Le plaisir (1952)

26 05 2010

This is pretty much more of the same from Max Ophuls, but for whatever reason (which I’ll try to get into with this review) I was completely overwhelmed by this whereas my reactions to La Ronde and The Earrings of Madame De were only lukewarm. I’d like to think some of it has to do with the stories being based on the work of Guy de Maupassant who is responsible for the story in Renoir’s amazing A Day in the Country as well as Ford’s Stagecoach. To call the man’s writing credits impressive would be an understatement but still, his contributions to the world of film seemed to be under-appreciated.

Much like La Ronde, Ophuls is juggling multiple stories here. Only three this time and his way of transitioning is much less elaborate and not nearly as smooth, but the content of the stories themselves is far more interesting to me. It probably helps to have two of the greatest performers of the time period featured in some. Throw Jean Gabin in anything from the early thirties to the late fifties and he’s almost a lock to improve the writing. Simone Simon, if only for her unorthodox beauty, is a thrill to watch in anything and her performance here is absolutely heartbreaking.

I suppose Gabin is the better performer here, but Simon’s story is the one that takes the cake. It’s shorter, perhaps even the shortest of the three, but its short length only contributes to that vague beauty that alludes to “poetic” – it’s the sort of opacity that makes the work of some of my favorite directors – perhaps most notably, Hiroshi Shimizu, so memorable. The characters here aren’t rich, detailed, or deeply layered. They’re simplistic and lacking in description but again, there’s something so fascinating about such a setup.

It’s hard to describe how the last story here gets to me and why it cuts so deeply since it exists somewhere nowhere close to my real life experience. Basically, it’s an artist and his model falling in and out of love. It might be the virtuoso camera work of Ophuls (which is absolutely jaw-dropping here) but it might also be that exaggerated tragic tone that I’ve come to expect from Frank Borzage. Of course, Borzage lingers (and thus, I suppose, “meditates”) on his couples for a longer period, but within a short twenty minutes or so, Ophuls is able to capture the same heart-swelling tone within a more frantic and chaotic frame. These adjectives all sound like a verbose writer but to get an idea of what I mean just look at the final sequence in which Simon threatens to kill herself and her ex doesn’t even flinch. It begins with a simplistic static shot but when the action is initiated, it seamlessly turns into a stylistic point of view shot. It’s a perfect example of Ophuls’ cinematic talent – being a mastermind behind the camera but trying to be quiet about it.

Paris, Texas (1984)

23 05 2010

I’m accused movies of “cheating” before and I usually mean that in the sense that they are too close to my ideal vision of cinema. This is one of those movies. It’s a weird phenomenon and I can never quite put my finger on it, but films like these are perfect in my eyes yet still can’t provide the same emotional response as some of my more “flawed” favorite films. I’ll particularly throw out Two-Lane Blacktop and The Wayward Cloud since this film is of the same ilk and, in all likelihood, it’s probably aware of the former. It seems a little too simplistic, not to mention illogical, just to downplay a film like just because it doesn’t have any transgression or something, but there’s definitely something missing here.

If there’s one flaw in the film that I can immediately pinpoint, it’s the weird overly-bright, almost cartoony color scheme that is easy to find towards the start, but tones down before eventually arriving in Wenders’s usual visual territory. The film of his it is most like is probably The American Friend but the opening landscapes look a bit more commercial than anything in that film. It’s a really small gripe because looking at the film is almost completely a wonderful experience. I guess I just expect more from the usually aesthetically pleasing Wenders? Again, this is just small stuff.

The story concerns itself with Travis Henderson, a man lost in the desert who has obviously experienced something extremely traumatic in the past. He slowly becomes part of functioning society with the help of his brother, Walt and his wife, Anne who have been taking care of Travis’s son, Hunter ever since Travis vanished many years ago. There’s some nice bonding scenes that feel real even though the content is obviously bordering on being something out of a mushy Hallmark card.

In the last twenty minutes or so, the film (somewhat abruptly) shifts into territory that is more familiar for works of this style. Travis tries to hunt down his wife, the women who (we are to presume) played a integral role in his emotional collapse. Basically any scene with Nastassja Kinski is enormously sad and moving, but probably just a bit too dialogue-driven for their own good. It really goes against the grain, especially if one takes into account that a majority of the film’s opening is without any dialogue at all. It all works, but again, it might play some part in my inability to truly embrace this film like the two comparisons I mentioned in the first paragraph. Everything works well here: it just works too well, I suppose. Still, a great film that I enjoyed a lot more than this review probably implies. Pardon that, I’m still a bit rusty.

Juventude Em Marcha (2006)

13 05 2010

While I can certainly see and understand why this film has received such a dedicated following, I can’t buy into the idea that it’s a complete masterpiece or anything. I like Pedro Costa a lot and consider Ossos a near-perfect film, but I guess his inventiveness gets the best of him here. The former film is definitely unique though it can be filed away in the slow-burning minimalist folder that houses Tsai Ming-Liang, Jia Zhang-ke, and everyone else of that ilk. This film still maintains the element of long static shots but it’s less exotic looking (shot on digital?) and a lot more dialogue-driven than the rest of the group.

Apparently, this film is something of a fusion between narrative filmmaking and documentary filmmaking, but this doesn’t supply the “self-conscious” wall-breaker that similarly described films might. This is not the meta fodder of Godard’s latter period, but just a film, staged by beautiful static shots featuring people talking. That’s really all it is, and for what it is, it’s pretty amazing. The idea of a displaced individual wandering around ruined landscapes and reuniting with his children is nice and easy to watch, at least for me, but the problems come when too many of the sequences depend on characters describing these extremely long stories that leaves it up to us to imagine the situations.

I can’t knock Costa for simply photographing people talking (not to mention doing so without moving the camera) because that’s essentially what he set out to do, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some of the stories the characters tell are either too boring to worry about or are semi-fascinating and then run of momentum because of length. It’s probably worth mentioning that there’s not much energy or spontaneity in their dialect, but again, this is not a false or an oversight. Bresson comparisons are boring because every critic uses him as a stand-by but the de-familiarization of character movement, along with the deconstruction of surrounding images definitely gives off that feel. I’m reminded of The Devil, Probably in particular.

Ultimately, this is film I like a lot but it doesn’t seem to carry itself for an entire two and half hours. I seldom feel impatient with Costa (those others might feel differently) but there are times when I’m about to ready to “move on” even though you have to anticipate such movement is going to be deliberately minuscule. Basically, I think this movie is very interesting and a very personal for Costa, but I suppose it doesn’t work as much for me as his more polished work, particularly Ossos, but I can definitely appreciate it on a similar wavelength.

Gettin’ Sentimental: Borzage and Ford

10 05 2010

Foreword: This is paper is for my Pop Culture 3500 class, taught by Dr. Dan Shoemaker. I am posting this paper in hopes of a discussion here, as well for my own archival purposes. Let’s cross our fingers that I’m not breaking some obscure clause in the curriculum about re-posting essays on personal blogs.

Gettin’ Sentimental: Borzage vs Ford

Within the past decade or so, the long-forgotten Frank Borzage has been given a critical revival. Like many overlooked filmmakers of Hollywood’s early years, this has been particularly helped by the advancements in home video distribution. His work is that of a relentless romantic, often described as devoid of cynicism, and detached from reality. Borzage’s stories are often described as love stories but that can only capture a very small aspect of his work. It’s mushy like a Hallmark card, yet these postcards are bursting from the sides with lyrical moments that rescue the maudlin topics from being too optimistic.

John Ford, on the other hand, has never needed a critical revival. Ever since he wowed audience in 1924 with The Iron Horse, he has been considered cinematic royalty. Ford himself, with his eye patch, pipe, and stubborn bravado, would undoubtedly scoff at this or any analysis. He once said “I love making pictures but I don`t like talking about them.” (Sinclair) I don’t exactly disagree with Ford’s persona of denying anyone of any insight into what his films mean. Whatever the case, Borzage and Ford are clashing personas. Borzage is the eager, optimistic, perhaps even naïve romantic and Ford (while displaying the same three traits in his work from time to time) was the well-read, snarky, critical darling. He is an American icon, while Borzage is only an icon for big-time cinephiles.

Ford is not a die-hard realist, though, and I hope my characterization of him didn’t give off that impression, but in real life, he was very closed-off. Borzage, had he be given the opportunity, would perhaps have been a more charming personality. Ford is still a romantic, though he’s not quite on the level as Borzage, there’s a grain of skepticism within every poetic stanza. His 1939 biographical picture, Young Mr. Lincoln demonstrates this perfectly. It is obviously a dramatized portrait of honest Abe; it paints him as the iconic moralistic hero, not unlike the same Lincoln in our history books. Ford himself once said that “When the legend becomes fact, film the legend” (Gallagher) and this is something he took to the grave with him. He was one of the few directors who could qualify as a historian, but he’d be a very difficult one.

Young Mr. Lincoln, made in 1939, comes during the most artistically successful period of Ford’s career. Between 1939 and 1941 he would leave his mark on the world of cinema with films like Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, and the highly underrated Tobacco Road. It’s easy for this film to fall through the cracks, especially when one considers the reputation of the first three mentioned. Stagecoach is credited with reviving the western genre (in truth, it gave birth to audiences taking the genre seriously), while the other two, both literary adaptations, had plenty of success at the Academy Awards. Ford himself would never claim to care about the approval of the masses and I no reason to doubt the legitimacy of this sentiment. However, his popularity is important, though. There are very few artists who are as synonymous with Americana as Ford, yet the filmmaker had a huge following in Europe. Ford’s apple pie sentimentality is at its best in Young Mr. Lincoln, hardly a surprise when one considers the similar sentimentalism history has associated with Lincoln himself.

In sharp contrast, Frank Borzage’s 1933 Man’s Castle is a film with little interest in location. Borzage’s tale of a confusing and complicated love affair has a universal appeal. Borzage was constantly drawing on his previous works. His (arguably) best-remembered work, Seventh Heaven tells a story of two similar misfit lovers and takes place in the slums of Paris. While there is an exoticism here, it is a very minor element. By the time he switched to sound, Borzage had abandoned this slant. Thus, Man’s Castle, though drawing from American experiences during the Great Depression, feels devoid of a location. Borzage’s interests lie in his characters, who they are, not where they are. This should be evident in the fact that he so frequently chooses to portray the lower class. Man’s Castle is indeed a “gritty” realistic drama, but this comes from the passion of the performers, not from a filmmaker trying to push an agenda.

Spencer Tracy has, thanks to the latter part of his career, established a very nice image for himself in public, but in the 30s, he was hard to like. There’s no denying it, his character in Man’s Castle, is an asshole. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction. In September 1933, following the film’s completion, Tracy was arrested for public intoxication. He had been unsuccessfully dealing with a drinking problem for well over a year at that point. On paper, the problem seems easy to explain. Tracy, a married man, had developed feelings for his co-star, Loretta Young. The two performers, both Catholic, resisted their mutual feelings, and the affair was eventually brushed under a rug. However, Tracy never forgot about Young, though. Many years later, his daughter Susan found the couples’ “breakup” letter and showed it to Young, she was extremely touched. All of this just contributes to the realism of Borzage’s film, which is odd coming from a film that is meant for the audience to escape reality. That’s not to say the film is escapism, as it does portray the life of an extremely poor couple and displays the effects of the depression, but Bill and Trina themselves are able to escape, if only temporary, in their love for each other.

There’s a love story in Ford’s film too, but not only is it minor, it also runs its course within the first twenty minutes of the film. In a now famous tracking shot, Henry Fonda’s Lincoln walks side by side with the woman he desires, Pauline Moore’s Ann Rutledge. Soon after, Lincoln skips a stone in the river and its ripples turn into glaciers, the music takes a sharp turn. Lincoln, now in proper winter attire, is back where he started. Ann is there as well, but it is her grave. Abe proceeds to conduct a conversation with the grave, a common motif for Ford that is present in Judge Priest and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, among other films. There are hints of Ann’s haunting influence on Abe throughout the film, and when he becomes the interest of a socialite woman, he turns down her advances. While attractive, she seems dull and unremarkable compared to Ann. Whether this is true of her character or not is not of any interest to Ford. He captures how Abe sees her, someone incapable of understanding his past and thus, worthless.

The “meatiest” part of Ford’s film is the trial, which is over-the-top, comical, and primitive. It’s seen as big problem to modern eyes to portray the legal system as something so silly and while laughs can be one explanation, the other seems more substantial. It’s impossible to know whether or not trials were actually as disorganized as the one Ford captures, but conventional wisdom would tell you that he’d have to be close. One should also consider the tone of every other trial in film. They are almost always stern, serious, and filled with tension. Ford, if anything, should be applauded for his unique approach to the subject, even if it does show the film to be somewhat “immature.” While he was a logical filmmaker, he did his best to not drain the energy out of his work through preaching. There’s a heavy hand in some of his political assertions later on, but never does one get the impression of Ford on a soapbox. He would be far too embarrassed to display such passion or protest in his work. If there’s a “lesson” in this particular film, it’s just that everyone is entitled to a fair and even trial. It’s perhaps ironic that Ford, the godfather of the western genre, expressed this motif in a much different way than a western following the same theme, such as Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide. In that film, the hero must escort a criminal to his trial, in which he will inevitably be found guilty. Ford’s film pays off with what the audiences suspected all along: both of Lincoln’s clients are innocent. It feels much less labored than the twist ending of Walsh’s work. It be extreme, perhaps, to accuse Ford of caring little about plot, but he definitely is one of the filmmaker who seems to have higher priorities. Here, the story seems like a backdrop: the real drama comes from the fascination we get from watching Fonda’s Lincoln interact. An awkward quiet sequence in which Lincoln plays around on his jew harp would seem tedious to mainstream audiences if they didn’t know the larger than life presence of Lincoln.

Borzage makes his characters icons, too, but they are closer to well-aged Greek statues. They are representations of humans, not a representation of a human. Still, though, they have the same larger-than-life complex, because, as many of Borzage’s protagonists, they’re drawn together by a love that will outlast every struggle in the universe or something equally mushy and pretentious. This is not meant as a slight to Borzage, because he is fairly conscious of the “pragmatic fairy tales” he tells, but where as he shows “no interest in the workings of daily life” (Kent Jones)  he still manages to demonstrate an absolutely poignant, and sometimes, heartbreaking understanding of primal passions like love, yearning, and fear. He’s a melodramatist, but he is a damn effective one. He cares about his lovers, in spite of all the pitfalls he places on their path.

I suppose my main point is about “love” and the way both directors approach the subject. It’s a vague one, and any attempt at specifying it just complicates things further. Mind my indulgence into my personal life, but I think it’s suitable, if not essential for discussing the subject. Simply stated, I am a romantic failure. I’m young and have plenty of time, but I know I couldn’t be further from finding a substantial romantic relationship. Yet, perhaps from inheriting the “sensitive, quiet loner” stock personality type from my father, I constantly hope, dream, and yearn for one. It’s a little pathetic, in all honesty, but it’s the same tone that one can find permeating from every frame of Man’s Castle. It’s like a love story for people who can’t find love. Sure, now there’s countless “indie” flicks about lonely twenty somethings finding and/or failing to find love but that’s too literal. It doesn’t get the sentiment, Borzage does. Borzage is the embodiment of me being upset by loneliness. In contrast, Ford, at least here, presents a potential new romance as an embodiment of me being angry. Lincoln’s potential suitor is, as I’ve already expressed, so pathetic and dull that she seems like an insult to any woman for which he has held a minor interest.

Hervé Dumont found Borzage’s depiction of intimate scenes to be detrimental to the action. (Jones) This was intended as criticism, but it also reflects Borzage’s ability as a filmmaker. The “melodramatist” tag evokes the work of Douglas Sirk, but his stories were focused on the actions, consequences, and situations in which people found themselves. Borzage’s “plots” are not what takes center stage. No, instead, the focus lies upon the faces of his protagonists. It is a little extravagant to say he’s in their heads, but he’s still immersed in their physical interaction. Ford, on the other hand, is obviously known to completely embrace the “action” and many identify him and colleague Howard Hawks as the epitome of Hollywood’s finest action directors. In the case of Young Mr. Lincoln, however, there is little to be found. What Ford was embracing here was apple pie sentimentality that was begininning to be weighed down by the cynical work of young post-depression directors. He was creating propaganda before it was even necessary. Like Borzage’s link with melodrama, I don’t mean propaganda in a negative way. After all, I already mentioned that Ford was not one to get on a soapbox, but in this particular film, there is something so inescapably American about the proceedings. Of course, it is about one of America’s most iconic figures, but still, even without that, it reeks of Americana. That’s what I mean when I describe it as propaganda; it’s an uplifting film, one that can get us to rally around our commonality. The best thing about it is that it is timeless, since there wasn’t a call for propaganda, Ford didn’t have to worry about portraying America in an overly flattering way, and instead he embraced the scars and blemishes. The result is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating works from a cinematic genius.

Man’s Castle does not appeal to a group of people, it is meant to appeal to all people. It’s quite the oddity that Ford would become so popular across the ocean, especially compared to Borzage. Maybe Ford’s vision of Americana is so fascinating to foreign eyes that he’s seen more as a ethnographer, albeit one who greatly dramatizes the past. As a fan of both, I am eager to help others embrace their approaches. They’re not completely different, but that subtle schism between their ideological interests is something that can easily be missed by those unfamiliar with both directors. Both filmmakers produced fascinating work and perhaps more importantly, both are equally fascinating individuals. As Borzage’s popularity (among film circles, that is) grows, I hope the comparative analysis with Ford can grow as well.