The Ruling Class
Lady Claire Gurney: "How do you know you're God? Jack: "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself." -- The Ruling Class It's hard to imagine Peter O'Toole still acting in today's cinema, mainly because he seems too great to be cast as an extra or even take up a voice role, as he did in the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatouille. It would have been nice to see him still receiving leading rolls like his '60/'70s acting peers, such as Michael Caine, but the truth is, his essence is perhaps a bit grandiose. It worked wonders in movies like Becket, Laurence of Arabia, and Lord Jim, and it was given the most space and nourishment in The Ruling Class. In fact, I will firmly state that there could have been no one else, in the history of acting, who could pull off a role of such hysterics, and yet keep it level with the audiences' many emotions. Who else could pull off a character who is convinced they are Christ and Jack the Ripper, spew off-beat stutters in random order, and chirp like a bird in a single scene? This review might be giving away too much of the plot, but nothing could possibly prepare or give anyone a picture of how awesome this movie is. The movie takes place at the Gurney Estate in England, with the 13th Earl, Ralph, leading the action. He appears to be a leader of some importance in his society, but after a mass banquet you learn that he's not so right in the head. While dressed in a ballerina tutu and a colonial uniform, we see his nighttime ritual unfold. The trusted family butler (Arthur Lowe) enters his posh bedroom and displays a series of nooses, one of which he chooses every night to partake in a very bizarre game of mock suicide, done for the benefit of erotic asphyxiation. While attempting to hang himself for fun and safely return to a ladder, he accidentally knocks it down and ends up killing himself. The family is called in for t...Continue Reading
To Joy (Till Glädje)
"Music is the goal, not the means."
Few films capture the simplicities of what is important in an artist's life. The title is taken from Schiller's "Ode to Joy," fitting for this story concerning two orchestral players. Stig is a dissatisfied musician, hating the idea of living in mediocrity, while Marta is a beautiful lady who basks in the simple joys of life. She steals Stig's hardened heart in spite of himself, and they eventually get married. He struggles with his ability to play as a violin soloist. His ambitions consume him to the point where he loses sight of his wife's patience and care. We've all seen this inner torment from the viewpoint of a husband/musician plenty of times – any biopic of an artist will tell that story. Yet what stands out about this film is Bergman's ability to portray the main character in all his flaws and weaknesses, and there's absolutely no glamour or flashiness attached. The result? Honest, rich sentiment.Continue Reading
In one critical scene in Two-Lane Blacktop, Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is heard in the background. Its famous refrain runs, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Therein lies the core of Monte Hellman’s intimate, artfully photographed road movie about liberty, competition, friendship, and commitment.
Its archetypal characters bear no names. Two taciturn dragsters, the Driver (James Taylor) and the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), scour the countryside in a scarred, souped-up ’55 Chevy. They pick up the Girl (Laurie Bird) on the road. Somewhere outside Los Angeles, they encounter an aimless yet aggressive nomad (Warren Oates) piloting a new canary-yellow muscle car, who challenges them to a race to Washington, D.C., with pink slips as the prize. They roll. Everything changes.Continue Reading
Let’s revisit the early 1980s. Picture yourself removed from all forms of technology that are now so familiar and seem to endlessly grow. We’re talking Internet, texting, Blu-ray, and even modern day cable television. Now imagine that satellite television is the most exciting concept. Let’s also imagine the thrill of recording and watching something on videocassette. Supposing you are one of the privileged few who has access to this technology, what would you choose to watch? Remember, you’re now able, for the first time, to pull video feed from anywhere with this satellite into your home. How much would you want to devour with your own eyes and in what ways might it change the way you live?
I have something I want you to watch. Its name is Videodrome. Directed and written by David Cronenberg, it is a film with a philosophy about a mind-altering pseudo-program that has a philosophy of its own. James Woods plays Max Renn—the president of a small cable television channel that presents exclusive and mostly erotic content. His idea is simple: allow people to manifest their desires at home and, as a result, keep it off the streets. While working with his assistant he comes across segments of a pirated television show called Videodrome. In short, Videodrome is a near primitive display of unlucky souls who are tortured and/or raped, never to return onscreen. The simplicity and terror of the program is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He wants to share this vision with his viewers, thus beginning a quest to find its source.Continue Reading
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Regardless of the decade, there aren't many Japanese films that I've seen that approach the human experience on a more common level. The Japanese directors who've upheld great popularity abroad usually deal more with the folklore and customs of ancient Japan, while directors such as Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) deal more with ultra-violence and action. Perhaps the most popular, Akira Kurosawa, has made an impact on the western world because American cinema, particularly Westerns, were of great influence.
While in Ginza, Naruse and his close acquaintances were gathered in a bar and noticed something special about the matrons. The complexity of their relationship with their customers, vastly different than the relationship of a geisha or bartender, had never been breached in cinema. Fueled by intentions to bring something new to the screen and introduce the world to the life of a high-end hostess, Naruse crafted this film. Its emphasis on the common man and his relation to the world was not exactly something that made it popular, and this, along with the director's other works, has left many bored, if not unsatisfied. Ozu's popularity with similar themes of the common man have done well, so what makes them different? Could it be because Naruse shot something in 1960 about people in 1960? Is it the lack of action in his films, or the fact that he cast based on a person's resemblance to the character in terms of personality? Whatever the reason, this film, while praised by cinefiles, has failed to impress or be understood by the masses; many have yet to realize that the film is full of feminist theory, breathtaking cinematography, and an example of the hardships that come with middle age.Continue Reading
One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposes of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.
This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salo, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.Continue Reading
Written on the Wind
My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.Continue Reading
Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.
Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.Continue Reading