(Non) Motion Picture

Scene from Chris Marker’s La Jetée

One of the greatest of all science fiction films is a short consisting of nothing but black and white stills accompanied by a voice-over narration. I am referring to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which is all of 28 minutes long. And yet for all its uniqueness, the film holds the viewer in its grasp until the last shot (shown above). Following is the film’s plot summary from Wikipedia:

A man (Davos Hanich) is a prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris, where survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”…. They eventually settle upon the protagonist; his key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman (Hélène Châtelain) he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly Airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He did not understand exactly what happened but knew he had seen a man die.

Apparently, motion is not necessary for a successful motion picture. As long as the images grab you, and as long as the story is well crafted, the result can be more than good. It can even be great.

See for yourself. The film is available in its full length on YouTube in French with English subtitles:

New York or Not New York?

The New York World’s Fair 1964-1965

In the summer after my junior year at Dartmouth College, I felt I had to make a decision as to which graduate school I would attend. My top two choices were New York University (NYU) and UCLA. The University of Southern California (USC) also had a good program, but I was told by one of my classmates that it was in a bad part of town. (The Watts riots were to take place in August of that year, and decided me against the place.)

So the whole family packed up and drove to Passaic, NJ, where my father had some relatives. We stayed at the Hotel Lincoln in Passaic and took the bus through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. While my parents and brother went to some tourist place, I took the subway to NYU and managed to find Haig P. Manoogian, who apparently was the whole film department, in his office.

Although Martin Scorsese idolized Manoogian, I received an entirely different impression. I was interested, not in film production, but film history and criticism. Manoogian was not, and made no bones about it. The result: Scratch NYU.

This trip turned out to be fun in an entirely different way. It was the second (and last) year of the New York World’s Fair, which we all attended. My memories of the Fair are twofold. First, upon entering, I was so struck by the place that I tripped over a small child. Second, it was the first time I had ever eaten a taco, from a no less authentic place than the Mexico Pavilion.

The final upshot of the trip was that I applied for admission to the UCLA Film Department, which accepted me and led to my moving out to Los Angeles, where I have lived ever since.

Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room

The Painter Moses Rosenthaler and Simone

Films can be amazing, even they are not great. A couple of months ago, I viewed Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) in Palm Desert with my brother and sister-in-law. The film sets were nothing less than outstanding, and the cast was to die for. But, overall it just didn’t make the cut.

But I fell in love with the actress who played Simone, the prison asylum guard who poses nude for the imprisoned painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). The part was played by Léa Seydoux, a stunning French actress with wide-spaced eyes. The memory of those eyes has made me watch her scenes several times.

Simone in Uniform

Although I will never think of The French Dispatch as a great film, there are scenes in it that I will never forget. Perhaps, in the end, it is a better film than I thought.

A Lemming Named Desire

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Wife Geri

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film Casino about the mob days in Las Vegas, you’ve seen Sharon Stone in the role of Ginger McKenna as well as Robert DeNiro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Throughout the film, names were changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. The actual characters were named Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Geri McGee Rosenthal.

Between 1976 and 1983, Rosenthal was in charge of four casinos that were secretly skimming profits to Chicago and other Midwestern mobsters. As a nationally known sports bettor, he had in 1969 married a Vegas showgirl named Geri McGee.

Vegas Showgirl Geri McGee

Geri was one of those tall, lovely showgirls for whom most men would sell their souls. Not that Lefty had not sold his soul early on, but hooking up with Geri turned out to be a nightmare. Although Lefty and Geri had two children together, Geri started taking drugs and having a not-well-hidden affair with mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the film).

As her marriage began to implode, Geri had a very open break with her family and took thousands in cash and jewelry that Lefty had in a joint safe deposit box to prove his trust in Geri. She left for Los Angeles and was dead within months of a drug overdose. Lefty, meanwhile, was the victim of a car bomb, which, fortunately for him, he escaped without major injury. But shortly after that, he was finished in Vegas and moved on to Laguna Niguel, California, and then Boca Raton, Florida, where he died in 2008.

Sharon Stone in the Role of Geri

As men, most of us dream of falling for a long-stemmed beauty like Geri McGee, but it rarely ends well. There’s something about the whole mechanism of sexual desire which seems to militate against long-term happiness.

Nightmare Alley²

How do you feel about celebrating the holidays in a morass of darkness? That’s what I did today when I saw the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara.

If there are any predictions possible from seeing a single film, I would have to say that we are entering a period of gloomy decadence. All the scenes take place either in heavy rain, a blizzard, and—just for a change—a modicum of dusty and hazy sunshine. Standing out from the dark edges are glittering reds, blues, greens, and browns.

Although the 2021 version followed the original 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, the del Toro film is ever more shady, especially with Cate Blanchett as the psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter. She not only robs Carlisle of his ill-gotten gains, but shoots his ear off with a 22 caliber pistol. Blanchett bids fair to become the neo-noir equivalent of such noir queens as Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame.

Both film versions are worth seeing. In fact, I would also recommend reading the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 novel upon which they were based.

One side note: There is something unspeakably grimy and evil about the whole carny world as it is presented in books and films. If you are drawn in, you might also want to check out Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill (1966). You might also want to dip into his Swamp Sister (1961). Neo-noir doesn’t get any better than this.

Favorite Films: Europa 51

Of the greatest filmmakers, the one I know the least about is Roberto Rossellini. Today, I had a chance to view his Europa 51 (1952) and found it to be a masterpiece. For some reason, the great postwar Italian films (dubbed Neorealism) have, for some reason, faded from view. Included were films by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and Roberto Rossellini.

The films I have seen by Rossellini dealt with the fragility of life in Italy as part of the aftermath of the Second World War. And, when you think of it, the problems for Italy really began in the early 1920s with the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini. By 1945, it was an exhausted nation.

In Europa 51, the Girards have a sullen twelve-year-old son who, to get attention, falls down a flight of stairs during a party. He seems to be recovering, but suddenly dies from a blood clot. The mother, Irene (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly finds her life at home as totally unfulfilling. With urging from a communist relative, she begins to try to help the miserable slum dwellers of Rome, one of whom is played by Giulietta Masina of La Strada fame.

As her marriage begins to fall apart, she gets committed to a mental institution. Abandoned by her upper middle class family, she is revered by the poor families she has helped.

Whereas in the United States, the postwar period saw growth and prosperity, much of Europe lay in ruins. Beginning with Rome, Open City (1945), Rossellini concentrated on the devastation with some films like Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), and Stromboli (1950). I think these films need to be seen, especially as we have developed a whole basket of myths surrounding World War Two and “The Greatest Generation” and other such rot.

If you were to read Tony Judt’s prizewinning history, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, you would find that he begins with the horrors of the immediate postwar years in Europe. I was born in 1945, and I remember my mother sending packages to our relatives in Hungary, which were under a Stalinist Communist dictator in the early 1950s. When I visited Budapest in 1945, I saw a city that still had the bullet holes of not only the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but the Nazi siege of the city at the end of the war.

Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.

Samurai Swordplay

A few days ago, I promised to list my favorite Japanese samurai films. Here I present the annotated list in alphabetical order by eight directors, with my favorite samurai film for each director:

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969) See also his early Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) and Sword of the Beast (1965).
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1967). My favorite of the Kyoshiro Nemuri films starring Raizo Ichikawa.
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: Samurai Trilogy, comprising Musashi Miyamoto (1954), The Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956).
  • Masaki Kobayashi: Harakiri (1962) starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai.
  • Akira Kurosawa: The Seven Samurai (1954), just one of over a dozen great chambara epics usually starring Toshiro Mifune.
  • Kenji Misumi: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972). Weird and entertaining.
  • Kihachi Okamoto: Sword of Doom (1965), another great Nakadai role.
  • Kimiyoshi Yasuda: Zatoichi’s Fire Festival (1970), one of a score of films starring Shintaro Katsu as a blind samurai warrior. Very funny.

After the 1970s, the studio system that supported the great Japanese films of the postwar period collapsed because the studios made more money selling their studio space in a real estate bubble than they ever did making movies. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

The Mad Eyes of Oliver Haddo

It’s always interesting to see a famous film director acting in a movie made by others. I am thinking of John Huston in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Erich Von Stroheim in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), Victor Sjöström in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1959), and Paul Wegener in Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926).

Who’s Paul Wegener, you ask? He directed (and acted in) The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), which was a surprisingly good film considering its early production date.

Here’s Paul Wegener as the Golem, a monster created by a rabbi to protect the Jewish residents of Prague from oppression. He actually directed two other films about the Golem going back to 1915, but those films have been lost.

In The Magician, Wegener plays the magician Oliver Haddo, who is obsessed in hypnotizing Margaret Dauncey (played by Alice Terry, Rex Ingram’s wife) and creating life by killing her and taking the blood directly from her heart. Fortunately, her fiancé and guardian arrive at Haddo’s mad doctor’s castle and put the kibosh on him.

Rex Ingram made a number of classic silent films. The most famous is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom. After sparring with studio bosses, he repaired to Southern France with his wife Alice Terry and made a number of beautiful films such as Mare Nostrum and The Magician, both filmed in 1926.

He is not to be confused with the black actor known by the same name.

Ronin

It is without a doubt one of the most incredible shots in the history of the cinema. And yet it was the work of a director, Hideo Gosha, on his first motion picture, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). Picture to yourself a peasant who with two of his friends kidnapped the daughter of a corrupt local magistrate as part of a protest against his cruel administration. Instead of keeping his promises, this magistrate sends thugs to kill him. As he lies bleeding with his back slashed by a sword, we cut to a closeup up the peasant, dying, looking with wide-eyed wonder at a lone wildflower growing in front of his face.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese cinema was at its height, one of the most fascinating in the world. The best of their films were in a genre known as jidaigeki, historical pictures set mostly during the Tokugawa Shogunate between 1603 and 1868. Starring most prominently were samurai, particularly masterless or outlaw samurai called ronin. Other films in the genre portrayed gangsters (yakuza), merchants, even peasants.

I had seen Three Outlaw Samurai at least twice before, but this time the film’s pessimism struck home. Aiding the peasants in their protest are three ronin who, one by one, come together. They are unable, however, to help the peasants win. After the three who kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter are killed, the other peasants in the surrounding villages are afraid to present their protest to a wondering clan chief who is due to visit in a few days. It is because of this visit that the magistrate hires waves of goons to attack not only the protestors, but previous goons who are asking for too much money.

The bloodshed is considerable. The three ronin kill at least a hundred of the magistrate’s men, who in turn kill large numbers of peasants. At the end, the three ronin decide to travel together in a direction selected by chance.

Ever since I first fell in love with movies as a student at Dartmouth, I have loved the fast action of chambara (“sword fight”) films. But, like the best Westerns, these “Easterns” can attain the status of high art. In a future post, I will list my favorite samurai films.