Il cammino della speranza (1950)

31 07 2009

Like Visconti’s La terra trema did two years earlier, this early Germi melodrama wears its How Green Was My Valley influence proudly on its sleeve. Germi, perhaps unfortunately, has just as much ground to cover as Visconti and Ford but with a much shorter time frame. While Visconti’s film has always been a bit too epic for my tastes, I have to admit that it takes its time to fully get inside of the heads of its characters. Germi can’t quite do that here, since his movie is more than an hour shorter, but he does manage to cover a lot of emotional ground.

The story concerns the end of a small Sicilian mining town. The mine’s workers have buried themselves in their workplace in protest of their boss’ decision to shut down. Forced out of their once dependable occupation, the town’s folk all gather in a local bar, where they all stand in awe of Ciccio. He has traveled from France looking for illegal workers and although the people of the town are forced to cough up 20,000 lire to be smuggled, they do so with great enthusiasm for what the future holds. The trip takes a turn for the negative, though, when Vanni, the village villain (so to speak) joins the trip. The distaste that a majority of the villagers feel towards Vanni is never explained, but its quite clear: he did something detestable.

Vanni’s spouse, Barbara, is looked at with a similar sense of hate. Before the trip, she tries desperately to say goodbye to her mother, but a local priest intercepts her attempt and explains to her that her mother couldn’t care less. One of the strengths in Germi’s melodrama is the amount of holes he leaves unfilled, the pasts of the characters which are unexplained. Based on this film alone, he was not a director capable of toning down the drama, but I like that he didn’t neatly give every detail to the audience. There’s plenty of things implied here, both to the audience and to the characters.

None of the performances are particularly noteworthy. Sure, they work in a strict sense, but nothing about the sensational final half hour makes the performers look especially good. On the other hand, the cinematography from Leonida Barboni is gritty and sensual. It’s particularly wonderful early on with the sweat and dirt on the faces of working class man photographed to the highest detail. The humid, desert-like opening serves as a beautiful contrast to the frigid, snow-filled conclusion. Barboni manages to create a sense of physical discomfort in both situations, a task that should not be overlooked.

The biggest selling point here is probably the screenplay, which was penned by Germi and the (now) much more famous Federico Fellini. Like a majority of the scripts Fellini wrote before the 1950s, the tone is at times brutal in its tragedy. On the other hand, the rich, nearly cartoony characters that have become of a staple of Fellini’s lighter and more fantastical works is still evident. Instead of complex and/or “completed” portraits (a la Visconti or Ford’s take on similar content) the people here are characterized by idiosyncrasies and quirks. They are, as Fellini’s work is often described, like something out of a carnival.

La Belle équipe (1936)

30 07 2009

If only this film were better known, it would most definitely be considered the male bonding classic of pre-war cinema. Just think about how enamored modern men are in the whole “bromance” bullshit that invades popular culture. Duvivier’s film is of the same vein, but its different. The biggest difference being that I find all the characters in his film to be likable, perhaps even more fully realized characters than the real people occupying our TV sets through reality television. Gabin and company are so genuine in their slightly skewed sense of morals, including the whole “lets not women get in our way” mentality. It’s been played to death, not just exactly in films, but whatever the case, Duvivier makes nearly every second of it work.

The story concerns five seemingly longtime friends (hence the English title They Were Five) who are all facing their own sort of problems. Charlot is having problems with wife, who has, following their unofficial split, has gone on to a very successful career as a model. Mario, on the other hand, is caught in a successful relationship but the problem lies in the fact that French officials are looking for him, in order to deport him as soon as possible. Jean, Raymond, and Jacques aren’t much more successful, but things look up for the group when they win 100,000 Francs via the French lottery.

The gang decides, thanks to a pitch by Jean, to put their winnings together and instead of going their separate ways, open up a group-owned dance hall in the rural parts of the country. As Jean says, “it’s better to be busy” and the gang quickly starts working on an old, abandoned, and decaying building. Things go smooth at first, but it soon becomes evident that despite their project, some problems will never go away.

There’s many things to love about this movie, but the most obvious (and expected on my part) is the gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Marc Fossard, a common Duvivier collaborator, and Jules Kruger, who is responsible for the visuals in France’s most well-known silent films – most notably L’Argent and Napoleon. It is the usual sweeping and stunning tracking shots that moves ever so gracefully through Duvivier’s world. He is to France what William A. Wellman was to America, or what Kenji Mizoguchi was to Japan. This is some pretty impressive company and unfortunately, Duvivier’s legacy is not nearly as strong as Wellman’s or Mizoguchi’s, but it definitely should be.

There’s something very unique in the relationships Duvivier focuses on in both film and Poil de carotte. Here, the central relationship is the friendship of Jean and Charlot, and the woman, Gina, who threatens to get between them. In Poil de carotte, the unique relationship is the one shared between the titular boy and his maid. Both relationships are uncommon, but that’s what makes them feel so right. Only someone with plenty of great human experience could write the things in these two films, because the emotional pull comes from a connection that is not love. Honestly, aren’t all films about love of some kind? Duvivier’s film are about love, but very few have made such mature depictions. There’s nothing “sensational” about the drama between the characters (at least not until the film’s “pessimist ending” which is totally inferior to the alternative and more upbeat one) and nothing “sexy.” It makes Duvivier seem all the more genuine in his convictions regarding friendship and more importantly, life.

Der amerikanische Freund (1977)

28 07 2009

I suppose this is Wim Wenders’ own entry into the film noir revival that sparked American cinema in the mid to late 70s, and produced some of the country’s best films from that period. Beside the superficial “crime thriller” tag that could be applied to the story (which is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith) there’s a few other things shared between this film and stuff like Mikey and Nicky and/or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The visuals are the most noticeable thing, as they are a huge improvement over Wenders’ previous color feature, Wrong Move. Overall, I probably rank that film a little bit above this one, but this is definitely another worthy entry into Wenders’ 70s catalogue.

Not so surprisingly, the film executes (literally in some cases) itself in a cold, detached, and very matter of fact manner. This, of course, is completely in line with everything else I’ve seen from Wenders. It’s very Antonioni-esque to say the least, but I think there’s a sense of compassion more reminiscent of Ozu. It’s present even in a film like this, one filled with criminals committing crimes. Perhaps its because of the deadpan manner in which everything is presented, but even under the most emotionally overwhelming of situations, a Kaurismaki-like level of humor is evident. That’s not to say that Wenders ever shows signs of being a cynical comic but instead, that he lets the drama take a backseat to sequences of human simplicity. A perfect example would be the scene in which Bruno Ganz sweeps the floor of his frame shop while humming or mumbling, perhaps even singing along with The Kinks’ “Too Much on My Mind.”

There’s a bit of irony in said sequence as Ganz’s character does indeed have too much on his mind, and like Ray Davies, he probably can’t sleep at night thinking about it. This connection isn’t some pointed epic statement, but just a very accurate representation of how one would deal with their feelings. When people are sad, they listen to sad music, not upbeat stuff. Ganz’s character has wisely chosen an album (in this case “Face to Face”) to underscore his feelings. Perhaps I’m making too big of a deal out of a simple little sequence that takes up all of thirty seconds, but I feel it is something of a microcosm of Wenders’ work as a whole.

He doesn’t make grandiose statements about life, love, or death (though I have a feeling he will in Wings of Desire, which I haven’t seen yet) but observes situations in which such themes play a part. Obviously, death would work with the sequence in which Ganz must carry out a killing (the target is legendary Swiss director, Daniel Schmid) but this extended scene never occupies a sense of self-importance. There is nothing done to make it dramatically or philosophically more fascinating, which is why it is all the more frightening. Like countless cold modern filmmakers (most (in)famously Michael Haneke) Wenders presents the violence without the support of any music, or fast cutting. He builds the suspense by, ironically enough, choosing to not try.

As I mentioned earlier on, the cinematography here is truly wonderful. The bright, vibrant, neon colors of the nightlife seem to be a hundred years away from the dull-ish brown color scheme of Wenders’ Wrong Move. Robby Muller probably outdoes the visuals of my other neo-noir favorites, Mikey and Nicky and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The visual tone seem to anticipate, about twenty years early, the visual style of countless Hong Kong “art” filmmakers. Even though it lacks the kinetic camera of a Christopher Doyle film, it manages to accomplish a similar type of visual beauty within its equally impressive rigid aesthetic. An impressive work of “genre” film making, though it is even less conventional than some of its counterparts.

House By The River (1950)

28 07 2009

Well, let’s just say Lang has done a hell of a lot better. There isn’t anything about this film that doesn’t fit into Lang’s universe of shadowy cinematography occupied by equally shadowy character. The problem, instead, is that things feel a bit too Lang-ian, almost to the point that this feels like something of a parody, or at least the imitation of a less confident and less competent director. On the other hand, the simplicity of the characters and the melodrama of their interactions does lend the film something of a “campy” charm.

I would never argue in favor of Lang being a humanist, but I do find that, in his very best films, he does have something resembling sympathy for his characters. This is not the case here, though. Pretty much every person that shows up is a pawn for manipulating and advancing the already shrill and over-the-top narrative. It only takes a few minutes of the film to realize that very little character development or even character depiction will be going on. To call these people thinly characterized implies a oblique tone, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The drama here comes almost entirely from the advancement of the narrative.

As he often does with B-level material, Lang lifts the film from the depths of MST3K fodder to a genuine art film. The cinematography, courtesy of Edward Cronjager – who also shot Lubitsch’s colorful Heaven Can Wait, is as excellent as I anticipated. The opening “pillow shots” are actually quite brilliant, but fortunately bring the film down by building up the tension for something more complicated, and/or not so silly. Overall, this is probably a bit more entertaining than The Woman in the Window but I think that’s a result of the previously mentioned “camp” appeal. It might be a bit better visually as well, but overall, not nearly as rewarding as a whole.

Sous les toits de Paris (1930)

27 07 2009

A slight step down from the greatness of Quatorze Juillet and A nous la liberte, but still a very impressive film overall. All the things I’ve come to love from Clair – his craftsmanship and his relentless romanticism – are certainly present here. In a few particular scenes, there are beautiful examples of what makes his work so touching, not to mention so woefully overlooked. Quite honestly, there were more than a few instances in which I was on the verge of tears. I suppose this should make it Clair’s masterpiece, at least on paper, but for all the powerful sequences (of which there are many) there is just as much time in which Clair’s magic is idle.

Once again, the center of Clair’s attention is a love story. This time, however, it is between three people. There’s no way to describe the central romantic relationship without making it sound like a conventional “love triangle” narrative and considering the tenderness with which Clair handles his content, I certainly don’t want to give such an impression. The story concerns a young street performer, Albert, who meets and simultaneously falls in love with Pola. There is a big problem, though, and it is getting in the way of Albert and his love of Pola. The singer’s performances are a goldmine for pickpockets, whose “work” makes Albert himself look suspicious.

The sincerity here is overwhelming, as it is in almost all of the films I’ve seen from Clair, and as I already mentioned, said sincerity has its moments. Some sequences are, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, some of the saddest and most beautiful things I’ve seen in all of cinema. Why, then, is the film not a definite favorite of mine? Well, I have a feeling that some day it may become exactly that, but for now, I find it a good deal of Clair’s execution of some more conventional narrative elements to be tedious. Like he threw in something more audience-friendly to keep them happy while he was busy working on a deeply personal expression. It’s a very difficult film to get my head around, and surely, rewatches will be in order. But for now, I can admire Clair’s technical accomplishments and be moved by his best and most heartbreaking sequences.