Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

WHIRLPOOL OF FATE (1925)

To view Whirlpool of Fate click here.

In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy. 

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On the Rebound? Sherman’s March (1986) Is the Movie for You!

SHERMAN'S MARCH (1985)

To view Sherman’s March click here.

As a film studies professor, I recognize Sherman’s March (1986) by Ross McElwee as an example of a performative documentary. In this type of doc, the filmmaker appears onscreen, stages interviews with his or her subjects, and intervenes directly in events. The film becomes as much about the filmmaker as it does about the subject. Though made famous by Michael Moore in such films as Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002), this type of doc actually precedes Moore’s work. Michael Rubbo’s Waiting for Fidel (1974) follows Rubbo and a group of Canadians who had made arrangements to meet and speak with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Rubbo intended to make a documentary about their meeting. Every day, the party waited for Castro; every day, their meeting was postponed. With little else to do, Rubbo decided to shoot footage of his party visiting sites in Cuba. They never did meet Castro, hence the title Waiting for Fidel.

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François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980)

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

To view The Last Metro click here.

François Truffaut was a nostalgic sentimentalist, someone who enjoyed the idea of telling stories without too much cinematic edge or experimentation getting in the way. If you’ve ever read about his relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, or watched the documentary Two in the Wave (2010), you know that Truffaut and Godard veered off in different directions after their early successes breaking through the barriers of French cinema in the late 1950s. Godard experimented more and more, overturning cinematic norms while Truffaut increasingly embraced them. But just because one embraces norms and decides to work within them, while another attempts to revolutionize cinema with each new release, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. In the end, Truffaut was far more successful with the public and commercial success is often equated with artistic compromise. But hiding within Truffaut’s movies are insights about art and politics that are perhaps more meaningful, and hit their mark more accurately, precisely because Truffaut worked within the system, so to speak. One such example, and his last critically and commercially successful film, is 1980′s The Last Metro, a film both rewarding in its story of love and art amidst horror, and utterly frustrating in its standard melodramatic banalities.

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A Fish Called Wanda (1988): The Greatest Modern Comedy?

FISH CALLED WANDA, A (1988)

To view A Fish Called Wanda click here.

There’s nothing more disappointing than revisiting a film that was considered great at its release, only to discover that it’s horribly dated. Many of the films that I loved as a teenager, particularly ones made in the 1980s and 1990s, don’t hold up some twenty or thirty years later. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) was one these films I loved, and I was afraid it would suffer the same fate as so many of those other films from that period. I’m happy to report that the film not only holds up, but is still one of the funniest, quirkiest comedies ever made.

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Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

judex-franju-01-g.jpg

To view Judex click here.

The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway. [...MORE]

Tokyo Gone Gagaga: Otaku (1994)

OTAKU (1994)

To view Otaku click here.

Otaku: (in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills. (definition from The Oxford Dictionary)

Otaku: Obsessed fan; geek; nerd. Not restricted to anime fans, otaku is a general and relatively insulting word used to describe people obsessed with some particular hobby. (definition from AnimeWorld.com)

I’ve never referred to myself as an otaku but I’m sure that others have. Throughout much of the 1990s, I held minor jobs within the manga and animation industry selling comic books, attending conventions and finally working as a convention publicist, which involved traveling to Tokyo. During this time I developed a strong affection for many aspects of Japanese pop culture including anime, manga, music and doll collecting. I also self-published zines and wrote for publications while covering a wide array of topics that ranged from Sailor Moon to visual kei (a form of Japanese glam/goth rock). My interest in these subjects wavered between curiosity, admiration and obsession but I’ve always had extremely varied hobbies and pastimes. At the same time that I was writing about Japanese pop culture, I was also writing about British poetry, French literature and classic horror movies. So am I an otaku? I suppose it depends on the time of day and who you ask.

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Let’s Go Bananas (1971)

BANANAS (1971)

To view Bananas click here.

Thanks to its frequent afternoon rotation on cable TV, I’m pretty sure Bananas was the first Woody Allen film I ever saw. I don’t think anyone who grew up later than the 1980s will ever say that again, but this is a great film to watch when you’re young (even if, yes, it has a joke about a magazine called Orgasm) and the perfect gateway to Woody’s “early, funny” period. It’s hard to describe the omnipresence Allen seemed to have in pop culture from the mid-1970s into the Orion Pictures period of the 1980s; every middle class home seemed to have at least two or three of his books sitting prominently ­on a bookshelf, film critics seemed to compare every comedy that opened to Annie Hall (1977), and the man himself made numerous TV appearances including some celebrated turns on The Dick Cavett Show (1968-1974). On top of that, Allen and 1970s muse Diane Keaton were seen as the epitome of the urbane, hip New York couple who were attractive because of their wit and intellect.

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Hollywood Babylon: The Big Knife (1955)

BIG KNIFE, THE (1955)

To view The Big Knife click here.

In The Big Knife (1955) Jack Palance is a blunt instrument, barreling his way around a Bel Air living room set like a finely chiseled bull in a china shop. He plays Charlie Castle, a self-loathing movie star being blackmailed by the head of his own studio. So he signs whatever contracts are put in front of him, and his Bel Air home becomes a gilded prison, a well-appointed depository of his rage. The film never strays far from his living room, giving it a claustrophobically theatrical feel. It is an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play, done faithfully by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter James Poe. The first independent feature Aldrich directed, for his newly formed The Associates and Aldrich Company, it is a relentless, and at times exhausting, jeremiad against the dehumanizing manipulations of Hollywood executives. Shot quickly and simply, it is a showcase for the performers, and Palance is matched against Rod Steiger as studio president Stanley Hoff, a Mephistophelean string-puller with a flair for the dramatic pause. Even more unsettling is Hoff’s reptilian assistant Smiley Coy, who Wendell Corey portrays with a smooth monotone, unfurling both compliments and death threats in the same uninflected hiss. The only human in the house is Castle’s long-suffering wife Marion, who Ida Lupino instills with a stubborn, sandpapery grace. The Big Knife is now streaming on FilmStruck with five other features under the The Lives of Actors theme.

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On the Road Again with Thelma & Louise (1991)

THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

To view Thelma & Louise click here.

I recently showed Thelma & Louise in one of my film history courses. I had never shown the film in a class before, and I had not seen it for over a decade. Most of the students had never seen it, though they knew the basic story. Referenced for over 25 years in talk-show monologues, sitcoms and The Simpsons (1989-2017), Thelma & Louise has become an iconic tale of female frustration and dissatisfaction with the patriarchal status quo. In a way, that identity does the film a disservice, reducing it to a feminist rant. But, Thelma & Louise, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, is so much more. I had forgotten just how well crafted and entertaining it was until I re-viewed it with my students, who smiled, laughed, and sat on the edge of their seats as the characters’ misadventures escalated.

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Revisiting Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

JesusofNazarethPt2_1977_14

To view Jesus of Nazareth Part 1 click here and for Part 2 click here.

Being raised protestant, specifically Methodist, I wasn’t fully immersed into the culture of the Passion of Christ. Although we recognized Lent and all the holy days leading up to Easter, we didn’t emphasize the suffering, but rather the resurrection part of the story. It wasn’t until I attended a Lutheran elementary and middle school, and later a Catholic high school, that I became familiar with the Passion and the legendary pageantry (and guilt) that accompanies it. My lack of exposure to this particular religious account might seem weird, but Catholicism isn’t as prevalent in the South. And in many protestant faiths Catholicism is often regarded as problematic, particularly with the church’s view of the Virgin Mary (the celebration of her “Immaculate Conception” for instance). I still remember the shock and bewilderment of attending my first Catholic Mass: the constant kneeling, lack of good old fashioned hymns, the copious amounts of incense and funny hats. But after a few weeks, mass became second nature. I felt like an honorary Catholic, but without all the obligations.

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