Blog Directory CineVerse: August 2022

High wire comedy

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Charles Chaplin certainly made more popular pictures (The Great Dictator) and more critically acclaimed films (City Lights) than his 1928 feature The Circus. But arguably he never made a funnier one, as the latter is practically bursting with side-splitting gags, hilarious set pieces, and unforgettable comedic stunts. Our CineVerse homework last week was to head to the big top and revisit this 94-year-old laugher and assess what makes it timeless (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

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 because he is 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 come 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.

What is memorable, distinctive, or significant about The Circus and Chaplin at this time (1928)?

  • It’s somewhat of a miracle that the film got made at all, considering that his 17-year-old wife was suing him for divorce; sordid details of his sex life were being leaked to the press, including tidbits about his affairs with other actresses, and that his wife claims he tried to pressure her into performing oral sex on him; his finances and properties were frozen during the court case; he was sued for over $1 million by the government for back taxes; the circus tent set burned to the ground; and he had to reshoot the entire tightrope scene after a month’s worth of takes of this sequence were damaged.
  • Comedically, the picture is almost too good to fail, loaded with riotously funny bits and escapades, including the pickpocket chase, house of mirrors scene, encounter in the lion’s cage, being chased by the angry donkey, auditioning for the Ringmaster, the ruining of the magician’s table, and the tightrope walking ending with the monkeys. Arguably the funniest sequence is when the Tramp turns into an automaton and robotically konks the pickpocket on the head while rhythmically emitting wide-mouthed laughs.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Pamela Hutchinson wrote: “What elevates the gag on the level of humor is not just the fact that he draws his victim into the same stunt, and duly bashes him on the head, but that the Chaplin-puppet roars with silent laughter as he does so. The put-upon Tramp reveals his cruel streak, knowing he has already captured our sympathy. As Tom Gunning puts it, Chaplin’s art resides in his ability to “metamorphose from one physical identity into another”: here, the Tramp transforms from victim to villain, from human to machine and back again.”
  • The scenes with the animals, including the shots inside the lion’s cage and the images of the monkeys biting his nose and climbing all over him are truly incredible, as are the shots of him walking the tightrope while suspended via wire and harness; it might have actually been easier to walk the rope without being suspended than to pull off the acrobatic, physics-defying feats Chaplin attempted.
  • A significant motif in the film is a circle, as evidenced by iris openings and closings, trapeze rings, the paper hoop Merna emerges from, the spinning treadmill platform, and even the circle he sits within at the conclusion.

Major themes

  • Ironic fate. The Tramp is funny only when he isn’t trying to be and has lost his dignity; but when he attempts to be comical, such as when auditioning for the Ringmaster, he isn’t funny. Because of his poor timing and clumsiness, he seems destined to be a circus star.
  • Pluck and perseverance aid the underdog. The Tramp is an overlooked, overmatched afterthought of a character to those around him, but he survives and thrives despite challenges from the law, bullies, and the animal kingdom because he’s resourceful, quick-witted, and downright lucky.
  • Spontenaiety, improvisational skills, and thinking on your feet are crowd-pleasing traits. The circus attendees are bored with the usual routines, but as soon as the Tramp appears in an unplanned and unrehearsed manner, they reward him and the Ringmaster with applause.
  • Sacrificing for the greater good. The Tramp realizes that he’s no match for the tightrope walker, who has captured Merna’s heart; he abandons his attempts at wooing her and plays matchmaker to the couple instead, ultimately choosing not to join the circus troupe on their tour.
  • Fear of falling, failing, and obsolescence.
    • Film historian Jeffrey Vance said in an interview: (Chaplin) “joins the circus and revolutionizes the cheap little knockabout comedy among the circus clowns, and becomes an enormous star. But by the end of the movie, the circus is packing up and moving on without him. Chaplin's left alone in the empty circus ring…It reminds me of Chaplin and his place in the world of the cinema. The show is moving on without him. He filmed that sequence four days after the release of `The Jazz Singer' (the first successful talkie) in New York.”
    • Hutchinson wrote: “The Circus is not just a film with a grand finale set on a high place, it’s a film about the pressure to be funny, about a man who can make people laugh only when he isn’t trying, and in which the identity of the Tramp himself begins to fracture… It’s not hard to read The Circus as Chaplin’s identity-crisis film, in which the idea of the great star playing ‘some little extra without a job or a place to live’ suddenly becomes too painful to bear.”

Similar works 

  • Safety Last
  • At the Circus (Marx Brothers)
  • The Artist
  • The Greatest Show on Earth
  • The Greatest Showman

Other feature films by Chaplin

  • The Kid
  • The Gold Rush
  • City Lights
  • Modern Times
  • The Great Dictator
  • Limelight


Diving deep on "Sheep"

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Charles Burnett may not be a household name like Spike Lee, but he’s unquestionably one of the most talented and respected African American directors. His breakout work, Killer of Sheep (1978), remained widely unseen for decades due to music rights issues, but it has been restored and is fortunately now accessible to millions. The CineVerse sleuths fine tooth combed this picture last week and arrived at the following observations (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or memorable about Killer of Sheep?

  • There is no cohesive plot or structured narrative. Instead, the filmmakers present often disjointed vignettes in the lives of an economically challenged couple and their children and friends, with many sequences seeming unscripted and unrehearsed.
    • The film opens with a non sequitur of sorts: the scolding and physical punishing of a boy by his father and mother for not protecting his young sibling from a bully.
  • With its stark black-and-white canvas, gritty location shooting, and choppy editing, Killer of Sheep often looks and plays like a documentary as well as a work of cinema verite and neorealism. Italian neorealism, popular between 1945 and the late 1950s, was a film movement featuring movies set amidst the working class and economically disadvantaged that were shot on location and which mostly cast non-professional actors.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “One scene follows another with no apparent pattern, reflecting how the lives of its family combine endless routine with the interruptions of random events. The day they all pile into a car to go to the races, for example, a lesser film would have had them winning or losing. In this film, they have a flat tire, and no spare. Thus does poverty become your companion on every journey.”
  • Likewise, the story doesn’t provide character arcs, moralistic payoffs, conquests, or predictable beats.
    • TCM reviewer David Sterritt wrote: “Burnett's decision to make Killer of Sheep was prompted by his intense dissatisfaction with movies that treat working-class life simplistically, solving complicated human problems in unrealistic and unimaginative ways, reuniting the couple, letting the team win, having the workers join a union – so everyone can bask in a happy ending. Burnett isn't interested in simple solutions, or even complex ones, because in his experience most real-life problems aren't resolved at all; folks just muddle through as best they can, and when one difficulty fades there's usually another to take its place. ‘What people are really struggling for is to endure, to survive,’ Burnett once told me, ‘to become adults and maintain some sort of moral compass.’”
  • There are no star actors; every face is fresh because we’ve not seen these performers before.
  • The soundtrack is outstanding, with the film benefiting from a variety of musical styles and African-American artists, including Dinah Washington, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Elmore James, Louis Armstrong, Little Walter, and Earth, Wind & Fire. In fact, this film’s widespread release was delayed for nearly 30 years because the filmmakers couldn’t secure the music licensing rights, and Charles Burnett wasn’t going to compromise and release a cut of the movie without these key songs included.
    • Adam Grinwald, a critic for, wrote: “Burnett’s diverse selection of tunes works to help convey the movie’s wide pallet of emotions. It also serves as a bridge between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, just as the film itself works to combine classical filmmaking techniques with contemporary themes.”
  • Incredibly, Burnett created this film in the late 1970s for under $10,000, which demonstrates the power of resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance, and strong cinematic storytelling skills.
  • The picture remained mostly unseen by the masses for three decades, although it was among the first class of films to be entered in the National Film Registry in 1990 for its historical importance, it won the Critic's Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1981, and it ranked among the 100 Essential Films ever made by the National Society of Film Critics in 2002.

Major themes

  • Being stuck in a continual cycle of poverty, futility, and soul-crushing dissatisfaction. Stan is forced to work at a slaughterhouse, where he kills sheep, guts their carcasses, and preps the remains. Even the pastimes and off-work opportunities he engages in or considers only serve to keep him stuck on a metaphorical treadmill; he can’t make extra money fiddling with car engines; he doesn’t want to work at the local liquor store for fear of being robbed or shot; and he turns down his friends’ offer to participate in a revenge killing.
  • The struggles of the working class and inner-city families to get ahead, find fulfillment, and pass on happiness and a better future to their children. We witness how Stan, his wife, his son, and his friends are challenged by their economic circumstances and environment.
  • Times are hard for honest men. Stan is a father and husband with values and a strong work ethic, but he experiences hopelessness and powerlessness. Like a helpless sheep or lamb to the slaughter, he feels trapped in a predestined life of inevitable suffering.

Similar works

  • Italian neorealism films, including Bicycle Thieves, Rome: Open City, and Paisan
  • Song of Ceylon and Night Mail, directed by Basil Wright
  • The Southerner, directed by Jean Renoir
  • George Washington, directed by David Gordon Green
  • The early films of Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater, like Stranger Than Paradise and Slacker
  • Little Fugitive, which also depicts a particular time and place (New York in the mid-1950s) and is documentary-like

Other films by Charles Burnett

  • To Sleep With Anger
  • The Glass Shield
  • The Wedding
  • Nightjohn


Ambersons aims high, despite its shortcomings

Monday, August 15, 2022

Eighty years ago, RKO Pictures released the follow up to Citizen Kane, Orsons Welles’s debut work that many consider the finest film ever made. Welles’ ambition was to top Kane by creating a picture that would visually astound, achieve new dramatic heights, and exceed the lofty expectations many had for his sophomore effort. But mixed reception from audiences during test previews propelled the studio to make drastic changes to the film while Welles was away in Brazil. Consequently, a shortened and thematically compromised version was released that flopped at the box office and damaged Welles’ standing in Hollywood. But despite its abbreviated runtime and deviation from the director’s intent, Ambersons has come to be regarded as among the greatest movies of all time.

Our CineVerse club convened last week to watch and discuss this flawed classic, and the highlights of our discussion are summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Why does The Magnificent Ambersons still matter 80 years later? How has it stood the test of time, and why is this movie worth celebrating?

  • It could be Orson Welles’ best work, or at least might have been if not tampered with by RKO. Even in its altered form and with its tacked-on happy ending (which, by the way, approximates the finale in Booth Tarkington’s novel), it remains an incredible picture.
    • Welles’ intended finale featured Eugene visiting a diminished Fanny in a boarding house, which we learn in the final shot is actually the Amberson mansion. Tonally, this would have been a much more somber and elegiac denouement than the conclusion we currently have, in which Eugene and a healthier Fanny visit George recovering in the hospital where Lucy is by his side, the two men reconcile their differences, and it’s suggested that Eugene will financially provide for George and Fanny.
  • It has stood the test of time because it isn’t afraid to be dark and downbeat.
    • It’s prescient in its cautionary messages about how technological progress cannot be stopped and how industrial innovation and a faster-paced modern world has significant cultural and societal repercussions.
    • This is one of the first Hollywood motion pictures to tackle the topic of the rapid industrialization of early 20th century America and the replacement of the privileged aristocracy with the bourgeoisie, or upper middle class.
  • Ambersons further matters because many of the characters and performances are superb, especially Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny. Some regard her portrayal as one of the first contemporary cinematic representations of a neurotic, hysterical woman.
  • Perhaps most of all it’s worth celebrating for the elite filmmaking craft involved, especially for 1942. Welles continued to experiment with the innovative approaches he and his collaborators first adopted in Citizen Kane, including:
    • Deep focus photography: Welles and company create striking compositions in which the frame is often carefully designed to feature multiple planes of focus and interest, such as in an early shot of the gossiping townspeople that layers them across the foreground, middle ground, and background.
    • Chiaroscuro lighting: The shadow-heavy cinematography is quite distinctive, with silhouettes and half-lit figures occasionally used to great dramatic effect.
    • Grandiose camera movement via elaborate crane shots and fluid tracking shots; a fine example of the latter is in the Ambersons ball sequence, where the camera seamlessly weaves between dancing and walking characters.
    • Long, unbroken shots: These keep the audience intently focused on the characters and the acting without breaking the rhythm of the scene or their performance, such as the four-minute sequence in the kitchen where Fanny feeds George, or Lucy and George’s carriage ride through town.
    • A sophisticated sound design: This is evidenced by the overlapping dialogue, variations in volume based on the speaker’s location to the camera, and echo effects.
    • Silent cinema techniques: In keeping with the nostalgic tone of the narrative, Welles employs antique effects like an iris closing and, in the prologue, a gauzy lens with blurred corners of the frame, harkening back to the look of silent movies and vintage photographs.
    • Creative end credits: Instead of using traditional text, Welles verbally recognizes the cast and crew and presents shots of the actors’ faces looking at the camera. I can’t recall another film that closes in this manner, can you?

How was Ambersons similar to and different from Welles’s previous film, Citizen Kane? What uniquely Wellesian qualities are imbued in this picture?

  • Besides the posthumously released Other Side of the Wind, this is the sole movie Welles helmed in which he doesn’t appear onscreen; only his narrating voice can be heard. His famously booming baritone takes a back seat here to a more subdued vocalization in which his cadence, timbre, and tone combine to convey a pensive and restrained omniscience.
  • Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote: “The film language is more fluid and adept than Kane‘s, the expressionist lighting is more rigorously modulated. The astonishingly choreographed Christmas ball that serves to introduce the major characters is arguably the greatest set piece of Welles’s career. The highly rehearsed ensemble…is sensational… not even Kane made more effective use of dramatic sound. Again, and with greater subtlety, there are Welles’s trademark overlapping dialogue and his construction of aural “deep space,” a brooding Bernard Herrmann score, and the clever deployment of a naturalistic Greek chorus. Most remarkable, however, is the voice…The movie is haunted by Welles’s voice, by his youth, and by a sense of a lost America that he would never again visit—and mainly by its own lost possibilities.”
  • While it’s a trifling point, this is an early example of a “meta” film in how it shares the same universe as Citizen Kane; if you pay close attention, you can spot how George’s automobile injury is reported in a newspaper story written by Jed Leland, Kane’s theatrical critic also played by Joseph Cotton.

Can you cite any films or filmmakers that you believe were influenced by The Magnificent Ambersons?

  • It’s possible that Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released a year later, took a thematic cue or two from Ambersons in how it depicts the dark truths that fester inside a beloved small town.
  • Some cite Luchino Visconti’s equally nostalgic The Leopard as a work inspired by Ambersons.
  • Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums was influenced, to some degree, by this film’s characters and story and even its title.
  • There was a three-hour cable version of this tale shown in 2002 that followed Welles’ shooting script—a testament to the allure of the lost cut of the film.
  • Welles himself revisited Ambersons’ class conflict and glory-fading themes in his later Chimes at Midnight.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in Ambersons?

  • Time and progress cannot be halted. Most of the movie suggests that the Ambersons are doomed to financial failure, ignominy, and irrelevance because they cannot adapt to modernization and changing economic, social, and cultural paradigms. They can’t move forward, as Eugene symbolically does on the dance floor, whisking Isabel out of frame; instead, the Ambersons move backward, as George literally does when he dances with Lucy.
    • This implies that living in the past and ignoring what’s to come is dangerous. David Alexander of The Guardian wrote: “As modernity surrounds the Amberson mansion, Welles brings the film’s focus ever more tightly into the big old house. Soon we find we’re trapped there, entombed in an architectural anachronism. The last third of the film keeps the action largely in this setting, as it puts the Amberson family through a final round of humiliation.”
  • The negative consequences of innovation and technological progress.
    • This intimates that focusing only on the future while forgetting the past is dangerous, a concept contrary to the previously posited theme.
    • Remember how the narrator comments in the film’s opening, how “In those days, they had time for everything,” and how the streetcar is “too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.” These remarks are prophetic, because nowadays, despite all our high-tech, rapid advancements designed to make life more efficient and easy, we seem to have less time than ever.
    • Also, recall what Eugene says after George’s insult about automobiles being a useless nuisance: “I'm not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of men's souls…It may be that in 10 or 20 years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.”
  • Nostalgia and wistfulness for a bygone time. Much of Ambersons is infused with a melancholic longing for a faded era, but the irony here is that staying wedded to the past keeps you blinded to the inevitable future and your ability to adjust to it.
    • Recall how Eugene says: “When times are gone, they are not old, they're dead. There aren't any times but new times.”
    • The problem for the Amberson clan is that they are solely focused on old times and past glories, which can be interpreted as the likely reason why, at least figuratively, Isabel dies prematurely, Jack is forced to leave town and look for work, Fanny faces financial ruin, and George is brought down several pegs.
  • Tragedy and misfortune. This is the tale of the downfall of a respected blue blood American family, as well as the unsettling transformation of a location from a beloved quaint hometown to an unsightly modern and mechanized city where past cherished charms have been swept away. It’s also a story of romantic catastrophe, in which a good man is prevented from marrying his true love, a spoiled offspring is jilted by the woman of his affection, and a meddling spinster doesn’t get the man of her dreams. And like a classic Greek tragedy, there is a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of the gossiping townsfolk we see.
  • Redemption and forgiveness. George is finally humbled in the end, forced to work for a living and found kneeling in prayer for forgiveness for his actions, which makes him a more sympathetic character. Poetic justice has been served in the form of an automobile accident that sends him to the hospital. This cosmic reprimand, combined with his mea culpa, means he is now worthy of being absolved by Eugene and loved by Lucy. And Eugene comes to pardon George for meddling in his affair with Isabel.
  • Complex familial dynamics and intergenerational struggles. There are three generations of Ambersons who face challenges in coexisting together. The naivete, rudeness, and stubborn nature of George—embodying the youngest generation—insinuates that the “magnificence” of the Amberson line is passing. However, his “comeuppance” and peacemaking with Eugene at the conclusion imply that George can redeem himself and his family’s name.
  • Class conflict. The Magnificent Ambersons is a study of the clash between gentry elites, represented by the Amberson family, and the upwardly mobile middle class that will replace them, exemplified by Eugene and his daughter.
  • Interesting romantic and familial dynamics.
    • Ambersons presents two unusual love triangles, the first between Isabel, Eugene, and George, and the second involving Lucy, Eugene, and George. The narrative centerpiece of this tale concerns the competition between George and Eugene for Isabel’s affection, but there’s also a thinly veiled Oedipal relationship between George and Isabel, who spoils her son. Likewise, Lucy has a close, if not Elektra-like, relationship with her father.
    • There’s an intriguing symmetry between several groups of characters, too. Ponder that Isabel is a widow with a son, just as Eugene is a widower with a child of his own. The widow and the widower are drawn to each other, as are their adult children. Two secondary characters include George’s paternal aunt and maternal uncle, helping to expand the intergenerational dynamics of this family story, with Fanny and Jack each getting roughly equal screen time.
  • Grievances, resentments, and unrequited love. Much of the plot and character motivations are propelled by emotional motives, such as the desire by many to see George get his just deserts; George’s umbrage against Eugene for the attention he gives to his mother and possibly because Lucy has rejected his affections; the jealousy Fanny harbors about Eugene and Isabel’s relationship; and the heartbreak Eugene endures multiple times when he is thwarted from being with Isabel.

What is The Magnificent Ambersons’ greatest gift to viewers?

  • One of the film’s greatest gift is that it demonstrates, even 80 years later, that tremendous talent, creativity, ingenuity, and artistry cannot be denied. Is Ambersons a blemished magnum opus because roughly one-third of its footage is missing? Yes. Would the narrative flow better and the character arcs feel more complete if Welles’s intended cut survived? Almost certainly. Would many of us regard Ambersons as a work equal to or greater than Kane if the missing 43 minutes were put back? Quite possibly. But as it stands, the uneven existing version remains a monumental achievement because of the undeniable quality permeating every frame. Even in this compromised form, the movie is simply too good to fail, thanks to the exceptional skills of its collaborators. The 88-minute version that survives isn’t merely “better than no version at all”; it’s better than the vast majority of motion pictures, period.


Cineversary podcast rediscovers the magnificence of the Ambersons

Thursday, August 11, 2022

James Naremore and Joshua Grossberg
For Cineversary podcast episode #50, host Erik Martin revisits the magnificence of The Magnificent AmbersonsOrson Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane that marks an 80th anniversary this summer. For this commemoration, Erik partners with two outstanding guests: film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles; and filmmaker Joshua Grossberg, director of the forthcoming documentary The Lost Print. Collectively, they discuss why The Magnificent Ambersons remains a cherished cinematic work, why RKO removed 43 minutes from the film and how it significantly altered Welles’ vision, and the search for this lost footage.

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 Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, SpotifyStitcherCastboxGoogle PodcastsPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Climb aboard Ford's Irish fantasy wagon

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

John Ford’s love letter to the Ireland of his fantasies, The Quiet Man still dazzles today with its array of loveable characters, chromatic visual brilliance, and nostalgia for a quaint yesteryear and simpler times. And while its gender dynamics can evoke debate in 2022, the film can also consistently induce smiles and laughs. Now seven decades since its theatrical release, it’s a fitting time to dissect this shamrock showpiece (which was also featured in last month’s episode of the Cineversary podcast, available here).

Why is The Quiet Man worth celebrating 70 years on? In what ways has it stood the test of time, and how does it still matter?

  • Arguably, this feature is to Irish-Americans what a movie like Moonstruck is to Italian-Americans: A romantic comedy that reinforces some unfortunate tropes and exaggerations about a particular ethnic group but which remains beloved by many in that culture. It endures as probably the favorite movie among Irish-Americans as well as the most beloved film by Ford among his fans around the world.
  • But you don’t need to be Irish to adore this film. Viewers of any race or background can relish its story, characters, and entertainment value.
  • It still matters because, more than any other motion picture, The Quiet Man has boosted Irish tourism and interest in vacationing in Ireland since its release. Ford created an iconography that most people who have never visited the Emerald Isle imagine when they think of Ireland, thanks in part to the choice to shoot in glorious Technicolor.
    • Consider, too, that The Quiet Man is one of the first and only Hollywood movies that feature spoken native Irish language.
  • It has stood the test of time because The Quiet Man is flawlessly cast, boasting a roster that includes many Irish-American actors, most notably John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in parts they seem born to play; the pair create palpable sexual tension, romantic chemistry, and a plausible power struggle, thanks in large part to O’Hara’s pluck, verve, and ability to match or exceed Wayne’s powerful presence. The production is also graced by many other Irish thespians, such as Barry Fitzgerald as Michaeleen, Victor McLaglen as Red Will Danaher, Ward Bond as the priest, Arthur Shields, and even Ford’s brother Francis.
  • Debatably, this film has one of the most memorable kisses in classic movie history, as captured in the scene where Sean grabs Mary Kate’s wrist and swings her to him for a passionate embrace.
  • The Quiet Man has also stood the test of time because of its consistent repeat showings on and around St. Patrick’s Day for decades.

How was The Quiet Man a deviation from previous John Ford films, and what distinctive qualities does Ford bring to the picture?

  • This film is much more romantic, comedic, sentimental, and erotically charged than Ford’s previous works.
  • Ford isn’t afraid to push the envelope here sexually. Consider how he has Mary Kate and Father Lonergan speak in Gaelic to disguise the frank dialogue they are having about her married sex life, or when Michaeleen assumes the newlyweds broke their bed in a fit of lusty fervor, or the famous final shot where Mary Kate whispers something presumably naughty in Sean’s ears, causing them to rush back to their cottage.
  • Ford was given a rare and privileged opportunity for a director in this era: He was allowed to shoot overseas on location and in Technicolor, no less, which greatly enhanced the visuals and authenticity of the picture.

How is John Wayne’s character and performance different from his other movies?

  • We expect the type of dominating, strong, wisecracking, rugged, and cynical character that we’ve seen him play in other films, particularly westerns like The Searchers, Red River, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Instead, he shows shades of quietude, reserved tenderness, politeness, and wistfulness.
  • Although we ultimately get the bare-knuckle manliness and macho swagger we expect from a Wayne character by the last act of the story, most of the Sean Thornton we see is a happy-go-lucky sort who fancies a simple life of peace in a bucolic setting—a man who refuses to fight to get what he wants, even though he could easily throw his weight around if he so chose.
  • We don’t think of Wayne as an Irish-American actor before The Quiet Man; but with his Northern Irish roots and chiseled Celtic facial profile, he fits perfectly in with this assemblage of Irish-American talent. Thankfully, because Thornton immigrates from America, Wayne didn’t have to employ an Irish accent, which he may not have been able to pull off consistently.

Did The Quiet Man influence any later films or filmmakers?

  • Martin Scorsese cited The Quiet Man as an influence when creating boxing sequences for Raging Bull.
  • Steven Spielberg pays homage to the movie by having E.T. watch the windy kissing sequence on television in that 1982 film.
  • The scenes depicting Ireland in Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! were reportedly inspired by The Quiet Man.
  • Three modern movies that seem to riff on themes and situations in The Quiet Man are Lootera and Before Snowfall, both from 2013, and the critically derided Wild Mountain Thyme, released in 2020.

The Quiet Man was not intended to be a realistic depiction of Ireland in the early 1950s. In what ways is it more like an Irish tall tale, folk story, or fable?

  • It’s as synthetic and artificial as Ford’s idealized American west in his western films.
  • This was intended as Ford’s homage to what he imagined as a happier, simpler time in the life of his ancestors.
  • Many of the supporting characters are stereotypical caricatures: the fight-happy brute, the leprechaun-like imp, the quirky old man, the alcohol-swigging bar patrons, etc.
    • Ford biographer and film historian Joseph McBride wrote: “There is a level on which many of the characters are stereotypes, but most of them are also aware they’re stereotypes and they have fun with it. They’re ironic about their social roles, and so was Ford.”
  • The romantic scenes are highly charged and influence the surroundings — a storm pops up out of nowhere seemingly in response to Sean and Mary Kate’s passion and torrid feelings.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Carson Lund wrote: “The Quiet Man’s most evocative scenes center on (the) correlation between primal desire and the grandeur of the landscape…Sean embraces Mary Kate in the threshold of a doorway rattled open by a powerful gust, and in a conflict-cleansing brawl in the film’s final act, rivers are fallen into, haystacks are churned up, and bright green grass is tugged from the ground. Implicit in all this is the notion of the land as a dynamic presence in these characters’ lives—not simply ground on which to settle, but a force to be reckoned with, a place where habitation must be earned.”

America and Ireland are two opposing worlds to Sean. What does each country represent to him, and why is it important for viewers to understand these distinctions?

  • The United States represents the land of modern romantic love and contemporary amore; recall how Sean says “Back in the States, I'd drive up, honk the horn, the gal'd come runnin.’”
  • Ireland, in contrast, emphasizes traditional marriage customs and Old World values, where concepts like a dowry, a family’s blessing, and earned honor were important.
  • Ireland and Innisfree also signify a kind of ethereal fantasyland to Sean, who soon learns that these are illusions that clash with the reality of his experience in the land of his ancestors. This is also the realm of quaint or antiquated technology like the horse and buggy, which contrasts with the train that deposits Sean at the beginning of the story.
  • To be clear, Innisfree exudes the positive spirit of a cohesive community. There is a rich tapestry of music flavored by popular Irish songs, and the townspeople are relatively congenial, pleasant, and welcoming. But, the film becomes a comedy of manners as Sean is conflicted by the social mores and time-honored rituals of Irish courting. The mystery of Innisfree to Sean is summed up in the question: How can his undeniable romantic passion be halted by mere tradition or custom (as exemplified by Red Will’s refusal to let his sister marry him)? Not until Sean can look upon Mary Kate with Irish eyes instead of American eyes will their relationship progress.

What elements from Shakespeare, classic literature, or mythology are present in The Quiet Man?

  • The story was inspired by a Celtic myth about an epic war between two kingly deities who fought every year for the love of a goddess queen.
  • The plot is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the setting has been described as loosely comparable to the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and critics have compared this film’s humor to the Bard’s magical comedies, such as A Winter’s Tale.
  • The name “Innisfree” is derived from “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats; it immediately evokes a poetic, imaginative fancy.
  • In the documentary Dreaming the Quiet Man, it’s remarked that Sean has to undergo Herculean-like trials to claim the girl he loves.

What themes, messages, morals, and symbols are explored in The Quiet Man?

  • A clash of Old World vs. New World cultures. In an interview, Martin Scorsese said you need to “understand the nature of tribal life” and what it means to be in a clan to comprehend the behavior of the characters in this film.
  • Healing and redemption. It’s called The Quiet Man partially because Sean doesn’t want to talk about the tragic troubles in America that brought him to Ireland and because he refuses to fight Danaher. Sean must overcome his fear of fighting and possibly killing someone else. To do this, he must stop assuming Mary Kate is driven by materialistic motivations and finally embrace the Irish customs he has resisted.
  • Power and equality. Sean and Mary Kate each want to be seen as equals by the other. Stanford professor Ruth O’Hara said in an interview: “I think a significant theme of the movie is power and who has power. It’s about power in the ring, about power within the relationship of Sean and Mary Kate, power within the relationship of Mary Kate and her brother, the relationship of power with land and power with money.”
  • Being accepted by and acclimating to a new culture and society as an outsider.
  • Nostalgia for an imagined or idealized past. Sean was born in Innisfree but lived most of his life in America. Now, he wants to return to the idyllic land of his birthplace, a place he calls “heaven.” But while the land’s natural beauty seems to meet his expectations, Thornton isn’t prepared for the culture shock he will experience after meeting some of the townsfolk and learning of their customs and traditions.
  • “The importance of family and community, the sense of exile, the tension between compulsive wandering and the need for home, and the melancholy sense of the transient nature of human existence and worldly institutions,” as posited by Joseph McBride.
  • Colors seem to play a thematic role in this story. Green and red perhaps symbolize carnal passion, while blues possibly represent tradition, protocol, and customs.
    • Alternate Ending blogger Tim Brayton wrote: “Blue is the color of domestic interiors, blue is the color of siblings Mary Kate Danaher and “Red” Will Danaher…Blue is the color of sense, contrasted with the outside and green…What’s the most distinctive, high-impact moment of blue in this whole movie? It’s the moment when Sean first spots Mary Kate, tending her brother’s sheep…She’s still in blue, and she’s an aberrant element in that green, yellow, white landscape – in this shot, even the sky is yellow, to make O’Hara pop out all the more. She’s eye-catching and special, but the colors mark her out as a disruption as much as an enticement…blue is what Sean wants, but blue is also all the things he isn’t; blue is the things he didn’t come to Ireland for (peace, calm, the land). And the rest of the film will find him moving towards and away from blue, trying to find the way to fit it in with his own more neutral color palette. Blue eventually wins, of course; the hearth and home always win in Ford.”

Is this film too problematic or dated in its gender politics to be relevant or appreciated by modern audiences? How can you convince younger viewers to give it a chance?

  • On one hand, Mary Kate stands up to men both verbally and physically. She doesn’t act subserviently to Sean. We see her slap his face, take swings at him, and scold Sean. Mary Kate also goes toe to toe with her brother during arguments, throwing a rag in his face, for example. Recall, also, how Sean lets her drive the horse and buggy, further suggesting that she’s a strong woman worthy of respect in a world dominated by men.
  • Additionally, she appears to be a sexually empowered female. She refuses Sean his assumed conjugal rights, and it’s suggested in the final shot that she whispers something adult in Sean’s ear that prompts him to follow her into the house—perhaps into the bedroom. Mary Kate is playful and adventurous, as proven when she takes off her stockings and runs through the water. In the two kissing scenes between Sean and Mary Kate, Sean instigates the first kiss, but she initiates the second kiss. Their marriage can be viewed as an equal partnership in that her insistence on the dowry and refusal to grant intimacy gives her power. Sean kicks in the bedroom door she locks, but unlike Gone With the Wind, where Rhett has his way with a nonconsensual Scarlett, he spends the night in his sleeping bag.
  • On the other hand, she allows herself to be dragged by Sean in a visibly humiliating way (even though she has orchestrated this entire charade and wants Sean to exert his caveman-like dominance in public and fight her brother). We see Sean spank her as she walks away. Like other Irish women at this time, Mary Kate also requires her family’s blessing and her dowry for the marriage to proceed on customary terms according to tradition. Recall, too, how a woman in the crowd says to Sean, “Here's a good stick to beat the lovely lady.” And Father Lonergan ostensibly chastises Mary Kate for not fulfilling her wifely duties in the bedroom.
  • The broken bed scene and the extended fight scene are symbolic of Sean trying to reclaim his honor. They are meant to be scenes of triumph and humor, but today can be viewed as a man dominating or abusing his wife.
  • The public dragging sequence is rough for some to swallow today. But ponder that it is depicted comically, and note how polite the gathering crowd is to both Mary Kate and Sean.
  • Bear in mind that The Quiet Man is loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, a story which thematically boils down to a man, Petruchio, "taming" a violent-tempered woman, Katherine, and coercing her into the traditionally compliant and dutiful role of a wife. As in the play, Mary Kate eventually submits to patriarchal forces, although this has much more to do with Irish mores and conventions of the early 20th century.
    • Rutgers University professor William C. Dowling wrote: “Mary Kate is, like Shakespeare's Kate, a barely-controlled elemental force, and a central question posed by The Quiet Man is why she then chooses to submit herself to custom or tradition. The Quiet Man will resolve this problem by giving primary importance to a relation between marriage and property that was a survival from early or pre-Christian Irish law…So long as Mary Kate has married a husband in "American" terms--that is to say, as a union of two isolated or unattached persons operating in a social void--she will remain a woman in exile from her own community, an unintegrated figure cut off from communal life and values. She will also remain, in terms of ancient Irish law and custom, an unequal partner in her own marriage…The villagers of Innisfree understand, as does Mary Kate Danaher herself, that the dragging scene is not some gratuitous display of male violence, but a ritual of community meant to put right the violated kinship relations that Sean Thornton, with his American understanding of property and marriage, has until this moment utterly failed to grasp… The donnybrook sequence expresses in nearly pure terms a standard theme in Ford's films, the idea that the communal energies released in innocent or ludic violence have a power to redeem community, purging old antagonisms and widening the circle of social acceptance to include even those previously banished to or left on the outside…Their marriage can be made "real" within its community only through a cleansing ritual of innocent or ludic violence.”
  • While it’s difficult for modern audiences to watch her rough handling by Sean—being dragged, pushed, kicked, and manhandled—isn’t she secretly delighted that he’s exerting what she sees as his manly authority here? Isn’t she actually proud that he’s demonstrating very publicly to the townspeople that he’s a man who won’t be bullied by his wife or his brother-in-law?

What is The Quiet Man’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Perhaps this film’s greatest gift is its ability to evoke a sense of mystique, wonder, reverence, and longing for Ireland—a country that many American viewers may have not visited but likely want to after screening The Quiet Man. Granted, this is a fairytale vision of the Emerald Isle that can resurrect groan-inducing stereotypes and endorse a dated vision of gender politics that is no longer tolerated by contemporary audiences. Yes, the film has problematic scenes and personalities that exude a toxic brand of masculinity in the 21st Century. But put in a proper historical and cinematic context, and considering how empowered the character of Mary Kate truly is in this tale, The Quiet Man’s worthy virtues, captivating characters, and entertaining attributes arguably outshine these and other outmoded elements. And possibly its finest facet is its intrinsic Irishness: the fact that it was proudly made by Irish artists, was shot on location primarily in Ireland, and boasts a soundtrack filled with a wide assortment of Irish musical standards. Lastly, consider that there are countless Christmas movies, and innumerable horror films watched around Halloween. But otherwise, no other holiday on the calendar has a film that has become essential viewing as a yearly tradition as The Quiet Man is to St. Patrick’s Day. That explains a lot about the longevity of and love for this movie. Despite its flaws and dated dynamics, enjoying and appreciating The Quiet Man in the 21st Century doesn’t make you a bad person. This film was crafted with care, passion, and a desire to entertain, and no one involved in the production appears to have said a bad word about it.
  • A second greatest gift is that this movie features Maureen O’Hara’s greatest screen performance and most memorable character. Her Mary Kate leaves an indelible impression of a multi-faceted woman of agency who wields intelligence, physical strength, steadfast determination, and stunning beauty. She renders a range of emotions in this role, demonstrating softness and warmth as well as intimidating fury and feistiness. And make no mistake: Ms. O’Hara was a champion of this film right up to her death, defending it in interviews and expressing her great pride in participating in this picture.


About Elly is about as good as it gets for sociocultural thrillers

Monday, August 8, 2022

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi’s entrancing 2009 feature from Iran about the disappearance of a friend during a weekend vacationing at a seaside home, served notice to cineastes around the globe that this filmmaker is brimming with virtuosity and storytelling dexterity. Only three years later, he would win an Academy Award for best foreign language film with A Separation. The CineVerse faithful gathered last week to parse the former, offering several thought-provoking readings on the movie in the process (warning—spoilers ahead; to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find surprising, memorable, enthralling, or interesting about this film?

  • The beach scene, including the kite-flying setup through the desperate attempt to find Elly in the water, was masterfully executed via rhythmic editing, jarring and kinetic handheld camera work, underwater lensing, and a gripping sound design that makes you feel like you are right there. One critic compared it to Spielberg’s suspenseful filmmaking techniques in Jaws.
  • The movie pulls you in with a false sense of security, using slice-of-life vignettes of the group interacting in humorous, banal, and realistic ways. It isn’t until one-third into the runtime that the filmmakers pull out the rug and create the central conflict that will drive the rest of the story.
  • Once Elly goes missing, the narrative, and the moral dilemmas faced by the characters, unfold like Russian nesting dolls, with lie upon lie revealed and plans and alibis concocted to more conveniently reframe the truth.
  • This picture gives westerners perhaps a refreshingly different look at contemporary Iranians. The film suggests that this may not be as repressed a society as believed and that western sensibilities could be more prevalent in Iran than previously thought.
    • Salon reviewer Andrew O’Hehir wrote: “No one openly challenges Islamic convention in this movie, but minor acts of rebellion are everywhere: The women only cover their heads in the most vestigial fashion, there’s no semblance of religious observation and the two single people in this group of old college friends are thrown together at every opportunity. Those would be Ahmad…and Elly…To international viewers, these normal and appealing young cosmopolitans represent a link between Iran’s past and its future, and the country’s slow, incremental journey to reconnect with the rest of the world. But the disappearance of a woman they don’t know, for reasons they don’t understand, strips away their veneer of contentment and reminds them that their present-tense situation is precarious and full of deadly possibility.”

Major themes

  • White lies can lead to serious consequences.
    • Sepidah lies about her friend Elly, suggesting that she’s single and available to meet Ahmad when actually she is engaged but seeking an escape from that betrothal due to second thoughts about her fiancé. This white lie backfires on her and the group later when Elly’s fiancé Alireza must be told of her supposed drowning.
    • Another dangerous white lie occurs when the older woman renting the group the beach house is told that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds so as not to offend her religious beliefs against premarital relations, a cultural taboo to many in modern Iran.
    • Other assumedly insignificant but ultimately damaging white lies ensue, including Sepidah knowing that the original villa they desired would only be free for one night without telling the others; Elly’s mother not confirming that Elly is away from home (the mother believes the caller is a person Elly wants to keep away); Alireza claiming at first to be Elly’s brother (suspecting his caller to be perhaps a romantic rival to Elly); the grownups asking the children to lie about Sepidah’s matchmaking goal for Elly and Ahmad; and Sepidah denying knowing that Elly’s phone was in her bag.
    • The last and most devastating lie occurs at the finale. This is when Alizera asks Sepidah if Elly refused when Sepidah asked Elly to meet Ahmad. He also inquires if Elly indicated she had a fiancé. Sepidah says no, Elly did not, in an effort to protect herself (remember that her husband says Alizera would possibly kill her) and the group from dishonor.
    • Sight and Sound critic Philip Kemp wrote: “Farhadi focuses mainly on the Tehrani upper-middle-class – educated, cultured, pleasure-seeking, only marginally religious. On the face of it, he’s venturing nowhere near the dangerous territory that led his colleague Jafar Panahi to be censored and jailed by Iran’s ruling ayatollahs. Yet…it’s not hard to detect a subtext: a critique of the lies and evasions that permeate Iranian society.
  • Being caught in a moral catch-22. Elly’s honor and reputation would be sullied if she was disloyal to her fiancé. But if Sepidah and her group urged or inspired Elly to betray her fiancé, their honor and reputation would be discredited. Dishonor in Iranian culture is apparently like a scarlet letter of shame. This is ultimately why Sepidah lies to Alizera and places the responsibility for the deceit on Elly: She wants to protect her friends and loved ones from sociocultural disgrace because she feels guilty for failing to tell them earlier that Elly was engaged.
  • Not accepting responsibility and guilt. Consider how the friends begin to point fingers at each other and deflect blame for Elly’s death or the circumstances they’re in.
  • Blindness to or ignorance of the sensitivity of others. The group questions whether their teasing offended Elly and caused her to leave without saying goodbye. While we know that Elly doesn’t depart, it’s possible that she felt insulted and hurt by the group’s words.
  • Revictimizing the real victim. The group is concerned about their reputations and the legal consequences of their friend drowning or disappearing. But arguably, they lose sight of the big picture: That an innocent and honorable human being has tragically died. When Sepidah tells the fiancé that Elly didn’t refuse to meet with Ahmad or mention that she was engaged, Elly becomes victimized all over again.

Similar works

  • L’Avventura
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • Jaws
  • Under the Sand
  • Headwinds
  • Force Majeure, another moral quandary film about lies and deception

Other films by Asghar Farhadi

  • A Separation
  • The Past
  • The Salesman
  • Everybody Knows
  • A Hero


Singing the praises of a cinematic study of native peoples

Monday, August 1, 2022

Before Chloé Zhao took the cinematic world by storm when she directed the Best Picture Oscar-winning Nomadland and captured the Academy Award for Best Director (only the second of three females to claim that trophy), she created a lesser-known work that earned her kudos and admiration from cineastes worldwide: Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Our CineVerse squad focused on this feature last week and came away enthralled. Below are talking points about the film we shared (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How did this film surprise, captivate, impress, or interest you?

  • There’s a naturalistic look and vibe to this film, thanks in large part to the casting of primarily nonactors (many of whom are residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota), choosing to film without a complete script, and featuring many shots and scenes that feel spontaneous. All of these elements grace Songs with a documentary-like feel and realism. It helped that the director reportedly lived on the reservation for four years before production.
  • The movie doesn’t feel exploitive or misrepresentational of the Lakota people or Native Americans.
    • reviewer Vince Leo wrote: “Making a cross-cultural film as an outsider is always a tricky proposition, as it can be very easy to misrepresent the culture depicted. Indeed, Hollywood's depiction has often been criticized in depicting Native Americans as either savage or full of eternal wisdom, and Songs My Brothers Taught Me certainly avoids those stereotypes, giving us a rare look at an American community that isn't often represented in films of any sort in the modern day.”
  • It cuts against our expectations and isn’t predictable. Johnny doesn’t leave at the conclusion as we anticipated, he resists the affections of Angie, and the tension between him and the other bootleggers doesn’t turn into a significant subplot or lingering source of conflict. Also, the ending is fairly ambiguous. We don’t know what will happen to these siblings, their mother, or their community in the near- or long-term future.
  • Arguably, the picture suffers from a fragmented narrative and tonal inconsistencies. We feel the tension and uncertainty coursing through Johnny, who must eventually decide if he will move away with his girlfriend, but this plot isn’t followed consistently. Expository dialogue is, thankfully, discarded in favor of allowing a scene to unfold naturally with the help of visual context.
  • The outdoor photography is often sublime, capturing the natural beauty of the badlands and their desolate visuals.

Major themes

  • Feeling stuck and duty-bound to kin, community, and location despite a strong desire to branch out on your own.
  • The sociocultural and psychological/emotional effects of addiction, economic hardship, and intergenerational trauma upon an ethnic group, in this case indigenous peoples.
  • Will the sins of the father be visited on his children? Johnny and Jashaun have irresponsible and negligent parents; most of the movie silently ponders the degree to which these siblings may fall into the same traps as their parents and be faced with many of the same challenges as they age—including alcoholism and poverty.
  • Honoring your culture and ethnic traditions. While the Native Americans on this reservation have assimilated western culture and its trappings, we see occasional examples of how they proudly incorporate indigenous songs, art, and spirituality into their lives.
  • Family is forever, or blood is thicker than water. Johnny ultimately cannot abandon his sister and the reservation, nor can his father’s 25 children forget their roots and ignore their lineage.

Similar works

  • Naturalistic and visually arresting movies by Terence Malick, including Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Pather Panchali
  • Salaam Bombay
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Sami Blood
  • The Dynamiter
  • Four Sheets to the Wind
  • Shouting Secrets

Other films by Chloe Zhao

  • Nomadland
  • The Rider


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