The Postman: Jour de Fête (1949)

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To view Jour de fête click here.

After a decade-long career as a music-hall performer, Jacques Tati transitioned to feature filmmaking witha comedy about a remarkably gullible postman. Before Tati invented the iconic bumbling bourgeois Hulot (in M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), he experimented with a clumsy working class letter carrier, prone to insecure bouts of drinking and falling flat on his face. Jour de fête (1949) exhibits Tati’s elastic expertise at mime, including a tour-de-force drunk bike ride, as well as displaying his immediate talents as a director, constructing brilliantly funny gags through choreography and sound design. All of the gags generate from a small town’s resistance to and obsession with technological advancement, especially as trumpeted by the Americans. Tati eyes all this talk of modernization with a gimlet eye, preferring instead to linger on the absurdities of small town life before they disappear forever.

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Otto’s Life in the Sausage Factory

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To view FilmStruck’s “Early Otto” theme, click here.

The Golden Age of Hollywood seems so all-American, so homogeneous in its style and so uniform in its production practices. Yet, many of its directors were Europeans who both contributed and conformed to the industry. One of those directors was Otto Preminger, and his Golden Age films are spotlighted by FilmStruck in their “Early Otto” theme. Five pictures are featured, including the film noirs Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), the melodrama Daisy Kenyon (1947), and the historical dramas A Royal Scandal (1945) and Forever Amber (1947).

The five films represent his first period of success when he was a studio director at Twentieth Century Fox. Though not entirely ungrateful for his opportunities, Preminger referred to his time as a studio director as “life in the sausage factory.”

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Random Thoughts on The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

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To view The Testament of Dr. Mabuse click here.

Watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) again recently, I was struck by many things. So many, in fact, that coming up with just one angle from which to approach the subject seemed like a cheat as there were numerous angles available. Sometimes you watch a movie and a rush of thoughts, memories and ideas keep crashing into you from the screen, never letting you focus in on just one element of the film at any given time. That’s not a bad thing either and I think it’s one of the primary reasons that the best movies reward multiple viewings. A great and complex movie makes you think of different things while it’s going on, so you can’t possibly take it all in with only a single viewing. You must watch it again, and again, and again. And even then, you might not know exactly how to put it all together. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is one such movie and I have no single theme to tackle here. Rather, I’d like to take a kind of epistolary approach, a cataloging of mental diary entries and newspaper clippings that swirled around my head as I watched.

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More Than a Two-Word Review: This is Spinal Tap (’84)

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To view This is Spinal Tap click here.

I can’t quite remember exactly when I first saw This is Spinal Tap (1984), but I do know it was sometime in the late 80’s. It was in fairly heavy rotation on cable in various edited forms, and the first few times I only saw bits and pieces—usually the concert scenes. And I have to admit I thought I was watching a legitimate documentary about a real rock and roll band. Yes, I was a kid. But I knew my music, and I just couldn’t figure out how this band slipped under my radar. Of course, it wasn’t long after those first few brief viewings that I realized Spinal Tap was merely parody, and it quickly became a personal favorite, only to get better as I’ve gotten older. With each viewing, which is at least a couple times a year, I discover something new and hilarious. But what I’ve also found with those repeat viewings is that my initial impression of the film when I was kid really wasn’t that far off. This is Spinal Tap is ridiculous, yes, but it is more faithful in its portrayal of the bizarre culture surrounding rock and roll than it’s given credit.

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History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

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Die Laughing: Carry On Screaming! (1966)

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To view Carry On Screaming! click here.

“The usual charge to make against the Carry On films is to say that they could be much better done. This is true enough. They look dreadful, they seem to be edited with a bacon slicer and the comic rhythm jerks along like a cat on a cold morning. But if all these things were more elegant, I don’t really think the films would be more enjoyable: the badness is part of the funniness.”
– Critic Penelope Gilliatt, “In praise of Carrying On” from a 1964 issue of The Observer

FilmStruck has made a batch of the Carry On films available for streaming and if you’re unfamiliar with these British comedies it’s a great opportunity to become acquainted with one of the U.K.’s most popular film franchises. Beginning with Carry On Sergeant in 1958, director Gerald Thomas and producer Peter Rogers teamed up with a rotating cast of regulars to make an impressive 31 films before the series ended in 1992 with Carry On Columbus. During their 34-year run, the Carry On films never won any awards and were typically dismissed by critics but they were beloved by audiences who appreciated how these funny farces satirized respected British institutions such as the military, law enforcement and the medical establishment. The Carry On franchise also regularly lampooned popular films such as the James Bond series with Carry On Spying (1964) and 20th Century-Fox’s big-budget Cleopatra epic in Carry On Cleo (1965).

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Bathe Your Eyes in Forever Amber (1947)

FOREVER AMBER, from left: George Sanders, Linda Darnell, Alan Napier, 1947, TM & Copyright © 20th

To view Forever Amber click here.

Now here’s a film with three of my favorite things from 1940s movies: Linda Darnell, Otto Preminger and blazing Technicolor. Seen today it’s hard to believe Forever Amber (1947) was a major scandal in the Hollywood press when the opulent 20th Century Fox period piece ran into trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, as they took exception to Kathleen Winsor’s novel and a cinematic adaptation of the story dealing with a woman whose social climbing and bed-hopping may hinder a romance with her true love. (The original book, which was flat-out banned by the Catholic Church, is almost a thousand pages long, so as you can imagine, they had to do a lot of compression and cutting to get it down to a 138-minute movie!) Nothing in this narrative would be out of place in a contemporary Harlequin romance novel (don’t worry, the quality’s several notches above), but at the time this was considered fairly hot stuff.

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New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)

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To view Something Wild click here.

Something Wild (1986) is a road movie with a penchant for detours, keeping its eyes on the side roads and rest stops instead of the highway in front of it. A shapeshifting romantic-comic thriller, it adjusts its tone to the landscape, paying as a romcom in NYC, a chase film in Pennsylvania and a horror movie in Stony Brook. The only thing that ties together the film are the rest stops and delis the movie’s increasingly unhinged characters stop into for snacks, robberies, and a break from the world outside. Each location provides more subcultures for the insatiable eye of director Jonathan Demme to explore, whether it’s the tiny liquor store manager with a giant pipe or a duo of style conscious old thrift store biddies, Demme imbues every scene with indelible personalities, making the film a kind of American oddball panorama in which two star-crossed lovers keep criss-crossing through.

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Double Noir: Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945)

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To view Laura click here.

To view Fallen Angel click here.

In retrospect, Otto Preminger has never been included in the pantheon of iconic Golden Age directors—Ford, Hitchcock, Welles, Hawks, Wilder, Capra. Sometimes, his career is covered in film history texts, largely because of his work in the 1950s. Preminger’s career ended with a few disappointing and strange choices (Skidoo, really?), which perhaps accounts for a fading reputation even in his lifetime. It’s time to embrace the dictatorial director with the bald pate—despite Skidoo (1968)! FilmStruck is offering “Early Otto,” a selection of films from his studio years. For today’s post, I suggest a perfect Preminger double feature; next week, I will follow through with a broader discussion of his work.

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Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977) Directed by David Lynch Shown: Jack Nance

To view Eraserhead click here.

What do John Waters, Stanley Kubrick, H.R. Giger, and The Pixies all have in common? For starters, they all share a very high regard for a feature film whose script was only 22 pages long and which took five years to make: David Lynch’s directorial debut, Eraserhead (1977). My own fascination with this famous midnight movie touches on my job as a film exhibitor because it serves to remind me how small and independent exhibitors can have a big impact on film culture when they champion a particular title. In the case of Eraserhead, it was the Cinema Village in New York that first ran it for a year as a midnight feature. This was followed by exceptionally long runs (the likes of which nowadays are unheard of) at the New York’s Waverly Cinema, then the San Francisco Roxie Theater. And this followed by an even longer three year stint at the Los Angeles’s Nuart Theatre. [...MORE]

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