Harlan County, USA

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA provides us with a lot of talking points about Pat’s family history (and Appalachian geography’s effects on politics), the Anthropology version of the observer effect (and when keeping your subjects alive means breaking cardinal documentary rules), and what exactly constitutes a living wage (when income well above the today’s Federal minimum isn’t even enough for a guy living in a trailer on the side of a holler).

It’s uh…it’s a very good documentary.

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Fists in the Pocket

Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 film is open to interpretation, so this week we spend the episode suggesting, then dismantling, various interpretive theories. The story of a wealthy family with physical and mental disorders, and the one son who decided to kill them all, Fists in the Pocket is a bit of a mess and a bit innovative and mostly reminds us of a lot of better films.

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Viridiana

Luis Bunuel attacks the Catholic church by attacking the concept of personal charity?

Listen, Bunuel is a complicated guy, but this is not a mistake that is unique to him so I need to say this outside the podcast (and, repeatedly, inside the podcast): he is right, personal charity will not change systematic problems that stem from economic inequality. Systematic issues require systematic changes. But you know what? You still need to help people in the moment.
So support organizations that seek to get people off the street. But also, buy a sandwich for that guy on the freeway exit ramp, give that lady downtown some gloves. And, best of all, promote policy changes that will eliminate the need for those social charities and actually raise up the destitute.
We can do it all. If we want to.

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Late Spring

After well over a year we are finally finishing Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy with the first in the series, Late Spring. While Early Summer remains our favorite of the bunch, Late Spring serves as a more overt reckoning with Ozu’s view of post-war Japanese society. It is rather different than, say, Suzuki’s. As such we have a talk about false nostalgia, and how occupation is bad, but that doesn’t mean that life before the occupation was good.

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Au revoir les enfants

We cover the final film in the 3 Films by Louis Malle boxset this week with his 1987 magnum opus Au revoir les enfants. Before we recorded Pat and I established a rule that if at any point we start openly weeping I’d just edit that out. I think I got most of it.

Au revoir les enfants provides much more context to the previous two films autobiographical natures, to the point where I think we can say we have a deeper understanding of both Lacombe, Lucien and Murmur of the Heart having watched it. But more importantly than that, this is a hard-hitting, masterpiece of a film about selfless compassion in the face of extreme horror, and the personal toll that takes on you.

Speaking of which, the film itself will take a toll on you.

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Lacombe, Luciean

We move from a Louis Malle film we did not at all understand last week into one that we seem to get on a deeper level than a lot of critics and, frankly, that concerns me. Lacombe, Lucien is the tale of a lost young man searching for meaning and belonging who finds himself falling in with Nazi collaborators. The critics not understanding certain character motivations is fine, but I think it says more about the critics than Malle — and maybe that same sentence could be aimed at this very podcast last week.

Anyway. Recognize yourself in Lacombe, because nearly all of us, at times, align with the powers of oppressive violence, and we need to see that in ourselves instead of writing it off as the moral failing of others. Be better. Do better.

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Murmur of the Heart

We kick off a boxset of films by Louis Malle that are variously autobiographical, and we may have the quickest turnaround from “I hate this film” to “this later film has recontextualized an earlier one and now I maybe like that one more” in our entire run of Lost in Criterion.

That is to say, neither Pat nor I really enjoyed Murmur of the Heart (1971) when we first discussed it for this episode, but by the time we finish the boxset in 2 weeks we have a different understanding of this first film. While Pat has long maintained that he refuses to learn anything from this project, the self-evident truth is that the more movies we watch the better base of understanding we have in watching other movies. Often that means that we can look back on older episodes and know that we were certainly wrong in the discussion we had about them.

But even after all that learning, I think the incest in this movie ruins it for me. Not because it’s taboo, but because it doesn’t make sense.

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Metropolitan

Whit Stillman’s influence on Noah Baumbach is well documented, and from there it’s a short jump to influence on Baumbach’s friend Wes Anderson. But one thing watching Metropolitan really made me think about was Stillman’s influence on Kids in the Hall, particularly the similarities between the male leads here and almost any character played by Bruce McCulloch. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway, we continue what seems to be a series on the follies of the upper class. It also feels a bit like a more grounded rich people version of Slacker, though Linklater makes it a bit more clear which of his characters’ philosophical ramblings are meant to be laughed at.

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An American Tail

The end of the year is always a time to look back, take stock, and redouble efforts to carry on. It’s been a year, but every year is.

Movies are powerful. The best of them take us outside ourselves and challenge us, but perhaps that’s just what I mean when I say “best”. This year we’ve seen some very good films, films I’d call timely, though in growing as a person I’ve realized that the messages I’m calling timely are always timely. We started early with a film that encouraged us to ask the right questions about revolution which also contained my one of my favorite sequences we’ve seen in any movie, one where everything has been commoditized and commercialized to such an extent that even Communism is being sold — at 15% off. We spent some powerful time in Poland dealing with Nazis and other authoritarians. And we saw films that act as propaganda for Authoritarians of a different set. We escaped with some Lubitsch and Donovan H. joined us to deconstruct Samurai films. Speaking of escape, we confronted hope and hopelessness in ways we haven’t yet with one of the best documentaries ever made, and attacked fakery and false authority in one of the best pseudo-documentaries ever made. There are lessons to be learned, positive and negative, all around us. But one felt particularly important in a world that seems mired in hatred.

In past years our winter special has been a violent film that ironically takes place on Christmas, for various definitions of irony. This year we expand our winter holiday corral and attack our own religious-centrism, gathering friends to watch a film that Disney rejected because they were certain no one would watch a movie about a Jewish mouse. Instead Don Bluth made it, and An American Tail became the highest grossing animated film in history until his next film, in turn inspiring Disney to spitefully revamp their own animation studio and kick off a Renaissance. Like most of Bluth’s work, the fact that this is a children’s film does not keep it from being dark, and does not keep it from teaching us important lessons about the state of the current world. Immigrants and refugees are fleeing oppression around the world. When they get to us, let them not find us as cats ready to pounce and oppress them anew. There are cats in America. But we can fight them, too.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Many years ago when I thought I had insomnia — more on that in this week’s episode — I would enjoy the two am showings of classic films on my local PBS. It was there that I was first introduced to basically any Criterion film that I’ve noted was a favorite before we recorded, namely The Third Man, F for Fake, and this week’s offering: Robert Hamer’s pitch black social comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. (It’s also where I first encountered another heavily made-up Alec Guinness in Murder by Death which the Criterion Collection continues to ignore, perhaps for containing Peter Sellers at his most racist.)

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La Bête Humaine

Jean Gabin really likes trains. Jean Renoir also really likes trains. They wanted to make a train movie, and any train movie would do. So why not one that also includes murrrrrrrrder?

La Bete Humaine has a lot of bad psychology and therefore some bad social commentary. It also misses a theme from the original novel that it seems like Renoir and Gabin — who had just finished The Grand Illusion — should have leaned into but instead ignored. But it does have trains! Lots and lots of trains!

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The Children are Watching Us

Pat submits that this week’s film is actually a horror movie, judging by the title and the professional child actor who stars. Vittorio De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us is a cautionary tale about our influence on future generations, and about the moral failings of fascism and the moderatism that enables it. Also, divorce and suicide.

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The Complete Mr. Arkadin

The backstory to Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report is Orson Welles just Wellesing it up everywhere. The initial release happened because he was too much of a perfectionist (or maybe just too distracted with a new relationship) to finish his cut on time. Then before he got a chance to put his out, the producer went ahead and just kept recutting it and releasing it. A lot. That’s counting the original radio scripts it’s based on and the novel. But then on top of that, the Criterion boxset includes another version, this one made specifically for this release and containing all footage available from any other version. It’s Comprehensive, yes, “but is it art?” It’s something.

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The Virgin Spring

Apparently, the Swedish public complained about historical inaccuracies in The Seventh Seal. While that’s patently silly, it got under Ingmar Bergman’s skin, so for his next historical film — an adaptation of a medieval ballad and Rashomon — he asked screenwriter and novelist Ulla Isaksson to help out. The two of them certainly had different views of what the film should be, but that didn’t stop them from making a fascinating piece of art.

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Young Mr. Lincoln

In real life Abraham Lincoln was nothing if not pragmatic. He was the political disciple of Henry Clay, architect of the Missouri Compromise and the devil’s bargain that was The Compromise of 1850 which led to a few small gains on the Abolitionist front and a massive loss in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln himself was anti-slavery in as much as he was pro-white working class. One thing Young Mr. Lincoln gets very right is that Lincoln thought slavery undermined Free Labor. But like many white abolitionists of his time, while Lincoln was anti-slavery he was not pro-Black, and he argued as much in his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln’s just didn’t know what to do with non-enslaved Black people — probably send them to Africa, — but he did know that slavery was hurting white people, and so he was against it. Anyway, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is hardly historically accurate to actual events or the man’s character, but it’s still a good movie about an American hero.

In this week’s conversation I digress to talk about what I have recently learned about Karl Marx’s relationship to the early Republican Party in the US. While my research did not involve this Jacobin article, the piece is a good synopsis for those wanting to more beyond my rant.

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The Bad Sleep Well

We round out Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations with the loosest of the bunch, so loose in fact that we posit that the “adaptation” is a construction of Western critics grasping at straws instead of a purposeful, or even unpurposeful, decision by Kurosawa. In any case, as Kaori Ashizu argued in the journal of the Shakespeare Society of Japan, going into The Bad Sleep Well understanding it to be a Shakespeare adaptation actually undermines a lot of the excellent storytelling Kurosawa is doing.

Donovan Hill joins us, and along the way we also talk about public office corruption in Japan and Ohio. Good times!

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Forbidden Games

Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games gives us a lot to talk about this week as Pat and I run through various consonant interpretations of the film — though none of ours include the idea that our two young protagonists are in a proto-sexual relationship, an interpretation that seems far too widespread to not say something deeper about the mental state of film reviewers.

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The Tales of Hoffmann

This week the Criterion Collection brings us the spiritual successor to Powell and Pressburger’s phenomenal The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). An English translation of a French opera, based on the self-mythologizing of a German writer (E.T.A. Hoffmann), Tales combines the beauty of The Red Shoes ballet, with a frankly insane anthology of stories. Pat probably forgets that he didn’t really like The Red Shoes when we watched it, but still manages to think this is a bit flat compared to it. I think he’s just scared of Spalanzani’s eyebrows.

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Ran

The Criterion Collection sure loves Shakespeare. Turns out so does Akira Kurosawa, though sometimes by accident? Throne of Blood is rather objectively the best adaptation of MacBeth that exists. Soon we’ll watch The Bad Sleep Well which could be Hamlet but it might be better to not think of it as Hamlet — we’ll get into that in a few weeks.

This week in the middle is Ran, which Kurosawa wrote, then someone pointed out that it sounded a lot like King Lear, so Kurosawa rewrote it to lean into the comparison.

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Shoot the Piano Player

If The 400 Blows was “very French”, and it is considered to be, Francois Truffaut’s follow up was meant to be “very American” and really it’s the most American of things: the mashup. It’s a New Wave crime comedy based on a Noir novel and the tonal shifts! Oh boy, the tonal shifts! That is to say it is not “American” in the same way that The 400 Blows is “French”. It’s a bunch of American stereotypical elements rolled into one silly film — a “grab bag” as Truffaut himself describes it.

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