There are ways in which A Woman Under the Influence is the most "Hollywood" of the John Cassavetes films we've seen so far. It's got structure! But in other very deep ways it is absolutely the furthest from anything Hollywood would ever put out -- "No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame." It's quite possibly the most emotionally intense film we've ever seen.
Another John Cassavetes film that feels more like an acting exercise than a traditional film. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Like last week's film Shadows, Faces feels improvised (and grew out of improvisation exercises) and it feels all the more real for its looseness.
We kick off a box set of Five Films by John Cassavetes this week with his first feature Shadows (1959). It was a bit of a rough start for the prolific indie auteur who recut the film after a disastrous premiere before leaving the original cut in a subway car. What remains is a fascinatingly realistic look at New Yorkers in the late 50's.
In 2003 the US Department of Defense held a screening of Gillo Pontocorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon. A flyer for the screening read:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
Subsequent US history tells us that the showing did not achieve its objectives.
There's an early iTunes review of Lost in Criterion that states that Pat says "weird" a distractingly large number of times for lack of a better way to describe things. This week the two of use do the same thing but with the word "orifice". If there is any director who comes to mind with the word "orifice" it's definitely David Cronenberg, and in 1983 he was at his most-orifice-y with Videodrome, a film that accurately predicted the future of James Woods. Also, don't click that link to James Woods twitter because current James Woods is a nightmare unlike Cronenberg could ever imagine.
Richard Linklater's Slacker kicked off the American indie scene of the 90's for better or worse (Kevin Smith cites the film as inspiration for making Clerks). Criterion dates the release as 1991 which is when it won at Sundance, though it floated around for at least a year before that, premiering in Austin in June of 1990 and having principally been shot in 1989. There's a lot here that under other circumstances I'd hate, mainly all the people spouting bad philosophy less toward other characters and more toward the camera, but you know what? It works here. It works beautifully.
The Criterion website describes Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni as "semiautobiographical" which is a valid description of any Fellini film. The man couldn't make a movie that wasn't ultimately about himself. I suppose upon its release in 1953, with only two other films under his belt (Variety Lights and The White Sheik), it is perhaps the most autobiographical Fellini has been thus far, but both earlier films clearly have elements of Fellini's life woven in. As far as I Vitelloni goes, it's pretty clear who Fellini thinks his author-insert is, but it's also pretty clear which who it actually is.
Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows, released in 1938, is the one of the earliest films to have the term "film noir" applied to it. It also stars our favorite face of French Poetic Realism Jean Gabin (who shows up often enough that we should probably make him his own tag). This is our second outing with Carne after his 1945 epic Children of Paradise. There is significantly less mime in this one.
So producer Louis Wipf says to Jean Renoir, "Hey, Jean Renoir, you wanna make a movie with Ingrid Bergman?"
And Jean Renoir says, "Boy do I!"
Then he sat around for a bit and tried out a few ideas that either he or Wipf or Bergman didn't really like before settling on a fictionalized version of the life of General Georges Boulanger, though not fictionalized enough that Bergman was playing the general.
Anyway, Elena and Her Men (1956) brings the Stage and Spectacle boxset to a close with little stage but a whole lot of spectacle, and is our favorite of the three.
We continue the Stage and Spectacle boxset with 1954's French Cancan wherein Jean Renoir explores the founding of the Moulin Rouge with about as much fidelity to history as Baz Luhrmann. But more interesting than the pseudo-history is the visual panache, with frequent frame references to the works of Renoir's father and his fellow impressionists. Visually stunning to say the least. And perhaps the most.
We've seen three Renoir films so far, and two of them -- The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game -- are among my absolute favorite films that the Collection has offered us, and the last -- his take on The Lower Depths -- is pretty dang good in its own right.
Now we jump 13 years into his future and find him working in color and out from under the pressures of an impending war (and a bit of an exile to Hollywood) for a trilogy of films dancing around themes of theater and female-empowerment. Well, kind of.
First off from Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir is 1953's The Golden Coach and boy is it a change from the Renoir we've grown accustomed to.
Yasujiro Ozu is brilliant.
We've already seen the final chapter of his Noriko Trilogy -- three films about family that each star Setsuko Hara as a 28 year-old woman named Noriko and are otherwise unrelated -- and now take a step back to the second, 1951's Early Summer. In about two years we'll finish off the sequence with the first film, Late Spring, but until then we can bask in the perfection that is Early Summer.
Two movies for the price of one with this week's outing. In 1902 Maxim Gorky debuted his play The Lower Depths about a group of people living in a flophouse in Russia. It was an international hit of a character study, leading to localizations around the world. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa made a version that was fairly faithful to the source material except transported to 19th century Japan. In 1936 Jean Renoir made it into a romantic comedy.
Reportedly, Gorky actually liked Renoir's version, but even Renoir recognized that Kurosawa made the better adaptation. They're both wonderful movies and are both included in the Criterion Collection's The Lower Depths double disc.
1961's A Woman is a Woman is Jean-Luc Godard's first film shot in color or Cinemascope, a fact that may be more impressive if it weren't only the third film ever of a man who has made, well, a ton of movies. Still he didn't dive right in with the color (or the Cinemascope): three films later he'd go for color and wide-aspect again with Contempt, but right after that he's back to black and white and 4:3 with Band of Outsiders.
Many of Ingmar Bergman's films could be called comedies in the existential cosmic absurdism sense, but Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) is a romantic comedy sex romp with shades of Oscar Wilde. It was Bergman's big break. He'd been making films for over a decade with nothing landing with an audience. He was at his wits end, even thought he was dying, and desperately needed a win. Which he definitely got here.
It was only a matter of time before we had to watch another Pier Paolo Pasolini film. After the first one, so many years ago, we were not looking forward to it. But no movie could be another Salo, though I'm sure some have tried.
Mamma Roma is, in a way, a proto-Salo, though. It is a critique of Italian identity and power structures that while comparatively mild I can imagine that between its release in 1962 and Salo's in 1975 Pasolini boiled over from wanting to be heard properly. "We are bad people. We do bad things to ourselves." is the refrain (echoed by Visconti in last week's The Leopard as well), the message here is a slow simmer compared to what it would become, but no less unsubtle.
We return to Italian/Sicilian history with The Leopard, an historical epic about one rich man's family and political life circa Unification. Luchino Visconti's 1963 film is based on posthumously published 1958 novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who now has an asteroid named after him.
The story follows an aristocrat -- played by Burt Lancaster so that the American distributors could feasibly have a chance at making any money -- who recognizes that his kinds' time is coming to an end and his nephew who will go wherever the political wind blows him as long as it keeps him in power. It's been called the Italian Gone with the Wind, but as we have seen that just means it's an historical epic. It's also really good. Like better than Gone with the Wind by a lot.
Yesterday was Hitler's birthday, so here's a film with a complicated relationship to Nazis?
On the one hand Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979) does show some of the horrors of living under Nazi occupation in Gdańsk-- I've just now learned that Danzig is the German name for the city, and it seems inappropriate to use it here, Gdansk is the Polish name -- and it briefly embodies the aftermath of the Holocaust in one scarred character (who was only recently re-added to the film for this Criterion release). On the other it is based on a book by a man that hid that he was a Nazi soldier for decades and is about someone who uses Nazism when its useful to him and abandons it when its not.
Of course it's also about a little boy who quite literally refuses to grow up.
As I said, it's complicated.
Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are two of the greatest actors of the 20th century. It happens that they also frequently collaborated with one another and with some of the greatest film directors to come out of mid-century Japan. As such, it seems they may be the actors who most often appear in the Criterion Collection as well, though it's hard to track that information without it becoming a whole new obsession.
They costar in Stray Dog under the helm of Criterion standard Akira Kurosawa from 1949 and it would be a feat of pure disaster if all that talent didn't make for an amazing film. Plus it's a police procedural! Who doesn't love a good police procedural?
We return to the Yasujiro Ozu well with a double feature, or as Pat corrects me, a one and a half feature. Ozu made the silent black-and-white A Story of Floating Leaves in 1934 then during a break in his production schedule after finishing Good Morning early in 1959 he remade it as Floating Leaves in color and with sound. Fascinating to see a great artist approach the same basic material a quarter-century apart. It reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III's album Recovery in which he rerecorded some of his earliest work.