Movies of the Month

July is “Summer” Movies Month (Daniel’s Pick) – “The End of Summer”

indexThe End of Summer (1961; Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

“I was born and here I am. That’s all that matters.”

There is no more powerful a sequence of images in the cinema than a Yasujiro Ozu shot-reverse-shot. The great Japanese director was a master of composition, a painter of perfect vertical lines, but I always associate him with his uniquely visceral approach to classic one-on-one conversation. Ozu had a knack for getting his actors to address the camera at 92-98% direct eye contact with the camera lens in these sequences, giving the impression that the audience-eye is the one being met while still offering a quintessentially Japanese sliver of modest remove. Whatever sensation of pure glee my nine year-old niece gets from the “Let It Go” sequence in Frozen, I feel the same thing watching Ozu dialogue scenes.

images3I am no advocate for Eastern spiritualism or soft-headed New Age-y dogma, but I am a firm believer that the films of Yasujiro Ozu make us better human beings. The End of Summer was the next-to-last movie Ozu made before his 1963 death, and it is imbued with a sense of loss, both of mortal life and of a smaller, simpler era in Japanese life.  There are beautiful rhyming shots of a skyscraper, TV antennae, a temple, and the smokestacks of a crematorium posed against the tree-lined Kyoto skyscape.

By this point in his life, Ozu knew that he was passing away, but he also understood that his way of making films had expired – this was a man shooting Technicolor features in Academy ratio in 1961 after all. In The End of Summer, there is a through line about a small, old-school sake brewery barely holding on against a giant conglomerate, and we feel Ozu’s fear that small-batch sake will expire along with his own eternally patient and culturally astute approach to cinema.

It takes a while to orient ourselves in the narrative, because Ozu refuses to nudge the plot into artificially convenient spaces. From the very first sequence, a sense of contemporary artifice is established – a widow and a widower are being set up in the neon-lit “New Japan” of Osaka by a hunch-shouldered go-between, although the widower farcically insists that they make the meeting seem like an accident.  Awkward and funny in a way that Noah Baumbach would envy – the dullard widower who collects “cow-related things” coolly lights her cigarette with a blowtorch-like flame – it’s a beautiful sequence, an ideal introduction to the blend of screwy comedy and wistful drama that Ozu will revisit throughout the film.

images2As it turns out, none of the three characters introduced in the opening sequence becomes central to the plot, and most of the action takes place in Kyoto instead of Osaka. Eventually, the central figure that emerges is the sake brewery owner, an elderly father-in-law to both the widow and the matchmaker from the opening scene. His wife long since deceased, he has recently reconnected with an old flame from his married days, a supremely practical woman who urges her Americanized daughter to play the role of the sake brewer’s illegitimate offspring, because she might as well.  The portrayal of disrespect towards the pre-war generation personified by the sake brewer (“I wish father would act appropriate for his age”) is similar to Ozu’s masterwork Tokyo Story, only cut with sly comedy and borderline Sirk-ian melodrama.

No one can make empty spaces feel as full as Ozu, and that gift is perhaps never more tangible than in The End of Summer.  In a film that can alternate between knowing comedy and aching regret within the same moment, the most emotionally shattering scene comes between a couple of characters who are relatively incidental to the narrative.  One of the sake brewer’s daughters accompanies a co-worker to the train station, seeing him off as he travels to a new position in Sapporo, both of them painfully aware of an unspeakable attraction.  The comma in the sentence is a shot of the two would-be lovers shot from behind on gray station bench, resigned to their separation. The period is a shot of the empty bench with the sound of a rushing train in the background, and the following sentence begins with an image of a clock.  It’s like a tincture of undiluted Ozu – devastating, life-affirming, wise, and inevitable.

July Is “Summer” Movies Month (Dub’s Pick)

monika3Summer with Monika (1953; Dir.: Ingmar Bergman)

GRADE: B+

By Mike Dub

On the surface, Summer with Monika, one of the major early films of Ingmar Bergman, contains all the hallmarks of a typical teen romance film. Two young lovers, Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson, who would become one of Bergman’s regular featured players), run away with each other, and away from the dissatisfaction of their everyday lives.  They have adventures, discover their sexuality, and survive by their wits, until reality sets in and they come home together, older and wiser, but still in love. But Bergman, as cynical a critic of humanity as there ever was, has no interest in providing a saccharine story of blossoming young love. In fact, he seems to be subverting a genre that has barely been invented. Leave it to Ingmar Bergman to make a film about the wide-eyed fancy of young love and turn it into a devastating lamentation of the harsh reality of the world, and the tragic consequences of maturing into adulthood.

monika 3 enhSummer itself is practically a misnomer here – Bergman’s Sweden is cool and hard, no matter the month. With a few profound exceptions, the stunning black-and-white cinematography by Gunnar Fischer largely avoids highly stylized contrast and maintains a cool distance, whether in the prime of summer or the dead of winter. Even in the middle of summer, Harry often wears turtlenecks and long pants, while the rocks that comprise the hillside are not so much wonders of nature as they are a barren landscape. The couple’s escape from their urban prison is welcome, but hardly idyllic. Though they experience the desired freedom, their journey is fraught with obstacles, including a menacing interloper, a decreasing food supply, and a revelation I won’t spoil.

With a structure essentially split into thirds (spring, summer, and winter), Summer with Monika ventures further into the aftermath of their getaway than more pleasing cinematic romances dare. However, Bergman and his screenwriter Per Anders Fogelström, upon whose novel the film is based, reveal what happens to the couple after after they return from their journey. Preferring psychology to sociology, Bergman portrays their love as doomed even before their return, not only because of the demands placed upon them by a decrepit society, but by the tragedy of a free spirit trapped by responsibilities.

PDVD_021Summer with Monika was surrounded with controversy upon its initial release in 1953 for its nudity and moderate sexual content (it was released in the U.S. by an exploitation distributor who  marketed it as skin flick called Monika – Story of a Bad Girl). Of course, the sexual content is pretty tame by today’s standards (and nothing compared to some of the content Bergman produced later), but what remains still shocking in its own way is the gut-wrenching display of two teenagers fulfilling their maturation by assuming the combative, self-destructive angst they inherited from their parents.   Throughout the last act of the film, there exists the nagging implication that it is not only youth, but happiness itself, that is fleeting. Summer is but a brief, invigorating season; the rest is winter.

TOMORROW: July is “Summer” Movies Month continues with a Daniel Barnes review of the 1961 Yasujiro Ozu film The End of Summer.

JUNE IS UNDERRATED WILDER MONTH (Daniel’s Pick)

index2Kiss Me, Stupid (1964; Dir.: Billy Wilder)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

Dean Martin occupies a fascinating area in the American imagination – he is famed for being a lecherous boozehound, yet there is nothing he could have done on screen or in public to stain his crushed velvet charm. Even more interesting is that all of Martin’s most profound film roles – Rio Bravo, Some Came Running, and Billy Wilder’s 1964 screwball comedy-in-heat Kiss Me, Stupid – act as auto-critiques of his own unimpeachable appeal. The Dean Martin of Kiss Me, Stupid doesn’t just want to have sex your wife. He expects to have sex with your wife. And that sucks…but it’s cool, and it’s funny as hell.

Kiss Me, Stupid is certainly more ramshackle than the Ford and Minnelli films, but it also offers the most perverse and therefore best role of Martin’s career, and it’s probably the most toxic view of Hollywood’s soul exchange rate since Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard. “That Sinatra kid missing again?” quips Martin to a couple of cops at a roadblock. Keep in mind that Martin is casually joking about the kidnapped son of one of his real-life best friends and closest collaborators, and you have an idea where Kiss Me, Stupid has its head at.

Martin plays “Dino,” a sloshed Vegas icon and movie star who has a showgirl stashed in every dressing room. Just one year after his ex-partner Jerry Lewis self-lacerated in The Nutty Professor and two decades before Scorsese finished the job with The King of Comedy, Martin took the scalpel to his own martini-soaked heart here. On his way to make a movie in Hollywood, Dino is waylaid into the sexually repressed city of Climax, Nevada, a town where the truck drivers only stop at the gas station long enough to fill their lighters with unleaded.

imagesDino gets trapped overnight in Climax by a couple of ambitious small-time songwriters – the gas station attendant/hack lyricist who gremlin-s his car, and a milquetoast musician/part-time piano teacher named Orville Spooner (Ray Walston, replacing Peter Sellers after he suffered several heart attacks). Before Dino even tipsily shadow-boxes his way through town, Orville is already suffering hilarious paroxysms of jealousy over his beautiful and eternally faithful wife (Felicia Farr, a tremendously unsung player here). His cuckold fantasies are an extension of his feelings of sexual inadequacy, or possibly even his latent homosexuality, the latter suggested by the lusty manner in which he “jealously” rips the shirt off one of his pimply male students and threatens him with a horsewhipping.

When Orville discovers that his wife is “crazy about” Dino, he instigates a breakup and hires a prostitute to impersonate his wife (as you do), with the idea that she’ll sleep with the crooner in order to sell him on an unctuous “Italian song.” Dino pleads that sex “is a habit with me, like breathing.” Or like heroin. Or like blood to a vampire. The flayed-alive version of Dean Martin that we see in Kiss Me, Stupid is barely even a recognizable human being, just an unpasteurized, all-encompassing zombie thirst for gin and sexual conquest. His dinner order is “a bowl of bourbon and some crackers.” He dabs whiskey behind his ears like cologne. Early on, we see him lustily ogle a headless and legless sewing mannequin, and there is the brief suggestion that he is going to rape it somehow.

In the end, a marriage is saved by rampant cheating, a prostitute finds her true identity as a fraud, a faithful wife proves her fidelity by becoming a prostitute, and someone somewhere is humming “I’m a Poached Egg” (that song and several other hummable atrocities were supplied, Ishtar-like, by George and Ira Gershwin). The fact that a worldview this cynical could make into a horndog Hollywood sex comedy without sacrificing a bubble of its Lubitsch-like champagne fizz is a testament to the unique filmmaking gifts of our June birthday boy Billy Wilder.

imagesAlthough Wilder was a brilliant portrayer of male sexual anxiety, the more that I watch his films, the more captivated I am by the complexity of his female characters. Kim Novak plays Pistol Polly, a seen-it-all bar girl who lives in a trailer behind The Belly Button and self-describes as “just someone the bartender recommends,” yet emerges as the most morally dignified and scrupulously honest person in the film.

Add her up to Miss Kubelik in The Apartment, Sugar in Some Like It Hot, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and several others, and you have a through line of harassed working women as sexual prisoners, with only an occasionally demented inner strength to drag them through. There is also a running theme of role play as a sexually (and socially) liberating force in Wilder’s films, from Jack Lemmon’s maracas in Some Like it Hot to Polly’s hip-hugging housedress here. You could even make the case that Wilder was bit of a (cover your ears, The Ghost of Billy Wilder) feminist.  He may not have intended it at the time, but half a century later, it’s as clear and bright as the color TVs in the window of Pringle’s Hardware.

June = Billy Wilder’s Birthday (Dub’s PICK)

Private_life_of_sherlock_holmesThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970; Dir.: Billy Wilder)

GRADE: B+

By Mike Dub

Billy Wilder did not age as quickly or gently into irrelevance as many of his contemporaries.  Fueled by an inherent dissidence that attacked traditional institutions and morality, his sardonic admonishment of social hypocrisies and penchant for sour endings seemed as well-suited to the 1970s New Hollywood aesthetic as they were to the 1930s screwball comedies through which he developed as a filmmaker.  Unlike Howard Hawks’ conception of ideal masculinity, Wilder’s steadfast cynicism never felt passed over by the changing times of the 1960s.  More like Hitchcock, Wilder’s work during the ‘60s and ‘70s may not have remained as consistent as his work in previous decades, but rather than being overwhelmed by the stylistic changes taking place during the ‘60s, Wilder embraced the loosening restrictions of the Production Code and the shift in public preference toward darker material and more complex characters.

Wilder’s Holmes carries the same sense of brooding melancholia that exists in so many of his characters, from Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to C.C. Baxter in The Apartment, and even Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot.  His treatment of the world’s most famous fictional detective is, ambitiously, both loving and impious.  Played with extravagant range by stage star Robert Stephens, the Sherlock Holmes of 1970 is not simply a super genius who solves crimes with robotic precision.  He is also bumbling, irrational, and self-pitying, a man far too observant to avoid seeing his shortcomings (“Watson only writes about the cases I solve.”).

sherlock-holmes-006The mystery he must solve here involves a giddy array of suspects and clues: dead canaries, circus acrobats, Trappist monks, the Loch Ness monster, the Queen of England, and of course, Sherlock’s equally brilliant brother, Mycroft (Christopher Lee).  However, the heart of the film is its elucidation of the Holmes/Watson relationship.  The screwball-ish script, by Wilder and longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, bristles with the sharp dialogue you would expect, and the kind of sexual complexity that usually infiltrated their characters.  During the best sequence in the film, after Holmes’ sexuality has come under suspicion, Watson asks him, “Am I being presumptuous? There have been women, haven’t there?” Holmes replies, “The answer is yes – you are being presumptuous.”

The era of New Hollywood may have allowed Wilder greater freedom to openly discuss sexuality, but he and Diamond employ a throwback, screwball approach to examine the dynamic between Holmes and Watson.  Relying on classical subtlety in dialogue and narrative construction, the film examines what could only be considered a marriage between Watson and Holmes.  They don’t just live together, but Watson takes care of Holmes like a nagging housewife, even clandestinely diluting Holmes’ famous “seven percent solution” of cocaine.  They bicker endlessly, and early on Watson must beg Holmes to take him to see the Imperial Russian Ballet (“It’s not just ballet,” he cries. “It’s Swan Lake!”).

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was to be Wilder’s opus.  Originally conceived as a roadshow movie (with a running length anywhere between 3 and 4 hours, depending on who you believe), Wilder wrote the film to be a long series of adventures, with Gabrielle’s storyline to serve as the main mystery of the film.  Given an opening misadventure that deals with a Russian ballerina, we can still get a sense of the literary, episodic conception Wilder had in mind.  Wilder reportedly had tears in his eyes upon seeing the trimmed down version, but even he may have missed the forest for the trees.  Of course it would be great to view the sprawling, ambitious epic he envisioned, but what remains is a charming, irreverent, entertaining homage that is undeniably the work of a great director.

MAY = NATIONAL TEACHERS MONTH (Daniel’s Pick)

indexThe Class (2008; Dir.: Laurent Cantet)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

While Hollywood films are typically and predictably dismissive of school teachers (and all public servants, really) as pedants, snobs, fascists, and/or layabouts, there also exists a mostly icky vein of educator-as-hero stories. Movies ranging from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Dangerous Minds sentimentalize teachers as the white knights (the key word being “white”) of adolescent development, tireless and generally thankless workers whose life’s reward is the sum total of the young lives they’ve affected, always for the better.

Although inspired by a memoir written by its star Francois Beagaudeau, who taught junior high French in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris, the 2008 Palme d’Or winner The Class is not a tear-streaked heroic tale of overcoming odds. Beagaudeau knows that most of his students face a bleak, opportunity-free future, and there is no inspirational lesson plan that can prevent it.

index2Instead of simply filming the book, Cantet (Time Out, Heading South) builds the film from improvisation by his cast of non-actors (he shot with three cameras for maximum coverage).  That fluid structure and loose visual style is important – Cantet offers some of the most restrained handheld in recent memory, and the film leaps through the school year in sudden blinks, with the opportunity for Beagaudeau to reach these kids becoming as ungraspable as melting snow.

Beagaudeau’s students are tough, bored, and above all argumentative, and The Class shows the eternal struggle and bottomless patience it takes to teach them anything. He has more success with the kids by talking instead of teaching, and much of this fly-on-the-wall film is made up of their testy Socratic dialogues, which often veer uncomfortably and unprofessionally into the personal.

In a key scene, a colleague of Beagaudeau’s bursts into the teachers’ lounge and proceeds to have a mini-breakdown, disparaging the students as monsters and threatening to quit. The other teachers regard him with a sort of trembling withdrawal – they’re all on that knife’s edge, too, and however inappropriate his words, it is clear that they have thought the same thing a million times.

“We’re not animals,” moans the distraught teacher, but the students feel similarly branded, herded, and caged. Beagaudeau is teaching them a formal style of French that they will almost certainly never use, and he acknowledges as much, so his curriculum subtly begins to revolve around self-discovery. Still, understanding is hard-fought and possibly unwinnable, and the brief glimpses of intellectual horizon are more coldly realistic than inspirational, as when the students read a passage from Anne Frank’s diary about a “good side” that will never be allowed to emerge.

imagesThe Class does not hand down judgment on any of its characters, even Beagaudeau, and intimates that his liberal-humanist leniency may cause more problems than it solves.  “You just want to buy social harmony,” complains one of Beagaudeau’s fellow teachers.  All of the educators and parents care, despite their disagreements, including the guy set up as Beagaudeau’s obvious foil. Although the film covers an entire school year, Cantet never exits the campus, and there is the impression that the teachers may not be allowed outside lives.  The celebration of a female teacher’s pregnancy is dwarfed and solemnized by the news that one of the student’s parents has been arrested.

After a brisk and refreshingly rootless two-thirds, the third act of The Class focuses on the possible expulsion of a disinterested Mali-ian student named Souleymane, and the film becomes a little more conventional and contained.  Souleymane’s story is still compelling, and illuminates the no-win decisions institutions are forced to make in order to maintain a system of discipline, especially with someone whose culture is considered alien.  It is indicative of the film’s clear-eyed ambivalence that it ends on shots of empty classrooms, as teachers and students play soccer outside, making rare noises of pure joy.

 

May = National Teacher’s Month – Dub’s Pick

Lianna-posterLianna (1983; Dir.: John Sayles)

GRADE: B+

By Mike Dub

Lianna, the title character of John Sayles’ rich, graceful 1983 romantic drama, is a woman who has two teachers in her life.  The first is her husband, Dick, a college film professor, with whom she began an affair when Lianna was still his student.  Now, two kids and fifteen years into their marriage, the flame has been noticeably snuffed.  Dick devotes nearly all of his time to schmoozing faculty in a desperate search for tenure, and Lianna prepares for sex by heading to the bathroom with a dispassionate, “I’ll put my thing in.”

Her other teacher is Ruth, a pretty blonde who teaches a Child Psychology class at the school where Dick works.  Bored and aimless, Lianna, in her own mind, is another one of the rudderless faculty housewives who spends their time taking classes to get out of the house under the façade of autonomy from their families.  Ruth’s Psych class has become, “by far,” Lianna’s favorite of all the classes she has taken.  When Lianna offers her services as a research assistant, her best friend Sandy even jokes, “You must have a crush on her.”

As it turns out, she’s more right than she knows.  What follows is a sensitive, personal, complex story of self-discovery and determination.  Without even a hint of the self-pity so common in films about gays and lesbians, particularly up until that point, Lianna accepts her sexuality, sparking her independence from housewife servitude to fully formed woman.

tumblr_mmpaf0CP3E1qdabxio1_500With Ruth as her lesbian tutor, Lianna navigates her first experience at a lesbian bar, her first dance with a woman, her first one-night stand.  Though free from social constraints in the privacy of their homes or gay bars, Ruth constantly instructs Lianna to hide her feelings in public: to keep her voice down when speaking affectionately, to not hold hands in public, to “be a little less happy” to see her when they walk down the street.  When Lianna’s marriage falls apart, she goes to see Ruth at the college, who explains painfully, “Right now, I want to put my arms around you.  If we were straight friends, I would have.”

All of Lianna’s experiences are laid out in the naturalistic tones of everyday life.  There are no long, preachy monologues about acceptance (the closest the movie ever comes to one involves the college football coach reasoning, “It seems all right when women do it”).  Some of her friends avoid her, though out of discomfort rather than villainy.  There are no grand protests from small-minded bigots against Ruth teaching at the college (though the affair does have an impact on her career).  Even when we discover that Dick is having an affair with one of his current students, we loathe the younger girl not because she is the typical heartless bitch, but because she is writing an asinine film thesis entitled “Audie Murphy, America’s Tragic Hero.”

Lianna balances a difficult line for a film with this subject matter.  Mostly apolitical in tone, Sayles allows Lianna’s personal story to speak for itself, the humanity of which demands a character instead of an archetype.  As Sayles said once, “The film is called Lianna, not An Unmarried Gay Woman… She’s not made to represent all gay women.”  In fact, Lianna’s sexuality is merely one aspect of her maturation into a fully formed, independent woman.  Thrown out of her house, she must find a job; ostracized from her social circle, she must find new friends; and even though she is a lesbian, she must still deal with the trials of a romantic relationship.

The two greatest influences on Lianna are her the two teachers who awakened her sexuality.  Her first teacher molds her into a model of hetero-normative behavior; the second one sparks passion and self-discovery.  Ultimately, Ruth provides the greatest service a teacher can: preparing a student for life on her own.