The Docks of New York (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Came out the same year as Street Angel and The Passion of Joan of Arc, just as Hollywood was gearing up to make sound films exclusively. A period piece, but this movie was made so long ago that I can’t tell how much earlier it was set. Sternberg’s modern-day Underworld seems just as much of a period piece now. I watched with the Donald Sosin score featuring sung vocals in a few spots – interesting idea, and not so bad, but give me the Alloy Orchestra any day.

Ol’ George Bancroft gets to throw his bulk around some more, but he doesn’t roar laughter as much as he did in Underworld. He plays a furnace stoker on a ship, given one night of shore leave by boss Mitchell Lewis (of the original Ben-Hur). This is clearly not a good job, since it’s the same task Emil Jannings was forced to do by the revolutionaries in The Last Command, but George isn’t letting it get him down. Right after he gets cleaned up, he sees a girl (Betty Compson of The Great Gabbo and Tod Browning’s lost The Big City) attempt suicide by jumping in the water, and George jumps in to save her. He spends the rest of the evening with her, trying to cheer her up, and finally on a lark, offering to marry her.

It’s not strictly a legal wedding, since George doesn’t file the necessary papers in the morning – instead he sneaks off and prepares to return to the ship. But Mitchell has been creeping around George’s girl, having been rebuffed by his own wife (Olga Baklanova, baddie in Freaks) who resents being abandoned while he’s shipbound all year – at the saloon wedding between George and Betty, Olga offers her own wedding ring to the couple, saying “I hope it does you more good than it did me.” Mitch is now determined to get a girl before he’s due back on the ship. A struggle ensues – Betty shoots and kills him, but Olga rushes over to take the blame. Poor Betty is in trouble again, this time over her clothes, which George stole to keep her warm after the dock-jumping incident. But he’s decided to jump ship, own up to his crime and make good on his mock marriage vows.

Mitchell and Olga:

It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful movie, and almost as romantic as City Lights. I loved the last two Sternbergs I watched also, hard to say which I liked best. L. Sante: “The picture, if merely described, sounds merely sentimental. Everything that is really valuable about it hinges on von Sternberg’s treatment: its deliberate pacing, its unostentatious but exquisite framing, its delicacy cloaked in apparent gruffness, its devil-may-care romanticism.”

Watched half of the DVD extra (made for TV in ’68) in which a Swedish guy shows us clips from Sternberg’s silents and gathers brief thoughts from the director. After the silents, he runs out of clips and starts showing posters instead.

L. Sante again:

It exemplifies virtually every quality of von Sternberg’s films. It is theatrical, with complex but enclosed sets; it makes maximum use of lighting and atmospherics; it is nominally a melodrama but adds unexpected depth to a flimsy outline. It is justly famous for its use of slow dissolves, which serve, as Andrew Sarris noticed, “to indicate the meaninglessness of time intervals between moral decisions.” It is exquisite in its use of montage – but for all that, as Sarris also noted, this is primarily a moving-camera showcase – and its cinematography. The first is demonstrated by the delicate sequence of images showing that Lou has shot Andy, without any sign being more overt than two puffs of smoke, while the blurred subjective-camera shot of the needle Mae is trying to thread through her tears is the highlight of the second. It conveys extraordinary panache in the midst of squalor, and gives all that brio to its characters rather than depicting them from a worldly remove. It is possible to watch the whole picture without being exceptionally aware that it is silent. It is dated in nearly every particular, and yet it is somehow eternal.

JvS: “All my films were made inside of a studio. I don’t like the outside.”

Buy from Amazon:
Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg DVD

Magic Town (1947, William Wellman)

Somehow this is the fifth Wellman movie on the blog, even though I can never recall who he is or which films he directed, also getting him confused with William Wyler. I am remembering this movie as being somewhat Capraesque, but now maybe I’m getting mixed up with Here Comes The Groom, which we saw the same week. Anyway.

Jimmy Stewart (immediately after It’s a Wonderful Life) is an obsessed pollster who hits upon the statistically perfect town, which when polled on any question comes up with the same answers as the country as a whole. So he heads down there to conduct a covert polling operation, and bumps into Jane Wyman, who is trying to modernize and improve the town. Jimmy can’t have her mucking up his system, so he sets out to sabotage her, until his cover is blown and the town becomes overrun with media trying to interview every resident on every topic. And of course Jimmy and Jane fall for each other, but Katy says they lacked chemistry.

Two classic character actors played Stewart’s sidekicks – Donald Meek (timid balding fellow from You Can’t Take It With You and Stagecoach) and Ned Sparks, the prototype sour-faced cynical braying cigar chomper. At first I thought he was doing a poor William Demarest impression, but Sparks had gotten famous with this persona at the advent of sound film. Both he and Donald Meek coincidentally died immediately after filming – this was their last movie. Less successful as a character actor was Jimmy’s friend Hooperdecker, his inside man who helps set him up in town – played by Kent Smith of both Cat People movies. A hunky leading-man type crammed into a schoolteacher’s cheap suit, Katy remarked that he looked like Clark Kent.

Jimmy Stewart was maybe darker than he needed to be, a secretive war veteran who doesn’t work well with others, acting as puppetmaster of this small town. Wyman was looking young, four years before Here Comes The Groom, and got to play a surprisingly empowered (for a 40’s rom-com) newspaper publisher with political connections. The main thing that smelled funny to me was how perfect this small town was – an ideal, all-white, upper-middle-class society. That’s not a problem for a Hollywood movie in general, but this town isn’t “magic” because it’s ideal, but because it perfectly represents the greater United States, so should have its share of all classes and professions.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)

Funny how I’ve never watched this until now, and everyone else has. Even Katy has seen it more than once. So, moments that seem fresh to me are probably way over-discussed to everyone else. I mentioned the movie to Steve and he says “that sailor sure smashed the hell out of that plate, eh,” referring to one of my favorite bits, a decisive moment of minor rebellion which Eisenstein shows repeatedly, from multiple angles, like an explosion in a Die Hard movie.

Due to unrest over spoiled food, the ship’s captain decides to hang a bunch of crew members – a bad move, since the others have been simmering rage againt their superiors, and choose this moment to mutiny, their leader Vakulinchuk shouting “brothers!” as a rally cry – a shout that will be repeated at the end, when the other battleships descending on Potemkin, presumably to quash the rebellion, choose to join it instead. Before that, the State is shown as brutally repressive, mowing down innocent civilians (children! mothers!) pitilessly on the steps of Odessa, where the ship lands and becomes a heroic symbol to the locals.

An imagined, phantom hanging:

Such an impressive piece of filmmaking and propaganda for the working man, it was banned in Britain and France for fear of sparking revolution. I watched the restored high-def version and was glad to discover that it’s a vibrant, brilliant movie, not the dusty old piece of film history I feared it might be. The movement and editing are rightly acclaimed, but the photography of individual shots is spectacular as well – compares very favorably to those gorgeously-lit Sternberg films I’ve been watching, only this was shot on location.

I dig the the hand-painted red flag hoisted over the ship. The ship’s crazy-haired priest was portrayed as a villain with a cross he wielded as a weapon, on the side of the power elite against the people. A guy in Odessa tries to use the crowd’s fervor for his own purposes, yells out “smash the Jews” and ends up getting smashed himself, the first casualty on the shores.

Buy from Amazon:
Battleship Potemkin [Blu-ray]

Something Wild (1986, Jonathan Demme)

The second now-obscure Jonathan Demme movie I’ve convinced Katy to watch with me – obscure, I thought, until I realized that it’s got a big Criterion reissue this month. Fun movie, but it couldn’t quite shake the dull grime of the 1980’s or transcend the sappy yuppy spirit of Jeff Daniels’s character. Mostly I loved the music – about fifty songs by members of Talking Heads, X, New Order and (in person!) The Feelies. I also appreciated the similarity with Blue Velvet from the same year – naive boy goes on adventure, meets wicked man who appears to be his opposite but proclaims “we’re the same.”

Daniels thinks he’s living dangerously when he gets picked up by Melanie Griffith and whisked away from his boring banker life, but she’s a vanilla cupcake next to her career criminal husband Ray Liotta, who whisks her right back. Daniels finally steps up from his passive role, follows the couple and steals Griffith back, leading to a final face-off as the movie gets darker. After all that, I like how Griffith almost leaves him for lying about his marital status, the lie being worse in her eyes than cheating on a loving wife would have been. Writer E. Max Frye would later make the Cage/Jackson caper Amos & Andrew, which I think I watched once on cable.

D. Thompson:

What distinguishes Demme’s film is that his hero’s journey is not just a matter of surviving all the dangers and torments that are thrown at him. He undergoes a profound exposure to the different classes, backgrounds, and ethnicities that make up America, and ultimately questions what he does and just who he is.

Thompson also mentions one of the characteristics that makes Demme’s movies so appealing to me, and possibly to frequent collaborator David Byrne as well. “He has a fond eye for the textures of Americana: the boasting billboards, the friendly signs, the even friendlier storekeepers, the name tags sported by waitresses, the gospel chapels.”

Buy from Amazon:
Something Wild: Criterion Blu-ray

The Last Command (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.

Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.

Directed by Michael William Powell:

Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.

Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:

A. Kaes for Criterion:

Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Buy from Amazon:
Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg DVD

I Want To Go Home (1989, Alain Resnais)

A comedy with grating performances and no jokes. One of the central points of the movie is this crude American cartoonist who is only appreciated by Parisian intellectuals, possibly in reference to Resnais influence Jerry Lewis. But Resnais (and writer Jules Feiffer, who critically also adapted Robert Altman’s failed live-action cartoon Popeye) make an unfunny movie about an unlikeable artist – perhaps a movie only French intellectuals could love.

Joey, Lena, Gerard:

Opens (after the multilingual credits) with a lovely process shot of a plane in the clouds, then follows with young Elsie speaking to herself, alternating between unconvincing French and unconvincing English, and seeing visions of poorly-animated cartoon cats. With a name like Laura Benson, shouldn’t her English be fine? Turns out she’s just not a good actress.

Two years later Joey, a blustery Walter-Matthauish guy with large teeth (played by Adolph Green, writer of the song “New York, New York”) who also sees cartoon cats arrives in Paris with his suffering girlfriend/assistant Lena. He ignores her, hates Paris, wants to see his daughter Elsie, but ends up meeting Elsie’s idol, famous Flaubert scholar Gerard Depardieu, going to his house (followed, belatedly, by Elsie) and hooking up with Gerard’s mom Isabelle (Micheline Presle of Rivette’s The Nun, American Guerrilla in the Philippines), while Lena wanders dejected in the background. A cartoon costume party ensues (with prominent Popeye and Olive Oyl characters), revealing that Alain Resnais has no particular talent for big madcap comic action sequences. It should be over, but we’re inexplicably treated to five more minutes of extremely grating loud complaints from Joey, a couple of undeserved reconciliation scenes, and a possible new love interest for Elsie as she returns to the U.S. leaving Joey to torment people in France.

I was hopeful. I’ve heard this was Resnais’s worst film, but figured a huge fan such as myself should still find plenty to appreciate. Sure it started terribly, but it got increasingly bearable, peaking with a nice looking father/daughter scene in a secret room at Gerard’s house (above). But then it quickly ramped back up from there, and I was left weary and annoyed by the end.

Geraldine Chaplin, sailing safely above it all:

Buy from Amazon:
I Want to Go Home DVD

Perceval Le Gallois (1979, Eric Rohmer)

I didn’t expect this from the most naturalistic of the French new wavers. It’s a period musical adaptation of an epic poem – that part seems up Rohmer’s alley – but he uses spare, symbolic sets (anticipating the digital backdrops of The Lady and the Duke) and has the actors read their character’s dialogue and accompanying narration, speaking along with their actions so as not to break up the verses. The source poem is incomplete, so the story trails off at the end, but not before a momentum-killing passion play with our lead character as Jesus on the cross. It’s quirky and unique, and I liked the story somewhat, but didn’t warm up to the simple lead character or the renaissance music. As far as French movies set in weirdly artificial castles starring Andre Dussolier go, I prefer La Vie est un roman.

Young Andre Dussolier with Perceval:

Perceval (Fabrice Luchini, who’d recently starred in Immoral Tales) takes advice given him VERY seriously, listening first to his mother, then a “worthy man” he meets on his travels. But he is dumb as hell, and sometimes misinterprets the intent of the advice, firstly when he barges into a knight’s tent, steals some food and molests the woman inside. I’m not sure what advice led to that. Later he’s told that it’s better to stay silent than say stupid stuff, so in the enchanted castle of the Fisher King, he doesn’t ask about the miraculous bleeding spear and glowing bowl he sees, and so is cursed for his lack of humility, and spends five years wandering godlessly through the wilderness while his mother dies alone back home. As with many ancient texts, the story takes logical leaps that I don’t follow.

Magic woman with awesome hair who delivers the Fisher King curse:

Perceval Christ:

Elsewhere, Perceval falls for a woman named Blanchefleur (Arielle Dombasle, who made an impression as the goofy wheelchair woman in La Belle Captive), defends her castle and promises to marry her. He gets respect from King Arthur and starts sending his defeated enemies to the King for punishment instead of finishing them off. Then the movie leaves Perceval for a long while, following Arthurian knight Gawain (Dussolier) on a quest to clear his name from some murderous accusation, with a stop on the way to win a jousting contest on behalf of a rich girl. I love that the same choir of musical servants (including Pascale Ogier of Le Pont du Nord, in her first role) appears in every location. I also love the look of the film, and a weird scene involving cartoon geese.

There’s Pascale on the right:

Perceval with Blanchefleur:

Rosenbaum:

a medieval musical that feels a bit like a western … The merit of Rohmer’s realism in Perceval is that it brings something otherwise dead and forgotten to life – not because Rohmer’s imagination is especially rich but because he sees no alternative to his literalism, even if it makes some audiences laugh in disbelief.

Here Comes the Groom (1951, Frank Capra)

An extremely talky Capra movie, which tries to add a bit of fun chaos a la his earlier films, but this just makes it louder, not more interesting. Reporter Bing Crosby is delayed in returning to the States because he’s gathering the necessary paperwork to adopt two adorable war orphans. Bobby is an actual French kid who says all the darndest things while little friend Beverly Washburn (who’d go on to star in Spider Baby) speaks only French with an alarmingly not-French accent, when she gets to speak at all.

Bing’s sweetheart since childhood is Jane Wyman, who has decided not to wait for her perpetually delayed groom and marry her millionaire employer instead. Bing tries to use the cute children as bait to get Jane back, but finally realizes that the millionaire (Franchot Tone of Phantom Lady, Advise & Consent) has a thing for his own cousin (the admittedly hot Alexis Smith (of Any Number Can Win, Of Human Bondage) and sets that up instead. Did it end with a double wedding, or any wedding? I was sleepy.

An oscar win for “in the cool cool cool of the evening”, which was reportedly orchestrated with a technically complex long take, but I didn’t notice. The musical bit that stood out for me was an airplane singalong unexpectedly featuring Louis Armstrong. And there’s an early shoehorned-in scene where a blind orphan girl sings an insane opera number.

Buy from Amazon:
Here Comes the Groom/Just For You DVD

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raoul Ruiz)

Every year I look forward to the Atlanta Film Festival, getting increasingly excited until some offensive act causes me to sit out the second half. This time I was thrilled to see Ruiz’s five-hour Mysteries of Lisbon on the program, but pissed once it started that they were projecting it from DVD. What kind of rinky-dink festival thinks that is an acceptable practice, and without even an apology or excuse? Picture was muddy and macro-blocky, the color desaturated compared even to DVD screenshots I found online. When I complained about the same issue two years ago after a screening of Beket, an AFF official left a comment counterintuitively stating “screening 35mm prints is cheaper for us to do than any other format we use.” I hope he returns this year to explain the Lisbon situation. Also, the dude from Turner who introduced the film called Ruiz, the seventy year old director of over a hundred films “up and coming,” with no knowing wink or chuckle to imply he wasn’t serious.

The movie was very good, worth taking the time off at 1:00pm on a weekday to see in its entirety, but not my favorite Ruiz movie by a long shot, lacking the anarchist humor of That Day and the shorts I’ve seen. If not for a well-placed deep focus shot here, an anamorphic lens-twisting there, I could’ve believe that any of a handful of dedicated European art directors had adapted the 150-year-old novel into this massive period costume miniseries.

Young Joao is having a fit, deathly ill, dreams he sees his mother, whom he’s never met. When he awakens, Father Dinis of the orphanage begins to tell him about his mother, Countess Angela who lives nearby, forbidden by her domineering husband from even seeing her illicit son. The movie takes on a flashback structure that reminds me slightly of The Saragossa Manuscript, even with the storytellers interrupting themselves to go to sleep, then resuming the next day. It seems Angela was in love with a young man (Don Pedro) whom her father wouldn’t let her marry, she got pregnant, and the baby was to be killed – but the assassin (Knife Eater) cut a deal with a passing gypsy (the priest in disguise) and sold the child.

Mysterious gypsy, left, with Knife Eater:

Back in the present, an outspoken Brazilian (Alberto de Magalhaes, formerly known as Knife Eater) is entering high society. Awesome scene when some guy demands a duel and Alberto straight kicks his ass, the fight shot through the window of the priest’s passing carriage. Angela’s husband, who’d married her despite the priest’s ghostly warning that he would be marrying “a dead slave” since her heart was lost to the murdered father of her stolen child, had become a tyrant who openly carried on an affair with Eugenia the maid and locked Angela in a single room. But the husband gets sick and dies, repenting first to the priest. Oh, and priest, while you’re here, an old monk named Alvaro wants to talk to you, reveal that he’s your father and give you the skull of his wife Silvina, your mother, to take home with you. Flashing back to a scene of the priest’s birth (and mother’s death), we get an excellent long take, following the nervous father from room to room. Knife Eater, in an unexplained coincidence (probably detailed in the miniseries version), marries the housekeeper who once tormented Angela.

I can’t remember who this is – found the screenshots online:

Another sidetrack story, as Elise de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme of Regular Lovers and Love Songs) arrives, and the meddling priest visits to tell her about her mother Blanche, who was adored by the priest, and also Benoit (son of the nobleman who watched over the priest) and a colonel whose life the other two men had saved, Ernest Lacroze (Ruiz regular Melvil Poupaud) – Benoit wins, marries the girl and they have two kids – Elise and her brother who died recently in a duel. A grown Joao, now called Pedro da Silva, loves Elise, but she says to earn her love he needs to avenge her brother’s death, caused by the wicked Alberto de Magalhaes. He returns to Lisbon from France after hearing of his mother’s death in the convent where she’d been living since her husband died. Joao/Pedro challenges Alberto, who won’t fight, tells Pedro that Alberto was the would-be assassin the day Pedro was born, who reformed and turned the money the gypsy/priest had paid for the boy’s life into a fortune, says Elise is always sending infatuated young men to kill him.

Poor Joao’s mother, with priest in the background:

Anyway, probably some other stuff happens, and Pedro gives up and sets sail for Tangiers – seems to be dying at the end, dictating his life story, the movie looping back to his illness at the beginning, making me think perhaps he died in the orphanage never meeting his mother, imagining the whole rest of the movie in a five-hour fever dream. Also in both bookend scenes is his puppet theater, which the movie uses to illustrate the scenes or to set up new ones, and a painting that comes to life in a weird Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting tableau moment.

One of my favorite recurring events in the movie is that during many of the major scenes, the lead characters’ servants are shown blatantly listening in, sometimes in the foreground while the conversations are distant from the camera. I’m not sure what it added up to, all the shifting identities and vendettas and love affairs and parental secrets, besides being an entertaining bunch of stories. And for a movie with Mysteries in the title, everything is pretty well explained by the end.

Lots of writing on this online. More than one mention of Great Expectations, which occurred to me too. M. Koresky’s article is my favorite:

The nun who was a countess. The priest who was a soldier. The nobleman who was a thief. The poet who was a bastard. Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is a costume drama in more ways than one. … Though it may seem daunting, the size of the film is its chief pleasure. There’s so much room to parry and maneuver, so many doors (some literal) to unlock, secrets and coincidences to be in thrall to. … Whether we’re seeing a death or a regeneration, a dream or a remembrance, the final images of Mysteries of Lisbon, filtered through an amber haze of memory, unites all of the film’s disparate strands in one delirious, cinematic consciousness.