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2019 – A New Year

Call Me Mother (2018 Korean Drama)

It has been some time since my last post – over six months. In that time, I have read many good books, watched many excellent films, and developed a new passion for Korean drama. I have not, however, been able to write about any of that, but I want to correct that this year.

I have been considering whether or not to include the occasional review of Korean dramas (called Kdramas) on this blog. They are often 16 episode series, which tell a continuous story. They can be thrillers or romances or comedies or fantasies…though Kdramas often seem very comfortable including random, unexplained fantasy elements in their stories: the ability to read someone’s mind, time travel, made-up medical syndromes. My own persona favorite Korean drama is the 2018 series called Call Me Mother, a low-level thriller that is really a drama about motherhood in all its manifestations.

But since Korean dramas do not exactly fit in with the general theme of my blog, I am hesitating about including any reviews. However, I might try one or two reviews, just to see how things go.

I have also been continuing with my passion for Japanese Cinema. I am thinking of writing a piece on some of the great Japanese directors of the 1950s: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse.

Another lovely discovery has been the two French film comedians and directors: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix. They made films during the ’50’s, ’60’s, and ’70’s, but are heavily influenced by silent comedy, though they also make inspired and hilarious use of sound.

I would like to develop a post about my growing (highly amateur) appreciation of cinema as an art form worthy of the same respect as poetry, architecture, opera, drama, or any other recognized art. I would also like to air out a theory about the use of music in a film. I’m beginning to get very opinionated about that, actually. Maybe that will be my next post! I will include Tati, Etaix, the film Dunkirk, Lord of the Rings, Pre-code cinema, Ozu and silent movies.

Yasujiro Ozu – I cannot admire his films too much!

I’ve been reading a lot of British literature from the Victorian era, as well. I would like to perhaps write some reviews on some of the books I have read (and am reading). I am currently also reading Les Miserables, which I have decided is part history, part journalism, and part fictional story. Victor Hugo seems to have never met a literary aside that he didn’t like or want to share. He is positively brimming with opinions and things he wants to share with his reader. He makes Charles Dickens’ look positively restrained! But there is no denying the power of his story or his writing (when he isn’t telling the reader about the battle of Waterloo; it takes him about sixty pages just to get back to the story). But his story is well-nigh un-killable. It even survives bad adaptations (for a really good adaptation, try the 1934 French version of Les Miserables, directed by Raymond Bernard).

Sir Walter Scott has also been on my radar, mostly because he was so vastly influential on the Victorians (most notably the Brontë sisters). His poetry is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There are a small group of dedicated fans who maintain that his literature is far more artful than is generally credited and I am willing to give him a try, focusing on his novels set in Scotland, rather than his most popular medieval work, Ivanhoe.

I hope everyone else is doing well. I would love to hear what everyone is reading, watching, thinking, music they are listening to. It should be a good year of movies, music, and books! I look forward to it.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in Books, Movies

 

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Seeing Double Indemnity on the Big Screen

dipst-lgOn Sunday, TCM presented Double Indemnity across the country at select theaters and I promised myself that come rain or shine, sickness or in health, I would be there. And so I was. It was the first time I had seen any classic film on anything other than my puny and unimpressive TV and the experience was exhilarating, even more so because Double Indemnity is one of those films I never grow tired of watching.

I’d like to say that seeing it on the big screen was a revelation, but since I already knew it so well, the affect was less revelatory than it was heightened. The sound was much improved, naturally, so the moment when the gun goes off and Phyllis shoots Walter had more impact, less a pop gun and an actual murder attempt that takes him unawares and even startled me a little. And apart from my initial viewing, the moment when they are in the car and about to make their getaway and Phyllis can’t start the car did not make me feel truly tense, despite my enjoyment and appreciation. But this time, I could feel the tension, palpably.

The theater was not even half full (which seems a pity for such a great film), but it was interesting to watch with a crowd of people and their reactions. I went with six other people, some of whom do not usually watch classic films and it is curious how the knowledge that other people are seeing it for the first time changes how I view it. I always knew that Double Indemnity contains dialogue that no one ever would speak, but this time I really noticed it. It didn’t bother me – I think it’s brilliant – but it did become apparent to me how stylized it is. It’s dialogue that fits together like a mechanical watch, so closely fitted that to remove anything might unwind the whole, each line inevitably leading to the next. There is no casual conversation going on in Double Indemnity.

MV5BMTgxMTI4MDc5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMTUxNjQ2._V1_SX640_SY720_I was once again struck with how brilliant Edward G. Robinson is. Almost every time someone laughed in the theater, it was in response to one of his lines. His energy partly is what propels this film.

I am delighted to say that everyone I went with enjoyed it. But in talking to people, I discovered that I have difficulty expressing why I love this movie so much. Talking about the plot or saying I like the dialogue or actors doesn’t seem to really capture it.

I once read someone describe watching Double Indemnity as listening to a Mozart symphony. That seems to best epitomize why I love the film. It is one of those perfectly plotted films, each scene leading inevitably and smoothly into the next, informing the next scene. I can revisit it the same way I keep listening to my favorite pieces of music. There is so much going on in every scene, characters playing on multiple levels of communication between each other and to the audience.

For example: Walter has just told Phyllis that he is going to kill her husband; he is going to plan everything and do it right without any weakness or sloppiness. He thinks he’s in control, calming an apparently hysterical woman who says she can’t stand living with her husband anymore, doing a good impression of someone who might run out into the night and reckless bump off her husband, come what may. But after Walter tells her what he is going to do, she stands up and there is a look of such supreme satisfaction on her face that you know she has just gotten what she wanted. Barbara Stanwyck is playing two parts, the part Phyllis is playing for Walter’s benefit and the part of Phyllis, the cold-blooded killer.

imagesAnother example: Walter is in Keye’s office and Keyes is telling him how he has figured out the murder was committed. Once again, he is acting on two levels. There is the part he is playing for Keyes, the friend and confident, and the part of the murderer, who knows the man Keyes is hunting for is him. It’s brilliant stuff and most of the scenes are like that.

When Lola goes to Walter to tell him that she suspects that Phyllis killed her father, now Walter has to react on three levels. He is talking to Lola and trying to calm her down, he is afraid that through her the entire plan could bust in his face and he is hearing from Lola a new and decidedly disturbing side to Phyllis’ character that he had not previously comprehended.

I also love watching the characters move and act and speak. The way Phyllis throws away her cigarette and reaches for her gun, expressive of so much control, contempt and determination. The scene where Keyes cites statistics and pretty much shows up his boss as a fool, the charged expressions Phyllis and Walter give each other during that scene, the endless lighting of cigarettes on Walter’s thumb nail and offering it to Keyes, the way Phyllis pointedly drops a piece of lemon into Walter’s tea and says “Fresh.”

Another great scene is when Keyes goes into his spiel about why Walter should become a claims manager, describing it as a combination of surgery, religion, detection, psychology, human drama and even the judicial system. His eloquence and passion flow on, pausing only to answer the phone, and then continues without skipping a beat. But what also makes the scene great is that he is describing his job as a calling, something he believes in, bolstered by his own moral sense. Walter is not interested because of the cut in salary – he does not view his work as a calling – and Keyes’ passion is contrasted with the phone call from Phyllis, who is telling Walter that her husband is taking the train after all, so they can go ahead with their plan to murder him.

double-indemnity-3To me this is the key scene of the film, where Walter could have chosen to back out and gone Keyes’ way, but does not. In fact, he never seriously considers it, but the chance is there.

Finally, what I love about this is film is that despite all the cynicism, violence, manipulation, weakness, and lust there is still warmth to be found in the film, especially between Walter and Keyes. Walter is capable of nobler feelings, for Lola and his friendship with Keyes, and it is these emotions that make you care what happens to the characters and make the ending all the more tragic.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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Vertigo (1958) – Two Different Tragedies

download (1)If you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s VertigoDON’T READ THIS POST! Vertigo, like all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, really deserves to be viewed without prior knowledge, though I don’t always manage it. But I knew very little about Vertigo before I saw it. I was expecting a kind of suspense story with a fair dose of romance, so I was a little taken aback, when in the first half of the film, what I got instead was a stunningly beautiful, dreamlike, almost supernatural, romance. It didn’t seem very traditionally Hitchcockian. Then the second half began and I was alternately surprised and a little appalled to find myself watching  a twisted tale, more nightmare than dream, of love turned to obsession.

I’ve put off watching Alfred Hitchcock’s later films (late fifties and on). I had the impression that, apart from the delightfully thrilling and entertaining North By Northwest, his films became more grim and less fun. And admittedly, Vertigo is more grim and less fun. However, I liked it a lot. It took me a while to decide that I liked it. I was too stunned by the ending to be able to make up my mind right away. I had to think about it and sort out my extremely varied reactions to the various parts of the film. If Hitchcock meant to manipulate his audience and jerk them around in unexpected and occasionally unpleasant ways, then he succeeded masterfully.

The first half of the film opens with John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired police detective with acrophobia, who is asked by an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to follow his wife. Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is behaving strangely and Helmore thinks she’s possessed by her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide when she was 26 years old. Madeleine is now 26 and going off into trances, driving to the museum and staring at Carlotta’s picture, visiting her grave, and even tries to commit suicide by jumping into San Francisco bay, all without remembering any of it. But Scottie falls completely in love with her and tries to help her realize that it’s not true; she is not going to die. But halfway through the film, seemingly irresistibly impelled, she jumps off the bell tower of a mission. Scottie can’t reach her into time because of his acrophobia, which prevents him from climbing the bell tower stairs.

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

Kim Novak as Madeleine and James Stewart

This first half of the movie is almost like a movie on its own. It made me think of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It has a score by the same composer, Bernard Herrmann, and often floats along in the same, dreamlike way, like a tone poem. It’s haunting and the movie is almost worth watching just so you can listen to that wonderful score. But the first half also has seemingly supernatural undertones. The movie really has you wondering if it is true, if Madeleine is really possessed by Carlotta, which puzzled me because I had never before associated Hitchcock with supernatural films. But primarily, the first half is a romance between Scottie and Madeleine, the kind of romance that you know is fated to end badly and if the movie had ended there, it would have been a complete, though tragic, story.

But it didn’t end there. After Madeleine dies, Scottie goes into a deep depression. He can’t seem to accept she’s gone or get over his all consuming love for her when he meets a young woman who looks just like Madeleine. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak, also) and her hair is a different color and she does it differently and is a working girl in contrast to the extremely remote, almost in another world, sophisticated Madeleine. Grasping at anything that could bring Madeleine back to him, Scottie asks Judy out. She says yes and the audience learns, though Scottie doesn’t, that Judy is really Madeleine. Or rather, that Judy was playing Madeleine. Gavin Elster had hired her to pretend to be his wife so that he could kill the real Madeleine and use Scottie to convince the police that she was suicidal. But Judy/Madeleine fell in love genuinely with Scottie and when she runs into him as Judy she allows him to gradually take over her life. So eager to please, though wishing he would love her as Judy, she allows him to turn her into Madeleine. He buys exactly the same clothes Madeleine wore, has her change her hair and wear it the way Madeleine wore it. Protesting the whole way, she goes along with it.

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

James Stewart with Kim Novak as Madeleine and Judy

But when he finds out that Judy was Madeleine all along, he feels betrayed, drives her to the place where she supposedly committed suicide and confronts her there. And in his shock, rage and hurt, he is finally able to conquer his acrophobia and climb the stairs. But once there and after explanations, Judy is startled by a nun and steps backwards, falling to her death for real this time.

The second half of the film is like a completely different film, almost feeling unreal at times. And when I first discovered that Judy was really Madeleine, it initially felt like a cop out that undermined the beauty of the romance in the first half. Here we’d had this very convincing, almost supernatural romance that you are invested in and it turns out to have a natural explanation after all. My first thought was it didn’t seem worthy of Hitchcock and that a twist for a twist’s sake wasn’t worth it.

But as the movie continued, it began to grip me anew. The second half is a mirror of the first, but less pure, less lovely, more obsessive and dark, ending as the first half did, except more bleakly, because now it is his fault that she died and not a vague, supernatural force beyond anyone’s control.

I like to think tragedy comes in two flavors: the lovely kind and the bleak kind. The first kind of tragedy is like “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s sad, but there is a sense of fatality about it, beyond anyone’s control and despite the fact that you don’t want the story to end sadly, there is a fittingness to it. The second kind is more like “Othello.” There is nothing fitting about the end. Othello is the author of his own tragedy and one’s reaction is less “Oh, how beautifully sad,” and more “oh my gosh, that’s awful!” The focus of the beautiful tragedy is on how lovely love is. The focus of the second is how people self-destruct and destroy their own love.

KimNovakandJamesStewartinVertigo195What is amazing is that Alfred Hitchcock manages to have both kinds of tragedies in the same movie! In the first half of the film, their love seems doomed through no fault of their own. The supernatural is too much for them. It’s somehow comforting, like “Romeo and Juliet.” The second half is the complete opposite. It’s not so much tragic as bleak because he is the one who is responsible, not any supernatural forces. But the first half was so beautiful, you really want that to be the real movie, even though it is actually an illusion. The reality is that Madeleine never existed. She was created and Scottie is in love with a woman who isn’t real and in his obsession over her he takes the real woman and tries to turn her into the image of an image. And she, in her desperate need of him, lets him.

Kim Novak really does a sensational job as both Madeleine and Judy. Apparently, there were critics who complained she was too stiff, but I thought she was really quite good at conveying suppressed passion. She is still because she is holding back. And in the end, despite the appearance of remoteness at the beginning, she becomes truly the most sympathetic person (despite the fact that she apparently helped Gavin Elster commit a murder – we never do hear what happens to him. He said he was going to Europe and when the movie was finished my sister trenchantly offered the hope that he get run over by a bus). Scottie, on the other hand, goes from being the man we sympathize with to almost the villain. He’s almost crazy with love and you can see it in his eyes and how he treats her. He is a victim, but becomes a shadow of Gavin Elster; trying to make a real women into the shadowy Madeleine and then killing her (so to speak – it’s not directly his doing, but he is the catalyst for the accident). It’s truly a masterful movie; I’ve never had a movie elicit quite so many different emotions within a two hour framework. I am quite eager to see what it will be like on a second viewing.

Here is an example of the lovely score by Bernard Herrman (who also composed the scores for Hitchcock’s PsychoMarniThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThe Wrong ManNorth By NorthwestTorn Curtain and The Birds).

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Drama, Romance

 

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