Classic film

Ambrose Bierce by way of the Rashomon Effect

For those, like me, who had never heard of the Rashomon Effect, it briefly means that, in a court of law (or other situation), the testimony of two witnesses to the same event may vary wildly, be it through intentional manipulation of the facts or simple difference of interpretation.

The Rashomon Effect

This term comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa in which several eyewitnesses to the murder of a Samurai, including the victim himself (by way of a medium), tell the story of how he died.  Set in ancient Japan, the sale serves as a morality fable, highlighting the inherent pride and weakness of each of the characters.

The events themselves are gripping enough to keep attention despite the fact that the same story is essentially retold from four points of view–that of the murderer, the wife of the victim, the victim himself and, finally, the man who reported the crime to the police… a man who supposedly only found the body.

Rashomon Movie poster

This one is undoubtedly a classic, one of those films that stays with you and which, despite the miserable way the characters act for the most part, ends in an upbeat manner.  Interesting to see is how overacted it seems compared to equivalent films in the Western canon–whether that is because the film accurately depicts Japanese emotional responses in the era pictured, whether it was an artistic style popular in Japan, or whether it was an artistic license on the part of the director, I don’t know.  I did find it a bit distracting… but then, unfamiliar things often grab the attention.  There are a few more Japanese films on the 1001 movies list, so I’ll be able to give a more informed opinion moving forward.

One interesting note was that the film was based on a Japanese story which, in its turn was based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.  I’m mainly familiar with Bierce’s work via paperback horror and weird fiction anthos, and his link to the film explains the otherwise inexplicable presence of a dead man giving testimony.

Definitely worth watching and an experience which will let you think about the film itself as well as the cultural and literary links surrounding it.  Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s literary fiction, a series of stories that twine together in a similar way as the testimonies in Rashomon, is collected in Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

Greek Myths, Death, Rockers and Mods

OK, so the rockers and mods were still a decade away when Jean Cocteau released Orphée (Orpheus) in 1950, but the film gives a rockers and mods vibe, with the poets playing the mods and the sinister motorcycle cops cum Death’s assistants playing the rockers.

Orphee Film poster.jpg

Deepening the mod and rocker theme, the different factions are represented by their choice of different exotic vehicles.  The main character, a successful poet that is beyond the “mod” phase of his peers (played by Jean Marais, who looks like he could walk out of the film and into a modern day Lacoste ad with no updating whatsoever) drives English cars while Death and her minions prefer French machines.

Of course, anyone who’s seen this film knows that Death steals the show.  Played by María Casares, she is both sinister and tender in her portrayal of an elemental force.

Normally, a semi-surrealist, existential retelling of one of the less pleasant Greek myths would be something I’d run from at breakneck speed, but since I’m on a mission to watch the 1001 films list, my hand was forced.

And I’m glad it was.  This is not just a great film,  it is a good film.  Wonder of wonders, the artistic sensibilities don’t get in the way of a compelling, emotionally gripping story.

We enjoyed this one enormously, even if it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending (when death is dressed as a dominatrix half the time, you might expect other kinds of happy endings, but it doesn’t have one of those, either).

It also exudes a sense of moving into a more modern era, foreshadowing the sixties before anyone imagined the sixties were coming, but in a very different way from On the Town.  While the American film seemed to break tradition, this one simply drags the art film into the present and even pushes it into the future without breaking the central tenets of the genre.

Recommended to pretty much everyone, but especially to serious cinephiles who will be appreciative of the nuance (look at me, pretending to know about cinema!).  A good one.

Also, shouting out to ons of the stars of this one, Juliette Gréco, who is still among us.  Thanks for being a part of this!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work often goes off in strange directions.  His collection Pale Reflection is a great introduction to his writing which should appeal to people who like Orpheus.  You can buy it here.

Kind Hearts and Black Humorous Brilliance

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching Kind Hearts and Coronets.  I thought it would be a historical film–which can often be amazing and equally often be utter tripe.

Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg

It turns out that this one is actually a comedy, not a drama.  A wonderfully whimsical black comedy of murder and social classes.  I love it when the murderer is a sympathetic man and we’re all rooting for him to win in the end.

I really enjoyed this one, although I’m not sure how well it would play with audiences today.

Essentially, it follows the career of a young man whose noble-blooded mother has been disinherited by her family, and his subsequent quest to murder his way into inheriting a dukedom.  The murders are the funniest part of the film, of course.  Murder, if done correctly, is extremely funny.

Along the way he becomes emotionally entangled with two women and lands on death row for murder.  The murder that gets him locked up, which I won’t spoil for you, is just another piece of delicious black comedy.

This one is seriously old-school, but I think the buttons it presses aren’t the kind of thing that will offend people nowadays (although, to be honest, I have no clue what offends people nowadays… everything?), so I recommend it heartily to everyone.  Go out and watch this one.

If you don’t enjoy it, you’re a humorless twit, and should probably join the nearest holier-than-thou social movement in your neighborhood (does the temperance movement still exist?) at once.

Normal people should love it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer currenly in Covid-19 lockdown like everyone else in Buenos Aires.  Since we’re all staying at home anyway, why not purchase his latest book, Pale Reflection?  If you look in the reviews, you’ll see that it’s been favorably compared to Stephen King.  You can buy it here.

It’s not new… the Oscars have always gotten it wrong

When my wife and I watch films in the 1001 movies to watch before you die list, we try to do so with no clue about the movie.  Sometimes, like in Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, this is impossible.  These movies are so beloved, so well-known and so talked about that, in the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen the film, you will certainly have an impression of the movie in your head.

But the great majority of films never went on to become beloved classics, so we can watch those without any preconceptions.  Many of them are a complete surprise.

The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland (who is alive, so hello, Olivia, if you happen to be reading!), is one of those forgotten films that was considered immortal in its time, but hasn’t been a staple of afternoon TV since… which means that it has fallen out of favor with regular audiences.

The Heiress Movie Poster

Before I tell you about the film itself, I want to take a second and give you our reaction to it.  My wife said: “Why is this one even on the list?” and I replied “It probably won the Oscar for Best Picture.”

So when doing the research for this post after watching the film I verified that, yes, this unsatisfying sludge did win four Oscars, albeit not Best Picture, and was nominated for another bunch (including Best Picture and Best Director). I have no real issue with the Oscars it won–Olivia de Havilland was both unattractive and boring in this picture, intentionally so, which makes her a brilliant actress, as she is usually magnetic on film.  She deservedly won Best Actress.  But a Best Picture nomination?  Ugh.

Why ugh?  The film was professionally produced, with a cast of excellent actors, but the story behind it is… I guess we’ll just have to go with “unfulfilling”.  Basically, an heiress is courted for her money.  Everyone knows he’s after her money except for her.  Her father tells her about it–while dealing with his own grief–and she never speaks to him again, even when he’s on his death bed.  Then she says no to the suitor, the film ends and we’re supposed to applaud.

Obviously, the Academy at the time felt it was worthy of several nominations and exuberant praise… which isn’t surprising to anyone who followed the modern Oscars, especially seeing how they ignored better films from this year’s Best-Picture-winning director and then gave it to one that is deficient for what looks like political reasons but might just be cluelessness.

In 1949, I don’t think it was politics (it might have been cluelessness), but more likely it was navel-gazing.  This is a film that seems deep while being perfectly shallow.  It follows the tendency for making art that evokes nothing but reality.  That’s fine, I guess, but don’t expect your film to become a classic.

The one argument I can find is that it perfectly reflects how a lot of people are–a disillusion will turn them into inflexible, bitter shrews (of whatever gender)–so this film represents a good chunk of humanity.

That’s true, but those people are boring.  Keeping them away from literature and film is for the best.

In the meantime, TCM will continue to give much more air time to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  Films with emotions people actually want to feel.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a study of emotions people actually want to read about. No boring, bitter people here (well at least not among the protagonists).  You can buy it here.

 

 

We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.

The Greatest Chinese Film Ever? Perhaps. Surprisingly Modern Either Way

Spring_in_a_Small_Town_poster

Spring in a Small Town is not a film I’d heard of before the 1001 Movies list brought it to my attention.

This isn’t surprising, for any number of reasons.  In the first place, I’m not really a fan of subtitled or translated films.  I’ll watch them only after critics have unanimously anointed them great, and then, as in this case, seventy years later.  Chinese films fare no better than French flicks in this case (unless there’s nudity and sex… I’ll always give nudity and sex a chance).

But there’s more to it than that.  Spring in a Small Town is a film that, by not being expressly political was essentially blacklisted after the China’s communist revolution, and has really only been rehabilitated today.

It’s even pretty hard to find online (well, it’s easy to find if you speak Chinese, but subtitled versions are a different story); your best bet if you can’t get hold of a deluxe DVD collection is probably the subtitled version on YouTube.

spring-in-a-small-town-1948-two-couples-in-the-household

All of this conspires to hide a true gem from popular consumption. This is a film whose sensibilities are more likely to be found in a French film from the sixties or seventies (with the requisite amount of nudity) than anything contemporary Hollywood was churning out.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll just give you the setup.  A woman, the main character lives an unhappy life with her ailing husband.  The man she was hoping to marry before the war turns up, not to visit her, but to visit her husband who is an old friend of his.  And then they’re off and running, not flinching nor turning it into the kind of infantile comedy or melodrama that Hollywood would create.

Awesomely, Wei Wei, the actress who played the leading role, is still alive today and has been recently active.  We salute her!

 

Gustavo Bondoni has recently launched a collection of linked literary stories that create a single narrative.  The book is called Love and Death, and you can have a look at it here.

Bluebeard the Great Dictator

Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin - 1947

Of the three great silent film comedians, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton, I always ranked Charles a very, very distant third.  His melodrama and tortuously drawn out scenes of awkwardness never quite caused me to laugh in anything but a nervous way.  You know the type: he, he, when is this scene going to end, he, he.

So his postwar decision to abandon the style that made him famous for a slightly more dramatic form of film, while unpopular at the time, is a bit of a relief to me as I watch the 1001 films.  The Little Tramp is not a character I miss in the least.

Today’s subject, Monsier Verdoux (1947) is about a man who, after getting laid off from his long-held job at a bank, snaps and begins to make money by seducing and killing wealthy widows.  A bluebeard, as those men were called in the day.  Its based on an actual serial killer.

The film was badly received in the US when launched, and one can easily see why.  It’s a bit weird, in the same vein that European films were weird in 1947.  The story is compelling, but the execution and is strange and strays from hollywood norms in jarring ways.

It’s nothing too striking, but enough to make one wonder what just happened which, in a way, fits the tone and theme of the movie well enough.  There is one truly memorable scene in the film, one in which Chaplin’s character, pursued by the family of one of the women he’s killed buys himself just enough time to escape and say goodbye to a girl who was kind to him before, with every avenue open to escape, turning himself in.  It is both poignant and funny – what Chaplin always strove for.

BTW, the above isn’t a spoiler.  Anyone familiar with the lamentable Hays Code era will be aware that criminals need to be brought to justice in the end.

It’s not the strongest film on the list, and probably keeps its place only because it was Chaplin’s favorite of his movies.  Strangely, The Great Dictator is not included in the list I’m following.  Perhaps that’s for the best, as it is likely a very predictable offering.  We all know how to spoof a dictator, but the Marx Brothers were better at it.

My own pleasure came when researching this article.  The name Fritz Leiber jumped out at me from among the cast members.  Turns out that he is the father of the Fritz Leiber who wrote so much amazing Sword and Sorcery from the pulp era to the eighties.  A talented family, then.

Anyway, this one has some sordid interest, a strongly pacifist message at the end and pacing that makes it slightly off kilter.  If that sounds like fun, give it a go.  If not, look  for some Buster Keaton.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most off-kilter story is probably Branch, a novella, available for Kindle.

Millennials Will Probably Disagree with the Message Here

It's A Womnderful Life Movie Poster

We’ve been catching up on the 1001 Films to Watch Before you Get Run Over by a Number 3 Bus, and have reached the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  Like many of Frank Capra’s creations, it’s a seriously sentimental flick, but it doesn’t seem that way while watching it for the first time (I was never a big fan of watching the endless run of Christmas movies the networks liked to show when I was a kid).  The reason is that, though the film itself is incredibly sentimental (guy can’t follow his dreams but makes everything better because of it), the individual scenes are lightened up with humor and thereby don’t drag on unnecessarily.  Capra’s screwball comedy past (including great stuff like It Happened one Night) serves him well and turn what could have been a spectacularly earnest and serious film into something generations of audiences have enjoyed.

I won’t bore you by telling too much about the film.  Literally hundreds of professional critics have discussed it already and most people have seen it.  Suffice to say that it is a typical early James Stewart vehicle: aw-shucks good guy takes up most of the attention and teaches us all the right way to act.  James Stewart was Mr. Rogers before there was a Mr. Rogers.

But I will take the time to say that this one is likely reaching the end of its rope.  Millennials, their children and the helicopter parenting generation will kill it off.  Why?  Because it’s the story of a guy who sacrifices and does the right thing, leaving aside his hopes and dreams for a life that, though frustrating to him, turns out to be, as the title tells us, a wonderful life.  Audiences until the eighties or so probably understood that.

But younger generations are taught that they are all unique (I’ve heard the term special snowflake a lot, and though derogatory, it does seem an apt description of newer generations) and that success will come if they only follow their dreams hard enough.  Don’t compromise, be passionate.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life

All of the above is good advice if you happen to be one of the über-talented or (in case you want to have a starring role in a Hollywood film) spectacularly pretty / handsome ones.  If you aren’t, you may soon find that the dream is just out of reach and that real life doesn’t care about your dreams.  What do you do then?

If you’re in Spain, you become an “indignado“, which was a young people’s movement that essentially said: we’re young, we have no marketable skills, and we don’t want to study while working a crap job, so the government has to give us money.  It later morphed into an attempt at socialist anti-austerity rhetoric, but most responsible socialists didn’t want too much to do with it.  It was a direct inspiration for the Occupy Movement in the US.

Whether one if for or against the western world’s capitalist system (whether it be a more American style free market or a more regulated European version), you’ll likely agree that having a plan to be a useful member of society is never a bad idea.  The current generation of young people have gone on record by radicalizing their unwillingness to do so.  Is it the entire generation?  Probably not, but a vocal few can ruin things for everyone, and then you get bloggers saying that you’ll probably hate It’s a Wonderful Life.

Of course, I might be wrong, and Millennials, as they mature, might be able to appreciate the message in this one.  I’m a Gen-Xer and was brought up with the motto “greed is good” and I enjoyed it, so perhaps there is hope.

In a film with such a huge cast, there were always going to be some members still up and around today, so I’d like to give a shout out to three I’ve been able to identify:  Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins and Virginia Patton.

Also interesting was the presence of an Argentine Actress named Argentina Brunetti (it wasn’t unusual for people to name their children Argentina in that era).  Her career spanned all the way to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and yet I don’t think she’s at all famous in these parts.  I’d certainly never heard of her.

My verdict is that if you have to watch a sentimental film, this is a good one, but don’t expose your teenager, whom you’ve told countless times how special he is to this one.  The mixed messages will be confusing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose most recent novel, Incursion, was published in late 2017.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.