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.
So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?
OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.
As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday. It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.
Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities. Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.” But there’s a difference. Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty. The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.
By contrast, Brooks nails every gag. He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.
My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what? Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.
But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.
There’s a risk in peaking too early. Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act. Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again. And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion. As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin. But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.
The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema. Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot. Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.
To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.” Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler! No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.
The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis. This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.
During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems. They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland. [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 16, 2013
This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.
Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 14, 2013
Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-Ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 31, 2013
I know Harry Harrison for his collaborative work with Wally Wood on EC Comics (circa 1948), his work on the revived Flash Gordon scripts (’58 – ’68), the first of 12 Stainless Steel Rat novels (published 1961), his contributions to The Saint TV series (Harrison did ghost-work for Leslie Charteris on the 1964 novel Vendetta for the Saint, later adapted as episodes in ’69), and – of course – I’ve seen Soylent Green (1973), based on his ’66 novel Make Room! Make Room! All of which is tip of the iceberg stuff for a very prolific career which includes Bill, the Galactic Hero, a science-fiction satire novel he published in 1965 and which was later followed up with six sequels. I only recently became familiar with Bill thanks to the efforts by director Alex Cox to adapt this work for the big screen. Last week, Alex launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film – and, yes, I can say “film” because Alex plans on shooting part of the action on B&W 35mm. Below are some questions Alex was kind enough to answer regarding his planned film adaption for Bill, the Galactic Hero: [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 19, 2013
The aviation films of Howard Hawks are comprised of tightly knight groups of men confronting death. The bleakest entry, The Dawn Patrol (1930), also happened to be the first , a tale of a British Air Force outpost that acts as a waypoint between consciousness and the void, escorting young fliers into the blood-flecked air across the German lines. A pivotol work in the scope of Hawks’ career, it was his first sound feature, and introduces themes of professional obligation and facing up to mortality that appear throughout his career, reiterated most directly in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). It has been difficult to see The Dawn Patrol in recent years until the Warner Archive released a fine looking edition on DVD last month.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 18, 2012
For as long as there are aging matinee idols looking for a quick paycheck, there will be commando movies there to pay them. While the painfully self-conscious Expendables movies brought this prestigious genre back into box office glory, it’s a format that has been cranking along for decades. Before Stallone, the most successful old man revitalizer was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor), who cranked out fogey action flicks from the 60s through the 80s, after a long career in TV Westerns. Cult home video outfit Severin has just released The Wild Geese (1978) on Blu-Ray, which stars the leathery trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore. McLaglen’s favorite among his films, it is a bloody imperialist fantasy in which a group of ex-Special Ops Brits parachute into Africa to rescue a deposed leader from a tyrannical despot. Fitfully released in the United States as its distributor was going through bankruptcy, it exudes more testosterone per film frame than Stallone’s pec-flexing opus.
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