Powell and Pressburger make some of the best English-language films we’ve seen. But their wartime propaganda films are among the most, lets say, controversial we’ve discussed. Was Colonel Blimp a good movie? Maybe. Did it have among the worst morals we’ve seen in any film in the Collection? Almost certainly. But A Canterbury Tale combines the terribleness of The Archers’ wartime morality with a movie that is just not that good plot-wise. To the point where Adam argues that maybe the simplicity and idiocy of the plot is hint that the moral of the film is simplistic and idiotic and Powell and Pressburger know it. Here’s hoping.
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.)
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.
Mike Leigh's Naked is a bit of a Thatcher-era take on Boudu Saved from Drowning and a bit of an end times prophecy. It's also a pretty off-putting movie, what with all the rapes.
Partway into the episode I present a reading of it as an adaptation of the Odyssey, with David Thewlis's Johnny as Odysseus. While I think that's a fair reading even though there's no cyclops, I only later realized that it's Claire Skinner's Sandra who returns from overseas to kick a bunch of interlopers out of her home, so maybe she's a background Odysseus instead. In any case the films got a lot to say about transience and the lives of people in the bottom rungs of capitalism. I love it, I'm just not sure I could stand to watch it again.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) may be our favorite Nicholas Roeg film, though the bar has been set pretty dang low. Even without David Bowie's performance -- and is he playing any more of a character than "David Bowie" ever was? -- this film deserves its cult status. Still as science fiction it fails for us on two major points:
1) The inventions don't seem that mind-blowing/paradigm shifting for 1976.
2) The departures from the source material eliminate the main anti-American militarism and anti-Nuclear weapons themes and replace them with...we're not entirely sure what this movie wants to say. Something about the alienation of pure genius?
Of course those are themes that show up a lot in science fiction, so I'll allow that Roeg may have been avoiding a cliche. But that doesn't forgive point one, which is a failure of imagination in production design (though it is probably the only aspect of this film that fails to be imaginative enough).
There's a lot about Nicholas Roeg's 1980 psychological thriller Bad Timing that is just bad: Art Garfunkel's staring turn, Harvey Keitel's inconsistent accent, the fact that the film spends 122 minutes suggesting that having sex with an unconscious (and dying) woman isn't rape, etc.
Still the story format itself is interesting -- even if, as one reviewer suggests, there would barely be a story if it were actually told chronologically -- the ambiguity of the nature of the flashbacks is mostly interesting, and Theresa Russell is brilliant, even if she spends most of the film convulsing.
As of this writing 1951's The Browning Version is our final Anthony Asquith film in the Criterion Collection, and while it is also an adaptation of a play it is a very different film to the others we've watched over the years. The Browning Version is certainly bleaker than Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest, but also perhaps more inspiring, in that it actually hopes to be inspiring.
Jules Dassin moved to Europe in 1950 to avoid the blacklist, and his first stop was London -- The City -- where he made Night and the City seemingly quite hastily -- he claims he never even read the script. Fortunately, Dassin could hit all the notes of noir in his sleep. Unfortunately, it seems like he did.
Anyway, five years ago this week we put out our very first episode which introduced us to Jean Renoir and set us on our rollercoaster of a ride. Lost in Criterion as a name was just something that fell into place back then, but five years on we're still hacking our way through an endless jungle. Sometimes we even understand what we're doing. To those of you who have been here the whole time, have come along relatively recently, or, heck, left long ago, thanks for giving us frankly surprisingly high download numbers that convinced us this was a thing worth doing. Now we're stuck doing it forever! Yay!
It's the end of the year, the darkest night has passed (in the northern hemisphere) (literally, even if not symbolically), and we gather our loved ones as we start on our crawl back into the light, rising like Winter Wheat.
Our non-Criterion end of year special this year, Martin McDonagh's 2008 film In Bruges, uses Christmas as purgatory, a time for self-reflection and pushing forward with new resolve. Also a time of depression. Christmas is complicated. Joining us in the complication this year are long-time friend Stephen Goldmeier, returning winter friend Sam Martin, newcomer Ben Jones-White, and (arriving late to the party) occasional guest and theme music composer Jonathan Hape. Hurray, friends!
We've had a good year here at Lost in Criterion, taking the year in small chunks, as we spent nearly a month with late period Jean Renoir, nearly a month with Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, and over a month with the works of John Cassavetes. We also just watched a ton of movies about different sorts of rebellions and revolutions -- Ikuru, Battle of Algiers, The Leopard, and Salvatore Giuliano among a few of others -- because our trip through the Criterion Collection knows we needed escapism about pushing back against apathy, corruption, and tyranny. Hey, speaking of those exact themes: Merry Christmas!
Thank you all for listening! Extra special thanks to those of you who support us on Patreon where you can get access to the rest of the year's non-Criterion bonus episodes! You're all great! Hope you have a wonderful end of (Gregorian) year holiday, whatever you choose to celebrate. Or just a good day today. And a fantastic new year. You're great.
I knew nothing about Tunes of Glory before watching it except that Ronald Neame directed it and Alec Guinness stars as a Scotsman.
Since all the Neame films we've seen so far have been delightfully fun and Alec Guinness heavily made up is good for a laugh or a cringe, I'll be honest I was expecting this 1960 film to be a bit of a lark. It is not. It is so not. And it is wonderful.
We start this week's episode with 15 minutes about linguistics, so have fun with that.
Naked Lunch is a "transgressive" and "unfilmable" novel written by William S. Burroughs in 1959. So unfilmable, in fact, that when David Cronenberg decided to make a movie in 1991 it became less of an adaptation of the specific book and more of a meta-adaptation (or, as Pat argues when we finally start talking about the movie, an uber-meta-adaptation) of Burroughs life and creative process. It's messy and uneven.
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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Derek Jarman's Jubilee is complicated.
It started life as a documentary about Jordan, a movie "about punk rock", and slowly grew into the post-apocalyptic time travel weirdly pro-Monarchy-ish critique of punk rock and British society. As an openly gay man in London in 1978, perhaps Jarman was an outsider outside other outsiders, further anti-establishment than the punk movement he saw around him. At least that's the argument I try to make against Pat and guest Donovan Hill, who really just think Jarman's thesis -- whatever it is -- doesn't land. I don't necessarily love the film, personally, but it's definitely more interesting than I think my cohosts give it credit for.
Of course I could very well be wrong -- certainly Jarman doesn't hit his critique out of the park -- but we manage a pretty great conversation about punk rock, politics, ideals, and selling out. One of my favorite episodes to record, hope you love it as much as I did.
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We return once again to films of The Archers, the illustrious British duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Made during the blitz and released in 1943, Blimp is certainly a pro-war propaganda film, but specifically propagandizing what sort of war the British should be fighting. Spoiler: I find the moral of this film absolutely reprehensible. Pat doesn't find it much better. It's a long film with a lot going on, and as such this is a bit of a long episode. Enjoy!
This week Pat kicks things off with a diatribe against the mood whiplash that we experience going through the Criterion Collection in spine order, which also gives away that we recorded last week’s episode out of sequence since Pat says that Hearts and Minds was our last episode and...it wasn’t.
We’re talking Anthony “Puffin” Asquith’s incredibly faithful 1952 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and while often a too-faithful adaptation can be grating, this is Oscar Wilde. Probably helps that it’s a short 3-scene stage play. Still, Puffin’s is definitive. Productions are still aping his style decades later, not that that keeps modern productions from doing interesting things.
Alec Guinness first tried to read Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth during World War II, but couldn't bear its stream-of-consciousness narrative. Sometime later his wife impressed upon him to give it another shot and he went on to adapt it into a screenplay. Ronald Neame was brought into direct the resulting film, released in 1958, with Guinness staring as the eccentric artist Gulley Jimson. It's often called his funniest film, which is a pretty tough crowd to beat out. Personally, I'd lean toward Murder by Death or Kind Hearts and Coronets for that honor, but The Horse's Mouth is right up there, and quite a bit more poignant even as a comedy.
Peter Medak directs this 1972 adaptation of Peter Barnes' 1968 black, black social, political, and religious satire. Star Peter O'Toole describes The Ruling Class as "a comedy with tragic belief", and that is about as succinct a description as possible for this string of great moments spread across a nearly three hour run time. It's long, but immensely hilarious.
Billy Liar (1963), the film, not the song, has an interesting pedigree that starts with someone reading James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and thinking "that's a really great story, I should steal that." That implies that I've something against author Keith Waterhouse or director John Schlesinger or their work. I totally don't. Stealing plot devices and reimagining them in new settings is a valuable creative tool.
Another Bruce Robinson film this week, and another Richard E. Grant starring role. 1989's How to Get Ahead in Advertising is a biting satire of consumerist culture as Grant's advertising exec has a bad case of a sentient boil. Or just a weird psychotic breakdown.
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, Withnail and I (1987) is a semi-autobiographical tale of alcohol-soaked desperation at the dying end of the 1960's. It's immensely quotable. Do yourself a favor and watch it.