A Surrealist Anti-Nationalist for All Ages – And All Countries.

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Luis Buñuel died in 1983 at 83 of cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital in Mexico City. The Spanish-born filmmaker was famous, in part, for being fearless in his critiques of organized religion and the bourgeoisie. His cinematic career started in 1929 with Un Chien Andalou (aka: An Andalusian Dog), a short film he made with Salvador Dali. Fans of The Pixies probably can’t hear that title without also hearing lead singer Black Francis (now Frank Black) barking out the words to the song “Debaser”: “Got me a movie, I want you to know, slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know, Girl so groovy, I want you to know, Don’t know about you, But I am Un chien andalusia.” This a nod to the famous scene where a cloud cuts across the moon and then a razor seems to cut a woman’s eyeball (it was actually that of a dead calf with bleached fur). Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris. Things like that happened almost a hundred years ago before Netflix and binge watching.

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I (Don’t Really) Know Where I’m Going!

I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING (1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) is a lovely, simple tale of stubborn self-confidence, the unexpected nature of life and unlikely romance. Wendy Hiller, known best for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in the Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard production of Pygmalion (1938), is Joan Webster, a determined, self-assured British woman who has always made her own way. Since childhood, Joan appeared to methodically plan out every aspect of her life, including items that she had absolutely no control over. After finishing her schooling, Joan informs her father that she has made arrangements to marry a wealthy industrialist. The news of her marriage isn’t particularly happy, or calling for elaborate celebrations. Joan approaches the announcement and impending event in a rather cold, methodical way, like one would a business merger or the purchase of large kitchen appliances. At some point early in her life, Joan set the goal of marrying a wealthy man, with love clearly being secondary, if completely optional. It’s clear this engagement is more the result of her irrational stubbornness to fulfill one of her goals than the pursuit of true love. It all makes perfect sense to Joan, as it allows for her to move to the next planned stage in her adult life. As we all know, life doesn’t always go as planned. From the beginning, it’s clear that Joan is on her way to making a terrible mistake.

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Mad Love: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

Next month Disney will release their live action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. It is sure to be sumptuous and well-appointed and all that, but it’s unlikely to approach the carnal magic of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version (streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), ideal viewing for this Valentine’s Day. Made soon after the close of WWII, with France still lacking many basic supplies, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast conjured the uncanny out of odds and ends: busted cameras, cracked lenses, unstable film stock. Somehow DP Henri Alekan captured the look Cocteau sought, the ““soft gleam of hand-polished old silver.” The fable unspools in this soft gleam, with the elusiveness of a dream you try to remember upon waking. Cocteau wrote in his production diary that, “My method is simple: not to aim at poetry. That must come of its own accord. The mere whispered mention of its name frightens it away. I shall try to build a table. It will be up to you then to eat at it, to examine it or to chop it up for firewood.” For generations audiences have been examining his handmade table, and finding it to be more surreal and darkly romantic every year.

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Irma, I Love You, But You’re Breaking My Heart

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

When I decided to write about Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963) for this week’s StreamLine piece, I originally intended to argue on the film’s behalf. In discussions of “lesser Wilder films” Irma La Douce is guaranteed to be on the list, arguably one of Wilder’s most baffling creations, along with The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which I’m convinced Wilder made solely so he could direct James Stewart in something. Not that I blame him one bit. As an aside, I’d like to note that Wilder made three films in 1957: the aforementioned biopic with Stewart, Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn and Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. An incredible feat, even for a master like Billy Wilder. But back to Irma La Douce: I’ve staunchly defended the film on more than one occasion, having mainly fond memories of the zany, haphazard plot. I’m a huge fan of Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and I ride-or-die for the much-maligned Avanti! (1972). Irma La Douce has always fit nicely alongside the two in the “Billy Wilder films that Jill loves for some insane reason” category. I recently revisited all three, hoping to come away with renewed appreciation so I can continue to fight on their behalf with my fellow impassioned film obsessives. While Kiss Me, Stupid and Avanti! retained their delightful magic, Irma La Douce disappointingly fell short. Very, very short. The film is a belabored, confusing collection of all the things that should work, but don’t. Oh how it pains me to finally admit it. And yet, I still find myself making excuses for this fiery train wreck of drunken Maltese pups, emerald green stockings and bad British accents.

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Faceoff: Sabotage vs. Foreign Correspondent

SABOTAGE (1936)

It’s that time of year when I ask students to select one or more Hitchcock films as part of the course material in my upper level film history class. I like to offer a pre-WWII Hitchcock film as one of the choices to represent his early spy thrillers, in which various spies and secret agents dash about Europe either defending or undermining the forces of democracy.

Last year, after asking for the input of the Morlocks (now StreamLine) readers, I selected The Lady Vanishes (1938) to represent this phase of Hitchcock’s work. It was a resounding success. This year, I have narrowed the choices to Sabotage (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940), both available for streaming through The Criterion Channel. (Foreign Correspondent also airs on TCM on February 8 at 8:00pm ET.) Please weigh in on which film you think is the better choice, especially for young viewers who have heard of Hitchcock but are unfamiliar with his earlier work.

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Crammed Full of Genre: While the City Sleeps (1956)

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell, Ida Lupino, 1956

I just did a Fritz Lang movie last week (The Big Heat from 1953) and there have been other posts on the director around these parts lately as well so forgive me if I dive into familiar waters one more time. You see, I tend to focus on the ethical dilemmas of Lang’s work, in movies like M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and, of course, The Big Heat*, where the good guys and the bad guys tend to overlap. But before I take a break from writing about Lang, I’d like to throw in one more post on what may be my biggest Lang surprise in all my years of watching him. It’s a movie that throws so many genre tropes together into one big pot, it’s a miracle any of it works at all. But it does, magnificently so. It’s one of those movies that came and went and despite having plenty of big names in the cast, it feels like a low budget movie shot on the run. This amazing little piece of work called While the City Sleeps (1956) may be Lang’s most purely enjoyable film.

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Joan Bennett: Fritz Lang’s Muse

SCARLET STREET (1945)

Joan Bennett got her start in Hollywood as a lovely, demure, fair-haired ingénue but made her mark as a sexy, feisty, dark-haired femme fatale. Her transformation was atypical in Tinseltown where many natural brunettes such as Carole Lombard, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, found success after becoming bottle blonds. Bennett’s makeover happened during the production of Trade Winds (1938), an amusing crime-drama where she plays a woman on the run from the law who is forced to change her appearance. She looked so striking as a brunette that she was inundated with fan mail after the film’s release and got approval from national hairdresser associations who publicly admired her exotic new ‘do. Critics disapprovingly compared her to Hedy Lamarr but according to the actress’s autobiography (The Bennett Playbill), she relished the idea of escaping the “bland, blond, innocent” image that had dogged her and the change of appearance brought about a newfound personal and professional confidence. Afterward Bennett became politically active, fell in love with producer Walter Wanger and began a creative partnership with director Fritz Lang that would forever alter the trajectory of her career.

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Vigilante Justice: The Big Heat (1953)

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William P. McGivern created Harry Callaghan, better known as Dirty Harry. Not literally. He created the literary environment that made Harry Callaghan possible, as well as Paul Kersey, the vigilante at the center of Death Wish (1974). McGivern was the writer who gave us The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954), both made into movies in the fifties and the former, The Big Heat, gave us the character of Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, the cop at the heart of the film who fights against a corrupt system outside the lines, quitting his job to pursue vigilante justice on his own. It’s a good story but is Dave Bannion a good guy? Is there a good guy in the story? Maybe.

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I Really Like That Movie, I Just Don’t Care About It.

HOPSCOTCH (1980)

Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, I had lots of free time, no responsibilities, and no bills on which to spend my hard earned minimum wage income, which could therefore go entirely to cigarettes and movies. I don’t smoke anymore but I still watch movies. Of course, not like I did then. Back then I saw practically every movie that came out. With rare exceptions, I just went to the theater with my brother or a friend and saw whatever was playing. One of those movies, way back when, was Hopscotch (1980). All I knew is it had Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson and I liked them both. I think I might have known it was a spy movie, too. What I didn’t know is that it would become one of my favorite movies, a movie I have returned to time and time again as a kind of cinematic comfort food when I just need to relax and watch Ned Beatty give the F.B.I. a new name that I have yet to shake from my head.

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Gaslight (1944) and the True Meaning of Fear

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Gaslighting: The idea that a person will eventually become convinced of something through conditioning by an individual in a position of power and influence, despite being in direct opposition to what the person knows and believes to be true. It is a word we hear tossed around a lot these days, usually in reference to the behaviors of overtly biased media and their use of clickbait headlines and grossly out of context quotes, and the politicians’ not-so-clever sleight of hand in discussing issues and controversy with the public. We frequently hear our elected officials telling lies, or at best, half truths. If they keep repeating and reinforcing them, the lies eventually become the truth, right? That is the strategy, at least. Fortunately, we have a few sane, respected voices who help parse out the information, while reminding us to stay vigilant. These same respected voices often compare this dissemination of lies to “gaslighting,” a term originated from the stage play Gas Light (1938). “Gaslighting” is a form of psychological torture found in abusive relationships, specifically romantic ones. Using this term to describe the actions of our political and media class is often overreaction at best, potentially dangerous at worst, detracting from individuals, particularly women, who are suffering mental torture in intimate, abusive relationships. By using the term to describe any nefarious action, we inadvertently dilute its originally powerful meaning.

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