Paul Robeson: Icon

We have another boxset for October, but a marked change from our September Monsters and Madmen set. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist is an exploration of singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson’s career from his start in the 20’s to his essential house arrest in the early 50’s when the US Government revoked his passport and refused to let him leave the country over his politics.

Criterion delivers the films to us in themed pairs on each Spine number, so we’ll be dealing with them in that division. First up is Paul Robeson: Icon containing Dudley Murphy’s 1933 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones, which Robeson had been starring in on stage since 1925, and Saul J. Turell’s 1979 retrospective documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.

Monsters and Madmen: The Atomic Submarine

The only entry into the Monsters and Madmen boxset that isn’t directed by Robert Day, Spencer Gordon Bennet’s The Atomic Sub imagines a world where submarines provide intercontinental shipping and passenger service under the arctic, at least until those subs start mysteriously disappearing. Come for the alternative future! Stay for the special effects! Leave before the sworn pacifist realizes war is good!

Clean, Shaven

Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is intense. It’s not entirely clear what exactly is happening within the film narrative and what is just the main characters auditory (and possibly visual) hallucinations. But one thing that is clear is that the public and the authorities do not know how to compassionately react to our main character. So quick point, however you feel about police as a group, it’s not their job to help people having psychological breakdowns, and don’t call the gun people when you need someone with different tools. In that regard see Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s documentary Peace Officer. It’s estimated that between a third and a half of people killed by police every year have a disability and that the majority of those are mental illness, autism, or developmental disabilities. You can save a life by finding an alternative to calling the police.

Koko: A Talking Gorilla

I can’t, and will not try to, speak to the nature of the Gorilla Foundation’s current model, but the one recorded in Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary on Penny Patterson’s attempts to teach Koko a modified version of American Sign Language appear to lack a certain rigor that Pat and I question. Pat, having been an anthropology undergrad, has seen and critiqued the film before. While Schroeder damningly states that Koko may become the world’s first White American Protestant Gorilla, Dr. Patterson may have just ruined a perfectly good monkey. Schroeder mostly lets the issue lay bare and allows the viewer to decide the experiments merit and achievements. I say mostly because his talk with San Francisco Zoo Director Saul Kitchener makes that zoologist with a primate specialty look like a mean man who wants to take his ape back from the loving psychologist (who wants to give it hamburgers). Along the way we talk about racism and classism, To Kill a Mockingbird and Planet of the Apes, because this wouldn’t be Lost in Criterion if we didn’t.

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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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Heaven Can Wait

It's been over two years since we've heard from Ernst Lubistch, despite his being one of the most influential directors in Hollywood. Back then we had the pre-Code Trouble in Paradise and its ridiculously risque writing, but 1942's Heaven Can Wait isn't quite so overtly sexual, in fact despite the plot stemming from the main character's insistence to Satan himself that he is an evil philanderer, we never really see him even approaching cheating on his wife.

It's almost relaxing to have a mid-century Hollywood comedy after a long, long run of films that want to say something, but maybe we're wrong about Lubitsch and Heaven Can Wait. What if this really is a political film? What if we can read a political message into anything?

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Hoop Dreams

We finish up an array of decidedly different documentaries this week with Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert's Hoop Dreams, the story of Arthur Agee and William Gates, two young men from Chicago with athletic ambitions. Like Burden of Dreams -- though for vastly different reasons -- what was meant to be a short shoot ballooned to four years, and Hoop Dreams arrived as one of the best sports documentaries in history, as well as a lasting indictment on racism and classism in America.

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F for Fake

Before we started our journey of Lost in Criterion I owned two Criterion films: The Third Man and F for Fake. They also happen to be the two movies I most enjoy sharing with other people. I got to make my dear friend Pat watch The Third Man just over four years ago, and now I finally force him to watch F for Fake.
Directed, or perhaps curated, by Orson Welles with footage also directed by François Reichenbach, Oja Kodar, and Gary Graver, F for Fake is a sort of film essay about perceived expertise and fakery. It's a lesson we continue to need.

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The River

Previously on Lost in Criterion:
When Jean Renoir is thinks the world is about to burn we love him. When he's less political, we do not.

On this week's episode:
The River finds Renoir making his first color film which is also the first color Technicolor made in India. Made in 1951, just after India's independence, in the Bengal region, and based on the memoirs of Rumer Godden (who also wrote Black Narcissus). While the Archers ultimately seemed to be arguing that India is just too weird for Brits, The River has a little more respect for the population it's movie is ostensibly about. A very little more.

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Thieves' Highway

After making Thieves Highway in 1949 Jules Dassin was blacklisted for being a communist. The movie is about working class men -- Army vets at that -- trying to use capitalism to pull one over on a small-time robber baron, and when that fails there's some violence. It's not quite Marx, but it's not quite not Marx.

Anyway, Dassin would flee to Europe and continue working, first with Night and the City which we'll talk about next week, and later with Rififi, his masterpiece.

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In Bruges

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.

The King of Kings

Cecile B. DeMille's silent religious epics are sights to behold, but not necessarily because they are, how do you say...good?

His 1927 The King of Kings takes quite a bit of liberty with the source material, but that's ok! The source material -- the four Christians Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- presents varying takes on the events they're recording anyway. DeMille, though, makes some pretty crazy choices, some good and some very bad. I just...I don't remember the orgy scene in the Gospels.

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Tanner '88

Robert Altman gets political again, but in a very different manner to last week's delightfully weird ranting satire. Instead we have a miniseries set against the 1988 Presidential race that may have been satirical in 1988, but we've gone through the looking glass as of late and instead it's just inside baseball. Which doesn't make it any less funny when it's funny, or poignant when it's poignant -- or exploitive when it's exploitive. Tanner '88, written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, tells the story of a failed campaign in a ripped-from-the-headlines manner involving real political players interacting with Altman's fakes over the course of 11 episodes that are incredibly uneven indvidually, but pretty great as a whole.

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Secret Honor

A clearly disturbed and vile president rants about the conspiracies against him while contemplating suicide, and somehow is so full of pathos that we find ourselves feeling pity instead of anger.

There are...modern parallels? Robert Altman's Secret Honor's exploration of Nixon's psyche is a class of its own, due mostly to Philip Baker Hall's masterful performance. Still it does remind us of certain contemporary pieces, namely the first episode of Comedy Central's The President Show (particularly starting at about the 5 minute mark), and Aimee Mann's brilliantly tragic entry for 30 Days 30 Songs "Can't You Tell?".

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Opening Night

We reach the end of the Five Films by John Cassavetes (though not quite the end of the boxset) with Opening Night from 1977 which, like A Woman Under the Influence, stars Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands. Next week we'll discover that we've been pronouncing her name wrong, but don't let that distract you from her brilliant performance here. Sure the resolution of her character's issues could have been better, and we propose a change to the final scene that would have made this movie beyond compare, but it's still pretty doggone amazing.

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Two films for the price of one this week as we watch the original 135 minute version of John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie from 1976 and then his director's cut which runs 108 minutes from 1978. Of course, since this is Cassavetes, the shorter version isn't just a truncated version but a rather different film in design, in character motivation, and quite a bit of plot. Right from the start we see scenes not in the longer original then a restructuring of the narrative's chronology. The pair form a fascinating look into the psyche of an extraordinary director, only compounded by the suggestion that the story is allegorically autobiographical.

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A Woman Under the Influence

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.

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