Pépé le Moko

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #172: Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko.

The strange start of this film — all the time spent de­scrib­ing the cos­mopoli­tan mélange of the Algerian cas­bah trav­el­ogue-style — is the key to un­der­stand­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in­side the typ­i­cally clever head of no­to­ri­ous jewel-thief Pépé le Moko. The man is an ar­che­typal old-school gang­ster, and he is so se­cure in the riot of the cas­bah that even the Algerian in­spec­tor has a friendly ri­val­rous re­la­tion­ship with him.

For a man of his mag­ni­tude, how­ever, even be­ing lord of a mi­cro­cos­mic world is not enough. When he falls for a French kept woman, he is re­minded of all the things he has cho­sen to leave be­hind. The in­spec­tor uses this knowl­edge to his ben­e­fit, bides his time, par­tic­i­pates in some care­fully planned mis­di­rec­tion, and ul­ti­mately nabs his man when he leaves  the cas­bah in love-lorn-and-lost pur­suit of what he has thrown away. In the end, he re­al­izes that even a prison of his own choos­ing is still a prison. Too late.

Though this fits the style of noir, I don’t know that it fits the tech­ni­cal de­f­i­n­i­tion. There’s plenty of chiaroscuro, and the sub­ject mat­ter fits the bill as well, but the­mat­i­cally there’s less grit and grey-moral­ity than most other ex­am­ples of the genre.

Jean Gabin is a great ras­cal.

Black Orpheus

Monday, 8 October 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #48: Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus.

I tried watch­ing this many years ago, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get through it. I’m glad I gave it an­other shot, be­cause it’s a won­der­ful movie. The myth of Orpheus & Eurydice is my fa­vorite, and it trans­lates per­fectly to Rio dur­ing Carnaval. Orpheus as the Babylon bus dri­ver, good with the ladies, the man who makes the sun rise with his gui­tar play­ing. Eurydice, new to the city, seem­ingly in­no­cent, but with some­thing dark on her tail. Not only does the set­ting trans­late well, but the death-revenant-af­ter­life fits the­mat­i­cally with the Candomble re­li­gious prac­tices as well.

Throughout the film, ges­tures and acts that would nor­mally be passed off as sim­ple su­per­sti­tion pack a bit more mythic punch, and, as it turns out, are just as ef­fi­ca­cious dieget­i­cally. Promises and claims that, in the mun­dane world, would just ap­pear to be blus­ter, are true tragedy as the myth un­folds. This mix­ing of nat­u­ral and su­per­nat­u­ral is made pos­si­ble by the nearly in­ces­sant beat of mu­sic that per­me­ates the film.

The film is so well put to­gether, and the par­al­lels with Brazilian cul­ture so spot on that it would make more sense if the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice had ac­tu­ally orig­i­nated from Brazil and not Greece. And it makes you want to dance.

Samurai Spy

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #312: Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy.

Having read Shusaku Endo’s Silence many years ago, the per­se­cu­tion of Catholicism dur­ing the Tokugawa shogu­nate was some­thing that im­me­di­ately grabbed me here. It came as only a slight sur­prise to dis­cover that Masahiro Shinoda di­rected an adap­ta­tion of the book six years af­ter mak­ing Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (this movie). Sarutobi Sasuke is an em­ployed samu­rai in a clan who has yet to take sides in a brew­ing con­flict be­tween Tokugawa and Osaka. Additionally, he has his own ideas in re­gard to the use­ful­ness of war in the first place. He gets roped in to some es­pi­onage and in­trigue by be­ing a badass do-gooder in the wrong place at the right time.

Lots of peo­ple die. Sasuke gets blamed for mur­ders he doesn’t com­mit, and no one seems to care about the folks he ac­tu­ally does kill on his was to safety and a mod­icum of se­cu­rity. The joke here, if you want to call it that, is that Sasuke doesn’t have a goal apart from safely nav­i­gat­ing the com­pli­cated cur­rents he’s found him­self in. Though he’s not ex­plic­itly Christian, (nor is he ex­plic­itly not Christian), the heavy in­volve­ment of a se­cre­tive Christian group, and it’s un­likely con­nec­tion to an apos­ta­sized, lep­rous spy­mas­ter gave this samu­rai film a fla­vor un­like any other I’ve seen.

It’s also beau­ti­ful; shots with max­i­mal depth of field, shift­ing fog and si­lences, ab­stract pat­terns of light and shadow, and uniquely ap­pro­pri­ate cam­era shifts all evoke the un­cer­tainty of things hid­den in plain sight and in shadow.

The Red Shoes

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #44: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

I wasn’t re­ally ex­pect­ing to en­joy this movie, as I haven’t had much luck with Powell & Pressburger in the past, but it was good. The cos­tum­ing, makeup and other pro­duc­tion val­ues were well sit­u­ated to make the most of Technicolor. The plot was put to­gether to de­lib­er­ately par­al­lel, in theme at least, that of the Hans Christian Andersen story that fea­tures so promi­nently through­out the film.

The only de­trac­tions were the fre­quently used spe­cial ef­fects to high­light these par­al­lels. They broke the sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief that was watch­ing a bal­letic per­for­mance, and beat the viewer over the head with dra­matic irony. I can see that this might have been a glimpse into Vicki Page’s sub­jec­tiv­ity, as well as an artis­tic de­ci­sion, but the story & film it­self was so well crafted up to that point, and any and all spe­cial ef­fects so no­tice­ably ab­sent up to the first per­for­mance of The Red Shoes, that I think the film would have been stronger with­out their pres­ence.

While danc­ing kills pro­tag­o­nists in both the lit­eral and meta-lit­eral sto­ries, Powell and Pressburger ef­fi­ciently and poignantly turn the fairy tale into some­thing more con­tem­po­rary and com­plex. The in­ter­lock­ing love tri­an­gles and tough choices that the main char­ac­ters make (not al­ways wise, but al­ways pas­sion­ate) make a much deeper point about what it means to die for what you love than any fairy tale could tell.

Death of a Cyclist

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #427: Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist.

I can’t re­call the last time I saw a film where the scene tran­si­tions were han­dled so mas­ter­fully. One char­ac­ter blows cig­a­rette smoke to end a scene, a cut, and in a dif­fer­ent time and place an­other char­ac­ter gets smoke blown into hers. Fire flick­ers on María’s face when she’s with her hus­band, a cut, and in a dif­fer­ent time and place, fire flick­ers on her face while she’s with her lover.

The care with which those shots were planned car­ries through­out this film; fre­quent cuts, a pre­pon­der­ance of close quar­ter in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions, and strong sight lines do an ex­cel­lent job of tun­ing the ten­sion, but at times it be­comes al­most melo­dra­matic, soap op­er­atic. The wealthy mis­tress and her pro­fes­sor fling run over a cy­clist and leave him to die alone. Meanwhile, an­other fel­low is on to their in­fi­delity and tries to black­mail them over it. They’re not ini­tially guilt-rid­den over the death, but are in­tent on hid­ing it, and they as­sume that is what the black­mail is about. What fol­lows is quite a bit of ex­cel­lent in­nu­endo, ver­bal fenc­ing that never quite strikes a mor­tal blow.

Things do get tense enough that María runs over her lover, and in an end­ing that’s just a tad too iron­i­cally pat, she runs off the road and dies try­ing to avoid hit­ting an­other cy­clist.

Taste of Cherry

Sunday, 26 August 2012

A part of this view­ing listCriterion Collection Spine #45: Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.

Apparently, the en­tirety of Iran is a gi­ant gravel-pile con­struc­tion site. That’s the im­pres­sion given in this film, and con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle I know of the coun­try due to my own nation’s sanc­tions against it, I’m go­ing to choose to as­sume that Iran is a beau­ti­ful coun­try and Kiarostami made a styl­is­tic and the­matic choice to film most of this in lo­ca­tions where just about every­thing is dead and dy­ing, and dry earth cas­cades on all sides in crum­bling ruin.

Few the­matic choices could fit bet­ter for a plot re­volv­ing around a man who wants to com­mit sui­cide and have some­one bury him, or haul him out of his own grave if he fails to do a proper job of it. Godfrey Cheshire’s Criterion es­say ac­com­pa­ny­ing this film makes a point to dis­cuss this film in terms of life and death, but I in­ter­pret it in slightly more gen­eral terms. I don’t think this is a story about man ver­sus him­self; I think it’s a film about man ver­sus na­ture. Mr. Badii, for some un­stated rea­son, feels dis­con­nected with life. He tries, time and again, to get some­one to show him some mod­icum of at­ten­tion. Everyone he talks to is so busy liv­ing their lives, in­no­cently in the case of the young sol­dier; stu­diously, in the case of the sem­i­nar­ist; and fully, in the case of the old man, that none of them can be both­ered with Badii’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.

A man do­ing what­ever he can to get even the small­est part of the world to no­tice him, even through sui­cide, is a man full of pride and mis­guided. His cri­sis would not oc­cur to some­one fully en­gaged in liv­ing life, or to some­one who knows their in­signif­i­cance in the grand scheme of things. I’d ar­gue that Kiarostami is mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween liv­ing life with in­dif­fer­ence to your in­signif­i­cance and be­ing un­able to ac­cept that fact and be­ing filled with de­spair in­stead. This doesn’t sound par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive, but it is. At least as far as I’m con­cerned, en­gage­ment with life is much more pos­i­tive than de­spair at liv­ing in the first place.

The Great Dictator

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #565: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Not Chaplin’s great­est work, but cer­tainly a strong pro­pa­ganda film. What struck me most is the ig­no­rance with which the prison camps and Jewish ghet­tos are be­trayed. There are some ob­vi­ous in­stances early in the film where it seems as if Chaplin hasn’t quite fig­ured out that he’s mak­ing a talkie, but once he gets that un­der con­trol the film ping-pongs back and forth be­tween Chaplin iconog­ra­phy and ef­fem­i­nate Hitler-mock­ing. Chaplin had great fun with names. Tomania (Ptomaine) for Allemania and Bacteria for Italia. Herrs Herring & Garbage, Phooey Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni.

Chaplin did well to em­u­late the Riefenstyle of Triumph of the Will when Hynkel/​Hitler is on­stage and bal­ances it with a more rec­og­niz­ably Chaplin style in the Ghetto sce­nes, but it re­mains hard to watch this film and take it se­ri­ously know­ing what we know now about Nazi atroc­ity. Chaplin-style com­edy is well-suited to mak­ing buf­foons of the Nazis, and in 1940 it still made sense to treat them as a laugh­able en­emy rather than a vi­cious one. Despite these dif­fi­cul­ties with hind­sight, the fi­nal speech, where a Jewish bar­ber in­verts the mes­sage of the Double Cross party, is more tri­umphantly in­spir­ing than a thou­sand Riefenstahl films. Yet for all its clev­er­ness, the film seems now most no­table for its ap­palling in­no­cence.