Pépé le Moko

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 melange 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

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

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

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

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.