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Monthly Archives: January 2018

Movie Crash Course: Tabu, A Story of the South Seas

It’s a relief getting back to something with a plot, I’ll tell you that.

Set in the South Pacific – and cast entirely by Pacific Island people – Tabu is the tale of a pair of sweethearts, Matahi and Reri, who at the start of the film are living an idyllic life on Bora Bora – Matahi is one of the best fishermen in the village, Reri is the chief’s daughter, and they have loads of friends with whom they can cavort in the lagoons and play among the waterfalls.

Their bliss is disrupted one day when a schooner arrives bearing Hitu, an emissary from the nearby island of Fanuma.  Hitu is there on a serious mission – Fanuma’s sacred virgin has died, and they need another maiden to take her place. The chief of Fanuma has chosen Reri for the job, and Hitu is there to collect her.  He also declares her tabu  – “Man must not touch her or cast upon her the eye of desire.”

Matahi and Reri are understandably devastated at the news. So that night – after the big feast Reri’s family throws for Hitu, and before the schooner sets back out – Matahi sneaks out to the schooner and gets Reri to escape with him, on board his canoe.

Eventually they make their way to one of the more Westernized French Polynesian islands, where Matahi gets work as a pearl diver.  He’s great at the work, but a little fuzzy on the concept of money – one night after a great catch, Matahi is in a celebratory mood, and the Chinese merchants who run the company store take advantage of him by hauling out tons of food and tricking Matahi into signing I.O.U.’s for it all.

The past looms over them both, however. Soon after they arrive, the local police chief receives a telegram about the fugitives, but Matahi bribes him with a pearl he’s saved from one of his dives. Still, they’re spooked enough that Matahi looks into the possibility of buying passage on the next ship to Tahiti so the pair can go on the run again.  But when he ponies up the fare, the merchants instead choose to collect on their I.O.U.s, leaving Matahi broke and with no ticket.  Matahi has only one option – to try pearl diving in a part of the lagoon that’s supposed to be unusually rich, but is guarded by a Great White Shark.  Not wanting to worry Reri, he doesn’t tell her of the plan.

Meanwhile Reri gets a surprise visit from Hitu, who has somehow tracked them down. He warns her that she has three days to turn herself in to him and come along willingly, or else he will kill Matahi and take her by force.  And – you guessed it – she doesn’t tell Matahi because she doesn’t want to worry him….

It’s a pretty simple and straightforward story, and almost feels old-fashioned. Technically, it was a bit old-fashioned for its time – it’s still largely a silent film in an age where many people were turning to sound.

The production backstory is a hell of a thing too.  This was actually F. W. Murnau’s last picture – the same Murnau who did Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, incidentally. Murnau had recently befriended Robert J. Flaherty – the same Robert J. Flaherty behind Nanook of the North – and they hatched the plan to do a similar docu-drama in the South Pacific. They came up with a script treatment – which was initially very different from the story that now stands – and head to Tahiti and started location hunting.

But the pair ran into trouble almost immediately; Flaherty’s camera kept breaking down and ripping the film, and Murnau learned that some of the funding fell through. To save money, Murnau gave a bunch of Tahitians a crash course in camera operation and made them the crew.   This tied Flaherty up in the lab developing the film each day – he wanted some professional hand involved in that step, at least – so he didn’t know until it was too late that Murnau was changing the script.  When they were done shooting, Flaherty sold his share of the film to Murnau for $25,000 just so he could wash his hands of the whole thing as soon as possible.  This left Murnau to edit everything; he went nearly broke paying off all the creditors.  Then a week before the film’s release, Murnau was killed in a car crash.

Despite the drama, the film looks gorgeous; the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby won an Oscar that year, and it seems well deserved.  Not that it’s hard to take good-looking footage of the South Pacific. But Crosby used a number of other eye-catching details; one that especially caught my eye was a sequence from a party at the pearl colony, where all you see is everyone’s feet as they dance.  The camera held down there long enough for me to reflect on the variety of feet – some dark, some fair, some with shoes and some without, all these pairs of mismatched feet coupled up in a foxtrot. It really drove home what a chaotic Babel of a place Matahi and Reri had found themselves in.

Movie Crash Course: Limite

….I think this is comeuppance for everything I’ve ever said about Soviet films being hard to understand.

Limite was the sole work by the Brazilian Mário Peixoto, a member of one of Brazil’s high society families.  Peixoto apparently was inspired to produce Limite as a very young man visiting Europe on a college summer break; he saw a perfume ad bearing a image of two handcuffed man’s hands, with a woman’s head poking up between the man’s arms and facing the camera. That image nagged at him to the point that he got a movie camera, enlisted friends and made a whole movie around it, and even recreated it as his first and last shot.

The film had an extremely limited release in Brazil, and didn’t do that well. Peixoto gave up filmmaking almost immediately after and became a poet instead.  But he kept talking about Limite, and copies of Limite kept circulating among collectors and filmmakers – Orson Welles apparently saw a copy in 1942 – and it developed an underground cult following. Its cult status got a further boost in the 1950s when historians discovered the original print had decayed in storage, to the point it was no longer screenable. That gave Limite a reputation as a “lost classic”, with its very scarcity spurring cineastes to seek out a copy and see it somehow. In time, film preservationists have been able to create a screenable copy, by painstakingly photographing the original print frame by frame and stringing it together. There was a screening of this new restoration of Limite at a theater 20 minutes’ walk from my apartment, about eight years ago.

But you all must be wondering by now: why am I talking so much about the production history and the film’s reception? What of my opinion of Limite?  What did I think of it?….


 *shuffle feet*

 *nervous cough*

 ….I spent two hours feeling like a stupid doof because I had no idea what the hell was going on.

In my defense: Limite is very experimental. There is no real plot as such; the only characters are a pair of women and a man who are somehow all trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, and over the course of the film a series of flashbacks show us bits of information about each of their lives, kind of like what they did with the castaways on the show Lost. But these flashbacks are more impressionistic than informative: we see things like one woman sewing in her house, with the camera showing us a series of still close-up shots of her scissors, her tape measure, the buttons in her button box. Or the man walking on a beach.  Or the other woman walking down a city street with a basket of groceries.   Or one of the women reading a newspaper.  Or an unknown man playing piano as the movie theater accompanist for a Charlie Chaplin film.  At no point does the film inform us how these people ended up on the same lifeboat, or what tragedy befell them to require it.

There’s very little action in the flashbacks, and practically none in the lifeboat; the characters seem to have mostly given up hope of rescue, and mostly just lean on the gunwales of the boat gazing at the horizon.  I got excited when one of the women stood up and started flailing one of the oars in the water, but the other two characters just stared at her dumbly, and they weren’t going anywhere, and she finally gave up and sat down.

Sometimes we don’t even see that much.  Much of the last five minutes is footage of churning waves and roaring surf.  Periodically throughout the flashbacks we also get lingering shots of surf or wheat fields or landscapes or slowly-shutting doors.  It wasn’t until my traditional post-screening Google surf that I finally learned what was supposed to be happening.

I will grant that some of the shots are beautifully set up and make pretty pictures. The sequence with the sewing woman was strangely fascinating in and of itself, and the segment with the pianist in a movie theater was pretty eye-catching; the camera kept cutting back and forth between the Chaplin film on the screen, the pianist’s hands, and the audiences’ laughing mouths, in a series of quick cuts.  But then a couple cuts later we were back in the life boat staring at the back of one of the women’s heads or something and I was lost again.

It is a personal quirk of mine, though, that I simply just need more of a plot to hang my hat on.  I can handle some opacity – I’ve actually enjoyed some of director Terrence Malick’s work for its meandering poetry – but there has got to be some kind of a plot to follow, or at least things have to happen. Here, the film swings between impressionistic snapshots of the castaways’ lives and shots of them sitting still in a boat, and ultimately I ended up feeling just as adrift.

Movie Crash Course Contemporary Studies: 2018 Oscar Nominees

So each year, by the time the Oscars are awarded, I try to make sure I’ve seen all the Best Picture Nominees.  Last year I had to scramble to get a bunch of films in because they were all still in theaters; it looks like this year there will be some that are on Netflix (I hope, anyway):

“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

…And also, just like last year, there’s a film that I really didn’t want to see and may save to last.  Not gonna say which one.

Incidental To The Crash Course

Check out the Google Doodle for today: it’s Sergei Eisenstein’s birthday, who you’ll recall was the director for Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October.

Sergei, I didn’t quite get your plots, but you did stuff that was pretty to look at, I’ll give you that.

Edited to add:  Well, look at this! A whole video explaining Sergei Eisenstein’s theories about film montage.  I understand a lot more now.

Movie Crash Course: A Nous, La Liberte!

A Nous, La Liberte was….sweet.

That hesitancy is not hedging my bets.  It’s because every other descriptor I could think of seemed to not quite be right – it’s not broad enough to be farce, it’s not pointed enough to be satire. It’s got too much singing for a straight film, but not enough to be a musical.  It falls between a lot of different pairs of stools.  Sweet, though, it is.

It opens in a prison, where a table of inmates are on their work detail – an assembly-line system constructing wooden toys. As they work, they sing about how their misdeeds have condemned them to prison, but hard work may free them.  Our stars, Emil and Louis, are cellmates, and pocket some of the tools.  That night, they get to work sawing through the window bars – ironically singing the same song, and singing further about freedom as they slip out the window.  It’s like if Disney did a remake of Shawshank Redemption.

Emil gets trapped behind during their break – urging Louis to leave him behind –  while Louis gets away scot-free thanks to some extremely lucky breaks.  He soon gets a job hawking records in front of an appliance store; but in short order, he moves up the ranks to phonograph salesman, to phonograph manufacturer, to the fithy-rich owner of his own phonograph factory.

Emil, meanwhile, is soon let out of jail, and happens to wander into the town where Louis has his factory.  When he stops for a nap in a nearby field, the police try to arrest him for vagrancy.  He gives them the slip – but during his escape, he spots Joanne, one of the shop girls from Louis’ factory, and is smitten. To duck the police – and meet Joanne – he gets a job in the factory.  But he doesn’t quite fit in, and hijinks ensue.  Emil’s screw-ups cause his supervisor to send him to Louis for a dressing down – but instead, the pair recognize each other and have a warm reunion, with Louis inviting Emil to a dinner party that night at his mansion.

Emil’s return seems to spur Louis to realize that his current life is as restrictive and stifling as prison had been.  Louis has been running the factory exactly like the prison, and at home he’s been suffering with an indifferent trophy wife and her snooty friends.  But during the dinner party, after trading some looks across the table, Louis and Emil suddenly start cracking up over the other guests’ pomposity.  When the other guests leave in a huff, the friends take turns throwing leftover cakes at a portrait of Louis hanging in the room, then dance around it with the butler, all singing about the joys of a free life.  It’s the most fun Louis has had in years – when Louis later discovers that his wife has left for good, it doesn’t bother him one bit.

A reformed Louis decides to make over the factory by automating it – the workers will be able to just chill out and push buttons instead of working in assembly lines.  He also discovers Emil’s attraction for Joanne and tries to set him up with her.  But right when everything seems like it will work out for the pair – another former inmate from the prison turns up, a team of gangsters in tow, and they threaten to expose Louis’ criminal past.  Things come to a head during the ceremony launching the newly-automated factory – Louis and Emil are forced to decide whether to stay put, or escape once more.  There is a happy ending, although not quite the one you would expect; the Joanne/Emil romance takes an unexpected turn, and Louis ends up having to sacrifice a good deal.  The friends’ futures seem a bit tenuous at film’s end. But – they don’t care, they’re free and they’re happy.

Director Rene Clair has some definite ideas about how to define “freedom” and “happiness”.  Most of the workplace scenes are depicted as drudgery; the scenes inside the factory are choreographed with the precision of a military drill, with finely-synchronized workers marching in neat rows and following barked-out orders from a supervisor.  By contrast, a vision of the newly-automated factory is a utopian dream with the whole factory manned by a single pair of men keeping an eye on the machinery, while the rest of the workers go fishing, nap, and have dance parties on the roof.  The “shackles” of wealth also get a bad rap, with Louis as the only wealthy man who isn’t restricted by decorum or miserly.

What helps Clair’s case is the slapstick.  There’s not enough of it to bring the film all the way into farce, but there’s enough to make you chuckle.  The strict precision of the assembly line just primes the pump for the sequence when Emil – distracted by daydreams of Joanne – gets a little behind on his work, which throws off the next person in line, and the next…There’s also delightfully chaotic scene towards the end, when a case full of money Louis packed to make his escape comes open, and a windstorm starts blowing the bills around the courtyard. The top-hatted dignitaries finally drop their composure and start chasing them about the courtyard in a scene straight out of a Buster Keaton film, with collisions and pratfalls and tuxedo-clad men scurrying hither and yon – all while a deaf speechmaker obliviously drones on and on.

The theme song also helps, surprisingly.  It comes up at odd moments – the characters sing it on their jailbreak, they sing when they’re trashing Louis’ house, they sing again at the end.  Periodically other songs come up – Joanne is listening to a record when Emil first spots her, and the job application process at Louis’ factory is set to music.  While it’s a bit odd, the singing never feels intrusive – and the song is catchy enough that I’ve got it stuck in my head about twelve hours later:

My old friend, life is beautiful
When we are free
Let’s not wait, let’s go to her
Fresh air is good for us
It’s everywhere, so we’re told
Everywhere, we can laugh and sing
Everywhere, we can love and drink
Freedom, freedom for us!

Movie Crash Course: Earth

I make no bones about the fact that I’m untutored in film history.  That’s why this project is called the “Movie Crash Course” – I’m exposing myself to film history by just watching the films, picking up on things as I go.  I don’t have the benefit of critical film scholarship as such; but am not letting that stop me from the project. I remind myself that none of the films I see were ever strictly and solely for an audience of film scholars anyway; they were all for regular yutzes like me – and if the regular yutzes of 1930 had the right to form an opinion about these films, then so do I.  Most of the time, this gets me over any fleeting moments of “this is weird and I don’t quite get it” that come up.

Soviet films, however, seem to be a particular hurdle for me. I always read about a film after watching it; and with most Soviet films I end up getting a completely different read on the film than the critics do.  And I’m not talking about the quality – I’m talking about what the film is about, even, sometimes.

Like this film.  Ostensibly it was meant to encourage the Ukrainian farmers of the 1930s to give up their prized privately-owned farms and join forces in collective farming communes.  But…that absolutely was not my takeaway from the film I saw. On the contrary – it’s almost as if director Alexander Dovzhenko was trying to silence the Communist Party line.  It’s a silent film, so there are intertitles – except when the Communist Party members are making speeches.  I actually checked my DVD copy against another version of the film I found online to see if I’d gotten a weird cut– but nope, three Communist speeches went un-intertitled in both versions.

This is not to say that Dovzhenko completely ignored the idea of collectivism, however. But in his hands it comes across as more of an informal, “we’re a community and we’re all in this together” kind of thing.  Everything takes place in a farming community in Ukraine; elderly Simon Opanas is on his deathbed at the top of the film, attended by his son and grandson.  The grandson, Basil, uses the moment to convince his father to merge the family farm with the other villagers’ farms to form a big collective. His father finally agrees, and all the other farmers save one join in, starting by pooling their funds to get a tractor for them all to share.

Life goes on, it’s a great harvest, and everyone’s happy; until one night when Basil is heading home after hanging out with his fiancée and someone kills him.  But Basil’s father doesn’t try to pursue the killer; instead, he’s more concerned with the kind of funeral Basil will have.  By now he’s been really won over by his new community, and declares that Basil will not have a traditional religious funeral. Instead, he asks Basil’s friends to come up with their own ceremony, burying Basil in a new way while “singing new songs of new life” instead of the old dour hymns.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the film ends up being more about the “earthy” facets of agricultural life than anything else. The film opens with shots of fields of waving wheat, and it ends with a sequence of a rainshower lovingly bathing orchards of fruit and gardens full of vegetables. The lengthy harvest sequence cuts from shots of the men happily using the new tractor to women busily bundling the wheat into sheaves – and then follows the sheaves into grain threshers, the grain into flour mills, and the flour into commercial bakeries churning out abundant beautiful loaves of bread.

And the film plays up the earthy, elements-of-life moments for the characters as well. Mixed in with the shots of the women threshing grain are shots of their bare legs, and shots of them smiling and flirting with the guys while they work. Basil’s pro-Communist speech at his grandfather’s deathbed isn’t titled – but his grandfather interrupting them to ask for one last slice of pear before dying does get an intertitle.  When the tractor stalls en route to the village, the five men accompanying it discover that the radiator is dry – and solve the problem by peeing into it.  During Basil’s funeral procession, we also see shots of one of the village women giving birth, and shots of Basil’s fiancée alone in her house, insane with grief – she rips off her clothes and trashes her bedroom. But these scenes of new life and serious grief are intercut with Basil on his byre, his friends carrying him past abundant orchards and peaceful fields of sunflowers.

Which actually may be an echo to his grandfather’s death scene – with old Simon lying down peacefully amid a mountain of pears in the orchard.

So what this ended up looking more like was a poetic paean to life, death, and the fruits of the earth, and the Soviet Collectivist Message was more like something Dovzhenko tacked on to ensure his film got released.  Whether that was actually the case, I couldn’t say.

Movie Crash Course: L’Age D’Or

After Un Chien Andalou, this the second collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. This time, however, Dali contributed a little less to the party and let Bunuel go his own way; there’s a tiny bit more of a plot (……sort of), and fortunately no one’s eyes are harmed in the making of this film.

It’s still kinda weird, though.

Things actually start off with a brief documentary about scorpions; we see plenty of scenes of them scorping along and doing their thing, set to sprightly orchestral music and interspersed with intertitles giving us facts about scorpion anatomy, mating habits, and the like.  After about five minutes or so, we get the caption “a short while later,” and suddenly we’re following a guy dressed in rags picking his way up a rocky hill.  The film follows his story for a while – and then drops him to follow the courtship of a well-to-do couple with some unique sexual habits who run into each other at a party and sneak off to the garden for an attempted hookup. And then the film jumps yet one more place at the very end.

The whole thing reminded me strangely of your average episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Their episodes often had a series of sketches strung together by the most tenuous of links – sometimes a character from one sketch would leave, the camera following him, until he walked on set for the next sketch, and it started. Or Terry Gilliam’s animation would be the link connecting one bit to the next.  L’Age D’Or is structured much the same way, with the man in rags encountering a group of dignitaries arriving at a beach by boat; the dignitaries are the next “sketch”, all come to witness a pompous official lay the cornerstone of a monument.  But his speech is interrupted by a man in the crowd – who is then escorted off the beach and into town, with the camera following him all the way into the next sketch; since he is the man in the courting couple.

Similarly, just like Python loved to inject elements of the surreal just into the background of their sketches, Bunel loved to interject things into the background for shock effect or just to confuse people – like the raggedy man spotting a group of bishops huddled together in prayer on the beach.  Or the woman from the courting couple walking into her bedroom to dress for the party – and shooing away a cow that had curled up on her bed like it was a lap dog.

Terry Gilliam is supposed to be a Bunel fan, though, so there’s probably cause for the comparison in surrealism.

What flipped audiences out at the time, though, was the sex. Not that we see any sex outright – but it’s really heavily implied, especially with the courting couple. There’s no nudity, but there is some very suggestive caressing, and kissing.  And….finger sucking.

Audiences were also pretty miffed at the final sequence, which was supposed to be about a group of sadistic noblemen who’d holed up in a castle with a bunch of girls for an orgy. The action picks up right when the orgy is breaking up and “the surviving orgiasts are ready to emerge to the light of mainstream society.”  But when the castle doors open and the first nobleman leaves the sex party….he looks rather like SomeOne else.

Yeah, so people didn’t like that too much.

At its French premiere,  which was held at a French studio, a group calling itself the Ligue des Patriotes (the League of Patriots) threw ink and paint at the screen during the film, then ran out to the lobby and started to destroy any artwork they saw by Dali, in protest.  The Spanish public was similarly incensed, if a bit more well-behaved; instead of a riot, they settled for a sternly-worded piece in a Spanish paper calling the film “…the most repulsive corruption of our age … the new poison which Judaism, Masonry, and rabid, revolutionary sectarianism want to use in order to corrupt the people”.  In the US, the only place willing to screen the film near the time of its release was the Museum of Modern Art; then the film was quietly shelved for forty years, until a theater in San Francsisco ran it for two weeks in 1979.