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Movie Crash Course: The Life Of Emile Zola

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The Life of Emile Zola felt like two movies, each one about a different distinct phase of the French writer’s life. The first third is a rather conventional biopic about his early poverty-ridden struggles and rise to fame; but the rest of the film follows Zola’s involvement with the “Dreyfus Affair” scandal, and spends so much attention on explaining the situation to American audiences and depicting Alfred Dreyfus’ struggles that Zola is reduced to a supporting character. The tone of each section is markedly different, and it felt more like an ensemble movie about the Dreyfus Affair with a vestigial second movie stuck to it like an extra thumb or something.

(I link to the Wikipedia page above, but a super-quick explanation if you would rather just stay here: Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer who was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans in the 1890s. He was innocent, but he also happened to be Jewish, and when the evidence didn’t convict him, his anti-Semitic superiors conspired to forge some rather than admit they were wrong. They kept up the conspiracy even after Dreyfus had been sentenced to a prison colony and the real evidence pointing to the real culprit, a Hungarian-born count, came to light. Dreyfus’ supporters appealed to Zola for help, thinking he could write something in support of their cause; Zola went even further, writing an open letter to the President of France accusing the entire French government of anti-Semitism and complicity in the cover-up, hoping that he would himself be accused of libel – during a libel trial, he thought, he could present proof of Dreyfus’ innocence.)

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The film does attempt to connect the two parts. The first bit is a run-of-the-mill tale of an artiste getting his big break, and checks all the related tropes.  We see Zola (played by Paul Muni) shivering and starving in a garret with his roommate and childhood friend, the painter Paul Cezanne; we see him quitting a job on principle when his boss wants to curtail his writing; we see lots of passionate pledges to write about “The Truth”; we see the sudden joy at his big break, and the montage of time passing and the money rolling in. We even see the trope of Zola becoming a little bit of a sellout and getting called on it by his old friend Cezanne.

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The movie implies that Cezanne’s accusation nagged at Zola enough to spur him to agree to help Dreyfus; but Muni all but disappears from the screen for 40 minutes after Cezanne’s callout, and such a connection isn’t necessarily apparent to the average viewer.  In fact, I bet you could remove the “Zola: the Early Years” portion from the film entirely and turn this into an ensemble piece solely about the Dreyfus Affair; the film delves into the machinations of the conspiracy in detail, showing several back-room hushed plotting conversations and lots of frantic appeals from Dreyfus himself (played by Joseph Schildkraut, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor).  Even during Zola’s libel trial, he’s mostly silent, with his attorney (Donald Crisp) making most of the impassioned arguments for the defense (save for one address Zola gets to make to the jury).  It’s an intriguing enough story to stand on its own, and it got me wondering why they didn’t just make a film about Dreyfus since it seemed like that was where the filmmakers’ interest lay.

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The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish, however, and the fact that it was the 1930s, may have been why. Even though it’s glaringly obvious that Dreyfus is a scapegoat because of his religion, no one in the film actually utters the words “Anti-Semite” or “Anti-Semitic”.  No one says the word “Jew” either, for that matter – the closest they come is when Dreyfus’ accusers are reviewing a list of officers, looking for a likely culprit in the espionage case they’ve just uncovered, and the camera shows us the list, focusing on the line listing Dreyfus’ name, rank, and religion.  “Here’s someone,” one of the officers says, “Dreyfus.”  And – his finger taps the line directly under the word “Jew”.

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At the time this film was made, Hollywood filmmakers were just as aware of the Nazi threat in Germany as the average American (which is to say, not much).  They may have known a bit more than the average American, in fact, since several talented Jewish filmmakers and screenwriters were abandoning Europe for the comparative safety in the United States; director Billy Wilder, an Austrian Jew, had already been in the country for three years at the time Emile Zola was released, having fled Europe as soon as Hitler was elected.  But the rest of the country was unwilling to accuse Germany of anything untoward, taking a sort of “let’s look at both sides” approach (an approach that sounds uncomfortably familiar today).  Film studios regularly submitted both scripts and completed movies to the German consul based in Los Angeles for their approval and would make cuts in the finished films upon request.  Nazi party faithful Georg Gyssling took on the role in 1933, and took his job as Hollywood policeman seriously – regularly threatening the studios that if they showed an anti-German picture anywhere in the world, then all of that studio’s films would be banned in Germany itself.

It’s not a huge leap to imagine that a studio may have initially wanted to make a film about the Dreyfus Affair itself, but slapped Zola’s story around it as a sort of shield to get the Dreyfus story past Gyssling.  But its sensitive treatment of Dreyfus, and its focus on the “Dreyfus years” for Zola, suggest that his was the story they really wanted to tell.


Movie Crash Course: Song At Midnight

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Apologies for the delay; some day job mayhem sucked some of the sap out of my brain, and I’d already been running a bit low after Song At Midnight.  Not that it’s Limite-level opaque, just that I was stumped about what to say about it.

Song At Midnight is often called “the first Chinese horror film”, and most reviews compare it to Phantom Of The Opera. But it’s only loosely based on that earlier work.  There’s a disfigured man lurking in the attic of an opera house, yes, but he’s not interested in kidnapping a lovely young lady to be his protgee and mistress – for this fellow, Song Danping, has already given away his heart to Li Xiaoxia, the daughter of a local official.   And she loves him back – in fact, they were a loving couple ten years prior to the film, when Song was an opera star in the city where they live.  However, another local fellow named Tang Jun was a rival for Li’s affections.  He first tried turning Li’s father against Song – but when that didn’t work, Tang waited outside the stage door of the opera one night with a bottle full of acid, hurling it at Song’s face when he emerged.  The acid attack left Song disfigured, and out of shame he went into hiding in the opera house’s attic, sending a message to Li that he had died of his wounds to spare her. The shock at this news drove Li mad – which also turned Tang off, so he skipped town.  Heartbroken for Li, Song has been sneaking to her window each night and serenading her from the shadows, hoping to give her some comfort.

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That’s all backstory, though, that only comes out midway through the film. We actually begin the movie ten years later, when a touring theater company shows up for its booking in the dilapidated opera house.  The troupe’s young romantic lead, Sun Xiao-au, is running through one of the big numbers alone in the space when Song starts singing along, subtly coaching him through the tricky parts.  Sun discovers Song after a brief investigation and remembers Song from his early glory days – so he’s a bit of a fanboy.  Song is equally impressed with Sun’s singing – and when he sees that Sun is also easy on the eyes, he tells Sun the whole story of him and Li and the acid attack, and then suggests that Sun pay him back by visiting Li that night, posing as Song, and giving her one last embrace and urging her to move on with her life.  Sun is a little weirded out, but goes along with it, and Song is ready to withdraw into his attic for good – until he learns that Tang is also back in town, and realizes he also has a chance for revenge.

The structure of the film made this a tiny bit hard to grasp at first.  The very first thing we see is one of Song’s serenades to Li; a four-minute sequence which jumps back and forth between shots of Song’s shadow hovering against a wall, and shots of Li standing on a balcony and listening.  It makes sense in time, but right at the first you’re left scratching your head a bit.  There’s also a political-revolution subplot that honestly feels a bit tacked on.

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One arresting sequence comes when Song is recounting his story, and we see the aftermath of the acid attack.  Song fortunately had friends to look after him as he recovered, and spent several weeks with face and hands swathed in bandages as his friends rally around him and buck him up. But one day he demanded the bandages off now so he would know how bad the damage was, and his friends grudgingly agreed.  The reveal of his new face is as shocking a scene as was Lon Chaney’s face in the silent-era Phantom – props to the makeup department, seriously – but in this case, it’s a poignant moment, since instead of feeling horror and revulsion, his friends also feel sorrow and pity on his behalf.  After their initial recoil, they rally back to his side, promising bring him food and companionship in his self-imposed exile.  This Chinese Phantom is heartbroken, but not wholly abandoned by the human race.

Movie Crash Course: The Awful Truth

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So.  A couple times in here I have mentioned that I’m not a big fan of “idiot plots” in romantic comedies, where the whole conflict of the film is something that could be solved in about three minutes if the principal characters simply talked to each other like grownups.  In the case of The Awful Truth, however, an idiot plot sparks off the whole story – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a well-to-do couple that gets into a bit of a tiff at the start of the film – a tiff big enough to start divorce proceedings. But the divorce won’t be final for another 90 days, and they keep bumping into each other – accidentally and on purpose – and start to have second thoughts about cutting ties.

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To be fair, the grounds for divorce seem considerable.  Jerry returns from a solo trip to find his wife is not at home – and hasn’t opened his most recent letter to her. She turns up several minutes later dressed to the nines, and accompanied by her music teacher Armand; the pair had been out of town together at a concert the previous night, Lucy says, but then “Armand’s car broke down” and they had to stay where they were.  However, Armand is single and suave, and Jerry is of course suspicious.  But then the defensive Lucy turns up evidence that Jerry’s trip was not to Florida, as he claimed – so why is he accusing her of duplicity at the very moment he’s practicing it?

All of that gets dropped instantly once the real divorce-proceedings plot starts.  This is actually the second time I’ve seen the film, and I didn’t even remember the initial argument that started it off (it’s bothering me a little now that we never learn where Jerry did go instead of Florida); what I remember instead are all the comedic bits, as they are fantastic.  Some almost seem ahead of their time; one sequence sees Jerry and Lucy each bringing a separate rebound date to the same supper club, to rub things in each others’ faces a little. Lucy’s new beau Dan (Ralph Bellamy) is an Oklahoma ranch owner and oilman, while Jerry’s date Dixie (Joyce Compton) is a showgirl at the club.  Jerry and Lucy’s conversation is entirely made of one-upmanship (Dan and Dixie awkwardly looking on) until Dixie excuses herself to go do her act.  The others settle in to watch – and discover together that maybe Jerry should have vetted Dixie’s act a little before boasting about it.

I’ve rewatched that scene about three times now; Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s reactions crack me up every time.  Throughout the whole film, in fact, they consistently crack me up – especially Cary Grant, whose comic timing is impeccable. I was first shown this film during rehearsals for a play, when the director wanted to teach the cast about the screwball comedy tone she wanted for our own show.  Cary Grant and Irene Dunne were a perfect case study for our actors.

But my own favorite character, both times watching, is a supporting player – Cecil Cunningham, as Lucy’s “Aunt Patsy”, a single socialite Lucy moves in with during the Warriners’ fallout. Aunt Patsy is no genteel wallflower – she is a lively snarker with some of the best lines in the whole movie. In one scene, Lucy is showing Patsy a “Dear John” letter she’s written for one of her rebound beaux – and the unlucky gent turns up unexpectedly, forcing Lucy to break up with him in person. As he’s leaving, he sneers that Lucy has “certainly taught him about women”, and in response, Patsy hands him the letter, quipping “here’s your diploma.”

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The screwball comedy looms large on my list, but I have to admit that this one will be hard to top.

Focus And Perspective

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

This weekend I was up in the Catskills, at a photography workshop organized by my friend Colin.  It was focusing on capturing the fall color of the Catskills – a subject Colin excels at – but he also taught us ten students a sheer wealth of material, like the challenges of catching leaves when the wind makes them dance, and how to compensate for the fading light of Autumn and why misty days are actually perfect for a fall photo day.  How to capture the endless sweep of a Hudson Valley field sloping down into a dappled lake, and then the trees dotting the far-distant peaks beyond that.

However, I didn’t have quite the chance to try his techniques that I thought I would.  Because on our very first day – only twenty minutes into our first photo session capturing the scene around a Catskill pond, and only five minutes after Colin had wandered over to me and showed me a setting on my little camera that I never knew I had – I lost hold of my camera and it tumbled into the pond.  Everyone else in the class froze when they heard me start chanting ogodogodogodogodogod and splash in after it; then they all started hollering over their remedies and advice –

“Take the battery out right now!”

“Shake all the water out!”

Colin ran over with his car keys.  “Go sit in the truck with the camera right next to the heater for 20 minutes,” he said.  “Then we’ll see what happens.”  I trotted off, and another student, Chuck, tagged along.  “I have a spare camera,” he offered, “you want to use it?”  I told him I’d see how my own familiar camera did first, if I could get it back up and going.  I spent the next 20 minutes carefully swabbing things out with a stack of napkins Colin had in the car and cranking the fan and the heater, with other students periodically wandering by to check on me.

My camera turned on after 20 minutes, but made some strange noises and the viewfinder screen didn’t work.  “I’m thinking you may need to try the bag of rice trick when we get back to the house,” Colin said.  Chuck, hovering nearby, offered his spare camera again so I wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing at the next photo stop.  This time I said yes – but was still intimidated when he handed over a camera that was twice as big and ten times as complicated as my little friendly drowned camera.  It also came with a big telephoto lens on it that I had to adjust to.  I had to keep trotting over to Chuck to ask how to adjust the shutter speed and ask why it was blinking and ask how to turn off different settings and make it stop making that weird vvvvhh noise.  But I got through that day, and immediately buried my camera in a bag of rice when we broke for the day.  It was still not quite right the next morning, so Chuck once again handed me his big camera with a grin.  But it was a frustrating day of wrestling with the unfamiliar controls and juggling the heavy lens.  I drained a battery because there was an obscure setting switched on that I hadn’t even known how to check, and spent about twenty minutes that second afternoon in a sulk in the car because the battery was dead and it wasn’t even my camera in the first place and I had to keep interrupting Chuck to fix everything and I had also almost dropped a borrowed tripod earlier that day too and I felt like a huge unprepared klutzy doof.

But I got through the weekend, and Colin and Niki (Colin’s better half) brought me to the bus back home – but after a half hour past the time it was supposed to come, we were still there, and both Colin and Niki were just as exhausted as I was waiting with me.  We called the bus company, learned that the bus had broken down and the replacement bus was still two hours away.  We went back to Colin and Niki’s place, sat around a while, then went back to the bus stop – and waited a half hour past the time the second bus was due.  I called the bus company again – and learned that the second driver had actually spaced out, totally bypassed the tiny town where I was, and was halfway to Kingston by then, much too late to turn back around and fetch me.  The most they could do was offer to switch my ticket to one this morning, so Colin and Niki were forced to put me up for one more night.

But.  I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

The morning of our second day, we were lingering for a long time by a lake with a lot of things going on around it – mist wreathing the distant hills, flocks of geese, a water wheel by a small falls, a small boat dock. A man came by with a canoe and we all secretly tried working him into all of our shots, with varying degrees of success (he was paddling fast). I was getting the hang of some of the basic settings on Chuck’s camera by then, and on the last day, when Colin asked us all to show off our six best shots from that weekend to the class for discussion and critique, all of mine came from that lake.

And, so, apparently all those complicated settings on Chuck’s camera do stuff, and it really makes a difference.


There were gasps and “ooh!”s when Colin put my work up – from me as well as the others.  – I took THAT photo? I kept thinking with surprise.  Niki was in the kitchen making us lunch the whole time we were discussing our work, and told me later that she’d been listening to the happy buzz of conversation throughout – and then was confused when suddenly the room went silent.  “And I came out to find out what was going on, and it was because they were looking at one of your photos!”  Chuck took me aside to say that he was glad he’d had a camera to loan me “because look what you did with it.”

Photography is something I’d let slide – I was much more interested in it about 15 years ago, and then a lot of life busyness got in the way.  This all encouraged me to seriously pursue getting a better camera, even if I can revive my old one – apparently there’s a skill there I can develop.  Colin and I spoke a lot about that sometime during all the bus mess; he gave me some advice about what might be the next step.

We also talked about how it was good that this had all been a step out of my comfort zone.  Colin and Niki have known me for nearly 20 years now, and Colin’s always had a talent for spotting what makes me tick, and what advice I may need most at a given moment.  They moved to Colorado a few months ago, but I hadn’t really much chance to catch up with them during the photo class – but even though we were all exhausted, my staying an extra night let us catch up a bit, reminisce and talk about our current lives and even zone out watching the first Doctor Who episode with Jodie Whittaker.

So if I hadn’t dropped my camera – I would never have known what I could do with a better camera, and never would have taken pictures I’m as pleased with as I am those.  And if I hadn’t been abandoned at the bus stop I would never have had an extra precious few hours with two of my closest friends, swapping jokes about pot pies and hurricanes and talking about TARDISes.

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

Movie Crash Course: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

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And thus, we come to the first full-length Disney film.

I was a little hyper-focused on my reaction while watching this film, since my relationship with the House of Mouse has been a bit….complex.  I saw a lot of the old classic movies as a kid, and we made three family pilgrimages to Orlando by the time I was ten.  Disney had been producing full-length movies for four decades by the time I came along, and their works were often the go-to for “entertainment for kids” – Snow White is the first film I have any memory of seeing, natch (although those memories are extremely hazy; I remember being in a car at a drive-in, but only remember vague shapes on the distant screen).

However, I was a child in the 70s, when Walt Disney’s company was facing stiff competition from Jim Henson and Charles Schulz; and compared to Kermit and Snoopy, some of Disney’s stuff felt a little…creaky.  There was also a gender-consciousness in my grade school, thanks to the burgeoning women’s-lib movement and Marlo Thomas’ Free To Be You And Me kids’ album.   So there really wasn’t the same kind of “Disney Princess” thing going on when I was little – instead, I was more into Winnie The Pooh and Lady and The Tramp.

Over the past few decades, as I’ve grown from being a precocious kid with a tomboy streak to being an opinionated childless feminist, that indifference towards the princesses has verged on outright aversion, to which I’ve added frustration at how many of the old folktales were cleaned up for the Disney films (the actual story of “Sleeping Beauty” was reaaaaaally different, and that movie would be rated R).  I also have known a couple people who’ve worked for Disney studios and their perspective has….well, let’s just say it’s colored my own.  So – here I was, a middle-aged feminist with a bit of a Disney grudge and an orthodoxical love of support material.  What was I going to think of this thing?

….It wasn’t bad, actually.

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Don’t get me wrong, there are definite problems.  As a character, Snow White is pretty dull; a sweet and meek helpmeet who wants a husband.  The first thing she does when she walks into the dwarfs’ cottage and sees how unkempt it is, is start cleaning it.  Hell, the first thing we see her doing is scrubbing the floor at her castle and singing about her prince coming someday.  Speaking of the Prince, he’s even less interesting – I don’t think the Prince has any speaking lines at all, just a single song he serenades Snow White with, pledging eternal devotion after seeing her precisely one time.  Other Disney princesses at least get to talk with their Prince Charmings at some point in their own films.

But that may be a function of the story itself; “escape the Queen and find the prince” is Snow White’s only motivation in the original story too. Disney’s studios was going to have to pad that story out anyway to make a full-length film. Tweaking Snow White’s character may have been a little too advanced for the 1930s.

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So that left the option of fleshing out Snow White’s world instead – and this is where things really shine. Today the trope of the princess surrounded by frolicking woodland creatures is something we roll our eyes at – but it was those very frolicking creatures that caught my eye again and again, because there was a stunning attention to detail.  The rabbits all move like rabbits; pheasants all move like pheasants.  Quail move like real quail.  Mice, chipmunks, deer, turtles, finches – all are unique creatures that are individually animated in true-to-life ways (or as close as you can get, since I doubt real squirrels would help dust chairs).  Even a housefly has character and personality, turning up again and again to plague the dwarves in turn before falling asleep on Sleepy’s nose, complete with little housefly snores.

The dwarves are who the average person remembers best.  Disney was the one to give them personalities – the original Grimm folktale doesn’t give them names or characterization, and fleshing them out would go a long way towards building out the story.  There was even an early draft of the script that told the story from the dwarves’ perspective entirely.  But Disney reverted to Snow White being the star again and giving the dwarves unique characters, choosing temperaments and names from a pool of fifty possible writers’ room suggestions (among the rejected names: “Deafy”, “Wheezy”, “Baldy”, “Tubby”, and “Burpy”).  Over the course of the movie, the dwarves still do more – they have more songs, they have more scenes, they generally just do more stuff.  At times I even felt that they were doing a little too much – there’s a scene when Snow White is inspecting the cleanliness of each one’s hands before dinner, and the scene shows each and every one individually showing his hands for inspection.  Kids probably would dig that, but this particular grumpy adult wanted them to get on with it…

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Speaking of that grumpy adult, I was surprised by some moments of macabre humor.  As the wicked Queen is heading out to poison Snow White, she passes through the castle dungeon and comes across a cell; a human skeleton lies just inside, its arm stretched out through the bars towards a pitcher sitting just out of reach.  The Queen pauses when she sees this, and cackles, “Oh, are you thirsty?  Have some water!” before gleefully kicking the pitcher at the skeleton, knocking it to pieces.  ….It’s not Tarantino-caliber, but you have to admit – that’s dark.

Later Disney films improve on the Princess Role a bit.  The very next aminated Disney work was 1940’s Pinocchio, and it was another ten years before Cinderella – which gives its princess lead a little more of a presence.  But the seeds of several other Disney works, from Bambi to Fantasia to Sleeping Beauty, are all here if you just know where to look.

Movie Crash Course: The Grand Illusion

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Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion bills itself as an “anti-war” film – so I was initially baffled at how…peaceful it was.  Later I realized that may have been the whole point.

It’s set during World War I and sees Jean Gabin (who we last saw in Pépé le Moko) as a French pilot who gets shot down while taking his commanding officer (Pierre Fresnay) on a recon mission.  The pair are sent to a series of different German POW camps, where they each participate in several escape attempts.  That’s pretty much it for the plot.

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But it still took me a good ten minutes to realize that they even were at war – because of how kindly and civilly they are treated by their captors. Erich von Stroheim is the German officer who shot down their plane (Stroheim is a familiar face from the silent era – seriously, this movie was like a retread of this blog), and we first see him leading a toast to his successful capture of our two leads.  But then he adds that if the prisoners are officers, they should be invited to lunch with the rest of the officers that afternoon.  Gabin and his C.O. turn up at the table, as ordered, where all the German officers go out of their way to treat them like welcome guests – Stroheim and Fresnay are aristocrats who already know each other from various diplomatic functions and spend most of the meal catching up, while the other German soldiers practice their French with Gabin and ask him about Paris.  One even cuts his meat for him when he says his arm was hurt in the capture.  It’s such a civil scene that I thought that the film was set during some unknown peacetime multi-national military drill training or something.

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The whole film has moments like that.  The German officers allow the French POWs to receive “care packages” from home, even though one officer is getting such lavish spreads that the POWs are eating better than the German sentries.  Another French captive has theater connections, and is able to requisition a bunch of costumes so the prisoners can all put on a play to entertain themselves.  Gabin lands in solitary confinement for a time, and when he kvetches to the German guard outside his cell about how bored he is, the guard gives him a harmonica. Stroheim is forced to shoot one of his prisoners as they’re making an escape attempt, but later visits him in the infirmary to apologize and talk about how bad he feels about it.

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It is the most genteel, civilized war film I’ve seen; the soldiers aren’t behaving like enemies, but rather like competitors in a sports match. If they weren’t at war they’d be taking each other out for drinks. Especially the higher-up officers – Stroheim and Fresnay’s characters have a lengthy conversation about the schools they both went to, chateaus they’ve both visited, and other mutual acquaintances before talking about what a shame it is that they have to be meeting under these circumstances instead of at a gala or an opera house or something.  There were only three moments when anyone was treated with anything resembling unkindness – and they were all cases when the prisoners were snarking at each other.  In one instance – when Gabin says something anti-Semitic to a Jewish fellow prisoner – Gabin even apologizes less than a minute later.

Ultimately, I think the arbitrary nature of this war was Renoir’s point.  The only reason these men are at war is because the leaders of their respective countries have decreed they do battle – and these same leaders are the only ones who seem to care about the reasons for battle. It’s only an accident of maps that pits these men against each other, and in some cases it’s only a sense of duty that is leading them to comply with their orders, and even so they’re only complying reluctantly.

Mind you, my own understanding of both history and human nature makes me skeptical about whether actual World War I prison camps were this civil. People in the throes of patriotic fervor can be cruel to outsiders. But – these same people often frequently have to be told who the outsiders are, who is a friend and who is a foe. And often it is our own political leaders who are making those kind of decisions, and sometimes the friend-or-foe ruling is similarly arbitrary.  Leave us all alone, Renoir seems to be arguing, and let us make up our own decisions based on common experience, and we’d probably all get along much better.

Movie Crash Course: Stella Dallas

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I admit to a bit of a prejudice against films like Stella Dallas that are all about the mother-daughter relationship.  Not for the reason you think, mind you – my mother and I get along fine.  But I also get on fine with a single and childless aunt, and I’m single and childless myself, and so are a good number of my friends.  There are vanishingly few films about the aunt-niece relationship (or the aunt-nephew one), or the godmother-goddaughter one, or the neighbor-lady-and-kid-who-mows-her-lawn one or suchlike; it’s always mother-daughter held up to this kind of adulation, and I’d just like to see the rest of us once in a while, you know?  ….so I went into Stella Dallas with girded loins, and discovered there at least was a little more going on.

Barbara Stanwyck is Stella, who’s the daughter of a Massachusetts millworker at the start of the story. She wants to move up the social ladder, though, and has been taking night school business courses to try to work her way up.  But when upper-class Stephen Dallas (John Boles) takes an executive job in the mill to get his mind off a broken engagement, Stella decides maybe she can take a shortcut by marrying up instead.  Stephen is surprisingly willing, and in fairly short order they have a baby girl, Laurel.

Both Stephen and Stella are crazy about Laurel – but within a year, they’re not so crazy about each other.  Stella is still the brash partier she always was, and rankles at Stephen’s efforts to calm her down.  But Stephen clearly took up with Stella as a rebound girl, and Stella would never be able to clean up enough for him anyway.  When Stephen gets a job offer in New York City, the pair agree to separate – Stephen will go to New York, and Stella will stay in Massachusetts.  Laurel also stays in Massachusetts, spending a few weeks each summer with Stephen.

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Things roll on smoothly enough until Laurel is in her teens.  She is a sensitive and compassionate young lady with her father’s epicurean taste, but with devotion to her mother’s care.  She befriends other upper-class students in her school, but when their parents find out who her mother is, they freeze her out.  She turns down a couple of invitations because Stella would be left alone if she said yes.

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Mother and daughter hit up a high-end resort during one sequence, and Stella turns heads with an elaborately tacky outfit that draws gales of laughter from Laurel’s friends (unaware that it’s Laurel’s mother they’re laughing at).  But instead of defending or confronting her, Laurel simply begs her mother to bring her home, so Stella is spared the knowledge that she was a laughingstock.  Stella nonetheless finds out, though, at about the same time she finds out that Stephen has been getting re-acquainted with his former fiancée Helen, now a widow with three sons, a huge inheritance, and the kind of class status she’d always wanted for Laurel. So when Stephen hints he’d like a divorce to marry his old fiancée, Stella shows up for a private meeting with Helen, as she’s had an idea how the situation could help Laurel…

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Maybe it’s because I’m not a mother, but I was most affected by Laurel.  It would have been all too easy to depict her as being embarrassed by her mother’s background – rankling at having to live in their cheap apartment, lashing out at her when friends didn’t want to come over, attacking her for dressing like a floozy at the resort.  But Laurel seems to see past that to her mothers’ soul; when Laurel’s friends make fun of Stella, Laurel wants them to leave for Stella’s sake.  Stella may be unpolished and unconventional, but – she’s also loving and devoted, and isn’t that just as important?

On the other hand, though, Laurel could also have responded to her friends’ teasing by defending Stella (“….That’s my mother, guys, so shove it”).  There’s a classism in the film that rubbed me the wrong way – because Laurel’s right, Stella may not have had the breeding and refinement of her peers’ parents, but breeding and refinement isn’t everything.   So what if she likes to go to movies instead of museums?  What’s wrong with that?  Well, actually, the movie implies a lot is wrong with that – there is a clear bright line between one’s breeding, the movie implies, and one’s worth as a person.  Stella believes that, anyway, and the movie goes along with it – so much so that when Laurel wants to still bring Stella with her into the rarefied upper class, Stella makes a desperate choice to stop her.

So ultimately the “self-sacrificing mother” tropes didn’t bother me as much as I thought – because I was distracted by some “lower class people are worth less” tropes that bothered me even more.