La Belle et la Bête [1946)

We return to old wounds.

First tastes.

Last glimpses.

I told her, but she did not believe me.  Belle.

And I have rejected several metric tons of noise to be a dedicated son.

Asks for a single rose.

Saved by a fire beneath a sturdy mantle in the cold countryside.

One of the first French films I saw.  Maybe the very first.

Where my eyes were open.

King Lear and filial piety and the prodigal.

But daughters who are pure.  Rare.

1001 nights.  The same question.

The persistence of memory.

We must visit.  We must move.  We must be there.

Magic mirrors before Skype or Facetime.

Back when coups involved messengers on horses.

It should be Cupid firing the arrows.

And not chess against Deep Blue.

Folger’s instant karma.

Here’s your svelte reward.

And your big fat penalty.

It would be nice.

To finish my penance.

And in these tests to feel the peace of Mother Teresa.

That we can call on a saint and ask translation.

Guidance.

We don’t need the whole fairy tale.

Mostly the arms with candelabras and the blinking statues.

 

-PD

#3 The Curse of Mr. Bean [1990)

Just who does Donald Trump think he is???

Answer:  Sam Walton.

It’s the big, goofy, mesh-backed baseball cap.  The ones with the plastic snaps and infinitesimally small corresponding holes.  And then the squishy, peaked frontispiece:  “Make America great again” –or– (alternately) “Wal-Mart”.

That is the Donald’s costume…out on the campaign trail.  It’s bold.  Comedic.  A bit like George H.W. Bush “shopping” for groceries out among the common folk and being dumbfounded by this whole newfangled barcode scanner.

Yes, Donald Trump:  man of the people.

And so who did Rowan Atkinson think he was with Mr. Bean?

Well, that one’s a whole lot harder to pinpoint.

We might know Chaplin.  And Sellers.

But then there’s all these other institutions which don’t quite translate outside of Britain…The Goon Show, Dudley Moore, The Goodies…

Just from whence was Atkinson pulling his stuff?

We want to think it’s all original.  And perhaps it is.

But influence is unavoidable.

And so with the third and final episode of 1990, Atkinson gave us The Curse of Mr. Bean.  [1991 would yield only one episode of the show.]

The curse…hmmm…certainly sounds like an allusion to Sellers’ Clouseau.

Whatever the case may be, Atkinson’s material is all tied together with a very cohesive theme this time:  fear.

Fear of the diving board (afraid of heights).

Fear of public nudity or embarrassment (lost his trunks in the pool).

And finally the orgiastic grand guignol of laughter:

fear of movies.

It sounds like a pretentious art school pop album.

For instance, the Talking Heads’ Eno-produced Fear of Music (1979).

But for Bean, the horror was more of the Freddy Krueger type.

Indeed, by December 30, 1990 (this show’s airdate), there had already been five (yes, 5ive) A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

Churned out of the dream factory like diabolical cotton candy, they appeared in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989.  The series then would recommence in 1991.  Which begs the question, just what was Freddy Krueger up to in 1986?  Laying low?  Vacationing?  The Caribbean?

To wit, Bean is scared witless while on a date (yes, those things where aspiring romantics “go out”) with the absolutely adorable Matilda Ziegler.

For those of you (like me) who can’t live without pithy character names, Ziegler’s role (like my beloved Enid Coleslaw) is that of Irma Gobb.

And Bean, therefore, is the man-child…the everlasting Gobbstopper [sic].

[Which is to say, Ziegler’s character is a reoccurring one.]

Perhaps we need to look further back to find a precedent for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean…perhaps out of the world of comedy proper.  Perhaps to the Dadaists?  I can certainly imagine Mr. Bean dressed as a sort of human tampon à la Hugo Ball…with lobster claw hands.  Or maybe Bean with a lobster telephone courtesy of Dalí.  Certainly Bean would have a pet lobster to take for walks in the Bois de Boulogne with a ribbon for a leash like Gérard de Nerval.

But we perhaps perhaps perhaps need to look further.  To the wry humor of Marcel Duchamp.  To the childlike fancy and brilliance of a René Magritte or an Erik Satie.  Even, god forbid, the humor of a Mauricio Kagel.

Conductors don’t have heart attacks mid-concert?  Not according to Kagel’s Ludwig Van.

Yet Bean never crosses that line of pretension.

He’s never Anthony Braxton’s Quartet for Amplified Shovels.

No, Bean always remains funny.

And so, perhaps, nothing is more revolutionary than comedy.

This kind of comedy.

Absolutely scripted, miniaturist-perfect comedy worthy of Jacques Tati.

In that sense, we might say that Mr. Bean is like Peter Sellers having Charlie-Chaplin-like total control over a production.  At least that’s the way it seems.

Perhaps we would be criminally neglecting the director of these first three Bean episodes:  John Howard Davies.

But in such comedies, the thing really does speak for itself.

Rowan Atkinson fills every moment of screen time in these gems with his thoroughly inimitable charm.

 

-PD

El ángel exterminador [1962)

Dear friends…it has been awhile.  And I have been stuck inside a nightmare.

A party, but a nightmare all the same.

On this New Year’s Eve when so many rush to their engagements…I have thanks to give…yet it all seems so surreal.

For many of us we battle mental demons.  Usually, we don’t mean demons literally.  And I certainly don’t.

Yet, the world is so strange that we can’t help wondering whether there is something beyond science which is driving certain events.

These sentiments…these questions, are the stuff of El ángel exterminador.  This is not a relaxing film, but it is absolutely essential.

It is a work of art which is irreplaceable in the global canon of creative thought and philosophy.

Luis Buñuel had immense courage to make this film.  And yet, he was an old hand by this point.

His first film (made in collaboration with fellow-Spaniard Salvador Dalí) was 16 minutes which shook the world:  Un Chien Andalou.  That was 1929.  The slicing of the donkey’s eyeball.  Before the stock market crash.  And verily, the cinematic parallel of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.

Outrageous surrealism.  Think of his collaborator’s La persistència de la memòria.  The same fount of Freudian cess.  From the pool of the taxed mind comes melting clocks…(and in the case of Un Chien Andalou those familiar ants).  We will always see Dalí as ants…as ants on James Joyce’s egg-yolk universe…Humpty Dumpty having represented the fall of man (“…sat on the wall/…had a great fall”).  [Or as Joyce so singularly put it:  bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!]

Luis Buñuel had the mad genius of Joyce.  In 1930, he followed upon his famous 16 minutes with 60 minutes in L’Âge d’Or.

I had the privilege of knowing Buñuel by way of his first two films and (in bookend fashion) two of his last three films:  Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) and Cet obscur objet du désir (1977) [his final creation].

But none of this could have prepared me for the devastating, scathing critique of Western civilization that is El ángel exterminador.

The genre known as “comedy of manners” becomes a grotesque apocalypse the hands of Buñuel.  In that sense, El ángel exterminador is closest in spirit (or subject matter) to Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

But it is very important to note that El ángel exterminador is operating on multiple levels.

Is it a damnation of the rich?  Sure.

Is it a mockery of polite culture?  Of course.

But the lethargy and incapacitation we see in El ángel exterminador are the result of very mannerly people being reduced to complete inaction because routine convention has been circumvented.  We see the short-circuiting of well-meaning people who do not know how to cope with change.

And on that level, this film is universal.  It just so happens that the overly-precious manners of the bourgeoisie serve best the filmmaker’s purpose.

Not to disappoint the more visually-stimulated among you, but there is no swooping angel of death in this film.  There is, however, a tense, suffocating masterpiece which makes Hitchcock gems like Lifeboat and even Rope look like the products of lazy philosophy in comparison.

One last thought…  For those who think that the wonderfully-bizarre Alejandro Jodorowsky appeared out of nowhere, El ángel exterminador sets the record straight.  Buñuel was taking aim at the impotence of religion before Jodorowsky was in short pants.  In this film we see the kernel of imagery (lambs, a smashed cello, bits of debris…) which would make La montaña sagrada the beautifully freakish creation it is.  Both were, incidentally, shot in Mexico.

Though Buñuel (a Spaniard) and Jodorowsky (a Chilean) came from different corners of the Spanish-speaking world, their lives would both include important time spent in Mexico and France.  Jodorowsky is, in some ways, still the future.  But to know the future, we must first know the past.

 

-PD

 

Gummo [1997)

When the rain comes down…in the swimming pool…and rabbit ears has his pink life…kissed by movie stars.

Rabbit ears isn’t so lonely anymore.  Literally hovering over the highway.  Chain-link crosswalk.  Loitering.

Rabbit ears had it bad in the dump.  Got beat up by stereotypes.  Shot with cap guns.  But the words real hurtful.

I wanna add my own appendix to this here masterpiece.  And so’s I goes on the Google and finds pictures.

They say a boy can’t be beautiful.  Just handsome.  And a taxi…a cab.  Can only be hansom.

We’ll get to your favorite scene in due time.  Just tape that bacon to the tile.  We’ll be returning.

I wanna add my own art to art already made.  Found footage.  Found emotions.  On the junk heap.  Andre Breton.

All those cool French guys recording their dreams.  Dali.  With a little slanted dot over the eye.

Yeah, Dali and Bunuel.  With a little wave over the inn.

And the donkey or whatever.  Gets his eye cut reel bad.  And this was near the beginning of cinema.

And Bunuel went on to Mexico.  And Aleister Crowley went to Mexico.  And Antonin Artaud.

And then Bunuel made French movies.  Maybe they were all French.  But not the Mexican ones.

And Eisenstein made a Mexican movie.  Reel good that.

And why is I talking funny and sayings nothing?

Because I been steeped like a tea bag in pure genius.

Ain’t my genius.  I’m just the reader.  The watcher.  The observer.

And then somebody gets Schrödinger‘s cat.  And they hurt it real bad.

Nobody ever asks what Schrody’s cat was named.  And it so happens Foot Foot.

Like the song by The Shaggs?  I think so, my pal.

So lemme tell you.

If I go on many more tangents like a line glancing off a sphere I will lose something important.

No no…I keep going.

Because my glasses fogged up with tears from crying.  When I had to get up to pee.

Later.  The retarded girl.  In the Krokus shirt.  But when she’s jogging back and forth.

That’s my family.

Yeah, for a minute I saw the whole totality of my lineage.

And it really made me cry.  Prematurely.

But mostly it’s when the rain falls.

It looks like the most heavenly scene.

I’m Mr. Rabbit.  I took a lot of risks.

A pink life.  That’s being vulnerable.  Listening to Tchaikovsky.

I skated down the hill on a banana like Jesus Christ.

One little pebble and my face is fucked for weeks.

One passing car and I’m Jello.  J E LL O.

But take a deep breath because you’ve shivered shirtless.

God damn.  You’ve got pink rabbit ears and knuckle tats.

You weren’t meant for this world.

And when the perfect storm comes—-

a lifetime of pain melts away.

For a second.

You’re not the freak.

For a second somebody wants you.

And you want them too.

And, really, it’s just fun.

That life has dealt you this miracle.

It makes your Xenia, Ohio bearable.  Just.

Life is transitory.  Crackling like a wet transistor.

Here today be here not tomorrow.

-PD

Une femme est une femme [1961)

I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a tragedy, but it’s a masterpiece.  So says Jean-Claude Brialy near the end of this film.  This is, indeed, a complex turning point in Godard’s filmography.  It is important to note that Godard made a film in between Breathless and A Woman is a Woman (Le Petit soldat), but it was banned by the French government because it focused on torture (as part of the ongoing Algerian War).  What is obvious is the dramatic shift from the stark noir of Breathless to the candied colors of A Woman is a Woman.

But there are many things strange about this relatively “normal” film (relative as regards Godard).  There is a sexual, existential tension between Anna Karina and Godard the director which is played out in a complex quasi-real paradox of a love triangle.  Bear with me…  Brialy and Belmondo are both symbols, but at times it seems that Belmondo is a symbol for himself.  Brialy is more obviously the “Godard” character.  Knowing the history of Karina and Godard, it might seem rather premature for them to be having relationship problems, but that’s why it is essential to note that her first film as Godard’s muse was Le Petit soldat.  [It would eventually be released after Vivre sa vie as his fourth film (and, importantly, after the Algerian War had ended).]

I would go so far as to say that Godard is weirder in this film (last I checked, the only of his films available on Netflix=his most lasting contribution to the mainstream) than Jodorowsky is in The Holy Mountain.  That might seem to be a stretch, but again:  bear with me.  Jodorowsky, while brilliant, is over-the-top in such a way which harkens back to the earliest of avant-gardes…the films of Dali and Bunuel.  Godard, on the other hand, while seeming to “play the game” to a certain extent was in actuality creating a new language.  Just the first few moments of A Woman is a Woman alone are enough to indicate as much.  The role of sound and music in this film is paramount.  While perhaps little noticed, Godard (together with the music of Michel Legrand) had developed a sort of audio jump cut.  He would use this device to greatest effect in the opening credits of Vivre sa vie.  The inexplicable stops and starts in both the soundtrack and the ostensibly synchronized sound (dialogue and such) serve to once again make the viewer subtly ill-at-ease (just as Breathless had done visually).

James Monaco had it right when he talked about the Nouvelle Vague exploding genres from the inside out.  Godard here chooses the American musical.  I could go on at length, but I will keep it short.  No one has dug deeper into themselves time after time to give the viewer a truly novel and thought-provoking experience than Jean-Luc Godard.  Understood on a strictly intellectual level, it is fascinating.  Viewed over the course of a long, persistent career, it is truly touching.

-PD

Blind Husbands [1919)

Erich von Stroheim, like Lars von Trier after him, was not really a “von.”  Even as early as Josef von Sternberg directors were adopting (through hook and crook) the self-styled nobility of Stroheim in imitative honor.  The pioneer of this trend started his directing career with the film in question.  One wonders whether this movie also began the habit of filmmakers to shoot in (or depict) Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Through the years we would see both the Pink Panther and James Bond franchises gravitate towards the little Alpine village in the Dolomites.

One thing is certain:  after almost 100 years this story (also by Stroheim) feels modern and the direction is equally modern and stunning (especially for a first-time director).  Just two years later, Charlie Chaplin would begin (with The Kid) a string of self-directed features (with himself cast as the lead) which would rocket him to international stardom [the exceptions being A Woman of Paris (1923) and Chaplin’s last film A Countess from Hong Kong].  So one might argue that Stroheim started yet another trend (starring in self-directed features) which became inextricably integral to the development of film.  Later echoes would present themselves in the work of Orson Welles and François Truffaut (to name just two).

There are several innovative uses of the camera in this picture.  One, when Francelia Billington is combing her hair at the mirror, sees the focus go from her to her husband asleep in his bed.  Not content with this coup, Stroheim then has the husband morph into a memory of the young wedded couple in their happier, former days.  Another instance of ingenious directing comes when Billington is having a fevered nightmare ridden with guilt.  Stroheim (who plays The Other Man) appears as a disembodied, grotesque head.  As he smokes lasciviously from his long cigarette holder the dream sequence then cuts to his nicotine-stained hand and a solemn index finger which slowly comes to point at the dreamer.  Such imagery anticipates Hitchcock’s gun sequence from Spellbound (not to mention its dream sequence for which Hitch employed the design skills of Salvador Dalí).

Another poignant auteurist touch comes near the end when Stroheim (as actor) is stranded atop a mountain peak.  His dire situation is reinforced by the birds of prey which gradually start circling, yet we first only see them as shadows against the rock.

Most notably, this film was released just two months after the end of World War I.  Stroheim plays a Lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry (Austria-Hungary being one of the Central Powers battling the United States which was among the opposing Allies).  It was the assassination of an Austrian which triggered the war and the first shots fired were by Austrians on Serbians in retaliation.  Keep in mind that Blind Husbands is unquestionably a Hollywood production (Stroheim having emigrated to the U.S. in 1909).

Moving back to the theme of this film, one senses a shifting, secular morality pervading throughout.  Perhaps Stroheim was “urged” to make the whole thing a morality play, but he sure seems to be enjoying the role of the womanizing dandy.  The end of the film is not convincing enough to deduce that Stroheim really cared one way or another about the moral “lesson” ostensibly conveyed.  The only strange caveat is the shot of him (The Other Man) desperately praying atop the mountain.  That and, in my cut of the film, we never see Stroheim plunge from the cliff after having been attacked by vultures.  Perhaps I am still becoming versant in silent film and the fall escaped me.  Viewers with ADD stand no chance of making it through this “blockbuster.”  Those who have successfully absorbed the linguistic disconnect of Shakespeare from modern English will have a good idea of the patience it takes to delve into lesser known silent films on a regular basis.

-PD

Across the Pacific [1942)

Spies, spies; every where, Nor any secret to glean.  Je t’aime… moi non plus

“Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither.”  Ah, Dalí.  Only a man who enjoyed roasted grapefruits as an appetizer would have the twisted wit to turn Western logic upon its head.

Coleridge.  Gainsbourg.  Bogart.  Indeed, the albatross was heavy round the necks of all at this time…not least for John Huston.  We begin with détournement and continue with dérive.

Dear Mr. Huston didn’t even get the chance to complete this film before having his work taken over by Vincent Sherman.  This was truly an age of war.  Hot war.

The original film premise was to depict a Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor…until the Japanese actually did just that.  Oops!  And so it was rewritten to focus on the Panama Canal Zone.  A sabotage incident (which would have likewise sparked off American mass involvement) is the linchpin of our drama.

Sydney Greenstreet once again plays a slippery character (and what is more, referred to again as “the fat man”).  It wouldn’t be too long before Greenstreet’s soubriquet was transposed onto the plutonium bomb which destroyed Nagasaki.  This was no coincidence.

After arriving in Panama Bogart continues his work for Army intelligence by meeting with A.V. Smith (Charles Halton).  On Smith’s desk, conspicuously in plain view, is a calendar and the date:  Dec. 6, 1941.  Time is of the essence.

Bogart’s character is named Rick.  His pal Lee Tung Foo is called Sam.  Sound familiar?

Yes, just two months after Across the Pacific, Casablanca would be released with Bogart as another Rick and Dooley Wilson as Sam the piano player.  Greenstreet had been “the Fat Man” the previous year in The Maltese Falcon (also directed by Huston).  That film had likewise starred Mary Astor who appears in Across the Pacific as Alberta Marlow.  Bogart would go on to play Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ masterful version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946).  It all gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it?  Let’s just call it the fog of noir, shall we?

To keep accounts straight…we should remember that Casablanca was directed not by Huston, but by Michael Curtiz.

Reentering the atmosphere of film criticism proper…this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but not the juggernaut that some Bogart outings came to be.  It is perhaps most of interest as the precipice which our star occupied just before Casablanca.  Though it is less known than The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (among many other Bogie films), it is well-worth watching.

 

-PD