Film

The 100 Essential Directors Part 6: Ernst Lubitsch to Vincente Minnelli

Today runs the gamut. Hollywood to indie art house, female perspective to male, screwball comedy to chamber drama. The odyssey from Ernst Lubitsch to Vincente Minnelli will provide illumination on how film's first special effects were used, how two brothers presciently preceded reality TV in the Hamptons, and why some directors prefer to work about once a decade on average...

Today runs the gamut. Hollywood to indie art house, female perspective to male, screwball comedy to chamber drama. The odyssey from Ernst Lubitsch to Kenji Mizoguchi will provide illumination on how film's first special effects were used, how two brothers presciently preceded reality television in the Hamptons, and why some directors prefer to work about once a decade on average...

 

Ernst Lubitsch
(1892 - 1947)

Three Key Films: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Underrated: One Hour With You (1932) Lubitsch wielded an unusual amount of power at Paramount, briefly serving as head of production, though power never dinted his popularity with his actors and colleagues (indeed, he might have been the best liked of all the great directors). The film is decidedly pre-Code, about a Parisian doctor (Maurice Chevalier) who is successfully seduced by Mitzi, the best friend of his wife (Jeannette MacDonald). A highpoint comes when the good doctor, trying to justify his infidelity, looks at the audience, and in a song asks them what they would do if a woman like Mitzi were to use her wiles on them. He sings: “If her head was on your shoulder / And she grew a little bit bolder / Now I ask you what would you do with a girl like that? / ... Now I ask you what would you do?/That's what I did too.”

Unforgettable: In To Be or Not to Be, that “great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura (improbably but brilliantly portrayed by radio comedian Jack Benny) is playing Hamlet. Coming to the front of the stage he pauses, with the prompter absurdly whispering, “To be or not to be,” as if anyone could struggle with the line. Joseph ignores him, looks at the audience, and begins the famous soliloquy, only to see a man on the second row dressed in an officer’s uniform stand up and noisily leave his seat. He works his way down row, and walks out of the auditorium, much to the consternation of the actor. The icing on the cake is that the officer is leaving to visit backstage actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), the actor’s wife. The gag is repeated two more times, with no diminishment of our joy.

The Legend: The greatest comedy director in the history of film, his films were famously known for “The Lubitsch Touch". What was it? The truth is that it was originally a label created by the Paramount publicity department, but in fact his films are indeed genuinely unique and his colleagues knew it. Billy Wilder kept a sign on his desk throughout his career that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” while Orson Welles said in an interview, “Lubitsch was a giant... his talent and originality were stupefying.” Legendary screenwriter Samson Raphaleson, who wrote several of Lubitsch’s greatest scripts, added, “I worked with Hitchcock, I worked with Cukor... Lubitsch towered above anyone creatively.”

Lubitsch’s influence on Hollywood is enormous but unrecognized. He is not just one of the movie’s greatest directors; he was the first star European director to come to Hollywood. He introduced a Continental sense of playfulness about sex that Hollywood sorely lacked at the time and gave film a sheen of sophistication it completely lacked prior to his introducing it.

Lubitsch was born to a tailor and his wife in 1892 in Berlin. Instead of following in the family business he became an actor, eventually joining Max Reinhardt’s theater company. After starring in a string of comedy films built around pratfalls, he switched to directing, and unexpectedly became one of the great directors of the early Weimar period, leaving for Hollywood in 1923.

In a way Lubitsch never really came to America. In his films he created his own world that many have dubbed Lubitschland, filled with wealthy sophisticates, wise-cracking waiters, rakish officers, adorable scoundrels, and slumming royalty. The films were set in places with real names -- Paris, Monte Carlo, and Warsaw -- but the locales were as fictitious as Shangri-La. He made sex comedies, though never vulgar ones; his treatment of sex was always elegant and sophisticated.

In 1934 the new Production Code went into effect. In Trouble in Paradise there is a shot of a couple embracing and kissing on a couch. In a dissolve they disappear and the couch is shown empty. The lights darken and the arm of the man reaches out to place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel door. The implication was clear: they had gone have sex on the bed. But what was possible in 1932 was impossible after 1934. The effect on Lubitsch was significant. His films had been built around sex, but sex was forbidden. But also the Code meant that none of his films made prior to 1934 could be shown. Films like One Hour with You would not be shown again for decades. Older film fans would remember the genius of his early movies, but new fans were not created.

In the '60s and '70s it became possible to view his films again, his reputation began gradually to recover. But even with the advent of VHS and DVD versions of films, many of his films remain difficult or impossible to see. He should be remembered as what he was, not merely the greatest director of comedies cinema has known, but the equal of the greatest of great Hollywood directors. Robert Moore

 

 

 

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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