Riding Shotgun (1954)

28 10 2008

Now this, on the other hand, was just flatout amazing. Even the color + academy ratio combo couldn’t keep it from being one of most visually lovely westerns I’ve seen. Maybe not as great as the visuals in Day of the Outlaw, but I would argue that this is going for something completely different. Of course, even if the visuals were poor, this film would still have the presence of Randolph Scott to save it. This may very well be my favorite performance of his, though I still have three more “ranown” westerns to see. Anyway, he’s absolutely amazing in this.

Like in Boetticher’s Decision at Sundown, Scott spends most of his time  unjustly cornered by the residents of the town. Here, he’s trapped into the lowest bar in town after attempting to warn the residents of the approaching danger, a gang led by his nemesis, Dan Marrady. The townsfolk assume he’s trying to pull a trick and they quickly turn against him. He resists arrest, which leads to the inevitable discussion of a mob to do the work. He holds out, with the hope he’ll get the opportunity to kill Marrady and prove his innocence.

Such a simple straight-forward story told within the limited scope of 74 minutes – an ideal structure for a western. It sounds kind of silly, but there’s simply no bullshit here. A lot of people make think there is since the story’s foundation is laid out within the first fifteen minutes, but had all that stuff been stretched out for the whole film than that would have been padding. Once De Toth establishes his character, it’s all them, no intrusions on their interactions. Technically, Scott’s voiceover could be labeled as an interruption, but his bits come might close to being genuinely poetic, despite the fact that they are used as exposition.

That is a good way to explain why the film is so great to begin with. Sure, it is a “genre” film and its intention was probably to make a quick buck, but it is also legit art. Could I explain why exactly? No, because that would either be too dull and what it makes this film, and De Toth’s cinema in general, art is something in one’s subconcious. This probably sounds a bit preposterous, especially for a 74 minute “B” western. It is, but Riding Shotgun is one of the greatest cinematic achievements for American cinema in the 1950s.

Thunder Over the Plains (1953)

28 10 2008

Another solid western from André De Toth. It’s not as great as Day of the Outlaw, but it does have the advantage of featuring Randolph Scott. It’s visually a far cry from that film, if only because it has the disadvantage of being in color and the academy ratio – a usually deadly combination for westerns. Still, the story here is enough to carry the film. I usually don’t put much stock in the narrative, especially not when it’s westerns, but I find the character complex too intriguing. Scott is a sheriff patrolling his home state of Texas. His emotions are caught in-between standing up for the independence of the citizens and fufilling his duty as a marshal.

This does sound like pretty standard western fair, if only for the fact that the protagonist’s duty is directly interfering with his emotions, but Scott’s character walks the line too tightly that it makes the film a joy to watch simply be trying to assess every single decision he makes. As one could predict, he ends up being hated by the town’s folk and the law, which sort of points towards the “me against the world” concept that is further developed in De Toth’s Riding Shotgun. In a way, this film is just a warm-up for that film, in which Scott is quite literally beaten around by every character.

There’s some uniquely positive traits for this film, though. Specifically the relationship between Norah Porter, the wife of Scott’s character, and Captain Bill Hodges. It becomes very obvious once Hodges is introduced that he’s going to pursue a relationship with Norah Porter, but it still is a bit surprising once he acts upon his feelings. In every other western, the “affair” usually occurs between the hero and a woman who is neglected by her husband. Scott’s character does neglect his wife, though, but only to pay the bills, I suppose. I guess the potential for this subplot was a lot more exciting than it actually turned out, but then again, I’m not watching westerns to see shrill, sleazy melodrama.

Charulata (1964)

28 10 2008

Definitely my favorite post-Pather Panchali film from Satyajit Ray. Like the other 1960s efforts I’ve seen from him, this isn’t the most formally dazzling movie, but it is a wonderful character-driven story with a nice, relaxed pacing. The first hour or so, in particular, is pretty much perfect, and I might even say they’re as good, if not better than, the best sequences of Ray’s debut. Unfortunately, though, things tend to fall apart towards the end with plenty of Ray’s usual off-kilter indulgent flourishes, such as the overly dramatic “storm” symbolism that shows up whenever the protagonist is in a conflict. For the most part, this is still a wonderful film and certainly one of Ray’s best.

Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays the title character, deserves a lot of credit for making the film, as a whole, work. She’s wonderful in Ray’s Mahanager and even better here. Of course, her role in this case is a lot more demanding but she is equally captivating. I suppose a lot of her “watchability” can be credited to the fact that she’s also physically attractive, but she definitely has a certain way in which she handles herself that is special. I guess all great performers have this indescribable element, but it feels especially promimnent in this film. Again, this is likely because the story itself is so performance driven.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything “cinematic” to be found here. However, with every film of his I see, I become more and more convinced that the poetic touches of Pather Panchali were a one-time thing for Ray. This film, along with Nayak and Mahanager, is visually, much more natural. Of the three, though, Charulata is by far the one with the most impressive visual flourishes. These flourishes aren’t quite consitent enough to feel like a “style” so to speak, but this do give the film an aesthetic edge over those other two Ray films.

The film’s greatest strength, at least in my mind, is its very natural depiction of a situation that would otherwise be drowning in its own melodrama. Charulata, a stay at home wife, is feeling lonely so her husband invites his brother to give her some company. It’s pretty obvious what follows, at least in a dramatic sense, but the gentle and slow way in which Ray comes to this point is what makes the film so special. The story seemingly tries with all its might to bring the actual film into the realm of the ordinary, but its attentiveness and respect for the characters shines through.

Mahanager (1963)

27 10 2008

More of the same from Satyajit Ray, though generally speaking, I’m less enthusiastic about this film than I am about Nayak. Of course, Pather Panchali still remains my favorite by a large margin, but I am beginning to get a better grip on his overall “style” which is initially a tad too simplistic. No doubt, the poetic sensory images from Pather Panchali aren’t nearly as prominent here, but that hardly makes the film a failure. In fact, Ray’s interest at this point seem to lay less in the formal and more in the personal. This does have the advantage of being perhaps the most intimate of the Ray films I’ve seen, and probably the one where the characters’ relationships are best established. Then again, they may just be a lot more interesting.

This could probably be categorized as a message film, as Ray seems to be touching upon a variety of closely related topics, all of which deal with India’s cultural progression. The main narrative point comes when the mother of the house, Arati, is forced to take a job to make ends meet. At first, this plan seems to be free of problems as Arati’s husband Subraya quickly finds her job, but Ray slowly begins to reveal how much importance the rest of family places on values. The grandparents of the house aren’t just upset by this move, they are flat-out disgusted.

This sounds almost humorous, and I admit, I actually got a chuckle out of it, but it does play in to a prominent issue addressed by many other “art” directors in the time period. Most notably, Yasujiro Ozu, who seems to be somewhat of an influence here. Ray sticks to his own aesthetics, of course, but the fact that the main conflicts come from class and family issues seems to be a gentle nod to Ozu. Also like Ozu, Ray is not preaching one way or another, but merely depicting the fact-of-the-matterness of the situation. Husband and wife both working to make ends meet is common in modern, especially American, society, but it must have been a pretty progressive statement here.

I’d hate to draw a comparison point between Ray and another Japanese director, but I can’t help but see a depiction of an “alternative version” of marriage owning something to Mikio Naruse’s Repast, which provides a much more distanced couple dealing with their issues in more drastic measures. Naruse’s film still irks people today, but Ray’s comes off as being a really well-made feminist statement. Again, he’s not preachy with these statements, but his mere observations are enough. His heroine is trapped into her family expectations: they expect her to be a housewife and while she does not want to disrespect or tear her family further apart, she also wants to maintain her independence. On paper, this all sounds a little hokey, but I honestly doubt Ray had such philosophy in his head, which is of course what makes it all work.

I feel I must stress that Ray does not use his characters as pawns to carry out these messages, or examples. They really are their own perceptively drawn-out person. It can’t be too exciting to praise film on the mere promise that it will be present full and complex characters, but there is something incredibly intriguing about seeing them interact. This is more of an actors’ film than it is a directors’. This is perfectly fine, though, as these are characters that I can’t help be eager to examine. Ray takes his time in his depictions, but that is why they are so rewarding.

L’Amour, L’argent, l’amour (2000)

27 10 2008

I’m finding it very difficult to start this review for the nostalgic weight that the film itself holds for me. It almost perfectly sums up what I looked for in films about two years ago. It’s a grainy, jump-cut happy, montage-driven film about two lonely people finding each other. In a way, I almost wish I could have seen this two years ago. It’s not as though the film’s power has been completely lost simply because I prefer “slower” movies now, but I definitely would have connected with it more then than I do now. It’s sort of like an early Lukas Moodysson film wrapped inside of Olivier Assayas’ dreamy style with 8mm montages that are equal parts Gummo and Fallen Angels. Needless to say, the film does feel a bit over-stylized at times, but I can’t help but love something so kinetic and ambitious.

The opening sequence of urban nightlife fading in with grainy, almost incomprehensible footage of the protagonist perfectly sets one up for what to expect for the next two hours. The constant use of overlapping fades is a bit irritating at first, but it becomes less noticeable once one falls into the film’s rapid fire editing and pacing. Another sign of the film’s true nature as being “formally crazy” is present in how the whole thing feels like a very prolonged montage. To call the editing elliptical would be an understatement. As pretentious as it sounds, Groning really demolishes any sense of time. Some sequences become patterns, occasionally reappearing in a completely different order than originally shown.

This is why the otherwise ugly film stock really shows a sense of being truly poetic. While this is still a narrative film, it gives off the sensibility of something archival. John Cassavetes’ Faces would be a fine point of comparison in this respect, but I wouldn’t want this review to get bogged down in how both filmmakers are interested in the relationships between men and women. It’s enormously impressive how such a grainy aesthetic can capture such legitimately beautiful images, yet at the very same time come off as trying to feel like home videos a la the 8mm sequences in Korine’s Gummo. At the same time, Groning (probably unintentionally) juggles the romantic longings of Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema into these scenes.

It is inevitable, then, that one could argue against the film’s personal expression, but of course, it has something to say. In retrospect, the young lovers are never seen in a particularly flattering light. Sabine Timoteo is likable, but perhaps only because she’s one of the best and best-looking living actresses in modern cinema. The male, though, is predictably a bit too passive for his own good. For the first half of the film, at least, he’s definitely not the power figure in the couple’s relationship. Before they fall in love, he’s actually embarrassingly resistant to his future lover’s advances. In fact, much of the dramatic material comes off as a bit cringe-worthy.

I’m not saying that all the narrative events are painfully melodramatic, but they certainly aren’t subtle, either. Instead they exist within that space that most similarly-minded films would fall in. Fucking Amal, for example, bears very little narrative similarities, but it does have a very like-minded feeling behind it. The grainy cinematography definitely helps, but I’d like to think it is more than simply that. There is one narrative element that is perhaps a bit too self-consciously “serious art film-ish” and that is the seemingly random sequence in which, Marie is brutally raped.

This really does nothing to progress the film, except prove that her profession is one that cannot be depended on. Yet somehow, it is another aspect of the film that I can simply forgive the problems on the account that I, at some point in my cinematic life, was really affected by such things. And yet, everything that follows this scene is completely devoid of conventional dramatic principles. The remaining twenty minutes or so are almost like a lost artifact from everything that came before. The scene where the couple’s car catches on fire is a bit silly, but it leads to one of the most fitting and accurate conclusions in any film.