Thursday, June 30, 2011

She Done Him Wrong (Sherman. 1933)

"Why don't you come up sometime and see me?"

Sex sells. It always has and it always will. Something I find hilarious is the idea that older films were not as openly sexual as the films that are released today. It is true that this generation may be a bit more blatant in their sexuality, but sex has always been a major force in popular culture. A perfect example of this is the sultry and voluptuous sex symbol, Mae West. In the Academy Award nominated film, She Done Him Wrong, West oozes a brand of sexuality that actresses today can only imitate.

She Done Him Wrong is a film based around a character that West herself invented. In the twenties, Mae West was a playwright whose shows were often shut down due to censorship issues. It makes sense that in the pre-code Hollywood era West would bring these ideas and characters to the screen. Lady Lou is a singer in the barroom saloon of her benefactor, Gus. She is showered in diamonds that she loves far more than any man, but Lou still gets around.

This all changes when she uncovers some of the secrets that Gus has been hiding from her, and when she meets a seemingly nice Salvation Army director played by the always suave Cary Grant. The story that accompanies these events is very fast paced, but it has to be in order to fit the sixty-six minute runtime. There is a fine line between a well executed shorter feature and a film that is running through chaos, but the whole thing seems to work. In fact, She Done Him Wrong is the shortest film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I credit this to the ever-calm acting style of Mae West.

Though it is rather short, She Done Him Wrong does feature some of West’s most famous lines and innuendoes. Most notably, Lady Lou gets to ask the always seductive “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”. This single quote stands for the entirety of Mae West’s career, and when you hear her say it you will realize why she is the original Hollywood sex icon. She screams, oozes, walks and talks a powerful sexual innuendo.

I would hardly call She Done Him Wrong a great film, but it is pretty good. If anything, watching Mae West do what she does is a really fun experience. She was a sex symbol before it was the thing to do, and her curves and low key voice were perfect for that order. Pre-code movies are pretty interesting, As far as they go, this one is not so bad.

She Done Him Wrong: C

The General (Keaton. 1926)

"An even harder act to follow..."

After Seven Chances, it did not take long for me to seek out another film by Buster Keaton. As much as I loved the aforementioned film, I had still not been introduced to his most classic work – The General. This is an epic war film that hides under the guise of a comedy. Keaton is at the top of his game with this one, and I feel privileged that I was able to enjoy such a work.

Like most of Buster’s movies, The General tells the story of a lowly man who is on love with the girl next door. The twist is that he is a southerner in the early stages of the Civil War. His girlfriend refuses to see him until he enlists in the Confederate army, but the army feels that he would be more valuable in his day job. So, rather than joining the army, he reluctantly remains the engineer of a powerful steam engine. His girlfriend sees him as a disgrace to the Confederacy.

As time goes by, Johnny Grey (Keaton) becomes accustomed to his role as an engineer, but he still desires to be a soldier. He finally gets his chance when a group of Union soldiers steal his beloved steam engine. Grey singlehandedly rescues his train, and girlfriend in the process, from the enemy in an action packed chase sequence that lasted the majority of the film.

Though the film does star the famously comedic Buster Keaton, I do not see this as a comedic film. The General plays like your modern day action film. In fact, it is the 1926 equivalent of a film like Taken (2008). It sets out the basic action flick formula with a loved one being captured and one man heroically breaking enemy lines to save her. How he goes about the rescue is what really makes The General a memorable film.

Like all of the Keaton films that I have seen so far, The General is silent. But this is not a film that lacks any sort of entertainment value. In 1926, Keaton was thirty-one years old, yet we see some of his most memorable stunts in this film. This includes a distraught Johnny Grey riding the connecter rods of a moving steam engine, and a heroic Johnny Grey climbing all over the engine while it is going at top speeds. It is the slapstick stunts that give the film an overall aura of comedy, but in this case they are more breathtaking than laugh-worthy.

As the most acclaimed and loved film by Buster Keaton, The General has left a lasting impression on the comedic, war and romance genres. It reminded me mostly of a film from the action genre. Needless to say, any film that can cross that many paths is a winner. Keaton is the human cartoon character and the impossible act to follow. We knew all of that before The General. What we found out is that Keaton is also an action hero. This is a great movie.

The General: A-

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seven Chances (Keaton. 1925)

"A hard act to follow..."

The first film that I had ever seen staring Buster Keaton was so unfunny and dated that I was automatically given an unfair depiction of the comedic legend. The second film of his that I watched was surprisingly decent. As they have been known to say, the third time is definitely the charm as Buster managed to dig himself out of my preconceived hole with one of the most enjoyable silent comedies that I have ever seen. Seven Chances is a lighthearted, ridiculous and stunt filled chuckle fest that singlehandedly has catapulted Buster Keaton into one of my favorite cinema figures.

The greatest thing about Seven Chances is it’s out of this world plotline. Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) has learned that he stands to inherit a major fortune from his late grandfather’s will. This is great news, seeing that he is involved in some bad deals that have left him financially under. With this money he will be able to save himself from poverty and jail time. He may also be able to marry his sweetheart, Mary Jones.

But there is a catch to Shannon’s apparent inheritance. In order to receive the seven million dollars, Shannon must be married by the seven o’clock hour of his twenty-seventh birthday. And of course, that means he must be married by seven o’clock that day. After blowing his proposal to Mary, Shannon is forced to try and find a wife by the end of the day. His partner resorts to all sorts of nonsensical pick up strategies that include everything from flattery to an ad in the local newspaper. The latter serves as the most working route of thought, which means that hundreds of women are now trying to marry Shannon for his inheritance money.

Buster Keaton is famous for daringly performing all of his own stunts in his early pictures. Obviously, you cannot have a film that features the human cartoon character without expecting to see some breathtaking and daredevilish acts of wellbeing abandonment. In Seven Chances, Buster Keaton is on the run from a hoard of hundreds of want-to-be brides. This scene has everything that we have come to expect from Keaton – he is thrown through the air, forced to swim great distances and ultimately sent rolling down a hill with several falling large rocks (made of papier-mâché). These stunts are, like usual, the calling card for Keaton and his character.

One thing that I enjoyed during Seven Chances was Buster’s famous deadpan facial deliveries. The film is silent, but Keaton says a lot with his eyes and forehead. You can see the sadness, discomfort, happiness and disappointment in his eyes. This is the first of his films where I have noticed an acting style from Keaton, and it was extremely relatable.

As the star and director of Seven Chances, Buster Keaton shows me why he is considered such a landmark in comedy. The only man to rival the comedic popularity of Charlie Chaplin, Keaton is a true genius in physical humor. His jaw-dropping stunts and ridiculous antics will do nothing short of making you fall in love with his character.

It has been said that, unlike Chaplin, Buster Keaton did not care if you felt for his characters. I think that Seven Chances is the exception to this statement. Keaton made a very funny comedy with a very sentimental love story connected to the back end. This is my favorite film of Buster Keaton that I have seen so far. It is also one of my new favorite comedies.

Seven Chances: B+

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vampyr (Dreyer. 1932)

"I wanted to create the daydream on film.."

At what point can you tell that you are no longer awake? What has to happen before you are finally aware that what you are seeing is a dream, or maybe a nightmare? That question is asked, and the idea used, by the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer in one of his often considered weakest works. Vampyr is a horror film on paper, but it does not frighten anybody. Though this may sound like a failure, it is actually what makes the viewing experience so memorable.

With Vampyr, Dreyer was quoted as saying that he wanted to create a “daydream on film”. Shot between 1930 and 1931, Dreyer’s first desire was to keep the film out of the currently exploding “talkie” era. Knowing that the studio would not accept this as an option, Dreyer countered by writing only a very minimal amount of dialogue. The majority of the characters in the film are silent. They let their facial expressions and body language tell the story. This is an interesting move by the great director because he is also known for using amateur actors in his films. Rather than covering up bad acting with creative dialogue, Dreyer wrapped everyone up in his desired universe. The acting did not matter.

Along with the acting, it was rather obvious that the straightforward story was not supposed to be the viewer’s focus. Vampyr tells the story of a young occultist who is staying at an inn that is under the curse of a vampire. With strange sounds, disappearances and illnesses coming from seemingly nowhere, this is not an inn that I would recommend to anyone. In the hours of the night, an elderly man rushes into the room of the occultist. He gives him a book that explores the vampire curse. With everything explained, the story plays out in a very predictable fashion.

If the acting is bad and the story is simple, what is it that makes Vampyr an appealing film? Simply put, this is an aesthetically interesting film to the same degree of some of the surrealist classics. The film was shot completely on location to add to the maze-like sense of the film. Also, Dreyer had his cameraman shoot the film through a piece of gauze held three feet away from the camera. This manufactured a cloudy and dreamlike thickness for the screen that a viewer almost has to look through to see the action. This is a style that was most often seen by Louis Buñuel in his most cherished classics, but it can be argued that with Vampyr and earlier with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Dreyer made the dream theatre style something of his own.

I would not say that Vampyr is a great film. In fact, I am not even sure that it is a very good film. It does succeed on an aesthetic level, and it is somewhat entertaining for an early horror. I hate to sound so snobbish, but I much prefer Dreyer’s work on The Passion of Joan of Arc. Vampyr is a neat film, but nothing more.

Vampyr: C

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Wavelenth (Snow. 1967)

"I don't want to watch this anymore.." - Megan Jack, my girlfriend.

I have not been particularly kind to anything avant-garde on this list. Flaming Creatures got an F, Dog Star Man and Hold Me While I’m Naked were both given an astounding D. Being avant-garde may be the only thing that the films actually have in common, and that trend continues with the peculiar work of Michael Snow. His masterpiece, or something like that, is a “structural picture” from 1967 called Wavelength. Though the film was incredibly painful to my ears, it for some reason has stuck with me. After a long thinking period, I have decided that I actually really liked it.

At a little under 45 minutes long, Wavelength is not an easy film to get through. It features a non-moving camera set in a large room, and nothing else. The camera captured the action that goes on in the room to create what Snow calls "a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas.” On the surface it is merely a stiff frame of three walls, a floor and a ceiling with the occasional, but brief, interaction of a human variety. But once you look closer you will realize that your eyes have deceived you.

Through the entire film, Snow has his camera zooming in at an extremely slow speed. After realizing this, your eyes will be fixated on the screen in a desperate attempt to convince yourself that you are not insane. I found the entire concept to be so emotionally exhausting and frustrating that once the film was over I could do nothing but watch it again. It was a pleasantly unpleasing experience that did nothing but expand my conception of conventional filmmaking.

I have to admit that the soundtrack behind the film was a bit confusing for me. It was nonexistent for most of the film, but all of a sudden…WHAM! Imagine the most ear-piercing scream or squeal that you have ever heard. Now combine them to make the last half an hour of Wavelength. I honestly thought that I was going to disturb my neighbor’s dog with the high pitched whistles and unexplainable wails that accompanied the actionless action. If you can handle the sounds you will be rewarded by the film.

With Wavelength, Snow created the most aesthetically praised work in all of avant-garde. His technique ultimately forced me into a starring contest with the screen. It was me versus the structure of a single room. It was me versus the nonexistent, but ever present, movement of the camera’s lenses. I waited arrogantly for the film to flinch. It never did. And then it ended.

Wavelength: A

Man Bites Dog (Belvaux. Bonzel. Poelvoorde. 1992)

"If you kill a whale, you get Greenpeace and Jacques Cousteau on your back, but wipe out sardines and you get a canning subsidy!"

The NC-17 rating was designed to be a rating for films that were made solely for adults. Once the X rating, the letters used were forced to change due to the pornography industry’s use of the never formalized XXX rating. I like the NC-17 in theory because it keeps children from seeing movies that they have no business being allowed to see. But is that not what the R rating is for? Well, you see, the only thing that stands between young kids and an R rating is a cool uncle, older sibling or dimwitted parent. NC-17 means that NOBODY under eighteen can see this film. Sadly, this has become a death sentence for any film that receives the rating. God forbid theatres turn paying customers away for the sake of morality. Most theatres won’t even touch an NCer.

The reason I go on this tirade is because my latest film from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die is rated NC-17. Man Bites Dog is one of the darkest films that I have ever seen, especially for a comedy. In fact, I have a hard time calling it a comedy at all. The film is a “mockumentary” meant to resemble a cinéma vérité styled documentary. What are they documenting? Man Bites Dog is about a camera crew that dementedly shadows a serial killer in his duties. They watch as he kills old ladies and children; they even start to help the killer, Ben, with his work.

The film was written and directed by the three men we see on screen the most. Benoît Poelvoorde plays the serial killer and the other two creators play members of the camera crew. Poelvoorde is so sinister, pretentious and vile in this role that it is almost hard to believe he is not an actual killer. We see him do things like kill children and little old ladies all the while spouting off poetry and philosophy that he clearly does not truly grasp. The ridiculousness of the things he says is what really makes the film funny, because there is nothing about Ben’s actions that would make an audience laugh.

One scene is particularly gruesome. After the camera crew becomes more accustomed to their subject’s body of work, they actually begin taking an active role in his acts. This includes a gruesome rape scene that features Ben and the camera crew taking turns at the expense of a fully naked and exposed woman. As intense as that sounds, they also have her original partner, a fully naked man, at gun point forcing him to watch as his presumed wife gets brutally raped.

It is true that we have seen killings and rapes in movies before, so what makes Man Bites Dog worthy of the infamous NC-17? The difference between this and your average (R rated) Saw (2004) is that the action is in no way stylized to seem less real. The men behind the film wanted to make the most realistic looking fictional documentary that they could manage. They used black and white coloring, mainly due to a shoestring budget, that added to the dirty feeling of the picture. They used their real names and family members to try and confuse viewers into thinking that the action was real. They also graphically showed the killings as if they were educational looks into the life of your everyday serial killer. To top it all off, they make all of it in jest. If any film has earned the NC-17, it is Man Bites Dog.

Roger Ebert has argued that the NC-17 needs to be replaced with a less vilified “A” rating for adults only. I respectively disagree with him. I simply believe that NC-17 should not be kept out of your everyday cinema. The fact that the NC-17 is the death sentence for most films does nothing but limit the messages that adult filmmakers can deliver to adult consumers. Man Bites Dog is not for children, but it should be seen by adults. It is a haunting and engrossing mockumentary that will make you laugh out loud and leave you disgusted with the fact that you did.

Man Bites Dog: A

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (Julian. Sedgwick. 1925)

"Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!"

Classic horror from Universal is one of the finest and most romanticized genres in all of film. It has been said that everybody, deep down, likes to be scared and Universal was more than willing to take advantage of this idea. They went about this by taking steady advantage of the greatest Hollywood scary man in history, the magnificent Lon Chaney. In The Phantom of the Opera an audience is reminded that silent horror is the most effective horror and that Lon Chaney is a brilliant craftsman of anything frightening.

What makes silent horror work is the fact that there are not vocals to focus on. The audience is forced to focus mainly on the intended aspects of the story. In The Phantom of the Opera, the intended aspect was the horrific and grotesque make up of the leading man. Chaney was famously given permission to design and apply his own make up for his role as the Phantom.

Rather than creating a debonair silhouette of his sourced material, he kept the look very similar to what Gaston Leroux originally described. Chaney painted black circles around his eyes and nostrils for an enlarged look. He also pinned back the tip of his nose using piano wire (ouch). To top that off, a set of twisted and mangled false teeth were added to ensure a frightening skull-like appearance. According to reports, the test audience was so shocked, disgusted and terrified by Chaney’s Phantom that the majority screamed loudly with some even passing out from fright.

Though the unveiling of the Phantom’s face is the most famous part of The Phantom of the Opera, this is also a film with some significant historical merit. In my favorite scene, the Bal Masqué scene, the viewers are treated to some of the earliest usage of Technicolor in film. The Phantom is covered in a haunting, blood-red costume that pops out of the scene like a firework against the night sky. The difference is truly that dramatic, and that is what makes the use of color work. Not that the film was otherwise completely colorless. Like a lot of silent films from the time, the majority of scenes were tinted to ensure the proper emotional response.

Another interesting thing about The Phantom is that it practically switched directors after it was completed. Lon Chaney and the cast were constantly having arguments with their director, Rupert Julian. After a negative screen test, Julian was let go and the film was subject to drastic change; including a totally new ending. Producer Carl Laemmle then brought in Edward Sedgwick to reshoot key scenes.

No, this is not as good, interesting, scary or famous as the film that it is often compared to, Nosferatu. But it is an existing documentation of Lon Chaney’s brilliance, and Universal’s knack for making exceptional horror films. This is not a film that you should skip because it is silent. On the other hand, it is not a film that you should seek out if you are looking for Nosferatu. All in all, I liked The Phantom of Opera primarily for Cheney’s performance and the eye-pleasing colored scene.

The Phantom of the Opera: C+

A Hard Day's Night (Lester. 1964)

"It's been a hard day's night. And I've been working like a dog."

I love The Beatles. They have been my favorite band since I was six years old. Everything they did is put onto a higher pedestal by me. A Hard Day’s Night is no exception to that statement. This is a film that not only helped solidify The Beatles as enormous popular culture icons, but it also created one of the many lasting visuals of the band from when they could still stand to look at each other.

A Hard Day’s Night gives the audience a comedic and exaggerated look into the everyday life of the Fab Four. The extent of the exaggeration is definitely debatable as the film opens with John, Paul, George and Ringo running from a swarming mob of female fans. Once they escape the crowd, the real plot of the film is revealed with the introduction of Paul’s very clean grandfather.

The senior McCartney is played gleefully by Wilfred Brambell. He is a mixer of sorts, and seems to feel accomplished by starting quarrels between the band mates and the management. He is, if one even exists, the closest thing to an antagonist that The Beatles have to deal with in this film. He is also the source of some of the funniest moments in the film. There is one scene that takes place in the police station after Granddad McCartney is arrested. This particular scene made me laugh out loud from start to finish. He is almost too outlandish to believe, but he mixes everything in with a sardonic, elderly bit of seriousness that helps the moviegoer buy into his character.

But Brambell is not the funniest source of comedy in A Hard Day’s Night. As a Beatles fan I have almost always related better with Paul McCartney, but this film made me really stand and take notice of John Lennon’s natural charisma. He is outstandingly boyish in his role as..himself. Almost everything that he says is a one liner joke or roundabout insult. His scene in the bathtub is another example of laugh out loud hilarity. The majority of his funny moments come at the expense of either his manager or his drummer, Ringo. In fact, it is no doubt that Ringo eventually felt underappreciated as a member of The Beatles. A Hard Day’s Night basically told him that he was useless….at least until the final moments.

Aside from the quirky action and witty dialogue, A Hard Day’s Night also featured some of the best rock and roll music ever written and recorded. Every so often the film breaks out into what can almost be compared to an early version of the music video. Some of the band’s most classic tracks ("Can’t Buy Me Love", "And I Love Her", "Hard Day’s Night") are performed by the band or played in the background. My favorite number in the film is their performance of "If I Fell" – which John starts as a way to calm a cheeky Ringo Starr.

If anything, A Hard Day’s Night serves as an educational look into the popular culture phenomenon known as The Beatles. Other than that, it is also a very funny and entertaining film. We have seen popular artists try and do the same thing that The Beatles and Richard Lester did with this film, but we are usually left with rubbish like Spice World (1997). This is a rare occasion when the star driven cinematic vehicle actually crosses over into the world of legitimate art. Heck, not even The Beatles themselves could ever recapture the magic of A Hard Day’s Night. Some of their next attempts, like Help! (1965) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967) were primarily negatively received.

I would like to point out that you do not have to be a fan of The Beatles to enjoy A Hard Day’s Night. It is a film that will make you laugh, invest you in kooky characters and force your foot to tap with some catchy rock and roll. I personally believe that The Beatles are the greatest band to ever walk the Earth. Their most famous film is also one of the finer comedic works of the 1960s.

A Hard Day’s Night: A

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hold Me While I'm Naked (Kuchar. 1966)

"There's a lot of things in life worth living for, isn't there?"

Underground film has been an interest of mine ever since I saw a film reel showing of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) while in high school. I have to admit that some of them are not the most entertaining spectacles, but that is exactly what makes them so appealing. What underground films lack in entertainment value, they make up for with interesting styles, techniques and visuals.

I have already written about films by the infamous Jack Smith and the ingenious Stan Brakhage, but one underground director has always eluded my attention. George Kuchar is an interesting character to say the least. As a director of mainly pointless short films, his status as an underground legend truly baffles me. And that is why I love it so much.

His most famous short film, Hold Me While I’m Naked, is nothing short of abstractly incoherent. And though it does have a tangible storyline, I still felt very lucky that it was only seventeen minutes long. The film tells the story of a disgruntled actress who walks away from a film because she did not want to do all of the erotic shower scenes. This is kind of similar to what actually happened during filming because Kuchar’s star, Donna Kerness, was stricken ill and no longer wanted to film the shower scenes.

The shower scene was really the cornerstone of the entire short film. Kuchar has a distinguishable interest in a very low-fi aesthetic. Made on 8mm film, Hold Me While I’m Naked is not a pretty film to look at, but the strangely working shower scene has an unavoidable pulling power. The underground eroticism that Kuchar creates in this scene is palpable. The viewer is forced into a world of trashy camp that was obviously influenced by the works of Jack Smith.

Though the sound mixing is awful, the talentless actors are frustrating and the visuals are difficult, Hold Me While I'm Naked is still a special work in trashy underground. It is my opinion that George Kuchar is far less talented than his experimental counterparts, but he is still an under credited influence on some particularly famous filmmakers – most notably, John Waters.

In terms of a short film, Hold Me While I’m Naked does not do a great job at wrapping up the storyline. But like most experimental works, the storyline is not particularly important. I was a fan of the film, but I could never actually call it well made, entertaining or even good. This is a film that takes an acquired taste. Hold Me While I’m Naked is an excellent display of trashy and erotic camp.

Hold Me While I'm Naked: D

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mondo Cane (Cavara. Jacopetti. Prosperi. 1962)

"This film would really piss off PETA."

“All the Scenes You Will See In This Film Are True and Taken Only From Life. If Often They Are Shocking It Is Because There Are Many Astounding, Even Unbelievable Things In This World.”

This is the first thing that the audience reads at the start of the original "shockumentary". This incendiary and controversial film is exactly what it advertises. Have you ever been on a highway during a horrible accident? No matter how hard you try – can you look away? That is the sensationalism that drives the creation of a film like this one. Mondo Cane is a film that works on perverse, violent, cruel, sad, xenophobic and eccentric levels. That may be why I love it so much.

What makes this film interesting is its unabashed willingness to shock you with violent and unfortunate images. For example, the very first scene features a dog being forcefully dragged around by an unseen man – only to be thrown into a cramped cage filled with other obviously starving dogs. In terms of animal cruelty, we also see sharks cut open and poisoned, live baby chickens rolled in dye and burned alive, bulls being ritualistically slaughtered, dogs being eaten in Asian countries and even snakes being skinned and eaten alive. This is NOT a film that I would ever want to watch with a member of PETA. In fact, I am all about the killing of animals for food, but some of the things shown for shock value were nothing short of sickening.

Animals are not the only thing to be exploited in Mondo Cane. We are also treated to the visuals of some extremely uncomfortable, yet devastatingly interesting, foreign cultures. This documentary features a section entirely dedicated to the living caveman. Released in 1962, it is hard to know what parts of the film are still accurate, but the idea that somewhere in the world there are still people without language who use giant clubs as weapons is fascinating. Mondo Cane shows you these people. Another interesting scene features religious men in Italy repeatedly stabbing themselves in the legs with broken glass on Good Friday. After their legs are covered in blood, they take to the streets at running speeds in order to spread the word of the Lord. This part was obviously bloody, but it was not even close to the most shocking.

The outstanding thing that separates a “shockumentary” like Mondo Cane from a regular documentary is the showing of human death. While some documentaries choose to display human death for educational purposes, this film seems to exploit death for a cheap thrill. In one scene, we see a man gored to death by a runway bull. After he is dead, another man simply comes into frame and drags the dead body away. It is almost like the man was not real – but we know otherwise. The hardest part to watch was the introduction of the death houses where dying people are left to meet their final fate. I had to look away from the screen as the sick and elderly inhabitants of these houses sat in obvious pain just waiting to die. This was emotionally challenging stuff to watch.

Actually showing human death raises the age old question for film nerds: is Mondo Cane a snuff film? The short answer to this question is no. Though it does exploit the concept of death for a thrill, the film is still an educational documentary. Nobody is killed onscreen by the filmmakers for entertainment purposes. This film was the inventor of the “mondo” genre, and also served as the leading influence for another, almost snuff, film- the infamous, Faces of Death (1980).

At the time of its release, Time Magazine called Mondo Cane the “season’s most argued about film.” In today’s world we would compare this film to an especially risqué episode of National Geographic. Still, I found the desire to exploit unusual human cultures incredibly interesting. The film does provide a viewer with social satire, global awareness and educational worldly ideas. But Mondo Cane is mostly a film that appeals to the lowest values of entertainment. Shocking for the sake of being shocking, this film’s three directors should be ashamed of how blatantly they mocked other cultures. They should also be proud of making an extremely memorable documentary.

Mondo Cane: A-

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sherman's March (McElwee. 1986)

"It seems I'm filming my life in order to have a life to film."

Remember the idea of “direct cinema” that was introduced in my review of Frederick Wiseman's High School? Well, it is back with a slightly different spin with Ross McElwee’s Sherman's March: A Mediation to the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. A fly on the wall documentary, this is one of the most unique and interesting character studies that I have ever seen. Before going into the review I would like to also mention that this was one of the longer documentaries I have ever seen – almost to the point of ruining the production’s entertainment value.

Ross McElwee is an ingenious, but socially awkward, filmmaker who starts out (hence the name) with the intentions of making a documentary on the lingering affects of William Sherman’s destruction of the American South. Before he can begin production, he is dumped by his girlfriend. This sends him into a whirl of depression that dominates almost every aspect of the ensuing project.

At first, we simply see McElwee as a whiny, self-loathing documentarian with whom we will struggle to relate. But it does not take the viewer long to find common ground with our film’s “hero.” He is lost, afraid, lonely and getting older. Rather than continuing on with his Sherman project, he uses his camera to document his trying for a serious relationship. He even uses the camera to meet girls. As creepy as it sounds, his idea actually works quite quickly. His first fling (with Patricia) is the most interesting.

Seen above doing some variation of a cellulite exercise, Patricia is an aspiring actress who meets Ross at a gathering. The audience is confused by Patricia almost instantly. She has a thick Scarlett southern accent, but lacks the O’Hara personality to match. She is beautiful, sure, but her ideas on almost any topic can only be considered out of this world. This is a perfect example of what makes Sherman’s March and direct cinema so fantastic. A character like Patricia is only insane enough for real life. She is like that embarrassing cousin that ruins your home movies.

After Patricia leaves Ross in order to pursue a role in an upcoming Burt Reynolds film, the audience is left without anything to quench our thirst for insanity. By this point in the film, nobody is hoping for Ross McElwee to succeed; his failure is what makes the documentary watchable. This is a film for a fan of awkward giggling. The stupid, outlandish, uncomfortable and completely natural things said by the filmmaker’s ragtag family are never hilarious – but almost always funny. On the other hand, there is nothing funny about poor Ross McElwee. He is filming his own life, in a direct cinema style, doing nothing but showcasing his inability to have a meaningful relationship with a woman.

Though this is a very funny and entertaining film (in terms of documentary), Sherman’s March is almost too long for its own good. The premise and practice of the film is interesting on its own, but only in very small doses. McElwee’s voice becomes almost unbearable after the first two hours of the film have passed. Luckily, the final few scenes are heroically thought provoking enough to rescue the film from falling off the watchable table.

At two hours and forty minutes long, Sherman’s March is a test of a movie fan’s dedication to art. Imagine what it would be like to watch almost three hours of someone else’s home movies or personal video diaries. That is what it is like to watch McElwee fail over and over again. Though there are some very funny aspects to each character, the runtime is enough to keep this film from being great. It runs dry after about an hour. Sherman’s March is much better than I expected, but I still much prefer the direct cinema work of Frederick Wiseman.

Sherman's March: B-

Friday, June 17, 2011

Earth (Dovzhenko. 1930)

"So as long as you are not expecting this to be a fun experience or a great story then it is indeed a classic film that you should watch as part of an education in cinema."

Imagine living in a world where communism is not a curse word, but rather a potential savior of your livelihood. When watching some of the older movies from the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, it is important to try and put yourself in a much different world and frame of mind. Earlier in this blog I wrote about Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin and mentioned that it was a pro-communist propaganda masterpiece. Earth, written and directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, is often considered on par with Eisenstein’s masterpiece. Honestly, I do not like the comparison. Yes, they are both made in the Soviet Union. And yes, they both promote communism. But Dovzhenko ‘s film seems to be a lot more subtle. It comes from a deeper place.

Earth follows the story of some peasant farmers and their hostile relationship with the much wealthier kulak farmers. After a takeover of the land by the kulaks, the peasants fight back by buying a mighty tractor to help production. The Soviet influence is very easy to notice, so that is not what makes the film work. I think the working aspect is where the influence comes from. Unlike Eisenstein’s straight propaganda, Earth brings communist ideas to the table through hope and optimism. Try to remember that this form of government had not yet failed the people of Russia. Dovzhenko makes an argument for why it would work and for how it would favor the impoverished.

Though this is an interesting film on a historical level, it is one of the least entertaining productions I have ever sat through. Sure, some of the shots at the beginning are simple aesthetic poetry, but it was a grainy and spattered screen for the majority. Also, the dialogue cards were incredibly clunky. A silent film from Russia, the subtitled translations are very strange and seem really out of context. And while going through some user reviews I have found that many people have trouble understanding the storyline due to the shaky translations. I cannot help but wonder how the cinematic technology from country to country differed at this point in history. Even in the humbling year of 1930, foreign countries were releasing extremely visually pleasing films, like Germany's, The Blue Angel.

I am well aware of the historical significance of Earth. As one of the most important works in Soviet and world cinema, I was really expecting a more entertaining films. I found that this was actually incredibly difficult to sit through. In today’s moviegoing society you would be hard pressed to find an audience who would find this film watchable. About halfway through the one hour and fifteen minute runtime I realized that I actually had been zoning out for quite some time. This is not anything that I would watch again, but I am glad to have seen it once.

Earth: D+

My Next Film...Sherman's March (McElwee. 1986)

The 39 Steps (Hitchcock. 1935)

"I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel."

In a music hall that is packed from wall to wall we are introduced to a man who knows the answer to any question a person can ask him, Mr. Memory. As his act continues, the crowd starts to get wild and frantic. Suddenly, gunshots shatter the noise of the crowd as people run toward the door in fear. After everyone is out of the hall, Annabella Smith asks to be invited back to the home of a young debonair bachelor named Richard Hannay. Once she is in his home, Smith reveals that she is an agent for hire on the run from two dangerous killers; she fired the shots to escape them in the music hall. She is mysteriously murdered in the night by these killers. Hannay is blamed. He runs.

This is the beginning of the mystery thriller, The 39 Steps. From the start the audience knows that this film will constantly be moving. Because it was directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, I was expecting an intense thriller with several twists, turns and obstacles. I was disappointed when I did not get any of those things. The 39 Steps is one of the most straightforward films I have ever seen. I would not say that it was bad, but it was just really average.

By saying that a film of Hitchcock’s is average, I have almost surely alienated an entire subsection of my audience. But I was simply not impressed by the efforts in The 39 Steps. Do not get me wrong, there was some very fine mustachioed acting by Robert Donat (Hannay) and even a very good looking leading lady played by Madeleine Carroll. The chemistry is thick as their relationship grows from enemies to lovers.

At first it is impossible for Pamela (Carroll) to believe the outlandish story that Hannay tells her. I mean, who could believe a story that ridiculous? A man is framed for the murder of a mysterious female agent who is trying to protect a dangerous secret from leaking to the world? Sure, I’ll buy that. No way. But, after a series of unfortunate events, Pamela finally comes around to believe these stories – and even falls in love with Hannay.

I wish I could say that the rest of the film did not play out in a fashion this predictable, but everything in The 39 Steps seems to follow the basic formula. Conflict is caused. Conflict is continued. The main characters fall in love. Conflict is solved and the good guys win. Though this narrow storytelling style dominates the majority of the picture, two questions go unanswered until the very end. But sadly, the answers are breathtakingly anticlimactic.

These two questions center on the title of the film. What are the 39 Steps? What is the secret that Annabella Smith died trying to protect? I will not spoil the outcome of this widely considered classic, but I will assure you that these questions have very dull answers.

I guess I have to remember that Hitchcock had not yet reached his glory years by the release of The 39 Steps. But I have to admit that this seems to be a low point in the career of the great director. In terms of Hitchcock's "innocent man on the run" films, I much prefer North by Northwest (1959).

But still, Alfred Hitchcock remains the most influencial artist in the history of cinema, and The 39 Steps remains a classic. Though I will never understand why...

The 39 Steps: C

My Next Film...Earth (Dovzhenko. 1930)

*NOTE* Hitchcock is famous for his cameos in 39 of his films. He appears on screen just seven minutes into The 39 Steps. He is tossing paper in front of the bus. Try not to miss him.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? ( Coen Brothers. 2000)

"We thought you was a toad!"

I remember reading Homer's Odyssey when I was in high school and thinking that it was nothing but a frantic telling of many complicated stories. It has a lot to offer as an adventure poem, but it almost seems strange that all of its angles were used to tell the same story. The same thing can be said about the Coen Brothers' film that is loosely based on the ancient work. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film that seems to be based on a lot of interesting ideas, but it lacks something important - structure.

It did not take long after the film was released for Joel and Ethan Coen to admit that they had never actually read Homer's Odyssey, nor does it take very long for the viewer to figure out the same thing. There are several allusions to the epic poem, but some might not be obvious to the others. We have an angry sheriff who represents Poseidon, the eye-patched Bible salesman to serve as our cyclops, siren wash women and the narcissistic outfit leader to be our main protagonist. The modernization of the story puts the viewer into 1937 Mississippi, so some of these comparisons are a bit of a stretch.

Our Odysseus in O Brother is named Ulysses and played brilliantly by George Clooney. He is a quick talking and self absorbed prison escapee who manages to trick his jail mates into believing that he knows the whereabouts of a great treasure. He is obviously smarter than his crew, but that is not saying very much. Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) make up the hilarious supporting cast.

The storyline may be a bit on the messy side, but this is still a film made by the Coen Brothers. This means that it is bound to feature some very interesting cinematography. Roger Deakins is the long time cinematographer for the Coen's and their films. In O Brother he presents a world where everything is shot in Fall colors and darker tones. Deakins said of the style that "Ethan and Joel favored a dry, dusty Delta look with golden sunsets. They wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture, with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow." This, and the sepia toning, is what makes you believe in the oldtimeyness of the characters.

The aspect that pop culture will remember O Brother for is the very famous soundtrack. In fact, the accompanying soundtrack may be more famous than the film itself. T Bone Burnett is credited for putting the soundtrack together, and he uses a variety of religious, African American spiritual and traditional bluegrass music to support the picture's ethos. The soundtrack, anchored by "Man of Constant Sorrow", went on to become a multiple Grammy winner and an overall music phenomenon. It is incredibly easy to become lost in the film's perfect music selections.

This is nowhere near the Coen Brothers' best showing. In fact, I would not even put it in their top five. But O Brother, Where Art Thou is still a positive cinematic experience. The music is memorable, the acting is wonderful, but the story tip toes on the line of overly mixed up. There are a lot of good ideas here, but Joel and Ethan could not collectively put it all together. If the Coen Brothers cannot do it, I doubt any other filmmaker could....

O Brother, Where Art Thou: C+

My Next Film: The 39 Steps (Hitchcock. 1935)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Clerks (Smith. 1994)

"I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

I would like to think that I am a pretty liberal human being. It takes a lot to offend me, and it takes even more for that offense to stick. I think that Clerks is a film that is offensive enough to stick with me. I mean, I already cannot wait to watch it again - but I would never allow a young child to watch it with me.

Clerks is a comedy-drama directed by the now famous, Kevin Smith. It is an introduction into his trademark "View Askewniverse". This means that we are introduced to the morally despicable people who make up Smith's visionary world. First we meet Dante. A grocery store clerk called in on his day off, Dante is struggling with the news of his ex girlfriend's recent engagement to an Asian design major. He is also having a hard time dealing with the news of his current girlfriend's oral promiscuity (37 guys). Played by Brian O'Halloran, he is whiny and almost impossible to to sympathize with, but his character is nothing compared to the best friend.

Randal is a worker at the local video store connected to Dante's workplace. Best friends since high school, these two have a very typical guy relationship. Dante is more of the "straight man" and Randal is the comedic presence. His contributions to Clerks are his strange wisdom and unapologetic vulgarity. Jeff Anderson gives the Randal character a strange boyish charm. His speaking voice and vocal tone are innocent, but his actions seem to come from a defeated place. He is protective of his friend, but is still the first to accuse Dante of being a glutton for punishment.

But the most famous characters introduced in Clerks are the simpleminded drug dealers, Jay and Silent Bob. These two Smith trademarks have very limited screen time in their debut, but they add some fresh-air comedy to the stuffy convenient store setting. This is also the film that features the duo's most famous moment, the dance scene. According to Smith (who also plays Silent Bob), Jason Mewes was so camera shy that everyone had to actually leave the set for the scene to be shot.

What makes Clerks such a charming film is its extremely small, $230,000, budget. A lot of the film looks like it is shot with a security camera. The settings are actual stores in Smith's childhood area. The actors, for the most part, are friends with the writer/director. This is a film that is based almost entirely around snappy dialogue and ridiculous conversation topics. It is not a film that anyone would call exciting, but it does keep you interested through character development.

Clerks is not a film that will make you laugh out loud. It is a film full of giggle worthy moments and shock value laughs. Even with the tiny budget, that Smith accumulated by selling most of his personal comic book collection, Clerks is without a doubt a film worth seeing. The 90's cinematic equivalent of the Little Engine that Could, this is Kevin Smith's funniest film. It is also his only masterpiece.

Clerks: B-

My Next Film...O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers. 2000)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Snake Pit (Litvak. 1948)

"When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up...."

After the train wreck experience that I encountered with The Color of Pomegranates, I felt that it was necessary to watch a film that featured one of the remaining living legends of the classic Hollywood era. After searching through the 1077, I came across a film starring a two time Academy Award winning actress that I had actually never even knew existed. The Snake Pit is an interesting and entertaining film that surprised me with its simplicity. In fact, that is what I liked about it most.

The Oscar winning actress referenced above is Olivia de Havilland. She plays Virginia Stewart Cunningham - a writer who suffered a severe mental breakdown. As the film opens, we find that Virginia has been committed into a hospital for the mentally ill. Her husband, Mr. Cunningham, is a profitable auditor who has lovingly stood by the side of his ill wife. At first approach, it looks like their relationship will be the center of the film, but director Litvak and screenwriter Frank Partos decided to make the film almost primarily about Virginia's struggle.

This means that the audience has the privilege of watching Olivia de Havilland in action for almost every single scene in The Snake Pit. Her performance is chilling and heartbreaking. The portrayal of mental illness was convincing enough to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. This is my favorite part of the film, as the relatively simple storyline was overshadowed by an amazing performance by de Havilland.

In terms of storyline, The Snake Pit follows an unfortunate typical formula. Do not get me wrong, I am not a glutton for unhappy endings. I just feel that the storybook was not the book that this film should have been written in. While watching the treatment of some of the inmates, I go straight to the extraordinary documentary by Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies (1967). This is a cinéma vérité documentary that boldly exposes the mistreatment of inmates in a Massachusetts mental hospital. I feel as though The Snake Pit was partly trying to send the same message, but it was watered down with other storyline obligations.

This includes a very unusual love story, or something like that. During her breakdown, the happily married Virginia Cunningham falls in love with her doctor, Mark Kik. As she progresses mentally, you almost wonder if he is trying to keep her in the hospital. Does he love her back? We never really find out, but we do see them embrace in a dance. His special interest in her is an almost out of place aspect to the film, but he is also credited for Virginia's eventual recovery.

The title is in reference to how Virginia feels when she is put in the least well ward of the hospital. She says that she was thrown into a "snake pit" where everyone was far more sick than herself. The other patients give the film a much needed sense of realism and sadness. In one of the final scenes we see them all singing about their homes in unison. Most of them will never be well enough see to see their homes.

The Snake Pit is a wonderfully acted film. Every scene will give the audience something to remember, and Olivia de Havilland is worth the price of a rental. But this film was not simply a work for entertainment. It also was a major influence for the reformation of several mental hospitals all across the United States and United Kingdom. I like this film a great deal more than I expected.

The Snake Pit: B+

My Next Film...Clerks (Smith. 1994)

The Color of Pomegranates (Parajonov. 1968)

"No one who has seen even a bit of this film could deny that it is unforgettable."

How much do you know about foreign culture? One interesting thing about world cinema is that it forces a milky white, middleclass American (like myself) to venture into the cultures of many different people. As much as I would like to say that I always enjoy that aspect of film, some films have the ability to turn even the most liberal film critic into a blatant xenophobe. For me, one of those films is The Color of Pomegranates. A Russian film directed by Sergei Parajanov, this has to be one of the least pleasant and most pretentious experiences of my life. I will say, in my introductory paragraph, that I would not recommend this snooze-fest to my worst enemy.

The Color of Pomegranates is a film that only arguably tells a story. I have read that it supposedly created a cinematic language through striking visuals and material symbolism. And though I am sure that this really happened, I cannot say that I noticed any of it. The concept that Parajanov based his film around was to tell the life story of the Armenian poet, Sayat Nova (King of Song), using non-literal and poetic imagery that more closely represents his art over his actual life. This means that the entire film is relatively without dialogue and features some excruciatingly pretentious still shots. In fact, the camera hardly moves throughout the entire production. It is just a jumble of long shots that lack any solid continuity.

One thing that I forced myself to remember is that I have seen this type of film before. I was automatically brought back to the surrealist movement of the late 20’s and 30’s with Louis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, but I think that this association would offend Sergei Parajanov. He was not making a surreal film; rather he was trying his best to tell a story through symbols and gestures. The fact that there is supposedly a story hidden in there keeps The Color of Pomegranates from being a surrealist picture.

So then what is this film really? There have been several filmmakers who try and tell an artist’s story through works rather than facts, and I have never been much of a fan. Though the comparison is thin, one film that succeeds with the endeavor is Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), which narrates the life of the famous photographer using her influences as a visual. But still, Fur is a film that stays within the boundaries of convention. Parajanov is not interested in conventional anything.

I suppose what you are reading is an American boy’s yearning for a more Hollywood-like structure in his entertainment, and I will admit that it embarrasses me to write that. But The Color of Pomegranates is simply a painfully boring film. I may be uncultured, but I was also horribly uninterested in this dribble. We are treated to the visual of men slaughtering goats, one exposed female breast, a man riding a horse, people shooting guns and (of course) the leaking of pomegranates; which represents blood – the essence of life. Deep right?

This is the part where my fellow cinophiles tell me that I do not “understand” what Parajanov is trying to tell me with The Color of Pomegranates. I assure you that the obvious religious imagery, worked in coming-of-age angst and the allusion to VERY old poetry was not lost on me. I guess I just do not have an invested interest in the culture. I am certainly not interested enough for something like this movie.

At the end of the day, I want to be entertained by a film. The Color of Pomegranates can boast some beautiful scenery, but it lacks even the most basic values that interest a consumer. I have a hard time believing that there are people in the world who could legitimately enjoy something like this, but there has always been a market for the pretentious. The symbolism is ineffective and the story is lost in the fray of nonsense. I hated every minute of this film. It was an awful, boring and eye-opening experience. I gotta get out of the house more…..

The Color of Pomegranates: F

My Next Film...The Snake Pit (Litvak. 1948)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Suspiria (Argento. 1977) * Perfect Film

"Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds."

I am not very interested in the horror genre. That is why I love the 1077 Films to See Before You Die. Through this list, I have been introduced to a variety of amazing films that I would have otherwise ignored. I almost feel privileged over the viewing of my latest horror-lister, Suspiria. Remember my sub-list that I have been keeping up with, Jake’s 10 Perfect Movies? Well, this Argento masterpiece has managed to make the cut at a strong number eight. Everything about this film works, and it was a fantastic cinematic experience.

Suspiria works as a horror movie as much as it works as a psychological thriller. It tells the story of a young American dancer named Suzy who moves to Europe in order to attend a famous dance academy. Though strange things are happening at an alarming rate, Suzy does her best to grow comfortable with her new surroundings. It does not take long for the audience to figure out what is going on at this dancing school. As Suzy meets new people and sees new things it becomes obvious that the school is run by an underground coven of witches. How do we figure that out? Dario Argento tells us almost immediately.

I cannot help but be reminded of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. This is another film that centers on a coven of witches without any regard for the twist ending. Rosemary is not unlike Suzy. They are both young, naïve, in unfamiliar territory and have to rely on others for basic needs. What separates the two of them is Suzy’s ability to overcome her adversaries. And though Jennifer Harper’s Suzy is an interesting character, Suspiria is a greater success on an artistic level.

Upon first glance, Suspiria is a film that uses breathtaking color schemes. The settings look eerily exotic with heavy primary colors, especially red. In one of my favorite shots we see Suzy dumping a glass of red wine down the sink. The red of the wine is thick like blood and manages to pop against the porcelain backdrop of the sink. These are the uneasy contrasts that Argento is dependent on to help create his fantastical horror world. He has already given away the ending, the least he can do is force emotional discomfort with sophisticated color misbalance.

Another perfect aspect is the chilling, and now famous, musical score. This can be credited to Mr. Argento, and also a band called Goblin. Together they created a score that gives the viewer a frightening sense of urgency. This is the type of music that is usually reserved for your worst nightmares, but Suspiria blends it in with hide-your-eyes tunnel shots and quick cut edits. The music demands your attention, and the anamorphic camera work is a perfect complement. Every moment of peace is interrupted by what sounds like a demented jewelry box tune. Gosh, just thinking about it gives me the chills.

My favorite thing about Suspira is the famous opening murder scene. It takes less than twenty minutes for the audience to know what they are in for with Argento. He is not shy about blatantly introducing characters for the sake of violently killing them off. If you are weary after the opening murder, Argento has you directly where he wants you. I thought it was brilliantly paced and tastefully violent. That combination is a rarity for the horror genre.

One thing I would like to address is Suspiria’s standing as a “cult classic”. I am not a fan of that term because it now automatically implies that the film is not up to any artistic standards. This is not the case with Argento’s horror spectacle. Though it did take the conventional route to cult standing with midnight showings, DVD releases and references in popular culture (Juno (2007), Scream 4 (2011)), this is a film that reaches above the majority of cult rubbish that the average filmgoer has seen.

Shot in a significant style and crafted to the point of horror perfection, Suspiria is a perfect movie. Entertaining. Scary. Chilling. Beautiful to look at, but hard to watch. This is one that you should seek out…

Suspiria: A+

Jake’s 10 Perfect Movies:

10. Pulp Fiction
9. No Country for Old Men
8. Suspiria

My Next Film...The Color of Pomegranates (Parajanov. 1968)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Blue Angel (von Sternberg. 1930)

"Falling in love again. Never wanted to. What am I to do? I can't help it...."

Do you remember Charlie Sheen’s short, but hilarious, cameo in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Isn’t it kind of sad how that performance sort of became his real life? Sometimes great movies can become rather sad because they foreshadow the life and careers of its stars. This is the case with the first ever German sound film, The Blue Angel. And though I loved this film, I cannot help but be saddened by the later life of Emil Jannings.

If you remember back to my write up of The Last Laugh, you know that Emil Jannings was the first man to ever receive an Academy Award for Best Actor. I called him the greatest dramatic silent film actor that I had ever seen. All of this still remains the truth, and even his talking performance in The Blue Angel is spectacular. He was an outstanding actor of very high esteem. But all of this changed less than a decade after the release of this film.

The Blue Angel follows the story of a grumpy college professor named Immanuel Rath. After the teacher’s pet rats out on his classmates’ activities, Rath ventures over to a burlesque show, of sorts, at a local dive club (The Blue Angel). He does this in order to catch his students partaking in vulgar entertainment. Rather than catching his students, he catches eyes with the star of the show, Lola. Through a series of chivalrous gestures, they begin to fall in love with each other. Or at least that is what it looks like.

Lola is played by the legendary sex symbol, Marlene Dietrich. This is the film that introduced the world to her signature song, "Falling in Love Again." It is also the film that catapulted her into mainstream superstardom. In The Blue Angel, Dietrich plays a cabaret performer and “shared woman” who supposedly falls in love with the Professor. After she marries him (and forces him to step down from the college), she barrels through all of her new husbands’ savings – reducing him to a role of a clown in her stage act in order to help pay bills. Lola is a femme fatale if film has ever seen one. The audience feels uneasy about her from the beginning. They hate her by the end.

I say that this film reminds me of Emil Jannings’ life because of the dramatic fall from grace that the main character suffers. And though we want to feel bad for him, we know that he brought all of it onto himself. Like Professor Rath, Jannngs was in a highly respected position in the world. Rath’s downward spiral was caused by the love of an unfit woman, and resulted in him becoming a stage clown. Jannings’ fall was caused by the love of his country, and resulted in him looking like a clown to the rest of the world. In the early years of the Third Reich, Jannings was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party. He would even speak at rallies while holding his Academy Award. He made several pro-Nazi films in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Once the war was over there was no hope for a Jannings comeback in the United States. He had burned his bridge.

The Blue Angel
is the first ever sound film made in Germany. It is also widely considered the first great sound film ever made. This makes it the precursor to the cinematic masterpiece, M – so its importance should not be understated. Nazi or not, we are again treated to an amazing performance by an all time great Emil Jannings. And we also get to witness the silver-screen rise of Marlene Dietrich. This is a heartbreaking, emotional and sometimes funny foreign film from the early days of sound. I strongly recommend The Blue Angel.

The Blue Angel: B+

My Next Film....Suspiria (Argento. 1977)