than the official Criterion edition. Don’t watch one for free, either, if you can help it; the quality is always much worse than it needs to be (this goes for the Netflix streaming version, too), whereas the Criterion Blu-ray looks great. To its credit, Criterion makes no mention at all of the public domain issue and simply treats the film as though it were fully owned by Universal, which is after all the only decent thing to do.

The commentary track by Stanley Donen and Peter Stone is very good. Charming, personable. The same warm good cheer of the movie can clearly be heard in their two personalities. Donen seems to genuinely believe that some listeners might never have seen the movie before, and is intent on not spoiling surprises for first-time viewers. Stone thinks this is absurd but plays along.

During the swinging revelry of the orange-passing game, the two reminisce that they shot this during the Cuban Missile Crisis and that everyone felt that they were doing something incredibly frivolous and pointless given that the world was about to end. To me, this knowledge only deepens the romance of the scene, and in fact of the whole movie.

The woman who does a take when George Kennedy is holding Cary Grant at gunpoint and tells her to wait for the next elevator is clearly a non-actor but still does a pretty funny take. It’s both amateurish and effective; I watched it several times. I often think “if I had to do this bit part, could I do it?” Probably not as well as she does.

August 19, 2014

56. The 39 Steps (1935)

1999: 056 box 1 2012: 056 box 2


directed by Alfred Hitchcock
after the novel by John Buchan (1915)
adaptation by Charles Bennett; continuity by Alma Reville; dialogue by Ian Hay

Criterion #56.

I love this genre.

Movies like this transform “story” and “character” and “theme” into something more like one of those crib toys with ten different doodads: a bell and a spinner and a twirler and a ball and a phone and a rubber button and so on. Do they form a whole? Absolutely they do. Just look: it’s a whole. What ties that whole together, you might ask. But what kind of a question is that? Just look! Humpty Dumpty and Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Tortoise and the Hare and others. Obviously it’s about fairy tales etcetera. What is the phone there for, then, you might ask. But what kind of a question is that? Just look!

I will pretty much always take a good Fisher Price Activity Center movie over a movie with a message.

A good one, I said. What does it take for one of these movies to be “good”? Well, it does have to form a whole. You can look at the Fisher Price picture yet again if you need to: it’s all framed and united and designed. That is the function served by “plot” in these movies, and it’s an important function. In lesser movies, the various doodads are just dumped out of a box at your feet: here’s your damn Christmas present. That’s insulting.

So plot does matter quite a bit. But all the same, a movie like this does not actually tell a story; it just puts us inside a bubble of story-ness and then rings the bells and spins the spinners, without breaking the bubble. One arbitrary thing must lead to the next inexorably, as though this particular arrangement of doodads were actually a single perfect and necessary thing, being gradually revealed. There’s an art to it, but it’s an abstract art. Or a mostly-abstract art — like dance, or graphic design.

Because The 39 Steps is old and black-and-white and mostly shot on stagy sets, its bubble is very pure and complete. I felt cocooned in and safe, like I was floating with Glinda. Or, more aptly, coasting through the countryside in a luxe sleeper car, lulled by the muffled clacking of the tracks.

Hitchcock’s genius was his unwavering commitment to the bubble, even as over the course of his career the bells and spinners got bigger and louder. He was able to teach everyone else what was really going on at the movies: something unreal, something loopy and spooky and sensory. His coups de theatre are celebrated not just for their effect but for their instructional value as proof-of-concept. It wasn’t just that seeing a man on Lincoln’s nose was gratifying; it was also that a pioneering demonstration had been made of how and in what spirit it can be gratifying for there to be a man on Lincoln’s nose. Surrealism isn’t just for Freud, and nonsense isn’t just for jokes.

This is all to say that there should be a 39 Steps-themed crib toy. You could easily reskin the standard one to have Richard Hannay and a policeman running through the highlands along the bottom instead of the Tortoise and the Hare. One of the spinners can rotate to gradually reveal a picture of a hand missing a pinky. Etc.

Overheard at the laundromat just now. The very large woman who works there was folding clothes while watching TV. A customer stood next to her and watched with her for a minute.

Customer: What’s this?
Laundry lady: It’s Castle. You don’t watch Castle?? You’ve got to!
Customer: It’s about lawyers?
Laundry lady (delightedly correcting him): It’s a show!

She put it better than I did.

I am generally skeptical about “deep readings” of bubble movies like this. It’s not that I think they’re completely illegitimate; it’s just that they’re not usually done very sensitively. There’s a “visual essay” on the disc, in which a film scholar notes that the final shot of the movie, with chorus girls in the background and Mr. Memory dying in the foreground, juxtaposes “eros, the life instinct,” with “the death drive.” My objection isn’t that this is false; my objection is that it’s a clumsy, worthless way of gesturing toward something true. A kid watching naively, who has no clue what “the death drive” means or what such an analysis could possibly be saying, is better attuned to what’s really happening in that shot than an educated adult who has instant access to all the irrelevant cultural baggage that comes with those terms. Such analysis dumps extraneous crap in front of the film, blocking your view in the name of elucidation. Here’s your damn Christmas present, college boy.

Deep reading an image or a plot is basically a game. The Fisher Price Activity Center juxtaposes eros and the death drive too, come to think of it. Ask not for whom the bell goes ding!

Deep reading the psychology from which a movie springs, and to which it appeals, is another thing.

The sex in this movie takes the form of Madeleine Carroll taking off her wet stockings while handcuffed to Robert Donat, so that his hand can’t help but be along for the ride, no matter how limp and blameless he tries to make it. Subsequently, they have no choice but to sleep next to each other in a four-poster hotel bed. The appeal of the handcuff gag is the same as the appeal of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” and various other teenage contrivances to have sex forced on oneself: it relieves one of the responsibility of owning up to anything. It appeals to the repressed, who dare not pursue their own desire but would love for some hilarious fantasy circumstance to impose it on them. This is the framework for sex in so many old movies, and while it’s convenient for film scholars to talk about such devices as a way of getting stuff past the censors, I see it more as a way of appealing to widespread inner immaturity. God help us if these two characters were actually to have the hots for each other and acknowledge it: how drab and potentially tasteless. But if a Rube Goldberg machine appears and when the ironing board tips over and pulls the cat’s tail and releases the balloon, it yanks his hand so that he can’t help but touch her butt: now that’s entertainment!

As a teenager this stuff always seemed intuitively charming to me. But that’s because I was a teenager. Now I feel a little embarrassed for Hitchcock, or perhaps for all of Britain, snickering excitedly in the dark, sleepover party whispers, about “Well, but what if you were handcuffed together and then she got her stockings wet and had to take them off? Then you’d have to touch her leg! Snort!”

Okay, okay: it was still amusing. I guess at my present age I still thoroughly enjoy being yanked around by my trepidations about being hunted by a murderous spy or jumping from a moving train or whatnot; less so my trepidations about girls, because they’re much diminished. But yes, I can still “get it.”

And yes, it’s more complicated than all that, because Robert Donat’s character is not in fact snickering red-facedly; he is genuinely comfortable with whatever absurdly titillating circumstances happen to be dumped in his lap by fate. The fact that what’s happening to him would thrill a schoolboy amuses him. But we, the audience, are the ones thrilling, so we’re sort of the butt of that joke, aren’t we? “You should be so lucky, audience… and I should be so lucky,” thinks Alfred Hitchcock as he asks the actress to show a little more of her thigh. Doesn’t he? If these movies are based on his fears, one of those fears is clearly being put at risk of being aroused by a girl who has the composure that he lacks. Luckily his heroes always miraculously make it through the fire with their composure intact, just like they miraculously survive jumps from moving trains etc.

Music direction by Louis Levy, but as we learned back in The Lady Vanishes, that doesn’t mean he wrote it. The score is apparently actually by Jack Beaver, Charles Williams, and Hubert Bath. Which of the three was responsible for our selection? I don’t think anyone is alive who knows. I certainly don’t. Here’s the main title (opening with a fanfare for the British censor’s certificate: hooray, it was approved!). As with The Lady Vanishes, the main theme serves a clue-like function in the course of the movie. The way the main title is put together is extremely old-fashioned, typically operetta-like, but in my mind somehow that feels just right for this sort of movie. When the woodwinds and pizzicato cascade down toward the end (“PERIL!”), or when in the last few bars the fanfare resolves and then deresolves twice in a row a la Strauss (“HEROISM!”), I am completely charmed. If you close your eyes, you’ll feel like you could almost reach out and touch a mustache.

Beaver, Williams, and Bath sounds like a place to get nice candles.

Stuff on the disc: this interview, which is very good; this mini-documentary, forgettable; 22 minutes of the original Truffaut/Hitchcock interview tapes, fine (Truffaut describes various doodads as tres beau); the “visual essay” mentioned earlier, okay but bland; this radio version, just what it sounds like; and a few nice original production drawings like these.

The commentary track, by one Marian Keane, comes from the original 1999 disc and is firmly in the “By Martians For Martians” deflavorized academic mode. Sample sentence, her take on a POV shot: “When the newspaper is handed over to Hannay, we are in an intensely subjective sequence, and when Hitchcock sustains a subjective sequence, he’s investigating film’s capacity to reveal human subjectivity.” Typical BMFM mushy tautological nothingness; the word “investigating” is a classic red flag. I only made it about halfway through the movie and then stopped it. There’s really no point in subjecting myself to such stuff.

The black-and-white image is appealingly soft and sugary. Even after restoration, it does still flicker a bit. The sound isn’t great and probably never will be. There’s no getting around it: this movie is old.

As usual, Criterion’s packaging does some heavy compensatory lifting. “Actually guys,” it tells us, “old is the opposite of sell-out and sheep. It means taste and it means cachet. Duh, everyone knows that.” Well, that sounds great! That must mean the original period artwork would make a really hip cover, right? Right?

August 10, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1943: Princess O’Rourke


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 16th Academy Awards, presented March 2, 1944 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

The other nominees were:
In Which We Serve — Noël Coward
The North Star — Lillian Hellman
Air Force — Dudley Nichols
So Proudly We Hail! — Allan Scott



Count to three and



Mid-day traffic, noise.



This is the Private Entrance to the Tower Apartments, on the street level, and not much bigger than the entrance to a town house. A trim delivery truck pulls up to the curb, a boy jumping out even before the car comes to a stop. He has a hat box in his hand. He enters the hotel.


This is only the size of a large sitting room. There is one elevator, its attendant waiting at the open door. A big young man, wearing a felt hat, is seated in one of the chairs reading a newspaper. Our delivery boy crosses to the elevator.


Miss Williams’ apartment.

He steps into the elevator. The elevator boy looks in the direction of the big young man with the felt hat.


(repeating a little too loudly)
Miss Williams?




He looks toward the elevator and gets up, crossing to it, and entering.

[First lines in finished film are exactly as above.]

[For today’s discussion, our panel was privileged to be joined by esteemed colleague “Phil” via live satellite feed. Our correspondent had watched the film earlier the same day.]

BROOM Phil, you weren’t here to experience the group dynamic, but the consensus was, after only a few minutes, that this was a very awkward dud. Did you feel that way?

PHIL I did.

BROOM Okay. We were surprised.

PHIL It was a five-minute movie stretched into ninety minutes.

BROOM That’s even a little more elegant than what I thought, which was that it was just very confused. It tried to press a lot of different buttons that didn’t have anything to do with each other.

ADAM There were a lot of details that got shoehorned in. I sort of understood where the whole plot was going, but nobody seemed very committed to it. There were all these extraneous details that caught my attention instead of anything related to the plot. Like Fala. Why was Fala in it so much?

BETH Because he was cute.

BROOM I think that was part of the spirit of pandering that ran through the whole thing. It was for the audience to go “It’s the president’s dog! Oh ho ho it’s so funny that he’s in a movie!” And that’s it. I don’t think there was more sense to it than that.

ADAM Well, what was with the sleeping pills?

BROOM Yes, Phil, any thoughts about the roofie plotline? That the whole thing was based on her being given too many sleeping pills and him being so gentlemanly as not to rape her?

PHIL That was so ridiculous. I felt that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. Was it a true love story or was it a comedy?

BROOM I thought it was clearly trying to be a comedy; it just didn’t have any actual jokes up its sleeve.

ADAM Part of the problem is that Olivia de Havilland is probably the least funny actress.

PHIL I agree, absolutely! She’s not funny!

BROOM She was terrible.

ADAM So all the jokes just sort of hung there.

BROOM In the very first scene, when she says “cheep cheep” to show that she identifies with the bird, it just felt embarrassing.

PHIL I agree with that too.

BROOM I thought, “She shouldn’t have been made to do this! Because she clearly doesn’t know how to deliver a line like that!” Or do anything else. She just kind of looked around. She didn’t even look angelically pretty, either. She just kind of was present, looking around, for the whole movie.

PHIL But here’s something very good: she’s still living.

BROOM That’s right. Here’s to her.

PHIL I mean congratulations. I was trying to figure it out: 1943, so that’s 57 plus 14 is 71 years since she made that.

BROOM And she must have been in her 20s.

BETH Yeah, I think she’s 95 or 96. [ed.: 98.]


BROOM Her life I’m all for.

PHIL Was the woman who played the other guy’s wife Donna Reed?

BROOM Jane Wyman.

ADAM That was Mrs. Ronald Reagan. She didn’t live in the White House.

BROOM That’s right, she didn’t make it all the way to the White House. Her character didn’t either. So that last section was the most thematically fleshed-out, to my mind. He’s just a schlub named O’Rourke that she’s going to marry — he’s not actually a schlub, but he’s “just an American,” “a normal guy,” “he’s no royalty!” — and then he has to leave his life behind to marry her, and that’s the conflict. And at the end they sort of resolve it in his favor. But before that, he has to say goodbye to his friends and they leave forlorn, and we don’t see them again. And whatever the political message of that conflict was supposed to be, the stuff like “hold it right there, I’ll never renounce my American citizenship” — the patriotism of it was so half-assed.

PHIL What about the motivations of Charles Coburn, the uncle? At one point he’s being really nice to her and saying, “You know, you should really marry a commoner,” and then the next thing, he’s treating her like…

BETH A child.

BROOM It was just one cliche after another, and the cliches weren’t executed properly so they were really confusing. They didn’t all fit together. The lines themselves were all clunky.

BETH And so repetitive!

BROOM Yes, they’d say the same thing twenty times. “I’ll never forget that you proposed to me, for the rest of my life.”

PHIL So as my friend said tonight when I told them that it won best screenplay — and this is true, BROOM?

BROOM Yes! Unless Wikipedia has led us astray, which could happen.

PHIL So my friend said, “can you imagine what the others were like?”

BROOM I know! We should look them up. So I had a thought about this: The Academy Awards, as we know from the present day, are not the most reliable arbiter of quality. In part that’s because people just don’t know quality, but in part because it’s kind of an insider award given by people who have an interest in the industry. And I thought, this represents a kind of middle-of-the-road 1943 hogwash that might have felt like “a job well done” to a lot of industry folks at the time.

ADAM I mean, is this worse than Forrest Gump?

BROOM Tell me why you’re using that as a comparison.

ADAM Because it’s kind of a patriotic pastiche cliche…

BROOM It’s absolutely worse than Forrest Gump.

ADAM It is?

BROOM I mean, Forrest Gump made sense as Forrest Gump!

PHIL Whoa! I can’t even believe that Forrest Gump has been reduced to that level.

BROOM You liked it?

PHIL No, I wouldn’t say that, but I certainly thought it had more of a story!


ADAM But this movie was just, sort of, badly acted…

BROOM No, it was worse than that.

BETH It was a mess. It was all over the place.

BROOM This pandered at so many levels. That scene where we got to hear from Mrs. Pulaski about how she raised nine kids.

PHIL Oh yeah, that was great.

BROOM It was like they wanted to be a propaganda poster, but they couldn’t figure out what the thoughts behind the propaganda were supposed to be, so they just summoned up some patriotic reflexive gestures. They had the stern woman saying “That’s the spirit. Do what you can!” And then Olivia de Havilland gets comically wrapped up with splints while the guys are playing handball. That whole section was so schizophrenic and meaningless.

BETH That was my favorite part.

PHIL And then the car gets parked on the court.

BROOM He’s watching her from the door in his sweatpants, and then she gets laid out on the table and a woman with her tongue sticking out binds her arms.

PHIL That was a riot!

ADAM And then the guys are in the steam room and when the lights come on they’re among all the ladies. Get it?

BROOM The two leads are not interacting or even in the same place during any of that, and then two scenes later he’s going to propose.

BETH That was when they were falling in love!

BROOM That was the date sequence: he plays handball with his friend. So Phil, you said to pay attention to the music, and I forgot to pass that on to these two, but we all ended up commenting on it anyway. I thought the composer must have been thinking “People aren’t going to get that this is a comedy unless I write some really comic music!”

PHIL I thought he thought “My god this is horrible; I better pump this up!

BROOM Exactly.

ADAM Well, we’re gonna rescore it.

BROOM Yeah, Adam was saying that it was done in part because those scenes, had they not had that pantomime music, would have seemed ominous. There was just a noir “nothing is right” feeling; the pacing is all wrong; everyone’s saying things like they don’t mean them. So Adam said we should put spooky music under it and it would be really creepy. Also, in that sequence where she wakes up and sees signs that say “I saw you naked,” a wacky comedy trumpet plays a note for every syllable on the sign! I’ve never seen that done before! That was crazy.

PHIL That’s why I wrote you and said “This won best screenplay?”

BROOM It was shocking. So far we’ve watched The Great McGinty, by Preston Sturges, which was weird in some of the ways this was weird, but it was smart the whole way through; it felt like a New Yorker cartoon.

PHIL And what year was that?

BROOM 1940. And then 1941 was Citizen Kane, which is a wonderful screenplay as we all know. Then 1942 was Woman of the Year, which is Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in a totally passable by-the-book screwball marriage comedy.

PHIL And that was Garson Kanin who wrote that?

BROOM Exactly, yes. [ed. Actually credited to his brother Michael Kanin. And Ring Lardner, Jr.]

PHIL Okay. So… why do you think this was so bad?

ADAM It was inexpertly composed.

BROOM I don’t know who Norman Krasna was, but he’s why.

PHIL Do you think it won because it was political?


ADAM Do you think all that political stuff got shoehorned in by executives?

BETH I think people thought the fact that it was comedic and political made it “smart.”

BROOM Yeah, that might be the explanation. Because it was about “the war,” in a very oblique comic way, standards for intelligence are just much lower. You know, if you watch some Conan O’Brien monologue about current events from 1996, the jokes might not seem that sharp anymore, but at the time, because it was topical, it felt clever.

PHIL You don’t know what won Best Picture that year, do you?

BETH We can easily find out.

BROOM I believe this movie had greater significance in some way because it led to the “de Havilland law.” Let me find this.

ADAM Were we talking about this recently? Someone elsewhere mentioned the de Havilland law.

BROOM [reads:] “… its importance in changing the status of contract players…” “… tensions came to a head as de Havilland fought openly with Warner Bros. Tired and suffering from low blood pressure…”

BETH She looked tired!

BROOM She looked awful. She had bags under her eyes when they were talking about how beautiful she was. She looked like she could barely stand to be there.

PHIL I didn’t actually notice that, no. But tell me again, what’s the de Havilland law?

BROOM “… She filed a lawsuit against the studio that set a limit on studio-player contracts.” She felt that her long-term contract led to abuse in this case.

ADAM The best picture of 1943 was Casablanca.

PHIL Oh my god!

BROOM The screenplay of which is 100 times better than this.

PHIL Absolutely!

ADAM Casablanca won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

BROOM Oh, right. So this was Best Original. We chose this category for…

BETH … its originality.

ADAM The other candidates were Noël Coward for In Which We Serve….

BROOM Noël Coward would surely have written better dialogue than this.

ADAM … Lillian Hellman for The North Star, Dudley Nichols for Air Force, and Allan Scott for So Proudly We Hail!

BROOM A year of patriotism.

BETH The fact that this was comedic probably made the difference. But who knows.

BROOM Well, wartime was probably a strange time for aesthetics. Because everyone feels that pressure to be a part of the “effort.” I wish I had a better word than “pandering,” but that’s the word I keep thinking of. I didn’t have a sense of how much of a war-effort movie it was until suddenly, thunk!, we’re at that table where the Red Cross lady is asking “what can you do for the war effort?” The princess isn’t even an American! Why would she even get in that line?

ADAM What do you mean? Her country was overrun by the Nazis.

BETH To prove something to him because she was on a date!

ADAM No! Her family’s refugeed in London because the Nazis have overrun the continent.

BROOM Did they name her country at any point?

ADAM No. She’s obviously central European.

BROOM They never even tried to speak with an accent, or suggest anything about their home country. It was so quarter-baked. Anyway, Phil, we were a little embarrassed that we invited you to join our film club and this is what you ended up seeing. The other three movies were good!

PHIL Yeah, I got very worried this afternoon.

BROOM I feel that.

PHIL I said, “if this is the tenor of the movies we’re going to see…” Now, it was good that it was only 90 minutes.

BROOM Agreed. Maybe that’s why it won.

PHIL That could be. But clearly, I could have written that screenplay.

BETH You would have done better than that.

PHIL Yeah, well, I could have at least written it. So I might as well have an Academy Award, here.

ADAM Coming up is “Lamar Trotti’s Wilson.”

BROOM Yeah, that’s the other thing…

ADAM “A 1944 American biographical film in Technicolor about President Woodrow Wilson.”

BROOM Right: should you choose to accept it, unfortunately, the next thing we’re going to watch is Darryl Zanuck’s pet project about the life of Woodrow Wilson.

PHIL And when is the next session?

BROOM The next session is whenever I can get these two to be enthusiastic enough to go through with it, which generally follows inversely on the quality of the previous movie. It’s going to be harder to get them to show up now that we’ve just seen this one.

BETH In all likelihood: three weeks.

PHIL That’s plenty of time. But I don’t even think this tonight qualified as a B movie.


BROOM It wasn’t a B movie, it was an A movie. Do you mean in production quality? It had high production values.

PHIL Just as a general kind of “we’ll take the stars that we’ve got and put them into a vehicle”… I mean, even Woman of the Year, as a B movie, is much much better.

BROOM You mean “B” just as the level of quality you expect from it?

PHIL Yeah.

BROOM Sure, Woman of the Year was completely watchable. We all chuckled for real. I don’t think I chuckled once, as me, while watching this one.

BETH I laughed at it.

BROOM I think I did laugh once, at the end, when he’s feeling very nervous and trying to be on good behavior, and tells his friends he’ll see them to the door, and then turns back and says “I’m just going to the door!” That seemed like a moment with actual comic value to it. But generally I got the sense that Norman Krasna must have been some kind of a clod. I’m looking him up.

ADAM We dance on your grave, Norman Krasna.

BROOM This was his directorial debut. Not shocked.

ADAM If you’d had a better director and better actors, it wouldn’t have seemed so clunky. And Olivia de Havilland’s a good actress, she was good as Melanie Wilkes.

BROOM She’s not a clown! She’s not Lucille Ball!

ADAM So who would you have cast as a “funny princess”?

BETH I don’t know, Ginger Rogers?

BROOM Just the other day we watched The Lady Eve with Barbara Stanwyck doing not quite the same thing, but in the same ballpark.

BETH She’s not right. She gives such a darkness to everything she does.

PHIL Ooh, she scares me.

BROOM The Lady Eve was sort of the inversion of this movie.

ADAM How about Ellen Page?

BROOM I don’t think she was available.

PHIL That’s good. She would have turned that shit down, though.

BETH Too condescending.

BROOM Saving graces of this movie? I can’t think of anything.

BETH No, this movie sucked. It was really bad all around.

PHIL I thought the opening visual of the Warner Bros. logo was pretty cool.

BROOM It was. Clean.

PHIL And dramatic! It had some kind of great music, and it was a 3D black-and-white logo… I thought that was the best part of the movie.

BROOM Warner Bros. had that down.

ADAM How many people do you think have seen Princess O’Rourke in the last 12 months?


ADAM Probably, right?

BETH Not very many.

BROOM I’m actually curious, Phil: you said yesterday “how do I see this?” and I thought, “right, he’s not going to be able to get this within a day, because it’s Princess O’Rourke.” How did you get a copy within 10 hours?

PHIL I called upon some favors. I called some friends and said “get it over to me this afternoon.” I actually got it last night. Now I’m hoping Wilson will be easier to get. As we move forward in time it’ll be easier for me to get them, I think.

BROOM Yes. Except the one right after Wilson, the hardest one on the list, which is a Swiss film called Marie-Louise, which I believe has never been released in the modern era and has to be bought from bootleggers if we want to see it.

PHIL And do you rank or give a grade to the screenplays as you see them?

BETH We haven’t been.

PHIL What was the 1940 one?

BROOM The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges.

PHIL And what would you give that as a grade?

BROOM A letter grade, or out of ten, or comparative to the others?

PHIL Out of ten.

ADAM Satisfactory.

BROOM I’d give it a 6+ or 7.

BETH I’d say 6.

PHIL My big thing as I was watching this today was thinking, “Wow, boy has screenwriting gotten better!”

BROOM Well, Citizen Kane

PHIL That’s right! Then you stopped me.

BROOM And I mean, Gone With the Wind. Any great movies. There have always been great movies.

PHIL So, okay, 1940 was Preston Sturges. Then 1941?

BROOM Citizen Kane, which I would give a 10. That’s as sophisticated as a screenplay gets.

PHIL All right. 1942?

ADAM Woman of the Year.


BROOM Yeah, I would put it almost as low as The Great McGinty. It had some problems. It had greater charm when it had charm, but it was uneasy because the crux of it was sort of sexist stuff. I would give it a 6 or 7 also.

PHIL And tonight’s?

BROOM I don’t know, a 2?


PHIL Okay, good.

ADAM It wasn’t overtly offensive, and there were some visual jokes that made me smile.

PHIL Well, I feel redeemed. I was so worried that you all would say “Stunning!”

BROOM That we would put on our Critic voices and say, “But Phil, you’re not giving it proper historical perspective.”

PHIL Yes. “You’ve missed the subtextual ennui!”

BROOM I got a lot of subtextual ennui out of this. I tried to cover it by heckling the whole time.

PHIL I bet. Okay kids.

BROOM Thanks for joining; it was a pleasure to have you.

PHIL Okay, good night.

[he vanishes]

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM Bosley Crowther was totally taken in by all the patriotic bullshit.

BROOM And Variety agreed. “Credit for general sparkle and excellence of the picture must be tossed to Norman Krasna.”

BETH Did he just have friends?

ADAM War does funny things to people!

BETH That’s got to be it.

[we then read the paragraph in Wikipedia that quotes the government’s displeasure with the film for “…recklessly using the war for background incidents in an opportunistic attempt to capitalize on the war rather than interpret it.”]

BETH So that’s it; it’s that it was not the typical wartime picture, and that made an impression on the Academy.

BROOM It certainly was “irreverent,” if reverence is a synonym for maturity. It didn’t have that. So audiences must have thought, “Oh cool, they managed to put the war in a dumb movie!”

[we read summaries of the other nominees]

BROOM So wait a minute. We’ve forgotten how this worked. In those years there was Original Screenplay, and there was also Original Motion Picture Story. There were three writing categories. So Princess O’Rourke won for Screenplay, but The Human Comedy by William Saroyan won for Story.

BETH That’s probably a better movie.

BROOM Up against Shadow of a Doubt, The More The Merrier, Destination Tokyo. This is clearly a better list. But we’re not watching another one from this year. This was it. I think it’s appropriate for us to have to stick with the one category. But what a shame.

ADAM That category was last presented in 1956.

BROOM Well, that’s that. Princess O’Rourke was a dud.

BETH D-U-D dud.

ADAM I don’t know; that’s just the way we lived then. It’s like Operation Dumbo Drop.

BETH It was no Chicken Little.

BROOM That’s right, it was better than Chicken Little.

ADAM It was. It was better than probably half a dozen of the bad ones.

BROOM But I felt it was bad kind of for the same reason, which is to say: too obsessed with its moment, and not with actual values of entertainment.

BETH I think it comes from nervousness on the part of someone who had never made a movie before.

Last lines in film:

— The president? Holy mackerel, I tipped him a buck! And he took it!
(— Come, dear.)


This is the first Academy Awards for which the complete radio broadcast is available. Pretty engrossing stuff! (The first half is red carpet pre-show; the ceremony broadcast starts at 28:50). It turns out that Darryl Zanuck sounded exactly like Marvin the Martian; who knew.

However the broadcast only includes the last five awards (Best Picture + the 4 acting awards). Audio of the rest of the evening apparently exists in the Academy archives, because they make a couple of clips available on their site, including the presentation of the writing awards!… But unfortunately they’ve omitted Norman Krasna’s acceptance speech. However one can hear some hollers of delight in the crowd when Princess O’Rourke‘s win is announced. My impression of the response is that this is seen (by its supporters) as the surprise victory of the scrappy underdog, whereas The Human Comedy just gets sort of a tepid appreciative applause and Casablanca gets unanimous and unsurprised applause. Maybe I’m reading too much into those hoots. Listen for yourself.

This quickie newsreel is all the film I can find.

Look, here’s an image of Norman receiving his Oscar in uniform.

(This comes to us, of all places, from the United States Holocaust Museum, where it is given to illustrate Krasna’s pride in his Air Force service, as context for their presentation of Krasna’s incredibly disturbing color footage of Holocaust atrocities, shot during the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau, with his narration. Not to be watched lightly. Not to be watched in connection with this entry at all, I daresay. Sorry to end on this note, but that’s the internet for ya!)

August 10, 2014

55. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

1999: 055 box 1 (out of print by 6/01)


directed by Philip Kaufman
screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere and Philip Kaufman
after the novel by Milan Kundera (1984)

Criterion #55.

Art experience is social experience, and time spent watching a movie is time spent in the company of actors. I like actors. I guess in some way everybody does, or at least everybody likes famous people. But I mean that I like actors for their actorliness. I like these people who treat being sensitive like serious business. I like what they care about and try to be good at, and what kinds of expression seem possible in the space they create. Yes, it’s true that actors often have emotional problems and are difficult and believe crazy things. But, you know, everyone has emotional problems, and everyone is difficult, and everyone believes crazy things.

In this movie, in the scene where Juliette Binoche delightedly singsongs “You’re jealous! You’re jealous!” to Daniel Day-Lewis, I enjoyed being allowed to share a moment of intimacy in the lives of two fictional characters, but more than that, I enjoyed contemplating a moment of real artistic intimacy between two actors. Whatever is recognizable and true-to-life about this dance that she’s doing and the sheepish way he’s responding, they arrived at it together, in trust, with shared purpose. Actors working together call on a mutual expertise in feelings. I wish everyone always called on a mutual expertise in feelings, so I feel comforted seeing that such a degree of shared experience is at least possible. He knew what she was doing, and she knew what he was doing. They each knew what the other meant, about people, about life, and then they honored it by living it out in the flesh. For the camera.

Even when characters in movies are hurting each other, the actors are actually doing something very intimately collaborative. There is something touching about the idea that any interpersonal engagement, no matter how contentious, is a mutual act of moment-creation, of life-creation.

(Of course, none of this is necessarily the case. Sometimes actors hate their scene partners and just do their own thing. Sometimes directors hate their actors and treat them like puppets.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about the personalities and interpersonal dynamics in a love triangle. I gather that the book may be about a lot of high philosophy on top of that. The movie is pretty much just that, but with warm actorly care and a mellow spirit. One is free to think philosophical thoughts.

There are plenty of dramatic developments but it doesn’t have a plot per se. It offers emotional tone above all — all art does, I suppose — and here that emotional tone is personable; person-like. Actor-like, in fact. Why are some people rewarding to be around? What does their company offer? That’s the objective here, it would seem. At least that’s what it accomplishes.

It does reach a strong cinematic-philosophical flourish at the end. Having spent the duration in this particular company, I found that I was all in.

The film is not perfectly and ideally flexible, human, old world. It is an American-eye view. Sometimes all the nudity and the politics felt slightly more “European” than European. The moments do not quite just melt and reform; in the cuts from scene to scene, I felt the rooms and situations being produced and directed into existence. The movie sometimes slinks around behind the actors’ backs as though it knows more than they do. That I doubted.

I wasn’t transported; I was always aware that this was a production, an ambition, not the thing itself. But it was a congenial ambition, and the actors in it were real people.

The editorial presence gets one thing so very right that all hints of American calculation are readily forgiven: the music, selected from the works of Janáček, who was committed to pure intensity of feeling more than nearly any other composer. Almost everything he wrote is emotional to the point of philosophy. The most important selections here are “The Madonna of Frydek” from The Overgrown Path and the third movement of the Fairy Tale for cello and piano. But my ripped selection, the only piece truly in the clear, has to be the end credits, which is from the fifth movement of Janáček’s Idyll for strings.

Maybe the movie steals much of its emotional timbre from the music, and the actors themselves, and everything but the script and actual content, but that’s fine; the important thing is that it works as a place, a person, a familial attitude. Saying that it is congenial is not meant to be faint praise. Congeniality is a welcome gift.

I would be remiss if I did not address the title.

Get a load of that title. It’s so satisfying to say, and it takes some deep thought to parse. It’s either a beautiful poem or rhythmic nonsense. Who’s to say? That’s a powerhouse title. One of the all-time most dynamic titles. Much better than Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí.

As a service to the reader, here is my report on the meaning of the title as parsed by the movie: “lightness” is the innocent spirit of moral freedom that allows our man Daniel to pursue extramarital sex without any sense of transgression. His wife recognizes the aliveness of this lightness, contrasted with her weighty wounded feelings — that such freedom is a pure state of being, and thus philosophically preferable to her neediness — but she cannot find it in herself to emulate it or bear it in him, because loneliness and jealousy are real too. So the subject of the title is one’s lover’s existential freedom, which is both beautiful and unacceptable.

This might very well be a gross simplification or distortion of Kundera’s intention. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the title means something quite different in the book. Nor would I be surprised if it means exactly this. Bottom line: I am unsurprised.

Tip for being funny, brought to you by a primitive part of my brain: say this title but change some of the words. The crucial words here are “unbearable,” “lightness,” and “being”; focus on those. If you say the title but change one those three words to a word that sounds like it but is somehow different from it, you’re sure to win admirers and have some fun in the process.

All written before listening to the commentary (by the director, the co-writer, the editor (Walter Murch, offering some fascinating shop talk), and Lena Olin).

Watching this movie again with the intelligent, craft-oriented commentary, I can’t help but feel like now I’m seeing it all more clearly, “as it really is.” And it’s quite different from the movie I described above. “What was I saying?” I think. “Congenial? Person-like? American? No plot per se?” Not only are the voices not confirming these things, but even I can’t see them anymore.

But it’s all going to stand. That’s the movie I saw when I was alone, when I was me. The fact that my experience isn’t being described to me by the artists only goes to show that our respective roles are completely different. Watching a movie is a dream; making a movie can almost never be a dream.

Or perhaps a better way of looking at it is that this commentary reveals the very Americanness I meant: under the humanist flesh, this is a movie of bones. Other artists might well have made a soft commentary. This is a hard one. Smart; but smart can be a trap.

Case in point: Philip Kaufman tells us that he was inspired by the Czech attitude that sexual pleasure, being free and private and sensory, is not subject to politicization and thus that sex is “an act of resistance.”

I say: calling something “an act of resistance” is politicizing it. Some might say I miswatched the movie by seeing the sex as very much just sex, something to smile about, but I do not think I am miswatching life. And seeing things in movies is part of my life.

As with life, commentary does not actually improve understanding.

Remember the days before commentary tracks? Someone at Voyager/Criterion invented this gimmick and now we all buy into its value. But bonus features are aesthetic quicksand. Movie is a movie is a movie: if you gotta ask, you ain’t got it.

August 5, 2014


I am not on vacation, but it’s hot again.

One take. Here’s what my iPhone microphone heard. All ambient noise is part of the art. High high high art art art.