Archive for the 'Films' Category

Scarlet Street (1945)

“Scarlet Street” (1945)

scarlet

IMDb

twisted perspective

I haven’t seen one single Lang American film that i do not consider to be, overall, a failure. I find it that it is relatively important to, once in a while, search for one of these films, watch it and try to understand what was the shift that makes them work so bad, at least today. After all Lang gave us Metropolis which is a prodigy of visual sets, not so much of narrative. But than he made M, which is a really good project, that starts something that he could have transported to the American noir.

He is also in the generation of Germanic directors who invented the basic lighting that would be integrated into noir. And I think the problem starts there. In his mental shift towards American movies and audiences, Lang decided to keep and reaffirm what he had always done best: visual staging. But he never understood the dynamics of the noir narrative, the fabric of the noir world. How the shadows, lights and hats only truly work when they structure (or are structured by) the narrative.

(spoilers) And there Was an interesting narrative here!, at least as far as these films go. Of course it is superficial (so is almost every film) but it had potential to be explored in a visual medium. It has the self-reference of the main character being an image maker (a painter). The common man dragged through temptation (the woman) to a world he doesn’t understand and to which he ultimately collapses. But the girl is also not in charge of her own game, because of love. And even the bad guy, who is supposed to supervise the whole thing looses absolutely control. So fate comes above everything. In the middle we have an interesting and well explored (in terms of script) diversion through the ever juicy theme of mixed identities: our surrogate on-screen gets his pictures signed under other name without consent. Finding this out he doesn’t react how we supposed, instead embraces and encourages this to go on. Ultimately he kills his own work, by killing the persona that assumed the identity of his work. So when he kills the girl, he’s sort of committing suicide. That makes it perfectly useless to actually show the suicide in a later sequence that drags the film more than it required (although this scene IS visually interesting on its own because of the use of light, there we have Lang!). I suppose some scared conservative producer would ask for this scene, in case people wouldn’t understand the previous one.

The problem is that Fritz doesn’t do pretty much anything with the material he’s got, in terms of visual adequacy. He gets his script, and than considers every set, every sequence, on its own, not as part of an integrated storytelling conspiracy, but simply as a workable scene on its own. It’s as if Fritz in front of the possibilities of the script was like every other man in front of Robinson’s paintings: unable to go beyond the crippled perspectives, unable to understand the core.

My opinion: 3/5

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The Hospital (1971)

“The Hospital” (1971)

IMDb

the big character

I’ve been having a growing interest in George Scott. He is something of a unique kind within film actors. He never embraced the Method revolution as deeply as so many of the American actors of his generation, but also he is not old-fashioned. His acting, even when he is closer to go over the top is always fluid, and his films, if dated on any respect, always work still today, because of him (at least). He is theatrical in that words, and not anything else, command his performance. His phrasing bends the text and delivers us all the nuances he requires for it. He carries a film.

Here we have his talents summed up to a clever script, and a wonderful use of space, in a cinematic way. What we have is a goofy detective story, mapped into the troubled life of an undesignated detective, mapped into one single well explored set. On top of everything, we have native American mysticism, thrown under the disguise of an interesting screen woman. So this is an accidental police story. Some murders happen, few clues are given. We follow these murders from a clueless point of view which, nevertheless, does not coincide with the point of view of the tormented doctor, who will partially act as a detective, to the point of bending the outcome of the story. So the curious narrative trick here is how the narrators eye is anchored on the space of the hospital, even though the story has to do with how the doctor deals with the facts. We watch the doctor’s version of the world from an point of view external to him, this is interesting.

**spoilers** Than a woman gets into the story, a sexy mystic beast, who deviates us from the back story, only to the point in which we learn she has (unaware) the key to the enigma. And than we have the story of the burnt out doctor, suicidal, hopeless. This 3 threads start as separate lines that we follow, bound together by the action of the doctor. The beauty of the script i show in the end these threads have one single conclusion: the murder is the woman’s father, and the woman is the healer for the doctors depression. So he protects the insane murder and intents to run away with the woman.

Oh, but we have the hospital. Now we know that was the ultimate character, all the time. The doctor understands this, so he can’t leave it. His existence as a character depends on the existence of that hospital, as a space. It’s that space that bends everything that happens inside, as the character of an horror film which you never see even of you know he’s there.

Notice how this is underlined by the protesters. All the time they are outside, wanting to get in, and as the film ends and the story unfolds, it’s their invasion of the hospital that makes us aware of how much we are into that character now. It’s the hospital, all the way.

My opinion: 4/5

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The Artist (2011)

“The Artist” (2011)

IMDb

the smile

We’ve seen things like this before, haven’t we? Films that are not about films, but instead a love letter to other films.

I’m not nearly as fascinated about such incursions as i am for anything really new that comes out. As far as i know, the most fascinating referenced cinema is the one that captures the lessons of great previous films, and extends its notions a little bit. Or break them. You have people, like the Coens or de Palma, who made a career twisting the ideas of people before them. If we talk about silent films, than Guy Maddin is someone who really picked up what we stopped caring about with The Jazz singer, and twisted every notion to create something new. That’s the kind of reference that i’m looking at with passion.

This one enters the Cinema Paradiso drawer: expansive genuine passion for a certain type or moment of cinema history, poured into a vessel of nostalgia. You will understand these films if you understand that nostalgia, not necessarily the films that it addresses. Unashamed sweetness tops these attitude. You decide to play in that world or not. I’ve entered it several times. But i don’t stay there more than a few moments without feeling that i’m bypassing something really important, in other films being made.

That said, this one is a pretty good homage, in that flat sense. Some elements work amazingly well here, and one is even interesting from a cinematic point of view:

the one thing that works incredibly well is the main male actor: Whoever chose him understood his potential, he understood what it took for a silent actor to live on screen, and the director definitely understood his face, every angle of it. He smiles in a way that i’ve seen very few times. That smile carries the film, when he doesn’t smile, we easily enter the depressive mood of the character represented by the absence of its actor’s smile. Actors representing actors is something always interesting. To do it pretty much with a smile alone, makes him worthy of the Oscar. By the way, he is always an actor on the film. When he is acting for the silent films in the film, he has a similarly camera aware attitude as when he is in the real world of the film.

The narrative unfolds around and is finished with films, of course. That’s why our on screen lovers get together making a film, and his love for her is reaffirmed by the scenes of another film they made together. It’s the necessary self-reference, required for films like this to work.

And there is one remarkable scene. The “sound” dream. Our silent character dreams the world gains sound, objects, everything starts to produce sounds, except his own voice. This is remarkable because nothing is explained, everything is in the eye. The mere editing of simple sounds in an other than that silent scene makes us understand the drama of this character on verge of extinction. That was a cinematic moment.

My opinion: 4/5

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Escape from New York (1981)

“Escape from New York” (1981)

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postmodern blinks

Carpenter has a very special talent to give his films a mood, an environment, the taste of a specific world. That mood is almost always associated to a very strong sense of place. Many of his films are physically located within some recognizable area, related or not to our real world and if so, always twisted in some cinematic (visual) way.

I believe he always starts the conception of each film with this idea of place and mood. Than he builds a story that allows him to explore that mood, usually something trivial and unimportant, existing to support his cinematic vision.

Here we have it. Manhattan, one of the most recognizable places in film world. Twisted to become an assumed apocalyptic world. (the fact that Plissken enters it by plane, landing on top of the WTC is an unintentional irony, 20 years before the attacks).

He uses Kurt Russell, someone who can be trusted to the kind of role he has: physically self- aware, stylish, deliberately empty. He is a nice guy, because he plays this parts with a second layer of self-reference, a blink to the audiences, always: he’s playing a role which he knows can’t be taken serious, and we get that, we know we are watching a guy acting a role while he makes fun of it. This something Bruce Willis or George Clooney are also capable of doing. It’s fun that 25 years later Russell would participate in a Tarantino film that references with a similar sense of irony these films already not serious, and the ones before this one. Russell participated in the 2 layers of irony. That’s good.

But Van Cleef is even better. He was a supporting actor in first generation westerns. He lived to become a main actor in 2 of Leone’s ironic genius westerns. And here he still has the opportunity to enter a new stage of film irony, playing a character who manipulates and observes this western of a solitary hero fighting low moral for self-benefit. 3 layers in film world, he was in them 3. That’s remarkable.

After this, Carpenter gives us all sorts of visual treats, to enrich the bizarre feel of this world. This is a worthy experience, a kind of Blade Runner without anything serious to say. It doesn’t change you, but it’s worth the ride.

My opinion: 4/5

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The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

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opened eye

Road trip films are a very powerful genre because they convey a deep sense of oppositions merged to create a vision of unity. This something that, apart from this sub-genre, maybe only western can create so aptly, but with western we are always attached to the meaning of the films: western film is viscerally linked to a certain American vision of values, moral and ethics, and its Italian connection, to cinema itself, meta-narrative.

But the road-trip is free from so many conventions. They come in all shapes and sizes. So you can produce a road-trip movie in anyway, without being forced to obey the laws of a genre, because in the end, it’s not one.

So we have the Bonnie and Clyde, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, My blueberry nights. Each a very shiny light in its own cinematic galaxy. Each creates its own rules.

But what works all the time as a key element in these films, and what it shares with western, is how it invites the filmmaker to shoot wilderness, wide spaces, infinite roads, to portrait solitude, inner voyages, personal dramas. That’s the one thing that makes the film live or die.

This one lives. I have a growing admiration for Ida Lupino. A woman in the job mostly done by men. Giving us new versions of masculine genres. Feminine intimate calculation placed against (and over) men’s intuitions and symbols. This is a film with no relevant female characters. She delivers, I think, a kind of deeper version of this genre, specially compared with the generality of films done in these days, when the medium was not so developed as to allow emotion to be shown from such an inside point of view.

So here we have a film of tension, instead of violence. The promise of the next thing that will happen is always superior to the perspective of actually seeing that. And that’s what builds the shape of the film: the next thing. Talman gives us a very fair version for his typical character, more remarkable if we think it was still given when Brando hadn’t broken the rules for cinema acting. And naturally, a film like this necessarily depends in important parts on the performance of the actors.

So this is a film of sketched but unfulfilled actions, tension as opposed to realizations. The promise of the next landscape, the next town always mirrors the evaluation of the situation by each of the 3 characters. That’s why our bad guy keeps one eye always apparently opened, even when asleep.

My opinion: 3/5

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“Murder, My Sweet” (1944)

IMDb

Detective, the epicenter

Chandler is a tricky guy, because he always builds his stories in a deceiving way. He creates a simple thread, which at first you can very easily follow. Something about looking for some girl missing, or some old coin, or find some blackmailer. This we start doing always with the detective, usually Marlowe, as our surrogate. We know what he knows, from the facts that get to him, to his thoughts – easily transpired in the books, but many times tawdry represented in films, as off voice. But every time, the unfolding of the initially simple investigation becomes filled with contradictory events, an incredible amount of new characters, and endless possibilities for explanation of the story. We get lost. So does Marlowe. And that’s the point. We find ourselves suddenly pushed around, by everybody, all our mental mechanisms of understanding the story betrayed at every moment. We fall into the black hole, like Marlowe when he gets hit in the head. As if we experienced the hallucinogenic effect of the drugs that take Marlowe’s notion of time and space away.

This is truly powerful writing, when you think of the concept. Not great literature in the specific qualities of literature as art, but very good narrative concept. These detective stories are never about exactly how everything happen. In the end the explanation is so complicated that it becomes impossible to make credible, or so simple that it lacks interest. This is no Agatha Christie, where the intellectual mechanics of the story is what drives you to go with it. Here what matters is the world in which the story takes place, the rules of the universe where the characters live. These are literary characters, living in a literary world of their own, with very specific rules.

When you bring this powerful concepts, and mix them with film, than you have something really worthy. That’s what happened when filmmakers working in Hollywood, supported by visual ideas developed in Germany 10 years before, started to use this otherwise minor literature. In 1941 we had the Maltese Falcon, the first truly developed noir film, in this narrative sense. This means that when we get to this film, 3 years later, the genre is still developing, but already totally in inscribed in the mind of the viewer.

This film understands what this is all about. It is competent in how it is able to cast us into the chaos of an unexplainable world. Marlowe is a pawn, from the beginning, when he finds Moose inside his office without being able to put him out or refuse his request. Actually I find it interesting how this Marlowe is much more vulnerable to the pushing around by every character than Bogart’s typical Marlowe. I suppose without Bogart on the boat, the writers were able to take liberties with the character. What we have here is not the character of Chandler’s books, but it’s interesting to see Marlowe as a poor manipulated fellow, permanently on the edge.

The problem is actually the actor. It is very rare for me to be put off by a poor performance, but in a film like this, with the central role of the detective as our surrogate in the narrative, if the actor fails so deeply as Powell failed here, the film is seriously damaged. Bogart was always limited as an actor, but at least he had enough self-awareness to project his own unique character and carry the film with it. Not Powell, all those facial gimmicks, denounced expressions. The director doesn’t help, the editing is not fair for the actors (specially the men), but that’s no excuse for all the distracting elements of Powell’s performance. And Anne Shirley shines much more brightly than Claire Trevor. Hard to believe the man would ignore the first one to become bewitched by the other one.

My opinion: 3/5

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Pickup on South Street (1953)

“Pickup on South Street” (1953)

IMDb

floating narrative

This is not groundbreaking and it will not change you in any fundamental way. But it is deeply noir, and that is something always worth seeing.

We have a story centered on a character who is, among every character, the one who knows less about what’s going on. He is the only one totally outside the juicy plot he gets sucked into, and yet the only one that everybody (police and communists) believe to be in control of everything. Everything happens to him, he fights to control the events, but ends up being swept by them.

Notice this: he literally gets into the story by randomly picking a girls’ pocket, and steeling some very important film. He doesn’t have a clue about the importance and value of what he has, and acts accordingly. In the meanwhile he tries to outplay both the police and the communists, using the girl as his arrow girl, as a shield. He ends up loosing control both of the story (but not quite), as he falls in love with the girl. So here we have a cute sense of chaos in the story, agitated narrative where we find ourselves lost, as much as our surrogate detective, in this case the pickpocket.

Fuller has a great sense of pace and mood, and this film has a very special extra thing: the floating shack where many of the fundamental twists in the narrative happen. That is one great set that I will have with me for a long time. As an explored space it is good enough, in studio context. As a metaphor for the unstable mood of the whole narrative it works fine. In the end, this space becomes the odd center of the bizarre noir world of the film, and to root a film so strongly in a place is something I always appreciate.

My opinion: 4/5

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