When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950)

7 02 2009

It seems that most people see this as a failed attempt on Ford’s part to make something of a war-driven, Preston Sturges movie. Indeed, it does have some “screwball” touches to it, and I find it legitimately funny, but it never really comes close to having the substantial feel of a Sturges picture. This is a pretty light affair, which obviously contrasts with the whole concept of enlisting in the army. It is very enjoyable for what it is, but of course it isn’t going to convince anybody of Ford’s genius all by itself. It is pretty hokey, almost embarrassingly old-fashioned, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time watching it. It’s not high art, but it is popcorn entertainment seen through the eyes of an artist.

It is a little bit difficult to critically analyze a film that clearly feels like a studio-driven project. Based on the deleted scenes from the DVD, this was originally intended to be a musical. Being the man he was, though, Ford opposed this idea. He seems to have won this particular battle, as only one musical sequence is present in the final cut, but that doesn’t really stop the film from feeling extremely inconsequential. Another statement that completely contradicts the subject matter.

There is plenty “Ford-ness” to enjoy here, though. His depiction of small town lifestyle(s) is unparalleled. It’s not as vivid of a community as the one in say, Judge Priest, but it is fascinating none the less. Even with a very friendly tone, Ford’s cynicism shows up on a occasion, and sort of gives the film a positive attribute beyond just escapist entertainment. Even though the “suburban” era hasn’t quite developed into a nation-wide phenomenon yet, one can still see Ford planting seeds of criticism. The townsfolk, as they are in earlier in Ford pictures, tend to be gossipy housewives, devoid of perspective. That intimate community tone, in which news travels by mouth and not by a publication, is 100% Ford. This is obviously  important as the film itself is rather unFord-ian.

Ford has always saved potentially empty productions by injecting his personal interests and themes into the content. The story here, revolving around a young adult who is the first to enlist in his small town following Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor, but ends up stationed in his home town as an instructor, does have a lot of potential. It’s a bit like one of those “wrongly accused” films, except instead of murder, the protagonist is accused of being a slacker. This could have worked had the part been played by someone that looks like they’re in their twenties. Instead, it’s played by Dan Dailey, who looks about thirty years older. He’s charming sometimes, but not nearly enough to lift the film beyond its studio inforced mold.

Germany Year Zero (1948)

4 02 2009

Now this is what I look for in a Rossellini film. As my first exposure to his 1940s drama, I found this one a little bit problematic, but for the most part absolutely wonderful. It’s almost as great as Flowers of St. Francis, possibly even better if not for a few minor annoyances. While Rossellini states upfront that his film is intended to be an objective account of modern life in post-war Germany, I can’t help but laugh. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a masterpiece, but objective isn’t the term I think of whenever I hear overly-expressive Hitchcock-esque music in the background. The few problems that show up here all come from an effort in making the story more tragic. Such touches aren’t necessary.

Before I get into the few inconsequential gripes I have with the film, I’d like to point everything it gets right. Formally, Rosselini isn’t exactly a master, but his handheld aesthetic continues to build into something full of energy, almost excitement, which contrasts of course with the bleak subject matter. “Chaotic” would be a very good way to describe the overall vibe of the film. Normally, an abundance of dialogue is not a good thing, but here it actually contributes to establishing the mood. Maybe it’s just because Italian sounds fast, but there always seem to be a sense of urgency, even to the most mundane conversations.

This, at least in my mind, is a great accomplishment on Rossellini’s part. More than anything, this film actually made me think of Elaine May’s unjustly underrated Mikey & Nicky, a film that perfectly fills a certain criteria for a “genre” picture, yet one that is developed so naturally. Nothing in the narrative here feels remotely forced. In fact, it seems to be the exact opposite. There’s these great little non-dramatic touches that Rossellini throws which look like they could take the narrative in a new direction, but instead stand as oddly moving sketches powered by sincerity. A perfect example is when Edmund, the youngest character in the family, walks around his demolished city and joins with a group of children older than him. These kids he spends the day with would almost definitely be introduced through the following scenes, but this is actually their farewell in Rossellini’s world. The moments of happiness that are experienced in this film are fleeting and temporary. In other words, they are completely accurate.

As is the case, it is somewhat inevitable that my only problem comes with the film is the far too tragic conclusion, which is quite tacky, but even more so since it is accompanied by the most loud, obnoxious, manipulative music one is likely to ever hear. I guess if you’re going to make a movie that is essentially just a kid walking around a destroyed city, you’re going to have to use lame music in the background. For the most part, though, this is an amazing achievement. Not to mention, one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Gods of the Plague (1970)

4 02 2009

One of Fassbinder’s very best films. Like it’s predecessor, Love is Colder than Death, this is a very austere examination of passive young adults stuck in the backdrop of a crime drama. If there’s anything wrong with this film, it’s that it is a tad bit too short and (as usual for Fassbinder) ends on a slightly too tragic look. Even before his Sirk-inspired melodramas, he would tend to close things up rather tightly. It’s a shame too, since all signs point to a very open ended ending more often than not, but I can’t complain too much when the rest is simply so great.

Critics tend to divide Fassbinder’s thirteen year career into three sections. The first category displays the filmmaker at his most formally rigid. While he did dive into some shaky-cam docudrama (most of the time with Michael Fengler) his work from this era tends to represent something of a fore-runner to the “minimalistic” movement in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s quite odd that someone who became fascinated by films like All that Heaven Allows was one of the biggest influences (at least so it seems) to Bela Tarr’s latter day aesthetic. Like Tarr’s work, Fassbinder’s films from the early 70s are extremely cold, detached, but also oddly humorous.

Obviously, not everyone is prone to fall for Fassbinder’s earliest efforts. His fanbase is generally divided on which part of his career has more artistic merit. At this point, I would side myself with those that argue in favor of the more experimental early part of his career. The humor in these earlier films are reminiscent of Tsai Ming-Liang’s extremely deadpan comedic approach. The action (if you want to call it that) takes place with some distance from where the camera is located. This distance immediately creates a observational feel, just by its mere frankness. The absurdity of these characters is more visible from a distance. Fassbinder is not cynical to the point that he is being condescending to his characters, he’s just willing to point out their human-ness, more so than many of his contemporaries.

The emphasis I place on Fassbinder’s “human-ness” is slightly ironic, I suppose, since the acting in his early work (this film included) is very unnatural, bordering on mechanical at times. It’s not nearly as static as the acting in The American Soldier, which sort of a remake of this film, but at the same time, it isn’t exactly emotive. There are these occassional emotional outburst, all of which seem to come from female characters, that attempt to break the tension between the audience at the characters, but instead the tension between the characters themselves becomes all the more awkward. If you’re a fan of  narratives following passive, emotionally disturbed individuals then this is a must. Anyone else, approach with much caution.