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Tuesday, Jan 16, 2007


When one looks back at the golden days of Hollywood, back before big business turned the industry into a cash machine hell-bent on making every opening weekend the most important aspect of filmmaking, there was one name that guaranteed spectacle and larger than life entertainment. With a canon, both as producer and director, that ranged in subject matter from the circus (1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth) to the high seas (1958’s The Buccaneer), the Wild West (1937’s The Plainsman) to the frozen tundra of Canada (1940’s North West Mounted Police), Cecil B DeMille made movies for and of the masses. Known for his casts of thousands, his attention to historic detail, and sets that usually dwarfed his performers, DeMille guaranteed that moviegoers got their money’s worth, understanding that people could see all the everyday world they wanted right outside their own back door. To DeMille, movies were invented to tell the really oversized stories, to create the myths and the mystery that kept seats filled and box office registers ringing—especially when having to compete with the variety of vaudeville and the growing popularity of the newest home-based novelty, radio.


And when it came to the sacred in scope, the holy in histrionics, perhaps no one excelled in the telling of the ultimate legends carved out of The Bible than DeMille. Over the course of his fifty years in show business, he made at least half a dozen films with religion as its overriding theme, including the classic The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, and, naturally, The King of Kings. Treating these tellings as testaments to his own personal faith, and formulated to follow the scripture as closely as dramatics would allow, DeMille fueled his fanciful preaching with opulent sets, incredible effects, and carefully crafted, flawless filmmaking. The results were regal in their resplendence, luxuriant without being decadent, and filled with as much meaning and message as possible. Certainly, some efforts were better than others, but there is no denying how direct, forthright, and inspiring his films could be. Indeed, DeMille was on of the few filmmakers who could fill his frame with the actual sense of God’s omnipresence, power, and grace.


The King of Kings is an example of such sensational storytelling. It is cinema at its most artistic. It is also moviemaking at its most basic and effective. There are no massive overriding themes or brave symbolism to overshadow the situations. This is a simple, straightforward saga (the last few days in Christ’s life) told with skill and obvious sentiment. Like seeing a series of prayer cards come to life, or witnessing a literal imagining of imagery from the Gospels, The King of Kings is a somber, sobering experience in overall mood and atmosphere. DeMille designs his film like a Bible reading, highlighting passages to propel his narrative, and quoting chapter and verse to solidify his sacrosanct purposes. All throughout he hints at standard iconography, creates his own new vibrant visuals, and manages to dig down deep into the very core of Christ’s time on earth. Naturally, this means miracles (the curing of the blind, the raising of the dead) but instead of turning this title into some sort of misguided magic act (The Ten Commandments can occasionally be faulted as being too effects-heavy), DeMille keeps this a very personal, very profound look at Jesus, the man.


Compared to other versions of the life of Christ, DeMille’s reinvention is marvelous and quite moving. He knows the command in the parable and prophecy contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and builds off their fundamental narrative strengths to compel his story. His compositions are carefully constructed, used to accent the spiritual nature of each scene while keeping us connected to the characters. The King of Kings is really remarkable in its tone and talent. DeMille barely makes a wrong move here, picking the parts of Christ’s life that synchronize seamlessly into the overall significance of His life and works. The plot points out problems to be overcome, moral issues to be addressed, and Jesus is presented as the emblematic response, a period on the end of all ethical statements that solidifies the soundness of his teachings. Jesus is never shown as being too strong or overly passive, only using his command when absolutely necessary. But he is also shown drawing on his more humble vulnerability to make God a personified, approachable person. Unlike other Christs who seem, pardon the pun, holier than thou, DeMille’s Messiah is a completely three-dimensional entity, a near perfect epitome of consecration in human form.


This is not to suggest that The King of Kings is faultless. While the imagery is among the best ever created, some of the liberties taken by story scribe Jeanie Macpherson may confuse even the most learned Christian. Those who know their Bible should not expect The King of Kings to be historically, or even contextually correct. For example, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a king-making Jesus wannabe, living an impossible existence in his master’s substantial shadow. We constantly see actor Joseph Schildkraut (who is very, very effective, by the way) rubbing his hands together and flaunting his ego as he tries to sway some attention the Iscariot way. His retrofitted relationship with Mary Magdalene seems like a cheap meet-cute way of getting the famed religious figure in with Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. It’s almost as if DeMille needed to present Christ with a scoundrel more viable than a poorly described member of his disciples who would end up betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. From a short sequence where Judas tries to “cure” an insane child, to the final confrontation with the Council where he practically begs for audience sympathy, the new and improved Judas Iscariot will be, perhaps, the sole sticking point for Biblical purists.


No one could argue with the acting, however. As stated before, Schildkraut is amazing, less mannered than you would expect in the vain, villainous Judas role. Indeed, the hyper-serious nature of the story seems to have inspired DeMille to pull back a great deal on the typical silent movie Method acting. Usually so arch and over the top that modern audiences balk at the horrible hamminess of it all, The King of Kings contains some of the most naturalistic, normal performances in any religious epic. The rest of the cast is very powerful indeed. H.B. Warner essays the lead role of Jesus Christ with a near ideal depiction. Never too pious to isolate the audience, but never resorting to the kind of intense humanism that hampers other portrayals of Christ (especially Jim Caviezel’s gut wrenching Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion, or Willem Dafoe as the emotionally tortured Savior of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation).


Unlike other versions of this prophet and religious leader, DeMille is more interested in the deeds than the man, and it is left to Warner to center and suggest the inner sanctity of Christ’s unending love. And he does so brilliantly. From Ernest Torrence’s big bear of a disciple (Peter), to Rudolph Schildkraut’s (Joseph’s Dad) piercing portrayal as Caiaphas, we never once feel like we are watching one of those hoary old classics were people are playing it large and lumbering. There is more subtlety than show-off during this stirring drama, and it is one of the reasons why The King of Kings succeeds so well.


Still, some may seem put off by a silent film that takes a very picturesque, anglicized version of the Christ’s passion. DeMille is not trying to affect some kind of radical rethinking of the story of Christ. No matter what later genealogy or archeological findings would warrant, the director envisions his Jesus a Caucasian white male, traditional close-cropped blond hair framing a face full of noble virtue. Well-trimmed beard in place and eyes alive with deep inner warmth, there is never a moment when Warner doesn’t look 100% the part. But not everything DeMille does is mired in the mundane. In order to keep the cinematic aspects of the film fresh and forceful, DeMille does have some marvelous tricks up his sly sleeves. In a scene where Jesus drives the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene, the director uses a wonderful optical effect to have the horrible, harmful harpies surround their victim. By applying some splendid double exposure, we see several actresses made up to be grotesque decadent demons draping the figure of Mary. As expected, Jesus normally has a luminescence around him, a glorious glow that separates and sanctifies him for the audience. A bit with the Devil’s temptation is spectacle at its most amazing, and the ending is equally effective, filled with the kind of pre-CGI physical effects that used to be the studio system’s bread and butter. Once you’ve witnessed the quaking of the earth and the renting of the temple vestment in The King of Kings, you’ll immediately understand that DeMille was determined to make us believe in the truth of this tale.


DeMille also trusts the inherent narrative in the Bible (Judas jerry-rigging aside) to carry his story, and when he stays true to its tenets, The King of Kings is remarkably powerful. Naturally, there will be those who wonder if DeMille is as guilty as Mel Gibson for portraying the Jews as a bloodthirsty cult of stereotypes bent on feeding every negative image the world has ever had of Hebrews. The answer is no. DeMille takes a decidedly tame position on both the High Priest Caiaphas and the Romans (who ridicule Jesus, but don’t beat him with anywhere as near the insane fervor of Gibson’s gratuitous guards). Some could point to a few hackneyed actions or caricature-ish faces that fill out the crowd scenes, but one never gets the feeling that DeMille was out to condemn a people for the death of the Savior (this could also be the reason for the retrofitting of Judas). True, the crimes they pile on Christ seem stupid, and the decision to put him to death does derive out of a pathetic power struggle amongst a corrupt set of Council members, but the overriding idea is that Jesus’s untimely end is preordained, and that we are merely witnessing the motions that needed to be gone through to reach the resplendent Resurrection goal.


Since DeMille is a master storyteller, both from a production and a directorial standpoint, the end result is a movie that truly moves you with the spirit of its sincerity. Though Gibson’s modern marriage of mise-en-scène with emotion and message would present a far more potent set of cinematic pictures, The King of Kings is equally evocative for far less boastful reasons. DeMille believes the Bible is the greatest story ever told and he is willing to work within the parameters it provides to tell his tale. He then carefully casts his creation, manages the tone and the flow with expert efficiency, and finds just the right visual cues to bring it all back home in Heavenly respite. Inspiring and insightful, The King of Kings is classic old school theatricality at its most monumental. It truly lives up to the regal reputation of the individual it champions.


 


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Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007


There is a fine line between insanity and eccentricity. There is also an even slimmer margin between desperation and dementia. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between the various mental fallacies. Some people use idiosyncrasy as a way of coping. Others allow their craziness to create endearing individualistic personas. After you factor in such adjunct issues as wealth, health, status, and situation, it becomes clear that even the nuttiest of individuals can avoid the stigma of psychosis by merely staying locked in their own insular place. It’s what protected the Beales for almost 50 years.


As relatives of the rich and famous, themselves both minor celebrities in their own singular right, the mother/daughter combo lived a reclusive, bubble-like existence in a tumbledown manor in the swankiest part of the Hamptons. With the standard domestic amenities always in question (they lived, for a time, without running water) and an evershifting menagerie of animals invading their space (cats, mice, raccoons, etc.), these one-time society stalwarts are now viewed as lamentable lunatics, adrift in an unhealthy home and an even more damaging familial dynamic.


Strangely enough, their quirky escapades would have been reserved for the back pages of the New York dailies had filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles not stumbled upon their story while researching the life of Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill. One of the family’s aunts, a defiant older woman named Edith Bouvier Beale, had recently had her home raided by health and human services officials who were worried that the septuagenarian, along with her nearly 60-year-old daughter Edie, were living in horribly unsanitary conditions. Required to clean up their Hamptons home, the duo claimed that local politics and a desire for their property was the cause of the personal persecution. But what the Maysles discovered once they contacted the Beales was startling to say the least.


Holed up in a couple of rooms in their massive manor, cooking on hot plates and eating not much more than canned soup, ice cream, and simple salads, the pair were isolated, alone, and rebellious. Constantly bickering back and forth, sending each other mixed messages about their devotion and their disgust for one another, the Beales barely connected with the humanity outside their door. While they were aware of the events transpiring around the globe, they were too involved in their complicated companionship to care. The original owner of the estate called it Grey Gardens, a quasi-criticism on the locale’s inability to sustain vibrant life. Apparently, the name applies to the interior as well as the exterior landscape. It makes a fitting moniker for the brothers’ amazing movie.


When we first see the home, it looks haunted. Even up close, the manor is draped in a heavy layer of age and decay. Windows appear broken out, shutters hang haphazardly from cracking sills, slats missing or misaligned. On all sides, stately homes gleam in the Hamptons sun, their rich inhabitants happy to polish their palaces to within an inch of their importance. It’s opulence as reflected by real estate, status centered in a concept of curb appeal—but not for the Beales. These old-money matrons could care less about the upkeep on their estate. “Big” Edith is 75, and more than settled in her secluded life, thank you very much. Her spinster daughter, “Little” Edie, views the last few decades as mother’s maligned helper as a premature prison sentence. Housekeeping is the last thing on their mind.


As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for government interference—and some latent familial charity—the pair would be practically homeless. But lineage won’t allow these ladies to live in the lap of self-determined near-destitution. The surrounding kin—the famous Kennedy and Bouvier clans—have cash, and they make sure the Beales are well-endowed. But neither one really cares about the money. For them, life has become a comical battle of wills, a mother vs. daughter dynamic that pits hopes against help, dreams against distraction. To call the Ediths hermetical would seem overly simplistic. They live in one great big wide world—it just happens to be of their own unusual creation.


Grey Gardens reflects the status of the Beales as women, socialities and—in some ways—human beings. They are femme fatales whom life has let die, upper-crust crones who sit around half-dressed in a mansion festooned with peeling paint, rotting wood, and the feces of various animals. Their relationship is like a contest, a “who will blink first” face-off in which old wounds, new foibles, and lamented losses pile up as potential ammunition. For Big Edie, old age has robbed her of the two things she built her entire personality on—her looks and her career as a singer. While still in good voice, her body has completely broken down. She can barely walk, her eyes and legs failing simultaneously. Still she fancies herself a captivating catch and flirts shamelessly with Jerry, a young handyman.


Little Edie, on the other hand, has bigger personal fish to fry. Feeling hemmed in by her mother’s constant demands and constantly threatening to move back to the big city, she understands implicitly that most of her dreams are unobtainable. Having given up any concept of a career decades before, and taken care of financially by a complex series of trusts and trade-offs, the aging beauty believes she’s still fated for fame. Dressed in bizarre designs of her own making, shawls and scarves covering her seemingly bald head, Little Edie is a fatalistic fashion plate, a woman desperate to escape but unable to find the proper route out.


Together, in front of the Maysles’ constant camera, these reckless and refined relatives square off, trading praise and poison back and forth like volleys in a country club tennis match. Little Edie will cheer her mother’s rendition of “Tea for Two,” then mimic and mock her recordings in the next catty breath. Big Edie will criticize her child’s increasing weight while wondering aloud why her stunning singing voice never eclipsed her own. They will share simple memories and melt down over comments concerning the late, lost Mr. Beale. Men are a mitigated factor in Grey Gardens, Big Edie having shunned her spouse early on in their marriage, her two sons nowhere to be seen in and around the home (we do glimpse them, as babies, in some old photos). Even Jerry, the slightly slow hippie who seems to have moved in with the ladies, is seen as a cog to be used between the fighting females.


Big Edie sees his attention as verification of her stunning sexuality. Little Edie views him as an interloper capable of stealing her antiques, precious books—and her place in Mother’s heart. Indeed, the minor interaction we witness between the Beales and the rest of the world is presented as uneasy and unreal. A birthday party for Big Edie finds the guests sitting on newspapers (the chairs are dirty and haven’t been cleaned in years) and drinking vintage wine out of Dixie Cups (the glassware having mysteriously disappeared long ago). Even the Maysles, who have become like ancillary family, face considerable limits, since they’re not allowed by Little Edie to venture into other areas of the massive, 24-room home.


From a pragmatic standpoint, it all seems so nutty. Though we slowly become aware that the implied wealth that comes with the Beale/Bouvier name is not as comforting as we assume (these women appear to be living right on the edge of abject poverty), their situation is obviously the result of a surreal self-fulfilling prophecy. By returning home without establishing her own identity, Little Edie was destined to fall under Big Edie’s demonstrative domineering. All throughout Grey Gardens, the Maysles catch her scampering about and giggling like an arrested adolescent and, in essence, that is exactly what Edie is. Isolation has stunted her social skills to the point where, while refined and well turned-out, the younger Beale sounds like a lost and troubled teen.


As she slinks around in scandalous, revealing clothes (so stylish that she actually inspired several famous fashion designers to copy her clever combinations) and bats her eyes at the camera, we see an aged youngster trapped in a wrinkling body. Big Edie is also ensnared by the past, but her feelings are very focused. She hates the fact that her marriage and child-rearing responsibilities misdirected her profession, and has apparently tried several times to jump-start her career (mostly by inviting men to live in Grey Gardens with her). For the meditative matron, fame flew away the minute she turned her back on what she really wanted. Now, with daughter Edie flaunting failure in her face on a rather consistent basis, Big Edie is bitter, a battleaxe ready to wield her own personal blade at anyone within range.


That Grey Gardens gives us all this via a non-intrusive, fly-on-the-wall perspective, says a great deal about the Beales’ desire for attention. Though they claim to hate the interference of outsiders, they are more than happy to make room for the Maysles and the genial Jerry. In fact, as natural performers, the pair is desperate for almost any audience. There is lots of singing and carrying on in this film, almost as if the filmmakers fancied they were making a musical. During uncomfortable quarrels or awkward personal insights, one of the Beales will break out into song, stifling the moment with a melodious mist. Frequently, when confronted in lies or contradictions, Little Edie will just caterwaul away, keening in a juvenile, off-key manner that makes her mother furious. It could all be part of a battle plan made up of disappointment and deflection, but one senses something consistent here.


Like a perplexing puzzle made up of heartaches and histrionics, Little Edie annoys her parent to prove the old gal’s feelings—she can’t live without the child. Similarly, Big Edie criticizes her only daughter as a way of keeping her practical and present. This is necessary since, throughout Grey Gardens, we see how easily disconnected the wayward woman can become. Perhaps the best example of an inaction film ever fashioned, neither resident of this rotting façade wants to leave. They may clamor for greener pastures or broader personal horizons, but there is something queerly comforting about their seemingly haunted home. Within its walls, a kind of truce has been forged, a peace between ladies who would rather suffer than live alone. It’s what makes Grey Gardens such a stunning documentary. It’s also what has made the Beales’ legacy live on long after they finally found their eternal peace.


Interesting enough, Grey Gardens is a fairly balanced presentation. Both Edies get their moments, and when one occupies the screen solely, the other is not far behind—either physically or spiritually. For the 2006 sequel, Albert Maysles, the remaining living member of the filmmaking brotherhood, decided to unearth as much footage as he could from the hours the pair spent in the disintegrating home. Oddly enough, it seems that Little Edie got the shortest end of the original’s editing stick. Much of the new material in The Beales of Grey Gardens centers on her, her tendency toward awkward musical moments, and those oddball sequences where she reads from a well-worn horoscope paperback and tries to make sense of her life. In an introduction to the film, Albert hints that the reason most of these scenes were excised was because they show how intertwined the brothers were in the Beales’ life.


Edie obviously fancied David, and spent untold screen time commenting on their future together. Similarly, the filmmakers didn’t like to prompt their participants, and all through the update, we hear them asking questions in hopes of spurring some interesting exchanges. This is more of a supplement than a true sequel (Grey Gardens maintains a sort of implied narrative while The Beales is more like a collection of outtakes), but anyone who believes that more of the Edies is an entertainment windfall will thoroughly enjoy this companion piece. While it lacks some of the original’s psychological insight, the Edies remain fascinating, factual entities.


It seems odd that, for two people fiction could not possibly create, mediums other than the documentary have embraced and are interpreting the baffling Beales story. An off-Broadway musical (which recently shifted to the Great White Way itself) and a full-length feature film (with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange attached) are set to keep the ladies’ story alive for future fans to discover. Yet no matter how good (or bad) these versions eventually are, nothing can compare to that first fleeting moment when we see the vine-covered Hamptons home, wood cracking as uncontrolled vegetation hides it from view. Suddenly, from out of the darkened back doorway, a decidedly older lady, her head wrapped in a telling turban, announces the situation for the day. “Mother’s complaining about something,” she winks, before flitting off like a preoccupied pixie lost in her daily designs.


As an illustration to what makes Grey Gardens so special, such a sequence seems less than auspicious. But once we learn that this is just the icing on an unusually dense and deliciously cloistered cake, the anticipation for another slice becomes unbearable. It is easy to see why, as symbols or kitschy cult icons, Big and Little Edie Beale have endured. Something about them is so timeless, so vibrant and vulnerable, that they have no choice but to enter the realm of myth. Even though it has long been sold and re-modeled to modern specification, Grey Gardens will always be a dark, desolate place. Luckily, the ladies who once lived there lit it up quite well.


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Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006


You know you’ve had a good year in DVD distribution when you can discount a company’s remarkable reissues and still come up with an amazing list of definitive digital releases. And in Criterion’s case, the accomplishment is even more impressive when you realize that The 400 Blows, Armacord, Grey Gardens, Brazil and The Seven Samurai are all part of the second time around list. For SE&L‘s 2006 pics, we’ve purposefully avoided the new presentations of these timeless classics, simply to make room for more amazing cinematic goodness. Of the over 50 releases this year, the industry’s premiere preservationist introduced film fans to the eclectic catalog of independent international film, resurrected several seemingly ‘lost’ efforts, and argued for the place of works both pre-sound and post-modern as viable benchmarks in the history of cinema.


In essence, choosing a top ten out of this amazing collection is actually fairly counterintuitive to Criterion’s overall philosophy. Indeed, in the rare cases where a release goes out of print, the company attempts to replace the missing title with something of equal import and aesthetic merit. And besides, how fair is it to discount other fabulous discs like Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales or Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned? On the other hand, to mention every single DVD the company created this year would look kind of foolish, and so, the creation of a subjective Top Ten. By no means definitive, the list represents 12 months of remarkable entertainment options, as well as a spectacular amount of film history and archeology. Covering nearly eight decades of filmic expertise, here are the choices for the best Criterion DVDs of 2006:



1. Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s love letter to the sensimilla-tinged ‘70s was given one of the best digital presentations of the entire year, which is apropos when you consider the fabulous film inside. More like a snapshot come to life than a fictional recreation of the last day of school in a small Texas town, the director expands his Slacker dynamic to create the ultimate illustration of youth, unaffected and unbridled.




2. Pandora’s Box
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit.



3. Mr. Arkadin
A film whose history is as convoluted as its narrative, Arkadin represents Orson Welles at his most insular and inspired. Writing, directing and playing the lead role of a mysterious tycoon with no memory of his past, the infamous filmmaker once again saw his vision butchered, altered and rearranged by distributors desperate for financial returns. Criterion does it’s best to preserve the artist’s original vision, and the results are masterful.



4. The Double Life of Veronique
Looking for another way to explore spirituality’s place in the world, Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski crafted a complex exploration of duality/parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect. What follows is a meditation on the connectivity between humans and of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined.



5. The Spirit of the Beehive
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining youth, the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s fascism, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. The results are both moving and revelatory.



6. Equinox
Yet another example of innocent filmmakers flimflammed by a savvy distributor out to make a buck, this Famous Monsters of Filmland inspired novelty is nothing more than a home movie fleshed out to definite drive-in dimensions. Thanks to Criterion’s decision to release both versions, as well as a complete compendium on the film’s making and reconfiguration, we witness the birth of horror fandom, and the evils inside the motion picture industry.



7. Sweetie
Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Obviously, Australian auteur Jane Campion (in her first feature film) is dealing with a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, dopey, demeanor. Between one child’s uncontrolled Id and the rest of her kin’s slighted and submerged egos, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.



8. The Fallen Idol
Carol Reed, the British director responsible for several of cinema’s more outstanding milestones (The Third Man, Oliver!) delivered one of the most devastating takes on hero worship shattered ever attempted. When cruelty and death forces an isolated child to confront his issues of loyalty and adulation toward a favored family butler, the truth becomes more difficult to decipher than the mixed messages from the adults around him.



9. Playtime
Call him France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton, or a post-modern silent comedian, but no one can deny Jacques Tati’s filmmaking acumen. A stickler for detail as well as a painstaking perfectionist, Playtime began production in 1964…and didn’t wrap until 1967! Focusing on his classic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, and his 24 hours in Paris, this pop art poem glitters with cosmopolitan gloss and delightful urban angst.



10. Young Mr. Lincoln
John Ford’s adulating approach to Lincoln in his early, pre-Presidential days is highly fictionalized, but oddly enough captures the American icon in all his revered glory. Thanks to Henry Fonda’s fascinating performance, the amazing black and white cinematography, and the crackerjack court case the characters participate in, this is a vision of how America might have been – or at least, how a pair of patriotic artists wish it would be.



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Tuesday, Dec 19, 2006


It is the driving energy in the Universe, much more so than anger or hate, which are irreparably linked into it. It is the emotion we yearn for from the moment we are born to the second before we die. We seem incomplete without it, wondering why we are so flawed when we don’t have it and overly blessed when we do. Love may conquer all, may be what the world needs now (or frankly, it may be all you need), and it will probably tear us apart, again. But like the song also says, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. And why is that? Why is love so fleeting and fragile? Young marrieds seem to think it’s all powerful, that it will support them through unsure times and terrible crises. The newly infatuated believe so strongly in its force that they fear they shall never feel anything like it again as long as they live. And yet we label love as a mystery, an unsure emotion fraught with numerous ancillary consequences.


Love can be so tough it leads to hate, to loathing, to great grief and infinite sadness. Yet we champion its pursuit, often doing outrageous and uncharacteristic things to obtain it. In Annie Hall, a dejected Alvy Singer fears one of the prime myths of love: it fades. Or at least, it grows stale and dormant like a lump of charcoaled wood in the dying embers of a once raging fire. Or maybe it doesn’t pass. Maybe it just grows comfortable, surrounded on all sides by a cage of familiarity. In Ermanno Olmi’s simple, subtle film I Fidanzati, we witness the effect that distance and disinterest has on two people, engaged to be married, who believe they are “in love,” but may not actually be in love with each other. Is the old saying true? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or does it merely over-romanticize its already overstated influence?


In the story, Giovanni and Luciana are a young couple who have been engaged for a very long time. Giovanni works for a petrochemical plant in Milan, in the northern part of Italy. Recently, he has been transferred to the company’s new facility in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. While it means a promotion and better pay, the move has placed a serious strain on his relationship with Luciana. Frankly, it was somewhat tense to begin with. There is very little trust and even less communication between the committed pair. And when Giovanni tries to discuss the move with Luciana, she seems to shut down, anticipating the worst possible outcome for the entire relocation. Reluctantly, Giovanni moves to Sicily.


There he is overwhelmed by the lack of activity and the rural climate. The loneliness and the isolation begin to take its toll. He spends his days (and occasional nights) in endless toil for the company while he wastes his free time wandering the near desolate Sicilian countryside. Fellow workers who have lived in the location for longer than Giovanni reinforce the foreign, almost alien aura of the area and its people. Giovanni writes to Luciana, but she is slow to answer. When she does, it begins a chain of correspondence that seems to re-ignite their once waning passion. The stress between the two subsides. They both feel the separation has been good for their relationship. But a casual phone call one Sunday afternoon may indicate otherwise


Olmi was a self-taught filmmaker. Before he made a single fictional work he helmed dozens of factual cinematic explorations in the field of documentaries. When approaching story, he envisioned movies as an extension of real life. His canvas and paints would be the mundane everyday world around us. Inspired by and following in the footsteps of such important Italian luminaries as De Sica and Rossellini, he utilized the neo-realist approach, even though to refer to his movies in such a fashion would be to remove essential truths from them. As the director of Il Posto and E Venne Un Uomo, Olmi believed in the concept that cinema should mirror life: a film should reflect existence back to us, allowing us to study it more carefully and profoundly. This school of filmmaking, one that allows a factual camera style to capture a fictional slice of living, was seen as revolutionary when it first hit the world’s movie screens. And it’s no wonder. A planet force-fed on the Hollywood glamour ideal of life as a perfectly costumed, immaculately made up, and flawlessly executed set of formulaic problems easily supplanted by the end of the film just was not used to seeing the plain, the normal, or the ugly living their unadorned existences as onscreen entertainment. But films like The Bicycle Thief and I Fidanzati showed that there was as much power, passion, and purpose in small stories of simple people as their was in the epic struggles of the hyper-real. Olmi and his fellow directors understood that genuineness comes in all segments/classes of society.


In this exquisite, uncomplicated mediation on togetherness versus division, we experience a story of how love lingers, fades, and is reborn within the dynamic of two people, two places, and all their characteristics. Indeed, beyond the political ideology surrounding the industrialization of the rural landscape and the obvious jabs at the craziness within corporate structures (explored in more detail in Olmi’s previous film, Il Posto) is a tale of emotions on a tight wire, with commitment, caring, and comfort hanging in the balance. Olmi goes so far as to title his film “the Fiancés,” so we understand that we are dealing with that fragile time before marriage, where an arrangement is in place, but in which the final lockstep into full-blown legal obligation has yet to occur. In modern society, we love to joke about grooms with “cold feet” and brides with “buyer’s remorse.” But I Fidanzati places us in a situation far more precarious than these last minute mental anxieties. Here, our couple is committed but potentially broken. Separation threatens to provide the catalyst to a final resolution of the relationship, for good or bad. I Fidanzati challenges the very idea of togetherness. By literally moving its main characters apart from each other and focusing on them alone, we are allowed to witness the obvious distance and inner disdain they sometimes have for one another


Harlan Ellison once wrote that he had no problem being alone. It was being lonely that he disliked. Giovanni is very much a man alone, both in his life with Luciana and his move to Sicily. As in Ellison’s statement, when he is with his fiancée, he is alone. He is misunderstood and has even strayed a time or two. The excitement and desire he once felt has been masked by the foul odor of familiarity, of knowing his partner too well. So he has turned inward, become a solitary man amongst his family and friends. Once in Sicily, though, he understands just what true loneliness is. It’s isolation and disconnection, not only from loved ones but also from personal comfort and your surroundings. It’s not knowing where you are. It’s not knowing where you will live. It’s having no roots in an area that is constantly changing its traditions and patterns. Looking for a familiar dancehall, he hears music and runs into a building, only to be met with an empty coffee shop and a loudly playing radio. Hoping to find a decent apartment, he must instead accept a room within a strange, cramped boarding house as price gouging by the locals has made finding a nice place impossible. And all the while the promised “new” job and “promotion” turns out to be more of the same thing, over and over again. Being important can placate a man forlorn. But when you are just one of several transient employees showering sparks down from the factory rafters, the barren countryside and hovel like living conditions begin to oppress and unhinge you.


Not that Luciana has it any easier from her position. For her, the separation is the worst possible situation for a woman who feels the grip on her man slipping. Distance means possibilities, enticements, and freedoms. Without her watchful eye on him, the already wandering Giovanni could disconnect himself from her completely. And even if the chance of that happening appears remote, there are all the things she may never learn or know, through the grapevine or otherwise. In Luciana, we have love without its supposed reservoir, without a place to reside and hide in. Out in the open and worn coat sleeve style, the emotion becomes far more delicate and destructible. That is why she is hesitant to answer Giovanni’s letters at first. She does not want to experience what she sees as the inevitable “Dear Jane” she is sure is just around the corner. It is also why, once she discovers how Giovanni is feeling (thanks either to his singular, lonely status or his true feelings, or both), she is so ready to reach out, across the distance, and smother her lover with tributes and promises. While this emotional exchange may be totally based in honest caring for one another, I Fidanzati provides an undercurrent of desperation for both sides. Each is trying to find either a way out of the pain and malaise that surrounds their engagement, a means of reconnecting and strengthening their union or merely a way of minimizing the pain. It may be distance that makes their feelings fortify, but it may too be the haunting, horrible feeling of really being unaccompanied for the first time in their adult lives.


Connection is the other intriguing issue that Olmi focuses on in I Fidanzati: not just unions of physicality, of touching and the embrace, but the mental and symbolic associations we make in everyday life. Almost like junkies, our characters are addicted to the feeling and familiarity of love. They seem to suffer a kind of subconscious withdrawal once it is removed. Giovanni, a confident, semi-suave cocksure player turns into a reclusive, nostalgic near child in Sicily, giddy at the sight of another adolescent smoking and spending longs afternoons playing in the surf. And like any child, after a while, he grows homesick and needy. He tries to find escape in the adult pleasure of the past (drinking, carousing) but learns that the poison of love has changed his inner workings forever. Without it, he will be lost. Same with Luciana. For her, the time without emotional support has been longer, and more agonizing. Some of it she experienced even before Giovanni. The symbols of connection constantly surround them: the dancehall, where proper ladies and gentleman exchange corporal and emotional love with complete parental and social acceptance; the beach, where family and friends gather to relax; the job, where life is spent in direct agreement/conflict with others for purely financial reasons; correspondence, where individuals share their innermost thoughts through the written word; the telephone, where voices as well as passions can be broadcast. And yet even with all these tokens and repositories of bonding, they seem only able to truly mesh in the world of words. In all others, they are awkward and cold.


From this description, it seems that I Fidanzati should be a movie loaded with brilliant performances and tour de force camera work. But oddly, this is not a movie about acting or direction. Olmi’s camera has a habit of staying on the outskirts of situations, watching them the way a documentarian would, without setup or care for compositional makeup. And in his actors, whom are usually non-professionals, he demands and captures attitude and temperament only. There is no method here, just storytelling methodology. You remember his characters more for what they represent and tell you about the circumstances surrounding them than their individualism. Giovanni is not so much a character as he is a depiction, an impression of basic, normal man; a guy filled with sexual drive, misplaced machismo and fear of commitment. Luciana is all female fickleness and fright, walking the tenuous social line of physical promise with actual fulfillment. She is all women, wanting to hold on to her man but not willing to compromise her honor to do so (especially in the very moralistic, very Catholic society of Italy where a dance is considered the only satisfactory public display of affection). Carlo Cabrini and Anna Canzi are very good in this film because they are very real, and at the heart of any neo-realistic examination of life, that is the best that they and Olmi can hope for. Olmi is not obsessed with actors projecting their inner demons onto the screen to illuminate his themes. The issues here are universal. Anyone (and everyone) could play at and project them.


I Fidanzati is therefore the story of every romance, of how everyone—no matter who they are, their social status, or their experience (or lack thereof)—understands love. Those who are truly bound in destiny will feel separation anxiety and a wealth of good feelings even during the seemingly endless moments apart. Those with less than a secure relationship may also appreciate their partner anew, glossing over the bad to merely remember the good. For some, the partnership was a sham to begin with, and distance cements the finality of the need to split up. In the case of Giovanni and Luciana, storm clouds seem to be brewing up ahead. The time in Sicily has made Giovanni aware of his truly heartfelt emotion for Luciana and he wants to reconnect with that. And through letters and postcards, the expressions of love are tender and touching. But at the end of the film, when it seems like the lovers have remembered the importance of each other in their life and are committed anew, a simple phone call betrays an inherent obstacle, a thunderstorm to deluge the fires of re-ignited love. Giovanni’s face betrays the flaw.


In the ethereal world of verse and prose, where poetic and complex infatuations can be precisely and accurately thought out, the relationship between these I Fidanzati is perfect: not without bumps, but exemplary in its purity and power. But the minute a human connection is made, when voices must conduct what the pen has perpetuated all this time, nothing much happens. Luciana appears near incoherent (based on Giovanni’s side of the conversation) and her debonair, eloquent lover a frazzled and henpecked rube. For this is the final secret divulged in I Fidanzati, a clandestine concept that many never discover until it is too late. Love does indeed fade. But it also lingers and scars, leaving one changed forever. Someone once said “love hurts.” Indeed it does.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 12, 2006


Everybody lies. It’s a well-established part of life. Existence in the real world is just not possible without an occasional fib or an expertly timed falsehood. In most instances they are trivial little scams, excuses to get out of an obligation or to avoid a social/personal faux pas. Rarely do they escalate into animate alter egos, entities living and breathing unto themselves. Mostly, the tall tale is told, achieves its goal, and is quickly forgotten. But lies can be like weeds, creeping across an individual’s integrity like kudzu along a wooded Georgia backwoods. As our world has grown more cynical and demanding, the tendency to pass out the truth like candy to a hyperactive child becomes the standard, and pretense takes the place of real, honest interaction. Eventually, people who leave too many of these little white wounds open to fester and rot are branded liars and cheats, members of a truly delinquent order, and yet there but for the grace of truth go almost all of us. Honestly, how would you react if friends and family, co-workers and clients, discovered some of the sordid sagas you’ve glossed over in favor of a grifter’s smile and a conversational con job? You’d be mortified. Or maybe, you’d be proud of your dishonesty.


Raymond Fernandez was one such happy heal. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, he answered requests from lonely hearts club members (read: early versions of classified personal ads), promising them love, devotion, and romance. But in the end, he bilked them out of their nest eggs and self-esteem. That is, until the unhappy Martha came along. She made him pay for his duplicity. She pushed him over the edge, from simple gigolo to vile murderer. Passions and possessiveness may have held them together, but death sealed their fates forever. They were lovers. They were liars. And they became The Honeymoon Killers, the subject of a sensational movie by writer/director Leonard Kastle.


In the story, Martha is a sad, overweight head nurse at a local hospital. She channels her misery through a veil of contempt for all around her. That includes her mentally unbalanced mother and her nosy next-door neighbor/best friend Bunny. Hoping it will help her hefty heartsick pal, Bunny thinks it would be a “hoot” to have Martha join a lonely hearts club and receive letters from other forlorn folks. She signs her up, and after some initial resistance, the stern caregiver dives in full force. One day, a letter from a man named Raymond catches her eye. He is sincere and gentile. He expresses his emotions with eloquence and grace. After a series of correspondence, the two exchange photos and eventually Raymond travels to meet Martha. He is a suave Latin lover type. He instantly woos his plump paramour. But he then leaves abruptly, asking for a small loan to get him back home. Time passes and Bunny makes a frantic phone call to the initially nonplused Ray. Martha is threatening to kill herself and demands to see her lover again or take her own life. Relenting, a trip to New York finds Martha and Ray reunited.


And it’s here where Martha learns Ray’s not-so secret. He is a love ‘em and leave ‘em flimflam man who promises widows and spinsters marriage and devotion on the premise of a substantial upfront cash payment. His dozens of conquests—almost all gleaned from the lonely hearts club ads in the back of seedy pulp magazines—keep him constantly hustling for his next dollar. At first, Martha finds the whole idea disgusting. She wants Ray all for herself. But when Ray needs a means of distracting a potential mark, he introduces Martha as his “sister,” and soon the couple is traveling the country fleecing sad single women out of their life savings. But Ray’s eye tends to wander, and Martha feels betrayed every time he pays more attention to the victims than her. Things turn deadly as Martha and Ray find it more and more difficult to keep up the sham and collect the cash. Finally, in a house in upstate New York, Martha learns the true depths of Ray’s cheating and the tragic results forever brand the couple as horrible criminals, capable of the most heinous crimes against humanity, all in the name of money, love, and lies.


In the unfortunately titled The Honeymoon Killers, the psychological fallout of longing and lack of love manifests itself in acts of human depravity so shocking in their luridness, and yet so understandable in their motivation, that the film, a uniquely disturbing thriller, actually upsets us. It’s a tale of lies and deception, of how desperate individuals in need of something, be it tenderness or legal tender, will do just about anything to get one or both. And add to that the idea of interpersonal double crosses, of never knowing who is playing whom for a sucker or visa versa, and you’ve got a dark, moody motion picture that starts off brash and then slow burns its way through an ever more disquieting series of ever more disturbing events. Seen within the media frenzy glare of our new century, with its 24 hour a day “info-tainment” coverage of the most mundane of murder cases, the calm, deliberate tone of The Honeymoon Killers could be mistaken for bland, or God forbid, boring. But like a well constructed mystery where the final reveal will provide the killer’s identity and motive, this brilliantly minimal muse on the meaning and method of murder rewards those who look behind the direct exterior to dig into the deviant dirt underneath. The Honeymoon Killers is a film that relishes layered complexity, and in its characters, its direction, and its final formation, it has more to say than some pipe smoking super sleuth.


The Honeymoon Killers has the unique distinction of being one of the few cinematic examples of reverse film noir, a thriller that savors the light, not the shadows and fog of darkness. As a matter of fact, perhaps a better description for this film’s mysterious mise-en-scène would be cinema blanc. The sun and the incandescent rays it showers upon the serial killing couple illuminate all aspects of their sleazy personality, offering those about to be taken and/or killed the chance to see their evil mindset in all its warped perversion. Ray is not really shrouded in ambiguity or veiled from full view. He is upfront and obvious: a true man waiting to be kept. On the outside he appears noble and good intentioned, and in writing he is all poetry and promises. But there is a profound phoniness to this Latin lover that’s as noticeable as the dime store toupee he sports. The lothario game is just a job for Ray, one that keeps him constantly on the move and burrowing through bank accounts of unhappy unmarrieds. His promises are as empty as his heart. And yet he seems to fall for Martha, a woman whose passion is as massive as her waistline. Or maybe he just needs her. After years of wining and dining and deserting, maybe Martha with her possessive compulsiveness is the grounding foundation he needs. Or a necessary new accomplice, a new angle on his age old swindle.


For Martha, it seems a lonely life of solitude and desperation has turned her devious, warping her once devoted life of easing pain into a single minded fixation to wrap Ray around her fat fingers like biscuit dough over Vienna sausages. Her faked suicide succeeds in getting the seemingly un-catchable con man to stop and actually take a moment to care about someone for once. We hear a true voice of concern—or a well-rehearsed slick pitch—whenever Ray expresses his affection to the fat, friendless female. And apparently, genuine or not, it’s all she needs to continue believing in herself and their relationship. But as the climate of crime and the possibility of betrayal—either legal or romantic—starts to consume Martha, she resorts to slaughter as a kind of misplaced matrimonial sacrament, a way of linking Ray to her forever. The film’s centerpiece hammer murder, with its ritualistic moves and man/woman—husband/wife—bludgeoner/strangler exchange of blows, becomes a kind of weird wedding ceremony, a final reciting of the inescapable vows of complicity. There is even a sick, twisted consummation of these nauseating nuptials. As the still twitching body of the victim lies on the living room floor, Ray strips completely and walks into the bedroom. Martha asks if everything is okay. Ray says yes. He wants to make love. And thus the final bond is achieved, an irrevocable connection that can never be broken. Except by the electric chair.


It’s easy to say that Martha is the truly evil being here. Ray provides moments of pleasure and is paid for it, sometimes very well, but the atrocities Martha commits are far more primal in their intent. She commits murder as a means of obligating Ray to her, a kind of permanent taboo tattoo that no action or reaction can erase. Nothing else in our society is so automatic in its condemnation, so instantaneous in its polarization as cold-blooded killing. This authority to play God, to determine who lives and who dies frightens, and strangely tantalizes us. The concept of an ever-shifting balance of power is key to The Honeymoon Killers. It establishes an outer relationship between the lovers to complement and compete with their deep interpersonal one and it helps heighten the uneasy mood of the film. We understand implicitly that at any given point, either of these two strong egos can take over and dictate the demands of the relationship. It is more than just a battle of wills or clash of manias. It’s a war for personal acknowledgment. Ray and Martha are probably one of the few couples in screen history whose connection is based almost solely on a mutual anti-socialness. Sure, there is the glamour gun fun of Bonnie and Clyde, or the murder/suicide self abuse of Sid and Nancy, but in Martha and Ray we see such total contempt for the world and all its phony trappings that their desire to control it, to have power over its population, is not surprising. The fact that they would try and tame each other is.


Since it’s so subtle, so gradual in its genesis, a movie like The Honeymoon Killers needs a strong cast to sell its measured descent into the deranged. Tony LoBianco, a famous face for many years on screen and television, makes a convincing, sexy lover boy. With an accent so thick it’s almost racist and a manner that’s half passionate, half prestidigitation, he is a wizard of wanting and a sorcerer of the single lady. He initially doesn’t have violence inside himself so much as ill will for the rubes he fleeces. He hates their desperation. He condemns their hypocrisy. They may have started out wanting a companion, but in the end, they are willing to mortgage their financial security and everything they worked for just to be with him, a man they hardly know. Martha is the only one who sees through him, who understands the mothering and smothering the Hispanic he-man needs to stay in control. As embodied by the stocky yet sensual Shirley Stoler, a wholly under-appreciated and forgotten actress, Martha become parent and lover, confessor and condemner to Ray. Manipulative in her plump, pouty poses and constantly cocking an eyebrow to second guess the criminal cyclone encasing her, Stoler turns Martha into a role of reactions, of silently listening and plotting based on what she hears and sees. Sure, she has her loud and rash moments, but when she’s lying in bed with Ray or watching a mark make a fool of herself, you can sense that she’s several steps ahead of the game. Sadly, all she really wants is companionship. The fact that she’s willing to sacrifice her life completely for it means Martha is both pathetic and unpredictable. This kind of time bomb temperament adds another level of foreboding to The Honeymoon Killers already ominous tone.


It’s just too bad that Stoler didn’t have a bigger career in front of the camera. Aside from an occasional bizarre turn, like playing Mrs. Steve, a certain Mr. Herman’s nosy neighbor on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Shirley died without ever having achieved the kind of stardom actresses of similar stature (like Kathy Bates) get regularly. She is great in The Honeymoon Killers, giving the kind of perfect performance that today would be sought after, no matter her size.


But a much greater mystery is why writer/director Leonard Kastle has failed to work behind the lens again. As great as LoBianco and Stoler are, it’s the atmospheric ambiance and mannered storytelling structure that Kastle imposes on The Honeymoon Killers that makes the movie such a successful, psychotic thriller. Kastle, a composer by profession, understands understatement better than most directors in this genre. He has complete faith in his actors and their characters, knowing that they can be far creepier and disturbing than obtuse camera angles and heavily artistic directing flourishes. Many times, Kastle creates a simple compositional two shot and lets the players simply perform. When it comes to the brutality of the couple, Kastle also uses the “less is more” approach. Crimes are committed off screen, or out of frame, relying again on the power of performance to sell the imagined terror. And it works. When he holds the camera up close, framing only the eyes of an about-to-be victim, he understands instinctively the disturbing qualities of not knowing what is going on out of shot. For a first time feature maker, Kastle shows an incredible skill and stylized visual flair. Why he never made another film is just plain difficult to comprehend.


As a true crime testament, The Honeymoon Killers more than holds its own with far more famous brethren like In Cold Blood and Badlands. Over the years, the seedy tale of Martha and Ray’s murderous crime spree has mistakenly been mis-categorized as an exploitation film, probably because of the tawdry title (it was originally written as “Dear Martha…”) and an ad campaign that featured Stoler and LoBianco in their underwear sharing a sensual embrace on top of a steamer trunk, which just so happens to have an arm sticking out of it. True, in its independent, single-minded desire to showcase a famous couple of homicidal maniacs, The Honeymoon Killers does share its heritage with several other examples of motion picture extremism, but this is also a film that moves carefully and quietly through its torrid, tangled web of lies and deceit, something that most genre exercises shied away from. By presenting death as the ultimate and final act of love’s desperation and by utilizing a gradual buildup of dread and suspense, The Honeymoon Killers becomes the very definition of a psychological thriller, one that couches its thrills in the truly disturbed actions of the human mind. It offers us a chance to look inside the warped world of its demented lovers and tries to illustrate the destructive power of their mutual and individual lies. If the truth shall set you free, The Honeymoon Killers shows, very clearly, that lies will condemn and enslave you.


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