We spend a lot of time this week talking about Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, and on the one hand I feel a bit bad in seeing one Chinese language film and talking about it a lot in comparison to one of the only other Chinese language films the Collection has given us, but on the other Edward Yang’s Yi Yi came out the same year and is Love’s equal in nearly every way and Love is a masterpiece. They are, rightfully, listed as two of the top (often two of the top three) films of the 21st century, and I think objectively they are at the top of the best films outside that century as well. Yi Yi is just amazing (with the possible exception of one artisitc choice I just don’t like, but I don’t know if it’s objectively bad).
You all don’t know this, but this is our first recorded episode in about six weeks and I’m so glad we have Equinox to take that blow. Equinox is two films, the first made by a bunch of kids who would grow up to be the best visual effects artists in American film, the second sold to Jack Harris with additional footage shot by Jack Woods. It’s a ridiculously bad film in either cut, but one with astonishingly good visual effects.
When I first saw that our agenda with the Collection was bringing us another film about a teenage girl’s sexual discovery I was…nervous. We talk about those nerves quite a bit this week, but Molly Haskell’s essay included with the release goes a long way to qualm those fears and explain why they are, for once, perhaps unfounded. Maurice Pialat’s A nos amours (1983) could have easily been something it wasn’t, and may even have been equally praised if it were. Instead we get something Cassavetes-esque that respects its main character. Though there’s probably still too much nudity given her age.
Slacker was one of our favorite films we’ve done for Lost in Criterion, but Richard Linklater’s follow-up Dazed and Confused’s marketing as a stoner comedy meant we know a lot of people who love the movie whose opinions we find suspect. Though, to be fair, a lot of people we know whose opinions should be trusted also like the movie. Anyway, we have a sprawling conversation on the dangers of nostalgia and whether or not Linklater agrees with the danger, because Pat doesn’t think he does and I can’t see how he doesn’t.
After our run of later period, more biographical Louis Malle films a few weeks ago we swing back with his first feature length, which is a different sort of master work than Au Revoir les Enfants but still sticks with me. Elevator to the Gallows, or Lift to the Scaffold as the British (and Pat) demand to call it, is a noir murder with a bit of Bunuelian stream of consciousness thrown in and a level of suspense fit for Hitchcock if not Clouzot. And all that name-dropping aside, it’s also just a really good film.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.