Day 26: NOTHING SACRED (William A. Wellman, USA, 1937)
Anyone fretting that contemporary mass culture has devolved into a hopeless mess of selfies and pseudo-celebrities might change their opinion slightly after taking a look at this cynical screwball comedy, which pits the luminous Carole Lombard as a smalltown gal suddenly launched to national attention after a down-on-his-luck journalist (Frederic March) learns that she is tragically dying of radium poisoning and does a big write-up in a major New York City newspaper. Soon she has been handed a key to the city, is being serenaded by children’s choirs, and getting tipsy on champagne at the swankest Manhattan nightclubs as showgirls on horseback salute her touching bravery in the face of oncoming death. The problem is that she has since found at that she had been misdiagnosed and there is, in fact, not a thing wrong with her… but for millions she has become a beloved symbol of New Deal fortitude, and now that the media machine has been activated there’s almost nothing that can be done to halt the frenzy.
Clocking in at under 80 minutes Nothing Sacred is too brief to really delve into the most disquieting dimensions of unearned celebrity, capricious public expectations, and the media’s interminable circlejerk of corruption, but screenwriter Ben Hecht nonetheless manages to satirize just about everything that chances within the film’s purview, from“idyllic” rural living to the self-congratulating altruism of urban social elites. Helping neutralize the acidity of the story is the rich splendor of the film’s creamy Technicolor tones, and, most particularly, the presence of Lombard; at first she seems too innately intelligent an actress to embody the naive, rather dim Hazel Flagg, but as James Harvey has astutely noted, the “odd” miscasting actually “seems to focus the Lombard character and temperament in a kind of permanent, intoxicating radiance.” Her high spiritedness feels crucial in helping the film maintain its dexterity in tone, keeping things from ever getting too base or mean. A bit less amusing when seen today is some strange moments foregrounding race, as well as a climactic domestic fistfight, a literal “battle of the sexes” which comes off as quite a bit less charming and exuberant than I presume it would have in the 1930’s. The film originally took a loss at the box office—just pulling themselves out of the Great Depression, American audiences might not have been ready to feel personally implicated in social issues such as these—but it eventually established a reputation as a classic of the screwball genre; I can’t claim to have been completely won over myself, but of course one should take up every and all opportunities to witness Lombard in her glorious prime.
[Watching Nothing Sacred on Fandor here.]
Day 24: THE GENERAL (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, USA, 1926)
One doesn’t have to search very far for declarations that Keaton’s feature-length film remains, nearly a century after the fact, cinema’s greatest comedic achievement; it is certainly astonishing (and was until now one of the most embarrassing gaps in my film viewing). I’ve seen enough of Keaton’s work to recognize what makes it rather singular in his oeuvre and thus somewhat divisive—instead of a quick-paced series of exciting individual gags and physical stunts, The General is more deliberately paced, tightly weaving Keaton’s physical comedy into the overall fabric of the narrative. Based on an actual Civil War event that became known as “The Great Locomotive Chase,” Keaton plays a train engineer who is prevented from enlisting in the army and subsequently rejected by his suitor (Marion Mack) as an unpatriotic coward; the dejected Keaton eventually, wonderfully, blunders his way into the middle of an unfolding enemy plot and seizes upon the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his beloved.
It all takes a bit too long to get going, but like the slow initial ascent of a rollercoaster, once momentum tips toward mayhem all unwinds breathlessly, thrillingly, careening toward a resolution that always seems just around the corner but is constantly delayed. The handling of scale is immaculate, with moments of startling visual grandeur (the use of actual trains, full scale army camp recreations, actual derailments and destruction) counterbalanced with beautiful moments of emotional intimacy (the cigarette-burn iris effect, Keaton’s slumped shoulders and turned back in wide shot of the deserted road) that are all linked together by a camera constantly on the go, trying to keep up with the forward motion of the titular train. The film unfortunately places the viewer in the rather uncomfortable position of rooting for Confederate success which is all the more annoying because the actual historical entailed the opposite situation, but in the end the War Between the States is treated more like a generic battle milieu than a specific period of time with much deeper issues at stake. It’s a sad fact of history that this, of all films, is the one that effectively ended Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker, its inflated budget combined with a lackluster box office performance necessitating a contract with MGM that quickly proved disastrous. I now eagerly await the opportunity to see it in its full glory on a big screen.
[Watch The General on Fandor here.]
Day 17: GRANDMA’S BOY (Fred C. Newmeyer, USA, 1922)
Though I often wish I was better versed in silent comedy than I am, I’ve definitely seen more than a few films by both Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin; this, however, serves as my introduction to the work of Harold Lloyd, often considered the “third genius” of the silent film era. And I have to say I found Lloyd’s so-called “Glasses Character” tremendously likable—quite unlike Keaton’s almost otherworldly gravity and Chaplin’s intense need to ingratiate, Lloyd’s presence feels more immediately accessible, and somehow more contemporary too (the distinctive round eyeglasses undoubtedly help, as they’re currently in fashion; when his suit shrinks during a gag, the results look oddly fashionable). Grandma’s Boy doesn’t seem to be considered one of Lloyd’s top-tier films, but its commercial success helped extend the length of comedy films toward the feature length mark, making it historically important. What’ I inevitably found most interesting is the film’s representation of masculinity: the title character begins as a hopeless sissy, not only unable to stick up for himself but hapless to a fault. A final humiliation by his romantic rival sends him into a crisis, and his doting grandmother bequeaths to him the “magic charm” that transformed his cowardly grandfather, also played by Lloyd in an extended flashback, into a war hero. Of course, the talisman turns out to be nothing of the sort, and the brash virility and masculine swagger is revealed to be an attitude, a state of mind—a performance, if you will. Of course this type of character trajectory is painfully commonplace, and I tend not to respond to valorizations of masculinity at the expense of male femininity, but there’s a certain something about Lloyd’s specific take of machismo that remains appealing; even at his most cocky he can’t fully suppress a certain sensitivity, almost like his first impulse after he knocks you down is to immediately apologize and help you back up. He’s very much the boy you’d be willing to take home to mom—or grandma, for that matter.
[Watch Grandma’s Boy on Fandor here.]
Day 16: ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
This lyrical documentary, directed by Venezuelan feminist filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. But while Resnais’s film would be immediately hailed as cinematic landmark that changed the course of cinema, Benacerraf’s film never received widespread distribution, and was subsequently forgotten. Happily, a gorgeous restoration appeared in 2009 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and today we can properly appreciate this mesmerizing examination of a way of life that was disappearing even at the very moment of the film being made. The film depicts the grueling lives of people who extract salt from the ocean off of the Araya peninsula of Venezuela, documenting the backbreaking traditional labor methods that were passed from one generation to the next, over the course of 400+ years. And it would be one thing if only the labor itself was punishing; what Benacerraf’s camera documents, however, is that every facet of life for these people involves gargantuan effort—water must be shipped in each morning to the village, brought bucket-to-bucket to each house, fish caught daily (hopefully providing enough to feed the local population) as no vegetation grows in the region, etc, etc. The families are enormous—one specifically mentioned is 16 and counting—because even the most basic aspects of daily life require a manual task that has to be undertaken, day after day after day.
The toil and strain on display is in direct tension with the sheer beauty of the film’s images, the arid desert and salt mountains immaculately framed like proto-Antonionian landscapes, throwing into sharp, rather noble relief the people themselves. But rather disquietingly they never speak, silent (or silenced by?) a poetic voiceover emphasizing the sheer repetitiousness of this way of life, from the gestures of work to the strict scheduling of each day. Which leads directly to the underlying, rather disquieting ambivalence of the film, the crux that each viewer must contend with: despite the great splendor evoked by the images and commentary, IS it a way of life that should be glorified, let alone maintained? Or is this the rare situation where modernity’s displacement of an indigenous culture might actually be a genuine improvement for everyone involved? The film itself refuses to provide any answers. Indeed, Benacerraf has claimed she wasn’t attempting a documentary at all, but rather intended to make a cinematic “tone poem” as a testament to this particular place and the people who daily contend with it. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with such a neat evasion, for just as it is with Hiroshima mon amour, it would be easy—too easy—to simply get carried away by the magisterial aura evoked by the sensuous interplay of image and sound, and ignore the complex dissonance of ideas and implications churning just beneath the surface. But however one feels, this is an unjustly neglected landmark, and it deserves to finally find an appreciative audience after all these years.
[Watch Araya on Fandor here.]
Day 14: THE ACADEMY OF MUSES (José Luis Guerín, Spain, 2015)
The initial question of what this actually is—a documentary? fiction staged as a documentary? something else altogether?—ultimately is revealed to be utterly beside the point. The film’s investment in the protean is quietly thrilling, especially as it seems to transform itself from one sequence to the next, constantly spinning out into unanticipated directions (or digressions? I would seem so—at least at first). This project slowly emerged after Guerín received an invitation from Professor Raffaele Pinto to film one of his classes on classical Italian literature at the University of Barcelona; the specific topic under consideration centers around the classical muses and their possible role within the contemporary world. The seminar is primarily attended by women, many who chafe at the patriarchal baggage attached to the mythological entity they are having to so extensively consider, and ripples of dissension subsequently set various subplots into motion as students begin meeting up with each other after class, meet with Pinto to discuss the issue further, etc. Perhaps most moving is Pinto’s discussions with his wife Rosa Delor Muns, a professor of Catalan literature, their philosophical sparring increasingly revealed to be a coded means of discussing more immediately pertinent issues. These as well as many other conversations are often staged through windows, causing the image to be overlaid with reflections of a world bustling with activity—it’s a striking visual reminder that no matter how lofty or abstracted the topic of discussion at hand ever becomes, it is nonetheless has grounding within the “real” world and dynamics of everyday life. At a certain point the hypothetical begins to manifest itself in the actual—as such things tend to do—and the film begins to force constant reconsideration of everything that has proceeded. At the same time, I wish to emphasize what an exceedingly serene cinematic experience Guerín has somehow conjured up; I’m even tempted to describe the experience as somehow restful, even pastoral, despite the fact the majority of the film takes place in distinctly urban settings. A film of so much more intricacy and nuance than I’ve managed to convey here, and absolutely one of the highlights of this project so far.
[Watch The Academy of Muses on Fandor here.]
Day 13: SING SINNER SING (Howard Christie, USA, 1933)
The film itself never quite manages to live up to its sexy, attention-seeking title, but that isn’t uncommon with a number of these Pre-code, B-grade flicks churned out by the “Poverty Row” studios. Which isn’t a knock at all, especially since everything rolls along pleasantly enough as long as little attention is paid to the hackneyed plot, which was loosely inspired by a major contemporary scandal surrounding notorious torch singer Libby Holman and the mysterious death of a millionaire she had eloped with (two later films, including Jean Harlow’s Reckless, would be more directly based on the highly publicized incident). In the central role is the likable Leila Hyams, a top star of the early talkie era whose reputation now primarily rests on her appearance in several classic horror films, most particularly Tod Browning’s immortal Freaks; while she has an appealing screen presence it’s pretty obvious she lacks that indefinable “something” that launched some of her immediate contemporaries to screen immortality. She’s also given a somewhat tricky role, having to embody at once a seductive siren who men swarm despite themselves, but then seem believably virtuous once marriage transforms her into an honest woman and her reputation is at stake. Unfortunately Ruth Donnelly’s broad, vaudevillian humor wearies quickly; much more fun are the various spunky sexpots, all slinky garments and stylized voices, that regularly turn up as Hyams’s rivals (all are quickly disposed of though). Not an undiscovered treasure by any means, but enjoyable enough.
[Watch Sing Sinner Sing on Fandor here.]
Day 12: THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
A long overdue first viewing of a crucial touchstone of avant-garde, documentary, and feminist filmmaking. On the most obvious level it’s an intimate and emotionally searing cross-examination of the director’s mother regarding her experiences growing up in an anti-Nazi family during the Second World War, but a number of related issues quickly begin to intersect the main narrative, including the director’s own work as an anti-nuclear activist and, more implicitly, the complex networks of emotions that bind mother to daughter, parent to child, and one generation to another. The mother’s story is moving in and of itself and could easily have justified a straightforward Q&A-style documentary film, but Friedrich is interested in undertaking a slightly different project, utilizing a variety of experimental techniques that mimic not only the fragmentation of memory but of perception itself—even as the soundtrack is dominated by her voice, the mother is seen onscreen only in flashes. As the conversation continues the questions seem increasingly difficult to answer (for example, she came from the same town as the Scholl siblings and knew of them, but she never herself joined the White Rose group despite experiencing hardship, including spending time at a forced labor camp, for her own anti-Nazi views. There’s an ambiguous timbre—regret? sadness? shame? reproach?—to her voice as she acknowledges she was unwilling to take that step toward a more active resistance, and that despite her own suffering there were others endured so much more).
Friedrich admirably navigates a kind of high-wire act, never pushing a personal agenda of either exoneration or condemnation, instead forcing the viewer to make their own moral and ethical judgments with each new piece of information that is presented. This develops what was for me the film’s greatest accomplishment: invoking the psychic binds of ethnicity and heritage. For those such as myself with German ancestry the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable as it forces a kind of reckoning of… what? Guilt? Embarrassment? A sense of inherited culpability? I’m not even sure—I’m still trying to come to terms with what this film made me feel. The moment when her mother admits that she will regret that she is German until the day she dies was startling—but also chillingly familiar too. Fandor carries a number of Friedrich’s films, and this will probably not be the only film of hers I end up watching for this project.
[Watch The Ties That Bind on Fandor here.]
Day 11: WITTGENSTEIN (Derek Jarman, UK, 1993)
Jarman’s penultimate film, an imaginative biopic of the great Austrian-born philosopher. I can’t make any definite claims as to accuracy in terms of historical facticity or the representation of actual philosophical ideas—but who really wants realism when an artist as endlessly inventive as Jarman is involved? The project originated with a script by Terry Eagleton but was deftly reshaped to fit the distinctive Jarman mold, as well as address the restrictions of a tiny budget and minimal production time (less than two weeks for actual shooting, as well as the additional pressure posed by the filmmaker’s rapidly deteriorating vision and health due to AIDS-related complications). In a brilliant move, the director and his collaborators decided to flaunt all logistical constraints, creating instead an aura of resonant symbolism; the resulting film, just over 70 minutes long, races through Wittgenstein’s life by stringing together some 53 sequences entailing anecdotes, personal events, fantasies, and glimpses into his immediate social circle. In the end the production limitations turned out to be a great boon, as the interplay of an inventive narrative structure (a precocious, bespectacled young Wittgenstein serves as both narrator and guide, drolly interjecting himself throughout the film) as well as the distinctive visual design that distills the mise-en-scène down to a limited number of meaningful items and articles of clothing ultimately seems a most fitting manner through which to convey the life of a man who devoted his life to logically paring down reality into its most fundamental forms. Like everything Jarman created, it doubtlessly deserves—and will reward—multiple viewings.
[Watch Wittgenstein on Fandor here.]
Day 10: VISION (Margarethe von Trotta, Germany, 2009)
A film so beautifully made and modulated one could easily be lulled into the idea that it is “merely” a staid, handsomely mounted historical biopic. But just beneath the serene and seemingly straightforward surface of this depiction of the 12th century mystic and Benedictine abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen, celebrated New German Cinema director and feminist filmmaking icon Margarethe von Trotta manages to signal the vicious political intrigue, strict religious hierarchies, and complex interpersonal relationships that tightly corset Hildegard’s cloistered life, threatening at every turn to completely dismantle her life’s work and entire existence. Considering that Hildegard managed to live an eventful life that almost defies probability—not only achieving wide renown for her mystical visions, but founding two monasteries as well as distinguishing herself as a a writer, composer, philosopher, and pioneer in the field of scientific natural history—von Trotta (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film) gracefully links together a series of vignettes that manage to capture both the immensity of Hildegard’s achievements while carefully stripping away the layers of hagiography and historical legend to locate an actual person. In this regard she’s immensely assisted by her frequent collaborator Barbara Sukowa, who imbues her performance of the future saint with equal parts intelligence and passion, meticulously crafting a nuanced portrait of a woman as adept at taking on church hierarchy as she was quietly gardening in the monastery garden. But even though the film is composed in muted tones that evoke the quiet serenity of a Vermeer painting, there’s simultaneously a sense the emotional fires, subversive erotic energy, and intellectual fervor raging just behind the modest folds of a nun’s habit and sturdy stone walls of a medieval convent. This is quietly masterful filmmaking.
[Watch Vision on Fandor here.]
Day 9: MEET MARLON BRANDO (Albert Maysles & David Maysles, USA, 1966)
A fascinating look into the chirpy artificiality of “candid” celebrity encounters: we watch as Brando bridles under the expectation to don a smile and purr innocuous platitudes into the Maysles’s watchful camera. At times his actions might be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic—“have you actually seen it??” he pointedly queries anyone who begins gushing about the “terrific” film he is supposed to promote, which ended up being a major flop—but there are obviously more intricate dynamics at play here as well. Brando displays a great knack for pivoting conversations away from himself at a moment’s notice through witty adlibbing, often asking the interviewer a direct question about her/himself. A certain tension and nervous energy is generated as each of the various interviewers manage these maneuvers, and while some simply counter with tight-smiled deflections (“oh, but really Mr. Brando, our viewers would just love to hear your thoughts!”), just as many take the bait and enter into the riskier zone of genuine exchange—or at least a closer approximation to it. The highlights of the film tend to be anytime Brando successfully derails a reporter’s agenda: one discusses his hobby of playing classical guitar, one woman’s face lights up after Brando compliments her sonorous speaking voice, and another young woman suddenly finds herself being cross-examined when it’s revealed she’s a former Miss USA, and they begin discussing her specialty topic of juvenile education. But even these moments are complicated, as nearly all interactions with women immediately turn into flirtatious exchanges which read today as casual sexual harassment, adding an additional layer of uneasiness to the interactions (even—or especially—when with the women appear flattered by the sudden turn of events). Brando’s eagerness to take on and hold forth with great eloquence on controversial social issues—racism, and most particularly the plight of Native Americans—might also be read as part of the source of the great actor’s impatience with superficial chitchat. Marlon Brando playing “Marlon Brando” as performance art, and it’s a rather impressive performance indeed.
[Watch Meet Marlon Brando on Fandor here.]