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The Nature of Truth
Man can not tell the truth. The truth exists only for an instant, after that it is only a memory, a memory filtered through human perception. Does this make man evil? No, it only makes him human... "Rashomon" deals with such themes. Akira Kurasawa's thought-provoking, meditative, and inovative film asks philosophical questions about the nature of truth, by showing one act of as seen through the eyes of four different people. The results are varied, and obscure the truth. But this is far more complex than one would imagine, for the characters do not, as it is often said, tell the story to make themselves seem the more . In fact, 3/4 claim to have commited the themselves. This results in a profound, but delightful psychological and philosophical puzzle of a film. The visual aesthetics of Kurasawa's film are beautiful, and most innovative considering the very low budget. As a whole the film has a soft, meditative, and very Japanese feel. Scenes of the sun playing through the trees, dappling the ground in dancing shadows, come to mind as being most effective. But what is most impressive, is that the pacing can be so lively, and entertaining, despite the fact that the majority of the film is made up of variations of the same scene. Kurasawa's pallete of truth and humanity introduced western ure to Japanese cinema, and is still a fine introduction to the film of that ure. All in all, "Rashomon" is most interesting, and satisfying fare. World cinema at its finest!
Un chien andalou (1929)
and the sequel is about a cat...
"Un Chien Andalou" (or "An Andalusian Dog," a title which has effectively nothing to do with the film) is virtually a trailer to Luis Bunuel's entire career, containing all the themes the surrealist would later tackle in masterpiece after masterpiece. Actually, that is far from a fair statement. While "Un Chien" is merely 16 minutes long, it is still exceptionally artful, even while it is anti-artistic (that is against everything that had come to be synonymous with art). It is still a delightfully subversive testament to the possibilities of art; possibilities weighed down by years of middle class expectations and oppression.
In this, and many other ways, it is a wicked slap to the face of modern right wing sensibilities, and not only formally, but structurally as well. Take the infamous eye-cutting scene for instance. Not only is the content shocking, but the editing. As Bunuel holds the razor to the 's eye, the camera cuts to a shot of a thin cloud bisecting the moon. Conditioned movie audiences will assume this is a metaphor for the eye-cutting, and think they are to be spared the atrocities. But, Bunuel quickly cuts mercilessly to the violent act anyway. In ways like this he infuriates standards set up by typical cinema of every era, and all this back in 1928!
Yet there are still more merits to "Un Chien Andalou," another amazing thing being that it can be at once brilliantly structured and spontaneous, in itself a complete paradox. I can not say that any later film, even in Bunuel's arch, has ever achieved this. So, in this way, "Un Chien Andalou" is the only completely true example of surrealism in film.
I hope this has prompted you to view this film, as I can recommend to it no end. I own a copy and see it quite often, just for a little inspiration until my next viewing. Every time I find it to be fresh and liberating. It is a film that has the retro, razor-blade formula down pat, and I'm just waiting for it to resurface as a major force in pop art and ure. If everyone were to view this film, art would not so often be seen as merely paint and popsicle sticks.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
It's as if Movies Were New Again!
Moulin Rouge hearkens back to a time when movies had the fresh feeling of adolescence, intoxicated by their own possibilities. It's a deliciously offbeat film, completely aware of its own audacity. Not only does it reestablish the movie musical with verve and sincerity, but it does so in a unique and defining way. By mixing turn-of-the-century and contemporary icons, the craziness of the Moulin Rouge is updated for today's desensitized viewers, giving us an idea of just how liberating and frightening it must have been to visit that infamous dance hall all those years ago. It really "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Christian (Ewan McGregor) comes to the Paris of 1899 an idealistic youth, searching for the materialization of his firm beliefs in truth, freedom, beauty, and love. Like a prodigal son he strays to the world of the Moulin Rouge, a decadent world of , , prostitution, and bohemian indulgence. It is there, through the frenetic tempo of extravagant sets and costumes, that he finds Satine (Nicole Kidman) a beautiful but jaded courtesan. Falling into a boyish infatuation, Christian confronts Satine, realizing his love, and her's in return. But their hope is dwindled, as Satine has sold her body in contract to the terrible Duke. Besides that, she is embittered with a horrible and ultimately tragic secret.
The story is clichéd to be sure (it's similarities to Camille often make you wonder if writers weren't merely using an old cliché, but an old movie), but it seems to work, if only because of director Baz Luhrman's wholehearted belief in its values. He digs down into the deeply hidden heart of his story, replacing the dirt of a hundred cheap melodramas with a visual artistry unrivaled by anything in years. In this way it expresses the sincere, almost raw emotion these stories once contained in a completely new way. Did we say completely new way?!
The visual artifice of Moulin Rouge is astoundingly fresh! It's painterly but kinetic in a way only a movie could be. The fabulous choreography, music, set design, performances... all blend to form a visual, aural, and emotional experience like no other! It has the Technicolor richness of a 50's Hollywood musical, but often the feel of a music video. The visual style ranges from somber pop-up book, to giddy cartoon, to lilting romantic dreamworld, to fantastic Bollywood production, and everything fits! That director Luhrman has managed to bring this all to the screen with such clarity is somewhat astonishing.
But of course we could not write a review of Moulin Rouge without mentioning the bizarre choice of music. Luhrman has unusual confidence in his eccentricities. But then again who else could take "Roxanne" and turn it into a beautiful, , haunting tango? And who knew "Like a Virgin" as sung by Jim Broadbent could serve as a goosepimply, if ironically bitter, release?
Of course it could also help that most of these songs are sung by the rapturous voices of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. Their performances are beautiful and sincere, particular Ewan's (that I feel the need to call him by his first name only proves how close to him I became). He becomes his role with unbelievable passion and heart. He has a bit of something that goes beyond acting, he has the magic of a great performance. He can embody youth, charming goofiness, and shattered idealist, and if he wasn't in love with Nicole Kidman! All this he expresses with an absolutely angelic singing voice (even its occasional weaknesses serve as charming strengths). You fall in love not only with him, but for him. The Academy not honoring him with at least a nomination would be a great disappointment.
Nicole Kidman is both y and beautiful, like the film itself a daring blend of old and new. She's part 30's queen, part pop star, a little Marlene Dietrich, a little Madonna. When discussing Moulin Rouge I've found that many would not see it solely because Nicole was in it, and this is sad. Her performance here is excellent, displaying her full range of talents. She expresses her usual cool seductiveness, but also a surprising comic flair, and at times an aching emotion. And did we mention her singing? Like Ewan, Nicole has a hidden vocal talent. Her voice puts resounding meaning into something that was once just something dumb on the radio. Her efforts have resulted in numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, and at least and Oscar nomination is certainly on its way.
The way all these unique visuals, and performances are organized is also extremely unique. The editing style has been criticized as frenetic, and poorly structured, but I would have to disagree. If one watches this film carefully enough they with realize that each cut serves in the dance, by punctuating each note. This becomes most apparent in the previously mention Tango de Roxanne, one of the many brilliantly choreographed, grandiose dance numbers. As the momentum and emotion expressed by the dance and song builds, the editing follows, rapidly increasing in cuts until finally bursting like a heart overwhelmed by its own beating. Similarly, when Christian first enters the Moulin Rouge the frightening madness of it all is perfectly captured by Luhrman's crazed scissors.
That Moulin Rouge has completely polarized critics is of no surprise. A large group of great films have done so, and I think this one is both a socially, and artistically important one. There are many who have called it a ridiculous piece of "pop trash." What these critics seem to forget is that Astaire and Rogers were the biggest pop icons of their era, and their stories were no more original. Ok, maybe Ewan and Nicole aren't exactly Fred and Ginger, but you get my point. Still it is exactly these critics who complain that American film studious never churn out anything original, and then turn to panning a film like this.
But regardless of how anyone else sees it, I would call Moulin Rouge a great film, and doubtlessly my favorite of the year. It is easily deserving of awards in the majority of Oscar categories. Acting, editing, set and costume design, direction, everything is in its own way unique and beautiful. It may look like Busby Berkeley on acid, but beneath the extravagance is a beating emotion. In a film industry ted by cynicism, it is relieving to find a movie that dares to be sincere. Say what you will, but this Oscar season I'll be rooting for the most opulent, energetic, emotional, beautiful, brilliant, audacious movie of the year. Moulin Rouge anyone?
Halfway through CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING my opening line for this review would have been something like this; "a drawn out, poorly photographed mish-mash of uninspired surrealistic images. However, gradually as the film drew me further into its unescapable web, I began to realize that the films images weren't uninspired, they were simply detached, in the logic of a dream. True to that statement, CELINE AND JULIE is the most realistic demonstration of a dream state I have ever witnessed. It is drawn out, but it's also meditative, not to mention fascinating, and strangely, as in dreams, realistic. Gradually you don't notice the irrationality, like a dream you simply feed off its aestheics. And as the "swiss cheese" plot begins to fill in, your excitment grows as you long for a better understanding. Now, Freuds will no doubt aply their psuedo-symbolism to a film such as CELINE AND JULIE, I myself find it to be a film about a search for inner childhood (notice the "haunted house" plot is the womens attempts to rescue a small girl). It is a film that demonstrates the way imagination gives our lives a needed purpose.
Gosford Park (2001)
Sly Yet Subtle. Very Worthwhile.
Gosford Park is a most unusual and complex film. Its all about the "getting there," and then when it does "get there" the "gotten" only serves to compliment the "getting." Yes, there is a mystery, and yes it is solved, but this only further complicates the characters and their relationships to one another. The revelation of the mystery only affords a greater mystery. So, in all actuality, the ending is only the place where the movie ends and the credits begin. How Gosford Park is all this and still manages to be satisfying is, perhaps, the greatest mystery of all.
The plot of Gosford Park is entirely to complex to be neatly tidied up here, besides anything less than a full script would be superficial. I will say, however, that it concerns a massive group of impossibly rich characters, invited to a party circa November 1932. Nearly all of these are restricted to the upstairs (aristocrats) and downstairs (servants). The first half of the film would seem to show the differences between these, but then, ironically, someone is ed and the film takes the opposite turn. Suddenly, each of these people are all just people, and the only thing dividing them is a set of stairs and musty ideals. Each group is, after all, made up of individuals put in their place solely by chance. In the end everyone has their own specific problems and concerns, that may or may not relate to their class, and are often either paralleled or mingled with the opposite class.
Do these themes resolve the movie? Well, yes and no. In the end the is irrelevant, and could have been substituted by any similar scandal or tragedy. It is the characters that matter. We never really find out just who everyone is, but that, the mystery left unsolved, may be the point of the movie. Gosford Park is at first all about surfaces, every character begins a caricature. However, gradually we realize that there is something never completely disclosed going on beneath the surface. Sure there are little revelations throughout, but all they really tell us is that each character is more than meets the eye. In an exact reversal of typical narrative, the characters start out simple and accessible, but end complex and mysterious. So their plights are never really resolved, they may still come away a little bit wiser for their visit.
All of this is made rich by cunning direction, lush photography, and impossibly wonderful performances. That director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) manages to drag a brilliant performance out every every member of his whopping 23-character cast is, well, like I said... impossible. But then again Altman really doesn't seem to give a damn. He is one of the most talented directors of our age, and he puts that talent to good use here. He knows the tricks of his trade very well. He can make any character an , a suspect, and all with the angle of his camera. And how he handles that cast...!
Speaking of which, it would take entirely to much text to detail the performances of each main character, as there are so many of them. However, there are two female performances that stand out, and seem to be garnering special attention. Maggie Smith is a show-stealer. She is so wonderfully bitchy and disdainful in her role, really giddy to behold. She manages to teeter perfectly between being a part of her class, and absolutely contemptuous of it. Then, in the opposite light is Helen Mirren. A servant, her performance is composed of subtle glances which tell us just enough of her bitterness, cynicism, and ultimate love, without completely revealing her. She is ultimately very sad, and she suppresses and reveals that sadness in just the right way.
Altman openly claimed his film to be greatly influenced by the classic French film, La Regle Du Jeu, a very similar study of social classes. Does this detract from the film's originality? Not really. Upstairs-Downstairs movies are really a genre all their own. Antiwar films, interracial love stories, teen angst dramas and other specific types of movies all may express very similar themes, but they can also be very unique. Gosford Park expresses the universal ideas of La Regle, but in a different manner. It lifts the themes and settings of the earlier film, and populates them with many different characters, and situations. The tone is different as well...
In Gosford Park Altman takes a very sly, farcical approach to his material. When watching it I got the feeling that he was like a kid throwing rocks into a busy anthill. His is his greatest rock, and one the ants spend a great deal of time figuring out how to approach. Should they swarm all over it, stand aside and laugh scornfully, hide away, or blame each other? Altman's ants all take a different approach. In the end there's just this rock sitting in the anthill, and they all leave. Besides, if anyone committed the it was Altman himself.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
A Charming, Christmas Treat!
"The Shop Around the Corner" is a film about people. Simple everyday people, and just how colorful they can realy be. That romance plays a large role in the lives of people is, as far as this film is concerned, of no coincidence. Set around Christmas, "The Shop Around the Corner" makes a wonderfully festive film, although it does not deal with Christmas directly. But as Christmas brings out both the best and worst of people, it could not be a better stage for this delightful and touching film. In the hands of a great director a depression ridden Budapest becomes a soft, charming heaven on earth. And two "psychologicaly very confused" people become the luckiest on earth.
As it is nearing the Holidays, please, do not pass up this film. Get as many people you love together, or perhaps best just that special one, and prepare to be introduced to a wonderful new Christmas tradition.
My Little Chickadee (1940)
A Sad relic of May, a Fine Example of Fields.
Mae West was certainly not your classic beauty, but sauntering into Hollywood at the age of 40 (!) she was somehow very attractive, if more in a "just can't take your eyes off" sort of way than one of genuine good looks. She had a saucy charisma and brash feminine confidence that made her age and weight oddly desirable, and within the start of her film career a bonafide symbol. But by the time of "My Little Chickadee," at 48, it seems her age has finally caught up to her, and she is reduced to making cheap imitations of herself. The magic and allure is all gone, and though she makes a brave attempt at salvaging a last piece of that brazen hell of films like "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel," her success is poor. What's more her self-confidence has seemed to become a self-centerdness, and she no longer seems to be acting, but standing alone quoting herself. She no longer really reacts to anyone, but is completely self-contained, as if she was the only actor in the whole picture.
But old age, weight, and wrinkles, the things that most dragged down West, only add to the charm of Fields, who turns in a delightful and suitable performance. For Fields, "My Little Chickadee" only helps to better define his screen presence, and at times he would be very funny. I say "would be." Perhaps it is the admirable struggle and fail of a star who could have nearly retired by the time she was just starting out, but the film has an air of sadness that... well, just isn't funny.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
A Richly Layered, Tauntingly Fascinating Spectacle!
"The is a Woman" is a wholly artificial film, dealing with wholly artificial people, amidst wholly artificial surroundings. Like "The Scarlet Empress" with imperial Russia before it, "The is a Woman" takes the simple idea of old Spain during carnival, and exaggerates it into a fantastic world choking itself with an impossible amount of streamers, confetti, and grotesquely costumed revelers. Essentially to Spanish to possibly be Spanish, the atmosphere created gives a richly textured visual feel. It becomes a costume as garish as those the Spanish people wear, disguising a series of complex and controversial themes, which could never be used as open plot devices. Director Josef von Sternberg is obviously aware of the conventions and restraints set up by Hollywood, twisting them to his own good. Using the illusion of a typical Hollywood story, he thinly but potently veils these visual costumes, which in themselves hide his rich themes, creating a film so layered its staggering!
At the center of all this is a Dietrich so beautiful, it is not quite possible to believe she ever existed outside this fantastic world created for her. Impeccably lighted, and costumed in the most flamboyant trappings imaginable, she is a toyingly evil creature of film, more alive than ever. Is it any wonder her character ruins so many men, on film alone you could fall in love with her?!
"The is a Woman" is a completely visual film. It's themes and ideas do not come from what you hear, but what you see. The plot, which seems to hide them, is really needed only that these themes and visuals may gradually reach you. I think, essentially, that story for Sternberg was like the cherry flavor in cough medicine, designed only to help you swallow the truly important stuff. Perhaps we may never reach the center of a film like "The is a Woman." If we did would we find the key to everything, or merely emptiness?
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Art Masquerading as Camp!
"The Bride of Frankenstein" has less in common with films like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" than it does with those made by von Sternberg and Dietrich (a la "The Scarlet Empress") in relatively the same era. Both "Bride" and these use their genre along with an excessive amount of bizzare, campy aesthetics to strangely both mask and accentuate a series of profoundly artful, but socialy unacceptable ideas. Like Murnau with his horror masterpiece "Nosferatu" before him, it is often speculated that director Whale used "Bride" as a way of expressing his otherwise suppressed boudoir ambiguity. Through this the film gains a very uneasy atmosphere, which can certainly not be attributed to a scary monster. Someone (the name escapes) once said that the greatest enemy of art is the absence of limitations. "The Bride of Frankenstein" slyly proves this.
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Garishly Ornate, Complex Vision of Surreal Decadence!
Two gnarled statues of grotesque beasts make love in the garden, a perverse cuckoo clock exposes female bodily organs, a skeletal figure shot through with arrows twists its face in a silent wail towards heaven. This is the decor of "The Scarlet Empress," furnishings which speak more of the film's themes and ideas than the plot could ever be allowed to. The actors remain intentionally wooden; it's as if the world around them was an expression of their suppressed emotions. Shame takes the guise of chairs, but chairs in the shape of gargantuan, deformed old men hiding their stricken faces in hideous fingers. Masochism is occasionally a clock, lust a decorative food display, but all perverse, leering. And death... Everywhere is a ghastly preoccupation with death, icons proudly display decapitation, skeletons stretch themselves over boiling cauldrons, while ghastly statues of tortured corpses lurk in every shadowy corner. Together this creates a world of painful decadence, a disgusting, yet fascinating dreamscape of visual pleasure.
All this takes form and depth, is sculpted by director Sternberg's haunting lighting. It is "his" light, he lords over it, and with it anything is possible. He can make a face beautiful or ugly, innocent or evil. He can accentuate a certain side of a person's nature, or how a specific set piece relates to it, all with the proper illumination.
If his lighting is astounding, equally so is Sternberg's use of the visual motifs in his mise en scene (bells, veils, figures, specific set pieces, etc...) to transport the viewer back and forth through the film. For instance, the binding of Catherine and Peter's hands at their marriage is later echoed by an unquestionably similar knot Catherine ties in a napkin she is fondling, and then tosses onto the table of she and Peter's last meal together. The initiation of their marriage and the initiation of its end are in this way linked, and the audience is forced to take into account the changes in both their characters. Not only does the rhythm of these motifs remain figurative. The movement of the film takes on a distinct rhythm as well. A swinging motif is evident throughout, the bells, the incense burners, Catherine's swing, the hoopskirts, a baby's basket, and so on. In this the film takes the feel of a frenzied, but excellently choreographed dance.
But in all this there is one thing more noteworthy. Marlene Dietrich radiates! Quite possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, she begins innocent and virginal (seemingly intentionally melodramatically), standing out in a world of amorality. She is both the happiest and saddest point of the film. Her wedding to the vulgar Peter in an immense, yet claustrophobic cathedral is the most emotional part of the film. As it is filmed entirely in a series of close-ups of individuals, and long shots that blur their faces, there is no discernible eye connection between any of the characters. She is completely alone. As a voyeuristic camera cuts closer and closer to her trembling, veiled face, we suddenly feel the need to turn away. We know now that this last thread of decency is about to be crippled. Soon enough her innocence begins to fade before her sexuality, and the surroundings that once nearly suppressed her, she lords over, a queen of immorality.
"The Scarlet Empress" expresses the essence of film, and why it succeeds as an art form. It creates the possibility of a world almost wholly artificial, divorced from anything that ever was. It retains only fragmentary reproductions of something that existed in a pre-filmed state, combining and distorting them to effect something 90% fake. What's more that seems all it is interested in. No other artistic medium (aside from painting) is viewed worthy of its visuals, and all theatrical, literary, or other requirements are given little attention. They are flippantly thrown in only to please a narrow minded audience, and occasionally (but very, very rarely) to accentuate the films themes. Yet painting, ah yes, painting. That was a medium worthy of a brilliant visionary like Sternberg, and one he transferred to the screen with gusto. "The Scarlet Empress" is to Dali in its obsession with the bizarre, da Vinci in its detail, Picasso in its complexity of associations, but entirely Sternberg in its conception.