Blog Directory CineVerse: 2022

We can't stop singing the praises of this musical gem

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Last month, one of Hollywood's finest musicals turned 70 years old. All these decades later, Singin' in the Rain continues to satisfy and satiate our desire for unbridled cinematic joy expressed in expert dancing and melody-making. What makes this movie stand apart from other pictures in the genre? Read on for reasons why Singin- in the Rain still matters today (to listen to the Cineversary podcast celebrating this movie, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 70 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s been called “the musical for people who don’t like musicals.” Perhaps that’s because it checks the boxes across several musical subgenres:
    • It’s a jukebox musical in which most of the songs are popular tunes, not just original music.
    • It’s a backstage musical wherein the plot is set in a theatrical context that focuses on a stage production or, in this case, a movie production.
    • You can call it a catalogue musical because it often features a catalogue of songs from a single songwriting source, here being MGM’s Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
    • Singin’ in the Rain is an integrated musical, as well, in which the music is used to advance or mesh with the narrative, and characters don’t just burst into song without reason.
  • It’s worth celebrating because Singin’ in the Rain stands as the pinnacle of the classic Hollywood musical, the apex of works produced by Arthur Freed at MGM – which also include the Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, on the Town, An American Paris, and The Band Wagon.
  • The film also represents a collection of top talents at the height of their powers, in particular Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Stanley Donen, and Arthur Freed, who have debatably never produced better work.
  • It’s cherished, as well, thanks to its chromatic vibrancy, being shot in sumptuous three-strip Technicolor, which really pops in the Broadway Melody sequence and the Beautiful Girl montage.
  • Singin' in the Rain also holds up because many of the songs and dancing seem spontaneous, improvised, natural, effortless, and made up on the spot. Many of the songs serve as musical representations and articulations of a character’s emotions, too. Cases in point: The Moses Supposes scene looks and feels a bit silly because Don and Cosmo apparently find the lessons ridiculous and can’t take the teacher seriously, so they treat the scene and the instructor somewhat irreverently, while Broadway Rhythm plays as kinetic and urgent, suggesting that the need to dance is essential for practical as well as personal reasons.
    • Infectious energy, enthusiasm, and playfulness pulse through these numbers, and you can’t help but tap your toes, hum along, and share many of the emotions felt by these characters. We appreciate the feeling of genuinely falling in love because Kelly sells it so well during the titular dance sequence.
  • What’s more, Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t date because it serves as a minor history lesson in how early movies were made, loosely documenting the problematic transition from silent pictures to talkies. It demonstrates how the machinery of moviemaking pulls off the magic trick: how microphones, lights, cameras, backdrops, and other elements function to help create a film. Because it was set in 1927, the year the first talking movies were released, it serves as a compelling period piece that helps Singin’ in the Rain from feeling outmoded.
    • Consider that the movie business continually confronts times of change and challenging periods of technical transition, whether it was the rollout of 3-D and widescreen in the 1950s or the initiative to install digital projection systems in theaters in recent years.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chris Cabin wrote: “The most exquisite and exuberant dream of the dream machine in transition, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain includes perhaps one of the greatest examples of how art, with its constant advances and detractions, can at once wildly embellish and find the emotional truth of an artist’s persona. And it is, of course, the greatest film to date about the pitfalls and promises that come along with change in film, though its ideas are so clear and profoundly realized that they have by now become universally relatable. Made today, it might have been about the move from film to digital, from the theater to VOD, from print criticism to blogging.”
  • Despite winning no Oscars and not being cherished in its own era for its brilliance, Singin’ in the Rain ranks as the best musical ever, per the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Movie Musicals, places #5 in the AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and commands a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Lastly, in a movie known primarily for stellar dancing and memorable music, it’s loaded with great comedic lines, like “She so refined – I think I’ll kill myself;” “Dignity, always dignity”; “Call me a cab”/“Okay, you’re a cab”; “Gee, this is dumb”; and the following exchange between Cosmo and R.F: “Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last, I can start suffering and write that symphony.”/“You’re not out of job, we’re putting you in as head of our new music department.”/Oh, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.”

How was this movie innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood musicals?

  • It integrated different types of dancing, including tap, ballet, ballroom, jazz, can-can, and a more athletic style of hoofing and movement that, for instance, breakdance and hip-hop dancers can appreciate nowadays. Singin’ in the Rain also showcases some of the best male tandem dancing ever and three-person dancing.
    • Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds make it look easy, even though it was challenging work choreographing and executing these dance moves.
    • Amazingly, Reynolds had no professional dancing experience before being cast, although she was a skilled gymnast. It was also her first starring role in a musical.
  • Rare for a 1950s musical, most music in the film is recycled: All but two of the 15 songs, Moses Supposses and Make ‘Em Laugh, were used previously in movies, mostly between 1929 and 1939.
  • This musical actually has a solid plot with an intriguing narrative, as opposed to so many previous song and dance pictures. And the story was written directly for the screen—not based on a stage musical.
  • Unlike many prior musicals, where the screenplay was written first and then songs were composed to fit the story, the songs in Singin’ in the Rain existed first, followed by the script.
  • Indeed, it actually tells a story, depicting Hollywood’s challenging crossover from silents to talkies. We learn how the sausage is made: the placement of the microphones, lip-synching, synchronizing the picture and sound, a traveling cyclorama, the importance of test screenings, stiff competition between the studios, and the degree to which Hollywood actors were commodities owned by the studio (recall, for example, that Kathy is obligated to perform because of her contract with Monumental Pictures).
  • In her book, The Movie Musical!, film scholar Jeanine Basinger wrote: “It’s a film about film history, and its musical numbers comply. “Make ’Em Laugh,” with O’Connor doing an amazing tour de force of slapstick dancing, is about the violence of American silent comedy. “Moses Supposes” is like a Marx Brothers routine set to music. “You Were Meant for Me” is a gentle self-parody of typical love duets in movies, showing all the props used and how audiences are manipulated by them. “Beautiful Girl” is a tribute to a 1930s Busby Berkeley number, and “Good Morning” uses an old song as a setting for an imaginatively choreographed tap routine that displays several different types of movie dancing. All the numbers are about movies except “All I Do Is Dream of You” and the title tune.”
  • Furthermore, Singin’ in the Rain stands as an uncommon example in its era of a metafilm—showing movies within the movie and commenting on the creation, editing, and distribution of motion pictures.
    • Exhibit A: This film is chock full of references and nods to previous movies and filmmakers, and savvy watchers can have a lot of fun looking for the bread crumbs, such as:
      • The majority of tunes had been featured in previous Hollywood musicals, as mentioned earlier; in fact, this was the seventh time the song "Singin' in the Rain" was used in a film.
      • Make Em Laugh riffs on Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from 1948’s The Pirate.
      • The movie uses plenty of antique props and older sets employed in earlier films; for instance, Kathy’s jalopy was a fixture in the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney.
      • Studio boss R.F. Simpson and the musical director character of Cosmo were modeled on Arthur Freed.
      • The Dancing Cavalier director Roscoe Dexter is patterned after musical filmmaker Busby Berkeley.
      • The film mentions 1927’s The Jazz Singer, credited as the first feature-length talking picture.
      • The action scenes in "The Royal Rascal" use footage from the 1948 film The Three Musketeers.
    • Exhibit B: Singin’ in the Rain both lampoons and lionizes Hollywood and show business, hinting at the warts-and-all truth behind filmmaking with comedic criticism while also glorifying the glitz, glamour, and glory days of the studio system and early popular entertainment.
    • Exhibit C: There’s even a meta irony in this film. We see how Lina’s voice is dubbed by Kathy, who is a better singer, but Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice is actually dubbed by singer Betty Noyes in two songs: “Would You?” and in part of “You Are My Lucky Star.”
  • Lastly, Singin’ in the Rain continues Kelly’s trend of utilizing a more athletic, masculine, everyman style meant to relate to everyday people. Kelly is more physical and acrobatic than the Hollywood hoofer he was most often compared to, Fred Astaire, who was more smooth, sophisticated, and graceful. Kelly also enjoyed using props in his dance routines, which he does with much aplomb in Singin’ in the Rain via an umbrella, lamppost, hat, coin, scarf, couch, lampshade, curtains, or briefcase.

How was Singin’ in the Rain influential on cinema, comedy, or popular culture?

  • This movie was a major inspiration to later films and TV shows, including Moulin Rouge, High School Musical and its sequels, Chicago, The Artist, Rock of Ages, La La Land, and Glee.
  • Singin’ in the Rain showed how efficiently and effectively you could advance the narrative through dance and music. Ponder how most if not all the songs follow logically from a character’s motivation or previous explanation. Take the Fit as a Fiddle number, which establishes Don’s past and professional relationship with Cosmo, and consider why the title song comes later in the tale because it occurs just after Don realizes he’s in love, serving as a jubilant expression of his sentiments toward Kathy and the joie de vivre he’s experiencing.
  • Particularly with this movie, Kelly perfected a new approach to presenting dance on film. According to Kelly: “I tried to do things uniquely cinematic, that you couldn’t do on a stage. Call it ‘cine-dancing,’ or whatever, but I tried to invent the dance to fit the camera and its movements.”
    • Ranker.com’s Erin McCann wrote: “One of the best examples of this can be seen in Singin’ In The Rain, when the camera pulls back, the music swells, and Kelly dances using wide movements. Then, as the camera closes in on him, the music softens and his movements become less dramatic. This technique focuses your attention and creates a sense of intimacy; it’s a vastly different approach than previously standard massive wide shots attempting to replicate the spectacle of Broadway. It also allows for the increased use of depth in cinematic space.”
  • Singin’ in the Rain boasts perhaps the best and one of the first examples of physical comedy implemented in a dance number with Make ‘Em Laugh.
    • Consider how the Beautiful Girl montage, especially its first 60 seconds, serves as a kind of proto-music video with its colorfully costumed women, stylistic shots of marching female soldiers and a man shouting out of a megaphone, and various beauties clad in ostentatious attire. It feels like a kind of early MTV video with its rapid cuts and eye-catching visuals.

It’s rare for any classic film from the golden age of Hollywood to have two directors. Why were Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly the ideal collaborators?

  • They had co-directed an earlier film together that was a commercial and critical success: On the Town from 1949, starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
  • It would make sense for Donen to share directorial duties with the person responsible for choreographing all the dancing and who performed most of the dance numbers.
  • Film critics and scholars have noted Singin’ in the Rain’s longer-than-usual takes and an active camera that consistently travels and tracks with characters.
  • In his essay on this film for Deep Focus Review, Brian Eggert https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/singin-in-the-rain/wrote: “Kelly learned that movement onscreen depends on the movement of the camera, and viewers of a stage performance saw something different than a film’s audience. On the stage, dancers appeared smaller and had to occupy the entire stage along with their costars, so large movements became more important than acting; on film, the camera could move along with the dancer, and the viewer could better appreciate specific movements onscreen, in particular, the actor’s ability (or inability) to remain in character during the dance…The key to cine-dance was shooting dance in such a way that dance never distracted from the film’s narrative thrust. To accomplish this, Donen used tracking and crane camera techniques that trail the dancing without the wobbly movements of earlier musicals, allowing Singin’ in the Rain’s dance sequences to contain a rare faithfulness to the narrative for a Hollywood musical, as the songs and dance blend seamlessly with the drama and humor.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in Singin’ in the Rain?

  • Illusion vs. reality. Audiences are constantly seduced by the fantastical power of perfect-looking movies. But Singin’ in the Rain reveals that creating films involves sometimes imperfect technology that marries sound to image in a way that fools the mind into thinking that what we are seeing represents reality and looks effortless.
    • Recall how, early in the story, Don reminisces his backstory to the reporter, but we are shown the hard-luck truth of what he is exaggerating.
    • Ruminate on how Kathy portrays herself as a serious actress, but her real job is to jump out of cakes and function as a background player.
    • Mr. Simpson is the head of the studio and wants to come off as powerful, but he is afraid of angering his stars.
    • The plot itself is partially centered on how to get Lina to appear to have more talent than she really does. By peeling back the curtain and presenting Lina as the fraudulent talent she is, the illusion is broken for the crowd she entertains and the truth of Kathy’s singing gift is revealed.
    • The characters of Lina and Kathy, respectively, represent illusion versus reality as well as two distinctly different types of women vying for Don’s attention.
      • Lina is glamorous, rich and powerful, more classically feminine, and a platinum blonde, while Kathy is tomboyish, shorter, brown-haired, and a starving artist.
      • Lina is dim-witted, smart-alecky, urban, and vindictive, while Kathy is sharp, intuitive, humble, small-townish, and morally upright.
      • Lina demands the spotlight, but Kathy is willing to concede it.
  • Dignity vs. humiliation. Time and again, we are shown how Don, Cosmo, Kathy, and Lina try to maintain their self-respect and poise in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood but are regularly shamed, demeaned, and embarrassed.
  • Performing and performances. Singin’ in the Rain continually reminds us of the pressure felt by artists to impress and entertain audiences, nail the opportunity, and perform well in front of and behind the camera.
  • Getting closer to the heart of the matter via increased intimacy. In an interview, film historian Sam Wasson said: “The whole movie can be read as a progression from the exterior – the way it opens with that lie – to the climax of the Broadway Melody number, which is all about (Don’s) imaginings. We quite literally go from outside to inside, and the musical numbers themselves describe that progression.”

What is Singin’ in the Rain’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Among its many gifts is the title track dance in the downpour by Gene Kelly, easily the most memorable music and visual from the film – one that transcends time and is referenced in popular culture to this day. Not only is this a logistical and technical triumph of mise en scene, but Kelly’s emotionally animated footwork and physical exuberance are unforgettable. We’ve certainly seen him do more athletically impressive movements to music, and this may not be his most complex choreography ever. Yet it’s the most believable dancing many have seen from Gene because it feels and looks like the way a young man might behave upon first realizing that he’s smitten with someone. We may not be able to tap tirelessly and flawlessly across the wet pavement like Mr. Kelly, but we can relate to the sheer joy that electrifies his legs and gives his feet wings. We can recall times in our youth when we stomped around giddily in rain puddles and twirled an umbrella. You simply can’t help but grin by the song’s end and feel young again. (And I’m occasionally reminded of the power and lasting influence of this number when I visit the produce section of my local supermarket; every so often while perusing the rows of carrots, radishes, kale, and spinach, I’m startled by the sudden operation of an automatic overhead irrigation system that plays the disembodied voice of Gene Kelly singing this song as the veggies are delicately misted. It’s little wonder why my produce is so crisp, fresh, and tasty—after all, a Hollywood icon has serenaded them!). Additionally, this song is probably Kelly’s best vocal performance on film, as well.
  • Greatest gift number two is Make ‘Em Laugh, which never fails to deliver on that title’s promise. Donald O’Connor is a sheer force of nature with his funny business here, and his pliant, slapsticky, superhuman performance speaks for itself. (This was the film and this was the scene that got my son to sit down for and pay attention to classic films back when he was five years old and a thousand Disney flicks were vying for his attention.)
  • Greatest gift number three is the Broadway Melody sequence: an uber-colorful medley of fanciful fantasy that blends several discrete dancing and musical styles. It doesn’t exist in the characters’ reality—Don recommends inserting it as a showstopper within a re-edit of the Dancing Cavalier. Narratively, however, it functions as a crucial turning point in Don’s ability to reveal his emotions to Kathy, and it externalizes his internal crisis about his acting skills keeping pace with his dancing aptitude and vice versa. One reading suggests that the Broadway Melody fantasy is a reaction in Don’s mind to Kathy’s criticism of his acting and how Don had compromised himself by not pursuing his true talent—dancing—and how he should return to it. Regardless of your interpretation, the garish hues, elaborate steps, balletic brilliance, nimble camera movement, and sheer number of moving parts in Broadway Melody are stunning, making it a self-contained masterpiece within a masterpiece.

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Cineversary brings out the big guns to celebrate High Noon's 70th anniversary

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

In Cineversary podcast episode #47, host Erik Martin turns back the clock to commemorate the 70th birthday of one of the most beloved westerns of all time: High Noon, directed by Fred Zinnemann. In this installment, Erik serves as a trusty deputy of sorts to film scholar sheriff Glenn Frankel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Erik and Glenn explore how High Noon changed the western genre, why it’s worth celebrating seven decades later, its cultural impact and legacy, and what we can learn from this study in temporal tension today.
Glenn Frankel


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 wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, 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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Fossils of furtive love

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

You’re putting extreme faith in your actors when you rely on them to carry a film that lacks plot, dialogue, characters, or closure. Fortunately, director Francis Lee’s Ammonite is acquitted nicely by the performances of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, whose characters spark an unexpected romantic relationship that forms the crux of this picture. We gave the CineVerse treatment to Ammonite last week; here’s a recap of our examination, below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Describe what you found as unanticipated, remarkable, noteworthy, or distinctive about Ammonite

  • There is very little talking or exposition. This is arguably the quietest role Kate Winslet has ever played, and we rely significantly on nonverbal cues and facial expressions to better understand her.
  • The sex scenes are more graphic, explicit, extended, and forthright than many viewers would likely expect. These aren’t body doubles – that’s really Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan acting intimately in nude sequences that are debatably a step beyond Hollywood softcore. The actors demonstrate extreme trust, honesty, and daring in exposing themselves to this degree, and the results are hard to deny: We believe that Mary and Charlotte are genuinely passionate, aroused, and engaged.
  • The colors are primarily muted and drab, implying that Mary lives in a time and place where she cannot fully experience joy or express herself; however, the hues become more vibrant and energetic when Mary and Charlotte are romantically engaged.
  • Director/writer Francis Lee, a gay man, takes serious dramatic license with this material. The story is loosely based on the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning, but there are no records of her being a lesbian or being romantically involved with the real-life figure Charlotte Murchison, who was a British geologist. Consequently, the film proved controversial upon release and was criticized for taking liberties with a historical figure.

Major themes

  • Forbidden love and sexual awakening in a time of societal-imposed repression.
  • Feeling trapped and boxed in by society. The filmmakers use symbolism – such as a shot of an insect trapped in a jar – to suggest how Mary lacks the success, status, and recognition she deserves, while Charlotte lacks the autonomy and agency she deserves.
  • The patriarchal subjugation of women. Mary isn’t given proper credit in her time for her paleontological discoveries because she is a woman, and Charlotte is under the thumb of her domineering husband.
  • Tender care, patience, and trust are required to bring out the true beauty in someone. Just as Mary has to painstakingly prep each fossil she finds to reveal its hidden secrets, the two women must tenderly nurture their sensitive sides to uncover intimacy and affection.

Similar works

  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  • Blue is the Warmest Color
  • God’s Own Country
  • Dig
  • Vita & Virginia
  • Summerland
  • The World To Come
  • Tell It To The Bees

Other films by Francis Lee

  • God’s Own Country
  • The Last Smallholder

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Sisters doing it for themselves

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

One of the most compelling movies ever made about female empowerment and coming of age, Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (her first feature film) offers an impressive cast of young non-professional actors and a narrative that elicits a range of potent emotions. CineVerse carefully evaluated this picture last week; our collective observations are encapsulated below (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find surprising, memorable, distinct, or offbeat about Mustang?

  • The title is interesting, as it’s a word never mentioned in the story or given any context. We associate the word “mustang” with a free-roaming wild horse, a quality we can ascribe to the free-thinking and plucky sisters. It’s not called “Mustangs,” as in wild horses (plural), which suggests that the title refers more to Lale, the youngest sibling upon whom the tale increasingly focuses and turns.
  • Although the tension is palpable and the prospects for the sisters appear foreboding, grim, dour, and inescapable for most of the runtime, the filmmakers also carefully lighten the mood and give us moments of levity and elation, providing a pressure relief valve from time to time that keeps us from abandoning this story or the plight of the girls.
  • Mustang walks a fine line between criticism of a culture and outright condemnation of a country and creed. Without necessarily attacking the Islamic religion or Turkey as a nation, Mustang focuses on the unfairness of antiquated family values and customs that aim to keep women submissive and acquiescent.
  • The casting of the five daughters is excellent, with each actress bringing something special and idiosyncractic to each character, making each sister stand out and feel unique.

Major themes

  • The irrepressibility of female adolescence and sisterhood. Despite being subjugated, the five female siblings find joy and comfort in each other and, for the older sisters, in exploring their sexuality and femininity. Yet, they are individually more increasingly vulnerable as each older sister departs the house. By the last act, we feel how desperate the situation becomes for the youngest two after three of their older sisters are peeled away from them.
  • Rebellion against an oppressive patriarchal society that seeks to curtail any female agency or personal expression.
  • Hope for the next generation. Each sister experiences a different fate: the oldest, Sonay, embraces her arranged marriage life; Selma, the second oldest, numbingly and begrudgingly accepts this depressing destiny; the middle sister, Ece, kills herself rather than submit to a life of servitude; Nur, the second youngest, inspired by her strong-willed youngest sibling Lale, fights back. Lale proves that she’s sharp and resourceful, engineering an escape plan that may just work. We are encouraged by her drive, quick wit, and determination, and can feel optimistic that she and Nur will avoid any of the outcomes of their older sisters.
  • Fairy tale morality. This story functions as a modern-day fairy tale, allegory, or children’s fantasy in which five free-spirited princesses are locked away in a tower and seek escape. One reading is that they are threatened by a witch/evil stepmother, personified by their grandmother, and by an ogre, embodied by their uncle. Only the most cunning and ambitious of the princesses will harness the magic and the moxie needed to flee this evil kingdom.
    • Consider, too, how the sisters are symbolically “cast out of the Garden of Eden” when they are admonished for eating the fruit in the orchard.
    • Michael McDunnah with The Unaffiliated Critic, wrote: “Rather, what we see throughout the film is an attempt to expel these girls from the earthly paradise of their own natural states, from autonomy over the bodies that are and should be their birthrights. With its particular setting, Mustang presents an extreme version of the forces that seek to control and commodify female bodies, but those forces are familiar to every culture, and the struggles of the girls will, I think, resonate with every woman.”
    • Jonathan Romney of Film Comment wrote: “If Mustang is ultimately a fairy tale, an affirmative girl-power myth, then fair enough: these sisters are Rapunzels, doing it for themselves; a five-girl stampede.”

Similar works

  • The Virgin Suicides
  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Persepolis
  • Dogtooth
  • The Circle
  • One. Two. One
  • A Wedding
  • Bliss
  • Thirteen
  • Room

Also directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven

  • Kings
  • Two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale

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This "Hitch-Hiker" gets a thumbs-up

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Albeit a bit brief in runtime, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) doesn’t come up short in the suspense department, thanks to deft direction by Ida Lupino and the fact that the gist of the narrative is derived from a true-crime tale. The CineVerse bunch enjoyed examining this movie last week, and the highlights of our discussion are encapsulated below (to listen to a recording of our group chat, click here).

What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, or memorable about The Hitch-Hiker?

  • It’s directed by a woman: Ida Lupino, a prolific and widely respected Hollywood actress who started her own independent production company with her husband and went on to direct numerous feature films and episodes of television series. Lupino is credited as the only woman who helmed a classic film noir and is one of the rare examples of a female director, period.
  • This story is loosely based on the true-life crime spree of William Cook, who, as a hitchhiker, murdered many people, including a family with three children. Lupino and company wanted to make a straightforward adaptation of Cook’s exploits, but the Production Code Administration would not allow that, fearing that a reenactment would glamorize Cook.
  • The Hitch-Hiker is rare for this era in that it uses authentic Hispanic actors and gives major significance to the Mexican police as being instrumental in capturing Myers and freeing his captives.
  • Most of the scenes occur within the vehicle driven by Roy and Gil – creating a claustrophobic milieu in which the viewer can palpably feel the tension and inescapable closeness of the killer.
  • Also, unlike many previous noir pictures, this story is not set in a dark urban jungle like New York City or Los Angeles. Instead, most of the scenes occur in broad daylight and are shot on location in desert locales and wilderness settings. This lends the movie a documentary-like authenticity, which is helped by including scenes involving American and Mexican law enforcement authorities collaborating to track down Myers.
  • Considering the merging of these elements, The Hitch-Hiker plays as a pseudo-noir true crime police procedural with an infusion of neorealism.
  •  The early 1950s, which is when this movie was released, was known for social problem films like this one.

Major themes

  • Dissolution with the American dream and the unfulfillment of the promise of a better postwar life for many Americans. Roy and Gil are trying to escape the pressures and monotony of everyday married life and enjoy a masculine fishing adventure in which they may indulge in a few immoral vices in Mexicali. Myers represents the postwar male who has completely abandoned the American dream, using cold-blooded violence to achieve his ends while indulging in senseless sociopathic killing.
    • Deep Focus Review writer Brian Eggert wrote: “(Lupino’s) distinct perspective, which neither aligns with the typical studio outlook nor a decidedly feminist one, turns The Hitch-Hiker into a film that characterizes the social oppression of postwar America on the individual… The Hitch-Hiker, most of all, uncovers her interest in the idyllic American Dream as a crumbling façade, behind which the individual is suppressed…. Like his country, Myers tries to veil his insecurities and cruelty with macho violence. Lupino critiques his brand of masculinity, which feeds on the postwar American Dream by killing it. But she also questions another kind of man, represented by Myers’ captives, who quietly suffers under punishing, existentially stifling conditions.”
    • Eggert further wrote: “The Hitch-Hiker remains distinct as a film of 1953 because it challenges social conventions, not the least of which is the masculine ideal—a form of feminist perspective that many of Lupino’s critics would either overlook or altogether dismiss…The Hitch-Hiker subverts the American Dream by uncovering the ugly reality underneath in the same manner as Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946). She destabilizes the American family by suggesting Collins and Bowen, two otherwise loyal husbands, need to escape their wives for a sordid trip to Mexico. She questions the romantic pastime of hitchhiking by exposing the real-life killer who used America’s highways as his hunting grounds. And she shows the American police as disorganized and not always capable of catching the bad guy. Telling this story from a woman’s perspective in the 1950s, Lupino herself elevates the film’s brutal worldview by being an example of domestic nonconformity.”
  • Trust and loyalty
  • Grace under pressure. Gil and Roy survive because, for the most part, they maintain their composure, avoid the impulse to act rashly, and leave clues behind that ultimately lead the authorities to them and their abductor.

Similar works

  • Detour
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Thought Stranger
  • While the City Sleeps
  • Touch of Evil
  • Kansas City Confidential
  • 3:10 to Yuma

Other works directed by Ida Lupino

  • Not Wanted!
  • Never Fear
  • Outrage
  • Hard, Fast and Beautiful
  • The Bigamist
  • The Trouble With Angels
  • Episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Have Gun Will Travel

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Kirsten's got the doomsday blues

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Part somber meditation on the lingering effects of depression and anxiety, part fear-inducing futuristic tale, Danish director Lars von Trier’s Melancholia boasts a sparkling cast that includes Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, memorable performances, and unique visual flourishes that will intrigue your imagination long after the picture ends. We gave this movie the CineVerse treatment last week and came to the following observations and conclusions (to hear a recording of our group chat, click here).

What was it about this movie that you found distinctive, unexpected, interesting, or curious?

  • It’s technically a science-fiction film and an apocalyptic story, but it doesn’t abide by the same tropes and conventions of so many other disaster/sci-fi movies. There is no focus on modern technology, the role of the government or the media, or characters outside of this extended family and the wedding guests. The filmmakers refreshingly choose not to lather on showy special effects depicting mass destruction. Likewise, it isn’t scientifically realistic in portraying how a rogue planet would approach Earth or cause destruction.
    • However, the threat and situation are real – this is not meant to be some allegorical facsimile. In this narrative, there is a wayward planet genuinely speeding toward Earth that will bring about our destruction.
    • The prologue visually depicts the collision of this planet – Melancholia – with Earth; there is no doubt about how this story will end, which makes us focus more on how this doomsday event will affect the main characters.
    • Lars von Trier said in an interview: “In a James Bond movie, we expect the hero to survive. It can get exciting nonetheless. And some things may be thrilling precisely because we know what's going to happen, but not how they will happen. In Melancholia, it's interesting to see how the characters we follow react as the planet approaches Earth."
  • Because Justine acts so strangely and she and other characters are difficult to like and embrace, it can be challenging for viewers to warm up to this film and tolerate an extended wedding sequence in which awkwardness, uncomfortable situations, and strange behaviors happen.
    • However, both Justine and her sister Claire may be unreliable narrators; while we follow their points of view throughout two chapters, consider that what we see could be subjective perceptions that are psychologically skewed and perhaps should not be taken literally.

Major themes

  • Depression and anxiety and their effects upon thoughts and actions.
    • This movie was inspired by a depressive episode experienced by von Trier. An analyst told him that depressed individuals often respond more calmly under pressure than others, as they anticipate that negative things will likely occur.
    • Justine embodies depression. Ponder how debilitated, lethargic, and apathetic she appears during her wedding reception and in the immediate days after, at which time it’s assumed that the approaching Melancholia has not yet been determined to be a lethal threat to our planet. But once it has, Justine acts more normally and complacently, suggesting that she is at peace with Earth’s impending doom.
    • Film Quarterly writer Rob White wrote: “I think of Melancholia as an exploration of something I want to call ‘objective depression,’ where the pathology is reflected in the world and the world in the pathology: the depressive’s feeling that nothing matters, that we’re all doomed anyway is turned into brute fact… Justine is able to turn her subjectivity inside out because she can relate far better to a destructive planet than she can her husband or family: Is the “moral” of the film that the female depressive is a menace because she is unmoored and unstable, and resilient to the charms of the male universe? Casting Kirsten Dunst, a kind of cinematic American sweetheart, as the ‘objective depressive,’ is inspired: Dunst’s face, so sweet when she’s being ‘good,’ becomes so savage and so petulant when her mood turns sour.”
    • Claire, on the other hand, exemplifies anxiety. Consider how unnerved she becomes in the latter part of the story and how she craves assurance and comfort from her husband.
  • Nihilism and the belief that life is ultimately meaningless.
    • Justine subscribes to this tenet and demonstrates, in her erratic and unconventional behavior, that trying to live up to others’ expectations and abide by society’s codes, standards, and mores is pointless. Recall how she rejects her sister’s request for a ceremonial farewell on her terrace before Melancholia crashes into Earth and how Justine keeps people waiting during the wedding reception.
    • Film Quarterly writer Nina Power wrote: “Justine has two modes of nihilism: aggressive and passive, in that order. The former sees her question the ‘usual’ structures: marriage, work, family responsibility. The latter sees her reconciled (albeit with a snarl) to the imminent destruction of the planet. These nihilisms can be seen as models of knowledge far more apt than the neurotic position held by Claire, or the economic–rational mode represented by John (”you have to trust the scientists”)... Justine is far ‘saner’ than the rest of her family.”
  • Family ties and familial dynamics. Justine and Claire seem to be opposite in personality and demeanor. Still, interestingly, Claire arguably becomes the less psychologically grounded of the two by the end of the story, while Justine seems to be calm and centered. Also, contemplate how Justine, Claire, and their mother are susceptible to depression, anxiety, and/or erratic psychological behavior.

Similar works

  • Last Year at Marienbad
  • Persona
  • Another Earth
  • Stalker
  • The Turin Horse
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Tree of Life
  • When Worlds Collide
  • Masterpiece paintings, including Ophelia by Millais

Other films by Lars von Trier

  • Breaking the Waves
  • Antichrist
  • Nymphomaniac
  • The House That Jack Built

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Cineversary podcast sends 70th birthday wishes to Singin' in the Rain

Thursday, April 14, 2022

In Cineversary podcast episode #46, host Erik Martin honors the 70th birthday of what most regard as the finest Hollywood musical of them all, Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Joining Erik for this installment is Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone, author of the newly released book Girls on Film: Lessons From a Life of Watching Women in Movies. Erik and Alicia examine how Singin’ in the Rain remains a bona fide classic 70 years later, why it still matters, its cultural impact and legacy, and what we can learn from all this genius singing and dancing today. Erik also chats with Brian Eggert, a film critic, essayist, and owner of DeepFocusReview.com, about Kelly’s unique approach to dancing on film.
Alicia Malone and Brian Eggert


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 wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple PodcastsCastbox, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, 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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Leech lessons

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

When a foreign film earns the Best Picture Academy Award (the first and only time that’s ever happened) and enjoys high critical and commercial success, it must be something special. And Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 modern masterwork Parasite certainly is, providing a delicious narrative that intersects several genres and a thoroughly satisfying layer of subtext that will keep you thinking and theorizing about the film for days. Last week, our task as CineVerse investigators was to perform a filmic autopsy on this picture and identify precisely what makes it so infectiously entertaining and thought-provoking. An encapsulation of our discussion follows below (to listen to a recording of it, click here).

What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, memorable, or satisfying about Parasite?

It’s a combination of many different genres: it’s a heist movie, a horror movie (considering the violence and talk of ghosts), a black comedy, a suspense thriller, and a social satire. It also plays with genre tropes and conventions, such as substituting bombs and weapons for, respectively, cell phones that can send incriminating videos and peaches that can overwhelm a target.
Tonally, Parasite oscillates between comedy and knuckle-biting conflict. The extremely violent final 15 minutes feel much more shocking because we’ve been conditioned into funny mode for most of the movie.
The film is replete with symmetries and ironies. Consider how there are two sets of families of four, each with a husband, wife, daughter, and son, and two very different domiciles. The ironies include the son being seriously injured by the scholar’s stone he had been clinging to, the fact that the toilet in their lower-level home is on a higher plane than they are, how the father and his family have to crawl out of the Park house like cockroaches, and how the Kim family is more intelligent than the Park family even though they are less prosperous/fortunate.

Major themes

  • Class warfare and the social and financial gap between the haves and the have-nots. The title “Parasite” is fitting because both families – the Kims and the Parks – feed and capitalize on the other family as a parasite would.
    • The film depicts the dichotomy between two levels of class, the rich and fortunate versus the struggling lower and middle class, with the former exemplified by a deluxe home where the family lives on the top level and the latter signified by the struggling Kim family who lives in a sub-street level dwelling that gets flooded during the monsoon season and constantly has to descend staircases to reach their true habitats.
  • The promise and the perils of capitalism, which can rely on a symbiosis between a parasite and its host.
    • The film’s title also suggests what Karl Marx believed: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks."
    • People who live in capitalist societies believe that if they work hard and strive for upward mobility, they will be rewarded monetarily and enjoy a better quality of life among a higher class.
    • The son holds steadfast to a hopeful belief that he can aspire to greater things and that capitalism will reward him; he clings to the scholar’s stone that his friend gave him, who told him it would bring good fortune to his family. His father, however, embodies a harsh truth about capitalism: that most people are cogs in a machine who don’t advance and end up not achieving their dreams, unable to climb up the rungs of the ladder.
    • Forbes writer Travis Bean wrote: “The drive to become part of the higher class can push us to be better, to fully utilize our talents—but it can also persuade us to wear a mask, to pretend we’re something we’re not. We happily give ourselves over and become a cog in the machine because of the future it promises. But in doing that, we could end up sacrificing a part of ourselves…Perhaps the system does drive everybody to try their hardest. But it also leaves so many people in the dust. No matter how hard you try, you’re just part of the pyramid. For capitalism to truly work, there always needs to be somebody standing up at the top—and then the people who want to be up there as well.”
    • Even though the Kims pushed out a previous parasitical family and assumed their jobs, ultimately, Mr. Kim sympathizes with the original housekeeper’s husband, whom Mr. Park finds aromatically offensive; recalling how his boss also commented negatively about his smell, Mr. Kim finally hits a breaking point and, perhaps caught up in the crazed violence around him at the moment, decides to kill Mr. Park – insinuating that the host has finally succumbed to its parasite.

How do you interpret the ending of the movie?

  • We discover that the father has been living secretly in the sub-basement of the Park home and attempting to send Morse code messages to his son. The latter interprets these messages and is encouraged that his father has survived. We hear how the son plans to study hard, get a good job, and eventually earn enough money to purchase the house and free his father from his prison below. That suggests a hopeful conclusion to the story.
  • But that fantasy sequence ends, and we are brought back to the original low-rent apartment where we first saw the family at the movie’s start. The son is sitting in the darkness, reflecting on his hopes for his father. But this suggests that there is little hope he can achieve his dream and be reunited with his father.
  • The director said in an interview: “It’s a surefire kill” in describing the final shot. “Maybe if the movie ended where they hug and fades out, the audience can imagine, ‘Oh, it’s impossible to buy that house,’ but the camera goes down to that half-basement. It’s quite cruel and sad, but I thought it was being real and honest with the audience. You know and I know — we all know that this kid isn’t going to be able to buy that house. I just felt that frankness was right for the film, even though it’s sad.”

Similar works

  • Us
  • The People Under the Stairs
  • Burning
  • The Servant
  • The Ruling Class
  • Society
  • The Rules of the Game
  • The Ladykillers
  • High and Low
  • Squid Game

Other films by Bong Joon-ho

  • Memories of Murder
  • The Host
  • Mother
  • Snowpiercer
  • Okja

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The long shadow of Harvey Weinstein

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Kitty Green’s The Assistant has been credited by some as the first feature-length fiction film that tackles the topic of Me Too and Time’s Up. It’s an unsettling portrayal of life in the trenches for one lowly underling working in the film production business and the extent to which women are subjugated and exploited in this industry. This movie got the full CineVerse treatment last week, which resulted in a lengthy discussion, the highlights of which are included below (to listen to a recording of our group conversation, click here).

What struck you as memorable, unexpected, impressive, or otherwise about The Assistant?

  • The ending is unresolved and abstruse. Perhaps we expected Jane to take the moral high road and quit, lodge more formal complaints about her boss in-house and to the authorities or the media, or get fired for doing so. Instead, the movie suggests a much more realistic conclusion: The assistant probably ignores the problem henceforth and benefits by moving up the corporate ladder. After all, this is what most workers and enablers do who are privy to unscrupulous acts by their superiors, and this is why many workplace predators get away with it.
  • To the film’s betterment or detriment, most of the scenes shown and events depicted are relatively mundane and unexciting as drivers of the plot. We follow one day in the life of an entry-level worker and witness the minutia and humdrum aspects of her job and the occasional small details that signify much bigger underlying conflicts.
    • Film critic Sheila O’Malley wrote: “So many films over-explain themselves, so many scripts make sure they lead us by the hand, so many films don't trust us as viewers. In Bombshell…Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) looks right at the camera, telling us how things operated at the network. In the same film, Kate McKinnon's character also has a monologue, looping us into the modus operandi of that hermetically-sealed sick world. These monologues ‘catch us up.’ The Assistant doesn't go that route, and it is a far stronger film for it. Instead, we just hear the whispers, murmurs, snickers; we hear the tail-end of conversations and we put two and two together, just as Jane does. We know that an earring on the floor isn't enough to bring down a bad man. But we also know that Jane senses correctly. Something is very very wrong.”
  • Interestingly, we are never shown the boss in full, or his face, or given his name. This allows us to use our imaginations and project any face and name we choose upon the character. We can deduce that he is a Harvey Weinstein-like figure who is physically unhealthy (a diabetic who needs insulin), tyrannical, and terrifyingly powerful. Before making this film, director Kitty Green carefully interviewed people about the work culture at Miramax, Weinstein’s film production company; the office and the boss are modeled on Miramax.
  • There is very little musical accompaniment. Occasionally, a quiet score will surface to underscore the emotional conflict felt by Jane and us.

Major themes

  • The moral imperative to seek justice for a suspected wrongdoing or crime. Jane strongly suspects that her boss coerces young women to engage in sexual activity in exchange for favors, hirings, and other perks. Her option of immediate recourse is to bring the matter to the attention of human resources, but she quickly learns that they are in the predator’s corner, and she will be punished or fired for lodging a formal complaint.
  • Evil is allowed to persist when good people do nothing. This is primarily a film about the culpability and complicity of enablers who turn a blind eye to higher executives and employers' predatory and manipulative behaviors. At this film production company, Jane may be at the bottom of the hierarchical totem pole, but she feels an obligation to speak up about perceived sexual impropriety. However, she backs off from her complaint when she realizes the price she will have to pay for pursuing justice: being fired and likely blackballed from the film industry.
  • The challenges of being an entry-level worker and a woman in a male-dominated business. The Assistant goes to great length to show us, with even the minutest of details, how soul-sucking, demeaning, and demanding her job is. She’s the first one in and the last one out, often performing duties beyond her pay scale and skill set, such as serving as a housekeeper, interfacing between the boss and his angry wife, and functioning as foul play fixer and arranger.
  • The degree to which you are willing to compromise your principles, integrity, and ethics for career advancement. By the end of the picture, Jane has apparently decided to suck it up and remain silent and continue to work for a despicable boss and a shady company where everyone else is also aware of the dirty deeds being committed by the man in charge. She will likely suffer innumerable indignities, belittlements, beratement, and crises of conscience under his command but probably will eventually become the producer she aspires to be while never being sexually victimized by the boss.
  • Toxic masculinity and unhealthy corporate culture.

Similar works

  • Bombshell
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • On the Record
  • The Reckoning: Hollywood's Worst Kept Secret
  • Untouchable
  • Oleanna

Other films by Kitty Green

  • Ukraine is Not a Brothel
  • Casting Jon Binet

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The Godfather turns golden

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

What can possibly be said or written about The Godfather that hasn’t already been expressed by countless film scholars, critics, and historians? Not much new, although it’s constructive to summarize what we already know and love about this ever-fresh cinematic treasure that marks a 50th anniversary this month. Here’s some food for thought to digest that, while it may not be as delicious as authentic Italian cuisine, may satiate your hunger for knowledge about Francis Ford Coppola’s supreme achievement, initially released in March 1972 (to listen to our Cineversary podcast spotlighting The Godfather, click here).

Why is this movie worth celebrating 50 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • The Godfather is worth celebrating because it stands undiminished five decades on as a cinematic testament to the power of myth and the evergreen quality of compelling storytelling. The narrative here is never less than captivating. The people who inhabit this story and what they represent are endlessly intriguing. And the mythos behind the Corleone family and the satellite characters in this tale continue to fuel the imagination.
  • It also still matters because it provides a rare and detailed view of a private and privileged world that the vast majority of us will never encounter—a domain that is fabricated, sure, yet firmly grounded in reality and one that is intimate, personal, domestic, morally compromised, and, most fascinatingly, above the law.
    • Coppola said in an interview: “People love to read about an organization that’s really going to take care of us…When the courts fail you and the whole American system fails you, you can go to Don Corleone and get justice.”
  • It has stood the test of time because, despite their sins, we care about these characters and we’re invested in this underworld universe.
    • According to Roger Ebert: “The Godfather is told entirely within a closed world. That’s why we sympathize with characters who are essentially evil...Don Vito Corleone emerges as a sympathetic and even admirable character; during the entire film, this lifelong professional criminal does nothing of which we can really disapprove…During the movie we see not a single actual civilian victim of organized crime. No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud or protection rackets. The only police officer with a significant speaking role is corrupt…The story views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell.”

How was The Godfather innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood crime/gangster pictures?

  • Although some argue that The Godfather still romanticizes gangster culture and the wise guy way of life, it depicted the Italian American family and experience more realistically, in no small part because the studio selected an Italian American well versed in this culture to direct, and the film cast Italian Americans in crucial roles.
    • In classic Hollywood gangster movies, non-Italian Americans often played stereotypical gangster characters with Al Capone-like qualities and over-the-top bravado, including Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and James Cagney.
    • Tom Santopietro, author of the book The Godfather effect, noted: “The vast majority of Italians have come to accept and actually embrace the film because I think the genius of the film, besides the fact that it is so beautifully shot and edited, is that these are mobsters doing terrible things, but permeating all of it is the sense of family and the sense of love… I think it squashed the idea that Italians were uneducated and that Italians all spoke with heavy accents… These were mobsters, but these were fully developed, real human beings. These were not the organ grinder with his monkey or a completely illiterate gangster…In films like Scarface [1932], the Italians are presented almost like creatures from another planet. They are so exotic and speak so terribly and wear such awful clothes. The Godfather showed that is not the case.”
  • Note that the Italian-American Civil Rights League gave its blessing to the screenplay.
  • Unlike gangster films made in the censorship era, the characters in The Godfather didn’t necessarily have to suffer a comeuppance or be brought to justice as a moral message. While many of these mobster personalities end up being killed or diminished, it is due to the actions of fellow gangsters who merit their own form of justice and retribution—not the criminal justice system.
  • Additionally, The Godfather’s goombahs are much more psychologically multifaceted and benefit from greater character development than many mobsters depicted in prior films, including two immediate predecessors, 1968’s The Brotherhood and 1969’s The Italian Job.
  • The Godfather also proved that mob movies could generate huge business and acclaim. It was the box office champ of 1972 and briefly was the largest grossing picture in history. It earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning three, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Marlon Brando. It also placed #2 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time.

In what ways was The Godfather influential on cinema or popular culture?

  • For better or worse, since the release of The Godfather in 1972, more than four in five Hollywood movies that have portrayed Italian Americans or Italian culture are “mob movies,” per the Italic Institute of America. Before The Godfather, that ratio was less than one in five.
  • A host of films about the mafia and gangsters came in its wake, among them Mean Streets, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco, Gangs of New York, and The Irishman. And, of course, the TV show The Sopranos is a direct descendant of The Godfather (and Goodfellas).
  • Before The Exorcist, Jaws, or Star Wars, The Godfather was the first blockbuster of the New Hollywood era that would be dominated by young filmmakers like Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, raking in massive dollars and serving as one of the first must-see event movies, of which there were several in the 1970s and beyond.
  • With its cynical tone, pessimistic vibe, and violent imagery, The Godfather continued a trend in American cinema in the early 1970s of telling dark, unsettling stories that mirrored the negative emotional undercurrent of the times, when the American public was focused on the Vietnam War, the fall of the counterculture, the fresh news of Watergate, and mistrust in the government.
  • The violence in The Godfather, much of which is disturbing and grotesque, especially for 1972, would have been less acceptable in a lesser film. We are shown a bloody horse head, a beaten pregnant woman, two grotesque deaths by strangulation, a gunshot to the eye, point-blank killings of two men via gunshots to the head, and the gruesome murders of several mob bosses. Five years after Bonnie and Clyde and three years following The Wild Bunch, Coppola and his team take graphic violence in a mainstream movie to a new extreme.
  • The Godfather set a new template for quality in film franchises, creating high expectations for its follow-ups. The Godfather II knocked it out of the park and is debatably even better than the original, possibly standing as the greatest sequel ever made.
  • This picture jumpstarted the careers of Coppola, Pacino, Keaton, Cazale and gave a second life to Brando’s faltering career.
  • Before the Godfather, epic films with a long runtime had an intermission; this movie broke that trend.
  • Arguably, The Godfather made the mafia lifestyle look more appealing to the mainstream, possibly motivating some to get involved in organized crime.
  • One mark of its enduring popularity is the extent to which the film has been parodied and spoofed innumerable times in movies and TV shows, from Saturday Nite Live and SCTV to The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy to The Freshman co-starring Brando.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in The Godfather?

  • The corrupting nature of power and how clout, control, and influence are more important than family.
  • The death of the American dream at the hands of capitalistic ambition. Recall the opening words of the film: “I believe in America.” But…
    • In his excellent recent writeup published at Deepfocusreview.com, Brian Eggert wrote: “The Godfather dramatizes how the American Dream has failed, leaving only raw capitalism, epitomized by the brutality of the Corleones under Michael. If the family under Don Vito represents the fantasy of having the power to enforce the American Dream, criminally achieved though it may be, the family under Michael sacrifices familial solidarity for corporate greed and stability. Don Vito understood the criminal enterprise served the family, which must be protected and appreciated. Michael turns the family business from a mom-and-pop shop to a corporation bent on mergers and acquisitions—not unlike Gulf+Western, the conglomerate that purchased Paramount in 1966. The film in Coppola’s hands, then, reveals that the dog-eat-dog nature of American capitalism has literally closed the door on the family. Coppola shows this twice: first when Michael shuts the phone booth door on Kay, who must stand in the cold outside while he learns of the attempted assassination on his father; second, in the famous final shot, when Michael’s office door shuts on Kay, creating a permanent barrier between the two. The film shows that not even the Corleone family can survive capitalist greed. The family unit endures, to be sure. But it’s at the cost of love, trust, and everything that made the family so appealing under the rule of Don Vito.”
  • Familial succession. Like King Lear, this is a tale about a patriarch with three sons, one of whom will fill his father’s shoes when he steps down.
  • The outsider becomes the insider. Early in the film, Michael tells Kay how he is different from his family. He has served in World War II and gone to college and appears to be on a path that will diverge from his father and brothers. He is not part of Vito’s inner circle nor as close to his parents or siblings as you would expect the youngest son to be. But that all changes once he learns of Vito’s near-killing, at which point Michael rushes to his father’s side and embraces the darkness and vices surrounding the Corleone family business. He quickly becomes an insider and earns the trust of his dad, who ultimately bequeaths his power to Michael.
  • Old World ways vs. New World tactics. Vito exemplifies the former, Michael the latter. In being forced to hide in Sicily, his father’s birthplace, Michael comes to embrace Old World ways and thinking, even marrying a native girl. But when she is violently killed and his bodyguard betrays him, he returns to America a further changed man. Now in command, he abandons his father’s Old World approach to running the family business and adopts his own cold, ruthless, and efficient American methodology, which will involve violating the old school mobster code of conduct by killing family members and wiping out his business enemies—even though Vito had attempted to make peace with the other four mob families. Michael famously tells Sonny, “It’s not personal…it’s strictly business.” But the truth is that, for Michael, it's both: By privately taking these matters personally, Michael can destroy his adversaries who abide by Old World mafia ethics and become more powerful and successful.
  • Selling your soul for success and sway. The genius baptism scene, with crosscutting lines of action in which Michael’s henchmen wipe out his rivals and betrayers while Michael stands before a priest in a church and verbally agrees to renounce Satan and all his works and promises, underscores an important message: that each of us faces a constant choice between the sacred and the profane, between fidelity and treachery, between love and hate.
  • The importance of allegiance and reliability. Ebert wrote: “Much is said in the movie about trusting a man’s word, but honesty is nothing compared to loyalty.”
  • Appearances can be deceiving.
    • Even though he looks weakened after the assassination attempt on his life, Vito Corleone demonstrates his cunning and powers of perception by choosing Michael as his successor and advising him on who to trust and not trust.
    • At first glance, Michael appears to be a laid-back, introverted, laconic, and deferential individual; he’s younger and more diminutive than his brothers and even shorter than Kay. But we learn how strong-willed, devious, commanding, and explosive he can be, regardless of his physical stature or younger age.
    • As the eldest, most verbose, tallest, and debatably most handsome son, Sonny would seem to be the ideal heir to his father’s throne, but we soon see how his volatile nature handicaps his judgment and leads to his demise.
    • We discover, as Michael does, that many characters we didn’t necessarily suspect end up betraying the Corleone family, including Tessio, Carlo, Barzini, Paulie, and one of Michael’s bodyguards in Sicily.
    • Even the movie’s title is deceptive because one would think the story is named after Vito when it could instead be a reference to the other godfather, Michael, who dominates the second half of the tale.

Why was Francis Ford Coppola the ideal director for The Godfather? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Coppola deserves substantial credit for his uncompromising vision and stalwart belief in the actors, setting, story. He insisted on casting Pacino and Brando and keeping the setting consistent with the novel: the 1940s through 1950s.
  • He knew and lived the Italian American experience and understood the family dynamics.
    • Coppola brilliantly weaves themes of the corrupting influence of power and money at the expense of family unity, paring back many other subplots and situations found in Mario Puzo’s novel and focusing more on family ties and ancestral rites of passage in the movie. Consider that the pivotal events in the picture center around a handful of key family gatherings and religious rituals: there are two weddings, a baptism, and a funeral.
    • The way Coppola introduces these players and sets up the interrelationships and familial power structure within the first 30 minutes, during the wedding extended sequence, is like a masterclass in filmmaking, cutting between the dark internal shots of Vito in his office and the multitude of relatives and friends celebrating in the sun-drenched yard outside.
  • Interestingly, Coppola consistently utilizes slow dissolves between scenes to create a dreamlike quality.

What is The Godfather’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of The Godfather’s greatest gifts is that, like the concept of a perpetual motion machine that defies the laws of physics and logic, it never ages. Fifty years have only elevated the stature of what long ago was already considered an exceptional and eternally memorable motion picture thanks to two particular facets: unforgettable scenes and set pieces as well as infinitely quotable lines that have become sacrosanct in pop culture. Brando’s recitation of the film’s most famous line, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” forever brings nostalgic joy to the repeat viewer, regardless of its nefarious true meaning; we can never unsee that decapitated horse head or unhear the screams of Jack Woltz discovering that head; wrapped fish have taken on a whole new connotation since 1972; Michael’s tense meeting with Sollozzo and the police captain will always enthrall; after witnessing how meticulous Clemenza is with culinary matters, as he is with the minutia required of a well-planned murder, we can appreciate why cannoli is worth saving, even if we’ve never actually tasted this Italian confection; and the film’s concluding baptism montage juxtaposing a holy rite with shrewdly orchestrated acts of carnage, set to some downright eerie church organ music and superbly edited, is legend-making stuff that continues to demonstrate why Coppola was probably the finest American filmmaker of the 1970s.
  • Another greatest gift is the scintillating cinematography of Gordon Willis. He immediately establishes the dark emotional milieu of this Cosa Nostra epic with his dimly lit, darkly furnished Corleone office, the perfect lair for backroom dirty-dealing and king-making. He contrasts the deep browns and engulfing blacks of Vito’s restricted sanctum with the sun-saturated outdoor shots of the wedding to create a visually and emotionally contrasting lighting palette. And Willis shows throughout the film, with moderately to predominantly dark compositions, how shades of doubt, fear, anger, and weariness can engulf one or more characters.

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French filmmaking that will take your breath away

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The year 1960 proved a pivotal one in film history, seeing the release of two seminal works that forever changed the landscape of cinema with their revolutionary approaches to narrative storytelling and stylistic editing choices: Psycho and Breathless. Our CineVerse group explored the latter last week, sharing many opinions, perceptions, and truisms, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How would this film have been groundbreaking, daring, unexpected, and innovative upon its 1960 release?

  • It is one of the seminal works of the French new wave, which started with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. This wave sought to reinvent film as an auteurist movement that broke with standard filmmaking conventions, including the typical rules of editing.
  • Breathless is primarily remembered for its revolutionary jump cuts. The edits between shots are not done seamlessly or following continuity; shots are juxtaposed abruptly, with brief ellipses in time occurring between the cuts.
  • Godard’s film is also characterized by its extremely long shots, numerous close-ups (comprising around one-fifth of the shots), and a tireless mobile/tracking camera through the streets of Paris and into various interiors that employ a “you-are-there,” cinema verite, documentary-like aesthetic and approach.
  • As at the end of The 400 Blows, a major character breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera (Patricia, in the last shot).
  • Perhaps what is most memorable about Breathless is its tone and style.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “what is most revolutionary about the movie is its headlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger society… Modern movies begin here, with Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" in 1960. No debut film since "Citizen Kane" in 1942 has been as influential… There is a direct line through "Breathless" to "Bonnie and Clyde," "Badlands" and the youth upheaval of the late 1960s. The movie was a crucial influence during Hollywood's 1967-1974 golden age. You cannot even begin to count the characters played by Pacino, Beatty, Nicholson, Penn, who are directly descended from Jean-Paul Belmondo's insouciant killer Michel.”
    • Per Criterion Collection essayist Dudley Andrew: “Breathless is indeed a hallmark of modernist cinema…Godard forced the kind of confrontation between high and popular culture that energized the art world. Ingeniously, he scripted a chiasmus where an American girl is left to guard traditional artistic values (Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Faulkner) while the Frenchman, a reader only of newspapers, is a connoisseur of cars, particularly American ones. Cinematic modernism reaches a plateau when, while a crowd cheers Eisenhower and de Gaulle along the Champs-Élysées, the characters give the slip to the cops by hiding out in a movie theater that is playing Budd Boetticher’s Westbound…The dramatic heat produced when distinct national cultures (both high and low) rub up against each other energized not just this corrosive movie but an entire movement, vigorous and critical: the nouvelle vague.”
    • Critic Nathan Heller of Slate wrote: “Breathless is an orchestrated dialogue between two worlds—a world of stylized Hollywood romanticism and the everyday world of banal, uncinematic life. It’s Godard’s careful counterpoint between these two styles that helped him tease out a “French attitude” and gave the movie its relentless drive… The result was new and striking not so much for its documentary flavor—the vérité approach was amply fleshed out by the time Godard began—but for its dissonance: the conflict between what Breathless purported to be (an exotic Sin City flick) and what it delivered (scenes from commonplace Paris)… He was trying to make a film that, at each turn, broke with his culture’s notion of what French movies were supposed to be. Where the dominant screen style had moral overtones, Breathless is breezily amoral, at least until its final moments.”

Themes

  • Carpe diem (live for today with little regard for the future) and “live life dangerously to the end,” which is the tagline to the poster shown for the movie Ten Seconds to Hell.
  • Lovers on the run.
  • Betrayal: Patricia secretly turns in Michel.
  • Existential angst. Consider Patricia’s wavering about Michel and her choices. She asks if she is unhappy because she isn’t free or is she not free because she is unhappy. She can’t decide whether or not she wants to be with Michel. Her conundrum embodies a central tenet: Love can have a push-pull force that attracts and repels. Consider that her betrayal of Michel is apparently a self-test to decide if she truly loves him or not, not a moral decision based on ethics.
  • A search for identity. Who is Michel really, other than a wannabe movie gangster who tries to pattern himself after Bogart but demonstrates how bad he is as a criminal evading the police and trying to collect money. And who is Patricia? An American in Paris trapped between two worlds: the allure of romantic love tethered to danger and excitement and an otherwise ordinary exchange student trying to make a living.
  • Contradictions in character. Michel says, "Being afraid is the worst sin there is." However, he runs away from the authorities at the end of the film and, earlier, when asked why he killed a cop, he says he was scared.

Similar works

  • The 1983 remake of the same name
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • The 400 Blows
  • In a Lonely Place
  • Pierrot le Fou
  • Vivre Sa Vie
  • Jules and Jim
  • Camus’ The Stranger

Other films by Jean-Luc Godard

  1. Masculine-Feminine
  2. Contempt
  3. Pierrot le Fou
  4. My Life to Live
  5. Sympathy for the Devil

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There's a sucker born every minute

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Like vaudeville and sideshow exhibits, freak shows became an extinct form of entertainment decades ago (circuses may not be far behind), and for good reason: They commonly exploited differently-abled, physically deformed, psychologically disturbed, and substance-dependent individuals along with a naïve public eager for cheap thrills. The 1932 horror cult film Freaks stands as perhaps the most authentic and shocking of the Hollywood thrillers to depict this subculture, but 1947’s Nightmare Alley comes awfully close. Our CineVerse crew took a gander at this picture last week and arrived at several observations and opinions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What about Nightmare Alley did you find different, surprising, or memorable?

  • It pulls its punches, which would have been understandable during the Production Code Administration censorship era.
    • It’s not going to show you the geek biting the head off a chicken or tangible sexual tension between Stanton and the three females in his life. And it’s not going to leave Stanton to a hopelessly irredeemable conclusion. This suggests that he has learned his lesson and can be rehabilitated now that Molly has found him or, more negatively, implies that he and Molly are bound to become the new Zeena and Pete, with Stanton eventually succumbing to his alcoholism as Pete did.
    • It’s an interesting dénouement, considering that Stanton has performed criminal acts, including money-fleecing and possibly manslaughter.

Nightmare Alley is regarded as one of the finest films noir in the genre. What classic noir characteristics does it possess, and what noir attributes does it lack?

  • There is a femme fatale character, or spider woman, who leads men into danger and doom, in this case, Lilith – although she isn’t a typical seductress who is sexually and romantically involved with the male lead, a la Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.
  • The setting isn’t consistently an urban jungle represented by a large city; yes, Chicago is the town where Stanton eventually sets up shop as a master hustler, but roughly half of the film occurs in rural areas where the carnival travels.
  • As in countless noir pictures, the anti-hero/villain is predestined to failure, suffering, and/or death because the message and credo of noir are almost always fatalistic. Yet, while this film’s ending is downbeat and unresolved, it insinuates possible hope with the down-and-out Stanton discovered by his wife Molly – although the two seem destined to become the new Zeena and Pete, her alcoholic husband. In the original novel, the story ends with Stanton accepting the job of geek, insinuating that he is fated to live out the rest of his life as a helpless drunk enslaved by carnies.
  • The tone and vibe of Nightmare Alley are unswervingly pessimistic, foreboding, and dark, which is in keeping with most noir movies.
  • It’s a somewhat rare instance of an A-list noir that benefits from a bigger budget, ample studio resources, and known stars. Many noirs were B-picture affairs that suffered from lower production values.

Major themes

  • Hubris: Like Apollo, Stanton flies too close to the sun and falls back to earth.
  • Blasphemy and sacrilege: Stanton attempts to play God in trying to fleece victims based on their spiritual beliefs.
  • Dark destiny and inescapable fate: Zeena tries to warn Stanton with her tarot cards that he is headed for a bad if not deadly outcome, but he refuses to give these superstitions credence, to his downfall.
  • The fooler becomes the fooled: Stanton prides himself on his persuasive talents and ability to trick the gullible, but he is eventually hustled by an even more cunning con artist in Lilith.
  • Pride cometh before a fall.

Similar works

  • Freaks
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Strangers on a Train
  • The Prestige

Other films directed by Edmund Goulding

  • Grand Hotel
  • The Razor’s Edge
  • Dark Victory
  • The Dawn Patrol
  • The Great Lie

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