My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 3

11) Rhapsody in Blue (Manhattan, 1979, dir. Woody Allen)

New York is one of the great mythical cities, in that there is the New York that is real and there is the New York that is a fantasy of our minds. Allen captures this magical New York perfectly in the opening of Manhattan, using classic black and white photography as well as the signature George Gershwin tune.

12) Please Don’t Tell My Mother (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1969, dir. Milos Forman)

This was one of the first films to showcase the acting chops of Jack Nicholson, but I like this scene because of the performances Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif bring to the table. It is rare you see a scene so perfectly acted. All of these actors are at the top of their game.


Criterion Fridays – Loves of a Blonde

Loves of a Blonde (1965, dir. Milos Forman)

My familiarity with director Milos Forman comes mainly from his work in English language cinema (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Man in the Moon), but I have been aware for a long time of the movies he honed his craft with in his native Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know much about them, other than from reviews and criticisms they were akin to the French New Wave youth culture movies, but with a more anti-authoritarian bite. One thing I’ve found in art that is hard to translate between languages and culture is humor. Jokes are a product of the experiences and philosophies of a specific group of people, and the broader the joke (i.e. slapstick comedy) the larger the audience you can appeal to. Humor of language or subtle situations is much harder to get a foreign audience to laugh at. However, Forman conquers that challenge with expertise.

Hana lives and works in a rural Czech village whose economy revolves around a textile factory. The factory employs primarily women so the demographics are 16:1 in favor of women. The factory owner petitions the military to station some soldiers there as a way to provide some relief for the tension building amongst the workers. They get sent a group of thirty-something, slightly balding reservists and most of the girls decide to just go with the flow, despite their disappointment. Hana avoids the leers of these men, most of whom are married already, and ends up in the room of a visiting musician more her age. The problem with Hana is that every week she seems to have a new true love and these dreams and wishes get the best of her.

I found myself laughing many times at Loves, particularly in moments where the dialogue was greatly improvised. A trio of reservists looking to lure in some of the young women reveal themselves as inept buffoons as they waste most of their time debating how many of them should approach the table where their prey is sitting. They send a bottle of wine over, but it gets delivered to the wrong table and they tell it to take it from the women who believe they were picked. Soon after, one of the reservists slips off his wedding ring, its kicked across the dance floor and under the table of the spurned women which he must now crawl under.

It’s rare that I find a film from Europe during this period which doesn’t have sequences that seem to drag and pull me out of the picture. Here I was completely engaged from the start, due in part to some very skillful editing and language-transcendent humor. The circumstances that these characters experience are universal to all people: unwanted affections from suitors, allowing oneself to get caught up in what you think is love, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with mundane and repetitive life. Once again, Forman delivers a highly entertaining film with truly funny comedy.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 2

6) Waiting For a Train (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969, dir. Sergio Leone)

Wordless, with a soundtrack provided by found objects in the setting. A squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, the steady rhythm of a steam engine. It provides the perfect introduction to the film’s protagonist, Harmonica (Charles Bronson).

7) Getting Baptized (Ed Wood, 1994, dir. Tim Burton)

Hack director Wood has gotten financing from an L.A. church. One of the conditions for the money to come through is that the entire cast and crew of Plan Nine from Outer Space will be baptized. The unaffected homosexual producer Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray) takes the hefty spiritual ritual with little thought in a cleverly funny moment. This is also Burton’s masterpiece in my opinion.

8) Flowers (Harold and Maude, 1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Ashby is one of the greats of the 1970s, and this scene featuring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, and the music of Cat Stevens is a picture of perfect composition. The transition from the field of flowers to the military cemetery is a very beautiful one.

9) He’ll Keep Calling Me (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1989, dir. John Hughes)

This scene is a perfect summation of the profound indecision and anxiety Cameron suffers from. Throughout the film, he’s a character who is simply pushed around by his off screen father or by Ferris or by authority in general. This is every thing going on in his brain.

10) Make the Sun Rise (Black Orpheus, 1959, dir. Marcel Camus)
Set during Carnival in Brazil, the film retells the mythic story of Orpheus and Eurydice through an Afro-Brazilian guitarist and the woman he loves. In this final scene, we see that the tragic story of these lovers is part of a cycle and this children are beginning to play down a path that is both beautiful, but painful.

Criterion Fridays – Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water (1962, dir. Roman Polanksi)
Starring Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

It’s funny how across the Atlantic and behind the Iron Curtain, things were much the same in both the United States and Eastern Europe in the 1960s. If you are familiar with Mad Men, then you have seen the sort of character Niemcszyk is playing. He has the slicked back hair, the suit, he’s a professional. Yet, he is also a Hemingway-esque macho man, who isn’t going to let some young upstart get away with thinking he matters. Polanksi’s first splash on the international scene is a fable-like story about some archetypal characters and relationships.

Andrezj (Niemczyk) and his wife are taking a drive through the countryside, on their way to their boat for a day of sailing. The tension is palpable in the care, neither speaks, until it is broken by a young hitchhiker standing in the middle of the road. Andrezj can tell that his wife is momentarily attracted to the young man so he offers to give him a ride, and eventually invites him onto their boat. This is all part of a disturbing psychological mind game is playing with his wife, using the hitchhiker to prove a point. As the young man flips between adolescent mood swings and is manipulated with ease by Andrezj, the older gentleman remains calm and poised, right up to the finale where both the characters and the audience are left wondering what happened and how these characters move on.

The rivalry between the two men is incredibly realistic. If you have been around immature adolescents (and sadly grown men even) you have seen the way they can get caught in a playful game of oneupmanship that devolves into a primitive fist fight. Through out the film, Andrezj intentionally puts the hitchhiker in a position of submission, giving him commands and emphasizing important maritime rules, while simultaneously breaking these same rules moments later in a bid to shove it in the young man’s face. Because of the wife’s initial flirtation with the hitchhiker we assume this is all about her, but I found that she recedes into the background till the final moments of the film. Instead, these young men are simply in a battle for alpha male status, not over a woman, but just in terms of their own relationship.

The wife is very enigmatic character, behaving without reaction for most of the film. She’s first presented as a prim and proper type, silent, not in subservience to Andrezj but in defiance of him. Once on the boat, she goes about her work mechanically, bringing about noshes when they are expected, preparing the soup when it  is needed, battening down the hatches at the approach of a thunderstorm. Very subtly, her inner sexuality is revealed until she is completely nude near the end of the picture. In this moment, she defies Andrezj in a very interesting way that further pushes him down, keeping him from attaining the status of alpha.

In such a simple plot, lies an infinitely complex series of ideas and themes. In many ways, this would work as a companion piece to the similarly psychological and deceptively simplistic Funny Games. Both films are exploring weighty ideas using a framework that is easy for any audience to understand.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Girly

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969, dir. Freddie Francis)

If you never heard of this film, I can’t fault you. It is an obscure little British horror-comedy that has strong genetic ties to The Addams Family, but more macabre. Full of murder, mayhem, and some very unnerving incestous overtones, Girly (for short) is one of the funniest black comedies I have seen in awhile. In the US we tend to put the crazy killers of our films at the bottom rung of the socio-economic class and basically kick the poor while they’re down. The wonderful thing about the UK is the intense dislike of the aristocracy, even by a lot of the aristocracy themselves. Thus, a film as wonderfully insane as Girly can come about and skewer the 1950s nuclear family unit.

Somewhere on a palatial English countryside estate lives Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly. Though Sonny and Girly are obviously in their twenties, they still dress and behave like schoolchildren. Sonny and Girly also have a rather queasy relationship that is hinted at but never made explicit. Also in the mansion live the Friends, homeless men and free love hippies lured to the house and locked up for the sadistic pleasure of the quartet. The introductory friend finds he is unwelcome when he can’t follow the rules Mumsy has set up to run her happy home. As a result he’s decapitated. But into their lives comes New Friend, a gigolo who through a series of gruesome circumstances ends up trapped. Unlike previous Friends, New Friend is a conniver and begins his quest to tear about this happy homicidal home.

Girly was the project of acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Francis, the lens behind such films as Tales of Hoffman, the Gregory Peck Moby Dick, and The Innocents. Francis transitioned into directing in the early 1960s and went on to helm some cult British horror films and established him as filmmaker who brought a lot of visual flair to his pictures. Francis would eventually return to working the camera and was responsible for the cinematography on such films as The Elephant Man, Dune, Glory, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Girly was originally a stage play (you can feel the more theatrical moments in the film). The premise of the film is a lampooning of the “traditional” family unit at the hands of the 1960s counter culture.

The film is very fun, dark fare. It’s never truly horrifying, just the kind of violence that gives off a creepy vibe and elicits laughs more than gasps. The middle of the picture meanders a little bit, becoming a bit of a struggle to work through, but the way New Friend begins to tear apart the four members of the family by turning them on each other is enjoyable to watch. Definitely an odd, incredibly obscure picture worth a watch.

DocuMondays – The Weather Underground

The Weather Underground (2002, dir. Sam Green and Bill Siegel)

What is the line you would refuse to cross when it came to your beliefs about justice? Is it taking to the streets in protest? Is it standing up to the thug tactics of a corrupt cop? Is it killing in the name of your beliefs? No matter left or right on the political spectrum we can see multiple instances where once peaceful and calm movements were derailed by individuals desiring to commit acts of violence. There was Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, The Unabomber, and various other extremists who either cling to an ideology or religion as their justification. This film is about one such group that used methods of terrorism against the US government in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.

Through archival footage and interviews with the players in this story we are told of the rise and fall of a homegrown terrorist organization. It’s common knowledge that the 1960s were a period of cultural upheaval across the globe. In the United States, it was was student protests against the war in Vietnam that fueled the fire, and the government seemed bent on use brutal force to push them back. In 1969 the non-violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held a convention in Chicago. The war in Vietnam was escalating and the current leadership of the SDS was trying to hold things together, while brasher elements in the group wanted to become violently pro-active. Out of this convention was born The Weathermen, a sub-group who clandestinely planned violent riots in the street and bombings of government buildings. At one point they were even hired to, and successfully did, break Timothy Leary out of a California prison. Their efforts had little effect on the government’s efforts in Vietnam, the ending of which was more influenced by the media’s release of graphic violence wrought on Vietnamese civilians. At the 1970s wound down, the members of the The Weathermen went into hiding, eventually turning themselves in at the onset of the 1980s.

The documentary was surprisingly balanced in how it presented this group. I personally would agree with many of the stances the Weathermen took on domestic and foreign policy up to the point where they brought violence into the mix. And while this is a left wing group, the mistakes made and regret felt year later transcend politics. At the time, this young men and women, including the much spoken about Bill Ayers, felt completely right and certain of their actions. One of the most fascinating interviews is with Brian Flanagan, a man who left the group shortly before Vietnam ended. He is able to sum up how things went from hopeful to cultish very quickly. He emphasizes that the leadership got so caught up in breaking the system completely, they failed to realize that lasting change comes in increments.

Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the group, presents excerpts from his memoirs which detail a young man unsure of what he was getting into and heartbroken at the chaos he wrought, but not wavering in his political stance. I think this is a key point. While all the Weathermen regret the bombings and the riots, known as “The Days of Rage”, they have never stopped believing that many of the military conflicts the US has are not done with the best intentions. In our current political climate, we have a right wing movement with some members hinting at violence by brandishing weapons. The testimony of these men and women who have been there should be examined closely to understand the cost of violent actions and how they linger in the souls of those who commit them.

Wild Card Tuesday – Eve’s Bayou

Eve’s Bayou (1997, dir. Kasi Lemmons)
Jurnee Smollet, Samuel L. Jackson, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debii Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Vondie-Curtis Hall, Branford Marsalis

The thesis statement of Eve’s Bayou is declared early on in the main character’s voice over as an adult, recalling the events that transpired in her 10th year. “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain”. This is a story told through the filter of years gone by and originally seen through the eyes of a child. Adult Eve tells us that when she was 10 she killed her father and the film gives us a couple explanations for this, emphasizing the distortion that occurs as a result of experiencing time passing.

The story begins with young Eve (Smollett), a resident of a Creole parish in Louisiana who lives comfortably on the estate of her doctor father (Jackson). It’s the early 1960s and the patriarch of the family is caught by Eve having sex with one of his patients in the carriage house during a party in the home. He negotiates with the little girl afterwards, trying to convince her she didn’t see what she thought and making promises of lavishing her with more attention than her older sister, Cicely (Good). More and more people in their small town become aware of what is going on within Eve’s family and it becomes apparent that things will end on a dark note.

Eve’s Bayou is full of classic Southern Gothic atmosphere, yet evoked a lot of European slow paced family dramas. Think William Faulkner meets Ingmar Bergman. The film is stylistic rich and uses the Creole religious practices as a framework for foreshadowing and mixing the dreamed up with the real. When Eve is told stories by her family we see them acted out around her, the characters appearing suddenly in mirrors and Eve standing in the middle of them. The film can can delve into the overly melodramatic at times, but because of the setting and general tone it doesn’t seem too out of place.

Eve’s Bayou isn’t a perfect film, but for a first time venture into directing it is incredibly impressive. Director Simmons uses many African-American female crew member (including an amazing cinematographer) and focuses her story around the women of the family. What is so fascinating to me is the otherworldly nature of the place and time Simmons is capturing. The Creole culture has always occupied a different place in the racial history of our nation, and it is interesting to see a pocket of America where the economy and culture were driven by African-Americans. Eve’s Bayou is about these places that seem unreal and about how our minds retain and discard the details of our history.