I’d like to steal Vadim Rizov’s opening sentence: “Having barely survived Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams when it came out, I was inclined to stay away from his filmography for the rest of my life.” But how could we stay away from a Michael Keaton-starring, Emmanuel Lubezki-shot movie called Birdman? I’m sympathetic to Rizov’s entire “five points of contention” article for Filmmaker Magazine, praising Edward Norton before wondering, among other things, why the single-take illusion was necessary. But I appreciated the single-take (and the wonderful arrhythmic drum score) as an enjoyable distraction, making the movie fun to watch before the inevitable post-film discussion of what point it was trying to make (??) and whether all its characters are unredeemed assholes (they are).

One of Busby Berkeley’s unexciting 1940’s flicks (see also: Take Me Out to the Ball Game). He even has a total anti-Berkeley moment, aiming the camera at Judy, singing against a plain wall, and leaving it there for ages. What happened – budget cuts? Not a bad movie though – Gene Kelly’s debut, with established young star Judy Garland (only one year after her last Andy Hardy movie, and two before Meet Me In St. Louis).

Another one of those movies starring two attractive young people who just have to end up together, because it’s a Hollywood movie, even though they shouldn’t. Gene proves again and again that he cares only about his career, playing the Palace in New York, and anybody is disposable on his way to the top. But he doesn’t get to the top, due to the (vaudeville/WWI-era) public’s new interest in war heroes and his successful attempt to draft-dodge by smashing his hand in a trunk. And due to the WWII-era public’s distaste for draft-dodging romantic heroes, the ending was hastily rewritten so a troop-entertaining Kelly tries to warn approaching ambulances that passage is unsafe and ends up singlehandedly taking out an enemy machine gun nest.

Judy doesn’t get as many plot points, but gets to sing some good 1910’s showtunes. She starts out in the show of Jimmy Metcalf (future politician George Murphy), starts a duo act with Kelly until he dumps her when his opera singer friend Eve (Martha Eggerth, 1930’s cinema star in Austria and Germany) suggests she can get him more fame, sob Judy heads to the war to sing for troops, where she’s reunited with hero-come-lately Kelly.

Bosley Crowther: “To one who takes mild exception to sentimental excess, it seems an overlong, overburdened and generally over-talked musical film.” He also calls Judy Garland “saucy.”

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.

After all his latest musical theater projects have fallen apart due to shaky financing during the Great Depression, fast-talkin’ producer Ned Sparks (in Imitation of Life the following year) has an idea for a sure-fire hit, a musical about “the forgotten man,” the unemployable Depression masses, a dour march through the grim realities of today. When we finally see the play, bankrolled by the secret millionaire/composer down the hall, it looks suspiciously unlike what we were imagining, full of naughty love songs and massive Busby Berkeley numbers in glittering costumes. This isn’t a plot twist or ironic commentary on artistic intentions vs. end results once money gets involved – it’s just an inconsistent movie.

The movie opens with Ginger Rogers, but she turns out to be just a friend of the main characters Polly, Carol and Trixie. Polly is Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson, just off 42nd Street), a round-faced innocent cutie. Carol is Joan Blondell (later Mrs. Dick Powell, a successful actress through the seventies), the scheming beauty. And Trixie is Aline MacMahon (mostly a stage actress), the smartass. Polly falls for Dick Powell (star of Christmas In July and Susan Slept Here), the millionaire/composer, and the show is cast and everything is gonna be fine.

Conflict! Powell’s millionaire family finds out about his distasteful dabblings in showbusiness and brother Warren William (Caesar to Colbert’s Cleopatra) comes to town with lawyer Guy Kibbee (noble newspaperman in Power of the Press) to stop all this nonsense and threaten to cut off his fortune. But due to a fake gold-digger plot by Polly’s roommates, William and Kibbee end up falling in love with them, triple-wedding is planned and the show goes on, with a last-minute “forgotten man” musical number to remind us of an earlier point.

LeRoy directed the year after I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and musical scene director Busby Berkeley was on a roll after 42nd Street, and would helm the 1935 sequel himself. Also appearing: Sterling Holloway (Remember the Night) as a messenger boy, Eric Blore (The Lady Eve) as a stuffy rich guy, and Billy Barty (a little guy known for playing babies and hobbits and creatures) as a leering, naughty kid during a big dance scene. Songs include “We’re in the Money” (not exactly in keeping with the Depression theme), the catchy “Pettin’ in the Park,” and a waltz featuring a dance of neon violins, and of course the musical numbers and fun performances are the entire point of the movie, not any of the crap I’ve written above.

A slow-unfolding (but always formally exciting) Resnais movie gathering most of his favorite actors in a room for a contrived reason (a just-deceased writer/director wants his favorite actors to evaluate film of a modern performance of his Orpheus/Eurydice play). As the film goes on, the actors in the audience interact with it, reciting lines to the screen and to each other, standing up to perform entire scenes. The movie has a crisp, digital look and Resnais makes walls fall away smoothly, transporting the actors seamlessly into scenes from the play, using split-screens to show simultaneous performances of the same scene. It often seems like the ultimate movie of theater and performance, the work he’s been leading towards at least since the early 80’s (if not earlier, the location-jumping and memory-morphing hearkening back to his famed earliest features). Fortunately, it seems he’s still going strong and will have another movie out next year.

In the crowd: the Smoking/No Smoking team of Sabine Azeme and Pierre Artiti, Mathieu Amalric and Anne Consigny from Wild Grass, Michel Piccoli and Gerard Lartigau from way back in The War Is Over, Lambert Wilson (Not on the Lips), Anny Duperey (Stavisky), and more (can’t expect to know ’em all on a first viewing).

Actor Denis Podalyes plays the director, who addresses the group by video at the beginning and appears in person at the end, and his brother Bruno Podalyes actually directed the video within the movie.

Slant:

The reference point in the Resnais canon is 1986’s Mélo, which similarly foregrounded and made a virtue of its theatrical source while doubling and tripling the layers of irony, though nowhere near the extreme degree that the director pursues in his latest. .. Resnais suggests that the proper relation between the cinema and the theater is to throw it all together, take the best of both worlds and present it as pure showmanship.

Mubi:

A collective hallucination of people who think they’re talking to each other but are only talking to a screen: it’s the duly-noted theme of Vous n’avez encore rien vu, as the backgrounds dissolve from the screening room into a train station, café, and hotel, while the characters remain seated in place, stuck in some cinematheque of their imagination, foreshortened by Ruizian compositions a plane apart from their own space.

“There’s only room for one genius in this family.”

Were I not charmed by the excellent black-and-white cinematography, the performances of Vincent Gallo (year before Essential Killing) and his girl Maribel Verdu (lead actress in Y Tu Mama Tambien) and the movie’s quick bursts of entertaining craziness, I might’ve found more time to be annoyed by the story of family rivalry and Alden Ehrenreich’s lead character of Bennie. And it’s a very annoying story, taking inspiration from Coppola’s own family and a million boring novels, of a family of rich geniuses and how they each deal with their gifts and emotional problems. Talented Uncle Alfie wastes away from regret while his brother Carlo (both of them Klaus Maria Brandauer, star of István Szabó’s Mephisto) becomes a famous composer/conductor and steals his own son’s pregnant girlfriend. Son Angelo (Tetro) escapes to Argentina, hiding the fact that young Bennie is his son and not his younger brother.

That at least explains why Tetro doesn’t kick out Bennie, who pretty much ruins everything while visiting for a few days, giving away Tetro’s true identity and stealing his life story then producing it as a play for a festival run by celebrity artist Alone (Carmen Maura, Cruz’s dead mother in Volver). It’s nice how artistic talent runs in the family, and with no training or practice, Tetro’s cruise-ship-waiter brother/son can adapt someone else’s writings into an award-winning play.

Maribel dances for Alden:

I appreciated the ending. Early in the movie Bennie finds Tetro’s gun in a desk drawer and, having seen movies before, I know it’ll reappear. But it doesn’t, and the expected blow-up fight between the “brothers” at Alone’s festival turns into a quick reconciliation, telling her to piss off so they can have some family time.

The movie is widescreen B&W and flashbacks (plus clips from Tales of Hoffmann) are cropped (or shrunk) in full-color. Supposedly a near-remake of Rumble Fish, which I also rented but didn’t find time to watch.

Tetro is a spotlight operator for the play Fausta:

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope: “Tetro is also Italian for ‘gloomy,’ and Gallo glowers accordingly. … If this sounds like an unlikely series of events (and I haven’t even mentioned Bennie’s hotel room hot tub deflowering at the hands of a gorgeous local girl and her aunt) that’s because Tetro doesn’t have any pretenses to verisimilitude: it’s more obviously an operatic fable, with Malaimare’s exquisitely shadowed cinematography sealing the characters within a hermetic, slightly unreal screen space.”

I got this confused with Naruse’s later film entitled Late Chrysanthemums, so I watched his When a Woman Ascends the Stairs to get an idea of Naruse’s style and point of view before watching his Chrysanthemum movie. Unfortunately, I learned that I enjoy Naruse’s movies more than Mizoguchi’s. Still, it’s the earliest Mizoguchi movie I’ve seen by over a decade, and I figured perhaps he hadn’t fully developed his theme of depressed women, fucked over by life, dying sad and alone. The premise had promise, but sure enough, halfway through, the main couple is coughing, crying, broke in the rain. The man recovers, becomes famous, but there’s no saving the woman.

Kikunosuke (Kiku) is the rich, spoiled son of a master actor, who keeps fucking up on stage. Not knowing a bloody thing about Japanese theater, I can’t tell the difference between a good and bad performance (any more than I could figure why The Puppetmaster was considered a master) so I took the movie’s word for it. He falls for Otoku the maid because she’s the first person to tell him outright that his performances are bad.

Kiku leaves town for a year, then comes back for Otoku and she faithfully follows him to a travelling troupe where he gradually improves. Poverty kinda turns him into an asshole, but he’s still devoted to his woman – to a point. When his family takes him back to the respectful theater in Tokyo, they’re easily able to separate the two, and he only returns in time to see her die.

The high-def picture was pretty beat-up looking. Kiku is often tiny in the frame, facing away from the camera, but I can still recognize his Sherlock Holmes hat. Also, at one point there was a monkey.

The Guardian on Mizoguchi:

He was nicknamed “the Demon”, and it was often said that he only made films in order to have enough money to entertain geishas. He was fascinated all his life by demimondaines [“a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers” aka prostitutes], and some critics have suggested there was something suspect about his compassion for the often tragic fate of such women. However, in Late Chrysanthemums he remorselessly shows the selfishness of the actor and the innate snobbery of the kabuki world.

The opening and closing shots of children conspiring at a great distance from the camera remind me of the final shot of Cache – this could be its comedy sequel. Besides those shots, it’s set in a single apartment. Based on a play (duh) by Yasmina Reza, which won the Tony a couple years ago. Amusing little real-time drama where world-class actors portray friendly, enlightened parents whose behavior soon degrades until they seem worse than the kids. If that piece of minor irony wasn’t the point of the film, then I’m afraid I missed it.

Set in “New York” in the home of Jodie Foster (whom I haven’t seen since Inside Man) and John C. Reilly (haven’t seen since Walk Hard), whose son was nailed in the face by the son of Kate Winslet (last seen in Contagion) and Christoph Waltz (Water for Elephants). Waltz is a terribly important lawyer always on his cell phone, Winslet can’t hold her liquor (there’s a lot more throw-up in this movie than I expected), Foster is insufferably liberal and Reilly the opposite. Or something – there’s not much to it, and the trailer gave away too much, but watching the actors is total fun.

A. Nayman in Cinema Scope:

The only thing more pretentious and transparent than the behaviour of Reza’s straw men and women is the playwright’s own notion that she’s revealing something about human nature. The simplest way to point out what’s wrong with this material is to say that Carnage is exactly the sort of acclaimed easy-bake drama that its own characters would probably hustle to see: a hot ticket for patrons eager to be reduced to social stereotypes and howl like hyenas at the “keen-edged” observations of their own foibles and frailties. … Where a director like Sidney Lumet or, God forbid, Sam Mendes might have felt this high-end horror-show in their bones, Polanski seems triply unimpressed: with the characters’ regressive lunacy, with Reza’s pride in hoisting them on their own petards, and with his own easy grace in crafting a watchable welterweight prestige picture.”

In production for two years, from occupation to post-WWII, with Jews in hiding, nazi collaborators and members of the French resistance all working together on the largest movie set in French history. Carne was known for his poetic realist dramas and had collaborated with writer Jacques Prevert before on Port of Shadows, Daybreak and Les Visiteurs du soir. The music stays in the background where it belongs (unlike many American 1940’s movies), quality editing and camerawork that rarely draw attention, and an amazing (especially for nazi-occupied France) art and production design team. A massive hit, and one of the most universally loved movies ever. More importantly, Katy liked it.

Girish’s Senses of Cinema entry on the film is short and excellent. Rough character sketches: “The film follows the Garbo-like Garance and the four men in her life: moonstruck mime Baptiste; philandering thespian Frederic Lemaitre; murderer-dandy Lacenaire and the wealthy, loveless count Edouard.”

Garance (Arletty, one side of the Daybreak love-triangle) is the center of the film, loved (in their own way) by four men. She meets the criminal off and on, begins to fall for the mime, ends up sleeping with the actor, then goes away to live with the count. It’s all less sordid than it sounds from stringing it into a single sentence like that.

Garance, first discovered as a sideshow beauty attraction:

Baptiste is the mime, played by actual mime Jean-Louis Barrault (the poet in La Ronde, later in some strange ones like Venom and Eternity and Chappaqua). He starts as a street performer doing free shows in front of the Funambules, berated by his more esteemed father, and ends as the people’s favorite entertainer, the Chaplin of his time.

Lemaitre is the actor (Pierre Brasseur, sinister psychologist of Head Against the Wall, below-right in his Othello blackface). He gets his break on stage in a lion costume at Baptiste’s Funambules, and works his way up to headlining Shakespeare plays at the “high” theater down the street. Lemaitre is a friendly fellow, though kind of insufferable about his own talent and ambition. Highlight is when he provokes a duel against the authors of a play which he self-reflexively destroyed onstage.

Lacenaire, thief and murderer, is Marcel Herrand, who specialized in playing “the high-class, scene-stealing villain,” played Fantomas in ’47 and the king in Fanfan la Tulipe.

The Count of Montray, who lures Garance away but never marries her (because she must remain free), is Louis Salou (uncredited in The Devil’s Hand), not a major presence, though he does have a duel scene with Lacenaire.

Pierre Renoir, Jean’s older brother and star of Night at the Crossroads, is Jericho, who moves between characters, a thief/fence/salesman/hobo. In the original draft, gentle Baptiste was to kill Jericho in the street, distraught at having lost Garance.

Natalie (Maria Casares, Death Herself in Cocteau’s Orpheus) marries Baptiste after Garance goes away with the count. In the second half they have a five-year-old son, though she knows that Baptiste would still leave her for Garance if he could.

Avril, Lacenaire’s henchman (Fabien Loris), is a threatening-looking presence, though Lacenaire himself performs the violence, which makes Avril squeamish.

Silk Thread, a fake blind guy (actually a gem appraiser with above-average sight) who befriends Baptiste – played by Gaston Modot, gamekeeper in Rules of the Game.

Baptiste’s landlady (at one point also Lemaitre and Garance’s landlady), along with Jericho, is one of the untrustworthy snitches in the film, a rare veiled reference to the current occupation of France.

Hyperactive director of the Funambules (and Natalie’s father) is Marcel Peres, who appeared in the sequel to Herrand’s Fantomas.

More from Senses:

The dreamlike passions and fragile sensitivity of Baptiste the mime form a strong contrast to the loud and blustery Frederic, who booms, “I will die from silence like others die from hunger and thirst”. Yet, while Frederic later achieves fame as an actor-star on the boulevard, the common folk are drawn to Baptiste and his delicate stories wrapped in the gauze of pantomime. … The amoral and dissolute Lacenaire writes farces which remain unperformed and unread. He ends up mounting a real-life assassination with the loving detail of a theatrical production. After the meticulous murder of the Count, the murderer waits calmly after the “performance” for the arrival of the police. The Count’s open contempt of theatre (“I don’t like this Monsieur Shakespeare: his debased violence, and his lack of decorum”) co-exists with a passionate bent for casual killing in the name of honor – thanks to that old tradition, the duel. Thus, theatre weaves its thread intimately into the fabric of every life we witness in the film.

A complex and tragic character, Garance’s easy devotion to the fleeting passions of love is innocent yet destructive; her flighty nature brings her a succession of moments filled with pleasure, yet the comfort of love eludes her. At the end of the film, when Baptiste runs into the carnival crowd, attempting unsuccessfully to catch up with the departing Garance, he is swallowed up by the “audience”, he is one with them, unable to be anything other than what they are. We have grown accustomed to seeing him in the privileged space of the stage, gazed upon by the admiring audience, straining forward silently in their seats. We are not ready for this fall from the rarefied spotlight of the stage to the bustling anarchy of the oppressively celebratory carnival crowd. It is a descent from artifice to reality.

Tidbits from B. Stonehill’s commentary on the first half:

Carne used Murnau tricks on the exteriors, constructing sets with diminishing size to give a feeling of greater depth, using small coaches filled with dwarfs in the background.

All four of the male leads were based on real historical figures – Lacenaire and Baptiste were actually on trial for murder at the same time. The actor who played Baptise suggested the film to Prevert and Carne.

From the beginning, when Garance is falsely accused for stealing a watch (in fact Lacenaire took it): “Now Baptiste surprises everybody by saying that he saw what happened, and he will now use his art to explain what he saw. In addition to being on its own a great work of art, Baptiste’s performance offers an allegory of his art can liberate a captive from tyranny. As Children of Paradise was being made under the watchful eye of the nazi authorities, Prevert and Carne could not risk any overt allusions to the political situation of the day, which is why so many of the films of this period are costume dramas and period pieces. But skillful allegory could keep the truth hidden, yet hint at its shape.”

Prevert was friends with cubist-innovators Picasso and Georges Braque. “Braque’s influence can be found in the presence of cubism in this movie’s asthetic. A cubist collage contains multiple perspectives on a central subject. In a sense, then, Children of Paradise is a cubist portrait of Garance, including as it does, how the public sees her in a circus tent, how Lacenaire sees her as his guardian angel, how Baptiste is smitten by her as a poetic ideal, how Frederique has seen her as a potential conquest…”

“But why should there be a difference between my dreams and my life?,” demands Baptiste. The film, which after all acts out some of its makers more cinematic dreams, would seem to confirm Baptiste’s demand. But not really, when you look more closely at this scene. Baptiste says, “je vous aime, Garance.” Yes, technically that means “I love you,” but he is using the formal form of address, “vous” instead of “tu,” the intimate form, as in the more natural “Je t’aime.” It’s not that Baptise is ungrammatical, it’s that Prevert, the poet who created him, is showing us that Baptiste has put Garance on a pedestal, and the very grammar of his “I love you” dramatizes that distance he’s put between them.

Baptiste surely has Garance all to himself, but he flees her bedroom. “Until now, Baptise’s idealism has seemed noble and indeed beautiful to us. Now we see that it is something he had better grow out of. Like Shakespeare’s heroes, the clearly-drawn characters of this film are great and likeable, but they are also deeply flawed. What kind of love story is it where the hero runs away from the embrace of the heroine? A love story where the obstacles are psychological and spiritual, not material, and that’s exactly what this clever poet and this artful filmmaker have in mind.”

Funny, I watched Foolish Wives and Children of Paradise the same week, each at the time the most expensive film ever made in its country.

C. Affron commentates the second half. “Frederique, whose ambition is to be a great tragic actor, is often involved in comic action. Baptiste, the mime who is supposed to make his audience laugh, is the serious one, on-stage and off.”

Terry Gilliam: “Watching it, I’m amazed at how much I’ve stolen from it.”