The Devil and Daniel Webster

When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ‘Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.
-- Mr. Scratch, The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster makes a feint at confronting something deep and true about America's past and then quickly ignores that hurtful truth for a hopeful cry of "a man shall own his own soul" and "Don't let this country go to the devil." The truth is that the US has always been in step with the Devil. Stephen Vincent Benet knew that when he wrote the story, and when he adapted it for William Deterle's 1941 film.

But by the same turn, as evident by Webster's speech to the Jury -- a jury made of the "worst of Americans" though not a Confederate or slaver among them? -- we fight the Devil when we allow freedom to ring.

From Loving to Obergefell we overcome the Devil of our past and make America greater when we tear down bigoted laws.

From Brown to Roe to Lawrence we refuse to let this country go to the Devil when we distribute freedom out from the hands of a privileged few and take steps toward liberty and justice for all.

We recorded this November 5th. Somethings have changed since then. But then they haven't, have they?

As the film acknowledges, the devil's always been in power here.

As the film implores:
Don't be fooled like Jabez Stone.
Don't sell your soul.
Don't let this country go to the Devil.

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Richard III

Laurence Olivier plays a power-hungry outsider with a distinct physical feature and speech patterns whose ascension to power allows him to imprison his political enemies and ultimately leads to war.

There are no parallels.

Just kidding. Olivier based his portrayal of the title character in Richard III (1955) on Hitler, as he'd done when he first played the role in this Shakespearean play on stage in 1944. Surely there are no new lessons to be learnt from this.

Olivier also directs and adapted, and what a job he did at each. A fantastic job. The best job.

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Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie

In 1963 a fresh-faced Vilgot Sjoman asked Ingmar Bergman if he could watch his process, then Sveriges Television asked Sjoman if they could tag along. Of course Bergman only half said yes. The documentary is mostly true to life, and fascinating in that regard, though it's also a bit fake, with some sequences not exactly showing what they claim and at least one interview wholly reshot after Bergman didn't like the results. Well, not as bad as Nanook.

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The Silence

We finish of the Three Films by Ingmar Bergman boxset next week with a documentary by Vilgot Sjoman, but the three titular films come to an end and a head this episode as we talk The Silence from 1963. While we praised Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light for being the most straightforward Bergman films we've experienced, the third is a bit more obtuse unless the titular Silence of God is the fact that religion just isn't mentioned anymore. But it takes place at a hotel, so Adam gets to share some hotel stories!

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Winter Light

The Communicants -- the actual translation of the Swedish title for Winter Light -- are what we call people who are taking the Communion, and perhaps the solid statement, calling everyone in this film Communicants, is as much a lesson as anything in the film. Of course the other definition -- someone imparting information -- brings its own interpretations. Winter Light -- the always dim but never dying sun -- well, that's a third meaning to keep on our plate. Bergman's 1962 followup and ideological sequel to Through a Glass Darkly acts as a rebuttal to the finally of that film. But at the same time even as rites and actions are confessed to be metaphysically useless, they're still psychologically important, maybe? As people who have sailed those seas and landed on seperate shores Pat and I have a lot to say this week. It starts with 10 minutes about Communion itself, though, because BERGMAN.

Through a Glass Darkly

1961, and specifically the film Through a Glass Darkly, marked a number of changes for Ingmar Bergman: it's the first time he starts to shoot on the island of Fårö, his first time working with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and, perhaps most strikingly, a brief flirtation with making philosophically straightforward film. This film and the next -- Winter Light which we'll talk about next week as we continue through the boxset Three Films by Ingmar Bergman -- are possibly the most easy to understand of Bergman's whole catalog, among the few where the filmmaker himself is doing most of the work for interpretation. This does not make them less depressing, but it does make it a good starting point for introducing yourself to the films of Ingmar Bergman.

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The Pornographers

Shohei Imamura is the only Japanese director to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, which is probably more of an indictment against Cannes than the quality of Japanese film. Nonetheless, the award was not for The Pornographers, his first independent film made at his own production company in 1966. Imamura viewed himself as a "cultural anthropologist" and therefore wanted "to make messy films" about real people. This one may be a little too real for Pat and I. But it does give us an opportunity to revisit Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth, to which Imamura make a clear reference even though a Google search suggests that we are among the very few people in history to notice.

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The BRD Trilogy: Lola

Lola (1981) brings us to the end of the BRD Trilogy, and is a fitting bookend with The Marriage of Maria Braun in being a much lighter film -- at least compared to Veronika Voss -- that deals more overtly with the political climate of the time. It can be argued that Veronika Voss is a political film, but for Maria Braun and Lola the argument stands on surface observation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder had some interesting political beliefs, and we tackle probably his most controversial stance in this week's episode as well. Find out what he's wrong about by giving us a listen.

The BRD Trilogy: Veronika Voss

Here at Lost in Criterion we strive to capture the organic conversation Pat and I have reacting to the films we've watched. Unfortunately, sometimes technical difficulties strike and we have to re-record. While this has only happened three times in over 200 episodes -- which is frankly amazing -- the fact remains that you can't really have an organic conversation when you've already had it once. Due to Audacity inexplicably eating 10 minutes of my side of the conversation (we're still not sure how or why) you're getting take two for this week. It probably shows a little.

Veronika Voss (1982) is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's penultimate film and the second of the BRD Trilogy, though oddly enough the last film in the trilogy, Lola, was made before this one. I want to apologize for the fact that we probably spend more time talking about male lead Robert then Veronika herself, but see the paragraph above for why that happened and imagine take one where we actually talked about her. Not that it matters, we could talk for hours about either of them. Heck, we could talk for hours about the Public Health official. People in this movie are complex or weird in highly rant-able ways.

The BRD Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun

Our last encounter with Rainer Werner Fassbinder left us breathless, and now we move into a trilogy of some of the famed directors best (and final) work. All three stories feature female protagonists making their way in post-war West Germany, and all three are varying degrees of indictment against West German society as Fassbinder saw it. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) suggests that Fassbinder believes the BRD is about to blow itself up, but then he destroys all semblance of subtext in the final moments of the film. Even without that final hammer it's a fascinating tale.

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Terminal Station and Indiscretion of an American Wife

David O. Selznick is an interesting figure in the Criterion cannon, having produced a large number of films from a swath of wonderful directors. With one glaring exception we've barely liked or strongly disliked his other projects. Terminal Station, his 1953 collaboration with Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica, takes that ambivalence and splits it in two, which is appropriate: we get one movie to love and one to hate.

Selznick so hated what De Sica brought him that he recut the film himself, shaving 25 minutes out and gutting it of it's emotional arc. The resulting film, Indiscretion of an American Wife, is also included on this Criterion release, so we talk both this week.

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Umberto D.

We've already talked a bit about Italian neorealism, albeit through a filmmaker who was trying to reject the movement some years after it had died. Now we get to see the film that, arguably, killed it. Vittorio De Sica is hardly a stranger to the movement -- his Bicycle Thieves, which we'll talk about in the future, is one of its masterpieces -- but that didn't stop critics from piling on the hate for Umberto D. in 1952. Unfairly, I may add, as it's a great movie. Alas.

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The Honeymoon Killers

According to Wikipedia The Honeymoon Killers is Francois Truffaut's "favorite American film." Wikipedia cites a 1992 New York Times piece, which pops off the quote without any solid attribution. Pat digs deeper and discovers the truth for this week's episode, though you probably could have guessed that Wikipedia isn't quite on the level.

Anyway, Leonard Kastle's 1970 ultra-low-budget true crime film is one of those where we spend a good chunk of time wondering just why it's in the collection anyway. The answer may solely be that a young Martin Scorsese was originally hired to direct, shot at least one scene, then was fired for taking too much time. The end product comes off as shades of John Waters without being purposeful or self-aware. So bad it's bad, and unhelped by its shocking use of violence.

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The Hari Kondabolu bit Pat references can be found here and is great.

Schizopolis

Phew.

After a couple of weeks of emotionally draining films that forced us to confront some dark aspects of humanity, the Collection serves us up a heaping helping of...something completely different.

The nadir of Stephen Soderbergh's career, Schizopolis seems to be an attempt to excise all of the bad ideas he was having and put them into a single film that also doubles as a sort of 8 1/2-style self-reflexive critique. 8 1/2 is an infinitely better film by any meaningful objective criteria, but Soderbergh is a lot more self-aware than Fellini. Or at least a lot more willing to make an honest acknowledgement of his mistakes. And that, coupled with the film's taking refuge in absurdity, makes this a very worthwhile watch.

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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Continuing our short trend of films with messages that coincidentally speak to some of the darkest positions of American society today, mostly because they critique aspects of human interaction that, sadly, bubble up every so often in any civilization (and almost always exist at at least a low simmer). Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) -- our first from the renowned German -- is an homage to the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, in particular a retelling of All That Heaven Allows that takes that films class-divided love story and transfers it to a West Germany divided by class, race, religion, and immigration status.

Night and Fog

A concentration camp is built like a Grand Hotel.
You need contractors, estimates, competitive bids
And no doubt friends in high places.

These were the lines of Night and Fog that may have hit me the hardest. Someone, some company, built the barracks, the guard towers, the ovens. And no doubt that company beat out other companies for the contract.

Alain Resnais' 1955 short documentary subtly twists the knife as the audience is called out for its part in the Holocaust (and all other holocausts) whether active or passive. Maybe you didn't place the noose around the neck, but maybe you sold the rope to the hangman, maybe you built the gallows, maybe you sat idly by because the people being led up the stairs didn't look like you.

But it's not about guilt; it's about responsibility.

When the Allies open the doors,
All the doors,
The deportees look on without understanding.
Are they free?
Will life know them again?
"I am not responsible," says the Kapo,
"I am not responsible," says the officer,
"I am not responsible."
Who is responsible then?

And it is not just a question of who is responsible for what happened, but of who is responsible for what may happen.

The skill of the Nazis is child's play today.

Someone builds the walls. Someone guards the gates. Someone fires the furnace.

Someone drops the bombs.

Someone steers the drones.

Someone writes the checks.

But also someone speaks the dehumanizing rhetoric: "they only want money", "they're all rapists and murderers," "they can't be trusted in a public restroom", "they're ruining this country." 

And someone listens.

Rhetoric has consequences.

Resist being one of these someones. Do what you can to help others resist being these someones.

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Hiroshima mon Amour

The same amazing non-linear storytelling that we saw in masterful use last week kind of makes its cinematic debut here, in Alain Resnais' 1959 drama Hiroshima mon Amour. Sure, as we point out, other films had used flashback, but none in quite this way, a much more literary way to be sure (we cite To The Lighthouse, but Slaughterhouse Five is perhaps the literary codifier of the method). In any case, though, Hiroshima mon Amour's technique became THE film narrative for flashback. And we're all lucky for that.

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I Fidanzati

Another great episode where halfway through talking about it we finally start to understand it fully. I Fidanzati (1963) is a film about memory: how memories shape what we’re perceiving in the present, and how our feelings in the present affect how we remember things. Ermanno Olmi is brilliant, no doubt, and the way the flashbacks in this film playout were extremely influential. (And also entertaining, which is just bonus I guess?)

Il Posto

Though he was working a decade after the movement "ended" Ermanno Olmi's films have all the hallmarks of Italian neorealism even though he claims his film style is a response to (and rejection of) Italian neorealism. That is absurd on it's face, but not the same type of absurd as Il Posto. Olmi's 1961 film is a coming of age tale that the director claims is semi-autobiographical, though we've heard that before. True to life or not, Il Posto is true-to-life with all the hilarity and disappointment that comes with life.

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