All posts filed under “1940s

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Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa (1949)

Ostensibly a procedural about a rookie cop (Mifune, so young I didn’t recognize him at first!) whose gun is stolen, the movie’s as much or more about Japan’s effort to regain its self-respect. Terrific, near-genius cinematography; the camera itself behaves like an investigator. Featuring many wonderful sequences, including one at a baseball game and another at a cabaret on an unbearably hot summer night. The chorus girls run off stage and into their dressing room, where they all collapse on the floor, fanning themselves. Really top notch Kurosawa; I’m surprised I’ve never seen this before.

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American Gangster, Ridley Scott (2007). Better than everyone said it was. Narratively a mess but mythologically deeply astute.

The Interrogators, Chris Mackey and Greg Miller (2005). As with all the memoirs of interrogators I’ve read, this is useful both with regard to what it thinks it’s saying and what it’s saying without realizing it.

Need for the Bike
, Paul Fournel (2001). Oulipian on cycling. Charming/irritating in that utterly French way.

The Third Man
, Carol Reed (1949). Genius. A perfect pairing with Civilization and Its Discontents. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to look at, and how perfect the music.

Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud (1929). CANDY. The intelligence is stupendous, the style is wholly beguiling.

The Man Outside
, Wolfgang Borchert (1949). Wanted to like this but it’s a bit too manic for my purposes. That’s saying something, considering how useful I find Buchner.

Travels with Herodotus
, Ryzard Kapuscinski (2007). Almost makes me cry. The final, supremely elegant work by one of my favorite writers ever, who died in 2007. A perfect conclusion to his oeuvre.

Monstering, Tara McKelvey (2007). McKelvey makes a bit too much effort to make a narrative of her journalism, and is a bit too proud of her scoops, which are not in fact that deep. Not without merit, but not necessary if you’ve read Mayer and Gourevitch.

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Manpower, Raoul Walsh (1941)

A year after They Drive By Night, Walsh reassembles much of the team from that picture to make Manpower. It’s a terrific movie. The script is maybe a little hokey, and Alan Hale’s maybe given a bit too much comic leash, but for crying out loud: George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich in a Raoul Walsh movie? What more could you want?

The movie would probably have a much higher profile if its setup wasn’t so weird. Raft and Robinson are electrical linemen. It’s hard to imagine what went on in that pitch meeting; maybe a lot of Martinis were involved. The picture works very hard to make the profession seem dangerous (which it is), heroic (which it may well be), and glamorous (which it isn’t).

But you don’t watch this one for the plot. You watch it to see Raft as the heavy-lidded charmer half-angel half-snake, Robinson as — as always — the tough-as-nails sap, and Dietrich. Dietrich. Dietrich who probably doesn’t have to work too hard at her acting to convey her exquisite Weltschmerz here in the summer of 1941. It’s probably coming quite naturally.

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Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008). Former IDF soldier sets about unrepressing his repressed memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Waking Life plus Johnny Got His Gun, in Lebanon. Interesting to look at. I don’t get why making it a cartoon is a good idea.

Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen (1990). I didn’t like this bitter little movie the first time or the second.

Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq, Tony Lagouranis (2007). Useful. Complicated. Many of the ways in which this book is interesting are likely not ones of which the author himself is aware. Lagouranis believes he’s written the story of his coming to consciousness and conscience during his time as an interrogator in Iraq. The book is that, but it’s also — I don’t want to overstate this, because I suspect Lagouranis is an ethical and well-intentioned person, but it’s true nonetheless — an example of the very self-exculpatory style which Lagouranis deplores in his commanding officers. More accurate and more precise to say: Lagouranis’s oscillations between “there’s no excuse for what I’ve done” and “here’s my excuse for what I’ve done” are themselves an important part of the story of the systemic failures of the Bush administration’s strategy and tactics in the GWAT.

The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, Patric Kuh (2001). Poorly written but fascinating account of the rises and falls of the French ethos, California cuisine, and corporatism in the American restaurant business.

Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht (1947), directed by Joseph Losey for the American Film Theatre, (1974). Brilliant production starring the great Topol of Fiddler on the Roof fame. Really enjoyable and provocative.

I haven’t yet seen In the Loop, or The Thick of It, upon which In the Loop is based, but I’m having a hard time either of them will surpass Harold Pinter’s Party Time. I just watched a 1992 production of the play as filmed by Pinter himself. (The DVD is from 2004, and was produced by “Films for the Humanities & Sciences.) What an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. The lurches and swerves from naked aggression to high society chitchat to lyric flights of symbolic imagination to stammered disconnections of sign and signifier literally make me gasp. Just a short play — 35 minutes — but I’d set it next to any of Pinter’s best, or anyone else’s.

Septem8er Tapes, Christian Johnston (2004). Weird, irresponsible, self-satisfied, atrociously written mockumentary “about” a filmmaker who goes to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to “get to the bottom” of the GWAT. Deeply strange. I not only don’t get the point of it, I don’t even get what the filmmakers might imagine the point might be.

The Situation, Philip Haas (2006). Well intentioned ham-fisted Americans-are-bad message movie about an improbably beautiful and beatific female journalist in Iraq.

I could, but won’t, and probably shouldn’t, write a book about representations of the GWAT in film.

Humana Festival 2008: The Complete Plays. Why am I always so surprised that so much contemporary drama is so trite and boring? After all, so much contemporary everything else is trite and boring, why shouldn’t that be true of drama, too? One good play here: Becky Shaw, by Gina Gionfriddo. A queer claustrophobic family drama. Title character is an outsider who comes into the family’s orbit to simultaneously air the dirty laundry and soil a bunch more. Not really my cup of tea — too much psychology, too much talking — but very good at being what it is.

Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie (2007). Surprisingly sweet and affecting movie about a town that teaches a guy how to love. That sounds horrible, but it’s true! I don’t know how it doesn’t lapse into sentimentality or broad comedy, but it doesn’t.

The Forever War, Dexter Filkins (2008). Dispatches it is not, but the comparison will be made and not for no reason. Filkins was the Times‘ guy in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and these are the stories that aren’t right for a newspaper but need to be told nonetheless, the ironic ones, personal ones, the ones that unfold over years and the ones that are contained in a single instant. You don’t read this one for policy analysis, political history, or any of that big picture stuff; this is about people trying to stay alive in war zones.

Thief
, Michael Mann (1981).
Manhunter, Michael Mann (1986).
I’ve always enjoyed Mann’s glacial style — that’s a reference to both time and attitude — but it sure doesn’t hold up well over time. The interminable Tangerine Dream riffs in Thief and the interminable brooding of William Petersen in Manhunter don’t feel slick and cool, they feel like you just ate a quart of quaaludes. Also, James Caan’s entire torso is covered with hair and Mann makes sure you know it, often. Also, Caan blows up The Green Mill, which is inexcusable.

Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur (1998). Stylish pseudo-historical romp, great cast.

Network, Sidney Lumet (1976). The M*A*S*H of television. Did anyone make any movies in the 70’s that weren’t completely depressing in both form and content?

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All blogging energy still going to Harriet at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s what’s up on the home front.

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosowa (1948). Beautifully shot but plodding story of an alcoholic doctor (not unlike Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory) determined to treat a self-destructive mobster with TB in postwar Tokyo. A kind of allegory of Japan trying to muck out its stalls. There’s a bubbling miasma right in the middle of the neighborhood just to remind us of where and when we are.

I Live in Fear, Akira Kurosowa (1955). Patriarch of a large family in the smelting business becomes so obsessed with his fear of nuclear weapons he insists on selling everything and moving to Brazil. The family doesn’t want to go, also doesn’t want to disrespect papa. A lot of long anguished silences ensue. Still, it got to me; Mifune’s absolutely terrific as the terrified and terrifying protagonist.

The Making of a Chef, Mark Ruhlman (1999). Ruhlman goes to the CIA and writes about what it takes to make it. Lively and engaged journalism, great fun if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates over how dark a roux should be used in the making of brown sauce, which I am.

House of Games, David Mamet (1987). I’ve probably seen this ten times and it’s still really. really. good. It seemed kind of antique when it first came out, and has aged beautifully. The big red convertible seemed Twin Peaksish before there even was a Twin Peaks.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst (2008). One of my many guilty pleasures. Read more than half of this on a day of LGA delays while listening to Radian on the iPod. Was almost happy!

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer (2008). Probably the most significant and comprehensive account of Richard Cheney’s efforts to secure unlimited and incontrovertible power for the executive branch, and the inevitable results. The accounts of Jack Goldsmith, Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Phillipe Sands, and others are certainly also worth reading, but this one is the one to read if you’re only going to read one, in my opinion.

Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise (2009). Yuck! Way too noisy. Sounds like high school students covering Can songs. Had to listen to Millions Now Living ten times before I was able to forgive the lads for this betrayal of my love.

Dying City, Christopher Shinn (2008). This rather lightweight play, which uses the device of identical twins to investigate certain dualities to be found in human nature, was, amazingly, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Weak.

A lot of drama in current rotation. Bert Brecht (esp. Galileo). Georg B├╝chner (I hesitate to mention this name, since I am loving this book so much I don’t even want anyone else to know about it. Do you ever get that way about a book? It’s a weird feeling.) Mark Ravenhill (wildly overrated). Suzan-Lori Parks (fantastic, esp. Venus, but all of it is terrific). Genet, Lorca, Peter Weiss. On deck: Edna Walsh, von Kleist, Wolfgang Borchert.

TV worth watching: Smith. You can only watch this if you have DirecTV, and there are only seven episodes. CBS produced and then killed it in 2006-2007. It’s very good; Ray Liotta’s character has a lot in common with DeNiro’s in Mann’s Heat.

TV which might be worth watching; I can’t really tell: Weeds. I find this show very disconcerting, but completely addictive. It’s so weird. What does it even mean? Cheech & Chong + Three’s Company + Good Fellas. Or something like that. I suspect if I lived in California, it would just seem like a reality show. As it is, I’m bewildered but fascinated.

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The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang (1944)

You’d call it perfect, but then what are you going to call Scarlet Street? Perfecter? I always forget to watch these two in reverse chronological order, with Scarlet Street for dinner and The Woman in the Window for dessert. That’s OK; it’ll serve as an appetizer, too, albeit a sweet one. Actually, no, it should be La Chienne for your soup, Scarlet Street for your bloody meat, and The Woman in the Window something whippy for dessert. Not just delicious, not just nutritious, you could dissertate on that set of courses!

Man Hunt, Fritz Lang (1941)

An odd movie, but a pivotal one. Perhaps not one of Lang’s masterpieces, but certainly one that’s crucial to grapple with if you intend to understand his trajectory.

In 1939, Geoffrey Household publishes Rogue Male, a novel about an apolitical big game hunter who, weary of mere elephants and rhinoceroses, goes on a “sporting stalk” (i.e., hunting minus the killing) of the most dangerous animal of all: MAN. Sounds cheesy, yes. But the man Household’s protagonist chooses to dry fire on is Hitler. Not named as such, but it’s pretty obvious.

At the time of the novel’s publication, the USA was still bound by the Neutrality Acts, but Hollywood was (rightly, obviously) anxious about Hitler’s rise, and the novel was rushed into screenplay form. John Ford passed. Lang got the nod. Shooting started in early 1941, and the film was released three months later. (There’s German efficiency for you.) Keep in mind that at this point, Lang was not yet a Hollywood power, he was an obsessive and difficult immigrant. Far from being given a free hand, he was expected to adhere to certain conventions.

Unsurprisingly, given the complex historical and personal contexts, this film is a dizzying collection of disparate impulses. There is a thick strand of anti-Nazi propaganda, around which we find wrapped additional ribbons of romantic comedy, film noir, and, not least, psychological melodrama. It’s a message movie, a war movie, a spy movie, a film noir, a comedy, a romance. It’s preoccupied with plot and atmosphere by turns. There’s stuff about class and nationalism. There are sequences that ask you to consider whether the wilderness is more civilized than the city, and the city more savage than the wilderness. There are, as always in Lang, claustrophobic spaces. (Compare and contrast, for example, Spencer Tracy locked in a cell in a burning jail in Fury with Walter Pidgeon trapped in a cave in Man Hunt.) Long story short I could write a book on this one, but no one but me would want to read it, so instead:

The thing that will stick with me from this is its frame. The first sequence throws us, without context, into a scenario where we assume the protagonist is up to something very serious, but which turns out to be the height of frivolity. By the final sequence, the same man is moving into the same position, but this time with conviction and purpose. (Note that in the first minutes he crawls on his belly like an animal, and in the last he drops from he sky like a god.) This movie’s a lot of things, but for me, above all, it’s a historiographical bildungsroman. It’s about a character’s coming into historical consciousness. Think about that, and then think about the Viennese patrician buried in the Hollywood hills. That was one weird fucking century we had back there.

Featuring adolescent Roddy McDoyle as a plucky cabin boy.

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Getting ready to teach course on terrorism and torture in June. Cheery summer reading/viewing:

Hany Abu-Hassad, Paradise Now
Albert Camus, The Just Assassins
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Here’s hoping my students have strong stomachs.

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Hangmen Also Die!, Fritz Lang (1943)

You could think of this film as the epitome of German exile influence in Hollywood during World War II; the story was written by Lang and Brecht (it was Brecht’s only American screenplay credit), and the score was written by the great Hanss Eisler, of whom many Billy Bragg and Wilco fans have sung, many probably unwittingly. The setting is occupied Czechoslovakia. The (very) bad guy is Reinhard Heydrich, who is soon executed by the underground. (Note that this takes place off-camera; we’re firmly in the hands of the Lang of M‘s bouncing ball and the Brecht of Verfremdungseffekt.) The remainder of the film is a veritable tutorial on the agonizing conditions of resistance and the manipulations of occupation. Are you a traitor if you betray one to save many? What about betraying many to save just one — your own father, or lover, or even simply the grocer across the street you’ve known all your life? Ostensibly a drama, and just dramatic enough to “sell” as a thriller, this is actually very much an epic in the Brechtian sense: we’re required at every turn to evaluate, consider, and critique. The movie feels somewhat mechanical in this respect — it’s Important, and knows it — but a half-century on, its questions about how to tell the difference between a traitor and a hero remain relevant.

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The Return of Frank James, Fritz Lang (1940)

What a disaster! I chalk it up to this being Lang’s first western, and his first film in color. A genius of Lang’s intensity was probably obsessed with the nuances and possibilities of each of these new toys; as such it may not be a complete surprise that he was too overly preoccupied to take much interest in actually making a watchable movie. It doesn’t help that Henry Fonda is about as exciting as a piece of whole wheat toast, Gene Tierney seems to think sitting stock still and being beautiful qualifies as acting, and Ernest Whitman’s character is a racist stereotype so banal it’s hard to even to get angry about it. The only bright — well, actually, brightly dark — spot is John Carradine as Bob Ford; you may remember him as the Confederate swashbuckler aboard John Ford’s Stagecoach.