Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) d. Federico Fellini

Giuletta Masina, wife of Federico Fellini and star of Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Movie Review
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
d. Federico Fellini
Criterion Collection #149

   Been reading other blogs that serially review Criterion Collection titles and trying to understand why they are all so boring.  Something I've noticed is that they tend to be lengthy over all, contain lengthy plot summations and lots of film studies type observations.  If there is one thing I've learned about trying to blog about serious/academic subjects is that people do not a give a fuck and even devoted readers will give you about half a page before they move on.  Unless you are like the New York Times, but I bet even they see incredible drop off for lengthy magazine features in terms of page views.

  If you write it up in a way that duplicates what is already out there, it's stupid, because if people want to know the plot or themes of Juliet of the Spirits they can Google it and read the Wikipedia page.  I think the answer is to make it personal- I think the most successful writers on the web are people who can bring people in to their inner life- and  to never assume that people have a background in what you are talking about. In fact, the opposite.

  Never considered myself a fan of Fellini.  He's got nine titles in the Criterion Collection, but at least three of them aren't available for streaming.  I'm sure I suffered through Nights of Cabiria at some point.  I've never actually met anyone who said they've watched and enjoyed Fellini's films- but if I did I would look at them at sceptically and say, "Really- have you actually watched a Fellini film, or are you just saying that because you've heard him described as "surreal" and you think liking him is cool?"  Because I really have not enjoyed Amarcord or Julie of the Spirits.  I mean, I get it- I guess- and I can understand why he was such a revelation in the 60s, but I feel like the movies have aged badly.  I probably need to just talk to a fan for fifteen minutes at a party.

  Juliet of the Spirits is yet another movie about a failed marriage.  Here, it's the powerless wife and the flagrantly philandering husband.  Forgive me, but I thought that behavior was entirely acceptable in Italy, particularly when the husband was the bread winner and the wife had no children and didn't work.  Juliet is played by Fellini's actual wife, and the story is that this is a movie about their actual marriage, and when Gulieta Masina would ask how to play a certain part or line he would just shout out "Just play yourself."

  Oh Fellini!  I guess the real story is that Fellini had a ton of gay lovers, which of course does not make it into the Fellini resembling husband, who is here a fashion show promoter of some sort.  The usual cast of freaks and characters that gave rise to the phrase "Fellini-esque" are on hand, of course, and Juliet of the Spirits is the first picture where Fellini used color film, so it has that going for it.

 But it's hard not to kind of feel sorry for the wife.  There is some insight here I suppose, but mostly she just seems confused and bewildered for the entire run time.  I guess that's kind of the point, but it makes her look kind of of bad.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

House (1977) d. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Just one of about of a million WTF moments in House (1977) d. Nobuhiko Obayashi

House (1977)
 d. Nobuhiko Obayashi
Criterion Collection #539

Obayashi creates visual effects by actually including art onto the frame to give it a real DIY/cut out feel.

  I've been reflecting that watching Criterion Collection titles is a good way to seek inspiration. There is a hugely liberating, soul-freeing feeling that stems from having the entire history of world cinema at your finger tips for 7.99 a month. I can't help but wonder about the viewer statistics per movie- what I wouldn't give to know how many watchers a day the most popular title garners.

Auntie eating an EYEBALL- NBD.

  House is, as the Criterion Collection itself says, a landmark in the Cinema du WTF?, a totally left-field blend of Japanese B Movie budget, school girls in distress, Japanese folk horror, 70s Italian Horror and American grindhouse, with psychedelic visual effects, a demonic cat and cannibalism all thrown into the mix.  And if that description doesn't make you immediately want to watch House I will conclude this write-up with a serious of still photographs from the film.  House is a Criterion Collection MUST-watch.  100% Watch-ability score.

This is actuall a gif derived from the film itself- her face does look like that in the movie.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewcz- YOU SO CRAY EMPEROR NERO!

Book Review
Quo Vadis
 by  Henryk Sienkiewicz

    Quo Vadis is a historical romance set in the time of Nero.  The heroes are early Christians and the plot revolves around Emperor Nero and his legendary persecutions of Christians during his reign.  Quo Vadis was a huge international hit as soon as it was translated into languages besides Polish, and Sienkiewicz even won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.  Henryk Sienkiewicz was a prolific writer- according the Nobel Prize website, the complete edition of his works runs sixty volumes, but Quo Vadis is what he is remembered for.

 It's hard to discuss Quo Vadis without mentioning Ben Hur. Ben Hur was published in 1880, by American writer Lew Wallace.  Ben Hur also depicts the time of Rome after Christ but before the Emperor was converted. Considering how deeply, deeply unpopular the "Swords & Sandals" genre is today, it's funny to consider that Ben Hur and Quo Vadis were the first hit Novels to bring the historical romance genre to the time of Christ.  It seems so very obvious in retrospect, but it probably had something to do with the fact that best Romans were pagans and so writing about them would inevitably be an un-Christian affair.

 In fact, the stand out portion of Quo Vadis is his upfront, graphic depiction of the violence that was common place in the Rome of Nero.  He also does an excellent job depicting Romans as Romans- with rich detail and insight into their psychology that is lacking in Ben Hur.  The Christians kind of come off as one dimensional goody two shoes, and Sienkiewicz is not shy about dragging the Jews into the fray.  Despite the fact that none of the characters are Jewish, he manages to reference the Jewish persecution of early Christians in Rome about 50 times.  It kind of seems like he was trying to make a point independent of the plot.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Weekend (1967) d. Jean Luc Godard

Movie Review
Weekend (1967)
d. Jean Luc Godard: 12 titles in the Criterion Collection
Criterion Collection #635

 I want to be careful about talking shit about how unwatchable Jean Luc Godard's films are until I've actually watched a few.  I've seen Breathless, Alphaville, this one.  I also watched The Virgin Mary in college, although that is not a Criterion Collection title.   You can't talk about Godard without discussing what Gary Indiana, in the essay that is featured on the Criterion Collection product page for Weekend, calls Godards penchant for "trying the patience of his audience."

 INDEED. How is one to discuss Godard-especially Godard after the mid 1960s, without discussing his disdain for the bourgeois conventions of film grammar, plot, strory-telling, emotional identification or really anything that makes people LIKE, as suppose, to despise, a specific work.  As Indiana says, the key to understanding Godard's mindset in Weekend and subsequent films is to understand the influence of Brecht on Godard:

The technique of Weekend, however, comes from Brecht. The film excludes any emotional identification with its protagonists. They have no inner lives. Corinne’s only emotional moment occurs when her Hermès pocketbook is incinerated in a head-on collision. Moreover, she and Roland are conscious of being characters in a movie. Weekend’s fistfights, shootings, stabbings, and highway carnage don’t simulate violence so much as transmit an idea of violence. The bloodshed is so deliberately fake that a scene where a real pig has its throat cut comes as a powerful shock. (Gary Indiana essay on Weekend)
 Brecthian distancing techniques seem key to understanding the Art House/Experimental cinema of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Call it experimental theater if you will, the theater of the absurd, the theater of cruelty, what you will.

 We're not so far removed from the academic post-modernism of the last few decades, and from that perspective Godard is like a patron saint, but personally, I think film that purposely eschews emotion in favor of lengthy Marxist diatribes (of which there are many in Weekend) are kind of missing the point of film.  Maybe it's because I've never, ever met a single person in my whole life who could confidently look me in the eye and say, "Yes, I like watching the experimental films of Godard- Weekend, Virgin Mary, all of it- love how he refuses to abide by the conventions of film grammar and story telling."

 If someone said that to me I would be all, "Shyeaaahhh right."  I mean no way.  I can see where you'd watch Weekend for a class, or because it is in the Criterion Collection, or because you love the French New Wave, but I can't see anyone sitting down and watching this movie for fun- which is something I tried to do several years ago- and failed to do.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jude the Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy

Book Review
Jude the Obscure (1895)
 by Thomas Hardy

   Boy I wish I'd read all these Victorian period novels about failed marriages BEFORE my own marriage failed.  Before I got married, if only to gain insight into the various ways that things fall apart between two peoples.  If I had, I might have been able to recognize the seeds of different things the culminated for me in divorce.  The Victorian/Edwardian obsession with the marriage plot in the Novel reaches a kind of dark resolution in Thomas Hardy's last book, Jude the Obscure.  Often described as the "darkest" "most experimental" and "best" novel Hardy wrote,  Jude the Obscure reaches new heights (depths?) in the lengths to which Hardy goes to describe the utter misery that can be inflicted on two people by marriage.

  The heart of Jude the Obscure is the life, loves & death of Jude Fawley, a working class mason with aspirations of attending college and becoming learned.  He fails fails fails in his quest, mostly because of his messy relationships get in the way- we're talking a period of a decade plus here.  First, he is seduced by Arabella, the serving wench/pig farmers daughter.  She tricks him into an early marriage with a (made up) pregnancy scare.    Jude is forced to give up his original plan of studying for college to support his wife and his expected child.  When it turns out that no child is forthcoming, they fight and Arabella takes off for Australia.

   Jude resumes his solitary existence in a nearby town, where he continues his studies. He soon meets Sue Brighthead, his cousin and what we would today call a "feminist."  A tortured quasi-romance ensues, only to end when Sue marries Mr. Philloston, her scholarly mentor (also he's old.)  Jude accepts the marriage with a modicum of grace, but Sue does not, and leaves her husband for Jude.  From this point on Philloston is essentially ruined by Sue and he wins a Pyrrhic victory only in the last few pages.

  Sue and Jude live together, they have two kids and then get a third kid via Jude's Australian wife.  Oh yeah and then the third kid HANGS the other two kids and HANGS himself and they all die.  WHAT THE FUCK ????   After that Sue gets super religious and remorseful and returns to her original husband, and Jude hooks back up with his original wife, Arabella, who has been to Australia and back and buried her second husband.  Jude ends up alone and dead, and Sue ends up married and miserable. The End.

  Jude and Sue never actually get married because of what essentially amounts to a superstition regarding their family history.  Sue, of course, can never keep her mouth shut about that fact, and they end up getting hounded from location to location.  The darkness of Jude the Obscure is complete- there is not but a single ray of light or comic relief in the entire story.  Something I've learned about myself while reading and watching movies the last few months is that I like my themes dark, and I don't mind them slow.  Making a work of art that is dark and depressing but yet endures is the hardest thing to do because Audiences don't really like dark artistic themes.  They also don't like thematic complexity.  Hardy has both of those things going.

   Jude the Obscure did not go over well.  Many called it obscene and immoral, presumably because of the way Jude and Sue refuse to actually get married at any point, and yet live together and have children and tell people that they are married.  Hardy never wrote another novel- he lived for another 32 years, possibly because critics were so harsh (and maybe also because he didn't need the money?)  That makes the Jude the Obscure a good, specific example of the type of work that can be poorly received by the initial audience only to obtain classic status at a later date.

  I think there are three different characteristics that these works tend to have in common: dark themes, complexity, poor distribution.  If you are looking for under rated classics- those are three good things to look for.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Chronicle of a Summer (1961) d. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin

Chronicle of a Summer

Movie Review
Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
d.  Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin
Criterion Collection #648

 OK so this is a "cinema verite" film that features interviews with a variety of people in Paris and I think St. Tropez as well.  The handheld camera was introduced to the market while this film was being made, and the use of hand held cameras in Chronicle of a Summer would prove to be a turning point in the development of the film documentary.  I wasn't expecting Chronicle of a Summer to be particularly watchable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting the slice-of-life conversations were.  In particular there are conversations about race and the holocaust held between a young, Jewish French concentration survivor, two African-French immigrants and some young French men and women that I found particularly compelling.

  More then just a museum piece, Chronicle of a Summer is a must for anyone interested in the documentary as a separate art form from the narrative film, for people interested in the French new wave and a "pass" for everyone else.  For anyone interested, the essay featured on the Criterion Collection product page is a must: One of the more thorough and in depth accompanying essays I've read and that is really saying something because all the essays on the Criterion Collection site are superb. 

Museum Review: The Grammy Museum

A patron enjoys the "Just Ringo" exhibit at the Grammy Museum

Museum Review:
 The Grammy Museum
Downtown Los Angeles/Staples Center
Los Angeles, CA.

   My first hint was that I had to convince my companion, an actual music industry person, who had been to the Staples Center numerous times for sporting events, that the Grammy Museum was a think that existed. "No really;" I said, "The Grammy Museum is a real museum that exists near the Staples Center."
Grammy Moments: Cee Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow get down.

  These is something incredibly bold in placing your Museum in a building with a bunch of enormous chain restaurants (Wolfgang Puck's Pizza Factory! Yard House with misters and outdoor televisions at every table!) across from a Sports Arena,  as if to say, "We know this isn't a real museum, and we do not give a fuck." That is line with the philosophy of a the Grammy's themselves, which have to be the least well regarded of the four major art/commerce awards in the United States (The EGOT formulation from 30 Rock is the most useful acronym.)

  I'm not one to quibble about nomenclature and/or categories, but I do think the Grammy Museum scrapes the bottom of what can properly be called a museum and verges more towards an attraction, like a wax museum or water park. At the same time it is hard NOT for me to identify with the idea of turning popular music, popular music awards even, into a proper subject for something that calls itself a "Museum" at all.

  I want to like the Grammy Museum but any Museum that does an actual exhibit on Ringo Starr.  Well. I just don't know if you can overcome that. Also difficult to overcome is the idea of choosing to tell the story of popular music via the choices of the Grammy, which is like telling the story of 19th century painting from the perspective of the French Academics.  It's like, "OH- hey here is the time we gave best metal album to Jethro Tull instead of Metallica; OH- look- hey here is the time we gave Steely Dan album of the year... in 2001!  2001 can you believe that? Wow."

 From my perceptive as a bit player on the fringes of the music business, the story of the Grammy's is a series of extremely ill advised, inexplicable decisions reflecting the continuing out-of-touchness of the voters, and then Arcade Fire winning Best New Album two years ago.  The Grammy Museum does nothing to rectify that view, in fact, it confirms it.  I spent at least five minutes staring at a photograph that The Grammy Museum had of Cee-Lo, dressed like Big Bird, singing a duet with Gwyneth Paltrow.  She named her child Moses.


The Cranes Are Flying (1957) d. Mikhail Kalatozov

Tatyana Samojlova plays Veronika in The Cranes Are Flying (1957) d. Mikhail Kalatozov

Movie Review
The Cranes Are Flying (1957)
d. Mikhail Kalatozov
Criterion Collection #146

 Is there some alternate universe where a substantial number of people give a fuck about Russian film from the 1950s?  I've never met a single person who could kick knowledge about Russian cinema outside of Eisenstein, and that knowledge is typically limited to his silent work.  I don't ever remember seeing a vintage Russian film screening at repertory theater in any of the cities I've lived in.  The Cranes Are Flying is the first classic of the post-Stalinist era, when the Soviet Union briefly relaxed for just a god damn second and let Artists experiment with themes that would have been samzidat under the prior regime.

  The Cranes Are Flying was instantly recognized as having classic status and being the start of a new era in Soviet film.  It won the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, for one.  It's also very watchable- clocking in at just over an hour and a half, with a war time setting that gives you some action with the melodramatic plot concerning separated lovers Veronika and Boris.  Spoiler alert: It ends tragically.

  The most stand out qualitiy of The Cranes Are Flying is the cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky.  Urusevsky creates drama and rhythm by his progressive use of hand held cameras- this in the early 1950s that he's doing this.  There are several moments of genuine emotional impact that are profoundly heightened by the editing.  Second to the cinematography is the performance of Tatyana Samojlova as Veronika.  Her unconventional (by Hollywood standards) beauty really draws the eye of the viewer.

  The plot is conventional melodrama: couple separated by war; will they find their way back together?  I'm not spoiling anything by saying they do not- you find less then halfway through the film that he is dead and after that it's just basically an exercise in torturing his unfaithful girlfriend- Veronika- who has hooked up with Boris' cousin, the rascally Mark.   The Cranes Are Flying is another legit Criterion Collection win- A movie you've probably never heard of before, which holds the eye and isn't overlong.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) d. Pier Paolo Pasolini

In this scene some of the kidnap-ees are showing their empty chamber pots to one of the Libertines.  They have been ordered not to defecate so all their feces can be collected for (a hard to watch) feast of shit.

Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
d.  Pier Paolo Pasolini
Criterion Collection #17

  Movies don't get edgier then this. Pier Paolo Pasolini's version of Marquis de Sade 120 Days of Sodom is a tough watch, though if you are familiar with the book you can imagine myriad ways it could have been worse.  The "plot" of 120 Days of Sodom is minimal in the book:  A group of four decadent/depraved Libertines kidnaps a host of young boys and girls and wall themselves up with four elderly courtesans, some large dicked enforcers, and their own daughters who they marry as "wives."

"Nothing's more contagious than evil." -a still from Salo or the 120 Days of  Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini

  During the day the courtesans tell erotic stories from their lives, and the libertines inflict all manner of humiliation and degradation on their captives, giving birth in the book to what we today call "Sado Masochism,"  or the infliction of physical and mental anguish in the service of sexual gratification.  As the book makes perfectly clear, time and time again, 120 Days of Sodom is a critique of the totality of the enlightenment/rational world view, and it firmly makes the case that enlightenment itself is a sham and has terrible, anarchic implications.  Over three centuries later, De Sade couldn't have been more right, and the evidence of the validity of his critique is supported by a hundred years of Continental philosophers (Foucault, Nietzsche, Adorno, etc.)

  Pasolini similarly made the movie version as a protest against the consumer-fascist culture that he hated and it is his disgust for consumerist society that permeates Salo.  Pasolini set his version in 1944, in the Northern Italian Fascist puppet state centered on the city of Salo.  During the film you can hear the Allied bombers putting a slow but decisive end to their world, but that is the only intrusion of the outside world into the narrative.

 Although the subject matter is "pornographic" Pasolini uses theatrically inspired distancing techniques to drain any kind of eroticism from the film.  As Catherine Breilliat argues in one of the three accompanying documentaries, Salo is actually an anti-pornographic film in that it employs the opposite visual technique of most pornography:  Rather then excluding context to focus on sex organs and sexual pleasure, Pasolini always shoots sexually themed material with long shots and a steady camera, forcing the context onto the viewer.

  Salo is one of several Italian films of the 70s- another is The Night Porter, that sought to re-contextualize the asethetics and themes of Nazism/Fascism.  I believe the point of this critique was to emphasis that Naszism/Fascism was not some kind of aberrant behavior but rather a culmination of intellectual themes that were developed in the so-called Enlightenment, and that the mid 20th century success of Fascism/Nazi ideology points to the failure of that Enlightenment, and is evidence in support of the claim that modernity is a failed project.

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