The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Welcome to October, ye aulde scavengers of doorstep candies and defacers of guileless pumpkins.  This is a month unto itself in the world of film, a sort of embodied actor dictating the atmosphere and mood of its cinematic output with all the gusto of a mad composer.  Where December takes us to the stereo systems, bidding us hear the crooners and choirs in their mystic wonderlands of white, October ushers us manipulatively to dark rooms with dull lights emanating from silver screens.  It is a haunting force, not unlike the specters that inhabit it, simultaneously possessing us and scaring us away.  October is no mere month, it is a phenomenon, beckoning us to consume fear like we would fun-size chocolates and candy corns.  Trick-or-treating, costumes, haunted houses, plumes of dry ice flowing from plastic punch-bowls… none of these exorcise that possessive ghost of October quite like a scary movie.  Indeed, the genre of horror film lies at the very heart of Halloween celebration. Continue reading

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Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

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Marcel Proust, in the second part of his Remembrance of Things Past—Within a Budding Grove—wrote,“But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. . . . To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”

Certainly a wordy passage for one of the wordiest of novels.  Yet, like practically every sentence in Proust’s masterpiece, these sentences paint a colorful and insightful picture into the human mind and condition.  Genius is not brute force.  Genius is the grace-like ability to expand, enlighten, and, like Proust said, transform.  Genius lies in the application of talent, not so much the exposition of it.

If there is one way to describe the comedy of Gene Wilder, then, it is genius. Continue reading

My Introduction to a Series of Essays on The Rules of the Game

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“The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”—OctaveThe Rules of the Game

Perhaps no other line in La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) acts as a fairer summation of the movie’s plots and themes as this one, spoken by Octave, the intervening old man in a complex game of youth, love, and social impetus.  It is only fitting, in a meta-filmic sort of way, that Octave is played by the film’s writer, producer, and director, the man that most would consider the greatest of all French auteurs: Jean Renoir.  It’s like the author’s own film commentary, nestled into the screenplay itself, cozily and conveniently. Continue reading

Grand Illusion (1937)

Where Jean Gabin portrayed a doomed working class hero in Le jour se lève, in Grand Illusion (La grande illusion), he played perhaps the most hopeful symbol of the victorious proletariat that French Poetic Realism would ever come to offer.  Grand Illusion uses his character as but one of several others showing the disintegration of the old world, and the rebuilding of a new one after the earth-shattering imbalance of World War I.  It tells the story of humanity, divided vertically by borders and divided horizontally by social class.  It tells the story of the war that shattered these distinctions: gone were the days of gentleman’s battles, glorious deaths, and the rules of the game.  A new world order, one more unified in both suffering and success was being born.  Out of this carnage and pain could come a new type of freedom, one both symbolic and practical, one that would elevate the lower class and destroy the arbitrary divisions that threatened humankind. Continue reading

Le jour se lève (1939)

“A killer! Now there’s something to gossip about! Sure, I’m a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen! They’re everywhere! Everyone kills! They just do it quietly, so you don’t see. It’s like sand. It gets deep inside you.”

So exclaims Jean Gabin’s famous proletarian hero from his apartment balcony to the curious masses below in Marcel Carné’s 1939 masterpiece, Le jour se lève.

Many critics, when asked which movie acts as the quintessential example of film noir, would say The Maltese Falcon. When asked which film most exemplifies the precepts of the screwball comedy, many experts would likely tag It Happened One Night.  When it comes to the American Western, they likely cite Stagecoach.  Well, in my opinion, if you were to ask which film most embodies the general characteristics, images, and ideas of French Poetic Realism, the answer would be  Le jour se lève. Continue reading

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels is both screwball comedy and socially conscious melodrama — as well as a satire of socially conscious melodrama, and a serious apologetic for crowd-pleasing comedy.”

So says film critic Steven D. Greydanus.  The hilarious opening sequence of Sullivan’s Travels is the evidence supporting Greydanus’ claims, when, after watching the first edit of an upcoming action picture, actor Joel McCrea—playing a film director by the name of John L. Sullivan—bemoans the sell-out of corporate Hollywood and the way it is effecting his artistic abilities.  Speaking with his studio boss, Sullivan tells of his desire to film a new movie, called Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?.   Continue reading

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.”

So says C.K. Dexter Haven, ex-husband of the pretentious and beautiful Tracy Lord.  She has thrown him out and banned him from her mansion estate, and has recently engaged herself to George Kittredge.  In Kittredge, she sees everything that Haven was not.  Unlike Haven, who was born into the social elite, Kittredge was a self-made member of the upper-classes, not subject to the vices of the pampered life (a life that she, herself, has lived).  A woman of her privilege demands the absolute best in everything she consumes: her wine, her clothes, her horses, and her men.  Haven couldn’t live up to the task; he was an alcoholic with no respect for the things she wanted.  Perhaps Kittredge will. Continue reading

Duck Soup (1933)

One year before It Happened One Night shifted the gaze of the 1930s comedy towards romance, creating a genre that would shape American cinema for decades and decades to come, a group of writers and performers were capitalizing on the screwball comedy in its purest form, full of wit and satire and slapstick.  Speed of delivery, incoherence of plot, and satirical approaches to class and politics became the hallmark of what this blog has called (in the “My Take On…Comedy” chapter) the “anecdotal” comedy.  This subgenre of comedy (made up for this blog) is the sister genre to screwball, taking slapstick to new extremes while approaching its storyline with an anecdotal approach; what resulted from such an approach was a film that played out more as a compilation of sketches than a story in the conventional sense.  While this type of comedy would survive into the 1940s with the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields (and would continue beyond the 40s in gimmicky novelty films like Airplane! and the Monty Python movies), the ultimate anecdotal-screwball comedy was released in 1933.  It was the crème de la crème of all the Marx Brothers films—the most funny, the most political, the most daring, the most memorable—Duck Soup. Continue reading

It Happened One Night (1934)

Of all the screwball/romantic comedies of the 1930s, few stand as tall as It Happened One Night.  When the movie was released to secondary movie houses in 1934 after mixed success with its initial release, it started a popular wave across the United States as people everywhere swarmed theaters to see Clark Gable—“The King of Hollywood”—and silent-film golden girl Claudette Colbert fall in love.  What at first appeared to be a flop turned out to be the biggest success in the history of Columbia Pictures up to that date. Continue reading

My Introduction to a Series of Essays on Citizen Kane

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The most intimidating part of this blog is now upon me.  Part of me has wanted to do this for a long time.  Another part has been apprehensive. Continue reading