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There's gold in them thar Hollywood hills

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Last night, our CineVerse group reconvened online for its very first videoconference meeting to discuss Charles Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (the 1925 original version). Despite this being a 95-year-old silent film, there was plenty to talk about (to hear our group discussion, click here). Here's a recap of our talking points:

What is it about the Little Tramp character that we identify with and enjoy? What’s the secret behind this character’s appeal?

  • The Little Tramp is kind of an everyman—a surrogate for the audience on a journey, quest, adventure, or experience.
  • He’s a likable underdog by virtue of being diminutive, often surrounded by bigger and stronger but not always smarter men.
  • Because the humor is often self-deprecating, making the Tramp the butt of jokes and a subject of humiliation, he makes us feel sympathy and empathy amidst the comedy. Indeed, he evokes a range of emotions from the viewer, which makes Chaplin a powerful and effective filmmaker and his Little Tramp so memorable. Some argue that Chaplin’s sensibilities are overly sentimentalized, that there’s too much pathos and maudlin mushiness in his movies—especially compared to his contemporary filmmaker/performer Buster Keaton. Others feel Chaplin hits the perfect emotional chords to leave us feeling satisfied by the end of the picture.
  • The key to appreciating the Little Tramp, however, is to realize that the inherent charm and humor comes from presenting a cartoonish character who always tries to maintain dignity, pride, normalcy, and virtue despite repeatedly being embarrassed, belittled, overlooked, mistreated, and not taken seriously and despite his impoverished look and condition.
  • He also expresses a gallantry, civility, sincerity, and romantic sensibility that make you root for him. DVD Savant writer Glenn Erickson wrote: “His depiction of romantic innocence is one of the highlights of the silent cinema.”

What’s significant about The Gold Rush and Chaplin at this time (1925)?

  • Some accounts have this as the highest-grossing silent comedy of all time.
  • In 1925, Chaplin was the world’s most famous person, recognized and beloved across the globe, and the highest-paid employee on the planet.
  • This was considered a major, epic film and production. Walter Kerr, author of “The Silent Clowns,” said only two comedies from the silent era earned the right to be called an epic: This film, and Buster Keaton’s “The General.”
  • What’s notable about “The Gold Rush” in Chaplin’s oeuvre and for comedies of the 1920s is that it’s kind of a stark and dark black comedy that traffics in death as well as laughs. Consider how we see other prospectors meet their demise throughout the story, such as Black Larsen and the unidentified man who collapses in the snow during the first scene up the mountain pass. We view the Tramp walked past a grave, see how hunger can drive a man to consider cannibalism, and watch as our heroes come perilously close to death as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff.
  • There are numerous unforgettable scenes and set pieces here, including the dinner roll dance, shoe-eating sequence, the fighting-the-wind scene, the dance with the tethered dog, the snow shoveling bit, and the harrowing sequence depicting the cabin hanging from the cliff’s edge.

What themes rise to the top after examining “The Gold Rush”?

  • Greed, luck, and resourcefulness. All of these qualities come back to reward or punish the prospector characters we follow. Some also see this film as an allegory for the untapped potential of Hollywood at the time—where gold of another kind was waiting to be mined by intrepid prospectors, many of whom would suffer in defeat while others struck it rich in the young boomtown.
  • Inner warmth can keep you alive in a cold world. The Tramp survives in large part because he demonstrates courage in the face of Mother Nature, courtesy and chivalry to Georgia and her friends, loyalty to Big Jim, and inventiveness making a meal out of whatever he can find.
  • The virtues of humility. At the story’s conclusion, we see that the Tramp is willing to shed his fur coats and put his hobo outfit back on upon request, suggesting that he won’t forget where he came from or how he got to his place of success.

Other films that remind us of The Gold Rush

  • The Call of the Wild
  • White Fang
  • North to Alaska
  • Alive

Other masterpieces by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Circus
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight

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Miss CineVerse? Listen to one our past group recordings

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Missing CineVerse while riding out the coronavirus crisis? You can relive virtually any one of our group meetings since 2007 by listening to a past recording of that session.

In fact, there are more than 600 recorded group discussions from which to choose: from our talk about "It's a Wonderful Life" recorded in July 2007 to a chat about "Blade Runner" in June 2012 to a deep dive into "Vertigo" in September 2016 to a fun foray into "Caddyshack" from August of last year. Part of the fun of lending an ear to these captured conversations is hearing how the group has changed over the years, with new members adding fresh voices as CineVerse has evolved since its inception in 2005.

Every recording includes the post-screening initial thoughts shared by each member in attendance followed by a more extensive Q&A session with the group.


You can access the CineVerse group discussion podcast archive by visiting:


To most easily view and use this archive, follow the directions below.
So put aside your worries and cabin fever concerns for a little while and take a trip down CineVerse memory lane. Before long, we'll be back to dissecting movies in person and sharing opinions about them on Wednesday nights. Until then, enjoy some past group memories.
Stay healthy and safe...

Erik Martin
CineVerse moderator

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CineVerse group meetings suspended until further notice

Monday, March 16, 2020

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the Oak Lawn Park District has canceled all clubs and programs in its buildings, including Oak View Center. That means CineVerse will go on hiatus until further notice. There will be no group meeting this Wednesday or any future Wednesday for the time being.

Films we had slated on the March/April CineVerse calendar will be rescheduled at a future time.  When we are allowed to reconvene our group meetings, presumably weeks down the line, I will post an update.

Meantime, stay safe and healthy, and remember to practice protective measures against coronavirus.

Erik Martin, CineVerse moderator

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A podcast about "Airplane!"? Surely you can't be serious...

Sunday, March 15, 2020

For Cineversary podcast episode #21, host Erik Martin yuks it up with guests Michael Digiovanni and Andrew Bloom, hosts of the Classic Film Jerks podcast, to honor the 40th anniversary of one of the funniest flicks ever, "Airplane!", directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. Collectively, they examine why this comedy gem is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the picture today, how it has stood the test of time, and more.

Andrew Bloom (left) and Michael Digiovanni

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 Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Google Play Music, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

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

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Taking a deeper dive with "Das Boot"

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Wolfgang Petersen's brilliant "Das Boot" (1981) is a full-frontal assault on the senses and a stark reminder of perhaps the biggest casualty of war: our sense of humanity. CineVerse revisited the theatrical cut of this magnum opus of world cinema last evening (click here to listen to our group discussion) and came to the following observations:

What is unique or memorable about “Das Boot” as a war picture or even an anti-war film?

  • It shows the cost of war from the enemies’ point of view, which is kind of rare for American audiences.
  • We find that it’s easier to identify with and sympathize with the so-called bad guys than perhaps we thought.
  • Most of the film is slow-moving with a tightening knot of anticipation and suspense, unlike common action and war movies driven heavily by plot, sets, and effects.
  • The movie is almost documentary-like in its realism: It tries to accurately depict life on a German submarine and how dirty, difficult and unglamorous a job it was.
  • While there have been plenty of anti-war films, from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Paths of Glory” to “Platoon,” this film shows with masterful subtlety and sledgehammer definitiveness how these young men were used and abused by the German war machine.

What are your typical expectations of a war film, and how does “Das Boot” defy those expectations?

  • Most war movies employ spectacular set pieces, elaborate special effects, relentless action, and a fast-paced plot to make their statement and keep your attention.
  • In Das Boot, very few battles or actions sequences occur; most of the film is about quiet, stillness, despair, and waiting for doom.
  • Many war films are patriotic, flag-waving exercises that support the rightness of the side the characters are fighting on. In Das Boot, some of the leaders are critical of Hitler’s regime and complimentary of the enemy.
  • The characters aren’t cookie-cutter predictable stereotypes.
    • For example, the captain isn’t a brilliant tactician—he makes mistakes.
    • The Nazi officer (mocked as a “Hitler youth”) isn’t depicted as a complete monster who gets his comeuppance.
    • The engine room mechanic Johann proves to be unreliable but then redeems himself.
    • The war correspondent Werner becomes less of a distant observer than an equal among the crew as a human being.
  • Victories aren’t won on the battlefield in this film; triumph is felt when the men strive to fulfill their duties and make the captain they love proud.

“Das Boot” has been called a masterpiece of thrilling suspense. How do the filmmakers build tension and grip the audience without an overreliance on special effects or excessive action?

  • The vast majority of the film takes place within claustrophobic confines of this 10-foot by 150-foot submarine.
  • The filmmakers very rarely show any external views of the sub or even shots outside the vessel.
  • The film is comprised mostly of close-ups and cramped two-shots and three-shots to heighten the claustrophobic feeling. The movie is an intricate study of the human face and its many expressions.
  • Sound is arguably the most important element in this film; the diegetic sounds of life on a sub (sonar pinging, depth charge explosions, pressure on the hull, men sniveling and coughing) and lack of sounds (silence) interplay to heighten the realism and ratchet up the stress
  • For the set, the filmmakers created a replica of U-boat and shot within those tight quarters.
  • The filmmakers chose to shoot linearly, in chronological order, which is rare. As a result, the actors were forced to spend weeks confined to this claustrophobic set, grow natural beards, and go without sunshine or outdoor exposure.
  • The camera work is technically quite impressive and documentary-like, employing handheld camera techniques that follow the men and their actions closely. Point-of-view shots add to the realism, too.

What is the turning point in this film, the moment that makes it a definitive anti-war, humanistic statement that tries to change our perceptions about war?

  • When they surface to finish off the tanker, only to find the British sailors burning to death and drowning in the water.
  • They are forced to confront the consequences of their actions—the terrible destructive impact of war on human beings that is rarely seen from a periscope or a far distance away.
  • This scene depicts the frustration of the moment: The Germans couldn’t help the doomed sailors if they wanted to because there wasn’t enough room on their U-boat.

How do you interpret the bleak, sudden ending of the movie?

  • It’s important that it happens suddenly, unexpectedly and quickly.
  • Ironically, they survive all these other impossible situations and life-threatening scenarios only to be wiped out upon returning home to the admiration of their fellow countrymen.
  • It’s as if the pomp and circumstance and glorious flag-waving and saluting that greeted the sailors was a portent of doom to come. Remember early in the film that the captain says Germany was looking for heroes to worship and salute; the Motherland got its heroes in the form of this returning crew but at a terrible price.
  • This conclusion, of course, reminds the audience that Germany lost World War II.

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Das Boot: A film of high repute

Sunday, March 8, 2020

On March 11, World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse with a classic from Germany: “Das Boot” (1981; the 149-minute theatrical cut), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, chosen by Dan Quenzel. Note: Due to the long runtime of tonight’s film, CineVerse will start promptly at 6:45 p.m.

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Tinseltown unmasked

Friday, March 6, 2020

Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” can’t be denied as a near-perfect work of cinematic art, a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking genre hybrid that had the chutzpah to indict Hollywood’s hollow values and inability to adapt to the changing times. In honor of the 70th anniversary it celebrates in 2020, CineVerse took another look at this classic with fresh eyes this week (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of this film) in an attempt to answer key questions.

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

  • It’s arguably the best film made by one of the great American directors, Billy Wilder, known for many masterpieces. This film ranks #16, Wilder’s highest-ranked movie, on the AFI’s Top 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list.
  • It boasts a stellar combination of talents, including Wilder and Charles Brackett who wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay together; Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim, who each received Academy Award nominations for their performance; a brooding, brilliant score by Franz Waxman, who earned Oscar gold for this music; and fantastic lighting and composition by cinematographer John Seitz. In all, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three, including Best Art Direction-Interior Design.
  • It’s regarded by many as the finest movie about Hollywood ever made. This is one of the first and greatest meta films created, in which the movie is self-reflexive about the making of motion pictures. We are given an insider’s look at how the industry works, Tinseltown’s winners and losers, and the cynicism inherent in this industry. Turner Classic Movies describes it as “one of the first serious treatments of life in Hollywood, coming at a time when most movies about movies were irony-free comedies and musicals.”
  • It’s also a picture that works across several genres and categories. It plays like a classic film noir, with Norma Desmond serving as a femme fatale that leads men to danger; it functions as a striking black comedy and self-reflexive satire on Hollywood; you could build a case that it works as a horror film, with Norma as a kind of vampire creature capable of insane violence; and it checks the box as a character-driven drama, too.

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

  • Thanks to its meta approach that provides textual and subtextual commentary on the film industry, "Sunset Boulevard" likely inspired subsequent movies to adopt similar approaches, including the casting of actors and filmmakers who play themselves and riff on their personas. Without "Sunset Boulevard," you don’t have films like "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Star," or "The Barefoot Contessa" (released just a few years later) that give us a continued inside look at the workings of Hollywood. Consider, too, how movies like Robert Altman’s "The Player," Spike Jonze’s "Being John Malkovitch," and "Wes Craven’s New Nightmare" feature actors and directors playing themselves to somewhat comedic effect. By casting the director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, playing themselves, and by using former actors and directors in roles that riff on their previous fame—like Stroheim as a washed-up prior director who in real life actually shot a movie starring Gloria Swanson, and silent comedy star Buster Keaton as an over-the-hill actor friend—authenticity and offbeat excitement were added to "Sunset Boulevard." And this picture was undoubtedly an influence on later films like "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," "Day of the Locust," "Woman in the Dunes," and "Mulholland Drive."
  • The movie also seemed prescient in its focus on the dark side of fame and celebrity culture as well as celebrity crime. Norma killing Joe makes us think of the later murders associated with Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson, for example. And "Sunset Boulevard’s" cynical tone helps peel back the fa├žade of the Hollywood dream factory, exposing its rotten underbelly and preoccupations with past glory.
  • It was also controversial for its depiction of an older rich woman essentially paying a man for companionship and, presumably, sex.
  • This film helped catapult Holden to stardom, too.

What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in "Sunset Boulevard"?

  • The dangers of living in the past and not evolving as a person or artist. We see how Norma is living in a delusional fantasy world and refuses to learn or accept the truth: that she is no longer in demand or attractive to audiences. She can’t escape the sins of pride, vanity, and obsession with self-image.
  • Determinism and dark fate. It’s crucial that the story begins at the end and is told in flashback, as many classic noirs are. We see that Joe is dead, and he’s ironically telling his story as a voiceover narrator from beyond the grave. This makes the viewer feel that the character’s fate is predestined—we know upfront how his luck will turn. Consider, too, how Max announces to Joe, a stranger who has wandered into Norma’s mansion, “Madame is waiting for you upstairs.” And reflect on how Joe keeps running into Betty, as if they’re star-crossed lovers destined to fall in love.
  • Guilt and manipulation. Recall how Joe rushes back to Norma’s side after he learns of her suicide attempt, feeling a sense of culpability and sympathy, and how Norma threatens to kill herself if he leaves her again.
  • The consequences of enabling. Max makes matters infinitely worse because he keeps feeding Norma’s ego with lies and faux attention from imagined fans and filmmakers.
  • There are no shortcuts to success: Hard work, real talent, and lots of luck are required. Ponder how Joe is down on his luck as a Hollywood writer but decides to take up Norma’s offer to live with him and write for her. Ultimately, he pays for this decision with his life.
  • Hollywood needs to reckon with its past and change with the times. This movie was made at a time when the film industry was challenged in several ways and the studio system was faltering. Studios were forced to sell off their owned theaters, deal with the HUAC proceedings and communist witch hunt, and compete with increased competition from television. The message here is that the old money and antiquated forces that built Hollywood (as exemplified by Norma and her mansion) could no longer prop up modern Tinseltown. The industry needed to roll with the changes. This movie also serves as a sad commentary on how quickly talent can become a disposable commodity, forgotten and ignored by the fickle public and big business in its greedy pursuit of profit.

What are this film’s greatest gifts to viewers?

  • The script by Wilder and Brackett alone makes this an all-time classic. "Sunset Boulevard" is chock full of all-time great scenes and quotable lines, from “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” to “Funny how gentle people get with you once you’re dead,” to “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”
  • The contrast in the two main characters’ personalities (and the acting styles of Swanson versus Holden) makes for a fascinating study. Joe’s demeanor is cool and cynical, his mindset modern, and his mannerisms naturalistic. Norma’s movements, expressions, and speech, by contrast, are stylized, exaggerated, overdramatic and grandiose; she creates a grotesque and creepy impression that plays on the opposite spectrum.
  • The noir and horror elements also serve as a delicious juxtaposition to the comedic and satiric qualities infused in this movie. This genre mashup and disparate stew of styles create an unforgettable film experience among viewers who can appreciate a sharp wit and ironic tone.

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Seventy years later, Norma's still ready for her close-up

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Once a month in 2020, CineVerse celebrates a milestone anniversary of a cinematic classic with Cineversary. On March 4, our Cineversary spotlight shines on "Sunset Boulevard” (1950; 110 minutes), directed by Billy Wilder, celebrating its 70th birthday this year.

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Squaring the circle of life

Friday, February 28, 2020

"2001: A Space Odyssey" made it possible to appreciate science-fiction as a thinking person's genre, to elevate it above mere escapist entertainment for the popcorn crowd. And its vibrant offspring, while not rampantly abundant, have clearly benefitted, as evidenced by such cerebral and artistically ambitious fare as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Blade Runner," "12 Monkeys," "The Matrix," "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," and "Interstellar." Worthy of that lineage is director Denis Villeneuve's mind-expanding treatise on time, space, and communication, "Arrival," which will have you asking a lot of interesting questions by its conclusion. We certainly had our share as a CineVerse crowd last Wednesday, and here are our attempts at some answers:

Movies that may have inspired “Arrival”

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • Solaris
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Abyss
  • Stargate
  • Sphere
  • Contact
  • Memento
  • Interstellar
  • The Martian

What’s different, unexpected, and maybe even refreshing about “Arrival,” especially compared to previous sci-fi films depicting first human contact with aliens?

  • In many previous “first contact” movies, language often wasn’t a great barrier.
    • Many aliens spoke English, as in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
    • In other examples of this subgenre, the aliens assimilated to our form of communication, as evidenced in “E.T.” (where the alien learns to speak English) and “Close Encounters” (where music becomes a universal language).
    • And in hostile invasion films like “War of the Worlds,” “The Thing From Another World,” and “Independence Day,” trying to communicate didn’t matter—killing the enemy mattered.
  • This first contact movie focuses on an interesting practical conundrum: What if the visiting aliens didn’t appear antagonistic or bent on invading, but we couldn’t immediately communicate with them, so each side didn’t know the other’s intentions? Here, the tension is high, because there’s a strong possibility of destruction and tragedy resulting from misunderstanding the other’s intentions as well as from rival nations that may have their own agendas for communication or make rash decisions that lead to combat and destruction.
  • Put another way, this is a thinking person’s sci-fi film—a rare example of a genre movie that doesn’t over-rely on action, battle scenes, eye-popping special effects, or conventionally heroic characters. This story is built more on tense atmosphere, intriguing possibilities, and deeply philosophical matters while also exploring practical issues like how to communicate with alien life forms whose purpose remains unclear.
  • The design of the extraterrestrials, their technology, and their means of communication are distinctive and unique, unlike many previous depictions of spacecraft and otherworldly creatures.

Themes inherent in “Arrival”

  • Free will vs. determinism. *SPOILERS!* The aliens don’t think or live according to our concept of linear time; in their lives, time is circular and the past, present and future are one. Louise learns and experiences this as she begins to assimilate and use the alien language. She begins to see what will happen in her future (previously, the viewer assumed these visions were flashbacks of the past): Louise will give birth to a daughter who will eventually die of cancer. Despite knowing this tragic event ahead of time, she commits to a relationship with Ian and agrees to try and get pregnant.
    • There are two ways of interpreting the ending and major message of this film. On one hand, it suggests that our futures are predestined. On the other, it suggests that free will exists, that we have a choice in our fate.
    • Consider what Louise says to Ian: “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” This implies that Louise has a choice to make: Whether or not to conceive and raise her yet-to-be-born daughter.
    • Nick Statt of The Verge wrote: “Whether Louise can change anything is besides the point. In Arrival’s deterministic universe, free will exists in the form of following through on a choice you already know you’ll make. In effect, by choosing not to alter the future, you’re creating it, and actively affirming it. ‘The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons,’ Louise says (in the original story written by Ted Chiang). ‘What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.’”
    • Dan Jackson of Thrillist wrote: “On the surface, the ending of Arrival appears to preach a type of determinism you often see in stories about time travel: There's only one set path, and free will is a myth. It can feel bleak, especially if you are inclined to feel that your life (or your country) is heading down the wrong path at the moment. But the film also preaches a type of zen-like acceptance that speaks to larger truths: What's happening now has already happened and will happen again. Chronology is not the most important element of a story -- or, to put it in broader terms, a life.”
  • The challenge of trying to communicate across and collaborate with different cultures and species.
  • The capacity for chaos and misunderstanding without the ability to use language and see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • The ability for one person to make an enormous difference in our world. Consider how Louise isn’t a president, astronaut, famous astrophysicist, or celebrity; she’s a talented linguist whose unique skills and talents can bridge the divide between worlds.
  • The ability for the natural world—including extraterrestrials as well as animals, plants, and life forms here on Earth—to teach humans about themselves. Reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “Although Arrival is about first contact with extraterrestrials, it says more about the human experience than the creatures from another world.”
  • The relative smallness and insignificance of our planet and our species compared to the vastness of life throughout the universe.

Other films directed by Denis Villeneuve

  • Prisoners
  • Enemy
  • Sicario
  • Blade Runner 2049

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