Hollywood Magic Is Real

I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)

In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  

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A Double Dose of Boris Karloff

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Life has been throwing me lots of curveballs lately and when I’m feeling low, I tend to gravitate towards what I like to call “comfort food films” and my comfort food tends to be classic horror films. During the cold winter months, cozying up on the couch with a warm beverage and a couple of creaky old black and white horror movies can make even the worse week seem manageable. Fortunately, I found exactly what I required streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, The Haunted Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). Both of these low-budget British thrillers were directed by Robert Day and feature standout performances from William Henry Pratt aka the one and only Boris Karloff.

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Film Discoveries of 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

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Black & Blue Christmas: Placido (1961)

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.

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Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

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End of an Era: Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968) were the last two fiction features that Orson Welles completed. Still to come would be the self-reflective essays of F For Fake (1973) and Filming Othello (’78), as well as the perpetually promised to-be-finished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (1970-’76), but Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story mark an endpoint. Both deal with aging, obsolete men living outside of their times, belonging to previous epochs. In Chimes, Welles’ Falstaff is a ruddy-cheeked representative of the Merrie England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, while his “Mr. Clay” in The Immortal Story is a wealthy Macao merchant who lives inside his account books, completely cut off from the world outside. Chimes at Midnight is the capstone to Welles’ extraordinary career, while The Immortal Story is a dream-like coda. Today both have been released in essential DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion. Chimes at Midnight has never had a satisfactory home video release in the United States until now, subjugated to dupey transfers and muddy audio (always blamed on the original production circumstances, which required extensive dubbing, but the dialogue is crisp and clear on the Criterion disc). Both releases are causes for celebration, and Chimes has pole position for home video release of the year.

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Past Lives: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963)

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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Group Therapy: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn PatrolCeiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.

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While the City Sleeps: Paris Belongs to Us (1962)

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“The release of Paris Belongs to Us is a score for every member of the [Cahiers du Cinéma] team – or of our Mafia, if you prefer…For Rivette is the source of many things. The example of Le Coup de Berger, his short film of 1956, made me decide to shoot Les Mistons, and Claude Chabrol to be adventuresome enough to make a full-length film from Le Beau Serge; and at the same time it moved the most prestigious short-subject filmmakers, Alain Resnais and Georges Franju, to try their first full-length films. It had begun. And it had begun thanks to Jacques Rivette. Of all of us he was the most fiercely determined to move.” – François Truffaut

Paris Belongs to Us presents the city as a labyrinthine stage which invites its residents/performers to invent and inhabit vast conspiracies. Mysteries lie behind every open door, if only an intrepid investigator would crack it open and peer behind. It is a paranoid Alice in Wonderland in which its Alice, here called Anne, goes down the rabbit hole with a group of poor actor-artists staging Shakespeare’s Pericles. Every door Anne walks through expands her vision of the world as she is drawn into the macabre fantasy life of artists with too much time on their hands. The film lays out ideas that Rivette would explore the rest of his career, from the nature of performance to the city as game board. Jacques Rivette began shooting Paris Belongs to Us  in 1958, though it would take two years for it to be completed and released in 1961. The 400 Blows and Breathless both made it to cinemas first, and their phenomenal success relegated Paris to the background. The film, like many of Rivette’s features, would become cult cinephile objects, beloved because of their rarity. But that is slowly being rectified, as the legendary 13-hour Out 1 is now streaming on Netflix, while the Criterion Collection has released Paris Belongs to Us on beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions.

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Taipei Story: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

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“This film is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less. I hope they, the forgotten, can be made unforgettable.” – Edward Yang, director’s note for A Brighter Summer Day

 

A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued  A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray  from the  4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.

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Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.