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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Title:The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Director: Mike Newell Country of Origin: UK Year: 2018 Screening format: Streaming (Netflix) Setting: Home First viewing? Yes
Notes: Well acted and well executed Netflix drama about a young writer and an obscure book club. But it’s not really about that at all, is it? Guernsey is about the scars of war and the long, impossible healing process.At times predictable (all the way down to the troperific writerly montage) but enough small twists and intrigue to sustain the full two hours. (The Guernsey landscape itself is enough to carry half the weight, should that be necessary.)
All in all, a pleasant way to spend an evening. I only have one gripe with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and that is this. Why, oh why are we still using handheld cameras to film static shots? You can’t find a tripod or a table or something?Aside from that (and my genuine curiosity as to how two dozen roses gifted at different times managed to stay fresh and in bloom over the span of at least a month) I have no complaints.
For years, filmmaker and critic Peter Bogdanovich kept files of notes on every film he saw. As he got older and viewed the same films again and again, he would add to his notes, documenting both his evolving opinions and his growth as a critic. Ever since I read a few of these cards which he shared over at IndieWire a few years ago, I have wondered if I had the discipline to do the same.
For the last few days I have been recording my initial impressions of every movie I’ve watched on a template measuring 4″x 6″. So far, I am really liking the experience. I have found that the limited space forces me to get to the point and not get bogged down in minutiae while still allowing room to record interesting observations that may be worth exploring more in depth in the future. And the knowledge that I will be writing something about everything has made me a more engaged viewer.
Over all, I like the way it has made me think about the movies I am watching and I intend to keep it up for as long as I can. And, in order to hold myself accountable, I am going to share them here as well. Which is why I am introducing “Daily Projections” (it’s a working title). I still consider in-depth essays about onscreen theology (or as I prefer to call it: “Jesus at the movies”) to be the main purpose of this site, but those take a long time and I watch a lot of other movies (at least 300 every year). I’ve got to keep my skills sharp as I take those deeper dives.
Because of the way WordPress is set up, these Daily Projection posts will appear within the main feed on the home page, but the individual posts will also be anthologized (probably by date) under the “Daily Projections” tab at the top of the page (or in the drop down menu on mobile).