The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

To view La Marseillaise, click here.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

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On A Short Film About Killing (1988)

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To view A Short Film About Killing click here.

I used to work in the DVD division of Facets Multi-Media, a Chicago arts organization devoted to showing, distributing and preserving foreign, avant-garde and documentary films. Facets was the first to own the North American distribution rights to The Decalogue, Krysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part series inspired by the Ten Commandments that he made for Polish television. My role in the release of the series on this side of the Atlantic involved everything from checking the authored discs to editing the subtitles to producing the booklet inserted in each package. In the process, I viewed each hour-long episode at least half a dozen times, and to say they hold up on repeated viewings is an understatement. Episodes V and VI were expanded by Kieslowski to feature-length films and released to theaters. A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) are both available on FilmStruck.

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Whatever Lola (1961) Wants, She Has To Wait For

Lola (1961 France) Directed by Jacques Demy Shown: Anouk Aimée

To view Lola click here.

Jacques Demy came up right along with the rest of the French New Wave but his reputation didn’t have the same edge. While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Resnais acquired a rep for groundbreaking work, Demy was too in love with both the Hollywood musical form and the sweeping camera of Max Ophüls to gain the same overseas cachet as the rest of the gang. Even being as close as he was to one of the most pioneering and acclaimed members of that group, the great Agnès Varda (his wife), Demy preferred the romantic and sentimental breeziness of the 1950s musical. His first feature film, Lola(1961), achieves a beautiful balance between the musical and the new wave with the sweeping camera of Ophüls thrown in for good measure. And all of it done without being a musical at all. Almost.

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Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)

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To view Death Race 2000 click here.

When I was a kid, probably thirteen or fourteen, my mom and I would often spend Friday nights staying up late watching television. We would watch Letterman and weird infomercials. Sometimes we would catch a late-night movie—like The Birds (1963), or the utterly ridiculous made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). Then there was the romantic drama Violets Are Blue (1986), which would keep us up no matter how late it was on. Mom and I would be hooked-in because of Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, two of our favorite actors. But we would quickly remember the film as a godawful mess. Of course, we’d watch it anyway, and laugh at the chewed scenery and Bonnie Bedelia’s character serving gazpacho. Mom would often tell me about bizarre cult films that she saw in the 1970s, hoping that we might stumble upon them during our weekly Friday night channel surfing. There were two films that she always talked about: one was Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975), starring Joanne Nail. Mom first saw it at a drive-in when she lived (and partied) in Daytona Beach, Florida. The second was Death Race 2000 (1975), produced by the King of the B movies, the great Roger Corman, and directed by Paul Bartel (who also has a brief cameo), which she first saw on HBO in the network’s early years, in the summer of 1976. Of the two, Death Race 2000 was the most fascinating to her, and still is, and she’d joke with me about the film’s sanctioned vehicular homicide and humorous point system. “Children and old folks are worth the most points,” she’d say, as I was first learning how to drive.

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Movie as Manifesto: The Fountainhead (1949)

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Forget for a moment the philosophies of Ayn Rand. Forget the unrelenting stoicism of every character involved. Forget, if you can, that the dialogue, from beginning to end, plays like an ever flowing stream of talking points, slogans and mottos rather than actual words any normal human being would ever utter. Forget all of that and simply revel in the fact that, once upon a time, someone put Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal and Raymond Massey together in a movie in which they, ostensibly, form a love triangle and as an endlessly engaging commercial entertainment, it worked. It worked like gangbusters. Then go back to all the other stuff because, let’s face it, you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. The Fountainhead(1949), directed by King Vidor from a screenplay by Ayn Rand based on her own novel, is one of the most ludicrously naked political tracts ever filmed. But, damn, is it fun to watch.

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A Daring Directorial Debut: Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, from left: Peter Glenville, Stewart Granger, 1944

To view Madonna of the Seven Moons click here.

Arthur Crabtree is chiefly remembered for helming two imaginative science fiction and horror thrillers in the late 1950s, Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). But before he became associated with these cult favorites, Crabtree worked extensively with Gainsborough Pictures where he photographed some of the studio’s biggest hits including The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), which helped make Stewart Granger a star. At Gainsborough, Crabtree built a reputation as an efficient and economical cinematographer who was responsible for giving these modestly budgeted costume dramas the polish and sophistication that they desperately needed so it’s not surprising that the British studio eventually gave him the opportunity to direct. Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) is Crabtree’s first feature film and it is a strange, inventive and daring directorial debut that you can currently catch on FilmStruck as part of their “Early Stewart Granger” theme.

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Sifting through Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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To view Ashes and Diamonds click here.

Is it possible for a film to be revered as a world classic and influence an entire generation of its country’s filmmakers yet still be underrated? In the case of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the best-known film from the great Andrzej Wajda (whom we lost last year), the answer could very well be yes. The film was a major salvo in the onslaught of Polish masterpieces made in the wake of Stalinist control in the country, and it made a world cinema superstar out of Wajda, regularly turning up in film retrospectives and popping up on best-of lists for decades. More recently it was inaugurated into the Criterion Collection and was included in Martin Scorsese’s internationally traveling film series Masterpieces of Polish Cinema a few years ago, which went all over Europe as well as New York and Los Angeles. [...MORE]

The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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“My Hawks Picture”: What’s Up Doc? (1972)

To view What’s Up Doc? click here.

Next year, I plan to teach a course on romantic comedy covering the Golden Age through the contemporary era. Not surprisingly, the choices to represent the Film School Generation are limited. It’s not that there were no romantic comedies during the late 1960s through the 1970s, but it was not a preferred genre for directors like Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, Coppola, Friedkin and their socially conscious colleagues.

Fortunately, Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) fits the bill nicely. One characteristic of the directors of this era was their fondness for paying homage to influential or classic films; another was their reworking or deconstruction of popular genres. What’s Up Doc?, which is an homage to Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), honors the classic era while updating the screwball comedy.

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Pasolini’s Audacious Debut

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To view Accattone click here.

Pimps, thugs, prostitutes, thieves and other miscreants, these are the denizens of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961). “Accattone,” a slang term for beggars and bums, is also the nickname given to Vittorio, our antihero, as played by Franco Citti in a break-out role that would bring him fame at the age of 26. He’d later be cast as Calò in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), where he was given the famous line “In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.” As the pimp in Accattone, one that treats all the women he comes across quite badly, he is completely deaf to such advice. [...MORE]

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