Dinner with The Exterminating Angel (1962)

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To view The Exterminating Angel click here.

What does it all mean? Does it matter? There’s a dinner party but before the guests have even arrived, the servants start taking the night off. First it’s just one, then two more, then another two, until finally only the head butler is left. But we know something strange is taking place even before they all go. When two of the women working in the kitchen start to head out of the house, they stop because they see the guests coming in and so they go back and hide. Simple enough. But when they emerge from hiding they see the exact same guests entering again, just as they did before and, again, the women have to hide. Are we seeing an alternate reality the second time around or just history repeating itself? The elite just keep showing up and the servants keep leaving. Then, curiously, they all choose to stay instead of going home. The next day, they realize it’s no longer a choice. The music room off the dining room is where they are and leaving is no longer an option. The movie is Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic The Exterminating Angel and what it means could be meaningless.

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Hannah Arendt (2012)

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There’s a rather clunky scene early on in Hannah Arendt (2012), one whose purpose seems clearly to provide a quick bio of Hannah for the novice viewer. It takes place inside the office of William Shawn (Nicholas Woodsen), editor of The New Yorker. He has just received an offer from Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover the Adolph Eichmann trial for them. Francis Wells (Megan Gay) scoffs, asking who she is. Another editor, Jonathan Schell (Tom Leick), scolds her. “She wrote The Origins of Totalinarianism!” Shawn adds, “It’s one of the most important books of the 20th century!” Aside from the fact that there is no way an editor of The New Yorker didn’t know who Hannah Arendt was in 1960, and trying desperately to ignore the forced New York accents of all three non-American actors in the scene, the main problem lies in the scene so clumsily listing Arendt’s creds for the audience. It is the main failing of the movie encapsulated into that one scene. Throughout the film, characters will constantly state and restate the obvious but at its core is the real life figure and trial of Eichmann, and the moral questions surrounding that trial, that make Hannah Arendt an arresting movie to watch. At other times, it is as prosaic a biopic as any ever made. And through it all, Barbara Sukowa’s masterful performance keeps the audience engaged.

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Orwellian Realities

LIVES OF OTHERS, THE (2006)

FilmStruck has five titles available to view as part of a Behind the Iron Curtain theme. I originally set out to write about Barbara (2012) as it’s an interesting and unfairly overlooked gem dealing with a family doctor banished from East Berlin to a rural community. I still have a great poster for Barbara showing her riding a bike against a dark green backdrop of grass and trees, casting a suspicious look behind her. I’m shifting gears, however, and delving instead into The Lives of Others (2006). The Lives of Others won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and was a box office success story. Deservedly so, as it’s a rich and poignant film full of universal truths. It’s also that rare film with humanistic traits that elevate human welfare and art without resorting to treacle. It’s a movie that celebrates music, poetry, literature, and it culminates with both epiphany and the celebration of human dignity, sealed with a perfect ending – one that still brings a tear to my eye.

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When Context Matters: Nine Days of One Year (1962)

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Ever heard of Nine Days of One Year (1962)? Chances are, the answer to that question is no. It was for me when TCM assigned me to write it up a couple of years ago. I tried to find some info online but came up empty. There’s an old review I found from Bosley Crowther and then one more from decades later by J. Hoberman. Neither was too enthused. And that was it. I mentioned both in my article. If you go to the Wikipedia page, there’s a whopping three external links: an almost willfully pointless AllMovie writeup, its IMDB page, and a link to my TCM article which, of course, wasn’t there when I first went looking (please read it for a more thorough discussion of the story). So anyway, I got the screener from my editor, settled in to watch it and find out what this movie was all about and I was quite surprised by what I saw. I had to ask myself several times in the first few minutes, “Wait, this was made in the Soviet Union? In 1962? And the director wasn’t sent to a gulag? The movie wasn’t even banned?!”

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Thoughts on Brando, Teahouse, and the Big Screen

Teahouse_of_august_moon_(1956)Last week, I interviewed Mark Caro who created a film series in Chicago called “Is It Still Funny?” This weekend, I introduced The Teahouse of the August Moon as part of a film series at the Ringling Museum of Art on the image of Asians in Hollywood movies. It seems the opportunity to watch older films on a big screen with an audience has a powerful appeal for movie-lovers in all parts of the country. Teahouse drew a good crowd who enjoyed the film and stayed for a lively discussion afterwards

The Teahouse of the August Moon has an impressive pedigree. In 1951, Vern Sneider published the novel. John Patrick turned it into a very popular Broadway play in 1953; three years later, Patrick adapted it to the big screen for MGM. The studio had high hopes for a critical and box-office hit. Teahouse stars Marlon Brando as Japanese interpreter Sakini, who is also the movie’s onscreen narrator, speaking directly to the audience at the opening and closing of the film. He serves as interpreter for an American colonel in charge of Occupation forces in Okinawa. The Colonel orders Captain Fisby, played by an affable, slightly bumbling Glenn Ford, to oversee a small Okinawan village. The goal is to Americanize the village by indoctrinating them into the ways of modern capitalism. Sakini, who has his own agenda, accompanies Fisby to serve as interpreter–in more ways than one.

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The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)

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“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”
- Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview

Haskell Wexler’s quasi-documentary Medium Cool (1969) airs on TCM this coming Sunday (10 PM EST / 7 PM PST) and I can’t think of a better film to watch before the start of the RNC and DNC conventions this month.

If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.

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November 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Goat-Staring for Fun and Profit

So here we are, in the middle of November, sandwiched between the release of the latest James Bond flick and the upcoming release of the new Star Wars.  The War on Terror rages on, with no end in sight.  The Coen Brothers have migrated to TV where Fargo is ripping it up.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow, all these different experiences could be smoothed together into one event?  Wouldn’t that just save so much time?

So, I present to you, The Men Who Stare At Goats.   A spy-comedy derived as a fictionalized adaptation of a controversial non-fiction book about “psychic soldiers” fighting in Iraq, with overt Star Wars in-jokes…I can’t say it’s a good movie, but it has so much else going for it, quality might be beside the point.

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KEYWORDS: Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats
COMMENTS: 2
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Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Pirates 101: Intro to Hollywood Buccaneers, Privateers, and Swashbucklers

pirateblackswanAvast, ye buckos and scallywags! Prepare to pillage and plunder with pirates and privateers as TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight offers 21 pirate pictures during the month of June.  One summer long ago, I read Treasure Island and saw The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner in the same month, which left me with a life-long obsession with pirates, exotic tropical locales, and buried treasure. As fate would have it, I suffer horribly from seasickness, which makes me a landlubber and prevents me from joining one of those crews that search for buried treasure and sunken pirate ships around Key West. Instead, I content myself with watching celluloid pirates and ruminating over the reasons for their periodic popularity in popular culture.

I have collected articles and notes on pirate stories and movies with a vague notion of writing a book or teaching the pirate subgenre in class. TCM’s “Pirate Pictures” fest on Friday nights has given me an opportunity to try out my ideas on TCM viewers and blog readers in a three-part series that I am christening Pirates 101. I promise to keep the pirate lingo to a minimum, though that will be a challenge for me.

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LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

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