Young America (1932)

19 12 2008

A bit of a step down from After Tomorrow but for the most part, another really good film from Borzage. Thankfully, this is nothing at all like that movie, its closet companion is probably King Vidor’s The Champ but its nowhere near as great. Like Vidor’s movie, this is an early “socially-conscious” film that was made from time to time in the pre-code era. It is pretty remarkable that Vidor and Borzage were given permission to make such transgressive, “proto-glue sniffing” works within a studio. Really all you had to do was throw a star in. In this case, it’s Spencer Tracy who gets top billing for what is ultimately a glorified cameo role.

The real story lies with the juvenile delinquents, specifically Arthur Simpson, who is introduced as the meanest kid in town. The film opens with a tracking shot that doesn’t seem to be following anything in particular, yet ends up in the office of Judge Blake (a young Ralph Bellamy) who invites Edith Doray to attend a trial. She notices Simpson, who the camera shifts its focus to. We begin to see Simpson’s daily struggles and tribulations. Many of his crimes can be explained quite easily, yet the boy does nothing to defend his innocence. He gets expelled from school due to a fight that was provoked by a school bully who had been picking on Mabel, a possible love interest for Arthur that never develops. His aunt kicks him out of the house, which forces him to move in with his best friend, Nutty and his grandma.

Most of the “poverty” sequences seem like more pragmatic episodes of “Our Gang” but that’s perfectly fine with me. Again, it is easy to see Borzage’s influence on the Japanese. In this case, I’d imagine Ozu probably would have taken a thing or two out of his film. The young troublemakers here do everything from hypnotizing chickens to stealing cars, which certainly shares a connection with the lifestyles of the children in I Was Born But…, which I often credit as being one of the first “glue-sniffing” films, a term which comes from the favorite past time of the kids in Hector Babenco’s Pixote.

Borzage’s protagonist is unlike the characters in the aformentioned films because he is seen as completely innocent. Everything he gets in to trouble for is really the result of a deed that had good intentions yet when taken out of context, looks like a criminal act. Nutty and Arthur are caught robbing a medicine shop, but their reasoning is completely rational – they were getting medicine for Nutty’s grandma, who has been the perfect customer to the shop for many years. In other words, Arthur is a martyr, which seems a little bit silly to me. I’m fond of Borzage for calling attention to these kids, but I can’t help but find their portrayal (as saints) to be more insulting than glorifying. Overall, this is a fine film, but not quite as great as its thematic brethern.

After Tomorrow (1932)

19 12 2008

My first Frank Borzage film and I am very impressed. While I’m well aware of how highly regarded he is, I also have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting much out of this or Young America, which came out the same year. All fears were put aside by the first five minutes with one of the most beautiful opening I’ve seen. It helps a great deal that this film, in particular, seemed to have had a big impact on the Japanese. The story starts out a little bit like Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! but it actually turns out to be even better. The physical condition of Naruse’s film isn’t really helping, but I’d still say that Borzage was a much more visual director, at least in the 1930s.

I’ll give Borzage a lot a credit for also being a pretty character-focused director, at least that what I would gather from the two films of his that I’ve seen. This isn’t exactly an Ozu film in terms of depth, but here, there is a similar focus on small little drama(s) that go on within families. The dynamic between Marian Nixon’s character, Sidney Taylor, and her father is really quite astonishing, even by modern standards. If I have to go back to an Ozu comparison, than I would probably equate their relationship to the one between Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Late Spring. As believable as Nixon and William Collier are as the closet members of the family, I think the wife of the house, played by Minna Gombell, comes off a bit too villainous.

Sidney has been engaged for three years to Peter Piper (an eye-roller, I know) who brings in a completely different cast of characters. First, his extremely jealous and passive aggressive mother, played by Josephine Hull, who comes off as whiny and irritating at first, but plays the first well enough to make her situation seem vaguely realistic. There’s also Betty, who longs for Peter and makes many sexual advances towards him, all of which he turns down. Some of the characters seem slightly superfluous, but the fact of the matter is, they never seem like stock role or “types” which may have been because many Hollywood “cliches” had yet to be developed.

While there’s no simplifying of characters, there is, however, plenty of cliches in typical pre-code Hollywood dialogue, which ranges from fairly clever writing to flat and predictable punchlines. It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but I have a hard time believing people really talked like this in the 30s. I’d imagine that people felt like they talked like this, but couldn’t have actually been as quick and clever. The writing isn’t the relentless cycle of perfectly set-up comedy a la His Girl Friday but it does seem a bit convenient in a way. Normally, I would just overlook this in general, but it’s hard when there’s so many intimate sequences that show potential for much more perceptive writing. It’s not a big setup, though, especially when the rest of the film is so great.

Cutter’s Way (1981) and Mikey and Nicky (1976)

19 12 2008

Although it wasn’t my intention, I ended up watching these two thematically linked thrillers back-to-back. Both quite easily transcend their genre tag by primarily focusing on the subject of friendship. In both cases, one character is seemingly crazy and the one who essentially brings the relationship to an end. The ever-looming plot devices are handled differently, but for the most part, the superficial “thriller” element is well-disguised.

Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way is definitely the most formally accomplished film, but maybe it was just because I watched it in HD. (!) It really isn’t anything at all like Intimate Lighting. The only similarity would be that the acting is similarly natural, but that is a bit of reach. Jeff Bridges is really great in this, though, and comes close enough to being a Antonioni-worthy protagonist. On the other hand, John Heard’s character is pretty much a cartoon. I’m sure that was the point since he has all the attributes of a modern day pirate, but I still couldn’t help but find him somewhat of an exaggeration. In retrospect, the story seems to have little interest in him anyway. He isn’t downplayed enough to become just a contribution to Bridges’ alienation, but he’s not really emphasized enough to feel like a real character. On the other hand, Lisa Eichhorn is really amazing as his wife. She definitely makes the Antonioni comparison an easier one to make. It’s really a shame that she doesn’t have more moments with Bridges as the few sequences they share alone are incredibly moving, probably the single best part(s) of the film.

Elaine May’s film, Mikey & Nicky, relies on a similar friendship complex as the one between Bridges and Heard in Cutter’s Way but has almost no problems whatsoever. Elaine May is credited for writing the screenplay, and she did so with Cassavetes and Falk in mind, but I’d venture to guess that a great deal of the film is improvised. Like a Cassavetes film from the same time period, this film seems to have a limitless amount of small poignant and heartbreaking moments. There’s really too many to mention, and doing so would probably ruin some of the film for those that haven’t seen it. The whole thing is so intimate and believable that the rather pedestrian story about a guy trying to escape from murder in the hands of a contract killer is one that seems slightly real. There isn’t “urgency” or whatever, as Falk and Cassavetes both get fairly drunk before hand, but there is this small sadness in everything they go through because it seems completely real and also because all signs point to tragedy.

Intimate Lighting (1966)

15 12 2008

If it wasn’t for Jan Nemec’s enigmatic Diamonds of the Night, this would probably be my favorite Czech New Wave film. It ends up in a very close second place, despite being the stylistic anti-thesis of Nemec’s film. Where his is experimental and montage driven, this is one is a straightforward, simple, and slow character based-drama. Formally, it’s not exactly exciting, but it does have some wonderful high contrast black and white cinematography, an attribute that all Czech films from this time period seem to inherit. The real selling point isn’t the visuals anyway, but instead its the sponteanous and yes “intimate” moments that Passer crafts so naturally that make this film so special.

The Ear is the one Czech film (of which I’ve seen) that seems the most stylistically in line with this film. Both work on a level of creating completely believable small little moments that aren’t important to the development of the narrative, but still create a mood bursting with realism. The Ear, unfortunately, is dragged down by the slightly irritating “paranoia thriller” element injected into the entire time. Inversely, Passer’s narrative is very unassuming – a couple visits their extended family in preparation for an upcoming concert, which many of the men of the family are participating in.

Perhaps it is just a vibe that I naturally receive from “family dramas” but this did have a slight Ozu feel to it. Passer is a bit away from Ozu’s rigorous composing, but the content here is very Ozu-ian. A perfect example would be the scene in which two men get drunk and talk about the sleeping patterns of their relatives. Not only does it perfectly represent the tone Passer has established for most of the film, but it also manages to take it to another level of realism.

It also doesn’t hurt that many of these kinetic sponteanous moments are pretty funny. There is a sense of absurdism, somewhere between Buñuel and Herzog that feels as though it belongs specifically to Passer. The “minimalistic” approach definitely gives many of the gags a very Kaurismaki feeling. I could really namedrop all day here, but I think that would taint the fact that Passer’s film is remarkably personal and unique. While I see shades of many of my favorite filmmakers in him, I also see potential for a completely new filmmaking style. That’s not to say that this is formally revolutionary as Diamonds of the Night (is any movie?) but it is still just as fascinating to watch.

Slnko v sieti (1962)

14 12 2008

It’s rather difficult for me to assess this because I just seem to have a particular bias towards early 1960s Antonioni rip-offs. Calling this a rip-off is a little harsh, but it definitely can be categorized with a group of films that clearly came from a post-L’Avventura filmmaking world. Many Eastern European directors seem to have been extremely impressed with Antonioni because it seems like a good amount of the cinematic catalog from that part of the world falls into this category. This relatively unknown (and unloved) gem came a year before the first “real” film from the much more well-known auteur, Miklós Jancsó. His film is wonderful, but I have to say that this one is probably even better.

The story revolves around the break in the relationship between two alienated youths, Fajolo and Bella. The emotional climax of their relationship comes when a solar eclipse, the first in a hundred and twenty years, occurs. This is a particularly traumatic time as Bella’s mother is blind. There is some implication that the eclipse will have a big impact on everyone, and it does, well sort of, but it is quickly tossed aside. Fajolo goes to the country to make a living and in the process, falls for Jane. Bella, meanwhile, tries to cheer herself up with a much more confident and outspoken individual by the name of Pete.

The already mentioned motif involving a solar eclipse seems like a potential for laughable symbolism, but thankfully, it becomes burried beneath everything else. On the other hand, the whole “eclipse” section of the film is one of the most visually impressive stretches I’ve seen in any one film. It probably even tops its reference point (Antonioni, if you lost track) in terms of pure visual beauty. Stefan Uher seems more keen on montage than Antonioni, let alone Jancsó but he still succeeds in creating the same sort of tone. On the other hand, he isn’t quite as great as Bertolucci is in Before the Revolution when it comes to rapid-fire editing. I’d say that Uher formally exists somewhere between early Bertolucci and Antonioni, which needless to say, is definitely a very good thing.

If there’s worth complaining about here, it is that the characters, while all reliatable and (at the very least) somewhat likable, are a little bit underdevloped. Inevitable, I suppose, in a film with only a running time of ninety minutes. If you’re going to follow in Antonioni’s formal footsteps than you’re probably going to have to pace the film to the point that it is at least a little bit longer. I guess this would collide with Uher’s more montage-y technical style, but there is no doubt that this could have been a tad bit longer. Again, though, this is very minor compliant, and the quick pace doesn’t really the weigh the film down at all. For the most part, it is amazing.