Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Tennessee Williams (play and screenplay) and Meade Roberts (screenplay)
Cinematographer: Boris Kaufman
by Jon Cvack
I know I’m watching a Tennessee Williams play when there’s an erratic and mentally unstable woman, struggling against a world that seems to despise her. In this case that woman is Carol Cutrere, played by the sexy and frightening Joanne Woodward, as a drifter who bounces from bar to bar, always looking for the next man, and always returning back to her small hometown when the night and dates expire.
The film opens with Marlon Brandon as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier sitting in a jail cell, preparing to go before the court after getting into a brawl. The camera enters into a long take close up of Valentine as the judge inquires offscreen about how he arrived in Louisiana. Brando searches for the words, delivering them with his soft cadence, swearing that the entire situation only had to do with his guitar and he never meant to get in any trouble. The judge orders him to leave Louisiana immediately and never return. He takes off in a beat up car and heads to a small Mississippi town, before the deluge of rain soon forces him to seek refuge in a sheriff’s office, where a painter shows him her awful illustrations while the sheriff and his deputies go out searching for a fugitive, who they soon shoot and kill - possibly without need - then returning back to greet Valentine with suspicion.
Needing work, Valentine is invited to take a clerkship at a small store in town on the other side of the border, breaking his vow to leave Louisiana. There he meets the owner Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani) who’s pushing middle age, yet has retained every ounce of her sexuality, which has gone unfulfilled as her husband Jabe (Victor Jory) lies ill on his deathbed, suspicious of his wife’s “needs”, especially with Valentine as the new recruit. He’s an angry man, with a lot of muscle in town, especially with the sheriff.
The sexual tension between Valentine and Lady Torrance is one of the most intense in all of cinema. We can feel how discouraged Lady is and for who knows how long, heightened by Brando’s physical perfection and brooding sexuality. Her desire and limited self control opposite Valentine’s absolute command is a phenomenal exercise in words unspoken, perpetuated by her envy of the younger and more attractive Carol Cutrere, who seems cursed to follow in Lady's footsteps.
In the film’s great monologue, Valentine says, “There’s many kinds of people in this world. There’s only two kinds - the buyers and the one’s who get bought…. No, there’s another kind…. It’s a kind that don’t belong no place at all... There’s a kind of bird that don’t have any legs, so it can’t land on nothing, so it has to spend its whole life on its wings in the air. I seen one once. It died and fell to earth.” Unable to find a place where he belongs and can stay out of trouble, Valentine understands his curse - in which is simple looks pull in women, driving the men around them mad with jealousy and envy. And yet the curse seems to infect many of these individuals, all struggling to break free of their own physical and mental limitations.
Rarely does a performance demand such a large persona; in which the character doesn't only demand a tough and attractive man, but a larger-than-life individual that only an A-list actor could bestow. It’s not that Valentine does anything specifically offensive, so much as that those who encounter him develop such overbearing feelings of desire and/or resentment that it pulls him into their personal maelstroms, no matter how much he tries to resist. Men find him a serious threat, while women find him irresistible. His indifference makes it all the more infuriating. He’s aware of this effect and knows he can’t escape it, no matter how much he tries.
The story captures the terror of loneliness. And although dragging at moments, the performances are so electrifying, quickly making us aware that it’s all building up to something big, that when the second half begins we are completely enraptured. We know there is no escape for Valentine. We understand his curse. His snakeskin jacket and guitar are all he will leave and all he’ll arrive with at the next town. He is doomed to enter and exit for flashes of time, forever and ever, struggling with all the loneliness it demands. Sidney Lumet body of work provided us some of the greatest performances in all of cinematic history. Here’s another handful for the pile, abandoning the urban underbelly he often explores, and examining the work of one of the great playwrights of all time.
BELOW: Valentine's great monologue, beautifully shot by Boris Kaufman
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel and Julio Alejandro
Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueora
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a short film from Luis Buñuel, accompanied on the Criterion Collection copy with a feature length documentary about the director’s life, which is a bit more interesting than the film. For anyone frustrated about where their career is going, Luis Buñuel was on the precipice of failure by his mid-40s, struggling to make another film, and even then, the opportunities he received were ultra low budgeted 10-day shoot, Corman-esque hispanic comedies.
As with other Buñuel films, the surrealistic narrative gets confusing, and I struggle to even interpret what’s being explored. Simon (Claudio Brook) has spent six years, six months, and six days upon a short, ten foot pillar, about to graduate to a much larger one. He is harassed by The Devil, played by frequent collaborator Silvia Pinal who takes many forms, including a bearded shepherd and a girl in a miniskirt in a New York dance club.
I suppose it’s due to the fact that movie lost half its budget and had to shut down production, leaving Buñuel with only half a film that leads to such a fuzzy conclusion. And yet having gone through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois, The Obscure Object of Desire, The Exterminating Angel, and The Phantom of Liberty, I’m not too sure an additional half would have cleared things up any more.
Learning in the accompanying documentary that Buñuel was an atheist, I assume the story is dealing with the idolatry of false prophets. We’re not really sure what Simon has accomplished, or if he’s even led anyone to salvation. The graduation from one pillar to another is a decent metaphor for the Catholic faith, in which increasing one’s hardships gets one closer to God, quite literally in this instance. Simon is tempted by the gorgeous Silvia Pinal, who takes on various characters with her ever present sexuality oozing out no matter the costume. Simon remains strong and in the final sequence, which is quite interesting, he's now part of the beatnik New York culture, dancing in a club as the earliest days of rock ‘n roll are getting the kids all hot and bothered. I’m not sure whether it was all a dream or a fantasy, and given the budgetary shortfalls, I’m not sure Buñuel knew either. It does produce an interesting foil against the stoic lifestyle presented throughout the film. Some worship God, and new generations seem to worship sex, drugs, and rock and roll. One’s not necessarily presented as superior to the other. Just different. Temptations arise no matter the pursuit.
Possibly better than the film itself is the pillar’s construction, which was abandoned by the production crew and left as an obstacle in the peasant’s field, forcing them to farm around it. When a truck comes in with a crane to dig it out, the crew can’t make it budget. It’s far too heavy. It’s quite poetic knowing that the pillar was a representation of the Christian faith, and that it must remain where it is and for the lowest class citizens to work around. Most have probably never seen the film, and I’m sure that they wouldn’t understand what it’s about more than anyone else. I was hoping for a bit more of the false prophet angle, or a heavier allegory for Jesus. Instead, the film ended, I immediately put on the documentary, and didn’t really find myself meditating on what it all meant, until I had to write this. Onto the next one, though.
BELOW: For English speakers, don't worry about the lack of subtitles; it still doesn't make sense
Director: Ken Annakin (British and French exteriors), Andrew Marton (American exteriors), Bernhard Wicki (German episodes)
Writer: Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon
Cinematographer: Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz
by Tory Maddox
The further along in life I go, and therefore my love of film, the more I regard the 90s as one of the greatest decades of cinema. For awhile I believed it was the classic syndrome of thinking today’s films are comparably worse to the ones I grew up with, just as Woody Allen said the same about the 30s and 40s, and Ebert and most baby boomer filmmakers feel about the 70s. Beyond the vast amount of transformative Cinema that occurred during the period, I’m nostalgic for the popular fair - Little Giants, Armageddon, Independence Day, and Saving Private Ryan - which either doesn't exist anymore, or are so overwhelmingly dominated by CGI that the stories feel more like knock offs than additions to their respective genres.
I hadn’t seen or known much about Saving Private Ryan when it arrived in theaters. It was one of the few movies that my parents took me to. I wasn’t yet in love with film, but I will never forget the day we went for as long as I live. I had heard about the righteous fight against Nazis during WW2, in which my grandfather flew B52 Bombers. It wasn’t until I saw SPR and its jaw-dropping opening scene that I truly grasped the horrors of war.
My indie film-loving cousin use to bash Stephen Spielberg’s ‘largeness’, assuming it was more art by committee than individual. Having failed to discover another filmmaker who uses cinema with the same level ‘show don’t tell’ erudition, I now have to balk at anyone assuming Spielberg is in any way a pop filmmaker. He’s is one of the greatest of all time, with the rare gift of being able to secure massive budgets to actualize his imagination that reflects the epitome of filmmaking. The closest any modern filmmaker comes to this is Christopher Nolan, though this is like comparing a High School Varsity Baseball Player to Nolan Ryan, which isn’t to say Christopher Nolan has the talent of a high schooler as much as no one has come even close to Spielberg’s mastery. They are truly works of the finest art; the type of craft that’s only appreciable after studying film for a long enough time and seeing how ingenious his language is. After watching The Longest Day, I now realize how inspired Saving Private Ryan was by these films (and others - Guns of Navarone, A Bridge Too Far, The Dirty Dozen, etc.); the type of films that use practical effects, sets, and vehicles in ways that leaves you gaping.
The Longest Day was made for $10 million, which even when adjusted for inflation, only equals about $80 million, and if you think that’s a lot money, keep in mind that this is about the same budget as David Fincher’s Zodiac. The Longest Day has one of the most incredible casts you’ll ever find in a film with everyone from John Wayne to Robert Mitchum, following the Allied land attack and German response as D-Day commences. It is shot in cinemascope, opening up each scene to fully realize the extent of machinery that was included in the picture. It’s the type of movie that looks and feels expensive, from the length of three hours to the cast to the amount of ships, tanks, and extras that were hired. In two distinct aerial long takes, we follow what seems like at least fifty and maybe a hundred soldiers on the attack, both on Normandy beach, and another through a small German town. Just when you think it’ll cut it continues to follow the Americans running along the river, the image keeps on going and we drift past a giant mansion where the German’s are stationed up top on the roof, to a road on the left where dozens of German reinforcements come rushing down.
4,500 people died during the D-Day Invasion out of 160,000 Allied troops. I imagine receiving the probability that 5% of soldiers would be killed; that no matter the preparation some will die. For instance, as the Allies overshot their drop zone and landed in a German town, hanging from the telephone poles or church steeples, like fish in a barrel for the German’s to shoot down - there was nothing to do. To know that you as an individual have just as much of a chance for a mortar to strike near you, or a bullet to catch you as any other soldier is an idea that can overwhelm the mind. I’ve said it before, I am in absolute awe that anyone had the courage to jump out of the plane or exit the boat.
If they were to try and make this movie today it’d be dominated by CGI. There is just no way that, with even $80 million, they could come remotely close to replicating this film. You can just feel how determined they were to get it accurate, accomplished practically, in order to capture the battle’s scope and respect this infamous day in history. The problem today is CGI wants to add more to the image than might have existed - capturing more how the situation might have felt than how it actually was. This film shows you how it use to be done, and as mentioned in thoughts on Enemy at the Gates, it’s understanding that it wasn’t designed on a computer or in a dark room, but required the work of thousands of people, building, performing, enhancing. You can feel it each scene.
BELOW: An aerial long take that rivals any Scorsese/Cuaron/PTA steadicam
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Roman Polasnki and Gerard Brach
Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe
by Tory Maddox
As with Cronenberg, you can spot Polanski’s style from the first scene. I’m not sure why I held off on watching this film for so long. I think I just assumed it was going to be a sophomoric film by a soon-to-be master, even though Knife in the Water (1962) demonstrated that Polanski was a master from his first feature, along with Cul-De-Sac (1966) and Repulsion (1965) coming out a few years before. I think it was the awful title and cover art that conveys a slapstick or cheesy comedy. Either way I was wrong. This movie contains some of the most interesting faces and characters in all of Polanski’s work. It’s a movie that immerses you with these two main characters as they navigate through a surrealistic Transylvanian winter, hunting for the vampires, trying to stay warm. It’s not so much what’s going on in the immediate so much as the background. The Inn’s patrons, owners, and employees all mix together to create such a unique and original destination that we never worry about plausibility. Similar to The Ninth Gate (1999), the movie plays in a cartoon style. It's not scary it’s just fun. We witness the early stages of Polanski’s uncanny ability to create and cast such memorable characters. It’s not his finest film, but it’s one of his his most fun. The film also features Sharon Tate before she met her tragic, and far more terrifying end.
BELOW: Should give you a decent taste of the film's surrealistic and bizarre style
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writer: Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard
Cinematographer: Nicolas Roeg
by Susan Bartley
Truffaut’s attempt at an English adaptation of Bradbury’s novel is wildly disappointing. At no time does it feel like the genius director, but rather a desperate attempt to hurry up and make a movie without any attempt to integrate his own style or philosophy. I am partially forgiving given that the film was made in 1966. Yet it falls into the issues that most sci-fi movies from this era often do - it’s not a movie that tries to envision what life would look like in the future, rather it takes all the elements of the time and creates slight modifications. With the exception of the television that allowed for home broadcast, in which a person can be included within an interview or discussion by simply standing in front of their tv, everything else is aged to the point the hilarity. There are still phone booths, the firemen ride on the truck, the furniture and clothes all have the exact same 1960s look. And this is where I’m most frustrated. Why do people assume that the outfits and clothes people wear at a given period is the culmination of all trends which will never again change, shifting ever so slightly into a futuristic look? I think of the brilliant job Her (2013) did with updating outfits. Not calling attention or making fantastical suggestions, it was subtle, and when noticed, amazing. I couldn’t help watching this film thinking I’m in an alternative world where there are some new technologies, but other than that everything is the exact same as the time it takes place. And that’s where it’s even more shocking given Truffaut’s creative prowess. How could he have had such a limited imagination? In no way did I care all that much about any of the characters, the philosophies or implications.
Could this story ever be adapted properly? I’d assume it’d require an amazing visionary who’s willing to take risks with the base material. As the saying goes - bad books are easy to adapt, great books difficult. Or something like that. There’s no need to stick to the base material since there’s nothing that needs adapting. What it needs is a fresh spin. I’m anxious to see who takes who takes up the challenge.
BELOW: Firefighters riding on the firetruck to go and burn some books
Director: Satyajit Ray
Writer: Satyajit Ray
Cinematographer: Subrata Mitra
By Jon Cvack
Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) is the wife of Aarti (Madhabi Mukherjee) and daughter in law to his father Priyogapai (Haren Chatterjee), two men with very traditional views on family. When Aarti loses his job, Subrata decides to enter into the work force in order to keep them afloat. Jealousies arise and Aarti begins to resent the decision, especially after she quickly moves up the company ladder.
As with Pather Panchali (1955), Ray has an uncanny ability to make the world feel a little bit smaller than before, demonstrating that problems of gender and envy are universal in scope. While there are many elements that separate India from America, Ray is able to blur the line with such ease that it’s as though you’re watching a film that could take place anywhere in the world. Men as breadwinners, skeptical of even the slightest threat to that role, is an issue that has and currently extends across all cultures. In fact, given the plethora of American movies that later dealt with this issue in the 1970s, you could even say that Mahanager was one of the most progressive films of the period.
Watching any of the films that deal with threatened men, we know that it’s not actually the woman’s success that hurts the man. It’s the feeling of impotence. Like any relationship, there is an underlying degree of competition, differing in significance, in which some people take it very much to heart and others don’t care all that much. Yet it’s when a person is completely incapable of removing their insecurities from the equation that the problems grow. It’s not about Aarti, it’s about the fact that he can’t find a job that would allow him to succeed and provide for his family. Subrata’s success is based on a willingness to accept what she can get and give it her all, enjoying the benefits of hard work. She enjoys each and every minute because compared to having to sit inside each and every day, cooking the same meals, doing the same chores, and serving the men in her life, it is a pleasure to utilize her intellect and skills and be properly rewarded.
Regardless, the ending reminds me of Mr. Mom (1983) in it’s return to traditional structures. There’s a capitulation to the husband who urges her to return home and Subrata quits the job because she doesn’t want to hurt him. Some would argue that it’s because the boss was misogynistic or bigoted. I would agree with this. It just seemed too easy and convenient. For a text that’s so realistic I couldn’t buy it. They are dirt poor, just beginning to get their stride, the boss was willing to bring the husband aboard, and yet she was willing to give it all up, facing poverty as a result, and the husband understood and agreed. Subrata might have made the ideal and respectable choice. In the real world, though, I imagine the celebration would be very short. Such an abrupt decision when there’s a hungry child and dying grandfather was extremely selfish for what could have been resolved with twice the take home pay and provide a better life for all.
by Jon Cvack
Director: Erich Rohmer
Writer: Erich Rohmer
Cinematographer: Daniel Lacambre
Two college men play their way across the Parisian single scene. One of them, Guillaume, meets Suzanne, who is traditionally unattractive. He sleeps with her, grows embarrassed, and dumps her. Then the other friend, Bertrand, is approached by Suzanne. A love triangle takes place. Guillaume regrets ditching Suzanne, who is now attracted to his friend.
The film plays like a documentary, with many of the shots stolen on the Parisian streets. Similar to other his immediate predecessors it was pieced together with short ends of film (see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City). They could only afford single takes. The sound was added long after and Rohmer had to essentially lip read the performances in order to add the track since he had no script. Aside from the glimpse into 60s Parisian life, the tale is pretty bland. It feels as though it was made by a graduate student, but Rohmer was in his early 30s at the time. He said he had gotten into film late so perhaps it was excusable.
Many of his films at the time were based on short stories he had written. His philosophy was that short stories make the best feature films. After watching the first tale (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak) I can’t help viewing Rohmer as rather misogynistic. In all three of these films there is a man who committed to sexual conquests. He doesn’t care about a connection. He doesn’t care about who these women are. He just wants to get laid and is willing to put on any face or front that will get the job done. I’m all for an author working out his own personal demons through story. I just didn’t see any redemption. He either fails or succeeds, pushes the comfort zone of all these women, and tries to express regret over the decision.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematographer: Vadim Yusov
by Jon Cvack
Andrei Rublev opens on a small village where a young painter, Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsvn), wants to head out into the world and make an impact with his art. In pure Tarkovsky fashion there are iconic images that stick within your head long after.
The Mongols invade a small town, attempting to kill every single person, with the exception of a few women who they rape before they slaughter. In this horrific scene, there’s a real live horse that trips and falls down a set of stairs, clearly breaking one, if not multiple legs. There's something about this moment that pushes the scene into a horror that I only could compare to a later Russian film, Come and See (Elem Klimov; 1985) or Blood of Beasts (Georges Franju; 1939). It was a deliberate choice by Tarkovsky to save this animal from the slaughter house, and not just kill the animal, but make him suffer and force us to watch in a long, wide master. In an age of PETA, it's a moment that we will rarely, if ever witness again in narrative filmmaking. It takes a scene that is already terrifying and adds a level of reality that elevates the material beyond fiction. Tarkovsky, like Andrei, transcends the limits of art, creating a moment that will remain with us forever.
And yet Andrei continues to want to paint. Perpetually in doubt of his skill and unwavering in his commitment. Eventually he comes across a young boy whose father taught him the trade of bell making. In one of the most visually breathtaking scenes I’ve ever come across this young man charges up a community of carpenters and blacksmiths four times his age, confident that he can create the perfect bell. He argues over the type of clay, the amount of silver, the moulds, the timing, and so on and so forth. Like Andrei, he is fighting for his art, and faces execution should the bell fail to ring. Knowing this possible fate, we watch with sweaty palms as they break the bell moulds. It looks great. Will it ring? It does. But the boy doesn’t think it’s good enough. He hates himself. After all the effort. After uprooting the ground, accomplishing an extraordinary feat, he still think it’s inferior to his expectations. He falls upon the ground, miserable.
Andrei Rublev is story of the artist’s pursuit; about the unwavering commitment required to make any great work. Beyond the prestige or recognition is the fight for perfection. It is a struggle with oneself. While all might cheer and celebrate the work, unless the craftsman is content it is all for naught. Andrei understands this point, as does Tarkovsky. And so he heads back into the cold, fighting through the snow, destined to discover his next great painting.
by Jon Cvack
Thoughts on films, old and new
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