Right after I watched Five Came Back, here’s its inverse: British documentary filmmaker is asked by the war office to make a rousing feature, since nobody enjoys newsreels. Columnist Gemma Arterton (The Girl With All The Gifts, Byzantium) is hired as screenwriter, and washed-up detective-franchise star Bill Nighy as actor, and the movie mostly follows Gemma as she tries to make good work while falling for her cowriter Sam Claflin (a fantasy/action franchise specialist), while breaking up with her not-really-husband Jack Huston (John’s grandson – another Five Came Back connection!).

The movie’s fine, with some weird choices (near the end everything gets bright and quiet when Claflin is killed by some rickety film equipment), some in-fashion feminism, and the same old “yay, people who helped the WWII war effort” which is starting to give me the sinking feeling that that’s the last time people worked together for the common good – since then it’s been harsh wars and solo heroes. Original novel title Their Finest Hour and a Half was lots better, written by a TV writer/producer. Director Scherfig made An Education, which I thought was supposed to be good, but apparently not good enough to make my must-see list. I’ll be seeing at least one more Battle of Dunkirk movie this year – wonder how it’ll compare.

Bill Nighy is great, and refreshingly not dead (I got him confused with Alan Rickman). Erlich: “Alas, the lanky British baritone has no business being the standout of a story that exists in order to celebrate the value of female storytellers; Bill Nighy is many things, but a woman isn’t one of them.”

Feature film directors (and Meryl Streep) tell the tales of American feature film directors in the 1930’s and 40’s who were sent to war to make documentaries for the homefront… with one of the best motion-graphics-meets-stock-footage opening title sequences. If you’re interested in filmmakers and/or war, the whole thing’s just fascinating.

William Wyler, fresh off the inspirational Mrs. Miniver, rages against racism while Frank Capra is producing Private Snafu cartoons. Working (mostly) under Capra, John Ford and George Stevens are sent to film D-Day. John Huston makes the gritty San Pietro, using mostly reenacted fight footage but real dead bodies. And Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland proves himself a poor director. Stevens went on to film the liberation of concentration camps, while Wyler snuck a trip home and found the holocaust had killed his family and all their neighbors. In the end, Huston’s final work about emotionally wounded soldiers was censored for decades, Ford returned to make They Were Expendable, and Capra/Wyler/Stevens founded their own Liberty Studio, which immediately went broke on the flop It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’d love to watch a bunch of the original documentaries themselves, all available on netflix: Battle of Midway, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, Let There Be Light, The Negro Soldier, The Battle of Russia, Nazi Concentration Camps and Memphis Belle. But that’s six hours of WWII docs, and it’s Cannes Month now, and six movies I want to see opened in theaters this week, and a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 just came out, and it’s baseball season…

Great collection with the best liner notes, borrowed from a coworker and watched piecemeal.


The Original Movie (1922, Tony Sarg)

Silhouette animation imagining what moviemaking was like in early days (a mashup of eras from the dinosaur age forward). Nice use of Flintstonian animals as machines (like a long-necked dinosaur as camera crane), but Lotte Reineger it ain’t. Seems an in-joke gag about how producers have always ruined the work of screenwriters. Nice Muybridge reference. The notes say Sarg was a famous puppeteer who created the first Macy’s parade floats.

Producer (left) with his editing goat, receiving a pitch:

It’s a mark of how quickly the division-of-labor production system overtook Hollywood that already in 1922 The Original Movie can find its satiric “moral” in the inability of writers to recognize their work by the time it reaches the screen. The puritan-cloaked censors who contribute to the caveman filmmaker’s breakdown would have been on everyone’s mind. Nineteen twenty-one witnessed the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and brought New York’s new censor board as well as a hundred bills in state legislatures to curb perceived Hollywood excess.


The Confederate Ironclad (1912, Kenean Buel)

I guess an ironclad was a hideous, armored boat. Fifteen-minute action flick about confederate soldier Yancey, the Southern girl who loves him, and beautiful Union spy Elinor who easily cons ol’ Yancey into giving up military information. I didn’t realize the movie would take the confederate side, though – their gunboat rips up the union army, and noble Yancey allows Elinor to escape. Unusually, the original music score has survived, and was used in this restoration.

Wounded Yancey with his Southern Rose:

Yancey was married to the spy, Anna Q., who was a superstar in the 1920’s. Rose was Miriam Cooper, who had a lead role (“the friendless one”) in Intolerance.


Early Films from the Edison Company

Blacksmithing Scene (1893) – blacksmiths take turns banging on iron, drinking, banging on iron… sure enough, this is the original film the Lumieres remade.

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903) – a decidedly not-gay shoe clerk kisses a flirty female customer.

Three American Beauties (1906) – a rose, a girl, a U.S. flag, all hand-tinted.

The liners on the first two films:

Because the three “blacksmiths” are impersonated by Edison employees, this is not a documentary but the first instance of screen acting. It is also the earliest surviving complete motion picture on film … Of course, at the time “gay” referred only to his devil-may-care impetuousness. The modern meaning gives unintended irony to The Gay Shoe Clerk, whose “young woman” was played by one of Edison’s male employees.


Spies (1943, Chuck Jones)

The Looney Tunes staff with writer Dr. Seuss illustrate a “loose lips sink ships” scenario, as Snafu thinks he’s keeping his mission secret but lets enough pieces of information slip for the enemy to put it all together. I thought Snafu had a rather Bugs Bunny voice, though Mel Blanc says he meant for him to sound like Porky. Amazing work, need to find and watch all of these.


OffOn (1968, Scott Bartlett)

Like the 2001: A Space Odyssey eyeball voyage scene, but homemade with newfangled late-1960’s video technology. Some other indescribable weirdness ensues, funhouse-mirroring and Rainbow Dance techniques. Impressive. Features the kind of grating horror soundtrack in fashion with the avant-garde, though it chills out into some pulsing tones at times.

Speaking in the 1960s at the time he made OffOn, his second film, he saw a technology on the horizon that would make his innovations simpler for future media artists: “With video plus computers you could do it even better,” he said of his imagery of metamorphosis.

M. Sicinski:

With its first-person musings and associative image-track, Francofonia’s first half resembles nothing so much as a late Godard video, but the approach and mood is open and accessible even as the subject matter turns highbrow … But most of the remainder of the film is spent dramatizing the wartime cooperation between the Louvre’s Vichy-era chief, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and Nazi cultural attaché Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath).

A complicated movie which I thought about for days afterwards, but I waited long enough before writing anything down that now it’s not fresh in my mind and I’m hesitant to write anything at all. A variety of styles, aspect ratios, color palettes, time periods and strange effects (the film’s soundtrack waveform visible alongside the picture was a new one to me). Some Russian Ark-ian museum cruising with your host Napoleon, who showed off paintings of his own exploits and earned a big laugh at our screening when he gazed at the Mona Lisa saying his usual line, “It’s me.” Even the regular historical drama scenes (Louvre chief meeting his Nazi overseer) don’t go in the directions you’d expect of a historical drama and they culminate in a wondrous bit where each character is told by the narrator how his life will end up.

A long, complicated movie – Criterion summary:

The film follows the exploits of pristine British soldier Clive Candy as he battles to maintain his honor and proud gentlemanly conduct through romance, three wars, and a changing world. Vibrant and controversial, it is at once a romantic portrait of a career soldier and a pointed investigation into the nature of aging, friendship, and obsolescence.

Blimp in WWI with John Laurie:

I wrote in 2006: “Oops, I thought this was a comedy. I’d somehow convinced myself that Powell makes comedies and I’m never right.”

At the beginning, the movie seems to be about fiery young soldier Spud, then he disappears for 2.5 hours while Candy goes into a “when I was your age” story. This threw me off the first time I saw the movie, as did Deborah Kerr’s various roles. Throwing me this time: Roger Livesey, handsome romantic lead of I Know Where I’m Going, so convincing as a blowhard old man.

Not covered by the summary above: Candy’s lifelong friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Candy provokes an international incident in the early 1900’s (during the Boer War) and gets himself into a duel with Theo, then they recover together, both in love with Deborah Kerr #1, who marries Theo. In WWI, Candy meets Deborah #2, a nurse, and marries her. And in WWII, Theo has moved to England and Deborah #3 is dating young Spud, is a favorite assistant of Candy’s for obvious reasons.

Deborah Kerr thinks highly of me:

No character in the film is named Col. Blimp – he was a political cartoon character, a blustery old officer who proclaims his dated ideas in a Turkish bath, the WWII version of Candy. The movie’s a bit long and rambling, but a total pleasure to watch, with color cinematography that is beyond excellent. One of my very favorites.

Duelist Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff:

Powell sounds soooo tired on the commentary.
On Kerr: “I got enthusiastic about her hats.”

Scorsese is more fun. I like when he appreciates the visual design while also saying that you don’t have to care about this stuff if you don’t want to:

Look at the use of red in the menus … These are things I kind of enjoy. I don’t say that as you’re watching the film you should be pointing out where the red is. I think you should just look at the movie and enjoy it, hopefully, and probably you shouldn’t be even listening to this narration, you should be watching the film.

A fascinating historical portrayal of Emperor Hirohito on the (fictionalized) day Japan surrendered WWII to the Allies. Hirohito is portrayed as knowledgable but distracted, pontificating on the war, next steps and the causes of defeat, but choosing to focus primarily on marine biology and poetry instead of letting the war get him down.

Watching The Sun (and Whispering Pages) to be more Sokurov-literate when Francofonia opens later this month. Two features earlier, his Russian Ark had been a major milestone of digital cinema, but here the underlit interiors are paid no favors by digital video. It’s not very engaging as a film – two hours of an extremely out-of-touch ruler talking to himself in dim rooms. I did enjoy the dream sequence, the Emperor imagining fiery devastation with fishes as warplanes.

A. Gilbert has another take on the film’s look:

Sokurov shot The Sun himself — on digital video, which was then transferred to film. The resulting grainy, nebulously-lit sepia-toned images mark an exquisite canvas on which he has expressionistically displayed his visual panache (Sokurov has stated that the crepuscular look was inspired by the work of Rembrandt).

Cranes outside the compound:

Lighting off General MacArthur’s cigar:

The Emperor (Gilbert again: “His facial tics, including constant mouthing of inaudible words, are meant to relay the strain of the divine monarchy, which Hirohito’s actions altered forever.”) was Issei Ogata of Yi Yi and the next Scorsese movie. Plenty more credited actors but they hardly seem worth mentioning, though the briefly-appearing Empress was Kaori Momoi (the young kid’s badass grandma in Sukiyaki Western Django). So, a one-man show of a haunted, mumbling ruler – I wonder if Sokurov had seen Secret Honor.

Taking time to flip through some movie star promo stills:

Part of Sokurov’s “tetralogy of power” including Taurus (Lenin), Moloch (Hitler) and Faust (Faust). WWII capitulation was in the air: Downfall opened just five months before The Sun. One of Cinema Scope’s top films of 2005, and one of Rosenbaum’s top films of 2009 – apparently it took some time to come out in the USA. Rosenbaum called it “an almost unanimous critical smash” and said it’s “the first film by Aleksander Sokurov that ever made me laugh, and its subtle, whimsical curiosity about the Japanese emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II reminded me of Roberto Rossellini’s curiosity about the title hero of The Rise of Louis XIV.” Considering that everything I’ve read about the movie mentions its visual beauty, maybe my DVD just wasn’t great.

Don’t know how Lanzmann did these interviews with such an even temper and tone. Must have taken a great deal of restraint in the town where locals joyfully admitted making throat-slitting gestures at passing trains full of camp-bound Jews, or when interviewing a German doctor in charge of the starving Polish ghetto. My most recent cinematic response to nazis was Inglorious Basterds, and it’s hard to focus on the facts and details here without imagining escape/revenge fantasies.

Auschwitz-Birkenau:

Lanzmann rarely edits an interview, doesn’t use tricks to seamlessly cut out pauses or repetitions. I didn’t deal with the enormity of the film all at once – instead, having just finished Show Me a Hero, I treated this like another miniseries, watching in 60 to 120-minute increments, which made its relentless death-camp horrors easier to take – or maybe not, since I spent more consecutive days thinking about them. The length and focus of the movie seemed on point, but by the time we got to hour eight, talking to people who scheduled the “special” trains who claimed no knowledge of what made them special, I thought okay, this is a bit long.

A phrase caught my attention, upsettingly familiar-sounding this year: the Jews of the ghetto were “forced not only to build a wall, but to pay for it.”

I haven’t got enough documentary history (or holocaust scholarship) to know how this movie changed things, but I noticed a few unique details. In some documentaries the interview subject will get emotional, tear up, and the camera will zoom into to their faces and I’ll think “this is a bit crass.” The same thing happens here, the camera zooming in, Lanzmann patiently urging his crying subject to continue, and it never seems exploitative – interviewer and subject are on the same moral side, and when Lanzmann tells them that it’s important to continue, you’re with him.

Some interviews are recorded with covert videocameras (which, in the late 1970s, were not very covert) broadcasting to a van outside. Per wiki, “during one interview, the covert recording was discovered and Lanzmann was physically attacked. He was hospitalized for a month and charged by the authorities with unauthorized use of the German airwaves.”

Lanzmann shot hundreds of hours of footage and has edited four more feature-length films from them so far. Filmed in part by William Lubtchansky, who was doing great work with Rivette and Godard and Varda and de Gregorio and Straub/Huillet and Truffaut around the same time. Won lots of raves and awards – no oscar nomination, but Lanzmann is now an academy member and was apparently a fan of Son of Saul last year.

Per Kent Jones, Shoah was “the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, which had been in use among some Jews since the early forties.”

Jones on the structure:

The film would consist only of testimonies and new footage shot at the sites where organized killing had taken place, and of images shot where the people on camera were living at the time of filming; there would be no experts making grand theoretical summations; … with two exceptions, the people on camera would be either perpetrators, victims, or bystanders (to borrow the categories established by Hilberg); the film would restrict its focus to the systematic annihilation of the European Jews; and it would be a work of cinema as opposed to an audiovisual historical summation.

By situating his film in the present and creating conditions that allowed us to see that it was coexistent with the past, by questioning his subjects about concrete details only, by creating an atmosphere of quietly urgent attention, by constructing a form that left the impression of multiple possible beginnings and endings, Lanzmann achieved something that was not only unprecedented but was, and is, an astonishment: he returned the Shoah to the civilized world that had disowned it.

Had to see this since I also just watched Obsession, another semi-remake of Vertigo. Nina Hoss (star of Petzold’s Barbara and Jerichow), of a rich family, escaped the holocaust but is presumed dead. She has actually had reconstructive facial surgery and looks like a different person, but still obsesses over her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Beloved Sisters and The Pasta Detectives) even though he may have saved himself by giving her up to the nazis.

Most of the movie is the tension of wondering how she could be so stupid to return to Johnny, leading to the very satisfying ending when she reveals her true self, thus claiming her family’s fortune while rejecting Johnny, who has been a slimeball the entire movie.

Petzold also made my second-favorite of the Dreileben trilogy (what’s Dominik Graf up to these days?). The final film by late cowriter Harun Farocki – my only previous experience with him was an essay film better talked about than watched.

A. Nayman:

What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism – the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine – is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions.

A Generation was a pessimistic film about the young resistance movement during WWII nazi occupation and Kanal was an extraordinarily pessimistic film about the near-total destruction of the resistance movement at the depths of WWII nazi occupation. Naturally this third film is a completely pessimistic film about the remnants of the resistance movement at the very end of WWII when the soviets were taking over. Wajda has become less sympathetic to the resistance fighters as the films have progressed, from the idealistic, lovestruck youth of A Generation to the murderous Maciek here, a sunglasses-sporting hit man, who will finally kill his intended target after destroying a few innocent lives.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean in the aftermath of this film, later star of The Saragossa Manuscript) takes orders from his more serious friend Andrzej, who works for the bald Major, who works for some vague remaining idea of the resistance army. Maciek, then, is far removed from any real authority, feels more like a freelance gangster than one of the desperate young soldiers of the previous films. Further complicating the alliances, Maciek’s Russian target shows up at his sister-in-law’s house where the Major is plotting to kill him in the next room. The movie goes out of its way to humanize the Russian – and to give Maciek a way out, as he meets a girl named Krystyna and contemplates leaving the dying resistance behind. Eventually Maciek does get his man, and is immediately hunted down and shot, dying like a dog in the street.

Andrzej, at right, mistakenly reporting mission success after killing the wrong guys, as their intended target strolls in at center of frame:

Krystyna with Maciek:

Set on the last day of WWII. Sam Fuller was also interested in what happens on the final day of a war: see Run of the Arrow and The Big Red One. There’s more humor and fun in this one than the others, despite the grim subject matter. Played in Venice along with fellow war-resistance film Il General Della Rovere, also The Magician, Night Train, Some Like It Hot and Come Back, Africa.

D. Gerould:

Until 1958, it had been impossible for a Polish artist like Wajda to make a film in which an opponent of the new society was presented as a tragic victim. The Stalinist period in Poland from1949 to1953 had brought open terror, arrest and torture of members of the Home Army, as well as enforcement of Soviet cultural models. The Thaw in 1956 resulted in a more independent Polish Communist regime. Finally the arts, liberated from Soviet-imposed socialist realism, were allowed to return to the Polish tradition of poetic metaphor and political allusion. During long years of dismemberment and foreign occupation, literature and drama in Poland had always kept alive belief in the nation’s revival. In Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda continues this tradition, posing the question of Poland’s postwar identity.