Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story [2003)

Happy Birthday to Thora Birch, my favorite actress of all time!

Yes, I know…I know.

A film critic whose favorite actress is a young 35-year-old whipper snapper???

Yes.

That’s alright.

Laugh at me.

If the question was, “Who was your favorite classic Hollywood actress?,” then I would answer, “Lauren Bacall”.

But I said favorite actress of all time.

You can search my “Thora” category here on my site for why exactly this actress is my favorite.

Because otherwise, we’re going to be here all day.

And I have a movie to review!

One of my favorites:  Homeless to Harvard.

It is, indeed …The Liz Murray Story, but I will be using the shortened title hereafter for brevity’s sake.

It is my contention (and I have made the point elsewhere…probably on this very site of mine) that Thora Birch produced a trilogy of acting performances which are more-or-less analogous to Bob Dylan’s classic trilogy.

Let’s start with Dylan.

The three (at unity from a similarity of intense expression):

Bringing It All Back Home

Highway 61 Revisited 

and

Blonde on Blonde

And now the Thora films which correspond in my mind:

American Beauty

Ghost World

and

Homeless to Harvard

Sure…Birch didn’t direct these films.

But her acting is so strong, she might as well have.

By this point she was no longer a prodigy.

She was a mature actress.  A master of her craft.

And the story here is one to really sink teeth in.

[In which.]

We recently touched on homelessness here in the review of Alicia Vikander’s stellar turn as Katarina from Till det som är vackert.

Pure.

But the esthetics of Homeless to Harvard are different.

This isn’t European arthouse.  It’s a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

But don’t go running anywhere!!!

This is as gritty as any Lou Reed tale.

And it’s all real.

Too pure.

Heroin addict parents.

Mother schizophrenic.

Blindness.

Genetic.

Mother with HIV.

Father with AIDS.

Vice versa ice Ursa.

Father in homeless shelter.

Mother wielding knife.  Vomiting.

Alcoholism.

Really appealing, eh?

But you gotta stick with it.

This isn’t Darren Aronofsky mise-en-scène.

It’t not, “Let’s win an award at Sundance.”  Or, “Let’s sweep at Cannes.”

It’s more like one of Aesop’s fables.

It’s the message, man!

And so first, let’s honor the director.

Peter Levin.

Who knew a television film could be so artful?

Well, when you combine the history of Histoire(s) du cinéma with the precedent of Twin Peaks, you should know by now that television can produce good stuff.

Hell…

Your TV can even WATCH YOU! (as per WikiLeaks Vault7).

But I digress…

The weeper (no masonry) sob story…had me crying in my Junior Mints…we must attribute to the excellent writing of Ronni Kern.

Who the hell is Ronni Kern?!?

Male?  Female?

I’ve had less trouble finding the gender of completely unknown foreign movie people.

But Kern is pretty invisible on the Internet.

And maybe there’s a point here.

  1.  It doesn’t fucking matter.
  2. You should judge someone on their work, not their gender.

Hopefully Ms. Birch will appreciate this flash of liberalism should she read this review.

[I’m not holding my breath]

But we have just celebrated International Women’s Day.

And the fact that Birch’s character here is a “feminist” is a running pseudo-joke.

Which brings us to the performances.

Michael Riley is stellar, stellar (I know…) as Liz’s father Peter.

Kudos to the styling department.

That beard.  And that hair!

Crazy, man, crazy!!

But Riley’s performance is really special.

It touched my heart.

Long ago.

When I first saw this film.

And dare I say, this movie made me appreciate my own family.

It made me miss my folks.

And so I salute Peter Riley and Lifetime and all involved for that effect on my heart.

Jennifer Pisana is really fabulous as the young Liz Murray here.

It’s an unenviable task.

To precede Thora Birch’s entrance.

But Pisana is indispensable to this little masterpiece.

Those sweaters.

And the full pronunciations…”Mommy”…”Daddy”…

Ms. Pisana affects the necessary naïveté to be juxtaposed against the sad schizophrenia of Kelly Lynch (who plays Liz’s mom).

And Lynch is great.

Think Cries and Whispers.

[cris et chuchotements…(( (( ((…et chuchotements]

Robert Bockstael does a fine job as Liz’s teacher David.

Very convincing.  Excellent craftsmanship.

Makyla Smith is piquant in her depiction of Liz’s best friend Chris.

[God…the Magic Marker…and the pine box…fuuuuuuck]

Yes, friends…this is Lifetime Television.

So the brisure (bonjour, monsieur Derrida) is “crap”.

“Crap happens.”

Whoa…watch thy mouth, Kelly Lynch!

So again…Peter Levin does a fantastic job shoehorning a true X-file into PG territory.

We see a syringe here and there.  A tourniquet.

Riley cleaning a spoon.

But the real heartbreak is Wheat Chex with tap water.

Yeah…

Hello Gummo.

Ellen Page has a small role here.

And she’s good.

Fine actress.

But we’ve been waiting to roll out the big gun.

Thora Birch.

On this, her birthday, I am only just now getting towards a handful of reviews honoring her unique thespian gift.

What to say?

That every look is magic?

That every glance is gold?

That she has crafted her microexpressions in solitude…and wielded them like an Arthurian sword for the duration of this flick?

Yes, yes, and yes.

[and an Oxford comma]

Because kids take it for granted.

Rich kids.

Harvard.

Penn.

Princeton.

Maybe…

But even more so the lesser ivied walls.

I won’t name names.

But the spoiled kids.

Not turning in homework.

Bragging about shortcuts.

Those, ultimately, will be life’s losers.

But Liz Murray worked her butt off to get into Harvard.

From sleeping on the B Train.

Four years of high school in two.

And Thora Birch has worked her butt off too.

She hasn’t gotten the roles her talent deserves.

But the roles she has gotten, she has largely smashed out of the park.

Like the Babe Ruth of leading ladies.

And so there are other actresses I admire.

But Thora Birch was the first.

The first to give me that magical feeling which only Neil Young has adequately described:

“I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand”.

Happy Birthday, Thora Birch!

And may all your days and films be filled with the joy which you have put into the world through your cinematic brilliance.

-PD

Trump vs. Clinton, October 9 [2016)

The United States continues to hold its breath.

And while doing so, it is worth revisiting the second Presidential debate of less than a month ago.

The “moderators” were the woeful Martha Raddatz and the downright evil (remember James Tracy!) Anderson Cooper.

These two jokers made fools of themselves.

But let’s assess this “town hall” shootout.

When Cooper said, “…the night really belongs to the people in this room…,” what he really meant was himself, Raddatz, and Hillary Clinton.

Screw everybody else.

And that attitude has come back to bite the mass media in the butt…big time!

Clinton says, “…I can promise you I will work with every American. I want to be the president for all Americans regardless of your political beliefs, what you look like, your religion.”

That must be the “public” position.  As we have seen from WikiLeaks, her “private” opinion (or at least that of her “staffers”) is one of complete contempt.

Young people are “fucking dumb”.

Latinos are “needy”.

Trump supporters are “deplorable”.

Black people are “super predators”.

But PUBLICLY, she says “stronger together.”

Blah-frickity-blah blah blah.

Nothing this lady says is the truth.

And (to cinema) she is A HORRIBLE ACTOR!

That’s what convinced me.

I have watched enough people on film to get a feeling about when someone is lying.

Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, Hillary Clinton says is disingenuous.

Transparently so!

“I want us to heal our country and bring it together.”

She also wants to (and did) have Democratic Party operatives start violence (as provocateurs) at a Trump rally in Chicago (as per Project Veritas proof).

It’s not likely that that was an isolated incident.

Trump kicks off the truth.

“We have to bring back respect to law enforcement.”

Amen!

But also, “…fixing and making our inner cities better.”

It takes money.  Yes.  And jobs.  Companies hire.  If they can hire.

Clinton’s plan is the globalist plan.  Ship jobs overseas and wait for new, better “service” jobs to magically appear.  It’s a pipedream.  Actually, it’s a scam.  THE scam.  Clinton’s program could be called Make America Poor Again.  She might have a law degree (likely gotten only so she could personally BREAK the law more efficiently), but she doesn’t know shit about business.  All she knows is “currying favor”.  Her immense wealth was not earned.  There was no hard work.  She most accurately represents a never-ending cycle of nepotism.  Not so with Trump.

But Anderson Cooper wanted to get right to slamming Trump.  And so Mr. Cooper, fully “in the tank” for Clinton, pressed:  “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”

Hey Anderson!  Do you understood that you almost single-handedly caused Dr. James Tracy to lose his job?  Do you understand it was mostly because you shirked your duty as a journalist to investigate the Sandy Hook hoax?  Do you understand that?  Do you understand that your criminal deception of the American people (under the aegis of gun control) was psychological terrorism?  Do you understand that, when it comes out you were fully aware it was a hoax, your career will be over?  Do you understand that?

They say Trump doesn’t apologize.  Personally, I’ve never heard Hillary Clinton give an apology about Benghazi.  Her “apology” was, “…what difference does it make?”  Now remember, that was concerning her culpability in the DEATHS of four Americans in Libya.  But you want an apology from Trump?  You get one (and an honest one):

“Yes, I am very embarrassed by it and I hate it…”

That’s about his sexual bragging which was caught on tape.  Nobody died.  But he owned up.  He was “embarrassed by it” and showed genuine remorse for his own lapse in judgment.  About something that happened 11 YEARS AGO!

But Anderson Cooper presses…and presses…and presses.

And that’s why Americans hate the press.

Because they don’t “press” on the important things.

Like Sandy Hook.  Or 9/11.  They just press buttons…and they have their buttons pressed (these “journalists”)…because they are part of the corrupt system which runs the United States.

They are shitty, soulless propagandists.

Trump:  “we have to build up the wealth of our nation”.

Whether the Adam Smith reference was purposeful or not, this is a real businessperson.  Unlike Clinton, he didn’t just go to cocktail parties and solicit donations.  He wasn’t selling access, he was selling real estate.  Big fucking difference!

Hillary has been getting rich as a “civil servant”.

And now her dream was so close in her sights.  The ultimate seat of power.  The US Presidency.  I really believe, however, that she sought the office merely for personal reasons.  A power trip?  Yes.  But a very sinister one.  She just wanted to be back in the Oval Office cackling about how she had tricked the American people with her “stronger together” bullshit.

Clinton claims, “…he has also targeted immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims and so many others.”

Did she really say that?!?  Because we have the PROOF that her campaign HATES EVERYBODY…including those demographic groups in that sentence!!!

But Clinton just can’t leave well-enough alone.  Like the parrot she is, she twitters out the tired, haggard, liberal eyewash:  “…America already is great…”.

Oh really?  Well, fine!  Why don’t you just step down then, “Madame” Secretary (and go back to whatever brothel you came from)?  Yes.  Indeed.  Why run at all???  If America is already great…  Fine.  Yes.  Obama has done a great job.  So you would just lend us that counterintuitively-grating NPR steadiness for another four years–that calm, soothing nonsense, but transformed into “leadership”.  Great.  Sounds wonderful.

“…we are great because we are good.”  Sure…  Wait!  Did Hillary Clinton just try to occupy the moral high ground?  On live, national television???  Good God, what a hypocrite!

At this point it’s appropriate to quote Mr. Trump at length…as he absolutely TORPEDOES Secretary Clinton:

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words. These words, I have been hearing for many years. I heard them when they were running for the Senate in New York where Hillary was going to bring back jobs to upstate New York and she failed. I’ve heard them where Hillary is constantly talking about the inner cities of our country which are a disaster education-wise, job-wise, safety-wise, in every way possible. I’m going to help the African-Americans, I’m going to help the Latinos, hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. She has done a terrible job for the African-Americans. She wants their vote and she does nothing.”

This.  This is what Americans have been waiting for.  Someone with a spine to call out, on national television, the fakery of the ruling political establishment.  It was a beautiful thing to hear.

The crap-journalist Raddatz says, “I want to get to audience questions,” but then she presses…presses…brings the narrative back to the lame, inconsequential Trump tape.  Which is to say, she didn’t want to get to questions at all!

Raddatz:  “This tape is generating intense interest. In just 48 hours it has become the single most talked about story of the entire 2016 election on Facebook with millions and millions of people discussing it on the social network.”

At this point, a third (and real) moderator would have told Raddatz to shut the hell up.  But it was one-on-three.  Trump against the world!  Or rather, Trump against the political establishment…and FOR the world!  Clinton wants a no-fly zone over Syria.  Like the one she imposed over Libya.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has accurately said, “That would mean war…with Russia.”  AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HILLARY AND HER CABAL WANT!  They are fucking maniacs!  No way should she or any of them EVER get anywhere NEAR the White House again!!!

Trump strikes back:  “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse. Mine are words and his was action.”

Little debate about that.

Further:  “His words, what he has done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that has been so abusive to women.”

Yes, folks…that’s the Clintons.  Trump would get into the specifics…about how Hillary got a rapist off.  Madame Secretary defended a client (as a lawyer), the rapist, and then later laughed about it.  THAT is the lady taking the moral high ground.  Appalling…

Raddatz: “Please hold the applause.”

Yes, little lapdog Raddatz had to calm the crowd…BECAUSE THEY WERE APPLAUDING TRUMP!

Hillary’s strategy was not working.  All those opposition research dollars, and Trump was defeating it with moxie…and honesty.  I’m sorry.  I messed up.  But the lady across from me is a conniving scoundrel and she has NO leg on which to stand!

Hillary SAYS that she abides by that paragon of virtue Michelle Obama’s words, “When they go low, you go high.,” but the truth is more like, “When they go low, we go lower.”

The transcript indicates there was “[Applause]” at this point, but it was either so weak or Martha Raddatz was so biased as to not make the same little preachy intercession she had made moments earlier.

But I will leave you with the deathblow which occurred not long afterwards.

Clinton:  “it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”

Trump:  “Because you would be in jail.”

Goddamn, that’s beautiful!

 

-PD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles [1987)

When I was a kid, this was a big family favorite.

It was one of those rare times when profanity got a pass.

That second time Steve Martin goes off…on Edie McClurg (the rental car lady).

But even funnier is the first time Martin pops off…in the Braidwood Motel in Wichita, Kansas…and John Candy just takes it.

Yes, there are some priceless moments in this film.

In some ways, this film defined an era.

Trading Places was an early-decade success (1983) for John Landis.

And then Walter Hill succeeded with a similar type of story, treated in his inimitable way, in 1985 (Brewster’s Millions).

But by 1987 the decade needed summation…and this particular genre which transcended classification needed a testament.

This is that film.

Funny enough, this was the same year the Coen brothers really started hitting ’em out of the park (Raising Arizona).  That film also is a veritable classic, but it is forward-looking.  It is almost like comedy in the hands of a David Lynch.

John Hughes was seemingly retrospective with Planes, Trains and Automobiles…like the J.S. Bach of the 1980s…summing up a decade of dirigist American comedy.

Hughes had a lot of career left to go in 1987, but this was a sort of highpoint…especially if considering only his directorial efforts.

Sure…Hughes was more counterculture earlier in the decade, but he wasn’t above putting his heart into a morality play like this one.

But to paint this film as a vanilla affair is not really accurate.

Consider Steve Martin’s yuppie character…a “marketing” professional on a business trip to New York from Chicago.

Martin’s character represents everything that was wrong with America in the 1980s.

Sadly, Neal Page (Martin) represents the problem which persists in America today.

Perhaps Isidore Isou’s famous class distinction fits here.

Neal Page, marketing professional, is an intern (as opposed to externe)…a cog in the wheel of production.

The Neal Pages of today would learn their marketing from an abomination such as Marian Burk Wood’s The Marketing Plan Handbook.

The Neal Pages of corporate America read a Wood phrase such as, “For the purposes of developing a marketing plan, advertising’s two basic decisions concern the message (what content will be communicated) and the media…,” without ever thinking Marshall McLuhan.

A savvy seller of used books might file The World is Flat in “Sociology” (in addition to the more strictly-applicable “Business”) in an effort to unload what must surely be one of the most overprinted books of recent memory.

But what bookseller ever thinks to place Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man (1964) in the “Business” section…or in the Marketing/Advertising “disciplines”?

Marketers, no doubt, would have a glib answer.

But marketers rarely know more than their insular, myopic areas of pseudo-specialty.

The “right” answer…the culturally literate answer…the answer Marian Burk Wood was either too dumb to include…or too convinced that her dumbed-down readers would not get…is McLuhan’s:

“…the medium is the message.”

The first sentence of the fucking book!

Chapter 1 (also, conveniently titled, The Medium Is The Message):

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

But the character Neal Page wouldn’t have known that…and that’s why he gets “schooled” in business by the portly, genuine Del Griffith (John Candy).

Of course, Candy’s character wouldn’t have known this either…but at least he wouldn’t have been a venal, meretricious, entitled prick like Neal Page.

And so Neal Page didn’t really go the extra mile in business school…  He just took all the bullshit shoveled down his throat as gospel truth.

Therefore, Page wouldn’t have known this gem either…a parallel to McCluhan from just three years later (1967).

Again, the first fucking sentence of the book:

“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

Ok, so I gave him two sentences.  Those are the words of Guy Debord from his masterpiece La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) [translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith].

Notice the similarities to McCluhan.

But, of course, Debord was referencing the big daddy of them all:

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’…”

Karl Marx.  Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1867).  Translated by Ben Fowkes.

And so today’s marketing professionals are either brain-dead (thanks to authors like Wood) or craven cynics thanks to equally worthless authors such as Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller.

These last two have contributed a tome to the pseudo-discipline of “marketing” entitled A Framework for Marketing Management.

If anything has ever called for the revocation of tenure, it is the appalling lack of intellectual curiosity these two professors (from Northwestern and Dartmouth, respectively) show over the course of their overpriced bible for aspiring C-level automata.

Consider their statement, “…make low-profit customers more profitable or terminate them.”  Now do you see why America has problems?

And again, “Spend proportionately more effort on the most valuable customers.”

Thank God for the Del Griffiths of this world.

People are not statistics to be terminated.

God bless John Candy and John Hughes for poignantly reminding us of the only true value in life.

Relationships.

Not to be “leveraged”.

Just people.

Plain and simple.

As Del Griffith says, “What you see is what you get.”

Genuine.

THAT’S the marketing of the future!

And it can’t be contrived…

 

-PD

 

 

Trading Places [1983)

At one point in my life I could honestly say that everything I knew about business I had learned from the movie Trading Places.

This film came on TV all the time when I was a kid.

And it never failed to pull me in.

But back to business…it’s that one scene:

coffee, wheat, pork bellies, gold, and (of course) orange juice.

Ok, so I mixed up the order a little bit.

But that’s the “breakfast” of commodities which sits before Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) as he is given a crash course in commodities trading by the Duke brothers (Randolph and Mortimer).

It always made a big impression on me…pork bellies.

And now as I descend from the halfway point of my MBA studies this film carries a richer meaning for me.

The gorilla comes with a bill of lading.

That’s not the type of stuff you catch as a six-year-old.

And I must admit that this film is all the funnier when the expletives are put back in.

And the nudity.

Yes, it was usually the sanitized version we saw on TV.

But maybe sometimes…on a special channel…the real version.

At any rate, this is truly an American classic.

Not least because it was produced by a true American hero like Aaron Russo.

Why do I call him a hero?

Because he stood up for something worth standing up for.

It’s no wonder.

Watching this film.

The agog camera views of the World Trade Center.

But let’s stick to the teaching tool at hand.

Trading Places was just that:  a beautiful teaching tool.

In some ways, therefore, it is aiming at the same thing as Le Gai Savoir.

The particular argument at issue is the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Perhaps my attempt to connect John Landis’ wonderful film to Godard is a bit of a reach, but there is real, American beauty at work here.

Consider, for instance, the opening montage of Philadelphia streets set to W.A. Mozart’s overture from the opera Le Nozze di Figaro.

Notice, if you will, the African-Americans playing basketball with a plastic milk crate attached to a piece of plywood…on a telephone pole.

There are some loving politics at work here.

What we have is a film about unity.  Dan Aykroyd.  Eddie Murphy.  Black and white.

There was a positivity to many American comedies of the 1980s.

I remember hearing “feel-good” used as a descriptor for movies (particularly summertime offerings) more than I care to remember.

But they were “feel-good”.

Trading Places, however, is more than just a feel-good film.

It is a film with a conscience.

That’s what makes it timeless.

I’d like to imagine that Aaron Russo’s conscience was already ticking…ticking.

It wasn’t until later that he made truly political films.

I don’t want to attempt a more profound framing than this thing deserves [too late].

Suffice it to say that Trading Places is as applicable today as it was in 1983.

We may no longer bandy-about the word “yuppies”, but we still have Wall Street.

Perhaps the trading pits and quote boards look hopelessly antiquated now.

But so much transfers.

Exeter.  Harvard.  Winthorpe.

And, of course, kindness transfers.  Jamie Lee Curtis.

So there you have it.

Trading Places is acerbic criticism on race in America.  Racism.  Opportunity.

Eddie Murphy will have you laughing your ass off.

This is truly an indispensable bit of 80s comedy…and so much more.

 

-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

 

Deutschland im Jahre Null [1948)

The first thing film critics have to get right is the title.

Let me explain a bit.

On my site, I always list a film in its original language (to the best of my ability).

In my opinion, that is the best way of honoring the film.

So far, I have encountered the mild idiosyncrasies of Romanian, Serbo-Croat, Czech, and Polish in addition to the mind-blowing intricacy of Farsi and Japanese.

But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we are seeing a German-language film by an Italian director…sort of.

Italy has a very peculiar tradition concerning voiceovers and direct (or, conversely, indirect) sound.  It is an oddity which caught the attention of Godard in his role as film historian.

I cannot give you as erudite an explanation as my hero Jean-Luc, but suffice it to say that foreign (non-Italian) films in Italy have traditionally been overdubbed into Italian.  So, in other words, no subtitles.

This is distinct from an American viewer watching a Fellini film.  The “American” version (whether on DVD or as a film print in a theater) will be in Italian with subtitles in English.  This goes for almost all foreign-language (non-English) films marketed in the United States.

But getting back to Deutschland im Jahre Null…  It is similar to the Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer directing the French film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc…with one major difference.  Dreyer’s film was a silent one (the only French being the intertitles).  Rossellini’s Deutschland im Jahre Null is very much in German.  We are hearing German actors speak (exclusively) German dialogue.

What is most interesting is the linguistic lineage of this film.  In English, this film is known as:

Germany, Year Zero

Which is quite similar to Rossellini’s preceding masterpiece (in linguistic parallel):

Rome, Open City

To be fair, let’s consider the Italian name (the real name) of Rome, Open CityRoma città aperta.  Fine.  That is the way I recognize the film.  The true name is (in my mind) Roma città aperta.

But with Deutschland im Jahre Null we come to a very strange case.  If we do not recognize the primacy of its English title (Germany, Year Zero), and I do not, then we are directed by that great arbiter of cultural legitimacy Wikipedia to consider our options exhausted by being cognizant of the Italian title (Germania anno zero).

What is the message of this omission by English Wikipedia?  I believe the message is that Germany was (and continues to be) a null.  A zero.  A conquered culture.

We see a similar thing in the kowtowing stereotype of conquered Japan.  And though Japan might be experiencing some moderate-to-light financial troubles in recent years, Germany is by all accounts the economic powerhouse of continental Europe.  Why do I bring economics into the discussion?  Because wealthy nations are able to assert themselves.

But let us step back a bit.  Wikipedia does have some tasty morsels of information concerning this film.  If the source can be trusted, this 1948 film was not shown in Germany (the country from whence the language of the film takes its name) until 1952.  After its single screening in München (Munich), it was not heard from again within those borders until it ran on German television in 1978. 

Wow…26 years.  Either this film was grossly misunderstood, or it was understood all too well.  From my reading, this is a very pro-German document.

Rossellini was not George Stevens making concentration camp propaganda.  Roberto was making art.  The sign of art is the admission of possibilities.  Art seduces us because it is subtle.  Art does not proclaim in blanket statements.  Art does not underestimate the intelligence of the viewer.

Roberto Rossellini did something with his “war films trilogy” which seems to have been unprecedented.  The desire of neorealism was to film fiction as if it were documentary.  This fiction would be, likewise, based on reality.

But why is it, then, that we have very different views of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Flaherty?

I will tell you my guess.  Flaherty’s sin was in the framing of his presentation.  To wit, he presented his staged documentaries (take the oil industry propaganda piece Louisiana Story for instance) as if they were naturally-occurring, spontaneous documentaries. The sin, then, was his duplicitous relationship with his subjects.  He actively made his human subjects into actors.

Rossellini takes a different tack.  There is no pretense that Deutschland im Jahre Null is an ACTUAL documentary.  It merely has the feel of that medium.  Likewise, Rossellini’s use of nonprofessional actors was likely more of a precursor to Robert Bresson than a twist on Flaherty’s bizarre formula (which predated Roberto in both Nanook of the North [1922] and Man of Aran [1934]).  No, Rossellini had created something new. 

It’s not so much the films of Flaherty to which I object as it is the idea of them.  At least one of his concoctions (perhaps thanks to director F.W. Murnau) is very fine indeed:  Tabu [1931].  Flaherty and Murnau co-wrote this ostensible documentary.  Indeed, with Flaherty we come into contact with inchoate, obscure film genres such as docudrama, docufiction, fictional documentary (ethnofiction), etc. etc. etc.

Most importantly, none of what I have written here has even scratched the surface of Deutschland im Jahre Null.   What ever became of the heartrending main child actor Edmund Moeschke?  I do not know.

One thing is certain to me:  no film before Rossellini’s “war trilogy” (Roma città aperta, Paisà, and Deutschland im Jahre Null) [1945/1946/1948] takes on such politically sensitive and important topics in such a raw way.  The closest would be the socialism of Eisenstein or the humanism of Chaplin. 

It is, therefore, no wonder at all that Rossellini spawned a million “new waves” the world over.

 

-PD