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.

Daily Projections, 6-6-2019: Pretty Poison (1968)

Didn’t have the easiest time getting through this one and felt consistently distracted throughout most of the first hour. Anthony Perkins is Dennis the apparently reformed juvenile delinquent recently released from a mental institution and on probation after serving a decade or so for (apparently accidentally) burning down a relative’s house not realizing his aunt was still inside. Tuesday Weld is Sue Ann, the beautiful young high school honors student, terribly clever but stifled by her overbearing mother. When Dennis, prone to flights of fancy, tells young Sue Ann that he is a secret agent, an innocent fantasy quickly morphs into a genuine crime spree. But who is the true psychopath. To me, Pretty Poison bears some resemblance to Badlands (though lacking Malick’s sense of visual poetry) and even another Tuesday Weld flick, Lord Love a Duck. Perkins’s character, Dennis, while generally deadpan, still feels like the moral compass of the film. Weld’s Sue Ann, however, always feels a bit hollow and never really rings true. Perhaps that’s the point. Some confusing directorial choices – overly tight closeups, an awkward angle two-shot right in the opening scene – often make Pretty Poison feel cheap, more like an exploitation picture than a film worthy of the likes of its two stars.

Title: Pretty Poison
Director: Noel Black
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1968
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

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.

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, 1-11-2019: Winter Woman (1977)

Title: Winter Woman
Director: KIM Ho-sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 1977
Screening format: Streaming (YouTube)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Winter Woman was, apparently, the best selling Korean film of the 1970s, based on a popular novel with a rather leftist message (at least for 1970s South Korea). I haven’t read the novel and I won’t pretend to be an expert on that period of Korean history. All I can say for sure is that Winter Woman, especially the first hour, tends to err on the side of confusing. I had to pause the film multiple times to consult a synopsis of the novel in order to understand what was happening on the screen only to find out come the end that Winter Woman the film is only kinda like the novel to the point that, if you changed the title and the character names, someone familiar with both could easily write off any similarities as coincidence. Anyway, the film made Chang Mi-hee a star in Korea, but so much of her performance is overshadowed by an overindulgence in non-diegetic sound (far too much reverb on all narrated segments and a soundtrack alternating between Bach and cheesy 1970s synthesizers). I know the point of the film is, ostensibly, the sexual autonomy of Korean women, which is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that I-hwa’s naïveté sets her up for trouble early on. Twice, she tells a man (different men) “I’ll go anywhere with you”. Not a good idea.

Daily Projections, 12-08-2018; Listen (2017)

Title: Listen
Director: Philippe Aractingi
Country of Origin: Lebanon
Year: 2017
Screening format: Streaming
Setting: Home
First viewing: Yes

Notes: Joud is a young recording engineer whose ears are his life until girlfriend Rana falls into a coma as a result of a hit and run accident, then his ears become hers. Inspired by the knowledge that coma patients can still hear sound, Joud is intent on coaxing Rana back to the waking world (which provides ample opportunity for the film’s sound editor, Rana Eid, to really strut her stuff). On its surface, perhaps, Listen is a film about love and commitment, but there’s more to it. Maybe it’s really about obsession or lost causes. Every major character is somehow lost within themselves: Rana within her own unconsciousness, Joud in his single-minded quest for a cure,and Rana’s sister Marwa with her pending marriage and desire for independence. The topic of fidelity (of men, of family, of Beirut itself) is broached many times while the questions of clinging to the past, living in the present, and planning for the future continually pull at each other. Is the fool the man who clings to the past or the one who forges full steam into the future? Or is it anyone who fails to embrace the two? There are issues at play here that I, having never actually lived in Lebanon, have only partial access to through the filter of my own relatives. Perhaps the woman in the coma is Lebanon itself, yet to truly awaken from its war-induced slumber. I don’t know. But that’s another question for another time. One I may never be fully equipped to answer.

Daily Projections, 12-06-2018: Footlight Parade (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Title: Footlight Parade
Director: Busby Berkeley, Lloyd Bacon
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1933
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Goodness, no

Notes: I must have seen Footlight Parade at least a dozen times by now, but I still find it completely irresistible. A lot of that has to do with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, one of the greatest pairings of the 1930s. Watching this today in particular has led me perhaps to an even greater appreciation of the genius of Busby Berkeley. As entertaining as it was, a film like Tanned Legs,which I watched earlier today, so static and stagey as dictated by 1929 movie making technology feels like little mere than a curiosity compared to the elaborate stagings, intricate choreography, and fluid camera work on display in this (and all) Busby Berkeley musicals. I do have to say, I always feel a distant sense of melancholy any time I watch Footlight Parade. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but it always leaves me wondering what might have been. James Cagney, who always wanted to be a song and dance man, is such a smooth, relaxed, effortless dancer. One can’t help but wonder what kind of wonderful films he might have made if he’d been allowed to pursue his true love rather than being stuck in the gangster roles he made so famous.

Title: Gold Diggers of 1933
Director: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1933
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? No

Notes: Busby Berkeley cranked out a lot of pictures in 1933. But with all of their elaborate sets and glitzy costumes, none of them sparkles quite as brightly as Gold Diggers of 1933 and that’s down to more than just the silver dollar dresses spin round the “We’re In The Money” number. The speed of the dialog throughout Gold Diggers is downright blistering with some of the most glistening barbs emanating from Aline McMahon’s Trixie Lorraine while Joan Blondell gets a fair few shots in herself. Ruby Keeler is, of course, as sweet and innocent as ever. Playing somewhat against type (though that type had yet to be too firmly established) Ginger Rogers is a sharp-tongued rival of the main trio. Watching Gold Diggers, one gets the impression that good old Dick Powell is relishing the opportunity to play the merry prankster as he pulls one over on his snooty family. Gold Diggers features several memorable numbers (as all Berkeley pictures do) including the aforementioned “We’re in the money” (complete with pig Latin verse, the exceptionally racy “Pettin’ in the Park” and the unforgettable homage to the Depression era suffering of WWI vets,“Remember My Forgotten Man”.