Werner Herzog and the Burden of Dreams (1982)

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To view Burden of Dreams click here.

“If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project.”

That’s how Werner Herzog responded to his investors in Germany asking him if he had the will to go on and finish his film, Fitzcarraldo (1982). If you’ve come to know Herzog over the years, you know that this statement is nothing out of the ordinary. Herzog has never expressed himself in delicate or fragile terms. He prefers to tell it in the most operatic way possible and he gets away with it because you believe him. You believe his dedication to his dreams does indeed become a burden he must drag behind him everywhere he goes. Fitzcarraldo started out as an idea in the mid-1970s and entered into pre-production sometime around 1977. After a year and a half of mapping out logistics and searching for a suitable filming location along the Amazon, Herzog finally set up camp in November, 1979. That’s when everything went to hell.

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On A Short Film About Killing (1988)

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To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

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Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead (1949)

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Forget for a moment the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Forget the unrelenting stoicism of every character involved. Forget, if you can, that the dialogue, from beginning to end, plays like an ever flowing stream of talking points, slogans and mottos rather than actual words any normal human being would ever utter. Forget all of that and simply revel in the fact that, once upon a time, someone put Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey together in a movie in which they, ostensibly, form a love triangle and as an endlessly engaging commercial entertainment, it worked. It worked like gangbusters. Then go back to all the other stuff because, let’s face it, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The Fountainhead(1949), directed by King Vidor from a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is one of the most ludicrously naked political tracts ever filmed. But, damn, is it fun to watch.

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A Daring Directorial Debut: Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, from left: Peter Glenville, Stewart Granger, 1944

To view Madonna of the Seven Moons click here.

Arthur Crabtree is chiefly remembered for helming two imaginative science fiction and horror thrillers in the late 1950s, Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). But before he became associated with these cult favorites, Crabtree worked extensively with Gainsborough Pictures where he photographed some of the studio’s biggest hits including The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), which helped make Stewart Granger a star. At Gainsborough, Crabtree built a reputation as an efficient and economical cinematographer who was responsible for giving these modestly budgeted costume dramas the polish and sophistication that they desperately needed so it’s not surprising that the British studio eventually gave him the opportunity to direct. Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) is Crabtree’s first feature film and it is a strange, inventive and daring directorial debut that you can currently catch on FilmStruck as part of their “Early Stewart Granger” theme.

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The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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“My Hawks Picture”: What’s Up Doc? (1972)

To view What’s Up Doc? click here.

Next year, I plan to teach a course on romantic comedy covering the Golden Age through the contemporary era. Not surprisingly, the choices to represent the Film School Generation are limited. It’s not that there were no romantic comedies during the late 1960s through the 1970s, but it was not a preferred genre for directors like Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, Coppola, Friedkin and their socially conscious colleagues.

Fortunately, Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) fits the bill nicely. One characteristic of the directors of this era was their fondness for paying homage to influential or classic films; another was their reworking or deconstruction of popular genres. What’s Up Doc?, which is an homage to Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), honors the classic era while updating the screwball comedy.

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Message or Muddle? Story of Women (1988)

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To view Story of Women click here.

The first thing we see is Marie Latour (Isabelle Huppert) playing with her children. She’s an attentive mother and, we soon find out, is surviving during wartime as best she can. There is not a lot of money for food and clothes, much less bills and upkeep. One morning, after waking up her children, she heads downstairs to retrieve her coffee mill from a neighbor only to find her sitting in a tub of mustard water. When Marie asks why, her neighbor tells her it’s because she is pregnant and with her husband soon shipping off, they don’t want the baby. Marie tells her mustard water won’t work and takes it upon herself to perform the abortion. Has Marie done this before? When asked, she indicates she hasn’t and simply wonders how hard can it be. That is how Story of Women, the movie based on the real life exploits of Marie-Louise Giraud, begins and by its end we are left without a clear statement from the film as to where her life stands. Were we given a message, or simply left in a muddle? The short answer for me is neither. The long answer to come is a bit more involved.

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Gunga Din (1939): An Original Blockbuster

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To view Gunga Din click here.

It’s summertime, which means we’re eyeball deep in the season of the blockbuster. These popcorn flicks widely vary in quality and entertainment value, but they all have one thing in common: they make money. And if they don’t make enough money during their run in the theater, they’ll rake it in with lucrative marketing deals with retail partners, toy manufacturers and home video sales. With all of the billion-dollar movie franchises that dominate our screens—Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, James Bond, among others—I’ve been thinking about the greatest blockbusters. The concept of the summer blockbuster is usually attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and while that film certainly set the trend for many popular films that followed, there are numerous movies from classic Hollywood that served as proto-blockbusters, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gunga Din (1939).

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Shore Leave: Querelle (1982)

QUERELLE (1982)

To view Querelle click here.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away on the morning of June 10, 1982, three weeks into the editing of his final feature Querelle. The New York Times reported that, “a video-cassette machine that he had been using was still running at 5 A.M., Munich time, when Miss Lorenz [Julie Lorenz, his roommate and editor] discovered his body.” He died of an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine – he had long been pushing his body to extremes while shooting some 45 features in 15 years. Querelle is not a summation or a final statement, as Fassbinder was constantly shifting, poking and exploring his stylistic palette. New paths emerged within every film, and Querelle is just another fork in the road before his heart gave out, but it is a feverishly beautiful one. Querelle is a free adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, about a dope-dealing seaman involved in a murder while on shore leave, while grappling with his repressed and newly emerging homosexual desires. Frankly erotic and garishly artificial, shot on horizonless soundstages and bathed in orange and blue filtered light, it is both ridiculous and sublime.

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Ida Lupino Gets Her Due

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To view the work of Ida Lupino available on FilmStruck, click here.

Ida Lupino was groomed for stardom by Paramount during the 1930s and achieved it at Warner Bros. in the 1940s. Yet, she loathed the star system, which turned actresses into manufactured personas that required them to behave offscreen as they did on-screen. However, her experiences as a star were not in vain because they influenced her career as a director, according to Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, a new book by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman.

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