Posted by: philosopherouge | January 18, 2008

Moving…

I am restless, and while I still love my snazzy blog title I can’t help thinking this place has run it’s course. I can’t explain it, but I have no desire to post here any longer. I need a fresh start, so I’m moving over to House of Mirth and Movies .

Someday I may return… but probably not.

Posted by: philosopherouge | January 8, 2008

Trying to figure out Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)

Spoilers for: Crimes and Misdemeanors, and minor ones for The Big Heat (Fritz Lang) and Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang).

Rather than an analysis or review, whatever… it’s me relly trying to figure out what the film meant. I unfortunately jump around a bit, talk in circles and contradict myself as a result. I’m very interested in hearing others thoughts on Crimes and Misdemeanors because I found it to be an incredibly striking film that I can barely latch onto intellectually. I just feel there is so much going on, I don’t even know where to begin. Hopefully I’ll be able to sort through some of this at a later time, and after another viewing or two and actually come to a conclusion

As the final scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors was unfolding, I couldn’t help questioning and comparing Allen’s philosophical ideology to that of Fritz Lang’s. I’m not pulling this comparison out of thin air, especially as the bulk of my argument is centered on Scarlet Street, a film that similarly is about a man who takes on a mistress and has a part in her murder. Both filmmakers are sceptical that a God or higher power exists in our universe, but their views and conclusions on the strength of human morality vary greatly. I am even initially unsure if I could call either of them pessimistic, although on the surface that seems to be the case. Lang seems to believe in a universal moral code, or a conscious that in the end Allen seems to conclude does not exist, at least not with the same understanding.

Tonally Lang’s film comes to a conclusion that is anything but life affirming, as he sees our moral code as the ultimate destruction of the human spirit and soul. Then again, his greatest onscreen “monster” and destructive force (Glenn Ford in the Big Heat) lacked this sense of self condemnation and personal punishment. He was destructive in the worst way possible because he felt no responsibility for his actions. While I think it’s arguable if he is a monster or not, he brings the death of five women without a blink of an eye. The end notes on what seems to be an upbeat one, but it’s incredibly chilling as his vengeful rampage has no moral consequences. He is barely even haunted by the death of his wife (that he was indirectly the cause of). The protagonist of Crimes and Misdemeanours’ crime is very calculated and while his conscious nags at him, with time comes healing, until he concludes it will eventually leave him. In Scarlet Street however, the murder is committed in the heat of passion and at least tries to confess, yet he is haunted forever by his conscious as it tears him apart. When Judah Rosenthal is recounting his experience to Allen at the end of the film, the latter is dismayed that a man who commits murder could live without guilt and because of his mental turmoil would turn himself in, because in the absence of a higher power he would feel the need to deliver justice on his own terms; Judah Rosenthal quips back “I told you it was chilling”.

This, however, is just scratching the surface of Allen’s exploration. The strange thing is that I can’t say I felt that chill run down my spine as he said that (however there was something unsettling about the final monologue about happiness, I’ll get to that in a bit), whereas I found Lang’s interpretation positively frightening. A lot of this perhaps has to do with the drama, as Lang pulls all the tricks to create a horrific existence for his character. The lighting, the sound, and his appearance are enough to perturb the viewer. However, Allen makes it matter of fact and doesn’t embelish the moment. Lang believed that the mind could conceive far worse punishments than eternal damnation, while Allen seems to come to the understanding that outside of the law, there are few consequences. Allen though, is not quite that straightforward and not all characters escape love or their conscious. An aunt from a flashback serves as the voice for the lack of consequences, as she brings up her lack in belief in God and the many people who have lived life without any consequences at all. The holocaust still fresh in her mind, and those around the table she brings that up as a rather scandalous example as she asks what did the Nazis do to pay? They killed six million? How did they pay? Her philosophy is tinged with bitterness and anger.

What initially seems to be refute this argument is the philosopher Allen’s character has chosen as the centre of his new documentary. His comments on love, marriage, happiness and God are awe inspiring even in the brief context of the film. They are also chosen to reflect perfectly the crisis that several of the characters find themselves in. He seems to take on the role of an omnipotent God, as he seems to have great insight into the lives and actions of all characters. In ancient polytheistic societies, as well as Plato’s own vision of the perfect society it is the philosopher who rules supreme. In a film that focuses so much attention on the absence or uncertainty of God, it only makes sense that a character takes his place. He is removed and without real personality or quality, Allen even chooses a non-actor to fill the role. What is striking about this, is in the end the philosophy fails the professor and he commits suicide. This is why the final monologue chilling while still being life affirming:

We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. it is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

I’ve warmed up to it though, as it seems to indicate we are not defined by our philosophies or religions but by our actions and those around us. The professor, while seemingly omnipotent is still human and it’s said he lived alone without any family. There is something mysterious about human nature that prevents a true understanding of our actions. As he is but a shadow of a human being, I don’t think there is much understanding of his action as such, rather it should be taken as a symbolic representation of the futility of personal dogmas when they cannot actively be put into practise.

Furthermore, Judah Rosenthal’s existence seems to be an anti-thesis to all that is being said by the philosopher, and it comes back to Ford in the Big Heat as their characters evolve in nearly the same way. However, I’m not inclined to call Judah a monster even if he is responsible for his mistress’ death and finally the guilt doesn’t tear him apart. He lives out perfectly the idea that “love contains in it the contradiction: The attempt to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past”, as he destroys her and with her goes all his problems, and yet through memories he is always able to return to it. While God may not exist in this world, there clearly is a life after death. As terribly cliché as it sounds, we live on through those who loved us. Even in Lester, we find a yearning to be remembered because being forgotten is a real and more ultimate death. Even in Cliff Stern’s (Allen) character assassination via film, the scene is almost more ruthless than the outcome of the murder because it sullies the remainder of a man, what he will be remembered for, how he will live forever in the minds of others.

While there is little room for religion in this world, those who are devoted to the Church are presented with respect and reverence. Perhaps this is because they practise what they are preaching, more than living in bitterness. Judah cannot forget the words of his father, but as he remembers him it’s always with affection. His own religious ambivalence he attributes to laziness, or as he muses over murder “God is a luxury I cannot afford”. The meaning of this defies me quite frankly, as the two representations of faith in his life, his father and Ben are not richer than him in any sense (although it has to be said, they aren’t living in poverty). It’s beyond just material wealth though, but a sense that while they are not saints, they probably wouldn’t have put themselves in the situation he has found himself. His previous actions and beliefs have disallowed his comfort in God, and while he does seem to make a brief attempt to reconcile himself it seems to be an act of desperation rather than in earnest. While I do think there is a lot of tenderness attributed to both the father and Ben, the hopeless futility of religion is also emphasized because the former is proven wrong and the latter is literally blind. Ben is an earnest and virtuous man, he gives the answers one would expect from a man of religion and deep in his soul he believes every word of it. From the filmmaker’s perspective though, God has even abandoned him, just as he has abandoned all of us. God is blind to our troubles and to reality, and we are forced to reckon with our moral dilemmas and decisions without guidance from above. We must rely on ourselves, and we are not all seeing, all understanding. Even the most wise stumble and get lost in the darkness.

In the end, most characters haven’t found enlightenment, if any. Some are worse off, some are the same, others are better. From the direction of the film, it’s almost difficult to believe that it would be Cliff despite his search for love that would find himself alone and even more of a failure, while Judah commits murder and not only comes off scott free, but without the haunting doubts of guilt and what ifs. Perhaps, when all is said and done, there is no predicting what will happen, there is no preventing or predicting…. while compared to perhaps Hannah and Her Sisters (a wonderful companion piece) this film is downbeat, is it really pessimistic? Or is it more apt to say realistic (in the sense of human emotions and actions)? This question unfortunately unfolds into something I’m not prepared to tackle. Personally, I am inclined to believe the latter. I don’t see this as a downbeat world view, but rather an attempt to clarify something that’s so difficult, if no impossible to grasp. In this written thing, that can hardly be called a review or a critique I suppose I’m trying to do the same, but without the same sense of order or clarity Allen brings. This is around the dozen mark as far as the amount of Allen films I’ve seen, and I’m very willing to call it his best.

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 31, 2007

Love Letters (William Dieterle, 1945)

My second Dieterle film cannot begin to live up to the majesty of Portrait of Jennie (one of the best films to ever come out of the Hollywood system) but it is nonetheless a striking and special film that sets itself apart from most films of the era. He borrows heavily from German expressionism, and more recently Citizen Kane as the pinnacle of his visual style. However, the closest comparison is no doubt Max Ophuls, who himself deals with exaggerated tales of love, romance and mystery with the same glowing style. His camera, is often in movement, in zooms or tracking but hardly with the same vibrancy as Ophuls. What truly defines his style is the use of depth of field, and the play of focus to express the emotional whims of his characters.

The story is fantastic, a soldier has been writing love letters for a friend, but finds himself falling in love with the woman. He’s injured, and returns home, hardened by war and curious to find the woman he had fallen in love with. He finds that she has married the soldier, but in a horrible tragedy was accused of murdering him one night. The twist is that she has no memory of the event, furthermore, she has no memory of anything before her trial. She calls herself Singleton, and while she has seemingly lost everything she is vibrant and full of life. Allen falls in love with her all over again, knowing very well he can’t reveal her past, or how he knew her. Beyond melodrama, it’s an exercise in fantasy… and for those unfamiliar with Portrait of Jennie, it’s far closer to earth than his later effort.

The early parts of the film that are firmly rooted in the reality of war and Allen’s mundane and unhappy life are shot very conventionally. The camera is often still, and deep focus is often used extensively. When Singleton enters the picture, and the characters fall in love the film falls into a deep sense of expressionistic fantasy. With a few exceptions, shallow focus is used although it’s often paired with deep fields of view. Characters are often far apart or obscured. Without the deep focus they are often blurred or little more than shadows. While deeply in love, his characters cannot come together as they are haunted by the ghosts of their non-existing past. Even in shooting love scenes, Dieterle uses unconventional angles, often over the shoulder or shoots from above. This seems to have been an inspiration for the beautiful A Place in the Sun, which has an acclaimed love scene between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor that mirrors very carefully the style employed here. Interestingly enough, looking up the cinematographer Lee Garmes, he’s worked on some of the most beautiful films of the Hollywood era, including several Von Sternberg films (a striking resemblance I didn’t think to make earlier), Scarface, The Desperate Hours, Nightmare Alley, and even Gone with the Wind. Furthermore, exaggerated effects like fog are used, especially in scenes relating to Singleton’s past. It’s an obvious, but effective tool in representing the cloud of her own memories.

The performances and the chemistry of the characters also works, it’s no surprise that Jones and Cotten were paired up again. Cotten himself has a natural talent for men hardened by their past, or haunted by some unknown. His expression is so easily fixed as stone, although in those moments of joy there is a true sense of happiness, even surprise. Jennifer Jones brings a youthful naivety that was necessary for the role. Together they seem to glow, I’d argue they are one of the more memorable screen pairings of classic Hollywood.

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 31, 2007

Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)

If I had any doubts that Werner Herzog is one of the greatest working directors, Lessons of Darkness dispel them all. A fascinated and puzzling documentary, the film uses the burning oil fields in Kuwait to create a unique apocalyptic vision. Herzog himself said the film was less a documentary, and more an exercise in science fiction. Instilling both awe and disgust in the audience, most of the film is a camera panning overhead or on the ground as workers attempt to put out the blaze. Two interviews are included, they are short but powerful. Both are linked by the fate of the victims, in the first a mother watched as her two sons were tortured, since then she wasn’t able to speak. Instead she murmurs and uses her hands to articulate. The second a young woman and her young child are on camera, she first explains the effects of the smoke, and then her encounter with soldiers who killed her husband and nearly killed her son. At the time of the interview, it had been a year since this has happened, in all that time her son has only ever spoken once; to tell his mother he never wants to learn to speak. The men in the fire on the other hand are faceless, at least until the last few scenes. In a puzzling choice of words, Herzog calls their journey to the oil fields a pilgrimage.

In one of the many disturbing images presented in the film, he suggests instead of a pilgrimage to a sacred and spiritual place, these men are travelling to hell itself. It’s not only the raging fires that suggest a hell on earth, but the death of everything around it. The oil has overtaken all that is living, corrupted minds with greed, killed all hope of vegetation. Instead of lakes of water, there is are deceiving lakes of black oil that reflect the sky. If water is life, than oil is death. The raging fires and the ever present darkness of the smoke and the oil quite honestly made me ill. There is a sequence where the oil is boiling, and all it reminded me of were the pools of boiling blood that engulfed the murderers in Dante’s own vision of hell. Oil is so deceiving, so ugly and yet so close to being beautiful. Herzog plays with these illusions very carefully, as oil itself becomes evil, deceiving our eyes as it masks for water and blood.

Very little information is offered on what exactly we are seeing, and Herzog’s intertitles and narrations are allegorical rather than factual. This is perhaps why he chooses to call the film science fiction rather than documentary. Yet, in his little factual-fiction he offers a far more potent portrait of war than most films. Without showing combat, or real death the vision of what the world has become is sickening in itself. The war may have raged for but hours, but the effects are irreversible. If you like Koyaanisqatsi, this film is an almost obvious choice. It’s focus does seem to be on war and questions of spirituality, but this is also one of the most devastating environmental disasters in modern history. Add in the similarly impressionistic presentation, albeit in a much shorter format, I can’t see what would prevent you from enjoying this.

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 23, 2007

I’ll be Seeing You (Dieterle, 1944)

I’m’ going the non-traditional route for my Christmas viewing this year, while I’m still watching staples like It’s a Wonderful Life or the Muppet Christmas Carol, I’ve decided to try and find some new Christmas gems. I’ll be Seeing You (1944) had a premise to die for; (from IMDB) “Ginger Rogers is a convict released from state penitentiary for a Christmas leave. On the train, she meets Sergeant Joseph Cotten who has been released from a mental hospital and she invites him home for dinner.” I couldn’t resist watching it, and I must say I enjoyed it very much. The first half in particular is very tender and beautifully shot. I’d venture to say it’s among Cotten’s best performances, as his struggle with shell shock is potent and real. Dieterle who also directed one of my all time favourite films, Portrait of Jennie, creates a sense of immediacy with his direction. Many close-ups are used, as well as a brilliantly executed tracking shot that opens the film. Whenever Zachary (Cotten) is alone his struggle becomes more potent, he finds a lot of comfort in Mary, and in these scenes the cutting becomes more erratic and a repetitive interior monologue is introduced. I’ve seen many films that try to capture this inner struggle and few do it better than this.

The film does lose a little steam in the second half though as Zachary becomes far more comfortable but Mary still cannot abide revealing the truth about her life. I felt that her fear of the consequences were not explored deeply enough, although they certainly are touched on. Cotten and Rogers have beautiful chemistry though, and the rest of the cast is great too.

Tonight I plan on watching Alistair Sim’s A Christmas Carol, a first in what probably amounts to at least a decade. I’m also going to try and squeeze in Christmas in Connecticut, although time is a little short these days!

Finally I’d like to thank EVERYONE who participated or read/commented on any entries in the Powell & Pressburger blog-a-thon. It’s been an absolute joy!

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 22, 2007

P & P Blog-a-thon: Childhood Favourites

A fine host I’ve been! One more day, and I still have only one entry… shame on me. I’ve had a string of bad luck though, bad snow had me without Internet, I was sick, and then last minute Christmas shopping. Now for my entry I was preparing to show off my mid 1980s VHS versions of The Thief of Bagdad and The Red Shoes that I used to watch weekly as a child, but alas I cannot find my USB cord ANYWHERE. You’ll have to take my sworn word, but these tapes are older than I am, and well worn (although they still play).

I rewatched The Red Shoes for the first time in nearly ten years about 14 months ago, only to be won over once again by it’s magic. My passion for Powell & Pressburger were re-ignited and here I am today, doing a blog-a-thon for my favourite filmmakers. I had just re-discovered my Thief of Bagdad tape last week, and was hoping to rewatch it. I still have time, but it is running out! Hopefully I’ll have one or two more articles up today and tomorrow, in the mean time I have two questions.

The picture above is me at the age when I fell in love with the Red Shoes, approximately. I’m all for guessing :)

1) What was your first Powell and Pressburger? What was your reaction?

2) How do you feel about revisiting childhood favourites? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised?

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 17, 2007

P & P Blog-a-thon: Gone to Earth

Sorry I had promised an entry yesterday, but a terrible snow storm hit (as some of you may have been victims of as well). I spent a good part of the day shoveling and re-shoveling my drive-way.

Gone to Earth falls just short of being a masterpiece. I’m not one to use the term lightly, and I truly believe if it were not for some maddening transitions between scenes, the film would have been perfect. Even if, in the instant the ushering of one moment to the next feels clumsy, and rushed, the nature of the film makes the viewer forget in an instant because of the stirring passions of the characters and the filmmakers. Powell and Pressburger rank among my favourite filmmakers, their sense of visuals and exploration of passions is unparalleled in my eyes. This film most resembles Black Narcissus in it’s treatment of lust, and “sin” as themes and emotions that propel the film forward. Even David Farrar reappears: he was the object of desire in Narcissus makes a reappearance as the lecherous squire after Hazel (played beautifully by Jennifer Jones). The setting and the characters, however are rather drastically different, and instead of resembling one of the sisters, Hazel is closer to being a more coy and naive version of Kanchi (Jean Simmons). Suffice to say, her own internal conflicts are far removed from religion, but rooted in the superstition and magic she believes in.

I have to admit, even though my lofty adoration for the film, it’s not for everyone. I’ve seen it described as a pot-boiler, and kitsch… perhaps they’re closer in their interpretation than I am. The film is over the top, it’s over sexualized (although by today’s standard’s it’s quite tame), and it’s borderline exploitive, but I love it. I’ve always been attracted to this style of film though, from Pabst’s melodramas to Sirks’ grandiose American portraits, I see this film in the same vein. Jones’ enthusiasm and dedication seem to overcome what is at first an apparent discomfort with the accent. While some of the dialogue is delivered rather clumsily, the part is sold on Jones’ body language and in her face. She seems to thrive off of the talent that surrounds her, perhaps a little less smothered from Selznick than in her American films (although there is no doubt he’s here, which explains the sleaze). Her performance is very sincere and earnest, and it’s what holds the film together. Jones is an actress that had more talent than one would ever expect, but was crushed by external pressures no one should be asked to deal with. The talent of Powell helps the film in it’s very delicate balancing act, he knew how to direct melodrama like few other filmmakers, and prevents the film from taking itself too seriously or from dropping too far into self-conscious excess.

What I love about this film is the excessive sexuality of it. So many of my favourite films are these older movies that ooze with sex, without ever showing anything at all. This film fits into the same vein as Kazan’s Baby Doll, as it’s all about implications and teasing. Powell uses the red lights to really accentuate the passion, and while it doesn’t quite work to the same effect as in Narcissus, it works at the very least to increase the tension and to make for a very beautiful palette. As I mentioned Farrar, he’s perhaps even more electric here than he was in Black Narcissus. He’s a chauvinistic ass in this film, and not afraid to strut his stuff. I can’t remember the last time a male actor was so good at being sexy? Sexy is the word.. because he’s just, he has magnetism or something, but wow. He and Jones play off each other wonderfully, they have incredible chemistry onscreen, rivalling some of the best screen couples I can think of.

Even if you don’t like all that super sleazy sex stuff, the film is worth seeing for the beautiful landscape and the Technicolor. I don’t think this is their most beautiful film, but it certainly beats out 90% of the competition. The colours are rich and well thought out, lots of care is taken in choosing just the right lighting, from dawn till dusk. The music is also wonderful, a very earthy feel to it. Just looking it up, I’m surprised to see that Jennifer Jones might have actually done her own singing, because her voice is impeccable in the film, it’s almost as if she’s casting a spell on the viewer and the characters in the film feel the same effect.

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 16, 2007

The Powell and Pressburger Blog-a-Thon Headquarters

Starting tomorrow morning/late tonight start submitting your entries for the Powell and Pressburger Blog-A-Thon. You have all week, and can cover any film or topic relating to either or both filmmakers. Perhaps, like me, you’ll take advantage of a big snowstorm to get your entries done! I’ll start posting tomorrow

Entries

Genuine Artificiality from Cinema Styles

The Edge of the World from Flickhead 

The Small Back Room from The Agitation of the Mind

Love/Death, Realism/Fantasy, and Everything In-Between: Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death from For Lack of a Better Word

Acting Up: Anton Walkbrook from Cinema Styles

Contraband from mardecortesbaja

An Officer and a Gentleman, or: What I Love About The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from Joey’s Film Blog

The Waiting Game from Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee

RIP Deborah Kerr from Froward to Yesterday

A Canterbury Tale from  The Agitation of the Mind

A Matter of Life and Death from a Black & White World

Posted by: philosopherouge | December 12, 2007

Reviews and a Reminder

Sorry for the long absence, school has been taken up every moment of my waking existence. Now though, I’m on vacation and have not only time to watch some new films, but to review them as well. As I’m in catch-up mode, I haven’t had much time to write any long or in depth reviews, but only a blurb or two on some recent viewings.

I haven’t had time to write anything for the following films, I’ll just provide ratings and answer any questions and/or offer on the fly reviews:

Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) 9/10
Casque D’Or (1952) 7/10
The Small Back Room (1949) 9/10
Went the Day Well (1942) 8/10
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) 10/10
Atonement (2007) 8.5/10
The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) 10/10

The Browning Version (1951) exceeded all my expectations, which where fairly high in the first place. A first rate character study of a hated school teacher who comes to realise his own failures as a teacher, husband and a human being. Michael Redgrave delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and the careful direction by Asquith helps maintain the subtlety of his evolution and relationships. The film is far more than just an actor’s film though, and it reveals so much about perceptions and human nature. It’s a film I hardly see getting any mention… anywhere, and it’s a damn shame. I don’t think I am doing the film justice, or if I can give it enough praise. Do yourself a favour and see it if you haven’t already.

10/10

Madame de… is my second Ophuls film, and I have to say my appreciation for him has grown significantly. While I was able to respect Letters from an Unknown Woman, I found it too melodramatic, and Joan Fontaine’s character too feeble for me to truly enjou the film. I can’t profess being fully under the spell of this film either, but it’s more to do with my own difficulties with the tonal changes, from comedy, to drama and something in between. The acting is divine, I know the actors mostly for their comedy, which is probably why I found the transition a little difficult to adjust to. I love how the film looks, and Ophuls moving camera is a marvel… nearly every shot is a marvel, and yet there isn’t anything excessive or superfluous about it. The importance of fate, and the consequences and effects of the doomed romance on all three parties are incredibly well “woven”. While much credit is due to Ophuls, the script is equally as vital… it hits every note perfectly. I would love to see this film again, and I can only see my appreciation for it growing.

9.5/10

The only way I can really describe Under the Volcano (1984) is that, it’s as if later day Fellini directed an Ernest Hemingway novel starring Albert Finney. Finney is wacko, and I’m not quite sure the performance deserves as much praise as it receives… then again, I’m not the best judge of acting, and gravitate towards what appeals to my own aesthetics. The film looks beautiful, the rich colours of the fiesta and the general surroundings are contrasted with the stark earthiness of Bisset and the bright, white suit that Finney is always sporting. The middle part of the film stands out for me as being the best part, it’s probably the optimist in me saying that though, because it gives you hope for these people who are so obviously lost and hurt by the world around them, and each other. The final sequence is something out of Satyricon, outrageous characters, prostitutes, coq fights… general nightmarish qualities. The film, however, is not quite as good as it sounds, but has it’s moments, and it always interesting. It lags a bit, and the pacing is uneven. While for most of the film it balances it’s excesses there are moments it veers into ridiculousness. 7/10

All around, it’s been a WONDERFUL little while for movies. I don’t remember the last time I watched so many films that I so immediately fell in love with.

I also would like to throw a reminder that the Powell/Pressburger Blog-a-thon starts in just a few days!!

Posted by: philosopherouge | November 28, 2007

Celebrities list their favourite Criterions

LINK

To get it out of the way, no I don’t work for Criterion, hell I don’t own a single film in their collection (although I would like to), but they are without a doubt my number one source for those more off the wall or harder to find choices of films, and I’m usually in for something new when I pick up a film from their collection.

I was browsing their website the other day when I came across this list, and I hope it hasn’t been there for ages and this is old news for all of you. About two dozen celebrities, including Steve Buscemi, Jane Campion, Guy Madding and Nicholas Roeg were asked to list their ten favourite Criterion films. It seemed most chose their favourite films that just happened to included on the list, occasionally extras or the actual DVDs themselves are mentioned. Most of the people ask add blurbs for each films and that’s the real joy of the list. While listing films is fun, knowing why is the real joy of list making.

I recommend checking out all the lists, as there are some interesting overlaps and original selections. What really surprised me was the inclusion of I Know Where I’m Going! on SIX of the lists. In other words, more than a quarter of the lists included the film. While Powell and Pressburger were a very popular pair, I think this film is the one (perhaps competing with Black Narcissus) listed the most times. Personally, I really adore the film, but had no idea it was seen and loved by so many people. A lot of the reaction I had encountered was rather mixed.

D.A. Pennebaker (of Don’t Look Back fame) writes:

“This was the first Powell film I ever saw. I saw it when it first came to New York, where it played for only a few days in its initial run, or so I figured when I tried to go back and see it again. I fell in love with that film, partly because of where it took place, partly because of who was in it, partly because of the way the music slipped in and out of it, and mostly because I could see that Michael Powell, whoever he was, was my leader. Years later, when I finally met him (I was trying to make The Riddle of the Sands with him, but couldn’t raise the money), I spent an entire lunch recalling all his lines from I Know Where I’m Going! In the face of my slavish foolishness, I remember he was most gracious.”

Inspired by these wonderful lists, I decided to make my own. The selection is based purely on my love of the film over the extras provided, because I haven’t taken too much advantage of them and have difficulty comparing anyway. It was a painstaking decision and honestly, changes on whim. I’m putting them in alphabetical order instead of listing them preferentially or I’d never finish the list!

I feel overwhelmed whenever I want to talk about 8 1/2, it’s such an expansive and original film that words never seem enough to explain not only how it works, but the effect it has on me. It’s still my favourite Fellini, and few films have left the same impression on me as it has. I first watched 8 1/2 three years ago, when I was 14 or 15. Even then I knew I was watching something truly special, while I had been interested in film for a while before that, this is the film that opened my eyes to the power and magic of film. A groundbreaking moment in my viewing history.

This is for the television series of Fanny and Alexander, rather than the theatrical version, which I’ve yet to see. Not only my favourite Bergman, this film stands above most films as an incredible portrait of family, life, love, religion and passion, ideas explored throughout Bergman’s filmography. Thematically and visually rich, it’s an incomparable film experience. One day I’ll have to watch all six hours in one shot.

In the Mood for Love, is one of those films that I remember every detail surrounding my first viewing clearly. It was two days after Christmas and I was in bed recovering from a cold, I had just finished watching Black Orpheus (another beautiful Criterion, that unfortunately misses the cut), and I don’t think I could have ever expected what I had got. Poetic and meditative, Wong Kar Wai perfectly evokes a mood of a place and time, as well, with so few actions (even less words) let us into the minds and motions of two characters who are alone in the world. It defies all my ideas about romance, especially romance on the screen. What I thought was restraint in some of my favourite classic films was nothing compared to the quiet reservation of the characters in this film.

While I was already fairly well versed in Godard’s work, Jules et Jim opened my eyes to the French New Wave like no other film. Definite and intangible, the film tapped into all my desires and fears. It’s a nightmare as much as it is a dream though, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. It’s shocking and unpredictable without ever feeling contrived. Catherine may be my favourite film character, and Jeanne Moreau delivers one of my favourite performances. I actually would love to see the Criterion version of this film, as of yet, I own a very shoddy transfer. Perhaps one day I’ll make the investment, I doubt I’ll regret it.

I suppose I’m not alone in feeling a deep adoration for Hitchcock. He’s one of those first filmmakers I latched onto as a budding cinephile, and have never let go of. It’s a near impossible task to choose a favourite among his filmography, but somehow Notorious shines a little brighter than the rest. Only ever so slightly though. For me, it’s Hitchcock at his best, playing with similar themes and ideas, but somehow there is a sense the characters have thrown themselves into the mess wilfully and knowingly, rather than it being delt by faith. The performances are astonishing, as are some of the brilliantly conceived shots. It’s the last moments that get me though, it feels as if this is a precursor to Psycho when the car is “sinking”. What a genius moment.

I love me some silent films, and while Pandora’s Box isn’t my FAVOURITE, it comes damn close. Brooks is one of those screen presences that is more than radiant or beautiful, she dominates and destroys the screen. Like her character in Pandora’s Box, this power proved to be her downfall and her career was cut far too short by studio heads who disapproved of her disobedience. There is a wonderful static nature of Lulu’s personality, as in the end there is a sense that the character has no degraded or improved, but she’s somehow clearer. It’s as if there is a veil obscuring our view of her that are slowly peeled away by Pabst, who’s direction is so unfairly forgotten.

Preston Sturges is a joy! I seem to fall in love, at least in part, with all of his films, but none compare to the joyous vibrancy of Sullivan’s Travels. It’s an essay of sorts in defence of comedy and it’s value, the genre could not have asked for a better man to do the job. Lake is vibrant and beautiful, it reminds me that I truly need to see more of her films because she has a great presence, I suppose making up for her small size. The laughs are genuine, as are the tears. It’s obviously a huge influence on the Coens, two of my favourite modern filmmakers, as they took the title O’ Brother Where Art Thou? from the fictional character’s film idea.

While making this list I debated long and hard if I was just going to include one film by director, but I couldn’t bear to do it. As you can see, this is my second Hitchcock… and he’s not the only one to get a double appearance. I’m not sure if the 39 Steps is my second favourite Hitch’ or not, but it’s up there. It’s just so delicious, exciting and defining. It’s as if you’re watching someone discover not only he’s good at what he does, but he enjoys the hell out of it. The film is coherent and incoherent all at once, tied together by motifs rather than plot. If you haven’t seen it you should do so now! I can’t imagine anyone would regret it.

I love Powell and Pressburger almost unconditionally, their films are like drugs, wonderful, wonderful drugs. mmm…. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an astonishing film about war, and about life. It’s incredibly mature and insightful as it follows Clive Candy through his millitary career. The friendships and relationships he makes and breaks during this time are beautiful and poignant. Livesay gives one of the best performances ever committed to celluloid, and I was sure different actors had played Candy through the different periods of his life. Few films begin to even compare to the visuals of this film, it should be a point though, that few films compare to any of Powell and Pressburger’s work.

Although this list is alphabetical, it’s strange that my favourite film of the list ends up here at the bottom. More than any other film I’ve ever seen, the Red Shoes has marked my life, especially my cinematic career. It was among my favourite films as a child, and after not seeing it for nearly ten years, I revisited it last year, and I could not believe a film could be so wonderful, so perfect. Passionate and expressive, the film runs deeply with my own fears and desires. While an updating of the story, it still has the air and atmosphere of a fairy tale, and is appropriately treated as melodrama, but with the most tender and gentle touch so that it never feels overwrought. If there was one film I had to recommend to people I know, it’s this. This for me is the reason for cinema, the reason why I’m here right now writing.

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 Speaking of the Red Shoes, don’t forget the Powell and Pressburger Blog-a-thon taking place in December! Tell all your friends!

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