Friday, October 29, 2004

#1: Grand Illusion

Grand Illusion (1937, directed by Jean Renoir, written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak) isn't the kind of movie I usually go nuts about, but I did enjoy it. It's set, for the most part, in a series of German POW camps during World War One. Renoir got the idea for the story from a pilot he knew during the war who was shot down seven times, captured by the Germans seven times, and escaped from POW camps seven times. Renoir was himself a pilot; the DVD features a still of him in a completely ridiculous all-wooden plane. Anyway, the movie isn't really much like the idea; it's not a Stalag 17 or whatever. You only see one actual escape attempt (though a few happen off-screen). Mostly, it's about I'd seen one other Renoir movie before this one, The Rules of the Game. Which, incidentally, is fantastic.

Grand Illusion isn't quite my cup of tea. Renoir's thing is kind of elaborate shots that have been really carefully blocked out and framed. An example in this movie is a really neat shot where the camera circles around a dinner table; although the conversation seems natural, everyone who's talking is in frame as the camera goes counter-clockwise. It's really claustrophobic and cool; and it's also been copied and refined since then. Shoulders of giants and all that: Scorsese does the same stuff, but better. Not a fair comparison, because he had better equipment and much more money. But because I saw Goodfellas before Grand Illusion, I wasn't as surprised or amazed by the camera work as I might have been otherwise. And yes, yes, Scorsese wouldn't have been able to do his thing without studying Renoir and people who learned from him, but the end result is that although the camera work is really, really impressive in this movie, I appreciated it abstractly more than viscerally. T.S. Eliot (who I've been loathe to quote since a high school phase, but wait for it):

Someone said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are what we know.

So, you know, Renoir's got that going for him. I mean, Eliot's right, and it's the reason for studying older art generally. But in film more than other arts, there's a thrill in seeing something being done for the first time that can't be reproduced by watching a movie nearly seventy years after the fact. And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that film is so dependent on technology, in a way that literature isn't; writing hasn't really changed that much in the last thousand years. Don't get me wrong--there are techniques that are developed and refined over time, and writers build on their forebears. But it's still language; it's not like that has been improved on so much recently. Not like, say, Steadicams. The movies I think are really great are about narrative, not technique, and they stand up. Grand Illusion has a lot of very obvious technique, so some of it feels dated; what my friend Adam calls a "homework movie."

The acting is quality: Erich Von Stroheim is great as a German career officer. He shoots down the two main characters at the beginning of the war, and disappears from the movie till about the halfway point, when he's been seriously injured and is running a prison camp that's supposed to be impossible to escape from. Once injured, he limps around in a corset and neck brace, wearing white gloves to cover horrific burns. He's better in Sunset Boulevard but he's pretty amazing here. And the shot that announces his return is a classic horror-movie style thing; the camera tracks over all his (really bizarre) possessions, then settles on his orderly, getting his white gloves ready, follows him all over the room, and finally puts Von Stroheim in the frame. Picture worth a thousand words:

The DVD has a really cool extra on the restoration of the film; a little of the history. The movie was released in 1937. There was an American version, much shorter. Grand Illusion in this version screened at the White House on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday--after seeing it, FDR said "Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film." I think politicians should endorse movies and books more often; this is a good start. The Nazis banned the movie, but they saved a print or two. When Berlin fell, these were shipped back to Moscow by the Russians, who looted the German film archives (well, not so much looted as "carefully catalogued," but still). In 1958, a restored version was made from a duped negative; it was very scratchy, and the whole right side of the film was blurry. Criterion did a restoration job on this version in the eighties, but it was still pretty scratchy and blurry. In the early nineties, though, the original camera negative (the film that was actually running through the camera when it was shot) was found in the Russian film archives, and that's what Criterion restored for this edition. The featurette shows each version; you see the scratches, hair, cigarette burns, and blurry focus disappear with each successive restoration.

Random notes and things I liked:

  • Some phrases stay in English, even in Europe, e.g., "Top Model." I was really happy to see someone credited as "Script Girl" in the otherwise all-French credits.
  • Not just FDR: Benito Mussolini liked this movie enough that he invited Renoir to lecture on film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. Weirder still, he did it. No word as to whether the Duce said "Everyone who believes in fascism should see this film!"
  • Casablanca wasn't the first movie in which French patriots drown out Germans by singing La Marseillaise.
  • BONUS FEATURE: KNOW YOUR NAZIS!!!: The guy who does the audio essay on this DVD incorrectly identifies the song the Germans are singing in Casablanca as the Horst Wessel song. It's actually "Wacht am Rhein."
  • Clever dialogue from an aristocrat lamenting democratization: "The pox used to be our privilege, but not anymore. Cancer and gout aren't working class diseases, but they will be, believe me."
  • I can't stand scenes between lovers where they both are facing the camera. This works on stage but good riddance to this in film.
  • The narrative structure of this movie is very, very weird. It's three acts and an epilogue, I guess, but the third act (in which two of the main characters hide out with a German woman near the Swiss border) seems very out of place--the rest of it is all men, all the time. This last part starts about twenty minutes before the end of the movie, so you're not expecting a big shift in focus there. It's kind of like the early stuff in Mexico in The Wild Bunch, all of a sudden you're surrounded by domestic stuff that was completely lacking before. But it happens very late in the movie and really doesn't seem that connected to the rest of the story.

Next up, Seven Samurai.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

#258: Tanner '88

Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau collaborated on this HBO series, which follows a fictional presidential candidate through the Democratic primaries, from New Hampshire to the convention floor in Atlanta. Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy, who you might remember from Magnolia or Nashville) is a left-of-center candidate who goes to real campaign events throughout, from a meeting with a community group in the projects of Detroit to a fundraiser in Los Angeles. The joke is, they actually followed the primary campaign very closely, and so Tanner meets with all kinds of people who were players that year, from Bob Dole to Kitty Dukakis. In fact, it seems like Altman ambushed several of these people—Pat Robertson seems to have no idea who Tanner is, but he shakes his hand and wishes him luck.

The production values on this show are pretty terrible—it’s all shot on video using hand-held cameras. Apparently it was a very rushed and it looks it—Altman talks at one point about waiting anxiously by the fax machine for new plot points from Trudeau, who was writing at the last minute so he could respond to current events (and they do a pretty good job of this). It has that cheap-video sheen to the colors, which I find very hard to watch. And it’s typical Altman style on the sound mix, too, by which I mean muddy and confused; I found it easier to follow at many points if I had the subtitles on.

The acting is kind of suprisingly bad for such a good cast. Michael Murphy's consistently good, but a lot of it looks like improv that wasn't rehearsed enough. Which is probably exactly what it was. Cynthia Nixon is in this, looking about 14 (she would have just turned 22). Pamela Reed does a pretty good job too, as Tanner's campaign manager. The rest I could take or leave.

The fun of this isn't the actors, though, it's the background of the real campaign. There are some things that I think would have made more sense in 1988 (I have a copy of What It Takes, so I should know more about that year, but the fact is I've started it three times and never made it to page 100, so that's probably not going to happen). Anyway, I get the sense there are in-jokes. For example, at the New Hampshire campaign stops, Al Haig's supporters are always drunk and running through the hotels wreaking frat-boy-style havoc. No idea what that's about, but I like the sound of it.

There's also at least one secret history-type connection: After dropping out of the real race, Bruce Babbit did an extended cameo in which he gives Tanner advice on continuing to run; they both talk about how artificial the other candidates seem. Babbit says that he thinks that someone should ask one of them what the price of a quart of milk was, that none of them would know; they don't deal with that part of the world at all anymore. Four years later, somebody baffled Paul Tsongas at a campaign stop with that very question (I think he asked about a gallon, not a quart, but still). I'd like to think the questioner (some anonymous New Hampshire resident) saw Tanner '88 back in the day. Other cameos, all of whom are playing themselves: Jesse Jackson, Chris Matthews, Michael Kinsley, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca De Mornay, and Waylon Jennings. And those are just the ones I recognized. Like Wonkette says, there's famous, and then there's famous for Washington.

The show's not just a parade of cameos, though—although most of the show isn't especially moving or convincing, it does have a few scenes that are pretty amazing. The one that got to me most has Michael Murphy and Cynthia Nixon on the convention floor in Atlanta while they're still setting up, before the delegates arrive. He says something like, "We made it, honey," and she says "We sure did, dad." Then the camera zooms out as Tanner walks across the floor and climbs up on the still-under-construction podium: as he goes, in the background you hear exerpts from famous speeches by Democrats past: FDR, Adlai Stevenson (this one I can't find on the net, but it's the one where he talks about being governed at last by reason and by law), LBJ, Kennedy, and Cuomo, from just four years earlier. Anyway, I've linked to the speeches, but the passages themselves are pretty choice; e.g., here's the part of Cuomo's speech they use:

We believe as Democrats, that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world's history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.

Oh, also, this series contains the worst wedding toast ever, given by Tanner's estranged father at his son's wedding; it's something like this:

100 years ago, after a particularly grueling session of Parliament, William Gladstone shouted across the aisle to his arch-rival Benjamin Disraeli, "You'll end up on the gallows or with venereal disease!" Disraeli retorted, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress." I bring this up because...

And then somebody cuts him off. Too, too droll. I leave you with a bit of Tanner in 2004, talking about losing:

There are no moral victories in politics. There's only winning. And if you have even the slightest doubt about that, you shouldn't be in it. You should move aside for those who care enough to do what it takes to win.

I didn't used to think that was true, but this election I'm not sure.


Hello, and welcome to The Criterion Contraption, the newest project in my campaign against spending any of my free time outdoors. Here's the way we play the game: I just subscribed to Netflix cause they lowered the price. I've put the entire Criterion Collection of DVDs into my Netflix queue, and I'm going to watch them all; I figure $20 a month is a fair price to pay for a basic grounding in world cinema. If you're not familiar, Criterion is a company that's been releasing high-end laserdiscs and DVDs for years; they're known for incredibly lavish extras, and beautiful film transfers & restoration work. The DVD part of their collection (I won't be watching the laserdiscs) can be found here. Here are the rules:
  1. I'm going to watch the movies in more or less catalog order (except the first one, which I'd been really wanting to see).
  2. If I can't find the Criterion edition, I'll watch whatever I can find. If you have any out of print titles you want to loan me, I won't say no.
  3. I'll watch all the extras and commentary tracks. Since I'm getting them from Netflix, however, I won't have access to any of the essays included on the DVD inserts.
  4. I'm going to write somewhere between 500 and 1000 words about each one. This is not, not, not film criticism, just trying to organize my thoughts after watching these movies.
  5. For the short-attention-span crowd, I'll head each post like it's coverage, e.g., RECOMMEND, STRONG CONSIDER, CONSIDER, MILD CONSIDER, PASS. From good to bad.
So. Welcome! UPDATE: Added a few rules, linked to the collection's website (H/T: Rog).