Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Pep rallies. Gym class. Formals. The principal’s office. Home Ec. Home Ec? What do you miss most about high school?
America’s greatest living filmmaker, documentarian Fredrick Wiseman, is being treated to a year-long retrospective of his work at MoMA. High School, his second film, is a fascinating look not just at the rite-of-passage institution that every American teenager goes through, but also at the mores and gonzo-gender politics of the 60s.
Powers of Ten
Directed by Charles and Ray Eames
What better way to celebrate the tenth Choice Cuts, than with Charles and Ray Eames’ sci-non-fi short. Starting on a couple of picnickers the camera pulls back (and back and back…) by powers of ten each second, before zooming back in the reverse direction. Truly a wonder, and better than any video you were made to watch in science class, unless, of course, you had a really hip science teacher who showed it to you.
Two Solutions for One Problem
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
This charmer about two schoolboys from Iranian auteur, Kiarostami, wryly presents a problem and offers two solutions. Which is better? You decide.
Menu: St. Patrick’s Day, or Not School Lunch
Brotchán foltchep (The King’s Soup)
Brown bread and soda bread
Corned beef and cabbage
Guinness cake and Guinness ice cream
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Posted in directors, film on August 31, 2009|
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Out of the Past (1947)
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
With Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas
The story goes that Robert Mitchum once told Roger Ebert he didn’t think he’d ever actually seen Out of the Past. Too bad for him. (Although, he did have an image to uphold, and publically opining on his own work certainly wouldn’t have jived with that tough-guy persona.) If this claim is true, he never got to see how one of the most convoluted plots since the Bible and before Babel, got turned into one of the definitive film noirs. According to critic Jeff Schwager, who read every known version of Out of the Past‘s screenplay for a 1990 Film Comment article, uncredited scribe Frank Fenton is responsible for the the alchemy that turned Daniel Mainwaring’s novel into the endlessly quotable mile-a-minute dialogue that makes you forget about the expository curlicues and narrative cul-de-sacs into which the plot veers.
Jacques Tourneur takes Fenton’s crackerjack words, puts them in Mitchum’s mouth, never without dangling cigarette, and directs the hell outta him. He guides the stoic star to deliver voice-overs – very rarely modulating his register, yet ever so subtly shifting his intentions mid-sentence – and some of the most biting zingers to darken the door of a movie theater. For instance, after Mitchum and Kirk Douglas had one of their famous vitriol-filled dimpled-chin-offs, the traffic-and-men-that-should-know-better-stopping Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) confesses to a skeptical Mitchum that she was sorry that her then-ex-lover Douglas didn’t die. Mitchum responds cooly, “Give him time.”
To the film’s benefit, Tourneur does more than focus on the dialogue. He fills the frame with lush black-and-white artistry (and, unfortunately, sometimes with oppressively wall-to-wall musical cues). The camera elegantly moves away from two characters exchanging a kiss, e.g., to a sweeping tropical storm outside, signifying the sensuousness of their affair as much as implying the threat of their pursuers.
It’s unfortunate that film noir has become a relic of Hollywood filmmaking, as it is one of the richest genres, providing audiences not only with bile-filled dialogue and bullet-riddled bodies, but with some of the more nuanced characters and relationships and expressive cinematography in any genre. It is fortunate, however, that Out of the Past remains in high regard as one of its beacons. Much like Mitchum’s hard-edged private eye, Jeff Bailey, it stubbornly refuses to fade into the past.
Kathie Moffat: Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.
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Posted in directors, film on July 17, 2009|
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Withnail & I (1987)
Directed by Bruce Robinson
With Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
The following platitude gets made often. Too often, in fact. But I believe it accurately applies in this case. There is nothing quite like Withnail & I.
The film plays out in such a meandering manner that you are never really sure where it is headed (the characters rarely are, either). But by the end you see that it is perfectly bookended and follows a fairly linear path. In a way, it is the quintessential British buddy flick, replete with a weekend in the countryside, rain, pints of lager, ambiguously gay thespians who will never get to play the Dane, beef, more rain and Londoners concealing that they are from London. Plenty of films have attempted to recapture the sense of camaraderie that Withnail and Marwood have. The film’s presenter, Jeff Brown, noted the similarity to My Own Private Idaho, which is possibly the best likeness ever achieved. But the omnipresent rambling dialogue between Paul McGann and the inimitable Richard E. Grant is impossible to recreate.
A pall (and a whole lotta soggy cloud cover) hangs over all the drunken proceedings of Withnail & I. Much more so than I remember from previous viewings, which may only speak to my being sadder and wiser than before. (But then again, maybe not.) The consensus of this screening’s audience seemed to be that Robinson does indeed romanticize the filth that Withnail, Marwood, and those of their generation lived in. That being said, it seems to be one of the most salient arguments against the sustainability of such a lifestyle.
The film plays out like an elegy for a lost time. It is set in 1969. No longer the 60s. Not yet the 70s. Late in the film, Danny, ‘the headhunter’, one of the most 60s-centric characters ever created, raises a glass to ‘the greatest decade that ever was.’ Withnail & I offers a solemn goodbye to an era of debauchery, revelry, and irresponsibility. It is now also possible to watch the movie as an elegy for the 80s, the decade of the film’s creation, an era that was stuck somewhere in between disco and grunge. An era now just as bygone as the 60s.
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Posted in film on June 29, 2009|
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The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974)
Director: Joseph Sargent
With: Walter Matthau
This post contains spoilers.
Some movies are all about the last shot. The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is one of them. Walter Matthau’s mug, eyebrows knowingly raised, punctuates the film in a way that would crack a smile on even the frozen face of Antoine Doinel in the final frame of The 400 Blows. Leading up to this image, Pelham provides a whiz-bang story plotted with the precision of a meticulously planned heist, a Polaroid snapshot of New York City in the 70s and a showcase for some of the finest under-appreciated character actors of their generation.
The execution of a hijacking as preposterous as the taking of a subway car in the country’s most populous city requires the utmost attention to detail. To pull off the telling of the tale of such an endeavor (and have the audience game for the ride) likewise calls for an unassailably tight narrative. Fortunately, while director Joseph Sargent has neatly covered every p(l)othole, the exposition unfolds with such a sense of whimsy and excitement that it never feels bogged down by its need to explain. The tidying up of certain plot points is a bit labored, others too convenient, but given the potential for the film to have been a morass, Sargent should be commended for his service.
Pelham occurs at a time stuck in between stations in New York City’s (and the country’s) history. Tensions — racial, sexual, class-based — are constantly being trafficked beneath the surface. A station master griping about women’s lib kneejerkily blames the Pelham 1-2-3’s delay on having a woman in the workplace. That it is the fault of four armed men each with their own disgruntlements with society is a wink at the station master’s boorish chauvinism. Early in the film, Walter Matthau escorts a group of four Japanese businessmen (and conveniently the audience) around the inner sanctum of the MTA’s train traffic control center. For the entire tour he doesn’t believe that they can understand him and cracks wise at their expense. When he completes the tour, and they thank him in perfect English, the joke’s on him. The film is rife with assumptions that people make about others, assumptions that New Yorkers were being forced to challenge in the 70s. The film practically delights in its depiction of the curmudgeonly white men set in their ways. Luckily, they had a wealth of talent up for the challenge: Martin Balsam (the cop fell down the stairs in Psycho), Jerry Stiller (Ben Stiller and George Costanza’s father), Robert Shaw (the John Wayne in Jaws) and, of course, the inimitable Walter Matthau. (A viewer noted appreciatively that you didn’t have to be good looking to be in the movies in the 70s.) One more thing about them — they’re fucking funny.
One of New York City’s greatest exports is its image. And few aspects of living in the Big A**le are more mythologized than the New Yorker’s attitude. Here it is writ large on a subway system canvas. Note: the outsider’s perception of the surly New Yorker identity has arguably softened in its post-9/11 reincarnated form. But in the 70s, New Yorkers had no problem presenting themselves as tougher-than-you bastards to the rest of the world. If you don’t like it, you can do as Walter Mathau says and ‘shaad up.’
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