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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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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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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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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The World’s a Stage: The Golden Coach (1953)

THE GOLDEN COACH, (aka LE CARROSSE D'OR), Anna Magnani, 1953.

To view The Golden Coach click here.

The Golden Coach (1953) begins with a red curtain raising on a stage, the camera pushing in until the edges of the theater disappear and the story proper begins. Jean Renoir’s feature about an Italian theatrical troupe setting up shop in Peru foregrounds its artificiality, a play within the film that is a performance for our benefit. Near the end the troupe’s star actress asks, “where does theater end and life begin?” a question Renoir had been asking since his beginnings in cinema. It is a question without an answer, but indicates the space in which Renoir prefers to operate, within that intersection where playfulness and improvisation meet the social structures that try to contain them. The Golden Coach focuses on Camilla (Anna Magnani), a dynamic stage presence who bewitches three of Peru’s most eligible bachelors, but cannot decide who she ultimately desires. She can only find clarity while on stage, and heartache off of it. So in an extraordinary conclusion, the film makes an argument for perpetual performance, instead of turning your life into art, make art of your life, regardless of the consequences.

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Question Authority: The Ruling Class (1972)

The Ruling Class (1972) Directed by Peter Medak Shown: Peter O'Toole

To view The Ruling Class click here.

If you want a lesson in how awards are inadequate indicators of talent look no further than the case of the late, great Peter O’Toole. Before his death in 2013, O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar 7 times but he lost on every occasion. In 2002, when the British actor was 70-years-old, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally found it in themselves to give O’Toole an Honorary Award for his professional achievements but he wanted no part of it. The proud thespian sent a letter to the Academy reminding them that he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright” and requested that they “please defer the honor until I am 80.” His children finally convinced him to accept the Honorary Award and you can currently watch his acceptance speech on YouTube.

O’Toole’s speech was short and snappy but also eloquent and deeply touching. I suspect that the working-class lad who had fought long and hard to get onto that stage was thinking of the back rows of the Kodak Theatre and the poor folks at home who could only view the events on TV. To accommodate those of us in the cheap seats he was well-prepared, on point and most of all, entertaining. O’Toole’s professionalism is unsurpassed and to this day it remains one of the most memorable and moving Oscar speeches I’ve seen. It also slyly illustrates how wrong the Academy had been for neglecting the man and his unique talents during the previous 40 years.

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Wrapped Around Her Finger: Elena and Her Men (1956)

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To view Elena and Her Men click here.

In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”

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India Song: The River (1951)

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

To view The River click here.

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” - André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

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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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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]

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