Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946) d. Jean Cocteau

Josette Day as Belle in the Jean Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Movie Review:
 Beauty and the Beast (1946)
d. Jean Cocteau
Criterion Collection #6

  Yeahhh... who I told I was watching this movie both thought I was talking about the Disney piece of s***.  Anything sadder then the co-option by Disney of our public domain fairy tales?  Sad but true.  The Disneyfication of the fairy tale obscures the different origination of fairy tales in their "moden" form.  Of course, the main vehicle has been the seminal work of the Brothers Grimm, but there is also a solid French contribution.  The modern version of Beauty and the Beast has an actual author,  Mme. Leprince de

Jean Marais as the Beast in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946)

  Jean Cocteau is another director who I know I should have watched but have not because of not having access to the Criterion Collection, but now I'm on the road to correcting that- Cocteau has four films in the Criterion Collection: The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus, Testament of Orpheus and this one.

Jean Marais as the Beast in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946)

  This edition of Beauty and the Beast was of course superb, particularly the quality of the film restoration and the "uncompressed" score by George Auric- both aspects of the release brought Beauty and the Beast to life and made watching it a pleasurable experience.

Striking exterior wall with stone deer on top from Beauty and the Beast directed by Jean Cocteau

   I spent plenty of time in college and afterwards watching scratchy VHS copies of non-restored classics, spent time in law school and after watching scratched up non-restored DVD's of classics and earlier in this decade, before Netflix lost the Criterion Collection to Hulu Plus, I would get their scratchy copies of the Criterion Collection movies- but they would always skip and not come with the bonus features.  Honestly, the streaming function of Hulu Plus vis a vis the Criterion Collection is literally the greatest breakthrough in a decade.

  Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is a world with real suffering intermixed with dreamlike/surreal qualities.  It's quite a package for 1946 and easy to see why the Criterion Collection would release it in the first ten releases of the Collection.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Amarcord (1973) d. Federico Fellini

This is a still from Amarcord d. Federico Fellini (1973) one of the many grotesques that appear in almost incidential fashion during Amarcord.

d. Federico Fellini
Criterion Collection #4

  I can't properly express the feeling of joy I get when I think about being able to watch through the majority of the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus.  Seriously, is there anything else worth doing?  Which is not the same as saying that I'm going to enjoy watching every film.  In fact, I imagine it will be equally as tedious as reading all of the classics of 18th century literature in chronological order, like I did between 2008 and 2011.

This still shows Magali Noel playing Gradisca.  She is perhaps the most central character in the film as she begins and ends it.

  The Criterion Collection is not in chronological order, rather they are simply sequentially numbered like the releases of a record label.  So Amarcord, the 1973 coming of age reminisce by Italian director Federico Fellini, is Criterion Collection #4.  An excellent attribute of every Criterion Collection title is the corresponding web page they have set up with supplemental material.

This is the head of Mussolini, who actually speaks to some of the townspeople during a Fascist rally that is both comical and surreal. Like, the mouth is about to open and address the crowd.

  For example, while I was watching Amarcord, I read the essay, Federico of The Spirits by Sam Rohdie. Considering my utter ignorance and even irrational dislike for the collected work of Fellini (Why? I have no idea) I found Federico of The Spirits to be incredibly helpful in understanding/enjoying the film.  If you contrast the Criterion Collection page to the pathetic Wikipedia entry for the same film, its easy to see what a tremendous resource the Criterion Collection supplemental materials are for someone watching movies in a vacuum.

Fellini's use of color in the form of flags and furniture is used sparingly in Amarcord but often to striking effect.  Here, I was reminded of Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle, for some reason.

  Amarcord was late enough in Fellini's career that critics were able to instantly hail it as a masterpiece.  It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1975 and numerous other critical awards during that time period.  There is no central narrative to Amarcord, rather the film is organized around the turn of seasons during the course of a single year.  The charteristics of late Fellini: a carnivalesque atmosphere and the presence of grotesque looking actors, saturates Amarcord, shades of contemporary film makers like David Lynch, Harmony Korine, Lars Von Trier and artists like Matthew Barney are evident from stills taken during the film.

This is a peacock in the snow from Amarcord directed by Federico Fellini

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Movie Review: Anna Karenina (1948) d. Julien Duvivier

Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina in the 1948 film

Movie Review:
 Anna Karenina (1948)
 d. Julien Duvivier
starring Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina
viewed on Hulu Plus

    I had a bit of a revelation last night when a friend logged me into her trial Hulu Plus account.  This is on the heels of Wii related break through, where a 25 year old woman sat down with my Wii counsel for five seconds and showed me that I could download Youtube, Amazon streaming and Hulu Plus onto my Wii a la Netflix.  I mention this because I had been watching Netflix on my Wii for three years without realizing I could get Youtube, Amazon & Hulu Plus- literally had no idea.

  I'd known that Criterion Collection had left Netflix for Hulu Plus, but until last night I didn't realize that there are literally a 1000 Criterion Collection sponsored titles (not all of them are straight Criterion Collection films.)  For years I've wanted to have a filmic counterpart to my ambition to read all 1001 books listed in the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die (2006 edition) and I've always thought the Criterion Collection would be a great counterpart.  And now it is here.  If you look at the list of Criterion Collection titles on Wikipedia,  you'll see that it's not the strictly canonical effort that 1001 Books To Read Before You Die purports to be.  For example, the 100th Criterion Collection title is called, "Beastie Boys Video Anthology."  Interesting, perhaps.  Canonical? No way.

 It's funny, whenever I mention to people (rarely now because I know what people think) that I'm reading all 1001 Books of the 1001 Books Before You Die, I get weird stare and occasionally open condescension or hostility.  And then, in the next breath, the same person will tell me they've watched all 300 episodes of some television show- in a week- 10 episodes at a time- and that, I guess, is normal now.  It seems to me that if I'm going to "waste" a large part of my life consuming culture, I'm better off focusing more on timeless classics, and less on successful network sitcoms from the 90s- I am excluding the Friends TV series from that list- because I would totally watch that.

  Of course the first film I watched was one that Criterion Collection is streaming on Hulu Plus, but is not actually a card-carrying member of the Criterion Collection itself,  Julien Duvivier's 1948 adaptation of Anna Karenina, starring Vivien "You Know Her From Gone With The Wind" Leigh as Anna.  Vivien Leigh was as "A List" as you get in 1948: Gone With The Wind was out in 1939, and her turn as Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire was three years in the future.  Before Anna Karenina she played Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra.

  The director, Julien Duvivier is, according to IMDB, "the most neglected of the "Big Five" of classic French cinema (the other four being Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Jacques Feyder, and Marcel Carne), partly due to the uneven quality of his work.  The only Julien Duvivier film I had seen prior to last night was the classic Pepe Le Moko.  Anna Karenina then is what you would call a late career misfire.  According to the Wikipedia entry on the film, the budget was 700k British pounds and the B.O. gross was 150k- so that is a loss of a half million pounds right there.  Chalk it up to the sumptuous back drop/scenery.

  Not to be snobby or contrarian, but I almost preferred the 1948 version to the recent Keira Knightley starring version from 2012, simply because Vivian Leigh was splendid.  Her eyes really do flash with hatred when she looks at her husband.  The photograph above is a screen cap from the scene when her husband enters the grand stand during the horse race, right before Count Vronsky is thrown from his horse and Anna Karenina freaks out because she thinks he's dead.

 All the other plots from Anna Karenina the book other then the main story of the Alexi/Alexi/Anna triangle are ruthlessly suppressed   Specifically, the Konstantin Levin/Kitty Scherbatsky marriage plot is cut down to roughly three minutes of screen time. I thought Kieron Moore as Count Vronsky was quite good.  In fact, I liked almost everything about this version, except for the obvious plot consolidation, and it's a bit of a mystery to me why it's critical reputation isn't higher a half century later.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green on Friends, the modern successor to the Victorian multi-part novel. Wonder what a degree in British literature helps you do? Write sitcoms. Ross and Rachel is what you call the "A" plot, or the equivalent to the Louis/Emily Trevelyan

He Knew He Was Right
by Anthony Trollope
p. 1869
Oxford World's Classics 2008
foreword/notes by John Sutherland

 Anthony Trollope seems like an impossibly prolific author.  He Knew He Was Right- which is 930 pages flat in a standard paperback format- was only one of two novels that he published in 1869 alone. The other, Phineas Finn, also made it onto the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, as did the Last Chronicle of Barset (1867).

  I'm interested in the way Audiences receive the work of prolific Artists, and Trollope wrote in a well documented era where criticism had begun to assume some of its modern forms, so I went ahead and picked up the excellent Anthony Trollope: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Smalley- part of the The Critical Heritage Series by Routledge & Kegan Paul.  This book collects the various reviews of all of Trollope's many, many novels. I was curious to see if contemporary critics had a similar response to Trollope in 1869 as I did in 2013.

  It seems to me that the pleasures and depth of a prolific Artist are something that can only be fully appreciated with the passage of time.  For example, lets say a musician puts out two soundtracks, two EPs and an LP during a calendar year.  The Audience: critics and general audience alike, will focus on the LP because that is the work that is most in sync with the needs of the marketplace.  Let's say the other four releases are ignored.  Then the LP is released and hailed as a masterpiece- it seems to me like then the Audience size for the other ignored releases increases and then over time there is the potential for a level of growth until the Audience size for each work is roughly equal.

  For someone interested in these questions, Anthony Trollope is a fertile field of inquiry since he was both incredibly prolific and well documented. One irony that I've noticed from reading the 2013 opinions about Trollope vs. 1869 opinions is that today Trollope is regarded as being psychologically astute in terms of his character development, whereas in 1869, critics complained that his characters were unrealistic and that he dwelt on the surface instead of diving to deeper motivations. (1)

  Critical notices in the 1860s and 1870s were unsigned- none of the reviews in The Critical Heritage volume contain by-lines.   The condescending attitude of Victorian society towards journalism itself is embedded in the very plot of He Knew He Was Right.  He Knew He Was Right is an example of the "multi-plot Victorian Novel."  The nearest analogue today is the structure of a network sitcom or hour long drama where you have an "A" story, a "B" story and/or "C" and "D" stories among a group of inter-connected characters.

  Here, the "A" story is that of the Trevelyans: She, a young bride who grew up in the British colonial Empire, he a wealthy lord: Emily and Louis.  Louis becomes obsessed over Emily's relationship with an old friend of her father and his degeneration into insanity and the impact it has on Emily is the main plot.
Courteney Cox as Monica on Friends, Monica/Chandler was the "B" story on Friends.  Sitcoms are the spiritual and stylistic successor of the Victorian Multi Plot novel, of which He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope is an excellent example.

 However the "B" story is the relationship between Hugh Stanbury and Nora, Emily's sister.  Stanbury is an old buddy of Louis Trevelyan.  Unfortunately he decides to be a journalist instead of a lawyer and is therefore "unsuitable" to marry Nora.  Mind you, this takes 930 pages to play itself out.

 There is also a "C" story that shows up pretty late in the game, which is the marriage of Charles Glascock, an unsuccessful early suitor of Nora to Caroline Spalding: An American. Caroline and her American counter parts are, to my knowledge, the first such depictions of American chicks marrying British lords in literature.

  Oh and a "D" story involving yet another marriage.  930 pages!

  Summaries of He Knew He Was Right typically focus on the "A" plot but that's like saying that Friends was simply about Ross and Rachel: Sure, their on again, off again relationship was the undisputed highlight of that show, but it wasn't the only story line.  Monica and Chandler?  Joey and no one?


(1)  "His writings have no aesthetic purpose; they mean nothing more than they say; they are not written at the reader; the author thinks of nothing but how his work may be made a correct copy, complete and minute; he looks at human nature as a man looks out of a window, painting exactly what he sees, up the exact square of a pane." - Unsigned notice, The Times, published August 26th 1869, pg.4  published in Anthony Trollope: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Smalley- part of the The Critical Heritage Series by Routledge & Kegan Paul

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