Friday, 8 December 2017

Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963)

Jeg elskede dig igår
Even dealt the best cards imaginable, Godard can still mess up a movie.

The Book always promises me heaven when presenting Godard movies, but I have learned the hard way to mistrust it. In the case of “Le Mepris” (Contempt) the factual elements are so promising though, that I dared a little hope. Could it finally be that Godard would give me a movie to make me understand his fame and why movie critics wet themselves over his movies?

This time Godard gives us Brigitte Bardot as his lead actress. That counts for a lot, if for no other reason but the massive sex appeal surrounding her. For those unfamiliar with Bardot, she was the hottest girl of the period. Even in my childhood, in the eighties, when Bardot had turned into a strange cat woman, people talked about her with awe and in the “Le Mepris” we see why. Godard miss no opportunity to show her off to her best advantage, with or without cloth.

We also get a movie, ostensibly, about making movies, with Fritz Lang as himself and lots of references to other, famous movies. There are plenty of shots and talk about the movie making process and even some jokes about the pretentiousness of making art movies. This should be good.

Colors are beautiful, music is great. Actually better than just great. What could go wrong?

Well, incredible as it sounds it all comes to nothing.

First of all there is no plot and hardly a narrative. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a French writer who has moved to Italy with his pretty wife Camille Javal (Bardot), a typist, to write screenplays. He is meeting with an American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), who wants him to rewrite a script for his new movie, a movie on the Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang as himself. Jeremy is an arrogant womanizer and Paul casually throws Camille into his arms. Camille is hurt by this and for the major part of the movie they have an ongoing slow-burn argument going on about it.

The argument is largely pointless, based on (deliberate) misunderstanding and selfishness, throwing in some clichés about men not understanding women and vice versa. Finally, they go to Capri where the discussion continues and ends with Camille walking out on Paul together with Jeremy.

It is dull, pointless and stupid. I lost interest after 10 minutes and it never picked up. Yes, Bardot has a pretty butt and yes, it is nice to see Fritz Lang, but, really, what is the point? Watching people have silly arguments over whether they love each other is neither profound nor interesting, it is not even dramatic, just immensely juvenile.

Godard is also wading around in stereotypes. Jeremy Prokosch is maybe the worst as an arrogant, self-indulgent American producer, the image a European would have of a such. He is totally disconnected from his surroundings if it wasn’t for his translator Francesca (Giorgia Moll), yet he acts as the man in charge. Paul has to be the quintessential screenwriter, always wearing a hat and with ambitions of something else and Lang has to be the auteur with disdain for his script and his producer. It makes me wonder If I have been watching a satire, ironizing over the world of moviemaking, but if so, it is a wry and dull satire and certainly not a fun one.

The ending, I was told, would be shocking. I could not wait for that jolt to shake me out of my stupor, but alas, it was entirely as pointless as the rest of the movie.

As such, Godard managed to take all those promising elements and flush them down the toilet, giving us something as pretentious and empty as what he seems to be criticizing. Pretty girls and luscious colors can never save such a mess. Godard, je n’ai que du mépris pour toi.

Monday, 4 December 2017

8 1/2 (1963)

It is time for yet another Fellini movie, this time “8½” from 1963.

I have been lackluster at best when it comes to Fellini’s movies, so it may not say much, but I think “8½” is the best of his movies so far. Or maybe I have just gotten used to these Italian movies and lowered my tolerance threshold.

“8½” is a strange movie. One of those that are impossible to describe, you just have to see it. It sounds like a comedy: A director is trying to make a movie, but it is all a big mess. Actors and particularly actresses crowd around him asking him what their parts are, a monstrous spaceship set is being built on a beach, producers, critics and journalists are all jabbering for a attention and in the middle of all this both the mistress and the wife of the director shows up on set. Meanwhile the director has no idea what movie he is going to make, instead he is simply stalling.

This sounds familiar, as if at least parts have been used in other comedies, and it sounds hilariously funny, but in “8½” the angle is different, sort of. It is undeniable that there is a bitter humor to this, but Fellini tries to play it a lot deeper. His director, Guido, (Marcello Mastroianni) wants to make a movie about himself (with a spaceship!) and it seems as if Fellini wanted to make a movie about himself, making a movie about himself. Yet, Guido is more lost than we must hope Fellini ever was. He is constantly searching and in doubt. He seeks out women and cannot let them go again, something to do with his childhood supposedly, and that is both causing him endless trouble, but also make him look sad. Except that most of these women are phenomenally beautiful: Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Barbara Steele just to mention some of them. To me he reminds me of a child who ate too many cookies and got a bad stomach pain.

Guido is clearly stranded in his life, groping for meaning and answers. In his mind his dreams play out as surrealist movies, but they rarely provide any answers. The opening sequence with a man trapped in a car in a giant traffic jam only to finally break out and fly away, seems symptomatic for Guido. He is trapped in his life and in his role as a successful director.

So we have this odd combination of a setting that is clearly, outrageously so, comedic, and a story that is a lot more profound and even sad. It is both somewhat confusing and rewarding as if Fellini is using comedy to tell a serious story, or is making fun of his own problems.

Without revealing too much I think it is safe to say that the situation spirals out of control and when Guido finally finds release he has all the characters dance in a chain resembling the divine comedy, a fatalistic surrender to life as it is, accepting it instead of fighting it. Supposedly the right morale to draw from this.

The mix of normality and surreal dream sequences is inspired. They work very well to give us glimpses of Guido’s thoughts and they are all hilarious to watch, especially the harem scene. Ironically Guido’s reality is catching up with his dreams and is getting even more surreal than what his mind can concoct. I have more trouble with all the Italian craziness, of everybody shouting and throwing up their arms, but that is what you are in for, watching Italian movies.

Wikipedia writes that “8½” is now considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. I doubt I would go that far. Let me stick to “one of the greatest Fellini films of all time”.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Passenger (Pasazerka) (1963)

Back on the List I am continuing on the depressive strain to late. This time with the Polish movie “Pasazerka” (Passenger), a movie that largely takes place in Auschwitz. That, more or less, sets the tone.

“Passenger” is an odd movie in the sense that it is unfinished. The director Andrzej Munk died during the shooting of the movie and the end-product is a combination of footage and stills with a narrator filling the gaps. It therefore feels like half movie, half documentary about the movie. It is strange and I cannot say that worked very well. It certainly made me focus more on the process of making the film than the story of the film.

The story also drowns in the subject matter. Any movie featuring a death camp will overwhelm the viewer with the enormous tragedy of millions of people being systematically killed, and for the few who are not being killed outright, total degradation. I personally have a hard time with Holocaust movies and this one pressed exactly the wrong buttons for me. In one scene we see a large group of children walking into a gas chamber, completely oblivious to their imminent death, some holding hands with nurses guiding them there. Then a German guard prepares the poisonous gas, with no second thought for what he is doing. I felt like puking.

I have been to Theresienstadt, mostly because my wife’s great-grandparents were killed there, and that was bad enough. A real death camp I could not visit. It would be too much.

Somewhere there is a story, but I am not really sure about it. We follow a woman, Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) who is a guard, an overseer, with SS tags and all. On a boat trip she sees a woman she thinks is a woman from her past and so she tells her ignorant husband an edited version of her past, something about that she saved that woman’s life in Auschwitz. Later we get the honest story which is something about that Liza and that woman, Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) waged a mental war of supremacy on each other.

This is where I had to let go of the story. I simply have no idea what this conflict was about and how it played out. It also seems of very little consequence with the pictures of all that misery around them. We see the barracks where the prisoners live, we see naked women being chased though the camp, we see prisoners play music for the staff and we watch endless columns of people walking to their death. Who cares about a story about a guard and a prisoner fighting for mental supremacy?

“Passenger” won awards in Cannes and, I think, Venice, but I think that was more for the subject matter than the quality of the film itself. A half-finished film with an obscure conflict? No, it is the pictures from Auschwitz that matters. Those are pictures I remember.

Frankly, I just want to move on to the next movie.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Charade (1963)

Off-List: Charade
The first of the off-List movies I have selected for 1963 is “Charade”. Thank you, Bea, for reminding me of this movie. It is not only a good pick for a movie that should have been on the List, it is also exactly what I need in a stream of otherwise depressive movies.

“Charade” was recommended to me by my parents-in-law about a year and a half ago and we watched it together back then. I remember wondering why this movie was not on the List when so much garbage seem the clutter the early sixties part of the List, so I started to look for flaws. Strangely enough I found almost none. Almost, because there is a bit of aging to this movie, but viewed in context with other 1963 movies the flaws are negligible. Here on second viewing I am even happier about it. This is movie that truly makes me smile.

“Charade” is a Byzantine maze of hidden identities and scams, an everbody-against-everybody, a free for all to get the coveted prize of 250.000$.

Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is an American socialite in France. She is vacationing in the Alps with her friend when she is approached, apparently innocently, by Peter Johua (Cary Grant). Upon returning to Paris her husband is dead and their apartment entirely empty. Turns out Reggie knew practically nothing about the late Mr. Lampert and all he has left her is a travelling back with four different passports and a letter that her dentist appointment has been rescheduled.

In this moment of need Peter reappears and helps her get back on her feet. Only, he is not alone. No less than four other men shows up, including a CIA man, Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), with a keen interest in her, her husband and an awful lot of money that he was supposed to have, but nobody can find.

What we learn over the following events is that very few are what they claim to be. One character in particular changes identity four times in the course of the movie! There are also very few limits to the extent these people will go to get the money, including murder. The confusion and mystery make for perfect ingredients both for comedy and suspense and “Charade” plays both horses very well. The comedy is largely borne by Grant and Hepburn. Grant for simply being his usual character (think Thornhill in “North by Northwest) and Hepburn for being, well, her typical character, somewhere in between “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Roman Holiday”. The ping-pong dialogue between these two is a reminiscent of the 1930’ies screwball comedy and it mostly work, though Grant’s lines misfires occasionally.

Where Peter Joshua is the jovial character, the three stooges, Scobie (George Kenedy), Tex (James Coburn) and Gideon (Ned Glass), are the sinister types that brings danger to the mix. The suspense largely comes from their side when they try to force a solution. Yet, maybe there is an outside player who is even worse…

Beside handling both comedy and suspense very well, “Charade” has an excellent pace, that keeps you seated and engaged throughout and, not least, tons of charm. A remake was made in 2002 (“The Truth About Charlie”) that goes only for the suspense element and in the process loses all the charm of the original. That one cannot be recommended.   

Of course there is a credibility issue. I doubt anybody would have handled herself as cool as Reggie does and I doubt State Treasury employee’s would go to those extents to bring back money, an army of lawyers would be more realistic, but that is not the point. In the world “Charade” takes place in, this story is completely credible, and we would not have it any other way.

“Charade” is a wonderful good time. It is an excellent opportunity to watch some of the best actors and actresses of the period do their thing and it is a travesty that this movie is not on the List.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Cool World (1963)

En by i New York
“The Cool World” is a movie about gangs in Harlem, but about as far removed from “West Side Story” as it is possible to get. Instead of glamour, color and dancing, we get grit, misery and despair, but also the coolest soundtrack imaginable.

Apparently there was a trend in the beginning of the sixties, likely inspired by the French new wave, to make attempts at filming reality, or to make fiction films in an environment as real as possible. This is something that happened far from the big studios and often at a fraction of their budgets, which both gave the freedom to do things differently, but also made them technically inept. There are quite a few on them on the List and “The Cool World” is one such movie.

It was difficult to find much information about the movie, the Wikipedia page is very thin, so I do not know much of the background for the movie. My guess is that this was intended as a movie about growing up in Harlem, underprivileged, poor and exposed to all the rough sides of life. It is fiction, but it looks real. Filming is clearly on location and the actors do not seem like actors at all, but locals being more or less themselves. I have no way of knowing if that is the case, but I strongly suspects this is so.

We follow 15 year old Duke (Hampton Clanton), who is a petty thief with dreams of being a gang boss. He admires an older gangster called Priest (Carl Lee) and run some errands for him. At one point Priest asks Duke to keep his gun for him, while he is otherwise engaged. This fuels Duke’s dreams of reviving a gang, “Royal Pythons” and go after another gang, “The Wolves”. As he returns the gun his head is filled with thoughts of getting his own gun. He sets up the gang, get his own gang girl and prepare for the rumble.

As the rumble approaches however, he starts thinking that there is more to life than this. He sees what happens to junkies, his girl, LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez) makes him think of a different life and when Priest is killed he is seriously disturbed. Alas the rumble is unavoidable and ends poorly.

I was unable to find a proper copy of this movie. It is available on YouTube, but the quality is horrendous. Smeared pictures and poor sound quality combined with a very on-location feel makes it often difficult to figure out what is going on and understand the dialogue. That is a shame, really, because it is an interesting movie and I would love to watch a restored version.

While I often got lost in the actual story I had no problem following the scenery. The pictures from Harlem are filled with misery and poverty. There is a quiet despair in these pictures that sometimes explodes in violence or rage, but there is also defiance and an insistence on getting the best out of things. This is not just an exposé of the slum, but a movie that cares about the people it films. I have never been to Harlem. The few times I have been to New York I never ventured that far north, but somehow I would not be surprised if it did not look much different from this movie.

The real draw of “The Cool World” however is the soundtrack. This is the most awesome Dizzy Gillespie jazz soundtrack imaginable. I love this kind of music. It works perfectly with the scenery and the story, but it also works perfectly on its own. This is the kind of music I would put on for myself.

This is a depressing movie, and a very confusing one due to the poor quality, and I am not sure I would want to watch it again, but given a proper restoration this could be a highlight of 1963. If for no other reason than the music.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Blonde Cobra (1963)

Blonde Cobra
The best thing about ”Blonde Cobra” is that it is only 33 minutes long.

Sadly, that is the only good thing about it, I can think of.

“Blonde Cobra” is an experimental film about… I confess, I have no idea. Something about a guy going around in, what he thinks is, funny hats and a narrator telling stories, which he thinks are funny. The two things do not seem to have anything to do with each other, indeed at times the picture disappears entirely.

To me this looks like home video. Some people got high, decided to shoot some footage of each other, then smoked some more and narrated the thing, finally smoked themselves into outer space and edited the excuse for a movie.

The Book calls it a master piece, which makes me think that the editors smoked the same thing. I genuinely like film art. I like when the film media is turned upside down, but this is just stupid. A few years ago the List was revised and space was made for 50 new entries, but “Blonde Cobra” stayed!!! Unbelivable.

I think it is supposed to be funny. At least the narrator thinks so. It is also supposed to be provocative and very gay. Awesome, give me something gay and provocative and fun to boot. This is none of those things. Ah, yes, it is gay, I will give it that, but the lewd stories are so infantile that it does not count as provocative, merely of someone who could use some help battling his inner demons and maybe grow up a bit.

I also have to confess that have little idea what happened the last five minutes of the film. I had started looking into getting a new credit card and was wondering why my digital signature was not working any more…

For gay humor I prefer “Öresunds visan”. You may require subtitles, but it is largely self-explanatory.

Thank you, editors of the List, for wasting my time. I will add this to my list of Top 5 Useless Movies on the List.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Nutty Professor (1963)

Jerry som den skøre professor
Oh no, not another Jerry Lewis movie.

Deep sigh.

Okay, I guess it is no secret by now that I am not a fan of Jerry Lewis. His form of comedy, vastly over played and infantile (Jim Carrey’s style) grates on me and he can single handedly ruin a movie for me. “The Nutty Professor” is no exception.

The curious thing is that there is potential in this movie. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story of course is a classic. So is that of the clumsy, geeky guy taking a step too far to get accepted. Both stories are classics because they work. We are interested, even fascinated by the split personality theme because we all consist of good and bad and so Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are distills of something we recognize, and Hollywood of course loves that story. It also loves the geeky guy who wants to be popular, maybe even more so and a movie like “Weird Science” come to mind as a good (and fun) example.

In any case with two so solid stories it is hard to go entirely wrong. Lewis is the geeky professor Kelp at a high school, who is good at chemistry and little else. He is bullied by everybody and decides he has to change. Body building does not really do it for him, but chemistry does, so Kelp concocts a mixture that turn him into a smoking hot, super cool, bloated oaf: Buddy Love. Mr. Love can sing, play piano and act cool and smooth and is soon the hottest guy in town. Unfortunately the spell only lasts a limited time before he reverts to being Kelp.

Professor Kelp likes the student Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) and she is sympathetic to him. As Mr. Love, Kelp goes full throttle on her and she is both attracted and repulsed by her. Especially she finds it disturbing that he often disappears with hardly a word. Eventually of course it is revealed that Kelp and Love is the same guy and Kelp gets his girl.

There is some potential for drama, but it is mostly traded for comedy. The comedy here is the helpless Kelp and the obnoxious Love and that stands and falls with Jerry Lewis. If you like his style you are likely to find this movie hilarious, but if, like me, you find his form of comedy annoying and grating then there is not much left to save the movie, certainly not in the sense of comedy. Stella Stevens is nice as a sweet looking girl, but her job is only to let Lewis play up to her. Del Moore as the principal Dr. Warfield is fine as the straight victim of Lewis gags, but again that is just what he is. This is a Lewis movie, doing the Lewis stuff. I understand why the movie was remade, it has a lot of potential if you just replaced the comedian.

Then of course there is the highly suspect issue of a teacher with a relationship to a student. I understand this is a very definite no-go, but here it is not questioned at all.

I should say something nice and so I will admit that the colors were great and the music was nice. Apparently the famous Edith Head did the costumes and it shows. I wish there was more I could mention, but a comedy that I do not find funny is just a flat experience.