Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

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Another Day in Black Rock

badposterIn most film history books, the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen processes is attributed to the studios’ attempts to counter the rising popularity of television.  Making the big screen bigger was one strategy to increase the level of spectacle in the movies, thereby luring audiences back to the theaters, along with color, stereo sound, and gimmicks like 3-D. Early films exploited widescreen by including casts of thousands, as in The Robe, or by shooting in beautiful, foreign locations, as in Three Coins in the Fountain.

Despite the spectacle of casts of thousands in period costume, historical eras recreated via huge sets, or postcard views of exotic locales, some directors had difficulties with widescreen. The academy format had been perfect for composing in depth, but widescreen was not. Also, close-ups, which are so important in drawing audiences into the emotion of a character or scene, could look clunky in widescreen. It took some directors and producers a few years to get the hang of it.

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Martial Fine Artists: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-Ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

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December 21, 2013
David Kalat
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Putting Christmas back in (the title of) Christmas in July

OK.  So Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July isn’t a Christmas movie.  But it has Christmas in the title, and you know what?  The Thing wasn’t a Christmas movie either, so there.

Christmas in July is however one of Sturges’ funniest films, and one where Sturges’ somewhat misleading and occasionally inconsistent philosophy really works.

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KEYWORDS: Christmas in July, Preston Sturges
COMMENTS: 8
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The Grating American Novel: Youngblood Hawke (1964)

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If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.

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December 7, 2013
David Kalat
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Unpure Chabrol

If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience.  Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.

I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be).  This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Eurospy
COMMENTS: 4
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November 30, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol: a primer

For many, the term Nouvelle Vague is virtually synonymous with its twin axes, its most famous practitioners, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But if Truffaut and Godard were destined to become the famous names of the lot, Claude Chabrol was there first.

It was his 1958 film Le Beau Serge that launched the movement, and it was he who financed much of the early New Wave productions.  But it was not quite as perfect an inauguration to Chabrol’s own career, for reasons that were not immediately clear.

What was immediately clear was that the earth had moved. Le Beau Serge took home a prize at the 1958 Locarno film festival, but it was the picture’s popular and commercial success that truly spelled the start of something big.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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November 23, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol – Beyond Criticism

A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film.  OK, so that didn’t work.  But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due.  Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.

As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found.  For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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Siege Mentality: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.

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On the Road with Wim Wenders

 Alice in the Cities

Attention Wim Wender fans: tomorrow you have a chance to see Alice in the Cities (1974) on TCM. The fourth feature by the German director is, barring your access to an out-of-print VHS copy or a Region 2 PAL DVD, hard to come by and beautifully shot on B&W 16mm film that was later blown up to 35mm. I’m looking forward to seeing it with subtitles because, although I know some German and some of the film is in English anyway, there are still some details I’m sure I missed the first time. It’s the story of a traveling photo-journalist who befriends a nine-year-old girl, and their search for her missing mother. Alice in the Cities harkens to a kind of cinema made popular by Truffaut with naturalistic performances and an eye for subtle shifts in mood that make great use of actual city locations and lonely hotel rooms. [...MORE]

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