Daily Projections, 6-9-2019: Spring In A Small Town (1948)

Title: Spring In A Small Town
Director: Fei Mu
Country of Origin: China
Year: 1948
Screening format: DVD
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Considered by many to be the masterpiece of the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, if not the greatest Chinese film of all time. A young wife trapped in a passionless marriage (I won’t say loveless, because I believe there is some love there) with an ailing husband becomes reacquainted with a long lost love who shows up on her doorstep one day after 10 years away because he also happens to be very close friends with her husband. She, of course, is forced to choose between her family and the one who got away. From the plot description alone, it sounds like a Satyajit Ray film (or at least a Tagore story). Some sensitive portrayals here, especially by Yu Shi and Wei Wei as the husband and wife, respectively. Spring In A Small Town often feels like it owes a great deal to the self-contained family dramas of Ozu and to Italian neorealism. Indeed, it is well situated within the general ethos of post-War drama. Though, at other times, certain editorial choices (cuts and transitions within an unchanging wide shot) seem to denote the passage of time and almost evoke the spirit of French New Wave a full decade ahead of Truffaut and Godard, even if they were, in fact, necessary quirks rather than stylistic choices. Lovely low-light scenes produce some beautifully shaded and shadowed images, particularly in the last half hour.

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Daily Projections, 6-4-2019: Miquette et sa mère (1950)

Title: Miquette et sa mère
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1950
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

A film Clouzot apparently had little interest in making and greeted with equal disinterest by critics and audiences alike, though still very funny if you ask me. Two timid lovebirds (Miquette and Urbain) kept apart by a scheming uncle-Marquis who has designs of his own on Miquette as she strives to make it as an actress in order to make jealous the lover she believes has jilted her. The humor is broadly farcical, blend of irony and slapstick, not unlike Preston Sturges, though considerably more French and likely to have scandalized American audiences of the time (e.g. a particular ancestor is well regarded for having had the Sun King). The very best scenes are played between Danièle Delorme (Miquette) and Bourvil (Urbain). The latter a gifted physical comedian who plays the bumbling idiot well and the former with a gift for portraying the coquettish ingenue. Something in the way Delorme glides through the film, even in the comedic moments, the way she dodges an aspiring lover’s advances while never seeming to notice them, is almost balletic. There is an air about her performance which recalls…someone, though I can’t say for sure who. Perhaps Sidney Fox in Once In A Lifetime. Miquette et sa mère gets a bad rap for some reason, though you won’t hear it from me.

Daily Projections: The Clock (1945)

Title: The Clock
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1945
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? no

Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.

I Once Was Blind: King of Kings (1927), Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille’s King of Kings airs on TCM at 1:00 AM Eastern Time, Easter night (that is, Monday morning)

Just about every year around Easter, TCM airs Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. To me, it is essential viewing, not simply because DeMille epic grandeur (I mean, you’ve seen his Ten Commandments, right?) but for the sensitivity with which he relates the story.

I have no idea how many times they’ve tried to film the life of Christ. It’s a lot, I know that much. And while they each serve a purpose in their own way – Ray’s King of Kings (Technicolor), The Passion of the Christ (historically graphic violence), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (hysterical, heretical) – DeMille brings a poetic approach to the story that I can’t recall finding in any of the Jesus movies I’ve watched. Of course, I believe that all 155 minutes of King of Kings are worth watching, but on this particular point, the poetry of the image (DeMille’s film is silent, after all), there is one moment that perfectly captures my meaning.

The film opens with several accounts of Jesus and his miracles, people recounting to other people what the things they’ve heard about Jesus. “I have seen him heal the blind.” “’Tis said he can raise the dead.” It sounds great, but it sounds like little more than gossip and rumors. DeMille hasn’t even shown the audience what Jesus looks like. A crowd gathers outside a house. He’s in there, we’re told, but still no sight of him. Even now, Jesus is nothing but a story.

It is about ten minutes in that DeMille first introduces a young blind girl, groping her way through the crowd, desperately seeking Jesus, to no avail. Like her, we too are looking for Jesus while DeMille, obstinately, refuses to bring us to him. It is then that a formerly lame boy, Mark (yes, the Gospel writer), hears her cries, takes her hand, and promises to lead her to Jesus. Mark brings her to Mary who brings her to Jesus. And yet, we, the audience, have still never seen him. We know he’s there, but he is still hidden from view.

And the girl pleads with Jesus. “Lord, I have never seen the flowers nor the light. Will you open my eyes?” And the screen goes dark.

When a small shaft of light begins to break the darkness. Slowly, the light grows brighter as an image begins to emerge, at first faint, overexposed and out of focus, but growing stronger until it is revealed to be the face of Jesus.

This is a perfect illustration of what is so powerful about DeMille’s approach to the story of Christ. Our first glimpse of Jesus is not in a simple, documentarian manner. There is no “hey, that’s Jesus, by the way” moment like there is for the introduction of every other character in film. We are not introduced to Jesus as disinterested, third party observers. We see Christ first through the eyes of a blind child who had lived her entire life in darkness until she met Jesus. And the message is clear. We are that blind girl. We, too, have been living in darkness, never truly seeing until we have seen Jesus.

Introducing: The Lewton Ledger

The Val Lewton Papers, in all their microfilmed glory

What began for me as a last minute trip to Washington, D.C. to burn up some rewards miles last week turned into a frantic, intensive study session in a windowless room deep in the Library of Congress once I learned that the Library also happened to be home to a collection known as The Val Lewton Papers. I am, of course, a huge fan of Mr. Lewton (as so many are). The symbolism and classical literacy of the films he produced at RKO were instrumental in inspiring me to look closer at the often neglected theological content buried in popular cinema. So, of course, once I learned that, after a brief vetting process, I could have free access to some of the man’s personal papers, I had to jump at the chance.

After proving my identity to the folks in the main office—the Library of Congress’s collections are open to just about anyone (and I mean anyone, not just Americans) over the age of 18—I wound my way through the series of nondescript tunnels that connect the library’s buildings until I eventually found my way to the Manuscripts Reading Room where I was vetted again and pitched my research to the folks in charge before being allowed access to this particular branch of the library. Once I was officially cleared, I put in my request for the Val Lewton Papers and waited.

After about 10 minutes, five reels of microfilm were delivered to my workstation. Five reels of microfilm don’t really look that impressive in person and, frankly, it is a bit disappointing at first for a nerd like me to I will not be allowed to interact directly with the objects of my fascination. But my disappointment faded quickly once I had loaded the film into the machine and began to wade into the information at hand.

At first, I tried to read everything. Taking notes on what I found interesting and skipping over the rest. But after an hour, no matter how far I advanced the film, the supply of unviewed film seemed the same as when I had started. AND I WAS ONLY ON THE FIRST REEL! It was then that I really began to understand why the Library of Congress policy allows researchers to scan materials for research purposes. I have no idea how many thousands of pages of letters, journals, scrapbooks, and screenplays are included on those five reels, but it was far more than I could have ever consumed in my three days at the library. The best I could do was scan anything that looked remotely pertinent and bring it home to work on here.

So, here we are. I have a flash drive full of Val Lewton documents and only a rough idea what they contain. Now, I can’t simply upload them somewhere for you—there are signs all over the Library of Congress saying that’s not allowed—and besides, that wouldn’t be any fun for me. What I can do is give you a little window into my research process.

With that, let me welcome you to The Lewton Ledger. As I read through this digital stack of documents, I’ll keep you posted of any possible insights or hunches I have as to what made this master of psychological horror tick. So far, I can tell you this much, young Val Lewton was head over heels crazy in love with his wife Ruth. Like, seriously, it’s so cute.

Also, he loved boats.

Daily Projections, 12-21-2018: Law Of The Border (1966)

Title: Law Of The Border
Director: Lütfi Ö. Akad
Country of Origin: Turkey
Year: 1966
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Can a western be made outside the United States? Obviously, yes. The Italians did it. But Lütfi Ö. Akad’s Law Of The Border likewise falls along those lines, though it was produced and takes place in Turkey. Law Of The Border follows life in a small village on the border between Turkey and Syria where the local economy is driven primarily by sheep smuggling. The greatest smuggler of them all (or at least the most proficient) is Hidir (Yilmaz Güney, who also wrote the screenplay) who, though himself shoehorned by circumstance into the smuggler’s life, knows the best future for his own son lies in a formal education though the rest of the villagers are resistant to the idea of allowing a school in town. Law Of The Border highlights the way encroaching modernity (education, cars, fashionably dressed teachers) forces out and renders redundant traditional life and those who are not willing to adapt (and sometimes even those who are). There are plenty of barriers to progress in Law Of The Border – poverty, tradition, ignorance – and yet the present marches on into future. Güney looks perfectly at home with a rifle in his hand. No wonder he would become quite the action star before eventually becoming one of the most controversial filmmakers in the history of Turkish cinema and a literal outlaw.

Daily Projection, 12-6-2018: Tanned Legs (1929)

Title: Tanned Legs
Director: Marshall Neilan
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1929
Screening format: Streaming
Setting: Home
First viewing: Yes

Notes: Early musical in a Broadway review style, the first half or so is mostly musical numbers tied together loosely by plot, though story does begin to dominate as the picture progresses and what starts as a carefree summer holiday becomes increasingly high stakes, culminating in a memorable (for the attendees, anyway) charity show. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds are shameless flirts each aiming to make the other jealous, yet only succeeding in getting swindled and embarrassing their two daughters, the eldest enthralled with the smooth talking Clinton Darrow, while the youngest, Peggy, is nearly engaged to sweet, bumbling Bill (a young Arthur Lake). Much of the dialog, particularly the comedic elements peppered with double entendre, is straight outta Vaudeville (Mrs.Reynolds: “Well, I do it all by myself – just as I have to do everything so far as you’re concerned.”). More than anything else,the real highlight of Tanned Legs is the presence of Follies and Scandals veteran Ann Pennington in the fittingly small (Pennington was only 4’10”) role of Tootie. Pennington sings twice (“Your Responsible”and “Tanned Legs”) and dances a few numbers, though none of her trademark routines appear in this, one of her few recorded performances. Also, a possible Dorothy McNulty sighting in the chorus line of the first number, hard to say for sure, though.