Blog Directory CineVerse

When in Venice, do as the Venetians do

Monday, May 10, 2021

Katharine Hepburn fans smitten with her acting prowess would probably enjoy watching her read from the phone book. Fortunately, she’s asked to do a lot more in David Lean’s Summertime, a 1955 romance that plays like a travelogue for a bucket list trip to Italy. In fact, Hepburn is present in virtually every scene of this movie, although she accomplishes much with simple body language instead of talky exposition on the joys and laments of love.

Our CineVerse group took a trip to Venice, the waterlogged land of gondolas and gothic architecture, this past week to explore Summertime (even though we are still firmly fixed in the spring season) and came away with several suppositions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a recap of our Q&A conversation.

What did you find different, unexpected, memorable, or curious about Summertime?

  • It’s directed by David Lean, the man known for major epics to come afterward like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India, yet this is a simpler, more intimate film with a very small cast. However, Lean demonstrated 10 years earlier with his direction of Brief Encounter that he was a master of the romantic drama. He once remarked that this was his favorite of all of his films.
  • The movie and your estimation of it depends a great deal on two factors:
    1. The performance of Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane. Rarely has Hepburn been better, accomplishing so much with nonverbal acting and moments of quiet reflectivity.
    2. Shooting on location in Venice, which serves as a picturesque character unto itself and undoubtedly swayed countless Americans to visit Italy and Europe.
  • For a romance picture, this movie strays from formula: First, Hepburn was around age 48 at the time of this filming, long past her youthful attractive prime; Jane is not given a romantic interest until the second half of the film (when Renato is finally introduced); her unexplained decision to depart for home occurs abruptly, bringing the story to a sudden, quick conclusion that can feel unleavened and too ambiguous and bittersweet for many viewers’ tastes; and Renato, though he predictably chases her down before her train pulls away, doesn’t succeed in handing her his gift or convincing her to return to him.
  • This film would’ve been controversial and groundbreaking for a mid-1950s movie watched by American audiences.
    • Ponder that the story depicts its two infidelities – one involving Renato and Jane, the other involving Eddie (the married artist) and a mistress – that are not punished.
    • Additionally, it was rare then, as it is now, to place a middle-aged woman at the center of a steamy film romance.
    • Also, ruminate on the film’s most controversial line, which was censored in America at the time due to its suggestiveness: “You are a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.”

Themes crafted into Summertime

  • American versus European morals and sensibilities. The British Film Institute wrote: “The theme here is a traditional one: New World Puritanism confronts European opportunism; the innocent American surrenders to the charm and experience of the Old World, and at the same time retreats from its implications of corruption.”
  • “Two is the loveliest number in the world” – which Jane says aloud at one point in the movie. Consider how lonely and unappreciated she is before she meets Renato.
  • Every person, no matter how plain, unglamorous or common, is a unique vessel for untapped love.
  • Interestingly, the red goblet Jane treasures lacks a duplicate to make it a pair; Jane is like that red goblet, but she quickly loses interest in finding a match for it when she learns how common and relatively valueless these red goblets are—which makes her distrust Renato, who built up the goblet’s significance and rarity in her own mind.
  • Similarly, Jane chooses a relatively un-ostentatious flower for Renato to buy her. When she loses the flower, Renato tries hard to get it back, despite its practical insignificance, and even chases after her at the train station with a substitute similar flower at the end of the story, suggesting that Jane is a delicate, precious thing that’s hard to hold onto.

Similar films

  • Brief Encounter
  • Before Sunrise
  • Now, Voyager
  • To Catch a Thief (which also features a sexually suggestive fireworks scene following passionate kissing)
  • Rome Adventure
  • Summer of ’42
  • Light in the Piazza
  • A Certain Smile
  • Three Coins in the Fountain

Other works by David Lean

  • Brief Encounter
  • Oliver Twist
  • Great Expectations
  • Hobson’s Choice
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Doctor Zhivago

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This "Stranger" is friendly to classic film fans

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Arguably the worst movie made by Orson Welles would probably be the best film helmed by a lesser director. Possible case in point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 noirish thriller that lacks many of the stylistic flourishes and storytelling derring-do that distinguished his two previous films. Regardless of its shortcomings, The Stranger satisfies on several levels. Our CineVerse band examined it in detail last week (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion); here’s a review of our talking points.


What did you find distinctive, different, unexpected, or curious about The Stranger?

  • Despite being directed by Orson Welles, the filmmaker behind Citizen Kane, this movie may disappoint based on the expectations you have for Welles to wow you with his directorial choices and artistic genius. First-time viewers may anticipate the kind of stylistic innovation, groundbreaking narrative techniques, and visual panache that Welles was known for based on his other works, especially the two predecessors Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
  • But the truth is that he had fallen far out of favor by Hollywood and filmgoers after the failures of those two films, and he was given an opportunity by producer Sam Spiegel to direct his third film, but only if Welles could bring the picture in on time and under budget. Wells accomplished both goals, although he had to compromise his artistic vision on the project, abandon lofty ambitions for the picture, and acquiesce to Spiegel on several decisions.
    • Yet, the movie still showcases Welles’ brilliance with its atmospheric high-contrast lighting, deep-focus photography, unconventional camera angles, ambitious crane and tracking shots, long takes (such as the shot through the woods that ends with Kindler strangling Meineke), fast-paced finale montage, compositions featuring silhouettes, and reflective shots using mirrored surfaces.
    • Welles builds tension through technique (such as using tracking shots to suggest that the players are unable to evade their pursuers and the townspeople’s interests) as well as by building our expectation for Kindler being sniffed out by Wilson and the residents of Harper. The film becomes a clever cat and mouse game type story.
    • Ironically, this is been cited as the only film directed by Wells to turn a profit.
  • This is the first Hollywood movie to show documentary footage of the Holocaust, which would have been eye-opening to American audiences at the time.
  • Interestingly, the screenplay, though credited to Anthony Veiller, was rewritten by director John Huston and Welles himself.

Themes explored in The Stranger

  • Duplicitous doubling/twinning: Kindler leads a double life, while Wilson masquerades as someone other than a Nazi hunter; Wilson and Meineke are opposites but arrive at the same time in the small town of Harper; and both Wilson and Rankin enjoy tinkering with clocks.
  • A man running out of time. Kindler demonstrates skill in repairing the clock tower and prides himself on clockwork precision as a planner. But as a cosmic irony, he is destroyed by the very hands of time when one of the clock tower figures fatally skewers him through with its sword.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “For Rankin/Kindler, bringing the broken clock back to life might represent getting the gears of the Nazi mechanism working in this new, unsuspecting country. The clock tower becomes the stage for risky confrontations and Kindler’s last stand.”
  • Evil can hide in plain sight and infiltrate anywhere – even small-town America. Harper, Connecticut, is a safe and sociable little burg where all the residents know each other personally: the ideal environment in which a monster like Kindler can hide and gradually be accepted without suspicion, or at least that’s his plan. But he quickly learns that it’s harder to find safe refuge in a small town than he anticipated and even the naive, unsuspecting rubes can turn on you quickly when they learn the truth.
  • Even the people closest to you can turn out to be complete strangers. Mary eventually learns that the man she has married is an unknown outsider, the kind of person she would never expect to marry. Consider that the title “The Stranger” could refer to up to three characters: Kindler, but also Wilson or Meineke, who each recently enter Harper as outsiders who attract attention from the locals.

Similar works

  • Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt
  • Mid-1940s films that suggest the rise of a new Third Reich, including Notorious, Gilda, and Cornered
  • Salem’s Lot
  • Twin Peaks

Other important films directed by Orson Welles

  • Citizen Kane
  • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • The Lady From Shanghai
  • Othello
  • Touch of Evil
  • Chimes at Midnight

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The devil is in the duplicity

Monday, April 26, 2021

Jake Gyllenhaal works twice as hard to impress us with his acting chops in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, a movie that can cause you to do a double-take time and again with its themes of identity blending, disturbing deceit, and arachnid anxiety. It’s a difficult picture to decipher, but patient scrutiny will yield pivotal clues that make for a fascinating analysis and conversation with fellow film lovers. CineVerse got caught in its tangled web last week and arrived at the following notions (to hear a recording of our group discussion of this film, click here).
 

How are Adam and Anthony similar yet different?

  • Adam is a frustrated college teacher: He clearly doesn’t make much money, his girlfriend doesn’t enjoy or want to have sex with him, and his students don’t appear engaged during his classes.
  • Anthony is much the opposite: He’s wealthy, successful, beloved by his pregnant wife, and apparently happy and satisfied. But unlike Adam, he cheats on his partner, enjoys playing the role of sexual predator, and attends secret sex clubs.

What is the proof that this story should not be taken literally?

  • Adam and Anthony are actually the same person – a man suffering from a split personality syndrome who is married to a pregnant wife but cheating on her with his girlfriend. Adam is the man Anthony ultimately will become by choosing to remain with his pregnant spouse: tamed and reliable but unfulfilled and disempowered. He chooses to kill off the negative “Anthony” part of his personality (and end his philandering) by crashing the car. But he identifies Helen as the empowered female “other” that will threaten and devour him when he sees her as a giant spider.
  • Proof of this: Helen refers to Anthony having a good day at school; Adam’s mother suggests that he should quit movie acting; Adam and Anthony are never seen together with a third person present; Anthony in front of a mirror rehearses what he’s going to say to Adam; what are the odds that a person has an identical non-twin who also has an identical scar in the same location and are living in the same city?
  • Blogger Ryan Thompson wrote: “By using the concept of doubling, Villeneuve is able to set up two contrasting characters, one who has an unfulfilling life and one who is fulfilled, in order to assert the idea that, for men, marriage and building a family results in indulging in the mundane and giving up on personal desires… the film is implying men have better lives when they are not focusing on building a family. Yet, interestingly enough, the film's resolution results in Anthony dying in a car accident and Adam choosing to live with Anthony’s wife, suggesting that even though Anthony understands the disadvantages of being married, he is still drawn to it.”
  • With this reading of the film, the story serves as more of a metaphor or allegory than a narrative that should be taken literally (as with films like The Lobster). Proof of this idea is the gigantic arachnid walking amongst the skyscrapers, which isn’t really happening in this story but which serves as a visual symbol of Adam’s growing dread and a foreshadowing of the last scene in the bedroom.
  • Despite discarding his Anthony persona, Adam will repeat the same mistakes as Anthony, as he’s chosen to use the new key to revisit the sex club—even though he’s chosen to stick with Helen.

Themes and motifs examined

  • Chaos is order yet undeciphered. Even in the most convoluted of tales there is truth, structure, and meaning if you opt to untangle the thematic webs. Adam needs to remove chaos from his life by choosing a life of order and predictability.
  • Male fears of commitment, surrendering personal ambitions, loss of individual expression, losing sexual agency, and acquiescing to marriage, parenthood, and domesticity.
  • Females, including Anthony’s pregnant wife and the upside-down-walking spider head woman, are equated with arachnid-like creatures that frighten Adam.
  • Creeping totalitarianism. Forrest Wickman of Slate wrote: “I think ultimately it’s a parable about what it’s like to live under a totalitarian state without knowing it… The central irony in all of this is that even the main character, though he’s an expert on the ways of totalitarian governments, doesn’t see the web that’s overtaken the city until he’s already stuck in it.”
  • Doubling, twinning, and doppelgängers. Anthony and Adam are identical; Anthony has two names; their significant others also look alike; Adam tells his class “Everything in history happens twice,” and that the first go-round is a tragedy while the second is a farce;
  • Spiders, as evidenced by the giant spider on the horizon, the spider-faced woman in the dream, the tarantula stepped on by the high-heeled woman in the sex club, the giant spider in the film’s last scene, the cobweb appearance of the broken windshield, the pregnant wife (whose belly resembles the bloated abdomen of a spider), and the transit system’s overhead lines. Because so many people have built-in fears of spiders, they serve as a powerful and effective visual motif throughout the movie.

Other films and works of literature that come to mind

  • Works of David Lynch, including Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Eraserhead
  • Puzzle films like Memento and Inception
  • Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Through a Glass Darkly
  • Eyes Wide Shut
  • Adaptation
  • Fight Club
  • Shutter Island
  • Dead Ringers
  • Sisters
  • Orphan Black
  • Freaky Friday
  • Dostoevsky’s The Double
  • Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Other films by Denis Villeneuve

  • Arrival
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Sicario
  • Prisoners

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Generation gap or generation trap?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

His name may not be as familiar to moviegoers as much as contemporaries like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, but Noah Baumbach and his works have come to represent some of the finest qualities inherent in independent cinema and filmmaking by Generation X. Speaking of, the latter cohort is not-so-flatteringly represented in Baumbach’s 2014 outing While We’re Young, although millennials appear to get the brunt of the criticism in this intelligent dramedy starring Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, Naomi Watts, and Amanda Seyfried. Read on for a CineVerse-style analysis of this picture (and click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film).

What did you find interesting, offbeat, unexpected, rewarding, or memorable about this film?

  • The cast is impressive, featuring two Oscar-nominated heavyweights in Driver and Watts as well as Stiller, Charles Grodin, and the curious casting of Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys and Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul, and Mary.
  • The story is not predictable. The foursome doesn’t reunite by the end of the film, the spouses don’t have affairs with their friend’s spouses, Jamie doesn’t really get any comeuppance, and Josh isn’t exactly vindicated in his takedown of Jamie or in his career ambitions.
  • The narrative and characters are funny, but the point isn’t to produce a laugh riot here like previous Ben Stiller comedies.
    • The New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote: “Mr. Baumbach is, as usual, a piquant observer of the manners and morals of the various demographic subsets of the white, urban lower-upper-middle class. He is without peer among screenwriters as a composer of incisive, non-punchline-driven comic dialogue, and unrivaled among directors as a choreographer of fraught social encounters.”
  • Arguably, the female characters take more of a backseat here than their male counterparts. Cornelia and Darby aren’t as well fleshed-out or given as much emphasis as Josh and Jamie, which is unfortunate.
  • Some critics found fault with the movie’s preachiness about the flaws of the younger generation. Consider how you feel about Jamie – representational of millennials – by the end of the film; his character doesn’t appear redeemable, even though he is popular and successful. Also, ponder how you assess Darby by the film’s conclusion, as she chooses to split with Jamie and live life more on her terms; that can be construed as a more favorable interpretation of Generation Y.

Themes explored in While We’re Young

  • The generation gap and demographic conflicts. This film has its sights squarely on Gen Xers versus Gen Yers (millennials), although there’s also a schism explored between Boomers (personified by Leslie) and Gen Xers, which means the film can translate as a somewhat universal statement on the disparity between any earlier and subsequent generation.
  • Attempting to recapture your youth and remain at least young at heart
  • Accepting your limitations and finding a comfortable compromise with your unachievable ambitions. Josh realizes that he isn’t going to achieve all his dreams and that he’s running out of time to create any kind of legacy; he also acknowledges that the advice he’s been given by the older generation – represented by Leslie, his father-in-law, who advises him to edit his 10-year-old documentary film – is worth adapting to some degree. Cornelia, meanwhile, comes around to the idea of parenting and, with her husband, is preparing to adopt.
    • “Ultimately, this film is about to well-meaning people coming to grips with who they actually are versus who they’ve always thought they were supposed to be,” wrote Nashville Scene reviewer Noel Murray.
  • The rewards and risks of not staying in your lane. Josh and Cornelia at least briefly enjoy trying to act younger and more hip and associating themselves with the next generation who will eventually replace them. But debatably, they realize that there is wisdom in experience, reward in staying true to yourself and remaining committed to longtime friends, and dignity and grace in acknowledging that it’s okay to get older and make compromises—like the compromises that come with parenting.
    • Recall the text prologue of the film, taken from Isben’s The Master Builder; Solness expresses consternation about younger people, but is advised by a younger woman (Hilde) to “open the door and let them in.” Solness soon falls to his death from the tower he’s constructed. At the end of the film, the end credits include the Paul McCartney song Let 'Em In.

Similar films

  • All About Eve
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • The Four Seasons
  • Broadcast News
  • The Overnight

Important works by Noah Baumbach

  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Greenberg
  • Francis Ha
  • Mistress America
  • Marriage Story

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90 reasons why "M" still stands for "masterpiece"

Sunday, April 18, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #34, host Erik Martin revisits Weimar Republic-era Germany to commemorate the 90th birthday of quite possibly that country's finest film export ever: Fritz Lang's M, originally released in May 1931 and starring Peter Lorre in his breakout performance as a serial killer of children. Accompanying Erik on this outing is Jan-Christopher Horakpast director of the UCLA film and television archive, former curator for the George Eastman Museum, previous director of archives/collections for Universal Studios, and longtime film scholar. Together, they investigate why M is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.           
Jan-Christopher Horak

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at anchor.fm/cineversary and email show comments or suggestions to cineversegroup@gmail.com.

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Honor thy father and mother -- and this Japanese masterpiece, too

Monday, April 12, 2021

Voted by directors as the greatest film of all time and the #3 best movie ever by critics, per a 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Tokyo Story stands as a towering cinematic achievement that accomplishes so much with so little when it comes to story and style—demonstrating that a minimalistic approach is often best for films  aimed directly at the heart. CineVerse studied this picture last week, arriving at several key findings and interpretations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

Hallmarks of director Yasujiro Ozu’s style

  • Low camera angles, with cameras anchored merely three feet or so from the ground – a height amenable to ideally framing subjects sitting or kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat.
  • An unmoving camera; Ozu rarely used tracking, panning, dollying, craning, or other camera movements, instead choosing to let visual emphasis rest on his characters and their movements or positioning within the shot.
  • Transitions between scenes using seemingly random long shots of outdoor environments, including clouds, shorelines, cityscapes, and other vistas. Where other filmmakers may use dissolves, fade-outs, fade-ins, and wipes to transition between sequences, Ozu preferred poetically visual still life-type shots.
  • Placing the camera between two subjects to convey a dialogue scene. Rather than use the traditional Hollywood over-the-shoulder shot back-and-forth between characters, Ozu puts us at the center of the conversation, creating more intimacy. His subjects often look directly at the camera—thereby addressing the viewer—when they speak to an adjacent character.
  • Remaining on a character for the entirety of their speech. When a character says something to another character, Ozu’s camera doesn’t stray from that subject or introduce a reverse shot showing the opposite character’s nonverbal reaction.
  • Not allowing any single character to dominate a given scene.
  • Letting shots breathe by lingering in an empty room or space before or after characters enter or exit the scene. This defied the Hollywood rule of “invisible editing” in which the cuts between shots were meant to be seamless, smooth, and often quick.
  • Letting situations and conversational scenes unfold naturally and organically and choosing to not crowd his stories with subplots, turning points, or scenes that would detract from the strong focus on emotions and relationships. For example, we aren’t shown the grandparents’ journeys on the train, their actual visits to the Atami baths, or Tomi’s moment of falling gravely ill. We learn about these things simply through exchanges of dialogue. Also, ponder how the city of Tokyo itself is not extensively shown, including its landmarks and famous places.
  • Ozu’s narratives are minimalistic, uncomplicated, unpretentious, unfussy, relatively tranquil and calm, and laced with wistfulness.

What elements from Tokyo Story made a strong impression on you?

  • The entire story is infused from start to finish with a tone of melancholy.
  • Slant Magazine’s Chuck Bowen wrote: “underneath the film’s ostensible logline, which involves an aging couple’s trek to see their adult children, resides a large cast of characters lost in a dense thicket of disappointment, tension, and unquantifiable and unresolved emotional, political, and cultural fallout. The film is an epic disguised as a short story, or, more specifically, it documents the largely unceremonious end of an epic that’s mostly unseen. The source of the film’s brilliance and of its considerable pathos resides in how gradually and subtly Ozu transforms the domestic, “simple” quotidian into the stuff of great universal tragedy.”
  • This is the most meager of tales; Tokyo Story has a narrative that can be quickly summarized. But the plot is not the point: The value is in the way the characters are written and performed and in how the filmmakers choose to strip away any flashiness or stylistic grandeur, letting a simple story hook itself into your conscience by focusing on the character’s often unspoken internal struggles and the fractured family dynamics.
  • Ozu avoids painting these characters in black and white; each has shades of gray. For instance, the father appears docile and friendly, but it’s revealed that he was a problematic alcoholic when his children were younger. Eldest daughter Shige would seem to be an irredeemable, ungrateful, and materialistic woman but she breaks down in tears multiple times when her mother dies and is concerned that her father might succumb to his old drinking ways. Additionally, the children aren’t evil or unforgivable: Many of the reasons they have for not being able to spend time with their parents are valid and understandable.

Themes built into Tokyo Story

  • The generation gap, and how it’s usually inevitable that adult children drift away from their parents physically, emotionally, morally, and value-wise.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “It is about our families, our natures, our flaws and our clumsy search for love and meaning. It isn't that our lives keep us too busy for our families. It's that we have arranged them to protect us from having to deal with big questions of love, work, and death. We escape into truisms, small talk, and distractions. Given the opportunity at a family gathering to share our hopes and disappointments, we talk about the weather and watch TV.”
  • Every clan has skeletons in its closet – some that may come back to haunt the family.
  • The dissolution of the traditional Japanese family and its value system, replaced by a less sensitive and more frenetic, modernized, industrialized, and Westernized culture. Consider that, following the new Civil Code instituted in 1948, much of Japan had adopted Western capitalist notions and abandoned older traditions and mores.
  • Life is often imperfect and unsatisfactory. Recall Noriko’s comment to Kyoko: “Isn’t life disappointing?” Also, remember how the grandparents commented privately to themselves about their dissatisfaction in their grandchildren, the fact that their eldest was not a successful doctor, and how their eldest daughter’s attitude had changed for the worse.
  • The inability to talk frankly with loved ones about problems. Even though Shukishi consistently semi-smiles, nods, and utters words of acknowledgment, like “yes,” we discern through context that he’s subtly hiding many of his problematic emotions. Also, the children engage in ample small talk with their parents.

Similar films

  • Make Way for Tomorrow
  • Ikiru
  • The Straight Story
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • Yi (2000) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991) by Edward Yang
  • Still Walking
  • Driveways

Other important films directed by Yasijuro Ozu

  • Late Spring
  • Early Summer
  • An Autumn Afternoon
  • Late Autumn
  • Floating Weeds

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Pushing the boundaries of the Hays Code

Monday, April 5, 2021

For a classic film, Dodsworth doesn’t get much attention nowadays, even though it’s arguably one of the finest Hollywood works of the 1930s. CineVerse tried to correct this oversight by studying the movie last week and arriving at the following observations (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What struck you as noteworthy, different, unforeseen, or curious about Dodsworth?

  • This is a rare example of a Hollywood film in the early years of the Hays code that addressed controversial topics like infidelity and divorce. In fact, Dodsworth is credited as the first picture of the early censorship era that permitted a male character to leave his marriage for another woman without being punished for this action. Typically in movies of this era, philandering while tied to the bonds of matrimony ultimately resulted in major repercussions or comeuppances for that character.
  • Dodsworth is credited for avoiding a soap opera approach to an otherwise soapy type of story. It boasts a screenplay and direction that is sophisticated yet subtle and nuanced without being sensationalistic. If the filmmakers could have chosen to include melodramatic subplots or sudden twists like a suicide attempt by Sam or a miscarriage that would have left grandma Fran feeling guilty. Instead, they kept faithful to the source material by Sinclair Lewis and presented both Sam and Fran as flawed yet approachable, understandable characters who each have good and bad sides, although Sam comes off as much more sympathetic because he doesn’t cheat on his spouse or indulge in immoral flirtations.
    • Film scholar Glenn Erickson wrote: “What's difficult to appreciate now about William Wyler's achievement in Dodsworth is that he approaches the subject with a mature attitude that isn't concerned with anything exploitative. The cast was made of big names, but not glamorous marquee bait. American audiences weren't used to being treated like thinking adults very often back then (don't ask about now) and responded to Dodsworth very positively.”
  • The filmmakers likely got this material past the censors thanks to its impressive pedigree: It was presented as a prestige picture made by an A-list producer, Samuel Goldwyn, and a highly respected director, William Wyler. And the book on which the story was based was written by Lewis, a revered figure in American literature. Because they were trying to adapt his tale faithfully, the Hays office likely let things slide.

Themes at play in Dodsworth

  • Fear of aging and living life to the fullest
  • Taking things for granted—like your spouse and her interests
  • The overriding power of love and familiarity. Despite being cuckolded by his wife, Sam can’t let her go and is willing to take her back until the very end of the story.
  • The ugly American abroad, and how Americans often can’t properly appreciate or adopt European culture and sensibilities; consider how Sam can’t pronounce Louvre, and how Fran doesn’t quite realize what her flirtatiousness can lead to. Also, think about how Fran is perhaps unfairly and callously but accurately sized up by Kurt’s mother.
  • Americans need to hold onto their values abroad. Fran yearns to live a carefree cosmopolitan lifestyle of infidelity overseas, courted by promiscuous Continentals, but ultimately ends up spurned and unhappy. Sam, meanwhile, finds love not with a European woman but instead an American expatriate living in Europe who doesn’t try to seduce him.
  • Karma and comeuppance.
  • To thine self be true. Sam ultimately learns to look after himself.

Other films that Dodsworth reminds us of

  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown
  • Summertime
  • Heartburn
  • Take This Waltz
  • Screwball comedies featuring the idle rich and their romances and remarriages like The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, and Holiday

Other movies directed by William Wyler

  • Ben-Hur
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Roman Holiday
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Jezebel
  • The Little Foxes

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The vision of a master through the eyes of a child

Monday, March 29, 2021

Directorial debuts can be hit or miss for aspiring filmmakers. But Satyajit Ray hit one out of the park in his first at-bat with Pather Panchali (1955), one of the most moving and well-crafted humanist statements in motion picture history—one that transcends any language and quickly established Ray as a creative giant of world cinema. The CineVerse faithful studied this masterwork in-depth last week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion), arriving at the following conclusions:

A few quick facts about the movie

  • The title is translated as “song of the little road.”
  • This was the first in the Apu trilogy, three films centered around the character of Apu and his family. Film #2 is Aparajito (1956), and the third installment is The World of Apu (1959).
  • This was director Satyajit Ray’s first movie; in fact, Ray had never directed anything before this, and he worked without a true screenplay.
  • The film was made on a bare-bones budget, the cameraman had never photographed a movie before this one, the composer/musical performer Ravi Shankar was not yet internationally known, the child actors had never been tested for their roles, and most of the cast were nonprofessional actors.
  • Despite these challenges, the film took the cinematic world by storm, garnering praise across the globe, winning awards, and putting India on the map as an artistic filmmaking force. It was the first Indian movie screened for Western viewers.
  • Before Pather Panchali, India had a prolific film industry, but most movies were musical romances and by-the-numbers populist entertainment; this was one of the first serious art films released in the country.
  • Before long, Ray was being compared to giants of world cinema like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and Federico Fellini.

What’s unique, different, or memorable about Pather Panchali as a film?

  • It’s clearly influenced by Italian neorealism, which was characterized by movies often featuring inexperienced actors, shot in real locations instead of fabricated soundstages, and depicting the struggles and triumphs of common people. The filmmakers employed naturalistic lighting, extended takes, eye-level compositions, and other approaches to lend authenticity and realism to the movie.
  • Pather Panchali often looks and plays like a documentary film; the story is more an interconnected series of vignettes and slice-of-life moments instead of a traditional three-act plot.
  • The movie is imbued with lyrical qualities and features astounding visual poetry, including powerful images of nature, the community’s natural environment, and moments of silence that dramatically punctuate what the characters are experiencing.
  • Ray and his team play on universal themes that audiences from different cultures can relate to and take to heart, even though Westerners may be socioculturally dissociated from the way of life, practices, traditions, and milieu of the world these characters inhabit.
  • Does the film disappoint in any way due to its lack of plot, slow pacing, or long runtime?
  • Instead of focusing on a structured story, subplots, action, comedy, or romance, Pather Panchali is an intimate portrayal of a family facing challenges as well as the joys of juvenile discovery.
  • It strips away narrative convention and predictable plot devices to instead tell a simple tale – one adapted from a popular Bengali novel –which makes us identify with and care for this family all the more.

Important themes in the film

  • The circle of life, which can affect old and young alike. We witness the birth of Apu, the decline and death of his aunt Indir, and the growth and tragic death of his sister Durga. While there is a clear contrast between youth and old age, there is also an intrinsic kinship in how they appreciate simple pleasures and manage to smile and laugh, despite adversity.
  • Joy and sadness: Happiness can be found in even the most mundane of circumstances, and tragedy can occur when it’s least expected.
  • Being a witness to the wonder of the world. Interestingly, Apu as a young boy isn’t introduced to the movie until nearly halfway through. He serves as more of a peripheral observer, soaking in experiences and visions, until the very end of the story when he intervenes and hides evidence of his sister’s theft of the necklace, thus preserving her assumed innocence. His innate curiosity and sincere awe of the world around us reminds viewers of the innocence of childhood and the “epiphany of wonder,” a term used by some film scholars to describe this movie.
  • The impending transition from a less sophisticated Third World to a place of changing customs and revolutionary technology. The father remarks that, despite advice from the village elders to remain in their ancestral home, it’s time to move on after all the hardship his family has endured.
  • The universality of the human condition and human experience.
  • The power of nature and the inevitability of fate, which can be more potent than faith and God. When the nighttime monsoon arrives, we see a shot of Ganesh, a Hindu deity who is thought to bring luck and protect households; yet, the storm blows out the candle and the image fades to darkness.
  • Dreams dashed, dreams delayed.

How do you interpret the famous train discovery scene? What themes, ideas, and emotions do you think the filmmakers were trying to express here?

  • Debatably, it symbolizes progress, hope in a better life, the contrast of old and new, adventure/mystery, and that there is a road out of Apu’s familiar, everyday environment – a journey that will be explored in the subsequent two movies.
  • The inevitable arrival of technology and industrial transition in a poor country.
  • It may also serve as a foreshadowing of doom and the tragic events to come later in the film,
  • Although this culture is far removed and perhaps harder to understand for many Westerners, why do we care about the characters and their situations?
  • We can identify with their fears and family dynamics: struggling for money, fighting between spouses, rebellious children, caring for an elder relative, etc.
  • The film’s simplicity generates a sense of foreboding—that something big or catastrophic is bound to happen to get our attention and shake the world of these characters.

Does Pather Panchali remind you of any other films?

  • Bicycle Thieves
  • The 400 Blows, Angela’s Ashes, and other stories told from a child’s point of view
  • Nanook of the North
  • The Grapes of Wrath

Other films directed by Satyajit Ray

  • Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), the remaining films in the Apu Trilogy
  • The Music Room
  • The Big City
  • Charulata

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Why Marge remains in charge: How Fargo speaks to us today

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The distinct pleasures earned from watching Fargo remain intact 25 years after the film’s theatrical debut. Doubters need only revisit this 1996 treatise on pseudo-true crime and the twisted comicality inherent in human conflict catalyzed by avarice to quickly be reminded of Fargo’s gift for effortlessly blending black humor with believable bucolic sensibilities. Take a few moments to reflect on why this film still matters in 2021 by asking yourself a few questions:


Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It stands as a textbook example of how filmmakers can masterfully manipulate viewers and defy their expectations. And it deserves to be appreciated because it was completely unconventional and unexpected for its time.
    • Think about how Fargo sets itself up as a true-crime thriller, even with the title card that it is based on a true story, with names changed to protect the innocent. However, it unfolds as a very unconventional and unpredictable take on this subgenre, using humor, irony, and flawed but fascinating characters to tell its story. And of course, we quickly learn that the tale and its characters are pure fabrication, with a disclaimer given during the final credits that all persons and incidents were fictitious.
      • Ethan Coen said in an interview: “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.”
      • As an aside, Joel and Ethan Coen admitted in recent years that two elements of the narrative were based on fact: Someone decades ago tried to defraud the General Motors Finance Corporation by fudging the serial numbers on cars, and a Connecticut man dispatched his wife’s body via a woodchipper.
    • Example #2 of how Fargo upends our expectations: Some of the violence that should be disturbing and grisly becomes funny—such as when Carl is shot in the face, his partner pushes down Carl’s severed foot in the wood chipper, Shep Proudfoot whips Carl, Jerry’s wife stumbles around blindly while wrapped in the shower curtain, etc.
    • Ponder, too, how Marge is the complete opposite of a traditional heroic lead: She’s female, pregnant, and not exactly Sherlock Holmes-like in her crime-solving skills, although she proves to be intuitive and smarter than audiences might have expected. She isn’t a hardboiled brawny cop or a noirish detective with a sordid past; actually, she’s polite and contented. She also leads a very simple, mundane existence with her ordinary Joe husband, whose major life accomplishment proves to be getting one of his artistic works on a three-cent stamp. She’s not even introduced until the second third of the movie, and we don’t get any grand payoff by the conclusion of a happy birth by a new mother.
    • Additionally, Jerry, Carl, and Gaer, while capable of great evil, are depicted as petty and pathetic villains whose greed and selfishness obscure their ability to properly plan a crime. Jerry in particular seems as bright as a box of rocks. The bad guys in this movie bungle just about everything, which contradicts the unwritten rule in the crime thriller that the antagonists should be shrewd, elusive, and diabolically intelligent. Ironically, Jerry comes across as somewhat sympathetic, despite being cruel and heartless in his motivations, which are to flee with the cash and abandon his wife to violence and death and desert his son. Carl and Gaer, meanwhile, provide much of the comic relief in this film, despite being dangerous and violent criminals.
      • “One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood clichĂ© of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases, criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies,” Ethan was quoted as saying.
    • Ruminate, as well, on how the dialogue is often quite clumsy and stilted—like real life; while Fargo is infinitely quotable, this is not a film with clever quips and articulate one-liners.
    • Furthermore, many crime thrillers contain gratuitous nudity or at least erotic scenes; Fargo has minimal sex scenes, and these are more humorous than titillating.
    • Next, give pause to how Fargo’s setting is one seldom chosen in mainstream Hollywood movies; the cold, bleak wild expanse of North Dakota and Minnesota. Also, this regional dialect is rarely used in movies. In fact, this is a rare film that puts a strong emphasis on the vernacular and manner of speech of a particular community.
    • What’s more, the title is quite misleading, as only the initial scene where Jerry first meets Carl and Gaer actually occurs in Fargo, North Dakota; most of the action happens in Brainerd, Minnesota. In this way, the film is similar to Chinatown, a movie that only features one scene in the titular location.
      • Ethan Coen said they chose the title because “we liked the sound of the word—there’s no hidden meaning.”
  • The film also contains quirky subplots and digressions, such as Marge meeting up with Mike Yanagita, an Asian former schoolmate. Sidebar: While many point to the Yanagita scenes as diversionary, trivial, and even unnecessary, consider that Marge learning that Mike had been lying motivates her to re-question Jerry, whom she suspects is also lied to her.
  • On a side note, it’s interesting that this picture contains two Hitchcockian MacGuffins: the ransom money, which we never learn the fate of; and Marge’s pregnancy, which has no bearing on the story.

In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • While it’s difficult to make a definitive case that Fargo initiated a new subgenre or inspired peers or influenced the next generation of filmmakers, there are a few subsequent works that owe a debt to this picture, including:
    • A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi from 1998
    • 2005’s The Ice Harvest by Harold Ramis
    • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter from 2015, the story of a Japanese woman hunting for the buried ransom money shown in Fargo.
    • The cult classic cable series Fargo on FX that has now spanned four seasons since its inception in 2014.

What themes or messages are explored in Fargo? What’s the moral of the story here?

  • It’s the simple pleasures in life that matter. At the finale, Marge has wrapped up the case and she and Norm can look forward to their forthcoming baby and celebrating the fact that his art has been chosen for a minor stamp. These victories may appear rather humdrum, unglamorous, and anticlimactic, but they are important to Marge and Norm.
  • The meek shall inherit the earth. Consider that the villains, despite all their planning and efforts, were not successful. Their pursuit of a little bit of money, according to Marge, was futile and destructive. Marge cannot understand their petty and materialistic motivations. At the end of the movie, we are left watching a scene of simplistic domestic bliss, which may appear as a boring reward or trifling vindication to us. But it’s an affirmation of the abiding power of everyday, common, downhome people and the affection they share.
    • Marge and Norm are the characters left to inherit the ending of the movie. They are like the three-cent stamps—often overlooked, not as important, popular, or attractive as the full-postage stamp, but they can serve a significant purpose when needed.
  • Ignorance is bliss: Marge and Norm may be unflappable Midwesterners, and their tastes may be relatively plain, modest, and unsophisticated, but they appear happy.
  • Telling a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the Coen brothers show us a statue of Paul Bunyan multiple times and that the name of the bar where Carl and Gaer meet two hookers is the Blue Ox, harkening to Bunyan’s pet animal Babe. Bunyan, who wielded an ax, was a larger-than-life legendary folk hero associated with tall tales and exaggerated folklore. It’s fitting, then, that Gaer also employs an ax in Fargo – the weapon he uses to murder Carl.
    • These associations suggest that, despite the movie stating that it’s based on a true story, Fargo is a modern tall tale of sorts.
    • Remember, too, that the film’s tagline is “A homespun murder story.” The word “homespun” makes it sound like the Coen brothers wove this tale out of whole cloth.
  • Life can often divvy out a raw deal. Interestingly, many characters use the word “deal” throughout the movie: “This is my deal,” “So what’s the deal?” “We had a deal,” “A deal’s a deal,” “We had us a deal here for nineteen-five,” “Let’s just finish up this deal here,” “They want my money, they can deal with me,” “Yeah, the deal was the car first then the $40,000,” and “Don’t sound like too good a deal.”
  • Isolation. Recall the birds-eye overhead shot of Jerry walking to his automobile after his request for money is turned down. Reflect on how remote and alienating the hideout location is that Carl and Gaer take refuge in. Ponder how few pedestrians or motorists you see in the same outdoor field of view as Jerry, Carl, Gaer, or Marge. And give thought to how the expansive white snowy canvas makes objects stand out as detached and contrasting.

What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?

  • Some would argue that the movie comes across as too condescending or belittling of its Midwestern characters. Perhaps the film can be viewed today as more insensitive and overtly stereotypical of Minnesotans.
    • Bright Lights Film Journal essayist Robert Castle wrote: Fargo depicts “a society stupefied by its hypothetical aspirations. At the end, Marge and Norm stare at the nature show, little realizing they are approaching nature’s fixity and flatness. Marge will feed the baby growing in her womb as the bark beetle fills itself, to give birth in the spring. A new generation will arrive. Any smarter or any better? The Coen Brothers appear skeptical.”
    • On the other hand, the filmmakers seem to have compassion and respect for Marge and Norm and the honest, humble Midwestern values they represent.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of its most treasured gifts is the personage of Marge Gunderson and the personification of her by Academy award-winning actress Francis McDormand. The Coens have created one of the great cinematic characters of the last 25 years in Marge, a thoroughly likable heroine who, at first glance, would appear to be physically and mentally incapable of solving this crime and apprehending the offenders but proves to be as resourceful as she is intuitive, perceptive, disarming, and shrewd. And it isn’t enough that the brothers merely chose a woman as their intrepid protagonist: she’s also in her third trimester of pregnancy and a fan of the simple pleasures in life, including fast food, watching TV, and making conversation with locals.
  • A second greatest gift is the talent for black comedy that the Coens so adroitly exhibit in Fargo. Granted, this picture may not be bust-a-gut funny, nor is it intended to be categorized specifically as a laugher. But Fargo is often comical and uncomfortably so, even in its darker sequences – such as when Carl tries to cope with a profusely bleeding face or Gaer uses a two-by-four to shove his partner’s leg through the wood chipper. The humor helps take the edge off the graphic violence and disturbing scenes, and it also demonstrates that life is often unintentionally amusing, even when human beings don’t intend to be funny or situations seem dire. Ethan and Joel Coen expertly balance the tonality of Fargo by seesawing between dark and light moments, sometimes within the same shot or scene. That takes considerable skill and not a small amount of confidence.
    • In an interview, Joel Coen said: “The comedy would not have worked if the film had been shot as a comedy, instead of sincerely and directly.”

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