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L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961)
L'Année dernière à Marienbad
Alain Resnais' "L'année dernière à Marienbad" (1961) is a product of- and prisoner in- the world of cinema. Its story (and I use that word loosely) and its theme of the fallacy of human memory, can only be expressed through the filmic technique and language. "Marienbad" would be woefully out of place on a theatrical stage or even in the pages of a novel. It is much more akin, as are the purest of films, to the cerebral nature of poetry and the aesthetics of other visual arts. Regardless of if one derives any coherence from an initial viewing, it is nearly impossible not to be spellbound by the beauty of Resnais' images. The château- at Marienbad?- where the entire film unfolds is a place of Baroque opulence. Resnais' camera leisurely travels along the empty corridors and through ornate and archaic salons, allowing us to share its perspective and, in a sense, become one of the ubiquitous guests.
There are, of course, three guests who will become the film's primary focus. Unnamed and undeveloped, these characters still achieve a distinct knowableness in our consciousness. Indeed they should, as they are archetypes most viewers will instantly recognize from other, more narrative-oriented works. Our protagonist: naturally, the dashing leading man; the object of his affection: the chic, withdrawn beauty; and completing the requisite triangle is the beauty's darkly sinister husband and/or lover. The extent of the plot is this: Man attempts to convince unbelieving or un-admitting Woman they had a previous tryst one year prior at, perhaps, Marienbad and made plans to reunite at this later point in time. The majority of the film's relatively brief running time is spent working and reworking various reconfigurations of these events both at present, as well as coiling back to that previous year. Confusion stems from our inability to distinguish fact from fiction, flashback from fantasy, and in due course past from present. Linear causality is fruitless to seek out as all compositional elements are kept in a constant state of flux. There are even times when the piece takes on the quality of a trite melodrama undergoing radical deconstruction. But as an ultimate explanation, that would make things far too easy.
Observing the concrete, geometrically enthused gardens of the château (a location returned to repeatedly in the film), we are reminded that for as methodically constructed as these estate grounds are, the film itself is equally as fluid and esoteric. And what also of the orderly game of mathematical logic played by the two men of our love triangle? We will notice that when first introduced the Nim game is played with cards, later with matchsticks. The manipulatives are interchangeable; the game remains the same. Could it not be said that the players in our love triangle are just as interchangeable? We hardly know them. Could they not be any man, any woman, any lovers? Any case of unrequited love played out against the background of Marienbad- or elsewhere? This is my theory. But my uncertainty as to its exactitude is what will keep me returning again and again to Marienbad.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
If it is possible for a single shot to sum up an entire film, the shot of the bicycle racing across the moon does that for "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." For those who were introduced to "E.T." during their childhood, the film will always offer an unparalleled nostalgia. Spielberg wisely sets the film in American suburbia, a place where many of us feel instantly at home. It is here we are introduced to the family E.T. will soon call his, loving headed by single mother Dee Wallace. Of course, besides E.T. himself, the true stars here are the children (Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton, and Henry Thomas). Precocious Barrymore offers innocence and humor to every scene she's in and Thomas, as our hero Elliott, brings maturity far beyond his years to the screen. Who would have imagined that one of the most affecting relationships ever captured on film would be that between a little boy and a visitor from outer space?
Special effects are certainly essential to this movie, and Spielberg is unquestionably a master of them, but for the movie to work, we can't simply look at E.T. and ask, "How'd they do that?" We have to feel the same connection with him Elliot feels. And we do. We sense the homesickness in E.T.'s over-sized eyes. We marvel as he gives life to a flower and puts on a magic show with a model of the solar system. We delight in his fondness for Reese's Pieces. We instinctually know that his glowing red heart is so very good. And when he asks to phone home, we are touched more than seems natural for three little words. I don't cry easily at films. Very few, including those about the most disheartening tragedies, actually bring me to tears. I'm not at all ashamed to admit that "E.T." is one which did.
While displaying more profundity in numerous ways, "E.T." never forgets its roots as a science-fiction film. Though sci-fi doesn't necessarily require this, many films in the genre deal with the sky and what exists beyond it. Back at the turn of the century when film was still in its infancy, one of the first sci-fi features, Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon," featured space exploration as its theme. "The Thing from Another World," cult classic of the 1950s, offered its classic warning "Watch the skies!" However, "E.T." is different from these and other like films. As opposed to driving the plot with conflict between creatures from different worlds, "E.T." allows them to exist as friends. Science-fiction films are successful when they capture an audience's imagine. "E.T." certainly does. But in many scenes it goes beyond that, such as when that bike soars across the moon. It makes our hearts soar too.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Bringing Up Baby
When first we see Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' classic screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby," he sits under a nearly constructed brontosaurus skeleton, dwarfed by the aged relic. What we witness in his final appearance in the film's final scene is Grant now positioned above the skeleton, which lies in ruins on the floor below him. These images nicely parallel the journey of Grant's character, scientist David Huxley, throughout the film. At the beginning we see him as a somber man enslaved to his work and uptight fiancée, Miss Swallow (Virginia Walker). He ultimately finishes as an emerging free spirit, open more than ever to the sometimes zaniness of life. The catalyst in this change, of course, is Katharine Hepburn in a brilliant portrayal as the irrepressible socialite Susan Vance. Through the misadventures David experiences with her, and a certain leopard named Baby, he is finally able to experience the freedom of skirting the rules and living life as he sees fit.
It's such a delight to watch this film and revel in its madcap situations and witty dialogue. Made under the constraints of the recently enforced Hays Production Code, it's equally fun to watch (and listen) for its veiled indiscretions and naughty innuendos. The storyline of "Bringing Up Baby" is kept simple enough. It practically has to be, or the viewer wouldn't hope of catching the copious jokes that fly by at a breakneck pace. Like the narrative, the film's score is also kept minimal, drawing heavily on repetitions of the popular song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," all but once sung by the characters themselves. The film has some clever visual touches too. Watch for the fun it pokes at Miss Swallow, the character who is constantly reminding David of the obligations he must adhere to, as well as proper social etiquette, in stark opposition to Susan. The film takes full advantage of the costuming of the two actresses, with Susan wearing light and flowing gowns, while Miss Swallow is constricted to tightly fitted black dresses.
Despite the fact that in 1938 America was still dealing with the Great Depression, one would never know this looking back upon "Bringing Up Baby," without outside historical knowledge. The world inhabited by the characters of the film is one of successful occupations, leisurely afternoons on the golf course, nights at stylish hotel clubrooms, and talk of million dollar inheritances. This, coupled with the carefree antics of its central characters, make the film a perfect specimen of the cherished escapism of the time. This isn't to say it doesn't hold up well today. In fact, that couldn't be further from the truth. The film perfectly suits lovers of both highbrow and lowbrow comedy, what with its irresistible blend of sharp dialogue and outright slapstick. The film draws from the full spectrum of what makes us laugh. And what more can you ask for in a comedy than that?
A Room with a View (1985)
A Room with a View
"A Room with a View" is certainly a film rarity, in that this adaptation fully lives up to an expectations set by E.M. Forster's classic novel. The film is set during the Edwardian period, a time marked by the replacing of Victorian ways with more liberal ideals. This idea is personified by the static characters of freethinking George Emerson (Julian Sands) and prudish Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day Lewis). Between these two extremes, we find our heroine Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter), a young woman with a zest for life, but unsure of exactly what to do with it. In referencing her skills at the piano, one character puts it quite nicely, "If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting- both for us and her." It proves to be exciting for the audience too, as we watch her coming of age through fascinating interactions with both fiancée Cecil, and George, the young man she meets while abroad in Italy.
It certainly doesn't hurt that these interactions are staged against some of the most beautiful scenery ever seen on the screen. Watching segments of the film with no sound could serve as an effective travelogue for Florence, Italy or Surrey, England. Of course that is just an added bonus, as it is Forster's characters who make the film come so alive. In addition to the three points of the love triangle, veteran actors such as Judi Dench, Denholm Elliot, and Maggie Smith give such performances that upon rereading the novel, I suspect it would be an impossible task to imagine these characters any other way. In addition to the perfect ensemble cast, directing/producing team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory give absolute proficiency to their adaptation of the novel. All the right scenes are there. (We forgive them for a slight alteration to the classic "kiss in field of violets" scene, as violets were not in season during production.) Dialogue is taken directly from the pages of the novel. And they show boldness in their unrestrained filming of a playful skinny-dipping sequence. I suppose it would be hypocritical to shoot a scene lampooning repression in a repressed manner, however.
The basic story of "A Room with a View" is one which may have been told before, but like that special parent or teacher we all had growing up, this film tells that story better than anyone else could ever hope to. Its characters, their sensibilities, and their nuances enchant us. The entire production is a shining example of period film-making and the finished product is one worthy of repeated viewings. It truly gets better each time you see it. You'll notice more too. For instance, pay attention to Lucy's love scenes with her two men, particularly what transpires and whether they take place in or out of doors. It is a testament to the adapters, that other such literary elements from the novel remain intact here. In short, Forster laid the blueprint from which these filmmakers built a tour de force.
Boogie Nights (1997)
"Boogie Nights" is one of those films which can be classified a multitude of ways. It can easily be viewed as period piece, a character study, or a social commentary, among other things. Anyway you look at it, it proves to be an effective piece of film-making. A key to this success is the performance of Mark Wahlberg. Watching him make the transformation for clean-cut kid Eddie Adams to porn superstar Dirk Diggler is what keeps the audience invested in the story being told. In the first half of the film, when it's the most crucial, Wahlberg is able to maintain such innocence and charisma and yet seems instantly at home in the new decadent world his character finds himself in. These scenes work greatly to the film's advantage because they are played with such earnestness. Seeing Eddie Adams embark on his new career, we might as well be watching Peggy Sawyer (of "42nd Street") being told she's headed to Broadway. The whole thing just feels so unexpectedly clean, which in turn may be something of a setup for the much darker moments to come.
Admittedly, the rise (in the late 70s) and fall (in the early 80s) of the pornography industry is an area of history we don't learn about in school. But it is a legitimate topic of interest, nonetheless. While it certainly contains humor and a plethora of colorful characters, "Boogie Nights" takes itself seriously. Aside from sex as a business, issues such as race relations, homophobia, and drug abuse, prove vital to the story it is telling. Another overriding theme of the film is the classic notion of fame as a double-edged sword. One heart wrenching plot line involves a porn actress, gently portrayed by the always wonderful Julianne Moore, who is engaged in a custody battle with her estranged husband over their children. The irony here is that throughout the film we have seen how naturally she mothers those around her, and yet she is ultimately deemed unfit to be a mother to her own children. I'm not saying that decision is wrong, but it isn't easy to watch as she's forced to accept it either.
If in fact porn can ever be inspiring, it is something of an inspiration to see the concern the filmmakers within this film put upon themselves for producing a product they can be proud of. They strive to create movies their audiences will appreciate for reasons beyond the sex. We witness their creative process behind James Bond's porno counterpart, Brock Landers, from brainstorming through production. We see the adult industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards ceremony. It is only when we remind ourselves that these people are pornographers does any of this seem the least bit perverse. I strongly feel that this film is in no way trying to glamorize porn. (The ultimate fates of some of its characters are proof enough of that.) I do, however, feel that sometimes we are too quick to demonize based on preconceived notions. The characters we meet here are all consenting adults, engaged in a lucrative business. True, they are flirting with a myriad of dangers. But this film does them a great justice. It allows us to understand the psychology at work behind the choices they make. And it does us a justice too. It lets us choose whether or not we condemn them for it.
The opening credits of "Halloween" scare us. No action commences until they have finished and yet, even before the first real image of the film comes on the screen, we are filled with a sense of dread. We know the movie we are about to see is going to frighten the hell out of us. This is in thanks to the fantastically eerie score written by John Carpenter himself, coupled with the camera's inching forward towards a flickering jack-o-lantern. He sits there with that disquieting grin during the film's title sequence, as though taunting us, daring us to watch this movie. From there, we are treated (although I suspect that's really not the right word) to a prologue done entirely in a continuous point-of-view shot of the killer. We are given no choice but to go with him, and from his vantage, witness what is easily the most heinous act in the film.
After this, we are given virtually our only momentary reprieve in the unrelenting suspense this film is able to sustain. Even when nothing ominous is in sight, we can't shake the feeling that it is waiting just outside our peripheral vision, ready to attack at the most opportune moment. This sense doesn't lie, as the film features numerous "jump scenes" which are all too effective. Surprisingly for this type of film, "Halloween" is devoid of any actual gore or scenes of carnage. Carpenter uses this to his advantage. He knows that blood would let us off too easily. It would allow us to be disgusted, thus focusing our attention on something besides the persistent terror. Some horror movies go for visceral thrills and some manage to engage our inner psyches. "Halloween" does both. The film was made by a group of young filmmakers with such "Let's put on a show!" type attitudes that none of its elements show any sign of pretension. I think that's why it works. We believe it.
I realize I've yet to discuss either the plot or characters of "Halloween." They are both so basic and straightforward, they almost seem inconsequential when discussing the film's impact as a whole. Of course, the performances are very good. Jamie Lee Curtis is pitch perfect as girl-next-door Laurie Strode, the heroine you love to root for. And Donald Pleasence, as Dr. Sam Loomis, gives the whole thing a further air of credibility. And there is another character too. Michael Meyers is obviously now an icon in the horror genre, but it's really quite amazing when you think of how little you see him in this first installment of the franchise. He has such little screen time and yet his presence is felt constantly. The filmmakers deserve high praise for this, among their many other achievements. In seeking to make a simple thriller, they made a genre-defining classic. I think it's best when viewed on these same terms. Unlike some, I've decided never to try and ascertain what exactly Michael Meyers represents. I prefer to stand firm in my rather simple conviction: I never want him stalking me.
No film captures the classical Hollywood style quite so well as "Casablanca." The film seamlessly combines romance and intrigue in its exotic location, remarkably conveyed by mere studio sets. The black and white cinematography is perfect for capturing and adding mood to the smoke filled rooms, war torn city streets, and foggy airports that compose the world of this film. Despite seeming a product of its time, "Casablanca" is truly a timeless piece of entertainment. It would be futile to recount the plot here. Even those who have never seen the film are likely to be aware that "Casablanca" is the film where Ingrid Bergman is forced to chose between old lover Humphrey Bogart and her resistance leader husband (the often overlooked Paul Henreid). Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the center of the love triangle, is magnificent here. She communicates with such ease the very different types of love she feels for each man in her life, and we sympathize with her struggle. Of course, Bogart too created a legendary performance as café owner Rick Blaine. Seeing him transform from the man who will stick his neck out for nobody to someone content with making a great self-sacrifice is one of the joys of the film.
Bogart and Bergman are leading players among equals however, and are rightly matched by numerous character actors, not the least of which is Claude Rains. In his portrayal of French Vichy officer Captain Renault, he hits the perfect notes to show off both the corrupt and goodhearted sides of the character. He also gets to deliver some of the film's best comedic one-liners. Another unforgettable actor is Dooley Wilson as the congenial piano player Sam, who of course provides the quintessential rendition of "As Time Goes By". Director Michael Curtiz certainly does these fine actors justice. The film has some striking visuals too. Be on the lookout for the raindrops on a letter which look more like tears, and the symbolism provided by a bottle of water towards the film's end. Viewers aware of the many troubles that plagued the production of "Casablanca," should be amazed at the manner in which the film as a whole is able to so greatly transcend the sum of its parts.
When you pause and really consider it, "Casablanca" is a much simpler film than many others also hailed as classics. It was based on an unremarkable (and unproduced) stage play, shot on a modest budget, and released with the thought of the natural appeal it would carry for its wartime audiences. And yet it has endured so long beyond that. Much has been made on the subject of reading "Casablanca" as a political allegory, with Rick representing isolationist America, Lazlo the Free French, so on, and so on. This rightfully compels the film student in me. But in all actuality, the romantic in me is much more captivated by the story of three little people caught up in the problems of a crazy world. The nuances of the characters, the sense of urgency ominously hanging over every scene, and the tear jerking story of love lost, found, and lost once more in the name of a bigger cause are the elements that stay with us. For me, as well as countless other film lovers around the world, the first viewing of "Casablanca" proves to be the start of a very beautiful friendship.
The Dreamers (2003)
The characters of "The Dreamers" love movies. They pass their time quoting them, reenacting scenes from them, and debating age-old questions such as the merits of Chaplin versus Keaton. When at the cinema, they make sure to sit in the rows closest to the screen. Why? So the images will reach them before anyone else, while still fresh. If this strikes you as illogical, perhaps "The Dreamers" isn't the movie for you. This is a film about film lovers and will likely be most appreciated by lovers of film in return. The basic narrative follows Matthew, a young American (the boyish Michael Pitt), who is studying in Paris during the late 60s, the time of the student riots. The film does a good job of setting up the loneliness which engulfs him in this foreign place, so we are quick to understand why he so eagerly accepts the offer to stay with French twins Isabelle and Theo (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) he has met at- where else?- the cinema.
As the three take up life in their spacious Parisian flat, vacated by the twins' parents while abroad, Matthew senses that something about these two is a bit off. It isn't long before he is aware of the incestuous undertones constantly present in the twins' interactions with one another. In attempting to confirm that their relationship does have some degree of limitations, Matthew questions Isabelle, receiving the chilling response, "He is always inside of me." It may be reassuring to Matthew, as well as many audience members, that no, these characters never sleep together in the literal sense. What is at work here is something much more difficult to explain. The film handles it well. Eventually, in an attempt to break Isabelle out of her self-inflicted dependency on her brother, Matthew asks her on a date, which proves to be the most joyfully innocent moment of the film. From here, things turn slightly ambiguous and the film opts to relinquish the personal, in favor of a more political ending. It is interesting to note the closing credits run over chanteuse Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No, I Regret Nothing). If we knew whether or not this was chosen in irony, a lot would be explained.
One can't help compare "The Dreamers" to Bertolucci's other Parisian-set exploration of erotica, "Last Tango in Paris." That film contained two lovers who were very much dead inside. "The Dreamers" contains three who are filled with youthful exuberance and have seemingly endless passion for things such as politics and the arts. Both films are frank and graphic in how they depict sex. As a matter of course, both stirred much controversy. I suspect many people will watch "The Dreamers" already expecting to be incensed by it. That is their loss. For those who are willing, "The Dreamers" can be a changing experience. What exactly it changes, however, is certainly bound to vary from person to person. Perhaps it will force you to reconsider your political outlook. Possibly it will alter how you view societally unacceptable relationships. Conceivably it could lead you to the realization of just how great an impact the films have on some people and their existence. Or maybe it will change your stance on who really was better: Chaplin or Keaton?
Side note: I found it endlessly refreshing to find a film where characters spoke in their native language when appropriate, and the audience was forced to make-do with subtitles.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
The first time you see "Mulholland Drive," the most you can do is experience it. The second time, you'll notice more and perhaps a few pieces will fall into place. You can expect more of this the third time you see it. And the fourth. How many viewings does it take to get to the heart of "Mulholland Drive?" One wonders if it's a possibility. On a more serious note, what some would argue as David Lynch's best film, is a film rich in atmosphere, symbolism, and existential ideologies. The plot, which is still highly debated and theorized among film buffs, revolves around two women: an exotic amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) and a bright-eyed ingénue (Naomi Watts) just arrived in a stylized and mystical Hollywood. Together, they investigate a mystery that encompasses a car crash, a locked box, a decaying corpse, and a purse full of money. Characters come and go and scenes flow from one to the next, with barely any concrete thread holding them together.
Lynch proves fearless in ignoring convention and throwing linear storytelling to the wind. He's not alone in his dexterity, however. Naomi Watts gives the best performance I've ever seen in the movies here. Lon Chaney, character actor of the silent era, has been fondly nicknamed, "The Man of a Thousand Faces." For her work here, Watts should be dubbed, "The Woman of a Thousand Faces of a Single Character." She plays her ingénue with a range of depths that surpass anything we might expect. In the body of the film, she is clearly its heart and soul. There are no doubt those who will be offended by this film. Perhaps they'll think it's too graphic, too artsy, or too intellectual. They would be right. This isn't a film for everyone. But for those attuned to the graphic, artsy, and intellectual aspects of film, "Mulholland Drive" is surely one of the most rewarding viewing options out there.
For those with the perseverance to work at understanding "Mulholland Drive," there will come a time when they begin to suspect that most of the film's spectacle and eccentric happenings are merely pawns, artistically manipulated to tell a tragically human story. I think this is correct. "Mulholland Drive" is something of a paradox in that it has to be complex and illogical to so truthfully tell its story. After all, the human thought process is one of the greatest complexities in existence and that's essentially what this film is seeking to represent. And it succeeds. It has to, otherwise viewers would never be willing to invest the time necessary to decipher it. All I can suggest is this: see it again. And again. See it until you understand it. And when that time comes, be prepared for it to break your heart.
Double Indemnity (1944)
From the first time he sees that ankle bracelet, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a doomed man. As Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) descends her California home's spiral staircase, we are as enraptured as Neff. And it takes little time to figure out that being enraptured by this femme fatale is a very dangerous position to find oneself in. Is it accidental that the bracelet is worn around her ankle, as opposed to the more traditional wrist? Is it accidental that the sunlight streaming through the windows cast shadows not unlike bars across the living room? I suspect it's about as accidental as Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) eventually ending up dead along the railroad tracks. We must remember that Billy Wilder is doing more than evoking noir here, he's inventing it. And how brave he is! Beginning the film by all but divulging the ending is hardly the route most directors choose to go when directing a thriller. But as he's well aware, the audience doesn't care half as much about where they end up as they do about the thrill of the ride it takes to get them there.
The structure of the film is familiar to anyone who has seen "Body Heat," or any other knockoff. "Double Indemnity" is the original however, and it's intricate plot revels in its complexities nearly as much as Walter and Phyllis do in their convoluted plot to dispose of an unwanted husband. The audience learns only a minimum about the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dietrichson, but we easily surmise that their union was not out of love. If the marriage was one of convenience, than the murder certainly is. It seems unlikely Phyllis is after the freedom to continue her heady tryst with Walter, and even the money provided by the double indemnity clause of Mr. Dietrichson's life insurance policy seems more like a bonus than a motivation. In other words, Phyllis just wants her husband dead. And Neff obliges.
Several times while watching "Double Indemnity," I felt my pulse physically quicken. These scenes were most notably the ones in which it looked as though Walter and Phyllis' trolley car had finally reached the end of its line, and discovery of their crime was inevitable. The scene where Phyllis is forced to hide behind a door, knowing that incrimination awaits if the person on the other side sees her, is unrelenting in its suspense. After all, we want this reprehensible act to go off without a hitch every bit as much as they do. That is the sign of a good film. It also stands to reason, seeing as how we were there when the elaborate scheme was being plotted. That makes us accessories. And if they get caught, God help us, so do we.