Sacha Guitry, Akira Kurosawa, and Josef von Sternberg
Talking Out of Frame:
Retrospectives of early works by influential filmmakers kick us off this month, with two in particular from the Criterion Collection's secondary Eclipse line. In fact, our first selection, Presenting Sacha Guitry is why I like the Eclipse Series. Sacha Guitry as a filmmaker, specifically, but also what he represents in general. He now sits alongside Raymond Bernard, Larisa Shepitko, and Hiroshi Shimizu as filmmakers that I wouldn't have known about had Criterion not started their little boutique line. Eclipse is dedicated to highlighting films and filmmakers that may not have the name recognition to lead a big release, but whom could benefit from the rediscovery made possible by an affordable midline package.
Presenting Sacha Guitry is the 22nd Eclipse set, and it features four films from the acclaimed playwright turned cinematic auteur. According to the liner notes in the lead film, Guitry was the king of the Paris stage in the 1920s, and he dismissed film as a go-nowhere art form, limited by rickety technology and not capable of the poetry of live theatre. Once sound came into play, however, Guitry saw the error of his ways and, as they say, if you can't beat them, join them. After a couple of misfires, he landed on what would become his signature film.
The Story of a Cheat was made in 1936, and Guitry wrote, directed, and starred as the adult version of his title character, known simply as the Cheat (or, in French, tricheur). The narrative is simple enough, but as in all things, it's the telling that is key. In a fascinating twist, Sacha Guitry's spectacular film employs the mechanics of silent film while still embracing sound. The story is framed by the older Cheat (Guitry in white hair and make-up) writing his memoirs, and the entire run through past history is narrated in voiceover by the memoirist. Any dialogue is spoken by Guitry, it is only mouthed by the other actors. The only times we hear other performers speaking is in interludes back to the café where, in the film's present day, the Cheat is laying his story down. There, he has poignant and ironic encounters that match up with what is happening in his manuscript.
This clever device could grow tiresome under the wrong direction, but Guitry's execution is lively and playful. His camera is lithe and probing, taking cues from the narration, and the combination of words and pictures pushes the story forward at a jaunty pace. It comes to define the director's filmography, and the other four films in the set--The Pearls of the Crown, Désiré, and Quadrille--are just as lively, inventive, and fun. Front to back, Presenting Sacha Guitry - Eclipse Series 22 is energized with mirth. These are tremendously light-hearted movies that, though never shallow, never let the deeper themes and ideas tug at the smiles Sacha Guitry is so intent on putting on his audience's faces. The tone of these pictures reminds me of another Eclipse Box, the eighth: Lubitsch Musicals. Both Sacha Guitry and Ernst Lubitsch come from a stage background, and both enjoy life and the scoundrels that humans can be when pursuing happiness and love.
More serious but no less captivating is the 23rd entry, The First Films of Akira Kurosawa. Chris Neilson tackles this collection: "After serving five years as an assistant director and occasional screen writer, Kurosawa got his first opportunity to helm a film. Based on a contemporary novel by Tsuneo Tomita, Sanshiro Sagata is a martial arts/sports film set in 1882, just after the restoration of imperial rule in Japan and the beginning of Japan's rapid period of industrialization. Like many of Kurosawa's films, most notably Red Beard (1965), Sanshiro Sugata concerns the professional and, more importantly, moral progress of its protagonist. The film opens with an ambush of judo master Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) by a rowdy group of jujitsu practitioners, with would-be student Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) looking on. With little effort and no malice, Master Yano bests his attackers, after which an impressed Sugata begs to become Yano's student.
"Sanshiro Sugata has a fairly unremarkable storyline, a modest budget, and is marred by significant edits by wartime censors, but it already exhibits some of Kurosawa's characteristic touches including dramatic camera movements and editing, variable camera speed, wipes from scene to scene, and extreme mood-driven weather. Though marred by heavy editing from Japan's wartime censors, and by less than pristine film elements, Sanshiro Sugata is a window on the formation of a master filmmaker. Following [its] success...Kurosawa was encouraged to make The Most Beautiful, a propaganda film to aid the war effort. When hopes to make a film about navy fighter pilots fell through, Kurosawa undertook a film about all-volunteer female factory workers producing war materials. Shot on location at the Nippon Kogaku factory in a quasi-documentary style, Kurosawa attempted to maximize the sense of realism by having his cast apprentice at the factory and live in the factory dormitory."
The Most Beautiful was followed by a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata. "Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two returns will all the principal cast of its predecessor, but with a storyline far more propagandist than the first, contrasting Japanese martial arts as a noble art form versus American boxing as ignoble bloodsport. During the film's first half, Sugata thwarts a bullying American sailor and bests America's champion boxer. In the second half, Sugata rises to a new challenge presented by the two brothers of the prior film's arch-rival Gennosuke Higaki. Actor Ryunosuke Tsukigata does double duty playing both the physically shattered Gennosuke Higaki and the new threat, karate master Tesshin Higaki, while Akitake Kono convincing plays the deranged Genzaburo Higaki.
"The final film in this set, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, was made during the waning days of the war, but was not released until the first days of the allied occupation of Japan. This short film recounts an episode in the life of legendary twelfth-century feudal lord Minamoto no Yoshitsune (Tadayoshi Nishina). Fearing execution at the hands of his brother, Yoshitsune attempts to flee through a mountain pass to reach safety outside his brother's dominion, accompanied by a local guide (Kenichi Enomoto) and six loyal samurai, including the warrior monk Benkei (Denjiro Ookoochi). The pass is guarded by a large force loyal to Yoshitsune's brother so Yoshitsune and Benkei are compelled to use deception not brawn to make their escape."
Back in the main Criterion line, I was positively blown away by 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. This new collection brings together his first big studio movies, chronicling his breakthrough after many years of struggle. It's interesting to look at Josef von Sternberg's early filmography and see how many films he worked on without credit or was eventually fired from. Having spent some time earlier this year researching one of those projects, I was aware he had gone through some struggles between his scrappy independent debut, The Salvation Hunters, in 1925 and his first studio picture, Underworld, in 1927, but you have to admire the guy for sticking it out. Then again, given how headstrong and defiantly individualistic his films were, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
The new boxed set from Criterion, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, picks up with Underworld and shows us the director's early development. Though the Austrian immigrant would eventually be best known for his sexy collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, he started off in a much different place, exploring a more realistic world than the exaggerated, opulent, and oft-times grotesque settings that would distinguish The Scarlet Empress or his Gene Tierney-led noir The Shanghai Gesture. Yet, even when the young filmmaker was re-creating the mean streets and the back alleys of urban America, von Sternberg still found ways to be von Sternberg. The trio in 3 Silent Classics are rich with memorable images and a confident command of the movie screen, rife with the kind of psychological expressionism that would set von Sternberg apart from the rest. (Be sure to watch Janet Bergrstrom's video essay on Underworld for a succinct and fascinating elaboration on von Sternberg's career prior to this breakthrough.)
The trio of films in 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg are all full frame, black-and-white. Though far from spotless, the restoration done to these prints is still absolutely wonderful. All the prints have some scratching on them, though only The Last Command is persistent; the other two, the damage is intermittent. The images are clear, the photography has great balance between light and dark, and the resolution is fantastic. An extended round of applause would be well deserved. When you take into account how a couple of the films discussed in the extras are considered permanently lost, the fact that we have a way to preserve and watch this trio over and over is in itself a champion achievement. The result is one of my favorite boxed sets to come along this year. All the films in 3 Silent Classics are both engrossing to watch and to look at. von Sternberg had an individualistic personality, and his vision shows in every frame. From the gangster chic of Underworld to the period war drama The Last Command and through the stark melodrama of The Docks of New York, he was developing his craft and establishing a style that was all his own.
A contemporary film that I imagine could end up being influential thanks to its unique style is the French crime movie A Prophet. Jason Bailey writes: "Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (Un Prophète) is filmmaking at point-blank range, a stark, fierce criminal portrait of tremendous power. There's a reckless immediacy to it--it draws us in immediately, no backstory, no bullshit. We meet Malik El Djebana, he's nineteen years old, he's going into prison for six years, boom. Go.
"In prison, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is lost, confused, and perceived (correctly) as weak. He is also a man caught between worlds--he is part Arab and part Corsican, and in this prison, you are one or the other. He finds himself in the sights of a group of Corsicans, led by César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who offer him protection in exchange for work performed. His first job is the cold-blooded murder of Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), an Arab, about to testify against the Corsican mafia; Reyeb has a sexual interest in Malik, who is instructed to use this 'in' to slit his throat...As Malik becomes a more proficient lawbreaker, working the system from both inside and outside the prison walls, A Prophet becomes something of a crime procedural, an examination of precisely how these things are done--and it feels like a film that knows what it's talking about, from the inside out. Over the film's expansive 149-minute running time, Malik morphs from loner to kingpin, from clueless to ruthless. Rahim's is a deceptively opaque performance; you don't see him doing a lot of 'acting,' but as the story progresses and the character gets smarter, you do see him thinking. This culminates in a phenomenal moment where you literally see his face go white, and in that moment, I realized that his work here is borne of the same cloth as Casey Affleck's stunningly subtle turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's got that same fragility, and the same reserve of forcefulness. Arestrup's work as César is something of a counterweight--he's a frightening figure who turns on a dime, but Arestrup gives us flashes of the complexity underneath his brittle shell.
"Audiard, a director previously unknown to me (I didn't catch his previous import, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), shows tremendous skill and control; the picture has a grimy, off-the-cuff feel, and with its visceral action, well-chosen music, and inventive use of on-screen text, the film forms into a hybrid of the fierce energy of City of God and the unblinking pragmatism of Gomorrah. Audiard favors a low-down, pulpy aesthetic, but he has moments of gritty lyricism, like Malik's silent regard of the beach in a moment of potential crisis."
I saw A Prophet as part of the Portland International Film Festival, which is also where I first saw the Mussolini biopic Vincere. Actually, Vincere is less a biopic of the Italian leader, the new film by radical '60s director Marco Bellocchio is really a biography of Il Duce's obsessive mistress, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Love in the Time of Cholera). As a young woman, she stumbles into the emerging revolutionary more than once, usually while he is on the run for his life. She insists her way into his life, devoting herself entirely to her lover (played by Filippo Timi), though apparently never really clueing in to the fact that he was already married. Still, Ida gives birth to Mussolini's first-born son only to find herself increasingly shunned as the Fascist leader grows more popular. Ida becomes the living embodiment of the adage "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." Eager to bury this extra family, Mussolini has his hoods lock Ida away in a mental hospital.
The tables are turned at this point of the movie, and Bellocchio challenges our perception of events. Is it possible that our first impression of Ida as an off-her-nut stalker was a little harsh? Mussolini has so effectively cut her out, she has a right to be angry, and he has placed her in the one place where it is assured no one will believe her. Giovanna Mezzogiorno's passion not only dominates her lover's in the first half of the movie, but once Bellocchio surrenders his film completely to her, she runs with it. Ida's mental deterioration is heartbreaking, and Bellocchio pushes her by letting several scenes rest entirely on her face as she silently breaks down. Mezzogiorno is also dead sexy in that crazy kind of way, and the love scenes between Ida and Mussolini are extra steamy.
Vincere joins a spate of recent Italian movies that match political messages with cinematic vigor. The aforementioned Gomorrah played at PIFF last year, as did the less artistically successful but visually dynamic Il Divo. Something is obviously going on over there, the Italians are all fired up and ready to do some screen damage. I look forward to what's coming next.
Portraits of interesting individuals are often the subject of documentaries, too, as with the new Criterion Louie Bluie. Casey Burchby says, "Terry Zwigoff's debut film, Louie Bluie...[is] being released on DVD for the first time, a full twenty-five years after its original theatrical run. The film's eponymous subject - real name: Howard Armstrong (1909 - 2003) - was a multi-instrumentalist, a visual artist, an author, a dandy, a bon vivant, and a world-class raconteur. In short, he was perfectly suited to Zwigoff's eclectic tastes, and Louie Bluie is a hilarious, moving, and joyful tribute to this strange man whose genius mostly flew beneath the radar of mainstream American culture.
"Zwigoff caught up with Armstrong in the early 1980s, living obscurely and alone in Detroit. The film takes Armstrong back to Chicago, where he was based during his musical heyday of the 1930s. There, he reunites with his former band mates to reminisce and perform a few dates in local clubs and coffeehouses. Zwigoff also follows Armstrong back to Tennessee, where he visits family and talks about developing his musical talent in the context of regional string bands. Cutting together just an hour of footage featuring Armstrong in performance and in conversation, Zwigoff creates a loving, lively portrait of Armstrong as a man of boundless energy, limitless creativity, and accomplished virtuosity in every arena he chooses to tackle - music, art, and the spoken and written word."
Zwigoff continued to be fascinated by oddballs, and Criterion also brings us his most famous feature, Crumb. John Sinnott looks at the Blu-Ray: "Robert Crumb was propelled to fame in the mid-'60s with his groundbreaking comic Zap as well as a few high profile pieces such as the cover for Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company (for which he received $600 and never had his original artwork returned) and the at one time ubiquitous 'Keep on Truckin'.' An animated movie was made of his character Fritz the Cat, which only added to his fame even though Crumb hated the film so much that he killed the character in a subsequent comic. With fame came money and respect though Crumb never really wanted any of that.
"Told through extensive interviews with Crumb, his two brothers and his mother, a bleak picture of Crumb's early life unfolds. Growing up in an incredibly dysfunctional family, Robert learned to escape at an early age into drawing. His father, described by brother Charles Crumb Jr. as a tyrannical bastard, was controlling and domineering. At one point Charles Sr. decided that Robert should make money with his art, so he ordered the young teen to wander neighborhoods drawing houses and then ringing the doorbell and trying to sell the sketch. Glowering in all the family photos, it's clear that the family patriarch had issues himself. Robert's mother escaped into amphetamines, his older brother Charles became a recluse on anti-depressants (he committed suicide before the movie was released) and his other brother Maxon, is a monk who panhandles for money to live on. (His two sisters refused to be interviewed for the movie.)
"Crumb has always marched to the beat of a different drummer, and that's still true today. He routinely turns down incredible amounts of money for the film rights of his characters and feels only distain for most of modern American society. The man comes across as an intelligent, but complex, character that still has a hard time relating to most people. There's a lot to like about this film. It's not a fawning movie that only seeks to elevate its subject. Director Terry Zwigoff interviews art critics, magazine editors, and other underground comic artists who give frank, and often contradictory, opinions on Crumb's art. The film doesn't shy away from the misogynist and (some would claim) racist aspect of his work. It's on full view, as well as the strong sexual content that permeates a lot of his art. The thing that comes through strongest is that Crumb is no mere funny book illustrator. He's a talented artist."
Someday someone should ask Zwigoff and Robert Crumb what they think of Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud. Jason Bailey likes it, writing: "Brewster McCloud may very well be the most pure and unfiltered vision of Altman's America, because he would never again be in a position where he had as much power to make whatever the hell movie he wanted. It was his follow-up to M*A*S*H, his biggest box-office hit (a title it held throughout his career), and one can only imagine the horror that those poor MGM executives must have felt when they got their first look at it. Altman probably liked that. But he certainly couldn't blame them--here they thought they were getting another ramshackle counterculture comedy, and he gave them... well, what, exactly? It's so strange; Altman circles his plot (laid out by scenarist Doran William Cannon, greatly revised by Altman and his cast's improvisations) almost with suspicion, padding around for as long as possible as a free-floating collection of random, peculiar events and surrealist sketches.
"The title character (played by Bud Cort) is an odd little fellow who lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome and wants, more than anything, to fly. He's building a winged contraption and is being assisted in his quest by Louise (Sally Kellerman, never more fetching), an angelic figure in a trenchcoat (Altman would bring that image back in his last film, A Prairie Home Companion) and her pet crow. Those who ruffle Brewster's feathers keep coming up dead, covered in bird droppings; the Houston police bring in a 'special investigator from the San Francisco Police Department,' wild card cop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy), who postures and preens but doesn't do much actual investigating, luckily for Brewster.
"Altman spends most of the film incongruently meshing the zonked-out fairy tale of the boy who could fly with a send-up of the already-stale conventions of cop and action movies. Shaft is a good cop who runs on instinct and bucks the system; in the way he wears his shoulder holsters and turtlenecks, he's clearly meant to echo Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The film even contains an elaborate spoof of that film's primary set piece, but this car chase concludes with a whammo, contrarian twist. Meanwhile, Altman can't resist paying tribute to [actress Margaret Hamilton, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West] by throwing in multiple Wizard of Oz references, or framing the film with a satirical analysis by 'The Lecturer' (Rene Auberjonois) that goes in an altogether unexpected direction.
"Does it work? Well, that depends on what your standards are. It doesn't in any conventional sense--the endless bird shit jokes get tiresome, the narrative is absolutely befuddling, and some of the villainous characters (particularly Brewster's vulgar, disgusting old boss, who rolls around in a wheelchair with money literally piled on his lap) are played as the broadest kind of over-the-top caricature. But then again, there's every indication that Altman was going for exactly that. In a 1997 interview, he called Brewster McCloud 'my boldest work, by far my most ambitious. I went way out on a limb to reach it.' You see that ambition throughout the film, as he's trying things, taking risks, running naked in the rain...What he comes up with is a discombobulated, far-out freak show, and that's just as it should be. Brewster McCloud might be a mess, but it's his mess."
Back to documentaries about individuals, eclectic French director Michel Gondry has put together a loving portrait of his aunt in the excellent Oscilloscope Labs release of The Thorn in the Heart. Michel Gondry has a reputation for his bizarre, pixie-dusted imagery, earned with loopy feature films like Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet to box him in as the maddest of hatters is to ignore how facile he is with reality, as well. The Block Party film he made with Dave Chappelle is one of the most lively concert films I've ever seen, one that has as strong an interest in the people who come to listen to the music as it does the music itself, and yet never feels like it's sacrificing one for the other. Gondry's latest film, the documentary The Thorn in the Heart, is a more quiet affair than Chappelle's shindig, but it's far more poignant. Its obsession with youth and memory also connects it back to the subjects of Gondry's fictional features. It's just now he's digging into his own memory, looking through his family history to examine a central figure that has fascinated him ever since he was a child.
The subject of The Thorn in the Heart is Suzette Gondry, by all accounts a remarkable woman. A school teacher who began instructing classrooms in the 1950s, she moved all over the mountains of France teaching children at out-of-the-way locales, many of them the offspring of Muslim immigrants and representing the first generation of their families that had the opportunity to get an education. Gondry travels with his aunt to important landmarks from her past, and she shows him where she taught, where she lived, and what happened there. He cuts this together with home movies and photos that show the Gondry family as they were back then, sometimes also peppering the narrative with news footage and even some whimsy. His longtime collaborator Valerie Pirson has created interstitial stop-motion animation to take the viewer from one remote village to another.
Things grow more interesting and several shades darker, however, when Gondry begins to delve into the story of Jean-Yves, Suzette's son. Jean-Yves was a troubled boy who grew into a troubled man, who swallowed his dreams and struggled with his sexuality and put himself through many abuses. He dresses oddly now, and he seems barely functional. Emotionally, he's a tangle of misunderstanding and misdirection. There is a distance between mother and son. She doesn't get him, and he is too busy blaming her for what went wrong to sort things out. Jean-Yves is the thorn in his mother's heart, the one element of life that causes endless pain and irritation. Gondry has no real answers for why this is, and so he lets The Thorn in the Heart conclude even if the story does not. As with any tale of a family, it's always going to be a work in progress, the healing is only beginning. The film doesn't lose any of the tender nostalgia it started out with despite the harsh shadows it uncovered; on the contrary, Suzette reveals her belief that her nephew let the story go there because he knew it had to if they were ever to get past it. The Gondry family is no different than any family really. Some of the relatives get along, some don't; some succeed where others fail. There is no more an explanation to Jean-Yves being a screw-up than there is for his mother being an over-achiever.
A tribute to an influential individual in one person's life is also made in the marvelous Film Movement title The Wind Journeys. This Colombian film is the story of Ignacio (Marciano Martínez), an old troubadour who is renowned across Colombia for his skills with an accordion. At the start of the picture, Ignacio is setting out on a journey. He has a black accordion decorated with bull horns strapped to his back, and he intends to go and return it to its owner, the music master Guerra. A young man named Fermin (Yull Núñez) chases after him and asks Ignacio to teach him to play. Ignacio refuses, but Fermin follows anyway.
Ignacio swears he has given up playing music, and he turns down some offers of money and food for doing so; eventually, however, necessity demands he join some contests where the prize is, well, money. The first is a duel between accordion players, and it's surprisingly similar to a freestyle rap battle, with the musicians shouting rhyming insults back and forth until one of them trips on his words. As we will discover on this journey, there is a whole social structure to the world of musicians, and each instrument has its own folklore. We will hear about people killing a special bird to get drumming skills, magical talismans, and even witness a blood sacrifice. Ignacio is known in the scene, loved by some and hated by others, but always preceded by his reputation. Fermin once refers to the horned instrument he carries as "the devil's accordion," and indeed, it does seem to cast a spell on Ignacio whenever he plays it.
The Wind Journeys was written and directed by Ciro Guerra. It is his second feature film, though it shows such a firm grasp of cinematic language, you'd think he'd done much more. His is a movie that is as much about silence and contemplation as it is about music and communing with melody. The long stretches of nothing give our ears time to clean out, making the bursts of song all the more striking. Guerra evokes an old-fashioned, almost mystical world in The Wind Journeys. It's like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" with accordions instead of guitars, or a roaming samurai movie where a blast of music is more powerful than any sword. The Wind Journeys certainly looks like it's from another land. Guerra is clearly proud of the beauty of his country, favoring wide shots when the men are traveling so we can see the Point A they are leaving and the Point B they are heading to.
Another quiet story about older folks, That Evening Sun charmed Jason Bailey. "In the opening moments of Scott Teems' That Evening Sun, Albert Meecham stares out of his nursing home window, his face a hard shell of bitterness and resentment. He then gathers up his pocket watch, his suitcase, and his cane, and walks right out the door. He's about had it with that place. He's got some things to take care of. Albert is played by Hal Holbrook, who gives the kind of performance that it feels like he's been waiting an entire lifetime to deliver. Meecham is an angry old cuss who travels back to the farm he spent a lifetime working, only to discover that his good-for-nothing son Paul (Walton Goggins) has sold it off to Alonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), the son of Albert's lifelong enemy. He is greeted by Alonzo's wife (Carrie Preston), who tells him to wait for Alonzo, 'he'll be here directly.' Albert replies, 'I'm an old man, I may die directly.'
"He does not take the news of the farm's sale lightly; he moves into the sharecropper's house on the property and decides to wait the Choats out. 'You're supposed to be at the home,' his son tells him. 'I'm supposed to be where I damn well please!' he snaps back. When Alonzo's good-hearted daughter (Mia Wasikowska) lets it slip that her father hates dogs, Albert can't find a yapping canine companion fast enough. When Albert overhears the drunken lout wailing on his wife and his daughter in the yard, the old man comes out with a pistol and gives him a piece of his mind.
"The battle of wills between the 80-year-old coot and the worthless son of his adversary could have easily been played for overheated Southern melodrama, or for black hillbilly comedy. Teems' picture (adapted from a short story by William Gay) doesn't go in either of those directions; it is a low-key back roads drama, tuned in to the specific manner in which these people would interact. Seems' screenplay is the first in over a decade to remind me of Billy Bob Thornton's Oscar-winning script for Sling Blade. The dialogue, as in that film, is simple and direct, colorful without condescending or trafficking in lazy caricatures."
Bailey covers another battle over a legacy, this time in the documentary The Art of the Steal. "The Barnes art collection, located in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, houses 'the most important and valuable collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern Art in the world.' In the documentary The Art of the Steal, an expert is asked what the collection is worth, and all he can do is shake his head. Others do put a rough price on it: $25 billion. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceuticals millionaire who assembled the collection, put it on display at his educational art institution, the Barnes Foundation, and when he died, left specific instructions that it was not to be moved, lent, or disturbed in any way--both to ensure his own legacy, and as a poke in the eye to the Philadelphia art elite. But they got his collection anyway. The Art of the Steal is the story of how they pulled off the greatest art heist in history, and did it in broad daylight.
"At least, that's the point of view of the film, and it's probably the correct one. Barnes specifically designed his gallery as a small, intimate, personal experience, and seemed to revel in his ability to let in and keep out whoever the hell he wanted. He had a specific axe to grind with Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg, whom he saw as a figurehead of the rich 'art patron' who doesn't actually know or care a whit about art. When Barnes died in 1951, he made clear his wishes that the collection stay exactly as it was, but, as one former teacher at the Foundation notes, 'Once everybody's dead, they'll do what they want.'
"The Art of the Steal is not some dry tract on art politics; it's a tale of intrigue, of political dealings, of age-old grudges held and squeezed. Director Don Argott walks through the complex troubles and controversies of the half-century following Barnes's death...Argott is also, unquestionably, an advocate; he lines up early on the side of the 'Friends of the Barnes' and doesn't waver. In these [Michael] Moore-infused times, the question of the objective documentary is one that's all but unanswerable, and hey, I'm no purist. But there are points at which it feels as though Argott is stacking the deck--after all, if you're on the right side of an issue, why not let those who are wrong be heard? There are, after all, real questions to be asked about who 'owns' art, and who has the "right" to see it; are we supposed to cheer Barnes for amassing this tremendous collection and then proudly, spitefully keeping it away from the general public? (The collection didn't become available for viewing by non-students until 1961, and then only a couple of days a week, by appointment.) The film affords plenty of screen time for the self-proclaimed arbiters of art, but seems almost afraid to let anyone ask the simple question: shouldn't people be able to see this collection? (The closest it gets is Philly mayor turned Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who despairs that the collection is 'being hidden away from the world.') Yes, these were Barnes's wishes, but was he right? Probably. But it's not quite as black-and-white as is portrayed here."
Double dealings, who is doing what to whom, these are not just elements of intriguing documentaries, but also good crime stories. Brian Orndorf covers The Square on Blu-ray: "Huffing only the finest Coen Brothers fumes, The Square is a cracking Australian thriller that packs a staggering left hook. Dire, frantic, and unfailingly engaging, the picture marks the feature-length directing debut of former stuntman Nash Edgerton, and I hope there are plenty more movies to come from this fellow. He has an incredible knack for the genre and terrific eye for casting, shaping this outwardly mild picture into a rowdy ride of volatility and underhanded happenings.
"Raymond (David Smith) and Carla (Claire van der Boom) are neighbors carrying on an adulterous affair, waiting for the moment they can run away with each other, leaving their stale lives behind. To help convince Raymond of her commitment, Carla looks to steal a bag of money from her crook of a husband (Anthony Hayes), to which her lover suggests a tragic house fire to cover their tracks. Hiring an arsonist (Joel Edgerton) to pull off the dirty deed, Raymond finds his master plan flushed down the tubes when everything goes wrong, pushing him into a series of violent setbacks that involve witnesses, suspicions, and previous sins, all waiting their turn to make Raymond's life utter hell.
"Certainly, the premise of The Square is not a spry piece of originality, actually assuming an ordinary stance as Raymond embarks on the worst few weeks of his life. It's a scheme done for love, with a pretty blonde and a bag of cash promising a fresh start, away from suburban routine, wives, and a dreary construction foreman position with little use for his perfectionism. Edgerton pours a familiar brew to open his motion picture, but the ensuing sips reveal tantalizing twists and turns, taking our not-so-innocent hero down a path of total destruction as everything spoils, forcing the meek everyman to go rogue, not only to secure his future with Carla, but also to stay alive.
"Edgerton, working from a script written by brother/co-star Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, keeps the hits a-comin' with The Square. Perhaps not the most polished thriller in recent memory, the film gets incredible mileage from its low-budget foundation, with a righteous dirty fingernail atmosphere to compliment Raymond's panic."
Orndorf also looks at the twists and turns on the Blu-ray of Ajami: "Ajami is an Israeli picture that closely mirrors the work of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu during his emotionally turbulent years with Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel...In a small section of Jaffa, a port city in Tel Aviv, the locals are growing restless as continued acts of aggression from political and religious sources threaten daily life. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is out to avenge the shooting of his uncle; Dando (Eran Naim) is a Jewish cop tearing through Jaffa on a mission to find his missing brother; and Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is a Palestinian refugee in town to make the money needed to help pay for his mother's mounting medical bills. Looking to keep one step ahead of criminal commotion while every action results in a horrifying reaction of brutality, the men hold strong to their loved ones as tensions rise.
"Disorder is a key component of Ajami, the directorial debut of Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti (who appears in the film as another chess piece of distress pulled into the criminal vortex). Hostility is the backdrop for the feature film, depicting an explosive city at a tipping point of violence, emerging from longstanding feuds and seemingly harmless neighborhood disagreements. Jaffa is not lawless, but bloodshed is a daily event, leaving the majority of the community quaking with fear, while the rest elect to join the mindless cycle of revenge.
"To help explore the fractured viewpoint of the lead characters, Shani (a Jewish Israeli) and Copti (Palestinian) have divided Ajami up into five chapters, scattering the narrative to diverse corners of perspective and psychological grasp, gradually weaving the story together while preventing a clear view of the subplots until the final reel. The distance is necessary to a certain extent, getting the viewer worked up over blunt acts of ferocity without the benefit of a larger understanding of motive. The jumble sustains the film's alarm and dramatic left-turns, with extended passages of the feature utterly captivating due to this slow-burn manner of approach. Also stunning is the cast of amateur actors, who elevate the material with their feral performances and deeply rooted twitches of agony. Tearing around the landscape either encouraging trouble or desperate to escape from it, the ensemble masterfully captures an ideal pitch of paranoia as the story coils into a final lunge of severity, building to a last cruel piece of the puzzle. The performances are alert and vivid, digging into demanding areas of response. It's hard to believe most of these people are making their acting debut."
More reissues and restorations are on the slate this month, including Albert Lewin's uniquely bizarre Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. This 1951 romantic curio takes place on a strange dreamscape somewhere just on the other side of the expatriate fiction of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is set on the coast of Spain, in a town called Esperanza--the name translating as "hope," which is all that remained after Pandora opened the box of horrors in the Greek myth. Lewin casts Ava Gardner as his Pandora, an American nightclub singer who leads a bored life by the beach. She is fawned over by the male transplants in the village, and they are all too ready to be manipulated by her. There is the drunk socialite Reggie (Marius Goring) and the renowned bullfighter Montalvo (Mario Cabré), and also a race car driver that is so taken with Pandora, he pushes his car into the sea on her urging. It doesn't matter that Steven (Nigel Patrick) is engaged to another, he's now engaged to Pandora.
Fittingly, Steven's car was named for his paramour, and the night the four-wheeled Pandora is dumped into the drink, so too does the two-legged Pandora see an unfamiliar yacht in the harbor. Intrigued by this new prospect, she leaves her new fiancé and swims out to meet the mysterious Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason). The Dutch sailor is alone on his boat, where he is marking time by painting a portrait of the mythic Pandora; only, she has Ava Gardner's face. It would appear that destiny is pushing these two tragic figures together, but we can tell by the way Lewin and cinematographer Jack Cardiff shoot their meeting that having that much tragedy in one place can only cause further imbalance. While they are on the ship, the image rocks up and down, subject to the caprice of the waves.
Since the basic premise of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has its roots in classic literature, Albert Lewin gives his tale of doomed romance a literary framework. The main story is shown in flashback, narrated by a scholar (Harold Warrender) who is also caught in Pandora's web, but who has been relegated to the role of confidant and witness. He is the one who finds the old manuscript that purports to be the real diary of the Flying Dutchman, and so it is he who puts two and two together and realizes that van der Zee (whose name literally translates as "the sea") is the eternal wanderer from the folk tales. With the Dutchman swearing he will set sail the night before Pandora is to marry Steven, this realization is like the Dutchman's ever-present hour glass--it initiates a countdown to zero. The love of Pandora has unleashed all kinds of danger. Some suitors will survive, some will not, and it remains to be seen what either she or the Dutchman might give up in order to love the other.
Photographed by Jack Cardiff, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a beautiful film, but it's also flawed. Its narrative pacing can be slow, and though James Mason is fantastic, Ava Gardner is kind of dull. Then again, Lewin may be playing it smarter than I am giving him credit for. By withholding the histrionics and playing the more fantastical elements close to his chest, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman perpetually feels like it has something waiting just around the next edit, that there is a strangeness just out of frame that one whip pan will reveal. And, really, the story does escalate as it goes. The bullfighter's mother adds to the anxiety by predicting that death is coming for the men in Pandora's life, and so every rash action they take could be their last. Steven pulls his race car out of the water with the intention making it roadworthy again and setting a speed record, while the hotheaded Spaniard has a date with a hotheaded bull. They both want to show Pandora what men they are, but it's Montalvo who takes us into the third act by escalating events and clearing the way for Lewin to deliver on all the hints and teases with a delirious finish. Myth collides with fairy tale, making for some unequaled cinematic magic.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is out now on Blu-Ray, as is another fabulous and colorful restoration. Flashier, but also literary minded, is Black Orpheus. Once again, Stuart Galbraith IV: "A deceptively simple and hypnotic work, Marcel Camus's Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, 1959) in its early scenes appears to be one of those dated art house films: historically and culturally significant but in retrospect marginal as cinema. With its Antônio Carlos Jobim score, the picture is credited with single-handedly launching the samba and bossa nova craze in North America, across Europe and parts of Asia, and its depiction of Rio during Carnaval, of idealized racial harmony and its romanticized favela (Brazilian slums, or shanty town) drew foreigners searching for a Brazil that never really existed, an image even popular and more realistic crime films like City of God can't extinguish.
"Based on the Brazilian play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which in turn was inspired by the classic Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Black Orpheus builds slowly, reaching an expected fever pitch during Carnaval before moving into its unanticipated dream-like final act, a fantasy made believable and spellbinding at once due to Camus's careful nurturing of the narrative and its characters throughout. It's unlike anything in all of cinema and takes the viewer by surprise.
"An opening shot of a relief, presumably Greek statuary of Orpheus and Eurydice, is ripped wide-open like the explosive opticals in a Republic serial to reveal dancing and costumed blacks in a hillside favela overlooking Rio de Janeiro. In this festive atmosphere of nearly wall-to-wall samba dancing and drum-beating enters Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who has run away from home after being pursued by a strange man she believes wants to kill her. She arrives at the shantytown shack of her cousin, Serafina (Léa Garcia), but not before meeting popular streetcar conductor Orfeu (Breno Mello), a handsome, incorrigible womanizer, whose guitar playing, dancing, and singing are well known in the community.
"Orfeu is engaged to jealous Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira) but at once he falls madly in love with the more cautious Eurydice. They spend the night together and the next morning, as Orfeu, Mira, Serafina, and the rest of their samba school prepares to dance in the Carnaval parade, Serafina offers to let Eurydice take her place so that she can be near Orfeu. A veil hides her identity, but not for long and Mira is infuriated. Meanwhile, the mysterious man, dressed in a stylized skeleton costume, appears and begins stalking Eurydice, who by this point is convinced the man is Death itself."
From another part of the world, and another time, Thomas Spurlin looks at the excellent Korean film Mother, one of the very best things I've personally seen this year. Thomas writes of the Blu-Ray: "Korean director Bong Joon-ho has an eye for tension, cramming edgy suspense and raw spirit into his pictures, but what takes his work a step beyond comes in his understanding of the pain within family and community. Memories of Murder finds footing with its gritty tone by enacting a nail-biter witch-hunt for a murderer in a small town, while the strongest moments in his Jaws-like picture The Host exist in the familial search for the lead character's daughter in the pit of a monster's lair. Mother, the director's latest mystery, tackles that paternal angle in a more direct manner, focusing on the lengths that a parent will go to preserve the innocence of their child. Much like his other pictures, Bong Joon-ho nimbly mixes eccentricity with suspense to soften its severity, yet the straightforward focus he's concocted here pins the picture's success on the performance of, naturally, the mother. Thankfully, he's found an exceptionally good one.
"She, played by TV vet Kim Hye-ja, is a small-town mother who smothers her mentally challenged twenty-something son Do-joon (Won Bin), a stay-at-home boy who goes in and out of the local police station because of his scatterbrained activities. He's been manageable -- mounting debts aside that his mother pays off by way of her grain-selling job and off-the-cuff acupuncture sessions -- until he gets wrapped up in a murder case involving a local schoolgirl, one where he's the prime suspect. As the police crowbar him in place as the murderer, with a signed affidavit to practically close the case, it's up to the boy's mother to discover the truth. She finds herself sneaking into houses, tromping into a victim's funeral, slinging herbal remedies as payment and navigating through the town's alleyways in search of answers, all with her eyes wide open as she sinks further away from her element. She may be sheepish, but she's also resilient.
"Feeding off the same vein of tension as the veritable crime thriller Memories of Murder, Mother taps into a gripping authenticity that'd suggest something of a true story throughout its build-up -- even if it's an original work from Bong Joon-ho and two collaborators. As we follow the mother along her out-of-element sleuthing, rigidly jogging through alleyways and along dirt roads to the maximum of her age's capabilities, the film's composition grasps an earthy beauty that elegantly captures an electric tone. Amid her hunt, suggestive seeds are deliberately planted to steer us towards a viable conclusion, perhaps so well that the director has transformed a tried-and-true thriller into more of an effectual pins-'n-needles drama with anticipated twists and turns. This isn't so much a picture to watch for persistent revelations, but one to absorb for the realism in subtle thrills within a cramped societal cage."
Family drama is also at the center of The Secret of the Grain, and Galbraith's review closes out our column this month: "Hypnotically engrossing, Abdellatif Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain is the kind of intimate family drama that you don't merely witness - by the time the film is over it's almost as if you've personally shared in its characters' experiences. Its story is deceptively simple - a 60-year-old Arab immigrant from Maghreb, Slimane (Habib Boufares) is a longtime shipyard worker living in the French resort town of Sète, who uses his severance pay from that profession to establish a fish & couscous restaurant as a kind of legacy for his disgruntled extended family. The film unfolds leisurely, and not that much seems to happen over its 151 minutes - and the film ends abruptly. But once it's over it stays with you for days and gradually you begin to realize just how richly layered and multifaceted it is.
"The movie opens with an understated irony permeating its narrative. As patriarch Slimane Beiji is losing his shipyard job to corporate downsizing, his eldest son, irresponsible Majid (Sami Zitouni), operates a ferry tooling around the harbor, inanely showcasing Sète's quaint shipyard and tuna boats for rich tourists. Though married to Russian immigrant Julia (Alice Houri) and the father of a toddler son, Majid sneaks away from the tour for a little afternoon delight with Mme. Dorner (Violaine de Carné), the Deputy Mayor's lusty wife.
"The film is a bit like Kurosawa's Record of a Living Being (1955). Slimane is reticent much like Toshiro Mifune's 70-year-old patriarch in Kurosawa's film - women do most of the talking in this film - and likewise he straddles two discordant families that he wearily attempts to provide for. Slimane is divorced from Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk), the mother of his children, and for whom she regularly cooks extravagant Sunday meals of couscous with fresh mullet that Slimane provides. In a long, fascinating sequence depicting one of these meals, other family members are introduced, including shrewish cannery worker Karima (Farida Benkhetache), Slimane's bossy daughter, and Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem), the youngest son.
"Slimane now lives at a nearby hotel-bar owned by his much younger (though still middle-aged) current lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), the single mother of adult daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). They don't mind, but he feels like a kept man. Facing an uncertain future, Slimane opts to use his severance pay to buy a dilapidated boat that he plans to restore and turn into a dockside couscous restaurant, with his ex-wife cooking the same hearty meals she serves her family, his children working as waiters, cooks, and so forth...."
"More than anything else, the film impresses with its intimacy. Hand-held close-ups dominate, almost nose-to-nose with the film's characters. That, and the fine, naturalistic acting by imperceptively integrated professional and amateur actors, and perhaps at least partly improvised dialogue create the feeling of being seated alongside its characters. When the film audience first sees the family get together, the discussion among Slimane's adult children, most of whom have children of their own, quickly turns to the high cost of disposable diapers. Karima, who in an earlier scene mercilessly browbeats her two-year-old for resisting toilet-training, steers the obsessive and authentically true-to-life discussion. Later, at the dinner table, talk turns to the use (or not) of Arabic in the home, by the siblings and their children...The screenplay ever so slightly exposes an underlying theme of racial discord and the self-selling of cultural exoticism. The wealthy and white potential investors and government officials are subtly condescending to their Arab-immigrant neighbors yet also attracted to their perceived exoticness. (And in turn, this prompts them to conspire against the restaurant's success, even before Slimane's establishment opens to the general public, less their own rival businesses suffer.) Mme. Dorner, for instance, is clearly attracted to Majid as a kind of 'forbidden fruit,' and later impresses her friends with a few words of Arabic she obviously picked up from her secret lover. Rym's climactic belly dance in the film's justly celebrated last act indulges cultural expectations ("with a little sex," to quote Sullivan's Travels) while her selfless self-exploitation elicits a mixture of gratitude and resentment from Slimane's family.
"The ensemble cast is superb because the acting is totally invisible; it's hard to believe we're looking at actors giving performances and unrelated to one another by blood or marriage. As [film critic Wesley] Morris puts it, 'We might as well be guests at their table.'"
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His most recent release is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Stuart Galbraith IV, Chris Neilson, Brian Orndorf, John Sinnott, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.
Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin
Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Alain Resnais, David Bowie, and Ingmar Bergman
Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas