Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

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To view Mon Oncle click here.

“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

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On Dave Kehr and “Movies That Mattered”

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When I was in the film program at Northwestern University in Chicago, my peers and I were required to read the works of Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Michel Foucault and even Freud, Jung and Marx. The idea was to apply their theories to the cinema to better understand how film worked, or how it related to audience identification. We also read the major film theorists such as Andrew Tudor, Laura Mulvey and Siegfried Kracauer, among others. While I don’t regret reading those theorists, scholars and great thinkers, I can’t honestly assess how much that type of scholarly writing with its academic jargon enhanced our understanding and appreciation of popular movies.

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Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks, 1934

To view The Private Life of Don Juan click here.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made his last movie in 1934. The Private Life of Don Juan was, quite accidentally, a fitting farewell to one of the first megastars of the movie industry. It wasn’t clear while filming it that it would be Fairbanks’ last movie but its story, one of a once vigorous and dashing romantic reduced to seeing a physician because he just doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore, fell in line with Fairbanks’s real life condition. He was only 51 but already feeling the effects of decades of chain-smoking, drinking and general living life to its fullest. He could no longer do a lot of the athletic work he had so easily mastered in his early career. Better said, he could, but it exhausted him. But he was also exhausted by the movies themselves, particularly sound movies. He never quite took to them and despite his stardom and seemingly smooth transition to sound, never quite felt at home.

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The Greatest Early Douglas Sirk: Lured (1947)

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To view Lured click here.

Writer and director Douglas Sirk is mainly known today for his exquisite technicolor melodramas, such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), his last feature-length film. His work throughout the 1950s, and specifically these four films, are not only seminal entries in the melodrama genre, but they also helped define a generation—or at least the “idea” of a generation. While the stories depicted in these films are certainly outrageous, often requiring audiences to suspend a bit of disbelief, there are running themes in Sirk’s films that are familiar to all of us: unrequited love, personal tragedy, social and racial inequality, guilt and unfair scrutiny from one’s peers. These themes resonated with post-World War II audiences struggling with a new way of life. But before he established himself as the preeminent director of the American melodrama, and subsequently known for his distinctive filmmaking style, Douglas Sirk made a handful of film noirs, romantic thrillers and comedies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, demonstrating his incredible range as one of our great cinematic storytellers. Four of these films are currently available on Filmstruck as part of their “Early Sirk” theme: A Scandal in Paris (1946); Shockproof (1949); Slightly French (1949); and 1947’s Lured, which is arguably the best of the four, and my personal favorite.

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The Art of the Transition: TV to Movies

Norma Rae (1979) Directed by Martin Ritt Shown: Sally Field

To view Norma Rae click here.

Not too long ago, television actors were of an entirely different class among professional actors. There were stage actors at the top, movie actors next tier down, then at the bottom were the TV folks. It’s not that they weren’t talented, they were and everyone recognized it. Early television stars like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason weren’t just beloved, they were extolled and awarded for their boundless talents. But that didn’t mean they could become movie stars. Lucille Ball had been a second-tier actress with the studios before her television success and after it, couldn’t get much farther. Gleason had some critical success on film, garnering an Oscar nomination for The Hustler in 1961, but was never able to build a successful comedy career on the silver screen that matched his success on television, except perhaps for The Smokey and the Bandit franchise (1977, 1980, 1983). Dramatic actors had it easier. George C. Scott found success on the stage, then movies where he earned two Oscar nominations (one for Anatomy of a Murder [1959], and one for The Hustler with Gleason), before moving to television drama with East Side/West Side (1963-1964) and getting an Emmy nomination. Then he effortlessly moved back to film with Dr. Strangelove (1964) and inexplicably didn’t get nominated. But in the 1970s, when I was first beginning my serious study of the cinema, three actors broke down the wall that held back the comedians, starting with Art Carney and finishing up with Sally Field.

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One for all, and all for one!

FOUR MUSKETEERS, THE, Frank Finlay, Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, 1974.

To view The Three Musketeers click here.

To view The Four Musketeers click here.

Director Richard Lester was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but he made some of the best British films of the 1960s. Inspired by Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, he developed an acute funny bone and an appreciation of the absurd that allowed him to work side-by-side with bastions of British comedy such as Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. Lester’s sense of humor also appealed to The Beatles who personally selected the expat director to record the band’s exploits in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). This music-fueled double feature introduced the Fab Four to audiences around the world and revealed how quirky, lively and charismatic the band could be on and off the stage. In both films, Lester aptly spotlighted the mop-tops playful camaraderie as they challenged authority, outwitted ostensible villains and used teamwork to right perceived wrongs.

By presenting The Beatles as a group of countercultural champions, the director laid the groundwork for many of his future films which included reinterpreting legends (Robin and Marian [1976], Butch and Sundance: The Early Days [1979]) and superheroes (Superman II [1980], Superman III [1983]). But outside of The Beatles movies, the best example of Lester’s appreciation for comical heroes can be found in The Three Musketeers (1974) and its impromptu sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974) currently streaming on FilmStruck.

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Black Jesus (1968) Isn’t What You Think It Is

Black Jesus (1968) Directed by Valerio Zurlini Shown: Woody Strode

To view Black Jesus click here.

I’d honestly be shocked if more than a handful of people around here have heard of Black Jesus (1968) before today. Barely released in American theaters by one-shot outfit Plaza Pictures and never given a legitimate home video release (ignore the bootleg DVDs), this is a rough, tough and totally tight late 1960s political film with a title that might make you think it’s some sort of blaxploitation take on Godspell. The name seems a little gimmicky, but it isn’t too far off the original Italian title, Seduto alla sua destra, which translates to the Biblical phrase, “seated at the right hand (of the Father).”

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Summer Daze: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

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To view Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday click here.

The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle [1958], Playtime [1967] and Trafic [1970]), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime.  Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.

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“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”

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To view My Favorite Year click here.

Peter O’Toole utters the infamous line above at a strategic moment in the comedy My Favorite Year (1982), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. As part of the fabric of our pop culture, the line is familiar even to those who have not seen the film. At first glance, it might seem like a put-down of movie stars—those performers celebrated as much for their screen persona as for their acting prowess. But, there is much more to the line and the film than meets the eye . . . or, the ear.

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Jubilee (1979)

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To view Jubilee click here.

Jubilee (1979) by Derek Jarman, the experimental filmmaker and activist who also made music videos for bands such as The Sex Pistols, Throbbing Gristle, The Smiths, Bob Geldof, Pet Shop Boys and Patti Smith, is a punk, dystopian film that transports Queen Elizabeth I forward in time to the Britain of the 1970s where violence and decay are the coin of the realm. The film does carry with it some creature comforts (music by Brian Eno, a young Adam Ant), and plenty of purposeful discomforts (at this point, all I can say is: take your pick). [...MORE]

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