Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Now Playing: JAN. 31, 1962.

As the month closes in Milwaukee, the hype is on for Stella Stevens as a film opens that is now best known as a dubious footnote in the career of its director and co-writer, John Cassavetes.

Too Late Blues is seen, along with Cassavetes's follow-up, A Child is Waiting, as studio-compromised setbacks for the maverick director of Shadows. It would not be until Cassavetes had established himself more securely as a movie star in films like The Dirty Dozen that he'd get to direct on his own independent terms. But let's see what the fuss was about, to the extent that the trailer,uploaded by HellsDonutHouse, can tell us.

The second feature is a late noir or post-noir with Jock Mahoney in modern dress prior to his two-film stint as Tarzan. Online it's easier to see the entire movie than see a trailer -- was one made? -- so follow the link here if you're interested.

In Salt Lake City, a rare British western, albeit set in modern Mexico, opens to inaugurate a former second-run house's new first-run-only policy.

The remarkable thing is that this isn't the only British western; here's a quick survey of the field. But if the Italians could get away with it later, then why not? But did the Brits get away with it? In lieu of a trailer, here's the opening section, including credits, uploaded by iloveslashymovies.

Reading PA,gets an Italian pirate movie with a rare starring role for lumbering western heavy and onetime Frankenstein monster Don Megowan. Regrettably, the film has left no trace to date online.


Down in Charleston, a new kind of biblical epic opens.

Not so new, actually. According to this account, Albert Zugsmith's production, co-directed by star Mickey Rooney, is a throwback to those old Cecil B. DeMille movies where a modern story would segue into a biblical flashback, or vice versa. Rooney is the snake, not Adam, as you'll see in this Edenic clip uploaded by the self-explanatory ilovemartinmilner.

About the second feature: The Pharaoh's Woman an Italian film about Egypt with an Argentine-American star directed by a Russian emigre who made movies in Germany under Hitler. Could you get more cosmopolitan? SapphoPEPLUM has the whole film in pieces; here's the first of those.

Addendum: For most people across the country, the most likely film on a local screen as the first month of 1962 closes is The Second Time Around, a Vincent Sherman comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and Andy Griffith. Another fairly common item that opened in various places that month is an authentic 1962 release that remains in rotation on the now-debased, commercialized-in-prime-time Fox Movie Channel.

Bruce Humberstone's Madison Avenue is a portrait of the Mad Men world from its own viewpoint, or that of the late Norman Corwin, though most of the picture takes place in Washington D.C. A chain-smoking Dana Andrews is a high-powered ad exec who finds himself maneuvered out of his job but maneuvers himself for a comeback by more-or-less taking over a D.C. ad firm from its heiress owner (Eleanor Parker), whom he transforms into a glamourpuss. All the better to seduce eccentric milk executive Harvey Holt Ames (Eddie Albert) whose initials and enthusiasm for model helicopters signal another caricature of Howard Hughes. Andrews pushes Albert to take over a national milk combine, the better to take revenge on the rival who cost him the national account. Romantically, he's torn between the newly glamorized Parker character and a reporter girlfriend (Jeanne Crain), and overall the film shares many of the organization-man anxieties of the era. It does so tepidly and in drab black and white, and the film never gets into the political territory that my local cable guide promised. The film is a footnote to pop culture history insofar as it seems to be the picture that earned character actor David White his spot as Larry Tate on the Bewitched show after playing an ad agency boss here. You can watch the whole thing with "limited commercial interruption" on Hulu or IMDB, or you can catch it some morning when it's still safe to watch Fox Movie.

That's enough for one day and one month, don't you think? But there are eleven months to go!...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

COMMISSAR (1967-88)

The Soviet Union was a censorious, repressive society, but its leaders and bureaucrats had a curious attitude toward film. Rather than destroy unacceptable movies, the U.S.S.R. tended to shelve them, presumably indefinitely. Even Stalin shelved Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II rather than burn it, and under Khrushchev it saw the light of day. Likewise, the ambitious debut film of director Aleksandr Askoldov was shelved by the Brezhnev regime, ruining Askoldov's career, only to emerge in the days of Gorbachev. It was acclaimed then, but Askoldov, then still only in his fifties, appears never to have resumed his career. One wonders what the censors objected to. It may have been the decision to adapt a story by Vasili Grossman, a writer presumably on the outs with the government since his novel Life and Fate had been suppressed a few years earlier. But if that were the case, Askoldov shouldn't have gotten a green light at all. The real issue seems to have been form rather than content. Askoldov was one of many Soviet directors butting against the aesthetic limits of "socialist realism" in cinema. Like many an ambitious novice, he seems willing to try anything with the camera. That experimentation may have been off-putting to the extent that it expressed directorial individualism rather than an official vision of the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Commissar occasionally spills over from socialist realism into magical realism in a manner that can be stunning to the casual viewer but disconcerting if not offensive to Soviet aesthetic regulators. So-called totalitarian regimes seemed to distrust artistic experimentation, believing that all art had a propaganda function and should be comprehensible by the lowest common denominator. Yet I don't think viewers would have trouble getting Commissar. So some have speculated that the KGB objected to the film's supposed feminism, since the title character is a woman, or to its sympathetic treatment of Jews, though Askoldov's attitude may not be as positive as that speculation implies.  Maybe there just wasn't enough heroic march music; totalitarians dig that sort of thing.

The offending film focuses on Klavdia Vavilova (Nonna Mordyukova), a Red Army officer who arrives in a freshly-taken town and is quartered with the Magazannik family. She's left behind as unfit for duty because she's in the last stage of pregnancy. Yefim Magazannik (Rolan Bykov) is one of those "life-affirming" types, the kind who dances barefoot in his yard as some sort of prayer to God. He kvetches at having to give up his bedroom to the commissar, but he and his family prove friendly, the wife especially showing empathy, having five kids herself, with the pregnant officer. The boys in the family are rambunctious, and the way they're presented may be part of the problem the censors had with the film. For one thing, they like to play at war, pretending to cajole their sister's doll from a hiding place only to torture and execute it. Later, they treat the sister herself with some of the same childish brutality, calling her a "Yid" for extra measure. The offensive insinuation may have been that the Red Army's conduct may have inspired the boys' cruelty. They may have been offensive in another way in one scene when their mother is bathing them, only to be interrupted by troops passing through town. The curious kids rush out to watch, and Askoldov gives us one shot of their three naked penises through the passing wagons that could well have convinced Soviet censors that he was some kind of a pervert and could well give American viewers a little bit of the creeps. But the director may simply have meant them as symbols of innocence; a lot depends on the eye of the beholder.

For a while you think you know the direction the film's going. Klavdia is slowly domesticated, doing her share of household chores and clearly caring for her newborn. But the film takes a late turn when the approaching counterrevolutionary "White" army shells the town. Klavdia and the Magazanniks take shelter in a basement. The kids are panicking and crying, but Yefim calms them and entertains them by launching into one of his Tevye/Zorba-esque dances. In what becomes a dreamlike montage, he, his wife and the kids all dance past Klavdia in the darkness, urging her to join them. Then, in the film's most startling coup, the montage turns into a prophetic vision. Klavdia now sees Yefim doing a more subdued, submissive form of his dance as he and his family, all wearing Stars of David on their garments, are herded into a concentration camp as veteran inmates watch in their iconic striped pyjamas. Everything's there but the Nazi regalia -- though it can't be the 1940s because Yefim's kids are still kids. From there there's one more anxious episode as Klavdia rips apart the boarding covering a door so she can shelter her baby (temporarily left on a sidewalk) from an advancing army, and then the commissar's fate is sealed. She leaves the baby with the Magazanniks to raise as she hastily rejoins the Red Army for what looks like an unpromisingly undermanned assault on the enemy with a minimal orchestration of the Internationale playing as a coda.

So for all Askoldov's alleged philo-Semitism he (and presumably Grossman before him) seems to be saying that for all Yefim's quaint charm his attitude of faithful resignation is simply inadequate to the moment in history. It is not enough for Klavdia to put her faith in a higher power; she can't wait for things to happen, but must rejoin the struggle, even if that means sacrificing her motherhood, not to mention her life. That would seem to make her an exemplary Bolshevik and an ideal hero for a Soviet film. But Commissar seems to have been judged much as a Hollywood film would be under the studio system: the ending with its stark hint of sacrifice for its own sake isn't happy or affirmative enough to satisfy the audience the bosses presumes exist, or wants to exist. In short, a Soviet cultural bureaucrat was just as likely as a Hollywood studio bureaucrat to be a moron.

Visually, Commissar swings for the seats on every pitch, and Askoldov occasionally hits one out of the park. Apart from that stunning flash-forward to the Holocaust, the film's most arresting moment comes when Klavdia flashes back during labor to her wartime adventures and envisions the slaughter of her comrades. This scene climaxes with a host of saddled but riderless horses charging across a bridge and through the countryside, eventually accompanied by an eerie murmur of human voices. It left me wondering whether the scene had influenced Steven Spielberg's more restrained employment of riderless steeds in War Horse. Regardless, Askoldov's imagery has at least as much power as anything Spielberg achieved in his new film. Commissar is often self-indulgent but never in an annoying or pretentious way. Askoldov's show-offery doesn't distract from the forceful yet ambiguous point he wants to make about war. If it was too ambiguous for a 1967 commissar to comprehend, or too forceful for him to accept, those are badges of honor Askoldov and his move can wear with pride today.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A lot of bologna: NOW PLAYING, JAN. 27, 1962

I have to admit: when I first scoped this ad for a Gadsden AL theater, I thought that the theater was offering free bologna to young moviegoers. Instead, a free kiddie movie show apparently served as the incentive to get kids to eat the stuff, or at least convince their parents to buy it.

The thing about a kiddie show was, you didn't really have to be too specific about what you were offering. As long as you promised cartoons you had some folks hooked. Then you made your money at the concession stand -- unless the kids brought their own bologna, that is.

For older children, drive-ins like this one in Sarasota offered value for money: a racing-themed quadruple bill.

I confess to batting 0-for-4 on these pictures. Green Helmet is a British racing film with Ed Begley Sr. as the token American. No trailer for that one, but here's one for Johnny Dark, uploaded by grhacker2001.

And here's Thunder in Carolina, from surfink1963.

As for Born to Speed, the Trail had to reach all the way back to 1947 to get that one -- but they aren't telling you that. I imagine many carloads left early to dream their way home behind the wheel, and most likely they all made it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Now Playing: JAN. 26, 1962

Something unusual in Toledo OH: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone opening under an alternate, more exploitative title -- though the print ad hedges the bet by identifying the source.

An alternate title is often a sign that a film has already flopped but the studio's trying again. I can remember it being done on TV simply so viewers wouldn't recognize the Movie of the Week as an infamous dud. Never saw Roman Spring so I can't guess what happened with it. By the way, that "funniest of color cartoons" is a Bugs Bunny short with Yosemite Sam as a viking that suffered censorship for, you guessed it, violence!

Down in Miami, Roger Vadim's jazz-fueled 1959 modernization of a much-filmed 18th century novel opens in two theaters.

Americans may recall the rival English language versions, both of which reverted to the period of the novel, that appeared in the late 1980s. They may remember Vadim as the future director of Barbarella. Or they may not: all that was long ago.

A different kind of foreign film opens in Reading PA, probably in a different kind of theater.

This is Sergio Leone's stab at the sword-and-sandal genre, and while cowboy actor Rory Calhoun is a hopeless lead, Leone definitely demonstrates a precocious eye for spectacle. Here are a few hints in a trailer uploaded by maloyko (via TCM).

It may be big, but it's still only one movie. At a Charleston drive-in, you'd get three.

What do we have here? First, via mirkodamian:

Second,-- check it out auf deutsch from godzilla2664:

Third,from the director of Doctor Blood's Coffin -- but there's no trailer available. Awwww....

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: THE BOWERY (1933)

In prime time, the dear old Fox Movie Channel succumbs to evil and transforms into FXMovies, sporting recent dreck and commercials through the night. But by day the channel is its old self, which was never on a par with Turner Classic Movies -- its library is simply too limited -- but still airs old movies without ads. Last Tuesday morning it featured an infamous and exemplary Pre-Code item from Darryl F. Zanuck's Twentieth Century Pictures, the production company that took over Fox Film to give us the Twentieth Century-Fox everyone knows today. Raoul Walsh's The Bowery is exemplary because it shows Pre-Code's occasional tendency to reduce humanity to cartoon status. It can't help reminding you of cartoons: Popeye and Bluto reenacted the battle between Chuck Connors (Wallace Beery) and Steve Brodie (George Raft) for the right to fight a fire, while Brodie and his legendary leap off the Brooklyn Bridge later figured prominently in a Bugs Bunny short. The Bowery's violence is cartoonish across the board.  Tiring of one woman's emotional neediness, Connors knocks her out with a blackjack, leaving her to be dragged out by a waiter. Jealous of her male companion's attention to a singer, a woman breaks a bottle over his head. This merry misanthropy makes it hard to take offense, as we may feel we should, at the racism displayed in the picture, if not expressed by it. The late Jackie Cooper, here in his childhood glory, already an Oscar nominee at age eleven and more beloved than ever as Beery's sidekick in The Champ, plays an urchin with an irrepressible compulsion to throw bricks at Chinese laundries. Reprimanded by Connors, "Swipes" tries to minimize the offense by explaining that the victims were "only Chinks." Later, his mischief causes the conflagration that rages out of control, with Chinese denizens trapped inside, while the Connors and Brodie factions fight it out in the street. You the viewer are to sympathize with Swipes none the less. The Bowery revels in its transgressiveness. I'm sure that Walsh and his writers (including master character actor James Gleason) knew what they were about when the first shot of the film proper, following an introductory title card, is a shot of a saloon brazenly labeled "Nigger Joe's." Again, the idea isn't to disparage black people, who are actually conspicuously absent from the movie compared to the Chinese, but to show off how chip-on-the-shoulder wild and crazy Bowery people were back when Walsh was but a lad. Some of the original publicity emphasized how much tougher than the gangsters of 1933 the likes of Connors and Brodie supposedly were. That may have been true in the cartoon tough-without-a-gun sense, but the main point is that Pre-Code Hollywood could imagine a past more outrageous and sinful than its own semi-legendary present. Nearly twenty years earlier, or halfway between The Bowery and the time it portrays, Walsh had filmed one of his first features, Regeneration, on the actual New York strip. That film is neorealism compared to The Bowery, and the comparison leaves you wondering exactly how far film art, as opposed to film technology, had actually advanced in the interim. I don't mean to say conclusively that Regeneration is the better movie, but I do wonder about Walsh's changing priorities.

If audiences were invited to see The Bowery as a retro gangster picture with comedy and sentiment, the actual subject of the movie seems to be celebrity. Brodie in particular has no apparent ambition except to be famous, the most popular man on the Bowery. To do this, he must surpass Connors at every opportunity. Strangely, there doesn't seem to be any political context for their rivalry, unless you count their status as captains of volunteer fire companies. As Brodie, Raft gives the liveliest performance I can recall seeing from him, bursting into soft shoe occasionally as a personal trademark to remind us that George Raft was another Jimmy Cagney, a tough guy who did dance. That combination made both men emblematic Pre-Code performers, though Cagney continued to flourish through the Enforcement era while Raft floundered with proverbial cluelessness. The combination also brought both actors close to cartoonishness as they approached the early sound cartoon's inhuman ideal of the thoroughly syncopated man in a syncopated world. The Bowery's nostalgic setting takes some of the edge off that inhumanity, especially after the story settles down to a more sentimental level, with Connors and Brodie vying for the affections of both Swipes and gamine Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray). Brodie's quest for fame leads him to hire no less than the great John L. Sullivan to box under a mask in order to humiliate Connors's latest prospect and win a $500 bet. It also inspires the famous bridge stunt, about which Walsh strives to keep us guessing. He shows Brodie planning to hoax it by throwing a dummy off the bridge, but we see his scheme go awry and the man himself on the bridge pursued by cops. Can we trust our eyes afterward? I won't say, but Brodie's rise from the water is Connors's fall from grace, which he avenges over an extended, clumsily authentic climactic brawl. Beery and Raft do their own fighting for the most part and it looks just as you might expect -- like a Toughman bout, the fighters flailing and flinging each other about with primal gusto. It's the opposite of fight choreography, and it works for this film. Unfortunately, the film fritters itself away afterward, ending without closure as Connors and Brodie go to war with Spain, as if Walsh intended to loop backward in his own career and reimagine What Price Glory? as a sequel to The Bowery. It can't sustain the breakneck pace and brazen audacity of its first half, but that fraction is practically worth watching in its own right as a high-water mark, or a nadir for oversensitive viewers, of Pre-Code transgression.

Now Playing: JAN. 25, 1962

In Charleston again, a Thursday opening for a British comedy from the house of horror itself -- Hammer Studios.

Despite the advertising, IMDB reviewers describe this film as "clean," "family-friendly" and "non-offensive." No trailer available online, but Hardtofindvideos2 has uploaded the U.S. credits and jazzy opening scene, which teases more suspicious goings-on.

Hope that tides you over until tomorrow's more extensive listings, but I might get another review in before that.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Now Playing: JAN 24, 1962

Were double features programed for compatibility, diversity, or for no good reason. The double-bill opening in Charleston leaves me wondering. The second feature is a British comedy from the previous year and a riff on the Brewster's Millions theme. The main attraction is a Steve Reeves action film.

Scant evidence exists online for Three on a Spree, clips abound for the Reeves film. In lieu of more ads tonight, I'll square up with some dancing girls, courtesy of zrxxu.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Big Screen: HAYWIRE (2012)

Here is Gina Carano in her element: the fenced confines of the mixed martial arts battleground. The video was uploaded by ginacaranodotorg.

A star was not born last weekend after Steven Soderbergh's Haywire opened weakly at the box office. It was telling that more people wanted to see Kate Beckinsale fight than went to see a real woman fighter -- but who goes to movies to see a real fight? Soderbergh's error in thinking he could make a star of Carano, at least in the film Lem Dobbs wrote for her, becomes apparent when we think about movies and mixed martial arts. MMA has been the backdrop for several films by now, but Haywire may be the first non-exploitation, non-straight-to-video movie to cast an MMA fighter as an action hero. While MMA promoters would like you to imagine the sport as a constant battle of kicks and punches, most people realize by now that grappling and "ground and pound" prevail much of the time -- and ground-and-pound just isn't cinematic. Granted, Soderbergh doesn't film Carano using much ground-and-pound technique, though she does get to choke out at least one of her co-stars. Nevertheless, the director is part of the problem. He undercuts Carano's credibility somewhat by resorting to heavy editing, perhaps to accommodate such opponents as Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. Watching it reminded me of the way insensitive directors of musicals disrupt the virtuoso flow of dance by impulsively cutting within a number. If you think about it, people like Hermes Pan and Yuen Woo-ping are in the same business. Like dance, cinematic martial arts is all about choreography, but Soderbergh, perhaps out of some misguided commitment to realistic fight techniques, gives us fight sequences with occasionally impressive bursts of Carano's indisputable power but none of the sustained physical spectacle that make great martial-arts scenes memorable. Again, doing that might not have been true to Carano's true talent, but that brings us back to the question of MMA's cinematic potential, and around to the larger question of whether Soderbergh, despite his stated intention of making this MMArtist a star, actually meant to make a "martial arts" movie.

Soderbergh and Dobbs last teamed up for The Limey, and like that film Haywire is a revenge story. But while the earlier film's title Brit was avenging a lost daughter, Carano's Mallory Kane is only avenging herself. She's an "added value" operative for some sort of private espionage contractor hired to rescue a kidnapped Chinese dissident journalist in Barcelona. Moving on to Dublin, she learns that the same journalist has been murdered, and she's been framed on the assumption that she won't leave Ireland alive. As in The Limey, this is all told in flashback. The film actually opens somewhere in upstate New York with the shock sight of personable Channing Tatum throwing a cup of fresh hot coffee in Carano's face. The subsequent flashbacking explains how she got there, though Tatum's role (he was one of her partners in Barcelona) remains ambiguous. Echoes of The Limey persist in the hilltop mansion of Mallory's military-buff dad (Bill Paxton) and a climactic confrontation on a beach. But Haywire has none of the gravitas Terence Stamp brought to Limey because we know next to nothing about Mallory Kane's past, how she got to be (and got to be accepted as) a super-agent fighting machine, while neither the dissident's death nor the collateral corpses that accumulate along the way weigh on the heroine's conscience the way the Limey's daughter's death did on his. Nor does Soderbergh ever really give Carano the kind of awe-inspiring badass spotlight that shined on Stamp. Her story is simply too irrelevantly complicated. I found myself not caring who was ultimately to blame (McGregor? Antonio Banderas? Michael Douglas?) for setting Mallory up. Once the story proved uncompelling, the film's shortcomings as martial-arts spectacle became more glaring. What this film needed above all was a scene in which Mallory faced someone we could believe as her equal or possible superior. It never happened, and if we were to understand that the Tatum or Fassbender characters are her martial peers, Soderbergh does nothing to establish their credentials.

Haywire is a weak rather than bad film. It's technically competent and well-acted overall -- Carano herself is at least adequate for her role. You might not gripe if you don't have to pay first-run prices to see the thing. It may be a victim of misplaced expectations, since I may have been expecting a different movie from the one Soderbergh intended. But if you declare your intent to make Gina Carano a star, that creates a certain expectation immediately whether Soderbergh realizes it or not. The most I can say is that I saw enough of Carano onscreen to think she should get another chance. It's a shame that people might leave the multiplex this week thinking that Kate Beckinsale could kick Carano's ass. But in a medium where Beckinsale can do what she does in her movies, that outcome might be inevitable.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Sometimes you can't trust your cable guide. Mine told me that Turner Classic Movies was going to be running Luis Bunuel's Oscar-nominated version of Robinson Crusoe starring Dan O'Herlihy. Apparently I'll have to watch that here if I really want to see it, because what TCM ended up showing the other day was something that might well have appealed to the arch-surrealist of cinema: a gender-bending adaptation of Defoe raging with sexual subtext.

After teasing us with a male narration of the logbook of a doomed vessel, a woman's voice takes over to inform us that she, Robin Crusoe (Amanda "Miss Kitty" Blake), a young woman who got aboard in male drag, and one wretched man survived the shipwreck to reach an apparently deserted island. The man instantly attempts to force himself on Robin, claiming to have never been fooled by her imposture, but she manages to shove him off a cliff after he chases her up a hillside. Robin settles into her new routine as queen of a realm of one, proving quite a competent survivor and builder. A monkey is her sole companion until the inevitable day when black tribesmen appear to carry out an execution. They intend to put two women to death -- for what offense??? -- by tying their legs to bent tree limbs and tearing them in half. Robin manages to rescue one of the women (Rosalind Hayes) while the executioners focus on their first victim. She then fends off an attack on her treehouse by the aggrieved men with her musket and pistol, the woman joining in by chucking back some of the spears the men have flung at them. Like her literary model, Robin names her new companion Friday, noting the day's connotation as a day of freedom -- did Friday Foster get he name for the same reason?

Robin retains enough eurocentric civilization to take offense when Friday performs a mysterious death ritual over their foes, brandishing (freshly?) shrunken heads on sticks, but the black woman responds with servile gratitude (at least) when reprimanded. They teach each other skills, Friday warning Robin off the island's poisonous fruits, for instance. Eventually, Robin starts work repairing a rowboat so she and Friday can strike out for civilization, but the project is hardly under way when a second shipwreck deposits a sole, male survivor on the island. Robin wastes no time letting Jonathan (George Nader) know who's boss, reminding Friday -- who may have needed no reminding -- that "All men are bad." Ms. Crusoe suspects that Jonathan will try to steal her tools or her boat, and her suspicions make Friday violently hostile toward the man. She nearly kills Jonathan when he sneaks to the Crusoe place to borrow her saw, then gleefully watches him chomp on some that poisoned fruit. Stumbling on the scene, Robin is horrified and urges Friday to whip up the natural antidote that fortunately exists. An uneasy truce settles in as the women nurse Jonathan back to full health, neither fully trusting him but each, perhaps, tempted by him. Friday seems quick to adopt Robin's new opinion that this man, at least, is "good."

A very awkward courtship ensues as Jonathan tries to win Robin to womanly ways, wondering whether she always has to be the captain of everything. She despises girlish affectations, informing Jonathan that she's wearing flowers in her hair "only to please Friday," -- but she quickly clarifies that her friend considers them a good-luck charm.  But Jonathan, despite his hopeless chauvinism, proves still more tempting in what looks like blue store-bought swim trunks. Things come to a head when Friday lights a huge bonfire and performs a ritual of uncertain significance -- at first I thought that she had burned the rowboat -- while Jonathan seems insanely to swim out to sea, only to return to shore. Robin watches both spectacles, confessing a strange attraction to Friday's "savage" spectacle. What might otherwise be written off as director Eugene Frenke's incompetence creates a very ambiguous moment when you can't tell whether Robin is going to go to Jonathan on shore or Friday by the fire. She opts for Jonathan and a From Here to Eternity moment -- but the next morning he and the rowboat are gone.

By themselves again, Robin seethes and Friday tries to console her, subtext rising its closest to the surface when Friday strokes the sleeping Robin's hair. From there, events rush to their climax, Jonathan returning and setting a big fire on shore just as the tribesmen return, apparently after vengeance on the women. Robin is ready to kill Jonathan, who has wisely armed himself for his return visit -- and has the drop on him when she hears Friday's screams. To spoil things for the sake of closure, Robin and Jonathan rescue Friday and the trio fight off a small army of tribesmen until a naval vessel appears to investigate the bonfire and scatter the savages. At the darkest moment, Robin promises to marry Jonathan, and appears to fulfill that promise by the end -- but it's worth noting that, despite all my expectations, Friday does not die and is presumably still around in England as our heroine's body servant or in some related capacity, if you get my drift....

Miss Robin Crusoe is a triumph of content over form, which is fortunate considering how often the form stinks. Frenke, more often a producer (he made a more reputable desert-island picture, John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, in that capacity), was directing for the fourth and last time, and it makes you dread the first through third attempts. Nicely photographed locations are laughably integrated with the fakest-looking soundstage sets, while Frenke has difficulty ending scenes. Many end with an abrupt blackout, as if footage had suddenly been excised. Apart from the score by Elmer Bernstein, who was helping films as bad as Robot Monster punch above their weight musically, this is a clumsy affair. But sometimes, especially in the Code Enforcement era, it was the films lacking in classical smoothness that allowed repressed ideas to crack the surface of cinema if not break through entirely. Did Frenke mean for this film to have so much lesbian subtext, or was the whole movie a sort of Freudian slip? I won't venture an answer right now, but at least I can say that Miss Robin Crusoe more than made up for missing the Bunuel. I'm sure it'll prove inferior on every level once I see the film I originally wanted, but it was entertaining as hell.

Now Playing: JAN. 22, 1962.

From New York City, the first of two adaptations of major American plays by director Sidney Lumet to appear this year. His take on Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night will come later.

The film had actually held its world premier in France three days earlier, having been financed with European money. For more on the source play, check here. For more on the movie, watch the whole thing here.

Down in Daytona, the first name in "Adult Entertainment" is Brigitte Bardot, opening tonight in a film by the director of The Wages of Fear and Diabolique.

Despite Bardot, La Verite didn't enter the canon as the two other Clouzot films have. I'd like to find out why for myself someday. Someone has the film up on YouTube, but it lacks English subtitles. The "co-hit" is a 41 minute featurette from 1956 with an international cast. During its original release, it was touted as an experiment in short-form "documentary fiction," but I don't know if any of the follow-up experiments predicted in this New York Times report were made. For all I know, the rest of you read it here first.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Now Playing: JAN. 20, 1962

Sorry for the poor reproduction quality, but you work with the archives you have. Here's something opening in Baltimore this weekend fifty years ago.

Of course, the Italians had a more interesting title for it. They called it "The Scimitar of the Saracen," approximately. Director Piero Pierotti seems to have specialized in period adventure films, while star Lex Barker is an erstwhile Tarzan enjoying Euro stardom -- American audiences would be seeing him in La Dolce Vita around this time. This clip uploaded by SapphoPEPLUM makes the show look a little like the Ziegfeld Follies. Take a look:

The second feature on the Regent double bill is something I've actually seen: purportedly the first martial-arts movie made in the United States.

Something Weird Video released this one back in those halcyon days when their mass-market DVDs could be found in any -- sob! -- Borders bookstore. It's predictably primitive, but a wartime flashback of the hero going berserk and karate-chopping his enemies has a memorable charge. If you can't quite make it out, the ad is promising "A new powerful dimension in TERROR!" Unfortunately, there isn't any unmarred footage available to embed here, but I could recommend the film to people with a historical interest in the genre. Overall, it looks like an interesting night at the movies back in the day.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In what country -- on what planet? -- are Alain Delon and Jack Palance brothers? The answer proposed by director Ralph Nelson and screenwriter Zekial Marko, who adapted his own novel, is long-disputed multicultural Trieste, where the presumably Slavic-heritaged Pedaks would speak fluent Italian. Walter (Palance) is a full-time criminal, but Eddie (Delon) has gone straight after a stay in stir for shooting a cop, also from the old country (Van Heflin) in mid-robbery. The cop still carries a grudge against Eddie, so when someone driving a car that matches the description of Eddie's vehicle, and wearing a coat that matches the description of Eddie's garment, robs a Chinatown corner store in San Francisco and kills the owner's wife, Inspector Vido's natural assumption is that Eddie is to blame. But the way the robbery was filmed automatically tells us differently. In any event, Vido's suspicions lead Eddie's arrest at his warehouse workplace and his losing his job. Without a job to support his wife (Ann-Margret) and daughter, and too proud to let his wife work as a scantily-clad waitress, Eddie's ready to listen when Walter proposes robbing the warehouse where millions in lightweight platinum are stored. A modest caper ensues, involving tapping the phone line from the warehouse and intercepting a call from purposefully spooked security guards so Delon and an accomplice can show up in cop costumes and get let in. By this time Vido is starting to realize that Eddie had been framed for the grocery job, but can he and Eddie trust each other to get Eddie and his family out alive as Walter's gang falls apart and one sinister accomplice (John David Chandler) decides he doesn't want to share the loot with anyone?...

Once a Thief marked Delon's first job in Hollywood. Studio publicity touted his Gallic rebellious streak, reporting that he'd scandalized M-G-M veterans by smuggling wine into the studio commissary. In a more peculiar bit of publicity, gossip columnists reported that Delon and Ann-Margret had briefly feuded after he had hit her too hard for one of several slapping scenes. The Frenchman reportedly resolved the situation by sending the actress flowers, but there followed an item reporting that A-M was vetoing cheesecake publicity shots for the film on the ground that those undercut the film's dramatic vibe. Seems like an unhappy experience for her, and probably not too happy for most involved in the picture.

Nelson's picture -- his follow-up to Lilies of the Field and Father Goose -- arguably qualifies as a late-noir or neo-noir picture. It boasts nice location cinematography (apart from the occasional process shot) by Robert Burks and obvious noir situations, from the ex-con victim of circumstance to the obsessed, misguided, bullying cop. It adds a sheen of Sixties sleaze with explicit references to lesbians and the aforementioned outbursts of Delon's macho brutality. The worst of those comes when Eddie invades the club where his wife is waitressing. He slams her into a wall, then tries to rip her costume off, saying: "Don't cheat your customers, show them everything!" before dragging her into the street. This comes with the territory of the story but there's something slightly gratuitous about it as well. It means to be a nasty movie -- Chandler's character comes across as a crypto child molester, for instance, -- but it also wants to play for pathos by putting a child in jeopardy and becomes merely pathetic in the mawkish sense at the end.

Apart from Chandler, who is effectively creepy, no one's really in top form here. Heflin's performance is by-the-book predictable. Palance has little to do and is so eclipsed as a villain by Chandler that you wonder finally which character actually framed Eddie. Ann-Margret's response to the rough circumstances of her role is to ramp up her performance to unmodulated hysteria for the final reels. As for Delon, his foreigner's English is adequate as usual, but the role seems wrong for him, especially in hindsight. Nelson clearly saw him as a stereotype fiery Mediterranean type and set him to work chewing scenery, whether when whaling on A-M or in a showoff scene at an unemployment office that seemed better suited for Jack Nicholson. You could have sent Once a Thief to Jean-Pierre Melville before he shot Le Samourai as a primer on how not to use Alain Delon in a crime movie. The cool that Melville did so much to make part of Delon's persona is simply not there. But I'm probably exaggerating my disappointments a little because this whole package clearly had the potential to be much better, and I think people who come across Once a Thief without the high expectations I had for Delon, Palance et al might find it not so bad. Crime film fans with an eye for the genre's evolution will probably get the most out of it, but most people should get at least a few good jolts out of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Now Playing: JAN. 18, 1962

Opening wide this weekend is a romance picture from Delmer Daves, who had switched from western specialist to women's picture purveyor with 1959's A Summer Place. Daves first teamed Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens in Parrish, and the teaming apparently clicked, as this ad from Salt Lake City indicates.

I like most of Daves's westerns but haven't tried his romances.This trailer, uploaded by TheViewMonster, really exploits the success of Parrish and is a document of its time in its own right.

A different kind of picture opens in Rochester.

It took a little effort to track down something more than basic cast-and-crew info on this picture from the director of The George Raft Story, but here's the dirt on it. And in lieu of a trailer, here's a link to the complete picture -- so long as Congress still allows it. Still more obscure is the second feature, a 60-minute wonder starring Gene Nelson and directed by Jack Leewood. "20,000 eyes could not see this 'perfect crime,'" a poster reads -- and neither can we, online at least.

Opening in Charleston is this manly-seeming action picture co-starring Orson Welles.

At least it gave Welles work and probably helped finance one of his movies.Fortunately, he doesn't play The Pirate Yen; that honor goes to Anglo-Indian professional wrestler and British genre stalwart Milton Reid. Many moviegoers in January 1962 could also see Reid in The Wonders of Aladdin, which was in wide release that month. No trailer available, but vciguy76 uploaded a quick, colorful clip.

Be sure to come back; there'll be more movies yet this weekend.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Now Playing: JAN. 17, 1962.

Let's start in Milwaukee -- we could also start in Schenectady -- with the biopic everyone was clamoring for.

How to account for this? Well, The Untouchables was still a hot series, and anything evocative of the golden age of gangsters was thought a potential draw. Also, biopics of troubled or fallen stars were a common sight in theaters in those days. I just wonder whether they dramatize Raft talking himself out of all those roles that made Bogart a superstar. That'd be the stuff of tragicomedy. Oh well, I'll let Allied Artists pitch it to you, with an assist from horrormovieshows.

Moving right along,here's another Twist movie arriving in Moran, KS.

This one has to make do without Chubby Checker, but does feature Joey Dee's "Peppermint Twist." Here's the trailer via Dailymotion.

Hey let's twist! by Gatorrock784

On to Eugene, OR for a curious double-bill: Ray Harryhausen's latest FX epic, plus...?

Hand in Hand proves to be a lesson from Great Britain in religious tolerance for children. Couldn't find a trailer, but would you believe? Someone uploaded the entire film to YouTube just three days ago. That should keep you busy until tomorrow's next smashing chapter of 1962!

Monday, January 16, 2012


Seventy-five years after Charles Chaplin's last stand, silent film appeared to find its avenger in the form of Michel Hazanavicius, a French director best known in America, if at all, for his two OSS 117 spy-parody films. In The Artist, Hazanavicius hasn't just made a new silent film, but dares to make a silent film (in black and white) about the coming of sound. His specific subject is a fictional silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who commits career suicide by refusing to speak on screen. Valentin is a carefully imagined archetypal figure, designed to be evocative of a number of movie stars. He most closely resembles Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who starred in dashing adventure films and defiantly produced a silent film in 1929 (albeit with introductions to the several acts spoken by him) in which he enacted, as Valentin does, his own death. But Fairbanks made talking pictures for the remainder of his career and never faced the financial ruin Valentin suffers. The identification is so close that Hazanavicius edits footage of Dujardin into the Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro to suggest that it was Valentin's film instead.  Yet the character's name also suggests one of the great what-ifs of movie history: what if Rudolph Valentino had not died prematurely and had to face the challenge of sound. Valentino was transitioning to swashbuckling fare at the end of his life and thus could also be seen as a model for Valentin. But Valentin has his own distinct screen persona. He seems to play the same Fantomas-like masked and top-hatted character in a series of spy films (A Russian Affair, A German Affair), has his own pet dog as a sidekick, and can dance well enough not to embarrass himself in live appearances. He's apparently the top star of Kinograph Pictures, a studio behind the curve on sound. Studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) doesn't even suggest that Valentin talk until 1929, more than a year after The Jazz Singer opened. But mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was similarly reticent in real life, not releasing the first talkers of Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo and Buster Keaton until 1930. Zimmer shows Valentin a clearly though not audibly disastrous sound test by his Lina Lamontish regular co-star (performing a scene from Romeo & Juliet a la John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in The Hollywood Revue of 1929), but before George can laugh his way out of the screening room, Zimmer tells him his turn is next. George refuses outright, claiming that he doesn't need to talk to retain his audience. He breaks with Kinograph over the matter (echoing Louise Brooks's estrangement with Paramount over her refusal to do sound retakes for The Canary Murder Case) and strikes out as an independent producer-director. His Tears of Love, an African safari adventure with a quicksand finish, is a box-office disaster. That may be because no one wants to see silent movies (though Chaplin would disprove this with City Lights in 1931), but it may be because his picture is opening against The Beauty Spot, the talking debut of his protege Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Whatever the cause, the stock market crash proves the coup de grace. George loses all the money he didn't sink into Tears of Love, and his continued refusal to talk renders him useless to Hollywood. By 1931 his wife has left him, he's had to fire his doggedly loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and auction off most of his personal effects. He keeps the dog and copies of his films, but burns them (not the dog) in a fit of rage after watching his Zorro footage. Hospitalized after the dog summons a cop in classic melodramatic fashion, George has hit rock bottom.

Re-enter Peppy Miller, once merely a fan who parlayed an accidental encounter with her idol into an extra job at Kinograph and shot to stardom from there. She has never ceased idolizing George and has helped him out behind the scenes, buying much of his estate to keep him afloat and preserving it as a personal museum in her own mansion. She finds George at the hospital and brings him home to care for him. But when he eventually discovers the shrine and realizes how dependent he's become on her, his pride drives him toward a rash act, while Peppy drives recklessly to his rescue. Can she save his life and revive his career?...

In her dotage, Kim Novak has incited a small controversy over The Artist. She has equated Hazanavicius's use of some of Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo, her great performance for Alfred Hitchcock, with a rape of her "body of work." Her complaint is a matter of aesthetic ethics only, since Herrmann is duly acknowledged in the end credits. Of course, in silent movie days, if the studio didn't provide an official score or cue sheet it was up to the theater orchestra or lone pianist to score the picture on the fly, often resorting to familiar themes that hopefully fit the mood of the picture .Hazanavicius and composer Ludovic Bource are doing no different -- and the Vertigo music is appropriate. It scores the scene when George discovers his stuff in Peppy's mansion, and the music sells the sense that Peppy has been trying -- hoping, really -- to transform George into the person he used to be. She doesn't exactly make him wear his old clothes or cut his hair differently, but Hitchcock fans should get the general idea. Vertigo plays on during the climax, quite effectively, as Peppy careens through traffic while George contemplates ending it all. The suspense of this scene hearkens back to D. W. Griffith rather than Hitchcock, and the resolution hearkens back to Mack Sennett, but the Herrmann music has inspired Hazanavicius to stage and edit a terrific melodramatic climax, and that should be justification enough. Novak argues that a good filmmaker shouldn't need to use another film's music to achieve his effects, but that horse left the barn a long time ago, and it's not as if Hazanavicius needed to make a silent film in 2011 to recount the coming of sound, either. He paid to use Vertigo, and that gives him sufficient artistic license.

So confident is Hazanavicius in his silent pastiche that he can throw off a Hitchcock homage as almost an afterthought. His technical success has been overstated somewhat, some reviewers reacting as if The Artist as a whole looks exactly like a 1927 movie. Maybe I've misunderstood what they meant, but since the film covers a period of at least four years beyond 1927, there'd be little point to making the whole thing look like the opening year. I agree, however, if the point is that when he shows us footage from the films within the film, whether fluid late silents or stodgy early talkies, they usually look like authentic products of their times. Hazanavicius is proficient at both narrative and pastiche, but his film ultimately betrays some ambivalence about the silence it celebrates. The Artist is a vindication of silent film only insofar as the director proves that an ingenious, engaging film can be made silent in modern times. But it doesn't argue for the superiority of silence over sound. George blusters against sound, but it becomes clear soon enough that there's no theory behind his protest, just defensiveness. But what is he defending against? What is he afraid of? The end of the film appears to give a simple answer, but I'm not so sure. To explain, I have to spoil things in the next paragraph. Feel free to skip that and come back for the finale.

*   *   *

The Artist is maddeningly coy about why George refuses to talk on screen. It even plays with tying his resistance to emotional communication problems in his personal life. In an idiomatically perfect moment for a foreign filmmaker, Hazanavicius has George's wife tell him, "We need to talk," in a scene charged with multiple meanings. Does George suffer from some failure to open up, as his resistance to Peppy's ministrations also suggests? Is there an essential disconnect between his star persona and the real man, as the Vertigo business hints? The film seems to offer a prosaic explanation. Remembering George's skill as a dancer, Peppy suggests that Kinograph rehire him as her partner in a musical (echoing Garbo's demand that M-G-M cast her erstwhile lover John Gilbert, arguably Hollywood's most famous martyr to sound, as her leading man in Queen Christina). The dancers tear the house down in a rousing tap number that seems to set them up as a surrogate Rogers and Astaire. It ends with them audibly panting from exhaustion and the punch line of a request for another take. Confident once more, George replies, with the voice of the French actor who plays him, "Wizz pleasure." Is that it? Has he refused to talk all this time because he's a foreigner with a heavy accent? Then why has neither he nor anyone else at the studio, nor his wife, nor his protege, nor his chauffeur, -- what the hell: nor his dog -- noted this fact before??? A silent movie doesn't mean that people don't explain themselves to each other; that's what the title cards are for. In fact, a film from the silent era might give the game away by spelling out George's lines in dialect, "zee" instead of "the" and so on. There's really no good reason for Hazanavicius to withhold this information from the audience -- which leads me to wonder whether the denouement is as cut and dried as it looks. Is Dujardin's accented speech a punchline, or merely incidental. Is Dujardin's actual speaking voice the voice we're supposed to imagine George Valentin having? Is a point possibly being made about what's lost in sound, when Dujardin can't convince us once he speaks that he's just a regular fellow American, after he had convinced us before, or given us no reason to doubt it? There need not be a single answer to these questions, since The Artist really means to be playful about the whole business and succeeds wonderfully at that.

*   *   *

Besides being an entertainingly evocative portrait of an era, The Artist may also advance a theory of cinematic evolution. Hazanavicius implies that something of the silent spirit survives, ironically enough, in the musical. George Valentin's existence is thoroughly scored and he's a dancer of sorts. Silent film liberates movement from natural sound and opens it to different kinds of choreography. George's nightmare induced by the prospect of talking pictures is full of more or less natural noise, but two things are conspicuously missing: George's own voice -- he imagines himself trying to talk but failing -- and music. His last chance for redemption comes when he's cast in a musical, where he'll be a dancer more than a singer. As many people now realize, silent film was never silent. It was almost always accompanied by music. Hazanvicius may believe that film set to music preserves something of the essence of the silent aesthetic. I don't necessarily agree, but it's an interesting proposition to close a film on and it closes this movie on a tentatively redemptive note.

The film looks and sounds terrific. Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and he also illustrates the different look of late silents and early talkies quite convincingly. The production design is practically impeccable. The lead French performers are engaging -- Bejo (aka Mme. Hazanavicius) especially, and the Americans have been well cast for their expressive faces. The dog Uggie is a phenomenon; he makes you wonder why George couldn't still make a living loaning his pet to the studios in the age of Rin Tin Tin.  Overall, it's a film that'll keep you guessing whether it'll end up tragic or triumphant -- either way would be just as appropriate -- and my quibble about the finish is just that. I'm not yet prepared to call The Artist the best film of 2011 -- I still have a lot of contenders to see -- but I'm more willing to say that it's that year's most entertaining film for me. If it wins more awards I won't complain. 

Now Playing: JAN 16., 1962

Opening today in Baltimore.

Turner Classic Movies is showing this film at 4:00 A.M. on Jan. 18, 2012 as part of their month-long tribute to fourth-billed Angela Lansbury. According to Bret Wood on the TCM website, Baltimore actually got this film before New York, which in this era usually meant that the film was a dud the studio didn't want the metropolitan critics to see. TCM has a trailer available as well.

The second feature has a Swedish cast but is directed by classic Hollywood helmsman John Cromwell, with Patrick O'Neal as a token American. The New York Times gave it a mixed review. "If only the picture had stuck to sex," Howard Thompson laments.

Lexington, KY: Paul Anka in a film about juvenile delinquents.

Here's a positive review from a film-noir blogger,  and here's a trailer uploaded by brutallodotcom.

Tune in tomorrow for more!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Now Playing: 14-15 JAN. 1962

Once upon a time it was illegal in some places to show any movies on Sundays, just as it was illegal to stage live shows. By 1962 some theaters could open new programs on Sundays, with consequences in some places, like Miami, that might have confirmed the moralists' worst fears.

Lucky Pierre is another pre-gore manifestation of the industrious Herschell Gordon Lewis and is considered the seminal "nudie cutie" picture. The second feature has a more respectable German cast with familiar names like Gert (Goldfinger) Frobe, but this is just more proof of how fine the line was separating arthouse from grindhouse.

In some markets, like Daytona, exhibitors stuck with the proven product, and nothing was more proven than Mom and Dad.

The main attraction that Monday had been playing pretty much non-stop since 1945. It is now part of the National Film Registry, making its preservation a government imperative. As for the second feature, Something Weird has an unrevealing trailer up on YouTube.

Check in through the week for more amazing attractions from across the country.

FILM SOCIALISME (Socialisme, 2010): Homage to Concordia

1. The Last Voyage. Jean-Luc Godard's latest and possibly final feature film immortalizes the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship where he filmed much of the movie, which has disastrously run aground on the Tuscan coast this weekend in a real-life sequel that might boggle even the mind of the old new-wave master. The film itself is a final statement only potentially, in a chronological sense, less a summation than a continuation or repetition of the themes and tropes that have dominated Godard's discourse for the majority of his career and the aftermath of his popularity. He has added a blatant obfuscatory device for Anglophone audiences, subtitles composed by himself (I presume) in what he insensitively calls "Navajo English," a telegraphic pidgin that reduces sentences or sometimes paragraphs of French dialogue to nouns, proper nouns and the occasional compound word. The gimmick would be more interesting if it also appears in French prints, since it would make the same point for the director, calling attention to his inevitable selectivity in both inclusion and exclusion of detail. As it stands, the "Navajo" subtitles seem like a continuation of the Godard tendency to use words and names for evocative or representative rather than communicative effect. He uses people the same way, having cast radical philosopher Alain Badiou in the picture to no real purpose that I could perceive except to show off his own erudition. Veteran rocker Patti Smith may serve the same purpose. Just about everything in the picture is meant to illustrate Godard's narcissist doubt of the capacity of his own chosen words and images to convey ideas cinematically, an anxiety that reaches back across time to contemplate the utility of Egyptian hieroglyphs but is occasionally forgotten in the impulse to sincerely sloganeer about Palestine and other causes. The unreliability of cinematic communication and the imperative to communicate are Godard's great themes, but rather than rendering his films pointless they encourage his fans to see them as his act of thinking through montage and mise-en-scene, a personal drama made worthy of attention by the director's heritage of narrative innovation and pictorial inspiration. In other words, this is a film of interest only, comprehensible only to those familiar with and sympathetic to Godard's career. To indict it for its almost complete failure as entertainment is to waste effort, since it was never meant to entertain or introduce newcomers to the thought of Jean-Luc Godard. Its only true audience is those who want more from Godard and know what they're going to get.

2. The Navigator. I invoke Buster Keaton because I want to talk about Jacques Tati and Tati never set a film on a cruise ship. Yet while watching Film Socialisme's Concordia scenes, including scenes of a lone jogger on deck that may well have been inspired by Keaton's ocean-liner film it struck me that a cruise ship would have been a great setting for a Hulot film and that the movie Godard was most reminding me of initially was Tati's Playtime, if only in a negative way. Film Socialisme can be seen as an antithesis of Playtime's comic holism, Tati's effort to capture an entirety of society in long takes. Godard refuses Tati's holism and its comic harmony; hence his resort to montage and a variety of recording materials to emphasize an essential separateness of experience ironic in a film named after socialism unless intended to show the opposite of socialism in cultural rather than economic terms. Godard's refusal to unify the various character threads playing out on board the ship, or his resistance of the temptation, gives his movie such conceptual drive as it has before it gets off the boat and (with apologies to this weekend's real-life victims) runs aground.

3. Potemkin. Godard is actually quite obvious about identifying the Concordia with the battleship Potemkin, the historically mutinous Russian naval vessel and floating protagonist of Sergei Eisenstein's landmark silent film. He drives the point home with clips from Eisenstein and a visit by the Concordia to Odessa itself, home of the "Odessa steps" immortalized by Eisenstein and trod most likely heedlessly by Godard's tourists. The battleship was named after that official for whom "Potemkin villages" are also named, and Godard might not object to describing all or most of his films as Potemkin films, pretty facades hiding harsher truths despite his own efforts to problematize his own aesthetic instincts. The Concordia is arguably a kind of floating Potemkin village in more than one sense, as this weekend's tragedy may only confirm. Socialism as well as Tsarism has promoted itself with Potemkin villages of some sort, but I'm not sure whether this is relevant to Godard's title. He certainly hasn't made a utopian film, and I doubt he ever had one in him. His vision of socialism today may be closer to that of thinkers like Badiou or Slavoj Zizek who downplay any promise of harmony and warn of perpetual conflicts of irreconcilable elements. Godard's filmic socialism is a cacophony of juxtapositions and seemingly-random interventions of sound and image, an excess of otherness intruding by invitation on any hint of easy comprehension or passive aesthetic pleasure. It is illusory to the extent that it remains the idiosyncratic vision of a master auteur who scripts his actors and tells them where to go and what to do, though some skeptics would say that makes Godard a typical socialist.

4. E la nave va. I watched Film Socialisme on Netflix last Thursday. By Friday I had a plan to review the film in chapters using the titles of films set on ships. I wanted to include Fellini's And the Ship Sails On, not out of any great love for that film but just to continue the theme in a name-dropping manner Godard might appreciate. I wanted to use the original Italian title to keep things obscure in the Godardian spirit. But of course, as of tonight the ship -- the Concordia -- does not sail on. Except that it will every time someone starts the Netflix stream. Ironic, too, that more people in America will probably see Socialisme via this ultimate commercial tool than by any other means. Does the medium change the meaning? Does the new fact that Godard shot the movie on board the "doomed" Concordia change anything? It does and it doesn't. Will more people watch it now out of morbid curiosity? It wouldn't surprise me. Godard thus becomes a footnote to the history of maritime disasters, and a maritime disaster becomes a footnote to the history of cinema. Film Socialisme itself is a footnote as an exercise in "late style" instead of a breakthrough statement. It's a typically digressive essay film with a little bit of the incorrigible Mondo spirit and a lot of loss of focus in the second half. It's a film for Godard fans only, if that's not too vulgar a term, and it definitely shouldn't be anyone's first Godard film. I wouldn't call myself a fan -- I haven't seen enough of his films -- and I wouldn't want this to be his last word. He's a New Waver and they're a long-lived breed, so I hope he keeps trying.

Friday, January 13, 2012


When I told my friend Wendigo about a new Dracula documentary available for streaming on Netflix, we both felt it would be interesting to check it out as a kind of update of the 1970s book tie-in documentary In Search of Dracula. That earlier film was virtually a Mondo Dracula from the golden age of exploitation documentaries that could be sold as a virtual horror movie thanks to Christopher Lee's participation. The new film from Michael Bayley Hughes is both more modest and more ambitious, claiming to be the first movie that tells the true stories of both Bram Stoker and his subject. Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller appears on screen frequently and was a script consultant; her participation made it credible for Wendigo, who has corresponded with Miller. There's still something of the Mondo method to this movie. It travels to the novel's locations, from the Borgo Pass to Whitby, and lingers in Romania to investigate the Dracula-centered tourist industry that's grown there since In Search of Dracula was made and Communism fell. Like many a Mondo movie, it has an eye for the tellingly tacky and sometimes salacious detail. Those bits may make the film entertaining for those who find its main storyline a little dry.

Wendigo wants to send a shout-out to his virtual friend Elizabeth Miller.

Under Miller's influence, Hughes takes the anti-In Search of Dracula approach, refusing to equate Stoker's character with the historical voivode Vlad Tepes. He emphasizes the shallowness of Stoker's research and his creation of a fantastical Transylvania that Romania has a hard time living up to. Hughes practices biographical criticism on Dracula, stressing how Stoker's personal experiences before his research for the novel shaped some of its scenes and moods. Wendigo found a lot of Hughes's interpretations tentative or merely conjectural. The filmmaker proposes that many events "may have" influenced Stoker without really nailing down any proof, from a legend about poet Christina Rosseti's wondrously preserved corpse to the mummies kept in an overrated state of preservation in a church near one of his homes. This sort of stuff is inevitable in almost every literary biography these days, but Wendigo was at least happy that Hughes got the key point right about Dracula and Vlad.

Bram Stoker is remembered by a Whitby re-enactor (above) and a Romanian hotel (below)

But there wouldn't be much of a movie if they didn't talk about Vlad at all. Wendigo found the Romanian half of the picture "interesting but odd." Again, Hughes scrupulously distinguishes the fictional vampire from the famous voivode. It seems, however, that the Romanian tourist history makes no such distinction. Stoker draws tourists there, and they honor the author with a statue for that, but they exploit the interest in Dracula by selling Vlad paraphernalia. Wendigo finds that a sad way for Romania to sell out their own history, and we suspect that Hughes shares Wendigo's point of view. The director focuses on the vulgar in time-honored Mondo fashion, from voivode knicknacks and mugs to the Miss Transylvania beauty contest in Bistrita. There's also some of the same sort of peasant footage we got in In Search of Dracula, with Hughes stressing how the peasantry is still largely unchanged since the Seventies.

Faces of Transylvania

Overall, Wendigo was underwhelmed by Vampire and the Voivode as a movie. It's informative enough, especially on Stoker, but given the film's own ballyhoo it has surprisingly little to say about the actual writing of Dracula. Hughes neglects to mention one of the by-now best known tidbits about Stoker, his modeling of the vampire on his employer, the Victorian master thespian Henry Irving, and ignores Stoker's own account of an erotic dream that inspired the episode of Dracula's brides. We both objected to the claim that no other work of Stoker's endures, when movies have been made of at least two other novels -- and more than one from The Jewel of Seven Stars. Visually, Hughes went easy on re-enactments. His attempts are so minimal as to be funny, consisting of a guy dressed up as Vlad striking poses and an elderly, confused-seeming man wandering around with a candelabra in a supposed recreation of a scene from the novel. The picture is heavy on talking heads, some adding to the amusement by dressing in costume like Harry Collett as a Whitby coachman, but few apart from Miller really added to its credibility.

Wendigo found V&V in many respects less scholarly than In Search of Dracula, if more respectable in its conclusions. He would have liked more readings from Dracula or from chronicles of Vlad, but for whatever reason V&V was surprisingly lacking in these. Intellectually, Wendigo's more in a agreement with this movie, but he still considers In Search Of the more entertaining film. Either way, the definitive documentary about Dracula as a historical and cultural phenomenon remains to be made.