The Passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first masterpiece. It was critically acclaimed but a disappointment at the box-office. Dryer followed it with a second masterpiece, Vampyr (1932), which also failed to impress its investors, but this time he was criminally overlooked by the critics, probably due to the stigma that hounds the horror genre. Day of Wrath (1943) fared better, but due to its allusions to the tyranny of Nazi Occupation Dryer fled to Sweden and did not return to Denmark until after the war. Dryer grew up in a Danish foster home and was adopted by a newspaper typographer, and this later dovetailed into a career in journalism. In 1912 he got work as a title writer for Nordisk Film and for the next six years wrote many scripts before breaking out as a director. Dryer was influenced by Sergei M. Eisenstein’s work, but his films are in a class all of their own and have left deep imprints on many filmmakers, including Lars von Trier – who sometimes seems to be as haunted by Dryer as were all the people who worked on The Passion of Joan of Arc[...MORE]

Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

The Reality Principle: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.

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The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.

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Nippon Noir: I AM WAITING (1957)

iam1In recent years I’ve seen a critical push to apply familiar terms like Film Noir to all manner of Japanese crime films made during the 1950s and 60s. The term has even been applied to the culturally specific Sun Tribe films (please see my previous post that discusses Sun Tribe films), Pink Films of an adult nature and the more experimental and political films that exemplify the Japanese New Wave. I don’t always agree with this “roping in” because it often limits our understanding of Japanese cinema which contains historical and cultural influences that often defy simplistic categorizations. But sometimes the term fits.

It’s worth remembering that after WW2 the Japanese film industry was largely controlled by the U.S. occupation forces and Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood‘s own output at the time. And in postwar America Film Noir was thriving. The concentrated effort to destroy much of Japan’s cinematic history and modernize the country led to an onslaught of gun totting detectives, dangerous dames and cutthroat criminals in Japanese cinema that began replacing the sword wielding samurais, kimono clad ladies and gentle families that had previously populated the movies. Amid these changes filmmakers created their own distinct body of work that became more progresses and subversive after the American occupation ended. But the impact of Hollywood’s aggressively imposed influence is undeniable and in this postwar climate elements of Film Noir became deeply rooted within the Japanese film industry. One particularly striking example of this is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I AM WAITING (1957), which makes its debut on TCM January 18th (1am PST/4am EST).

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15 Favorite Films From 2014

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I know what you’re thinking. Another list?! Forgive me my trespass but as a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to compile a list of my favorite films each year and I wanted to share some of my viewing highlights with you. These are the films that have been occupying my thoughts in recent weeks and many of them haven’t gotten the critical attention that I think they deserve. What follows is an alphabetical list of my 15 Favorite Films from 2014 along with some comments. I had hoped to write more about them all and why I find them worth recommending but I managed to sprain my hand last week, which has limited my typing abilities so some films only get a sentence or two. That said, I hope you’ll find some of my viewing suggestions worth investigating further.

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Bergman’s Magic Lantern

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Last summer I had some fun at the expense of the printed TCM program for July by examining how brevity is not always the soul of wit, at least when it came to the short (by necessity) blurbs used in the monthly TCM guide to describe the six films that had been selected to showcase the talents of Ingmar Bergman. It turns out the post was premature and didn’t take into account that all six Bergman films got bumped for a last-minute tribute to James Garner (who passed away on July 19th). But this Wednesday, December 3rd, the Bergman Block is being brought back – and in honor of that I’m resuscitating my previously premature post here, adding a new preface. [...MORE]

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October 11, 2014
David Kalat
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How Not to Stay Awake, French Style

Once upon a time I was very tired. More to the point, I was very tired in Montreal.

Julie and I were in Montreal for a child-free vacation, and we were so happy to have some time to ourselves we hadn’t done much planning. On arriving in the city we just looked around at what was going on, and saw that the Art Museum was going to be showing Marcel L’Herbier’s Fantastic Night (1942). I’ve been fascinated by the history of French horror and sci-fi films, and at the time I was considering fleshing out my chapter from Fear Without Frontiers into a book of its own—catching an actual 35mm print of this treasure was clearly must-see territory.

But how to spend the day leading up to it? Why, the Montreal Beer Festival, of course! And after a full day of sampling Canadian microbrews and eating sausages, we decided to burn off some of the woozy haze by walking to the Art Museum—some 4 miles away. We got there to find the Museum screening room’s AC was on the fritz, making the theater toasty. And so, warm and boozy and tired, we settled in to watch a B&W subtitled movie about a man who can’t stay awake. Hoo boy.

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KEYWORDS: Fantastic Night, La Nuit Fantastique, Marcel L'Herbier
COMMENTS: 4
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The 2014 New York Film Festival: Gone Girl and Two Days, One Night

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The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl  (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.

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The 2014 New York Film Festival: Hill of Freedom and Jauja

 

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The fifty-second New York Film Festival begins this Friday night with the world premiere of Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s  ubiquitous spousal murder mystery. But the early highlight of the thirty-film main slate concerns another missing woman, although in a less-outwardly-thrilling scenario. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which screens the evenings of 9/30 and 10/8, concerns an unemployed Japanese intellectual in Korea, searching for an absent woman he once loved. It’s another variation on Hong’s recent string of films about travellers and transitional spaces (Our Sunhi, In Another Country, The Day He Arrives) where drinking is the main form of communication. Hill of Freedom works hilariously well as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but also contains pockets of melancholy about time’s passage, professional failure, and the inadequacy of language. It is currently without a distributor, and unlikely to acquire one, considering how poorly his sparsely distributed output has done stateside.

There is another gone girl in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (screening 10/7 and 10/9), when the daughter of a colonial Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) scampers off into the Patagonian wilderness. In his three features La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso has chosen landscapes first and built narratives around the spaces and the habits of its people. Jauja is his first period piece, and an imaginative leap from the patient everydayness of his previous films. With nods to The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, Jauja follows the engineer as he plunges deeper into a country he doesn’t understand, ending in hallucinations and a legacy of confusion.

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Renoir Noir: Night at the Crossroads (1932)

LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR (1932)

 

“Every detail, every second of each shot makes La Nuit du carrefour [Night of the Crossroads] the only great French thriller, or rather, the greatest French adventure film of all.” -Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema (December 1957)

Night of the Crossroads was the first film adaptation of Georges Simenon’s phenomenally popular Inspector Maigret novels, and was lent a thick, hallucinatory atmosphere by director Jean Renoir. Yet, sandwiched as it is between Renoir’s classics with Michel Simon, La Chienne (1931) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), it has escaped much serious critical attention. It does not even get an entry in Andre Bazin’s collected writings on Renoir. Anthology Film Archives arranged a very rare screening of the feature this past weekend, with Simenon’s son John in attendance to discuss the production beforehand. It’s a traditional whodunit, except all of the motivations are missing. Instead of attributing the crime to a single perpetrator, the whole town becomes culpable through their xenophobia and greed. As Renoir’s character Octave says in The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons”. To that Night of the Crossroads would add, “for murder.”

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