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52 Movies: Week 24 - Napoleon Dynamite

This series has so far had a definite tilt toward the Serious or Very Serious Film. I guess the lightest one up until now was my Marx Brothers contribution. Well, this week I'm moving the needle a bit further in that direction. Napoleon Dynamite could reasonably be described as pure fluff. So could a Marx Brothers comedy, of course, but the Marxes have attained classic status, which makes lending attention to them a mildly serious business. I'm suggesting that you see Napoleon, if you haven't already, for sheer fun. It soars to no great height and plumbs no great depths, but it's hugely enjoyable--to my taste, anyway. 

 It seemed for a while some years ago (ten? fifteen? I'm not sure) that the word "quirky" occurred much too frequently in reviews of movies and popular music. Since Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004, maybe it was part of that quirkiness boom. At any rate I don't think I've ever seen a movie that more deserved the description, in fact almost defines the term. But I don't know how I could possibly communicate that quality in this review, so I'll just have to give you a sketch of the characters and plot, and a clip or two.

Napoleon Dynamite is a nerdy high-school student. As far as I can recall the name is never explained, but it's been some years since I saw the movie, so I could be wrong. Napoleon and his equally nerdy older brother Kip live with their gruff grandmother in a small town in Idaho. I don't recall that the missing parents are explained. The locale is rendered with a physical and cultural flatness (though there are mountains in the distance), in slightly washed-out color, that serves as an image of the flatness of Napoleon and Kip's situation and aspirations.  

The brothers are pretty thoroughly ill-equipped to triumph in the contests of adolescence. Napoleon wants to acquire "skills"--"You know, like numchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills"--which will make him attractive to girls. He has no skills, and he is not attractive to girls. Kip is similar. He claims to spend a lot of time "chatting with babes" on the Internet, but this also seems dubious, at least initially. Quite early in the movie their grandmother is injured and is out of the picture for the rest of the story. Her place as nominal caretaker of the two boys is taken by their Uncle Rico, a fairly obnoxious fellow whose life peaked when his high school football team might have won the state championship "if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter." Rico thinks of himself, or wants to think of himself, as a man of the world, but he does not competently navigate even this very small world.

We are invited to laugh at these losers, and we do, but for the most part it's not cruel laughter. This is in the end a very sweet film. I think it's the combination of sharp satire and sweetness that makes it so engaging and memorable. And quirkiness, of course.

Napoleon gets involved with a couple of other outsiders: a Mexican boy named Pedro and a sweetly shy girl, Deb, who inflicts great suffering on herself by selling "home-woven handicrafts" door-to-door to make money for college. Pedro decides to run for class president. Napoleon gets involved in the campaign and also woos Deb in the most hapless way you can imagine. Silly things happen: there are Deb's glamour photo business, Rico's herbal breast-enhancement business, a piñata that looks like the most popular girl in school, Pedro's menacing cousins, a soul mate for Kip.... I don't think I'm giving away too much in saying that there is an absurd but highly satisfying happy ending. If it were on Netflix I'd watch it tonight.

Here is an early scene which includes Grandma.


Ever since I saw this movie I've had trouble saying the word "quesadilla" without prefixing it with "dang" and pronouncing the "ll" as in "laughter."

Uncle Rico reflects:


Just to cover my bases, in case you watch it on my recommendation and don't like it, I'll mention that there is by no means universal agreement with my view: Roger Ebert hated it. But note that when I googled "napoleon dynamite ebert review" I got a number of items disagreeing strongly with him.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 22 - Two Lives

Katrine Myrdal’s (Juliane Köhler) life is about as close to perfect as lives get. She lives in Norway in a lovely house on a cliff overlooking a fiord in a beautiful sylvan setting with her loving husband, her daughter, granddaughter and her dear mother (Liv Ullmann). She is happy in her home and successful in her career. Why, then, do we meet her in disguise, a tense and haunted woman on a mysterious trip to Berlin?

Week22-two lives

Two Lives (Zwei Leben) is in some ways similar to Michael Clayton. The main character is suspended between two versions of herself that cannot continue to exist in tandem. There is a loving family on one side, and a system of intrigue and death on the other. However, while Clayton has a choice to make, the choices that Katrine made in the past are rapidly bringing any chance she has to control her life in the future to an end.

Two Lives takes place in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. The catalyst that sends Katrine on her clandestine trip to Berlin is a visit from a young and zealous lawyer, Sven Solbach, who is bringing a suit to seek reparations for Lebensborn Norwegian children. These were children of German soldiers and women who lived in occupied Norway during World War II. They were taken from their mothers and sent to orphanages in Germany, and then perhaps to live with German families, the point being to raise children to serve the Reich. Solbach believes that the testimony of Katrine and her mother, Ase, is crucial to the case because Katrine was the only kidnapped child who as a young woman escaped and returned to her mother. This, by the way, is not true. In reality there were other escapees, but I suppose this unhistorical construct was important to the movie.

In Berlin, Katrine visits the former orphanage seeking information about one of the nurses and making sure that any mention of this nurse and of Katrine Evensen is removed from any public records and destroyed. She calls a man named Hugo and tells him that she is in danger, and gradually we begin to learn about her past life.


The story is told in the form of flashbacks—in bits and pieces—and takes a long time, the rest of the movie really, before we figure out what really happened. The flashbacks are grainy, which gives them a sense of having been filmed long ago, and which is probably helpful in hiding the age of the actors who are playing their younger selves. The only characters who are played by different actors in the past and present are Katrine and her husband. The actress who plays the young Katrine, Klara Manzel, is so like Juliane Köhler in both looks and mannerisms that it took me a while before I was sure that it really was two different people.

The acting throughout is good. While Juliane Köhler, whose character, like Karen Crowder, is desperately trying to hold her life together, is not as proficient as Tilda Swinton, she does a good job of portraying a woman who stands to lose everything she holds dear, and Katrine, unlike Karen Crowder, has very much to hold dear. Liv Ullmann is, of course, excellent. She does not spend a lot of time on screen but when she appears, she excels in her own quiet way. The final shot of Ms. Ullmann looking out the window captures all the sadness and bewilderment of the family's plight.

I had not previously known anything about the abduction of these children by the Nazis or the way in which they used some of the children like Katrine. It's a very distressing story, and while Katrine made some bad choices in her early life, when we find what was behind the choices, it is heartbreaking.

The movie is loosely based on Ice Ages, a novel by Hannelore Hippe which had not been published previous to the film. Wikipedia says:

She was inspired by reports in the late 1980s of the discovery of the half-burned body of a young woman near Bergen, and there was speculation as to her identity. This was just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany.

I tried to find out more about Hannelore Hippe, but could find little except that her real name is Hannah O'Brien, and that she is a novelist and journalist who has written several books, one about Einstein and one about the Summer of Love—yes that Summer of Love. I'd like to read Ice Ages but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere.

I suppose that you would say that Two Lives is a thriller. Some reviews say that is in the manner of something by John le Carre. I don't know because I'm not that familiar with his work. When I watch a film, I don't usually think in terms of genre. What really interests me about films is the characters, and the story, and whether or not one can find grace lurking in some unexpected corner. In this case, I found the characters and the story to be engaging, but I'm sorry to say that grace seemed to be completely lacking, which is part of the tragedy of the film. One wonders how the story could have been different with the slightest bit of illumination in the life of even one of the characters. I'm not saying that I think that the movie should have been different, only that it illustrates the weaknesses inherent in a simply secular view of life.

I would suggest that if you are interested in watching the movie, you not read any reviews beforehand. They all seem to give too much away.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 22 - Magnolia

And the book says: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."


When first I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia I left the theatre in a state of befuddlement that hardened over the course of a few reflective weeks into antagonism. Here, I decided, was a movie that, despite its bravura technique and wonderful performances, had dragged me through pools of moral slime only to turn itself, in a perverse act of self-destruction, into an incoherent mess. Let me not sit through that again.

But then, a year or two later, a friend astounded me by not only speaking approvingly of the film, but actually describing it as a work of high intelligence and moral insight, and giving reasons, some of which gave me pause. And so I revisited the film some short time later, and found my experience of it transformed: yes, it made a deep dive into dark and troubled waters, but it did not simply drown in them. There was no getting around the fact that elements of the film were enigmatic, but I began to see that the enigmas were fruitful rather than barren.

Magnolia follows a set of 9 characters over a 24 hour period in California's San Fernando Valley. (The film's title is presumably drawn from the name of a boulevard that runs through the valley.) Though no one character knows more than a few of the others, their paths cross and their lives intersect in a variety of ways.

There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a television producer who is near death; a nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who cares for him in his home; Linda (Julianne Moore), Earl's much younger second wife; Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), his estranged son; Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hosts a long-running television quiz show; Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a young contestant on the show; Donnie (William H. Macy), a former contestant on the show; Claudia (Melora Walters), the drug-addled daughter of show host Jimmy; and Jim (John C. Reilly), the police officer who falls in love with her. (Here is a map of the character relationships.) All give outstanding performances, but I reserve special praise for Tom Cruise, who, in a very unglamorous role, knocks it out of the park; it might be thought damning with faint praise to call it his career best performance, but I don't intend it that way.

There is something thrilling and direct about Anderson's script: it hits the ground running, hurtling along as it roams from one character's story-line to another. It's an open-hearted, earnest film, and it throws us headlong into the turmoil in which these men and women are living. For each of them, things are falling apart, or are about to do so shortly, and we, white-knuckled, do our best to hang on. The many stories and the interrelationships between them are skillfully handled by Anderson, who guides us with a sure hand, the tension building, through what could easily have become shapelessly convoluted. It was on the strength of this screenplay that Robert Altman is said to have pronounced Anderson his successor (perhaps unfortunately, since Anderson hasn't tried to make another ensemble film since). Incidentally, Magnolia was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay -- and should have won.

For the readers of this blog I want to be clear that, on the surface at least, Magnolia is prodigiously unwholesome. All of the deadly sins are amply represented. The stories, as they unfold, involve drugs, sex, child abuse, and suicide. There might be films out there more saturated in vulgar language, but there can't be very many. In my judgement this immersion in depravity is justifiable, or at least defensible, when the film is considered as a whole, but your judgement may not concur, and viewer discretion is certainly advised.

Anderson is not regarded as one of the great directors of his generation for nothing: his directorial hand matches the hothouse intensity of the script step-by-escalating-step. We get elaborate tracking shots, wonderfully judged long takes, memorable compositions, a superb synthesis of music and image -- the film is structured around a number of songs by Aimee Mann, and it uses them to good effect, but don't overlook the sequence built around Bizet's Habanera! -- but, beyond merely technical excellence, Anderson makes us care for these flawed, and in some cases deeply reprehensible, people, drawing them out, exposing their hearts, but never in condemnation. He loves them, and we learn to do so too.

All of this, as well executed as it is, would be enough to make Magnolia a very good film, perhaps even a particularly notable example of the ensemble cast film. Film buffs would remember it for its directorial flair and its fine performances. But in the last third of its (very considerable) run-time Anderson raises the stakes, introducing two audacious sequences that, while they might lose some viewers (and they certainly befuddled me on that initial, befuddled viewing), arguably turn Magnolia from a merely very good film into a great one.

I am reticent to say too much about these sequences, lest I spoil them for first-timers. They show Anderson flexing his film-making muscles as few directors can, taking risks that few directors take. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that, as strange and even unprecedented as they are, both only deepen and enlarge the film, revealing currents of thought and feeling beneath the surface that we had hardly suspected.

One of the film's central ideas, for instance, is that people's lives intertwine in surprising ways. A brief prologue presents a few especially neatly wrapped examples of this sort of thing, and clearly the whole warp and woof of Magnolia is made from interweaving such tales. For most of the film we, the audience, have had a kind of God's eye view of these intersections: we have seen a larger, more coherent structure than any of the characters have seen. Events that, to them, look like mere chance, we see to have had reasons. Yet in the last and most intrepid of the sequences around which I am hopping, something happens that we the audience, too, experience as totally random and unmotivated, just as the characters do, and this raises the tantalizing possibility that we have not, after all, had the God's eye view, but that instead there has been, above and behind us, another perspective, another level of deeper and farther ranging understanding.

If that higher perspective sounds a little like "Providence", this is not wholly inappropriate, for Magnolia turns out to be a film that is theologically interesting. Anderson has downplayed this angle in interviews, but within the film itself he actually plays up the Biblical resonances, and I think it is legitimate to think theologically about the film quite apart from whatever the director's intentions may have been. What does the grace of God look like to a world drenched in sin? If sin seems lovely to a sinner, how does goodness seem? Might it seem freakish and ugly? The Man of Sorrows had no form nor comeliness, no beauty that we should desire him. If the light of truth were to flood into the darkness of ignorance and error, might it not seem, to those sunk in darkness, to be incoherent and bizarre?

This, it seems to me, is one way -- and admittedly not the only way -- of interpreting the pivotal sequence in Magnolia: an act of God occurs, and, in preternatural disguise, grace pours out on all the sickness and sadness of the world. It is incomprehensible, but we know it by its fruits, for it disperses the dark clouds that had gathered over our motley company, clears the air so that their lungs can fill again, and softens their hearts to begin the long process of forgiveness and restoration.

It shouldn't work, yet, somehow, it does, and it makes Magnolia one of the most mysterious and rewarding films I know.


Here is the trailer:

And here, as a little bonus, is Roger Ebert's initial review on his television program. His interlocutor reacted to the film much as I did at first; as you'd expect, Ebert himself was more sensible of its merits.

—Craig Burrell is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton, and blogs from time to time at All Manner of Thing.

52 Movies: Week 21 - Molokai


This 1999 Belgian movie about St. Damien of Molokai has some big names in the cast: Peter O'Toole, Leo McKern, Derek Jacobi, Kate Ceberano, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Neill and of course, Faramir (aka David Wenham).


I haven't seen the movie in a while, so I just looked at the trailer.


That alone has the power to bring me to tears, although maybe it wouldn't if I hadn't already seen the movie.

The music by Wim Mertens is lovely. The director was Paul Cox and I think his work on this was very good. This movie is a truly great story and a wonderful piece of art, I think.

A brief interview of David Wenham gives a few interesting details.

I first saw this with a group of friends in Canberra, in 1999 or maybe 2000. It's one of my favourite movies. I love the relationship that is portrayed between Bishop Maigret (McKern) and St. Damien. The conflict between Father Leonor Fouesnel (Jacobi) and St. Damien is all too plausible. No good thing in this life can be done, it seems, without a great deal of conflict and strife!

It would take a fool to come here at all.
—Rudolph Meyer (Kristofferson)

After his first night on the Island, St. Damien is shown giving the old run-down Church a quick cleanup and he begins Mass, with a few of the lepers in attendance.

He then rescues a couple of young women from “the Madhouse” where the people get drunk and so on, saying to them that the building will be turned into a dormitory for the sick and elderly. One of the women says, “Let us live while we can! Nobody cares.” St. Damien replies, “Yes, well I care. And God cares. And this is not the way to live.”


There were so many very moving scenes in this, not least of which was the scene of St. Damien making his confession across the water to the bishop. Wenham did such a great job in this movie, it always felt to me as though I were really seeing St. Damien himself, and that's why I think it's so powerful. But really, everything about it is wonderful, including the writing. There is so much suffering portrayed and yet so much love and beauty.

Quotable quotes:

Rudolph Meyer: From now on, only God can help you.
Father Damien: Yes, I often count on him.

Rudolph Meyer: Oh, Damien, look at all this I've brought you. More than I ever got out of the government.
Father Damien: I have a bishop with a conscience.

Rudolph Meyer: I'm a good Lutheran, I've got no faith in bishops. What are you doing?
Father Damien: I am making a windbreak. We have winds in Belgium too.

Rudolph Meyer: They picked the worst hole in Hawaii. Because of that valley you never see the sun rise and you never see it set. If they were putting away murderers they couldn't have thought of a better place.

Rudolph Meyer: You're a good man, Damien. But you had better learn to bend. Like those trees. The ones that don't bend break. 


Father Damien: [fixing William's hut] There. That should be more comfortable.
William Williamson: All this work for a Protestant? You might go to hell.
Father Damien: I would rather that you took the sacraments, but I don't like you sleeping like this within my sight.
William Williamson: I suppose it would be easier for you if I just died?
Father Damien: Oh, you can't die until I convert you.
William Williamson: Do you honestly believe only Catholics go to heaven?
Father Damien: I'm not absolutely certain, but I know that Catholics *can* go to heaven.


If only there were more works of art like this, and more people like St. Damien! 


I don't really know what else to say, except to borrow from Peter Hitchens, watching this movie will almost certainly make us better people.

—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.

52 Movies: Week 20 - Michael Clayton

I recently rewatched this 2007 film when I was in the mood one night for some sort of mystery or thriller and didn’t have anything new at hand. I don’t have the internet at home, and it was a bit late for a library or video store run. Looking through my small DVD collection, I grabbed this, knowing that it had been several years since I last watched it. I was not disappointed. Although I remembered most of the plot (perhaps because I did), many of the nuances of acting, direction and cinematography were more noticeable to me, and I came away from it with great admiration. Here was not just a quality thriller, but a very good film in its own right.

The plot chronicles the workings of a legal case involving a class action suit against a large Monsanto-like company called U-North for covering up the fact that one of its widely-used herbicides is carcinogenic. Attorney Michael Clayton (George Clooney) gets pulled into the intrigue due to the apparent mental breakdown of his friend and colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who is lead counsel for the firm defending U-North. Clayton is a “fixer,” a lawyer called upon by the firm to make their clients’ legal problems disappear (in a powerful scene near the beginning he’s called to the house of a wealthy client who’s been involved in a hit-and-run accident). He’s brought in to “look after” his colleague, but U-North becomes wary of Edens because of his seeming instability and puts its own general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), on the case as well. Things escalate from there and Clayton soon discovers that there’s much more to the case than meets the eye.

This sounds, of course, like it could be the plot of any one of a number of thrillers of this sort, and plot-wise, that’s probably true. What makes Michael Clayton special is the execution. What’s immediately apparent is the seriousness of the approach. The viewer soon realizes that he’s not in standard thriller territory, even in the opening credits, as they feature a disjointed voiceover by someone you discover not long afterwards is Edens.

There is also the matter of the title. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the fact that the film is named after the main character indicates that this is his story – the story of a man, as opposed to the standard plot-driven sort of thriller in which characters are often interchangeable.

Finally, both the script and directorial style lend to the movie’s dramatic feel. The writing is smart and realistic, and both the direction and camera-work, while exhibiting a certain amount of modern “stylishness,” are ultimately rather traditional. None of this should be taken to mean that the movie screams “Take me seriously!” or is in any sense either preachy or morose, however. Michael Clayton is neither a message movie nor an existential downer.

All of this is certainly praiseworthy, for debut director and long-time screenwriter Tony Gilroy especially. The movie both looks and feels great. But what really carries the film over into excellence is the cast. The performances here are uniformly outstanding, demonstrated by the fact that all three lead actors received Oscar nominations.

Clooney is perfect as Clayton, who’s a bundle of contradictions – tough but inwardly insecure, seemingly in control but secretly at the mercy of bad decisions. His speech, his face, even his body language all show a man who, having to portray strength outwardly due to the nature of his job, is the victim of inner turmoil. I haven’t seen all of Clooney’s movies, but of the ones I have seen, I’d say without reservation that this is his best dramatic performance, and he very much deserved the Oscar nomination.

The great British actor Tom Wilkinson is equally excellent as Edens, the bipolar lead attorney who’s a genius, but highly unstable when off his meds. The role requires Wilkinson to go back and forth between prideful condescension and manic moral crusaderism, and he pulls this off with great aplomb.

Finally, Tilda Swinton’s performance as Karen Crowder is simply genius, evinced by her winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and just about every other equivalent award that year. It’s obvious from her opening scene that she is trying and just barely succeeding to hold everything together in her lonely personal life, while having constantly to put on her best front as the legal face of U-North. Some of the scenes in which she’s alone in her apartment preparing for “work” are positively chilling. The secondary cast members are all quite good as well, with special mention going to Sidney Pollack as the head of Clayton’s legal firm.


Director Gilroy and team have in Michael Clayton put together what is the best legal thriller of recent years, and possibly one of the best ever. What makes the film so good is that this is achieved not by flash and manufactured tension, but by intelligence, quality and humanity.

(The film is rated R for language, which includes a couple crude sexually explicit references. Thankfully, the latter are few.)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 18 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

I saw this movie in uptown New York when it first came out in 1969, with my mother and a friend of hers. For weeks before I went to see it, our shop girls had been doing impersonations of Newman and Redford’s funniest lines in the movie. Even so, it did not disappoint, and afterwards we went out to the Russian Tea Room, and had blinis and beet soup. Many of my favourite movies are associated with good memories, and this is one of them.

When I first saw it, even despite the nonstop imitation of its gags by our shop-girl, Susan Reiner, I didn’t realize it was a comedy. I must have seen it again since, in the 1970s, but I don’t remember. I watched in early in March with the intention of writing about it. It was the day before my cat died, and I saw it as a slow, joking waltz toward death. I couldn’t write the next week because I got ill. I’m glad that I left it two months and then watched it again, because it really is a ‘comedy Western.’ Sundance and Butch Cassidy are joking about moving to Australia to rob banks moments before their death, and there is no deep sense of impending doom in the movie. I could be wrong but I don’t think its one of those late 1960s / early 1970s movies about the death of the old West, with civilization penning in the heroic outlaws. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is that kind of movie, epitomized by the Dylan song about the sheriff and outlaw. At least today, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seems to me to be a comedy of wit, that is, largely a verbal comedy spanning out from the sparring between Redford/Sundance and Butch Cassidy / Newman. It’s a buddy movie, and, given that much of the film consists in Sundance and Butch being chased by lawmen, a road movie. If one may purloin an old word from the sex-n-gender wars, the striking thing about the film is its gaiety, accentuated by its key song, ‘Rain drops keep falling on my head.’

Back in the innocent day, when it was released, cinema audiences gasped when the film transitioned from black and white, at the start, to sudden colour about ten minutes into the film. People laughed at the simple jokes, like Sundance admitting ‘I cannot swim’ moments before having to escape their pursuers by leaping off a cliff into a swirling river. I can remember Susan Reiner imitating Kathleen Ross in the apparent ‘rape’ scene, near the beginning, where Sundance puts a gun on a school teacher and orders her to undress: when she is done stripping, the seeming victim says to her lover, ‘why can’t you just for once get here on time?’ When the trio flee to Bolivia to rob banks there, they themselves are held up by their inability to speak Spanish. All very predictable jokes. But still very clever and witty, on a fourth viewing.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seems to me to be a brilliant example of the film as a film. The film that knows it’s a film, and makes not pretentions or protestations otherwise. Its utterly ‘unrealistic’ for Sundance and Butch Cassidy to extol in witty repartée at the most dangerous moments of their lives. I doubt if any of the actors in the film are of the ‘Method’ school of performance art. They do not seek to become their roles, or to convince us that they ‘are’ the characters they play. Throughout the movie, one is aware that one is watching a staged drama on horseback. After the 1960s, film finally broke away from its nest in staged drama, and became its own genre, detached from stage performance. Butch Cassidy must be one of the last ‘stagey’ movies.

After writing that paragraph, I checked up Kathleen Ross, Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It seems that Newman did indeed graduate from the famous New York school of Method acting.

Butch Cassidy does not, in my opinion, have a deeper theme. It does not extol the bandits and the outlaws, as did the near contemporary Bonnie and Clyde or the slightly later Pat Garrett. Butch Cassidy is not a film with a great message, and that is quite an achievement for a movie made in 1969. It is still, I think, a greatly entertaining film, one that has not dated in the sense of losing its capacity to induce its audience into its world.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not ‘about’ something, but of course it would not resonate with audiences if it did not reflect our experience in some way. The experience which it captures and reflects is the universal human experience of feeling trapped, as one’s choices catch up to one. The opportunities for free movement are steadily diminished by the choices one has made in the past. So the pursuit of Butch Cassidy and the Kid reflects the experience of every adult, as he finds that there is in the end no space in which to re-invent one’s self. The sixties out of which this comedy western came was a wonderful period of self re-invention. That’s because it was not a stagnant time, but a time of opportunity. So many outstanding characters of the time invented their past in order to have a different future. In that respect, it was, perhaps, like the Old West. At a significant point in this movie, the Kid and Butch reveal to one another their own, real and mundane names. Closer to the end of the movie, the glamorous star of the Wild West, the Sundance Kid, reveals to his lover and closest friend that he grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not about some dreary moral message, such as ‘you cannot endlessly re-invent yourself and if you try you will get shot to death by a large section of the Bolivian army.’ But its narrative reflects the universal human experience of finitude.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Movies: Week 18 - Wild Strawberries

(Since there's nothing else on hand for this week, I'm re-posting this, slightly updated, from October 2007.) 

When I decided to re-acquaint myself with the Bergman films I had seen and loved many years ago, and to see those I hadn’t, this was my first step, and as it turned out a very good place to begin. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about Bergman but has been put off by what they’ve heard about him, or perhaps, as someone said here a while back, by a bad experience with one of his more difficult or disturbing works.

This film is also a good example of what makes the non-religious Bergman so interesting to some Christians, especially to Catholics. It’s not only that he takes on the big questions and treats them profoundly. It’s that many of the themes of Christian spiritual life work themselves out on an earthly level in the lives of his characters. Wild Strawberries is very similar in that respect to Babette’s Feast, another great film which has no religious intention but is much loved by Catholics because it bears such deep and clear parallels to certain aspects of the faith. It’s not hard to suppose—in fact it’s hard not to suppose—that Bergman’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran clergyman left his mind deeply impressed with Christian ways of thinking even though he rejected the faith. He consistently confirms our belief that the empty place in the human heart is, in fact, as we are so often told, God-shaped.

Wild Strawberries might be described as a story about Purgatory, an earthly and secular rendering of the process we can all expect to undergo after death. It’s a process that frequently begins before death for one who is open to it, a painful process of recognizing how and where one has failed and what one may have lost as a result—a recognition which may itself be the punishment for those failures—and of preparing to accept forgiveness. The film is the account of one day in the life of an elderly physician, Isak Borg, in which both internal and external events come together to confront him with his failures as lover, husband, and father, bringing him a deep and almost unbearable pain (“Is there no mercy?” he begs at one point) followed by the beginnings of reconciliation. And it’s so beautifully done in every way, so rich in its details and their meanings, that anyone who is susceptible to Bergman’s art is likely to find himself wanting to watch it over and over again.

The Criterion Collection (may it be praised) DVD also includes an interview with Bergman. Any Bergman fan who’s acquainted with Wild Strawberries but hasn’t seen this interview should seek this disk out at once. It was done in 1998, when Bergman was 80 and semi-retired. He comes across as a surprisingly unpretentious man, given his achievement and celebrity. Toward the end of the interview he speaks interestingly and movingly about death and faith.

The first comes up in reference to his beloved third wife, whom he married in 1971 and who had died in 1995. His grief is plain; he describes himself, calmly, as “crippled” by her death. And he goes on to say that after having been terribly afraid of death for many years he had, around the time he made The Seventh Seal, at last taken comfort in the idea that it would be a simple extinction. But his wife’s death has disturbed this comfort: that he might never meet her again is “an unbearable thought,” in “violent conflict” with his previously comforting views. Anyone who has his own unbearable thoughts will sympathize.

And when the interviewer asks him if he has perhaps returned to faith in his old age, Bergman dismisses the idea with a laugh, but then begins to reflect: he is “not what you would call religious in any way” but has “a whole lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I have the feeling sometimes that we’re part of an infinitely larger pattern….You can feel that sometimes.”

Indeed. Or, in the words Bergman gave to Isak Borg some fifty years ago: “In this jumble of events, I seemed to discern an extraordinary logic.”

Here's the Criterion Collection trailer:




Postscript: This Is More Like It

On the occasion of Bergman’s death in July of 2007, I was irritated by a rather stupid (may as well speak plainly) dismissal of his work by John Podhoretz. Some weeks later my late friend Robert sent me a link to this far more perceptive piece by John Simon. Perhaps the Shakespeare comparison reaches too far, but I have no doubt that Simon is far closer to the mark.


52 Movies: Week 17 - Howards End


The effect art can have on one’s psyche is astounding. As I began to watch the Merchant/Ivory film Howards End last night, a film I have seen many times before, I found myself overwhelmed by memories and feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I was not sobbing my way through the opening scenes, but so many thoughts come to mind: the friend I went and saw the movie with in 1992, who I have not seen since probably the late 90s; how this film led me to read the E.M. Forster book and changed my reading life forever, sparking an interest in classics that continues unabated; and of course the inevitable feelings of years gone by. I was much younger in 1992, and Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson also were so young and beautiful in their English way. I fell in love with this movie and with the actors and actresses therein. No movie was better that year, to me.

Howards End tells the story of the Schlegel sisters, the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast (and Mrs. Bast too, but not as deeply), during the Edwardian period in England. It is gloriously filmed, wonderfully scored, amazingly acted, and the screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is sublime (and won an Oscar that year). How does she come up with Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) saying to Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), “Mr. Wilcox, I am demented!” while giving Hopkins what I can only describe as being a coy, nervous, and sexy glance, as if to say that she is flirting but not entirely sure how to do so (Thompson won an Oscar too). I don’t think that line is found in the Forster book, but I could be wrong.

To begin with, Margaret’s younger sister Helen (Bonham Carter) is part of an embarrassing series of events involving the youngest Mr. Wilcox in which they briefly decide to be married. She sends word to her family, and Aunt Juley races to Howards End (the name of Mrs. Wilcox’s house in Shropshire) to represent the family. By the time she arrives the fancy has passed, and Helen must later flee to Germany to recover from the ordeal. Such is the life of the upper-crust British which is so familiar to readers of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, et al. Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) later forms a friendship with Margaret, which is the pivot the remainder of the plot will revolve upon.

Leonard Bast, a clerk of meager circumstances, makes his way into the story after Helen unwittingly steals his umbrella on a rainy day when they have both attended a lecture on music and meaning. He trails along after her trying to get her attention and finally ends up standing sadly with a newspaper over his head waiting to be noticed outside the Schlegel’s fancy home in London. Leonard spends the rest of the movie acting as an outsider and in direct contrast to the wealthy Schlegels and Wilcoxes. This discrepancy between the upper and lower classes in Britain, along with social justice for the poor, are recurring themes in the book and movie.

I need to re-read the book some time soon. For one thing, I cannot remember how Forster portrays Henry Wilcox. Is he a sympathetic character in the book? I wonder because I believe that Anthony Hopkins makes him one despite so many things that he says and does. One of my favorite lines, which if I cock my head just slightly I believe I can hear Donald Trump say, is “The poor are the poor, and one’s sorry for them – but there it is.” It is probably the great vulnerability with which Hopkins portrays Henry during the latter part of the film that endears him so much to me. Hopkins is of course one of our great actors.

I apologize if this post seems to be rambling and only partially discussing the movie Howards End. I suppose for one thing I am trying not to give too many plot details in case any of you out there have not seen it and may want to (and have not read the book either). The blogosphere seems to be made for tangential discussions which began on a more specific subject. This leads me to the topic of: the merits of actors and actresses from the UK and Australia compared to their counterparts in the USA. It seemed to me for so long that if the Oscars for acting were to go to the best every year, an American would never win. However, there is a lot of sentiment amongst academy voting for celebrities to win these awards, so therefore we can rest assured that the Brits & Aussies will not hijack our ceremony too much, but only occasionally steal the spotlight.

Back to the movie. This is a beautiful scene.


Leonard and Helen in a boat on a lake or stream. If this scene is not portrayed exactly like this in the book, then James Ivory filmed it this way only because it was so stunning to watch the two young actors rowing away and then drifting off under some tree limbs while beautiful music is playing. Cinema can be so incomparable to other forms of media in so many ways. Looking at this photo brings me to the pastoral nature of the film. Mrs. Wilcox was in love with her house (Howards End), but she was just as infatuated with the meadows and the fields, and the tree with the pigs teeth stuck into it. She passes on that pastoral love to Margaret. Leonard has a recurring daydream in which he walks through fields of flowers; in stark contrast to his daily life living in one of the poorer sections of London. The Schlegels are having their own house torn down and must find another place to live. The message all of this sends is that the city is dirty, destructive, unsafe, and the country is clean, nurturing, and helps the characters to become better versions of themselves.

Perhaps not so much in the case of Charles Wilcox.

My mind keeps coming back to (at least) two distinct scenes that are filmed in an uncommon way. The first is the restaurant scene in which Margaret mentions her dementedness to Henry, and the second is the scene following Evie’s wedding where the two of them are alone discussing what has transpired at the reception. The first is a joyously flirtatious scene, and the second is upset, discussion, and forgiveness (a little heavier). Both show the principals making a statement, then the director will fade them out, then bring them back into the same scene but forwarded to new positions, and another mini scene within a scene occurs. In each case this is done to great effect until the scene ends. I’m not sure that I have been able to correctly explain the technique, but I found it to be unique enough to comment on. A way of making a scene move timewise more quickly than it would in real time.

E.M. Forster wrote the phrase Only Connect as an epigraph to his novel, and it of course applies to the movie as well. The story is all about people connecting, trying to, having trouble being able to, and showing the difficulties involved depending on personality and/or position in society. While the Schlegels and Wilcoxes might both be well off, they are very different in character and interaction. Margaret and Henry can both be seen as quite shy, but in different ways and with regard to situation. Margaret was a too-old-to-marry spinster and very unsure of herself when Henry romanced her, but she could nonetheless look him directly in the eye and respond. Henry runs a company with apparent force and determination, but in intimate moments he retreats into a pathetic shell of himself. Helen and Charles are forces of nature that their families try to control. Along with poor Leonard, all of these disparate personalities must in some way connect with each other, try as some might not to.

Howards End is to me the best of what I refer to as “English costume dramas”; period pieces which usually depict interpretations of 19th century novels. I am wary of new ones. Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are gone, and James Ivory is in his late 80s and probably retired at this point. I must rely on newer generations of filmmakers to revisit the magic of this type of movie for me, which is hard to reproduce.

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.

52 Movies: Week 16 - A Night at the Opera

I don’t see many contemporary comedies, and the reason is that when I do I usually don’t care much for them. I’ve occasionally wondered if this indicates some deficiency in me, or a development in the direction of Humorless Old Man. A great deal of contemporary humor seems to be more or less on the level of boys laughing at dirty words. And even when it’s more intelligent, there’s often a meanness about it that I tire of very quickly, even if it’s funny—mean in both senses of the word. There’s little joy in it. It makes light of serious things, but it’s rarely lighthearted. The Simpsons, for instance, is very funny sometimes (in my limited experience), but I’ve never watched it regularly because its cynicism is so thorough that it begins to feel oppressive.

The opening moments of a Marx Brothers movie, however, prove that even if my sense of humor is limited, it is certainly very much alive. The Marx Brothers represent for me something close to a Platonic form of comedy. They have everything, from verbal wit to pure physical comedy (truly pure in the case of Harpo, who never says a word). By no means does all of it work, but enough of it does that just thinking of it is bringing a smile to my face as I write this.

I had decided when we first talked of this 52 Movies project that I would work in a Marx Brothers movie, and that it didn’t really matter which one. I hadn’t seen any of them for ten or fifteen years, and although some are definitely better than others I really just wanted to salute the Marx Brothers, so any of them would do. At one time I would have said that Duck Soup is my favorite, and perhaps I still would if I watched them all again. I picked A Night at the Opera only because it happened to be handy—I had recorded it a while back from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast. I think it’s one of the better ones overall. But there are some specific scenes from others which are among the very funniest (the passport scene in Monkey Business, for instance). And of course it’s the specific scenes that matter; the plots are negligible and usually more or less absurd.

It was less than a minute into A Night at the Opera that I laughed out loud for the first time. The movie opens with the standard Groucho character, Otis B. Driftwood here, engaged in one of his scams with the standard Margaret Dumont character, Mrs. Claypool here. Dumont appears in most of the films playing a wealthy woman from whom Groucho is trying to extract money, pretending to romance her while making fun of her in ways that she doesn’t always get. She is so important to so much of the humor that Groucho once called her “practically the fifth Marx brother.” (And by the way, the fourth Marx brother, Zeppo, who was in some of the films but had no real role in the comedy, does not appear in this one. And the actual fifth brother, Gummo, left the family act before any of the movies were made.)


Otis B. Driftwood and Mrs. Claypool observing the impresario Gottlieb. Their acquaintance is premised on the absurdity that he is going to get her into society. 

The Dumont character is a type who doesn’t exist anymore: a grande dame, grande in every sense, towering over Groucho, a rich, snobbish, and stuffy WASP type, who speaks in that antique English-y accent that apparently used to be typical of upper-class Americans in the northeast. The Groucho-Dumont humor could not exist today. The rich snobbish lady still exists, of course, but now she wears jeans—though very expensive jeans—denounces the rich, takes off her clothes for photographers (if she’s beautiful), and has written a book about her extensive sex life. You can’t mock the dignity of someone who has none (though you can certainly mock her pretensions).

Harpo’s first appearance also got a laugh from me. I spent ten or fifteen minutes looking for an image from that scene—he’s dressed in a Pagliacci clown suit and making extravagant singing motions, but no sound comes out—but couldn’t find one. And then I looked for any image at all that would serve as an example of the beatific-mischievous-crazy look he wears much of the time, and, interestingly, couldn’t find one that seemed to capture it. I think this may be because the mobility of his face is so important to that look. Even when it seems to be frozen on his face for a few moments, just prior to his committing some act of anarchy, it’s probably still moving, the grin slowly spreading before his whole body bursts into wild motion.

There’s a brief but quintessential Harpo moment early in this film: everyone is about to embark on an ocean voyage (from Italy to New York), and Chico and Harpo come rushing down a ladder to say goodbye to the sweet young woman who is also another frequent stock character. Chico embraces her. Harpo, from a running start, leaps up onto the pair of them, tumbles off, and runs manically through the crowd hugging and kissing everybody. In real life such a character would be a pathetic and maybe disturbing person, with no sense of appropriate behavior. But as created by Harpo he’s an exuberant and hilarious delight.

Chico is also his usual character, an Italian immigrant with a shaky grasp of the English language and a very pragmatic approach to the ethics of getting along in the world. It’s a gross stereotype which would be utterly unacceptable today, but is nevertheless funny. Here are Groucho and Chico working out the details of a contract which is fraudulent on Groucho’s side and questionable on Chico’s:

Groucho: You don’t need to read that one, it’s a duplicate.
Chico: Duplicate, sure. [continues to read]
Groucho: [after watching Chico for a few seconds] Don’t you know what a duplicate is?
Chico: Sure, it’s those five kids up in Canada.
Groucho: Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I haven’t been in Canada in years.

The “five kids” reference is no doubt to the Dionne quintuplets, born in 1934, the year before A Night at the Opera was released. The risqué touch at the end is pretty frequent in the movies, and is generally funny without being crude—in other words, risqué in the former sense of the word, before it started being used for anything sexual up to and including pornography. Reportedly the brothers were frequently forced to tone down their sexual humor, and their work is probably better for it.

(By the way, Al Pacino in the gangster movie Scarface, speaking with what is meant to be a Cuban accent, sounds exactly like Chico to me, which made watching Scarface slightly disconcerting. I kept expecting him to say something funny.)

I don’t think anyone ever writes about the Marx Brothers without using the word “anarchy” or “anarchic.” One might use the same word about much of the contemporary humor I was just complaining about, but there’s a very different spirit in the Brothers’ work. Today’s anarchic humor seems to spring from anger, the Marx Brothers’ from sheer high spirits. You can mock conventions and pretensions because you take them seriously and they make you angry, or because you can’t take them seriously at all. The anarchy of the Marx Brothers is of the latter type, and it’s joyful. Its essential lightheartedness reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse’s work. And while there is nothing of religion in either the Marx Brothers' or Wodehouse's work, the sheer levity of it, its suggestion that much of what we take seriously is actually ridiculous, sometimes seems to hint at something cosmic.

A Night at the Opera does in fact revolve around the opera, and the money and personalities involved in it. The actual story involves a handsome tenor who languishes unsung (heh) in the chorus, and a pretty soprano who loves him but is being pursued by the pompous and egotistical (of course) star tenor. From several different angles the Marxes help to bring the sweet couple together and to confound pretty much everyone else. There are a couple of big 1930s-style musical productions that I could certainly do without. But there are also musical interludes with Chico and Harpo, which are always fun.

I know it’s hopeless to try to describe or explain humor, and anyway I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this. Objectively, I recognize that a fair amount of the Marx Brothers’ humor falls flat—some of it’s just corny, some of it’s dated—so if you don’t like them as much as I do, I will try not to judge you. But even if only every other joke is funny, that’s still a lot of laughter for me. Here’s a little taste of anarchy for you:


A bit of trivia for people my age: one of those game shows from the 1950s or early ‘60s, maybe What’s My Line? involved a panel of celebrities who to me were mostly just names. I had a vague idea that they must have been well-known before going on the show, but had no idea why. One of them, I recall, was Kitty Carlisle. Well, I don’t know what else she did to be famous, but she played the soprano in A Night At the Opera.

Ok, having read the Wikipedia entry, now I do know what she was known for prior to the TV show. And the show wasn’t What’s My Line?, it was To Tell the Truth. And it continued into the ‘70s.

And by the way: Groucho and T.S. Eliot corresponded, and even met. They apparently admired each other’s work. There is a certain amount of lore about this acquaintance available, but I haven’t yet investigated it.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 15, Porco Rosso (Red Pig)

Several months ago on the suggestion of a friend, I began to watch movies from Studio Ghibli. He recommended that I watch them in the order they were produced, and since that is my nature anyway, I have done so when I could even though it has become evident that there seems to be no real reason to do so.

So, when I got to Porco Rosso, I watched it—even though it was about a man who was a pig who flew a plane. I had absolutely no desire to watch this movie, but, as you will have guessed since I am writing this post, before very long, I was very engaged in the movie. It was surprisingly easy to get used to the main character being an anthropomorphic pig. He's taken very seriously as a character, so the viewer accepts him.

Week15-porco rosso

Porco Rosso entered World War I as Marco Pagot, an ace fighter pilot, and having been cursed along the way, returned home as a pig. As the movie opens we find him relaxing in a reclining lawn chair on a deserted island in the Adriatic. He is now a bounty hunter. He hunts “air pirates” who prey on ocean liners, kidnapping children and stealing whatever valuables the boats are carrying. His first job is to capture a group of pirates who have robbed an ocean liner of gold, and kidnapped 15 little school girls. Now, usually a story about pirates kidnapping school girls would be horrifying, but these pirates are softies where little girls are concerned and the girls ride roughshod over them. In general, for pirates these guys aren't a bad bunch. In apposition to Porco's seriousness, the pirates are always comedic. The head pirate bears a distinct resemblance to Popeye's Bluto.

When Porco wants to have a good meal, he heads for the Hotel Adriano. The proprietress of the hotel is the beautiful Gina, four-time widow of fighter pilots. Gina's voice is as beautiful as she is, and all the pirates who frequent her restaurant are in love with her including the new guy on the block, American Donald Curtis. She is in love with Porco, and waiting for his curse to be broken, but knowing that he is a pig, he doesn't encourage her.


Porco's plane is in really bad condition, so he takes it to Milan (where he is wanted for desertion) to his mechanic, Piccolo. Under protest from Porco, his airplane is re-designed and re-built under the direction of Piccolo's young granddaughter, Fio, aided by a bevy of old grandmothers. Porco is not happy with all this female help, but all the men have moved on. When the work is done, Fio goes along with Porco to help keep the plane running. It is from their conversation that we learn (sort of) of how Porco became a pig.

He tells Fio about a mystical experience that he had during a battle in which all the other pilots are killed. He sees them all ascending to another place, and we somehow come to understand that he turned into a pig because, well, he is a pig. All the other pilots from both sides gave their lives for the cause, and yet he survives. He is a selfish pig, which, looking back on the story up to this point, we can clearly see.

Two things surprised me about this scene. One was that the movie was not just an entertaining story, but that it was about something serious. The other was the complete western-ness of this scene. His vision of the pilots ascending into the heavens has an almost Christian feel to it. And this is true not just of one scene in one movie, but of many of the Studio Ghibli films. All the characters in this film are western. At one point in the movie they say an almost Christian grace over their meal—of course, they are Italian. But I just wonder why the Japanese creators of the Studio Ghibli films have chosen this western milieu so often. I wish I had time to do some reading about them.

The American versions of the Ghibli films are produced by Disney, and so the voice-actors are very good, and frequently well-known. In this movie, Porco is voice by Michael Keaton, Donald Curtis by Cary Elwes, and Piccolo by David Ogden Steirs. In Howl's Moving Castle, which we watched yesterday, one of the actors was Lauren Bacall!

As I have indicated before, the mood in Porco Rosso is sometimes very serious, and sometimes almost slapstick, the slapstick being more comic relief than the center of the film. In the end, it seemed to me that Porco Rosso was a kind of combination between Casablanca and Beauty and the Beast, with glimpses of some other movies, too—The Quiet Man comes to mind.

According to Wikipedia, and this is the sort of thing I think you might be able to trust Wikipedia for, Porco Rosso was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1992. And, of the 15 highest grossing films in Japan, 8 are Studio Ghibli. This seemed rather strange to me, but then I remembered looking at a list of the highest grossing films in the United States a few years ago, and more than half of them were just this kind of film, the kind that you can take your children to, but which also have another layer that adults can enjoy. Looking at the top ten list for 2015, two are cartoons, and four others are the sort of adventure films that appeal to both children and adults. It makes one wonder why movie studios seem so bent on producing sex-filled movies about people with vacuous lives.

Not only did I surprise myself by enjoying Porco Rosso the first time around, I found it just as good on the second viewing. It's not going to become a movie that I watch every year, but I might get it from Netflix again so that my grandchildren can watch it. And if I do, I'm sure I'll sit down and watch it with them.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 14 - Winter Light

Winter Light is one of my favorite films from my favorite director, Ingmar Bergman. Here’s what I said about it in a blog post back in 2007:

I was startled to learn that the Swedish title is The Communicants, which is probably better, although “winter light” certainly has its applicability and resonance. I saw this back in the ‘70s without really understanding it. I just finished watching our Netflix copy for the second time, and it’s magnificent. From the Christian point of view there is obviously a great deal to be said about this portrait of a Lutheran clergyman admitting to himself that he has lost his faith—far, far too much for me to try to go into here. So I’ll just say that almost every image and every line of dialog is pregnant with meaning. And that while Bergman was not a believer he understands what faith is about, what the implications of having or not having it are. The film seems to me very ambivalent on the subject, and certainly gives no comfort to atheists.

But then it doesn’t give much comfort to Christians, either, or to anybody else. It is decidedly not a comforting film. Before Craig submitted his beautiful account of Tree of Life, I had been thinking that I might say something along the lines of “greatest film about Christian faith.” But I’d better amend that, and claim instead that it’s the greatest film about faith and doubt. I can’t actually be sure of that, of course, as there are probably many films treating those questions that I’ve never seen. I’ll be surprised if I ever discover a better one, though.

What I said in that earlier post about there being more to say about Winter Light than I can go into here still applies. To say everything I’d like to say about it would take a longer essay than is really suitable for a blog post (and perhaps I’ll try writing it, and see if some magazine would be interested in it), so I’ll just hit a few major points.


The church

The story, which apart from one major incident is pretty slight and inconclusive, takes place entirely on a Sunday afternoon in winter, between roughly noon and 3 p.m. It opens with a Lutheran communion service performed by the pastor, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand). The scene begins with the consecration and ends with the dismissal, and it comprises something over twelve minutes of this 81-minute film. The congregation is very small, only eight or ten people. Among them are Tomas’s dowdy lover Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a fisherman named Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow), and Persson’s wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom).


Tomas and crucifix. That crucifix plays a significant role, as does the altarpiece, of which I was unable to find a good photo.

After the service, Tomas is approached by the Perssons. Jonas is terribly anxious and depressed, obsessed by fear of nuclear war. Karin wants the pastor to help him. They agree that Jonas will return later for a longer talk.

The pastor is responsible for two small churches, and is due at the second one at 3 p.m. In the interval, he waits in the first church for Jonas to return, and reads a letter from Märta, a task which he seems to be reluctant to take up. The reading of this letter is a marvelous scene: it begins with Tomas reading, then switches into a full-screen shot of Märta’s face as she speaks the words of the letter to him. He doesn’t love her, and she knows it. She is an atheist, but she desperately wants her life to have a purpose, and she wants Tomas to allow her to make him her purpose, to be for her what God is for him. Or rather what God ought to be: it is apparent that she recognizes the hollowness of his professed belief.



This monologue seems to me to be the heart of the film. I find it very moving, and it has rich theological implications beyond what I’ve already suggested, and that I will leave you to discover on your own, if you haven’t already.

Jonas returns. Tomas attempts to give him words of comfort, or at least starts out that way, but does the opposite, confessing his own loss of faith. Jonas leaves, entirely uncomforted, indeed much worse off than when he arrived. After Jonas leaves, there is a mostly silent moment in which the English title of the film becomes deeply significant. Märta appears, seeming to have heard at least part of the conversation with Jonas. “Now I am free,” Tomas says. He weeps, and Märta comforts him.


Tomas and Jonas

For the benefit of those who haven't seen the film, I think I’ll end my synopsis here. What is so striking about Tomas’s loss of faith is that it does neither him nor anyone around him any good whatever, except in the sense that if you believe he’s right you might congratulate him on accepting the brutal truth. That, I think, was what struck me so forcefully when I saw the movie in 2007, and is one of the things I have in mind in saying that it gives no comfort to atheists. This is no triumphant emergence from superstition of the sort lesser artists have given us way too many of.

There are two souls in this story who have a kind of purity. Their roles are small but significant. There is the organist, whose name, if it’s mentioned, I can’t remember, and a man named Algot (Allan Edwall), who seems to be something like a sacristan, or perhaps sexton. The organist is a guiltless cynic who shows no interest in all this heavy religious stuff. He just shows up to do his job and then hurries off to enjoy himself. Algot, on the other hand, is a sincere and humble Christian, the only one in the group as far as we know. His back is misshapen as a result of an accident, and this seems to have given him, or enhanced, a deep sympathy for suffering. His one short speech is an important one, and its effect is partly due to the way it seems suffused with that sympathy.



And there are two souls who are tormented by the collision of faith and doubt: Tomas and Märta (Jonas is more tormented, but not precisely in that way). I think of something C.S. Lewis says about the direction in which a soul is moving being more important than where it is at the moment. Tomas, the clergyman, is moving away from belief. Märta, the atheist, seems to me to be moving toward it, not necessarily intellectually but in her heart. There is no facile conversion, but there is a difference between the easy dismissal of faith with which she begins her letter to Tomas and the cry which eventually emerges from her heart. I can’t think of many other filmic characters of whom I would more like to know what the future beyond the film has in store for them. She might or might not become a Christian, but if she does she'll be a good one, perhaps a saint.


Accept no substitutes.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 13 - Track of the Cat

When I brought up this film last year in one of the threads, I mentioned that I had first seen it as a child on a day off school, and that it was a bit of an odd thing for an eight or nine year old to sit through. It’s not particularly action-packed, but is actually rather talky. My guess is that I was pulled into the plot by the sense of tension and fear that is created in the opening sequences, as well as by the slight hint of the supernatural, which made it a little creepy. Was it a real panther or some devil that was harassing the family? A couple scenes stayed with me for a very long time, well into adulthood, until I finally saw the movie again in the late 90’s when it came out on VHS.

The plot is fairly straightforward. The dysfunctional Bridges family finds themselves snowbound on their mountain cattle ranch by an early unseasonal blizzard. Along with the family is present the youngest brother Harold’s fiancée, Gwen Williams, and the old Indian hired man, Joe Sam. The family is cowed by the crude and domineering middle brother Curt (Robert Mitchum), with the passive assistance of their bitter, Pharasaical mother and alcoholic father. Eldest brother Arthur (William Hopper) is noble and a peacemaker, but ultimately too non-confrontational, while Harold (Tab Hunter) is viewed as still wet behind the ears, and hasn’t yet learned to stand up for himself. Sister Grace (Teresa Wright) is a sad thirty-something spinster.

The story starts with Joe Sam waking Arthur to tell him that something’s at their herd, possibly a panther. The old Indian has a superstitious fear of the first snowfall of the year, believing that it brings along with it a ghostly black panther, the same one that killed his family years ago. Arthur is sympathetic to the old Indian’s fears, but the bully Curt ridicules them both. Curt and Arthur decide to go out in the snowstorm to try and kill the panther, leaving the rest of the family to bicker while awaiting their return. The film cuts back and forth between the squabbles in the ranch house and the tracking of the cat, with the absence of the two brothers causing additional tension. Without giving too much away, it can be said that a number of events occur which bring much of the tense familial undercurrent to the surface.

While some critics have described Track of the Cat as an offbeat Western, at least a few have viewed it as an art film masquerading as one. It’s based on the novel of the same title by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose earlier novel The Ox-Bow Incident had been successful filmed by director William Wellman in 1943. With Track… however, Wellman had in mind something a bit more experimental. He had for a long time wanted to film a black-and-white film in color. The idea was to use muted colors for almost everything, saving any bright ones only for dramatic effect. This is especially noticeable in the outdoor scenes - - the pine trees are all more gray than green, and the only colors that stand out are such things as Curt’s red coat, spots of blood in the snow, and the blue matches used to start a fire.


The “art film” notion goes deeper than that, however. The film is dark and tense, not in the manner of a noir picture, but more like a European tragedy. The family dynamics are portrayed in a mature and realistic manner, playing almost like a stage drama, while the hunt sequences have a haunting element of awe and mystery uncommon in American movies of the time. These two things make for a fascinating mix.

The cast has only eight members, and they are uniformly good, with Mitchum, Hopper, and the great Beulah Bondi (“Ma Bridges”) being standouts. An unrecognizable Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Our Gang comedies plays Joe Sam. The film does feature the more demonstrative acting style of pre-Method Hollywood, but it’s largely free of histrionics and over-drama.

There’s little doubt that director Wellman and the producers conceived this movie as somewhat of an experiment. It was apparently a box office flop, and contemporary critics were divided. It has gained a certain amount of respect in later years, however, as more recent critics tend to be appreciative of the stylized look, the smart, tough script, and the intelligent handling of deeper than usual psychological themes. It’s strange to think that as a nine-year-old some 45 years ago, I was ahead of the curve. Then again, I was an odd kid.

(Further note: If you like the film, by all means read the novel, which is excellent. The central section, with Curt lost in the snowstorm and trying to find his way home, all the while trying to resist his growing fears, rehearsing his memories, etc., is a 100 page tour-de-force, and an absolutely masterful piece of psychological writing.)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 12 - The Scent of Green Papaya

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I find it interesting that so far almost half of our movies have been Asian, and here is yet another, this one from Vietnam. The Scent of Green Papaya takes place in Saigon in 1951, which means that the First Indochina War is taking place, but that does not play a part in the movie at all. It is the story of a 10 year old girl, Mui, who has just been hired to work in the home of a middle class family. The family consists of the parents, the father's mother, and their three sons. The mother's shop where she sells fabric and sewing notions is in the front of the house.

Week12-floorThis is not a story of the miserable life of a child who is forced into hard labor in an unkind family. Mui has to work hard, but she is treated well and her work is not too much for her to bear. The older servant who works with her is a good woman, and the mother of the family, who has lost a daughter who would have been just Mui's age, is very kind, indeed, she loves Mui, although not in a demonstrative way.

The family is not a happy family, each member seems to be caught in his own little web of sorrow. The father, while physically present, lives in a sort of invisible isolation booth. He sits and plays music and barely responds to his wife's comments and conversation. The oldest son, who is in his late teens, is seldom home. The middle son is very angry, and torments small things. The youngest son, who is about 5, torments Mui with cruel pranks. The grandmother lives upstairs and spends her days alone in prayer, mourning her husband and granddaughter. The mother is the sole provider for the family, and she works hard for them while mourning the death of her daughter, and coping with her husband's occasional disappearances.

In contrast, Mui is that very rare person who is completely content with her own life, and who lives in constant awareness of the beauty that surrounds her. She gazes in rapt attention at the life that unfolds before her, and the viewer becomes a party to her vision.


Here we pause a moment and contemplate the way the milky liquid of the green papaya drips onto its leaves . . .


and marvel at the little treasure chest they secret inside themselves,

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or we look out the window in the morning and anticipate the new day.

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I love this scene. Can't you just see the anticipation in Mui's back?

Mui's innocence is tangible, especially in contrast with a certain lack of that innocence in even the youngest member of the family. The film also retains a certain aura of innocence even though the characters may not. I'm sure that I am not the only viewer who became a bit nervous when Mr. Thuan came on the scene.


We are so jaded that even the most blameless encounters can seem suspicious, but there is nothing to worry about here. Mr. Thuan's interest is born in his love and concern for the grandmother of the family, and he and Mui become fast friends.

This movie, which won the Caméra d'or (Golden Camera) award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, is, as you can see, very beautiful, and would be worth seeing for that alone. It is, at least in the first long part of the movie, a very muted beauty filled with greens and browns.


We look through many beautifully fretted windows and walls. The family's house is filled with a variety of wood hues. I was struck, as I was in Pather Panchali, by how much of Mui's life is lived outside, and the house has a feeling of being drawn from the elements of nature. The sense of being surrounded by the natural world is also enhanced by the constant songs, cries, and chirping of birds, and insects.

The second, and much shorter part of The Scent of Green Papaya, takes place 10 years later, when the family, due to difficult financial times, can no longer afford to employ Mui. They find her a job,a better job, with a young man with whom the viewer knows, Mui has been infatuated for years. At this point, the film becomes filled with color.

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I find that many of these newer Asian films, both regular films and some of the graphic films of Studio Ghibli, are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty around us—both the beauty of the natural world, and that of man's creation. The filmmakers are not afraid to take their time and move slowly through the story, giving us time to soak in the beauty that we see, and by contrast really highlight the crassness and emptiness of so many American films.

The Scent of Green Papaya can be found on YouTube, or streamed from Amazon, or you can get the DVD from Netflix. I am seriously considering buying the DVD.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 11 - Tree of Life

I have dithered over how best to approach this little introduction to The Tree of Life. My burden is that I've volunteered to write about the film that means more to me than any other. It's a work of art that touches me as Josquin's Ave Maria or van der Weyden's Deposition do: right there in my soft center. How can I do it justice? Shall I take my inspiration from the film itself, embark on a flight of rhapsody, and bear my reader aloft like a feather on the wind? Shall I whisper quietly in his ear the secrets of my heart? Introduce an interlude on natural history? Shall I fragments allow to splinter to my prose? Shall I try to carry it off without using words at all?

The Tree of Life is a rich film, ravishing in its beauty, and resonating internally with profound ideas, but it is also a very tangible film, grounded in a particular time and place. There are sequences in which I feel I could almost reach out and touch it, breathe it in, or which set me back on my heels with a shock of recognition: I remember that. Indeed, the whole film can be (and has been) interpreted as a sustained descent into memory, a reverie in which experience is pondered, turned this way and that, sifted, shot through with longing. Like St Augustine's Confessions, it is a work in which mystery and memory intertwine, in which the inscrutable majesty of the Divine and the inscrutable mystery of one man's life meet.


But I am getting ahead of myself. The Tree of Life is the work of Terrence Malick, a filmmaker almost as famous for not making films as for making them. His first two films, Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, had earned him critical plaudits and a place at the table with the new generation of American filmmakers then coming to prominence. But following Days of Heaven he went quiet for twenty years (though not so quiet as is sometimes thought, for during that long period he worked on a number of scripts and projects that never came to fruition, including an adaptation of Percy's The Moviegoer). When he re-emerged in the late 1990s with The Thin Red Line he might as well have been a different filmmaker. True, there were some similarities between the earlier period and the later, but the differences were more than a matter of degree. He had found a way to invest the very grammar of film -- sound, editing, and camera movement -- with his own personal vision, a style distinctly his own. Malick has been compared to Tarkovsky, or to Kubrick at his most ambitious, but really there's nobody like him.

The very title of this film is an evocative one. We think of the scriptural Tree of Life which stood in the midst of the garden, and again of the Tree of Life which appears on the last page of the Revelation to St John, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations. I myself think of Christ's words: "I am the vine, and you are the branches... Abide in me, as I abide in you." But the Tree of Life also appears in On the Origin of Species, where it covers the earth with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications, and so we might justly call to mind the tumbling and twisting genealogical tree of life on earth, being reminded of that deep history, of that litany of forms, of strange beauties and violent deaths, and of the fact that sons are descended from mothers and fathers.


The O'Briens have three sons. They live in a quiet neighbourhood of a small town in Texas in the 1950s. It is a time and place where boys roam until dusk, chasing one another, wandering through fields and forests, breaking windows in abandoned buildings. The yards have no fences. Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is a responsible and hard-working man, but is not rewarded as he thinks he should be, and he lives, it seems, with some regrets over the path he has chosen in life. He teaches his sons that life is a struggle, and that they must be strong. He loves his boys, but he is hard on them, and perhaps he does not know how to be otherwise. Mrs O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) is the heart of the family, and she takes her boys gently under her wing; she teaches them that they must love.

For most of the film we are in and around the O'Brien's home, floating down its hallways and drifting from room to room as though gently nudged by a gust from an open window. (One of the joys of The Tree of Life is that the camera, wielded by Emmanuel Lubezki, almost never stops moving.) We watch the children as they grow, ponder the sometimes tender and sometimes troubled relationship of the parents, and see the common joys and perils of family life unfold before us, vividly realized, and in the shade of the great tree that lifts its lofty, spreading branches over the home.


Suffering visits the O'Briens, as it visits us all. "There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you," says their priest from his pulpit. The boys witness disease and deformity. We are not five minutes into the film before death visits them. And the darkness does not just encroach from without, but emerges from within: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the boy whose story the film is, must contend against the lust and anger of his own heart, forces that he himself hardly understands.

The Tree of Life can be seen as a great wrestling with evil: where does it come from? why does God permit it? what does it mean? The book of Job is the film's Biblical touchstone: we meet Job's friends, we ask Job's questions, and, in one of the film's most thrilling and audacious sequences, we witness God's reply to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundations? This reply of God's has been the occasion for much baffled commentary. We're unaccustomed to a filmmaker who departs from his story to show us how the world came to be. Except of course it is not really a departure, but character development. The O'Briens are not the only characters with leading roles in The Tree of Life.

If we think of this film as a symphony -- and this is a remarkably fruitful way to think of it -- we are right to identify suffering as a recurring motif. But the principal themes are wonder and love. The spirit of Mrs O'Brien -- or, rather, the spirit of which she is a lowly handmaid -- pervades the film, setting the screen aglow. The sheer beauty of the world, the wonder of being, the shining glory of what is, unaccountably, not nothing -- these are the film's deep sources, and they seep into our hearts as the images wash over us until, at its best, and for those attuned to its vision, the film becomes an occasion for prayer.

So, at least, has been my experience. Not everyone, I know, has responded to it in this way. Sometimes seed falls on rocky ground, or among thorns. Bewilderment and exasperation were not uncommon responses when it played in theatres. Some couldn't keep straight who was who. Some didn't like the dinosaurs, or the splashes of surrealism. Some found the narrative thread too thin and allusive. Some found it pretentious, or were confused by its theological vision. Well, we shouldn't expect the greatest films to satisfy conventional expectations. And, as even I will admit, the film does have its weak points. (The last quarter-hour, a much-discussed excursion into Jack's soul, or into the afterlife, or into some abstract psychic space, is suggestive and subtle and grows more so with each viewing, but is still, I think, a failure.)

But, my friends, few films come our way with this much feeling, with this ecstatic power, with this determination to pursue that which is always only seen from the corner of the eye, and with such an abundance of beauty as to make the heart tremble. Love every frame.


—Craig Burrell is a longtime reader of Light on Dark Water, and blogs at All Manner of Thing.

52 Movies: Week 10 - Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven

Blogger's note: this week's post was scheduled to be from Grumpy, but she's not feeling well, so I'm filling in. 

Discussion of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which I have not seen, a few weeks ago made me curious about the two Kurosawa films I have seen: Rashomon and Seven Samurai. I was not particularly taken with either of them. It was probably twenty years ago that I saw them, on VHS tape, and probably late at night, and they just didn’t make a big impression on me. The only specific thing I remember is trying to stay awake during Seven Samurai, which is three hours long. Considering Kurosawa’s reputation, and the reputations of these two films in particular, I thought I’d give them another try. I started with Seven Samurai, for no particular reason.

This time I watched it on DVD, during the day, and in multiple sessions. (I do this frequently because I watch movies on my lunch break, which I try to keep under an hour, although I no longer have an externally-enforced requirement for that.) Ideally two sessions would be about right, as there’s an official intermission about halfway through. At any rate, it is a fairly slow-moving story, and I found that breaking up not only did not detract from the experience, but probably enhanced it, because I didn’t get restless.

I found, as with certain other Japanese movies I’ve seen, that the foreignness of language and expression presented a certain barrier initially. As was mentioned in the Yojimbo discussion, the acting style in this film may be more than just a cultural difference: Kurosawa may have been trying to produce an archaic effect. But my difficulty decreased as the film went on and I got more used to the style.

In 16th century Japan, a farming village is menaced by bandits. They decide to hire a group of samurai to protect them. The story builds slowly and powerfully. The villagers take some time to decide about even making the unlikely to attempt to hire samurai from a nearby town. Once the first warrior agrees, it takes some time for him to recruit the other six. Then there is a long period of preparation—decisions about tactics, construction of fortifications, the evacuation of outlying parts of the village which can’t be protected, having the men of the village make and learn to use bamboo spears. The characters of the individual samurai and some of the villagers are explored. The leader of the samurai appears to be the oldest and most experienced. He’s wise and patient but no less capable than the others. One of them is a boy, not really even a full-fledged warrior, extremely eager and impulsive. One is himself the son of farmers and has experienced first-hand the depredations of bandits, which gives him conflicted feelings about the warrior class. One is quiet and modest but also the deadliest swordsman of the group. And so on.

The cumulative effect is quite powerful. It’s a study in nobility and courage. This is one of those movies that I appreciate more than like—for sheer enjoyment it would not be among my very favorites. But it certainly passes my informal test for classification as first-rate work: I would like to see it again, and possibly more than once.

Here is a trailer of sorts for the Criterion Collection edition. It gives you a good sense of the style and atmosphere.


You can view the original Japanese trailer at YouTube. I’m not including it here because it gives away rather more of the story than I would. But these words from it establish a cultural context for the samurai’s actions which I didn’t entirely get from the film itself, and which makes the story even more powerful:

In a mad age obsessed with ambition and glory, seven samurai turned their backs on fame and wealth and fought to protect a village of oppressed farmers. This is their story. They disappeared, nameless, with the wind. And yet, their kind hearts and courageous actions are spoken of to this day. They are the true samurai.


As most people who pay attention to cinema probably know, a famous Hollywood western, The Magnificent Seven, is a sort of remake of Seven Samurai. The basic story is identical, but the place is the American southwest and northern Mexico, the time is the late 19th century, the farmers are Mexican, and the samurai are gunslingers. It follows the model of Seven Samurai quite closely for the most part. There is the older and wiser leader, very effectively played by Yul Brynner (never mind that he’s from eastern Russia, not southwestern America). There’s the kid who wants to join the glamorous crew. Many specific incidents from the original are mirrored with appropriate cultural and technological modifications.

The biggest difference I noticed is in the treatment of the bandits. Kurosawa’s bandits are hardly seen as individuals at all. They’re a mostly faceless malevolent force sweeping down on the village. But Sturges (John, the director of The Magnificent Seven) gives the leader of the Mexican bandits a very definite face and personality, and the struggle against him has a definite personal element, on the part of both the villagers and the “samurai”. And from the point where the gunmen arrive at the village and the real conflict with the bandits begins, there’s more of a difference: there’s less planning and strategy in the defense of the village, for instance.

But The Magnificent Seven just not as good as its model. I think the problem is less the director’s fault than the limitations of Hollywood movie-making at the time: too much of it just isn’t entirely convincing. The actors are charismatic stars or future stars: in addition to Brynner, there are Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and others. But for reasons that I can’t put my finger on—how much is the acting? how much is the script?—their characters don’t seem as fully real as the samurai do, despite the foreignness of the latter. The gunplay features that weird Hollywood mannerism in which the shooter often seems to be trying to fling the bullets from his gun rather than aiming and firing. In general there’s a sense that one is not seeing a heightened version of reality, but a cruder version of it.

It’s not a bad movie at all; as Westerns go, it’s probably one of the best, and I enjoyed it. It just isn’t on the artistic level of the Kurosawa work. But one thing must be said for it: the score, by Elmer Bernstein, must be the best score of any Western. Well, ok, maybe Morricone is in the same class, but he’s totally different. Bernstein’s is sort of the archetype of the American Western score.


The music in Seven Samurai is good, too, by the way.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 9 - One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (and two other movies)

In the guidelines for this series it was said that a contribution might discuss multiple films if they were somehow related (I think the examples given were Star Wars and Lord of the Rings). It might be taking liberties to interpret this as broadly as I am doing, but I would like to discuss three films that are related in the loosest sense: all three are Second World War British propaganda films about the air war, and all three have exceptional soundtracks. Two of them are set in the occupied Low Countries, which gives them a particular interest for me that others might not share.

The first of them, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), I mentioned in my earlier contribution about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both are wartime masterpieces of the writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of Black Narcissus fame), but two films could hardly be more different. Blimp is a Technicolor epic covering 40 years of history, with some fairly operatic elements; One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a tightly told story of a couple of days, entirely contemporary, and black-and-white.

The prelude to the film is a shot of a typed press release from the Dutch government-in-exile’s news bureau reporting the execution of five Dutchmen (two farmers and three farm hands) for helping a British serviceman, with a faint, funereal roll of drums in the background. Then the scene cuts to men at an air base straining their ears for the sound of aircraft returning, with the distant drone of an engine getting louder. All the bombers sent out are counted back, except for one. Then come the opening credits, and the film proper begins with the beginning of a night raid on the Mercedes Benz machine works in Stuttgart. For the first 20 minutes, the main sound is the throbbing of the engine, interspersed with short conversations (showcasing a range of accents among the crew) and occasional anti-aircraft fire.

The plot is simple. A British plane (a Vickers Wellington, to be precise) on its way back from bombing Stuttgart is shot down over the Netherlands. The crew bail out, after some mutual suspicion gain the trust of a member of the Resistance, and are smuggled to the coast. They brave the North Sea in a small boat, and are rescued by the Royal Navy. Throughout the film, the sound is as natural as possible — engines, sirens, guns, footsteps, birdsong, barking dogs, human voices. The only music is music that the characters in the film can hear (an organ in church, a gramophone, German soldiers singing). This was fairly revolutionary film-making for the early 1940s.

The propaganda message of the film is twofold. Firstly, that Britain is not alone, and not only fighting for its own survival; even countries conquered by the enemy are actively subverting German efforts and diverting German resources, and eagerly await the day the Allies will invade. Secondly, that patriotic civilians in occupied countries are given a sense of hope by British bombing raids. This gives the sound of the aircraft engine a more than incidental role. This is not just an experiment in cinematic realism, but a theme in which the sound of the aircraft engine is central, almost a character itself. In one of a couple of set-piece speeches in the film, a Dutch Resister (played by Googie Withers) references the sound as British planes fly overhead, sending the German soldiers who would otherwise block the airmen’s escape to their shelters.

Can you hear them running for shelter? Can you understand what that means to all the occupied countries, to enslaved people, having it drummed into their ears that the Germans are masters of the earth? Seeing those masters running for shelter, seeing them crouching under tables, and hearing that steady hum night after night, that noise which is oil for the burning fire in our hearts.

The other film set in the Low Countries, The Flemish Farm (1943), is in many respects similar to One of Our Aircraft is Missing. A refugee Belgian pilot serving in the RAF obtains permission to return to occupied Flanders on a mission to retrieve the colours of the Belgian Air Force, buried in a secret location on the eve of capitulation in 1940 to keep them from falling into German hands. Although his presence on occupied territory is voluntary, the plot has a similar outline (evading identification and capture, contacting the Resistance, obtaining the means to return to Britain). It doesn’t have Powell/Pressburger’s irony, and the comedic touches are fewer and heavier The opening credits claim that the screenplay is based on ‘an actual incident’, and this may be true.

There are a couple of important differences. One is location. Outside shots in One of Our Aircraft is Missing were filmed in a part of the Lincolnshire Fens that was drained and colonised by Dutch immigrants in the 17th century, and that looks entirely like Holland. The first time I saw the film, when it was on television almost 30 years ago, it looked so Dutch that it didn’t even occur to me that it could not have been filmed in the Netherlands. The Flemish Farm, in contrast, relies heavily on models and backdrops that are artfully made but could never be taken for real locations. There’s a backdrop of the medieval city centre of Ghent that is instantly recognisable, but unmistakably a painting. One of the few exceptions is the crossing of the Pyrenees, shot on location on Exmoor, which to my eye (but Grumpy would perhaps correct me) is not a very convincing substitute for Spanish mountains.

The other is the soundtrack. The Flemish Farm has an orchestral score specially commissioned from Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the great names in the British romantic-classical tradition, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. This, in a sense, links it to the third film, The First of the Few, which was scored by William Walton (an avant-gardist not, in this instance, being very avant-garde).

The First of the Few (apparently released in the US in a much shorter version under the title Spitfire) is not an adventure story like the other two, but something in the nature of a ‘biopic’ about the designer of the Spitfire (and also something of a ‘buddy’ film, with David Niven playing his test pilot). Perhaps surprisingly, it has similarities to two Studio Ghibli films, Porco Rosso (for scenes of the Schneider Race) and The Wind Rises (another biopic about an aeronautical engineer of the 1930s). The title is an allusion to Churchill’s ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’, referring to the fighter pilots who warded off the Luftwaffe in 1940–41. The film opens with the Battle of Britain, with the Niven character, now an RAF officer, reminiscing about the development history of the Spitfire. Although it’s a little slow-moving in places, and I can see why they cut it for the US release, to does have some quite funny and some quite touching moments. I only saw it for the first time recently, and it surprised me slightly that I had never heard of it until a year ago, when a Dutch classical musician being interviewed on the Belgian radio mentioned the score as one of his favourites.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Movies: Week 8 - Wings of Desire

In summer of 1988 I walked through the doors of the Detroit Film Theater, housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, to see Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire (known in its original German title as Der Himmel über Berlin). I hadn’t read any reviews of the film, knew nothing about Wenders’ work, and, so, I was absolutely unprepared for what I would experience. Now, almost thirty years after that first encounter, I wonder if I am prepared for the film even now, let alone to write about it.

Wings of Desire is something of a minor miracle. Filmed essentially by mixture of intuition and improvisation without an actual script and ensouled by scraps of poetic dialogue and monologue sent via wire by Swiss poet/playwright Peter Handke (inspired in no small part by Rilke’s Duino Elegies), the film—seguing beautifully between German, French, and English—tells the story of incarnation as an angel, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) comes to realize he must renounce his eternal existence in order to, in his words, “take the plunge” and participate in human life. One might interpret this as a kind of postmodern Christology. Even before he takes the plunge, Damiel falls in love with Marion (played by the luminous Solveig Dommartin), a French acrobat in a tiny circus; her presence, especially her interior life so marked by loneliness, serves to convince him of what he had already been considering. Once his incarnation is accomplished, Damiel, deprived of his angelic omniscience, must find his beloved in the messy milieu of human life in pre-1989 Berlin: a city divided, darkened, yet still spiritually alive. When Damiel does find her, in the bar of a concert hall where Nick Cave is performing, Wenders offers us an affirmation of both the spirit and of the flesh: the divinity inherent to the eros that unites man and woman.

Indeed, the film is itself an extended contemplation of the synergy between fleshly and divine orders of eros, and Henri Alekan’s sublime cinematography, transitioning from black and white monochrome when told from the angelic point-of-view and color from the human, beautifully articulates Wender’s simple yet profound vision. Alekan, who was seventy-seven at the time of filming, had worked on Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La Belle et la Béte (1946), used the same technique for acquiring the warmth of tone in the monochrome parts of Wings of Desire as he had in the Cocteau film: a filter made from his grandmother’s silk stocking, a notion gloriously low-tech, but bursting with poetry and eros.

Likewise, the score by Jürgen Knieper straddles the line between the form and improvisation with music evocative of the transcendent/immanent longing that is the centerpiece of the film; and the library scene, which includes a hodgepodge of voices in a surreal landscape of languages (Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, in addition to the German, French, and English) some taken from the newspaper, some from scripture (the opening lines of Genesis in Hebrew), some from conversation—all improvised according to some very loose direction from Knieper.

In reality, the film includes far too many extraordinary scenes ripe for commentary—but to focus on just one seems to be to an exercise in “killing to dissect,” for the film is an organic whole. It may be that each scene, like a holograph, reveals the whole, but I trust less in my analytic skills than in my impressionistic ones when it comes to this film. So many of the scenes, indeed, inhabit my soul life: the library, the angels comparing notes in a car, the dying man on the street, the suicide, the many scenes with children (who, unlike the adults, often see the angels), the nightclubs, and the exquisite climax in the bar with Marion and Damiel—not to mention the charming subplots of Peter Falk (playing “himself”) who is (according to the story) in Berlin to work on a film set during the Nazi era, and the story of Homer, the people’s storyteller (played with great warmth by the eighty-seven-year-old Curt Bois). Nevertheless, my biography intersects in the film in such a way that I must comment on one scene (though maybe it counts as two) in particular.

During the break in filming the Nazi movie (note the metanarrative), Peter Falk stops at a snack truck for a coffee. He senses a presence (Damiel) and offers his hand in friendship to his invisible interlocutor. Falk, having a cigarette while leaning on the truck’s counter, has ordered a coffee, and when it arrives he takes a sip and tells Damiel how good such a simple pleasure is—“To smoke, and have coffee—and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.” Later, as one of his first incarnational acts, Damiel heads straight for the truck and a hot cup o’ joe.


In summer of 1988, I was in my mid-twenties. I had recently quit the music business and had more-or-less renounced the world. I wore grey, black, and white all the time, was a vegetarian, spent a lot of time looking for spiritual direction amongst Buddhists, Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, and, worse than that, I never drank coffee. When I got home after seeing the film, I ripped through all of the kitchen cupboards until I found a stash of coffee saved for guests. I immediately brewed up a pot of the strong French roast. I gave up the life of a black and white angel. I incarnated. But, as the film’s closing scroll says, “To be continued…”

Years later a colleague, a philosopher from the Anglo-American tradition, came to watch me teach Wings of Desire during my Religion and Film course. I told him of my own experience with the film, to which he answered: “If you see that film and it doesn’t change your life, you’re probably not alive.” Recently, I showed it at the end of a Creative Writing course. Afterwards, I saw one the students walking across campus, as if in a daze. I stopped her to see if she was okay. “It’s that film,” she said. “I…I have a lot to think about.” Indeed.

Welcome home, angels.

—In addition to teaching philosophy and English at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer living with his wife and most of his nine children in Waterloo Township, Michigan.

52 Movies: Week 7 - Terracotta Warrior


A number of comments on this blog (and at least one of the main posts) have mentioned Zhang Yimou in positive terms. He has directed small-scale, thoughtful, human films such as Not One Less and The Road Home as well as gorgeous costume/action blockbusters like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, besides having directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He is without a doubt one of the great film-makers of recent decades. His only major role as an actor was in one of my favourite Hong Kong films, the insufficiently famous Terracotta Warrior (1989), directed by Ching Siu-Tung, in which he is an unlikely but highly effective action hero. A taste of it can be found here. Apparently it was released in the US as Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, but I will stick with the shorter title.

Ching perhaps has greater renown as an action choreographer than as a director; it was in this capacity that he collaborated with Zhang on Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as working on other films with international recognition. The genre in which he excels is not the kung fu film that is what most people first think of as Hong Kong cinema, but the swords-and-sorcery martial epic, in which swordplay, costumes and pyrotechnics combine to stunning effect, a genre that only broke through in the West with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A full appreciation of Terracotta Warrior requires some familiarity with the original The Mummy, the 1932 extravaganza with Boris Karloff in the title role. This is a love story in which the good guys are archaeologists attached to the British Museum, and the baddy is the undead Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest buried alive for having dared fall in love with Princess Ankhesenamon, and revived by ancient magic when his tomb is opened. In the "present day" of 1930s Cairo he attempts to abduct the love interest, Helen Grosvenor, thinking her (correctly, as it ultimately transpires) the reincarnation of Ankhesenamon. While the original The Mummy came a decade after the excavation of Tutankhamen's Tomb, Terracotta Warrior came 15 years after the discovery of the Terracotta Army in the vicinity of the tomb of the First Emperor of China. It is not so much a remake of The Mummy as a post-colonial rebuttal. The "undead" figure, and the hero of the film, played by Zhang Yimou, is the First Emperor's personal bodyguard, entombed in terracotta as punishment for deflowering one of the Emperor's "500 maidens". The reincarnated maiden is played by Zhang's real-life muse, Gong Li, and in the 1930s section of the film is a spoilt aspiring starlet, filming on location. This film-within-the-film, it turns out, is a front for organized criminal activities (the extent of Triad money-laundering through the film industry was highly topical in Hong Kong when Ching was filming). The baddies are looters of antiquities who sell their stolen treasures to foreign collectors (including foreign museums), and are using the film as a cover for moving equipment in and finds out. Tomb raiders are still active in China, and not so long ago a high-profile case gave rise to a feature about them in the South China Morning Post.

Unlike The Mummy, a good third of Terracotta Warrior is set in ancient times, charting the slow unfolding of the relationship between the conflicted warrior (a man of honour loyally serving a tyrant) and the traumatized maiden (orphaned by the emperor's "burning of books and burying of scholars", and later abducted to his court). (Highlights here.) This gives their "undying love" rather more emotional depth than a fantasy action-adventure would normally find necessary to establish. The climax of this first part is the consummation of their slow-burning, largely silent romance in an alchemist's workshop during a thunderstorm (to a soundtrack of the immortal Sally Yeh's thematically appropriate "Burn Heart with Fire", which can be heard at the previous link). The eroticism of mainstream Chinese cinema is far more effective for not forcing one to look away in embarrassment (exhibit A in this regard being Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, which without any sex scenes at all puts Maggie Cheung on a par with any cinematic sex symbol you could care to mention).

After 40 minutes the curtain falls – almost literally, in a bold theatrical touch – on the doomed Qin Dynasty love affair, and a very different drama begins, centring on 1930s tomb raiders. The longer, second part of the film has strong overtones of Indiana Jones, but also undertones of Time Bandits. The transition is signalled by the sound of an aeroplane flying overhead. It can hardly be by accident that the film manages to pack in every form of ancient and modern transport possible – horses, handcarts, stilts, palanquins, chariots, ships, cars, trains and aeroplanes; even, at the very end, a minibus.

Zhang Yimou went on himself to direct successful costume dramas both about the First Emperor (Hero) and about 1930s gangsters (Shanghai Triad), each of which is a more accomplished work of art. Neither, though, can compare with Ching Siu-Tung's Terracotta Warrior for zest, inventiveness, silliness and delight. Part of the beauty of the film is that it does not take itself too seriously, and while full of excellence is unpretentiously and avowedly escapist entertainment. The director set out his philosophy of escapist fiction in the post-modern Dr Wai and the Scripture with No Words (1996), in the long cut of which Jet Li is a frustrated paperback writer who becomes a character in his own cheap martial arts story (I've never understood why the international release only gave the cheap martial arts story, without the framing fiction of rewrites and re-editing that makes its sudden shifts in narrative direction funny rather than baffling).

Terracotta Warrior is very hard to find with English subtitles; perhaps not in the US, but certainly in the UK. I have long had it on VHS with French subtitles and recently acquired a German DVD, and have wondered if its inaccessibility has something to do with rights disputes rather than simply a lack of appreciation. There is, however, relatively little dialogue, and once informed of the plot it is probably possible to enjoy the spectacle without having to understand all the words.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Movies: Week 6 - The Apu Trilogy

If you ever took a class in cinema history, or even read a book on the subject, you’ve heard of these movies. I had, but had not seen them until recently. Twenty or more years ago they were available in the local library on video tape. I checked out the first one, Pather Panchali, but the quality was poor, the story slow and far from gripping, and I had many distractions, and never finished it.

Recently the entire trilogy was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, which we get via the cable TV service which we use very little and have several times decided to cancel. (I haven’t been able to make myself follow through on that decision, partly because I know it will involve a long time on the phone and partly because we very much enjoy the few channels that we do watch--PBS, TCM, and ESPN during college football season.) So I decided to record the three films. I did this more out of a sense of duty than of anticipation of something wonderful: the trilogy was just an item on a mental list of Classics One Ought To Have Seen.

But what I got was in fact something wonderful, and if you’ve never seen these films, or saw them many years ago, perhaps in an inferior copy, I strongly recommend that you seek out the newly restored Criterion Collection edition. At $65 or more, it’s not something most of us would buy, but one would hope that libraries which maintain good film collections would be getting it. As of this writing, Netflix only has the first two films in the set. I don’t know whether that means it’s coming or going.

The original negatives were severely damaged and partly destroyed in a fire in 1993. The benefactors of mankind at Criterion Collection have taken what could be salvaged from those negatives, combined that with the best copies and prints they could find, and applied all sorts of painstaking manual and electronic techniques of restoration to every frame, producing a version which probably gives you on your TV something as good, apart from the the size of the screen, as most theater-goers saw in the 1950s. (One of the discs includes a documentary on the restoration, which is fascinating.)

This is all very important because in my opinion it’s the visual quality of the films that makes them. I almost hesitate to describe the plot. The three films together comprise six hours or so of what is basically a fairly ordinary story of the childhood, youth, and early manhood of the character whose name is usually given to the whole trilogy. Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) gives us his boyhood in a rural village. Aparajito (The Unvanquished) takes him through schooling and adolescence. By the end of Apur Sansur (The World of Apu) he is a young husband and father.

The story moves slowly; our protagonist does not even get born until well into the first film, which is really about Apu’s family more than Apu himself. And there is nothing spectacular in them. We don’t, for instance, see Apu witnessing or participating in any great events. There are no obvious socio-political messages involved—nothing attacking colonialism, for instance—although there are certainly implications of that sort, presumably not accidental. Similarly, there is no agonized wrestling with existential questions, except as they are naturally suggested by the events of an ordinary life. Apart from the fact that he becomes something of an intellectual, and a would-be novelist, Apu is not an unusual sort of person. He and his family live quiet lives. They experience joy and sorrow. They manage as best they can. Apu grows up, leaves home, marries. But to say that there is nothing spectacular doesn’t of course mean that there is nothing dramatic, because there certainly is, as there is in every human life. But it’s quiet and personal and in its sorrows all too normal. Well, perhaps somewhat greater than normal: the family is very, very poor, and financial difficulties and the strains they produce are a big part of Pather Panchali. So is the elemental enemy, death, throughout the trilogy.

I’m at something of a loss to explain why the three films are so captivating. I’ve asked myself how much of my interest is due to the exotic setting and culture. That’s certainly part of it, especially in Pather Panchali, which, at least on one viewing, is my favorite of the three. I’m not sure whether this is a strictly accurate way of putting it, but the best quick description of the setting of Pather is that Apu’s family lives in the jungle. Yet they live in and among large well-constructed stone buildings, and I’m very curious as to how this came about.

And speaking of the exotic, one can’t discuss the trilogy without mentioning its very effective and appealing music, which was composed and partly performed by a musician who at the time must have been very little known in the West, though he later became very well known indeed: Ravi Shankar. I’ve look for a soundtrack album, but haven’t found one. I did find the theme from Pather on a 1962 Ravi Shankar release, Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali. I thought the cover looked familiar, then realized that I own the album, though I haven’t listened to it for decades.

But back to the question of the films’ appeal: above all it’s visual, at least for me. Astonishingly, Pather Panchali was Ray’s first film, and also the first for his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who had literally never operated a movie camera before beginning work on Pather. Obviously they had some strong instinctive sense of how to compose a scene for the camera, and quickly learned techniques of lighting and such. I found myself, even when nothing much was happening, drinking in the rich imagery. And although the actors were reportedly inexperienced, they have strong and expressive faces to which the camera gives a great deal of attention. I don’t think I’m going to forget the face of Apu’s mother.

I don’t feel like my critical vocabulary is really up to the task of giving an adequate sense of what these movies are like, or what their effect on me was. Whoever wrote the blurb for the Criterion Collection did a better job:

These delicate masterworks...based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, were shot over the course of five years, and each stands on its own as a tender, visually radiant journey. They are among the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies ever made—essential works for any film lover.

And here is the trailer for the new edition. I suggest you double-click on it and watch it at full screen, because at least on my computer the video within the blog column is not centered in its own window and the right side is cut off, which means that when the advertising banner appears I can't close it, and that pretty much ruins the effect. Or click here to watch it on YouTube, where you can get rid of the banner. The haunting theme of Pather Panchali is heard beginning at 1:32. 


For once something that sounds like advertising hype is the simple truth: “Don’t miss this opportunity to see three of the greatest films of all time.”

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Movies: Week 5 - Yojimbo

The opening sequence of Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), Akira Kurosawa’s darkly comic samurai film from 1961, must have caught Japanese moviegoers quite off guard. First, there was the jazzy percussive score, with its almost African feel and slight nods toward Ravel’s Bolero. Second, the entire two-and-a-half minutes of the opening credits simply show a rear view of a lone samurai walking along a road, flexing his shoulders, occasionally scratching his back or his head; you never really get to see his face.  By the time the credits and opening theme end, he has come to a fork in the road, where he chooses which way to go by tossing a stick into the air. I don’t know a whole lot about samurai films, but I’d venture to say that this was a bit of a bold move by Kurosawa, as Japanese historical films tended at that time to be quite serious.  But the music is a giveaway, so that within the first few minutes the viewer knows that this is going to be something a little different.

Given the somewhat jocular nature of the credits, it should be no surprise that one of the things that sets Yojimbo apart from previous samurai epics is the humor.  The film doesn’t play broadly for laughs – it’s not a parody or a farce.  But there’s a certain knowing, smart-alecky feel to it, which seems very modern in some ways for a 1961 film.  Most of the characters are almost caricatures – the bad guys border on the ridiculous, occasionally crossing the line, and the couple “good” characters are comedic types also (a sad sack restaurateur and a gleefully opportunistic constable).  The samurai himself remains the closest thing to a real character. He manages to stand above all the shenanigans, so that it’s almost as if an adult has walked into a violent drama staged by children. 


The plot of Yojimbo is fairly well known:  a lone samurai wanders into a town which is besieged by two clans of warring criminals.  The samurai, a mercenary, decides to play both sides against each other, freeing the town from both groups while getting paid by both in the process.  If you haven’t seen Yojimbo, but this still sounds familiar, you may have seen one of the two remakes, the more famous of which is Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the film which put both Clint Eastwood and the “spaghetti western” on the map.  The other is Walter Hill’s 1996 version Last Man Standing, with Bruce Willis.  Leone sets his remake in the Wild West, of course, while Hill’s is set in Prohibition-era Texas.

Besides the humor, the other thing that was apparently rather shocking to the original audiences was the violence.  By the end of the film the body count is pretty high, and while none of the killings is very bloody or graphic, the sheer number of them probably took viewers aback, especially in one scene where a group of unarmed members of one gang are killed by the other. (This scene was extremely brutal in Leone’s remake.) Modern viewers, though, unfortunately rather numb to this sort of thing, probably will find it tame by today’s standards.

Given the slightly cartoonish nature of the secondary characters (played very well, mind you) mention must be made of the great Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Sanjuro, the samurai. His character is the most realistic of the bunch, with just the right amount of swagger, and a number of tics which give him personality.  He’s smart, and despite the violence of what’s going on in the town, finds a good deal of it humorous. Part of the fun is watching him play the other characters, pushing their buttons, and capitalizing on their responses.  In some ways this is all a game to him, a game that the viewer is in on.

I remember when I first watched this movie many years ago, after having seen A Fistful of Dollars any number of times, I was a little disappointed by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the thing.  Leone’s movie had a little of that, but the overall tone was much more serious. Of course in hindsight it’s plain to see that it was Leone who changed the tone, and that the change wasn’t necessarily an improvement.

Kurosawa didn’t make many “light” movies – most of his better-known works are fairly serious, both the historical films and the contemporary ones. Yojimbo stands out not only as the best among these lighter works, but as one of his best and most influential films overall. Of course, the “lightness” of the film is relative – it’s still generally considered “darkly comic,” as I said above. But it’s not one of those films in which the darkness totally subverts the comedy, so it manages to maintain its entertainment value without leaving a cloud over your head.   

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

52 Movies: Week 4 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is based on a cartoon figure quite unlike Spiderman or Superman. Colonel Blimp was a widely familiar newspaper ‘funny’, a portly man of strong but not always consistent or coherent views, typically holding forth in the Turkish baths. The film gives this two-dimensional vehicle of satire a name, Clive Wynne-Candy, and imagines a life story for him, stretching from 1902, when he is a young, decorated officer on leave from the Boer War, to 1943, when he is the portly figure of the cartoons, and as head of the Home Guard is about to oversee a large-scale exercise for the defence of London. We first meet him being interrupted from relaxing in the Turkish baths in the basement of his club by an impudent young officer’s “pre-emptive strike” the afternoon before the exercise is due to start.

One of the earlier Technicolor feature films made in Britain, Colonel Blimp is technically superb, amusingly written, and at times movingly acted. In the opening sequence the camera dizzyingly weaves in and around a phalanx of motorcycle messengers carrying the orders for the exercise (“War starts at midnight”). The portrayal of the TT races in George Formby’s breakthrough picture No Limit, much praised at the time, looks static by comparison.

Although it is very plainly a propaganda film, Blimp was controversial when it was made and questions were raised in high places as to whether it was opportune to release it. There seem to have been two sources of concern. One was that the portrayal of the pre-war officers of the professional armed forces as ‘blimpish’, hidebound old duffers was thought likely to be unconstructive in terms of morale. The other was that one of the two axes around which the plot revolves is the colonel’s relationship with a Prussian counterpart, a ‘good German’, who has some of the best lines in the film. Having a good German at all was a step too far for some.

In his Autobiography G. K. Chesterton wrote of British propaganda in the First World War, which included works such as his Crimes of England (in which the main crime of England turns out to have been being far too pro-German prior to 1914):

...to write of the Crimes of England, under that naked title, was at that time liable to misunderstanding; and I believe that in some places the book was banned like a pacifist pamphlet. [. . .] My old friend Masterman, in charge of one Propaganda Department, told me with great pride that his enemies were complaining that no British propaganda was being pushed in Spain or Sweden. At this he crowed aloud with glee; for it meant that propaganda like mine was being absorbed without people even knowing it was propaganda. [. . .] The fools who baited Masterman would have published it with a Union Jack cover and a picture of the British Lion, so that hardly one Spaniard would read it, and no Spaniard would believe it. It was in matters of that sort that the rather subtle individuality of Masterman was so superior to his political surroundings.

The same sort of conflict between proponents of ‘subtle’ and ‘blatant’ propaganda was played out in 1943 at the Ministry of Information (which was, after all, one of the main inspirations for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth). A confidential screening of the final cut allayed enough fears for the film to be cleared for release. Ironically, one crisis in the plot of Blimp comes when, early in the Second World War, Wynne-Candy is due to give a talk to the BBC; not only is the broadcast cancelled under ministry pressure (with J. B. Priestley substituted at the last minute), but Candy is removed from the active list as no longer fit for service — hence his move to the Home Guard.

The film opens in 1943, on the eve of the Home Guard defence exercise, then flashes back to 1902, and from there builds forward into the present again for the climax and denouement — the protagonist’s admission that he is rather a stick-in-the-mud and perhaps new times do require new thinking. Chronologically the oldest point in the plot is that Candy, on leave from the Boer War, is interviewed by The Times. After reading the interview, an English governess in Berlin writes to him asking if he couldn’t come to Germany to counter some of the anti-British lies being spread by the newspapers there. He does so, contrary to official advice, then inadvertently insults the entire officer corps of the German Imperial Army, and to preserve Britain’s honour has to fight a duel with a German officer chosen by lot. The Prussian duel is presented as quaint and somewhat ludicrous, rather than sinister, which seems something of an achievement in the atmosphere of 1943. The scriptwriter, Emeric Pressburger, was himself an immensely anglophile Hungarian refugee, who could combine a nostalgia for pre-Hitlerian Central Europe with a warm but keen eye for English foibles. Candy’s opponent in the duel becomes his friend for life, and before the end of the film ends up a refugee in England.

Roger Livesey, who was in his 30s at the time, plays Candy in his late 20s (for the Boer War), in his early 40s (First World War), and in his mid 60s (Second World War), having to age 40 years over the course of the film. It is a remarkable achievement, skilfully done. His German counterpart, played by the Austrian refugee actor Anton Walbrook (originally Adolf Wohlbrück), has to do the same, but on the whole less successfully — his old man strikes me as much stagier. The leading lady, Deborah Kerr (later to be Anna in The King and I), got top billing, and doesn’t age a day. She plays a different part in each chronological section: first the patriotic and pedantic governess with whom Captain Candy realizes too late he has fallen in love (she has already fallen for the German); then an exhausted First World War nurse, who looks just like Colonel Candy’s old flame; and finally the chirpy, rather working-class driver that General Candy picks from the Army motor pool, from among 700 candidates, for reasons she cannot fathom.

While too subtle for the ‘blatant’ propagandists, the film has a very clear message that it hammers home in various ways. This is simply that Nazism is so evil that no qualms should stand in the way of doing whatever may be possible, however repugnant, to fight against it. A sweet old fuddy-duddy from a bygone age might think “I would rather lose my freedom than sink to such methods to defend it” (and naively think the BBC would let him tell the nation that), but realists knew that flinching from doing the previously unthinkable could only lead to defeat.

The year before Blimp the writer-director team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had brought out a very different film — black and white, pared back, natural sound only — about a downed bomber crew in occupied Holland trying to elude German capture: One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which I hope to return to in a later post. That film too had a very simple, central message. To caricature it only very slightly, if at all, it is that civilians in occupied countries loved being bombed, because they could see it hurt the Germans.

Powell and Pressburger went on to their greatest triumph after the war with Black Narcissus, based on a novel by Rumer Godden.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

52 Movies: Week 3 - Annie Hall

I suppose I should do a better job of trying to write for my audience with my next movie pick, but I instinctively gravitate towards my favorites when asked about the arts. Annie Hall is my favorite movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it since I first gave it a go when I was a teen-ager and did not really understand it or find it funny.

Growing up in Miami, Florida in a semi-Jewish part of town you get a feeling for the whole New York sensibility of things and are aware of Philip Roth, Henny Youngman, Simon & Garfunkel, and in movies, Woody Allen. I loved the early films like Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and Sleeper. So naturally I was interested in trying out Annie Hall too, and knew that it had fairly recently won Best Picture at the Oscars.

I watched it and got a few laughs. Enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall, when Woody’s character Alvy Singer speaks to the audience, the ethnic jokes, the cartoon interlude, and the references to sex that I only understood through reading and movies. But all in all it didn’t do that much for me. The Woody character was a pretty mild everyman, without any outrageous gags or real silliness.

It was only with getting older and having a girlfriend, and a break-up, and then another girlfriend, that Annie Hall not only started to make sense, but really felt like the only movie that understood what relationships were all about to me. It is sort of a romantic comedy taking place in the real world, if Woody Allen’s imagination can be said to inhabit the real world at all.

I realize that Woody Allen will always be associated with the entire “marrying his step-daughter” episode of 20+ years ago. He is also a Jewish secular humanist. I have not heard him describe himself in these terms, but it is what I gather. He did not marry his step-daughter, nor do I think he molested his real daughter. I just mention these issues because I know people simply do not like him based on news headlines.

I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I feel like I often have the sensibilities of a New York secular Jew. I enjoy humanism in the arts because I feel like these are the artists who are trying to figure out what makes people tick – whether it is literature, or art, or music, or movies, they always seem to me to have a very deep feeling for human nature. Perhaps the lack of real religion in their lives makes them more desperate to find their own answers.

I just re-watched Annie Hall so it would be fresh in my mind for this essay. I didn’t feel like I was in the mood, didn’t know that I would stay awake, didn’t really want to, figured I could just wing it without watching if need be. But I am always astounded at how enjoyable, fun, interesting, and quotable Annie Hall is. The movie is (to me) a perfect little 93 minutes of people trying to understand each other, wondering why it is so hard, and trying to simply learn from each relationship.

It seems a little racy when I think of the Light on Dark Water group, but watching it today I also thought how racy it is not compared to the standards of today’s movies, television, and internet options which young people have access to. Yes, pre-marital sex is a big part of the story line; but there is no nudity and little cursing. It is mainly one of those “adult content due to theme” types of movies.

It is a small miracle that Annie Hall won Best Picture. I am a big Academy Awards buff, and I cannot think of another comedy off the top of my head that won the big prize. Musicals, yes. Movies like Forrest Gump which have funny moments but also intense dramatic themes, yes. But not too many (if any others) that can be compared with Annie Hall. It is enjoyable to watch a young and beautiful Diane Keaton, who won Best Actress; and Woody himself, who somehow writes all of these movies he makes, as a perfect characterization of himself at the right age playing along a woman who is also the correct age for him. Paul Simon has a small part, perhaps because he is the only man Woody could find who is shorter than himself. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Christopher Walken all have small roles. Jeff Goldblum has one that is even smaller (but he does have a short line of dialogue). I just looked for fun to see the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year, and Star Wars was one of them.

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Now that I have apologized and defended the movie I will say a little about plot and structure just in case there is someone out there who has not seen it and might be interested. Though it is hard to really lose a 93 minute bet.

Woody looks into the camera at the very beginning and is just randomly sort of talking and half-joking about things, in his stand-up comic persona. You as the audience are simply laughing and enjoying his riff, and then he says, “Annie and I broke up” and he gets a real pensive and thoughtful look on his face and you know right then that this movie is different from all of his previous ones. Watching it for maybe the 30th or so time I was struck how that one little sentence fragment made sense and is what the movie is all about, and why it is titled Annie Hall. I’m not sure I ever got it before.

Because then for the rest of the movie you sort of jump back and forth between comic interludes with Alvy Singer (the Woody character) and friends; Alvy with Annie; Alvy with previous wives and girlfriends; Alvy as a young boy (I love the red-headed kid he cast as himself!); Woody on the Dick Cavett show; Woody as a cartoon character. Then at the end for the final five minutes or so, probably less, there is a wonderful New York City shot with voice-over by Woody and his take on relationships. You get to that point and after the previous 90 minutes, it is just wonderful and sweet and you sort of want to cry over people, and who they are, and how they are not happy until they have found that right person. So they keep looking until they do.

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Alvy as a rabbi in Annie’s grandmother’s imagination.

 [My only other comment is that if you like this and want more, the second best Woody Allen movie to me is Hannah and Her Sisters. Which has a bravura Oscar winning performance by Michael Caine.]

—Stu Moore inexplicably moved from New Mexico to Mobile, Alabama thirteen years ago. He remains there surrounded by books, which concerns his wife.

52 Movies: Week 2 - The Bird People in China

Week 2-The Bird People in China-Janet_html_m2614024bI first came across The Bird People in China after I had watched Departures and I wanted to find out more about Masahiro Matoki who played the protagonist in the film. The name of the movie (Bird People) intrigued me, so I ordered it from Netflix.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy a good bit of the first part of the movie, but because I like this actor, and I really wanted to find out about the bird people, and because the promotional picture piqued my curiosity, I stuck with it, and after a while, I was really glad I had.

This is the story of Wada, a Japanese businessman who gets an urgent call from his company. The man who has been previously negotiating with a small village in China for the rights to mine Jade in their area has been hospitalized, and the company needs someone to take his place right away. Wada, who knows nothing about Jade, has been chosen to take his place.

Week 2-wellcameHe arrives, attired in a business suit, in a run-down, out-of-the-way town in China where he is met by his driver, who owns a dilapidated van, and with whom he can barely communicate. The driver takes him to meet Ujiie his translator and a representative of the people with whom Wada’s company is doing business. Shortly after they meet, Ujiie takes Wada into an empty building and beats the ever-loving daylight out of him. This has something to do with Ujiie’s employers dealings with Wada’s predecessor, but I could never really figure out what was going on, and Wada was as much in the dark as I am. This scene is filled with brutal violence and is painful to watch, and yet it is partly played for comedy. When the funny lines come, it’s really surprising.

Week2-rock birdResuming the journey, they drive into the night to an inn in a remote village (although in retrospect, this won’t seem so remote). It is at their evening meal that Wada first hears about the Bird People. There is a young man staying in the inn who has heard a legend about them, and he is on a journey to find if they really exist.

Week2-tattoosBy the time Wada and Ujiie are sharing a small room for the night, Wada has realized that Ujiie is a yakuza – a gangster. Wada never refers to Ujiie in any other way than as the gangster, so I will hereafter relieve myself of the misery of typing a word with a j followed by two i’s. When the gangster turns his back to Wada, we see that he is covered with strange tattoos, and during the night he is visited by terrifying dreams.

After a long journey in the van, they meet with the man who is going to guide them on foot over the mountains to the river on which the village is located. The men seem to have come to an uneasy truce, although occasionally the gangster seems compelled to abuse Wada in some way. Then, after a seemingly endless journey (a perfect metaphor for the beginning of the movie) they come to a river where they are ferried across by a very mysterious man using a very mysterious means of power, and the beautiful movie begins.

Shortly after finally arriving in the village, the men come across the small children of the village having their flying lessons. For sheer joy, it would be hard to beat this scene. I wish I could get a better picture.

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When they ask the villagers about the classes, they are told that the young woman who teaches them is Week2-annie goodthe granddaughter of a man who fell from the skies many years ago, and who was able to fly. She is teaching them what he taught her, although she doesn’t know if they will ever really be able to take flight. She has never done so herself. This young woman is very quiet and peaceful. I don’t know if we ever even learn her name. She seems entirely content with her life in the village, and her flying school and seems not to worry at all about the eventual success or failure of the flying lessons.

As the woman walks along, she frequently sings a soft and lovely song over and over. Soon Wada realizes that he knows the song, and you will too, and this adds to the mystery surrounding her family. As time goes by Wada becomes increasingly fascinated with the story of her grandfather and works hard to decipher the manuscript he left behind. As he learns more about the grandfather’s story, he begins to have a great desire to learn to fly.

I hesitate to say any more about the plot lest I give too much away. This isn’t a perfect movie. As I mentioned before the first part was not quite to my taste, although it was far from being totally bad. The second part had a few flaws too, but they were very much outweighed by its strengths. I would like to watch the film a few more times, although at the moment that would be difficult. It is available on DVD from Netflix, and can be bought from Amazon, but it’s pretty pricey. You can see a trailer here but I’m really not sure if it is a good idea to watch it before the movie. You can also watch the movie in Japanese, but stay away from the English version on Youtube because it’s not what it seems.


—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

52 Movies: Week 1 - The Great Escape

This may seem an odd choice for the first entry in this series. Until a couple of days ago I had thought I would write about some high-class work that would fall into the general category of Art Film made by an Artist, probably something by Bergman. But for some reason I’ve been thinking about this one, and it occurred to me that it would be good to start off with what you might call a movie-movie—a Hollywood movie existing not because of an artist’s vision but to provide “product”, as it used to be called and for all I know still is, for the “entertainment industry” to sell. And it worked very well: it took in over $11,000,000 (over $85,000,000 in today’s money), which put it in the top 20 for the year, 1963. (I’m not sure what period of time that amount covers—I suppose it’s the duration of the initial release.)

Which is not to say that there was no artist at work: the director, John Sturges, has a lasting reputation, and the writing, acting, and general production are of high quality. Should we qualify “art” with “popular”? I don’t know. Does it really matter? Not much. Suffice to say that after more than fifty years The Great Escape remains an appealing and powerful work. A friend of mine once said that movie-making, at least in the Hollywood model, required so many people with so many different motives, so many of whom had no interest in anything but commercial considerations, that a really good movie seemed almost a miracle. Well, it happened in this case.

The Great Escape has a fundamentally simple plot: a group of Allied soldiers (American, British, Canadian, Australian) in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II attempt to escape by digging a tunnel. It’s based on real events, though according to the Wikipedia entry, to which I will not link because it summarizes the plot, the film makes the Americans the main players, while in reality most of the participants were British and Canadian. I suppose the American film-makers did this to appeal to the American audience.

I expect many people reading this have seen it, but for the sake of those who have not, I won’t say much more about the plot. I will include the trailer, which gives away a good bit, including one scene that I wish they had saved for the movie itself.


One might see it only as a good action-adventure film, but I think it’s more than that, a powerful study in courage. I saw it when I was 14 or 15, and I’m pretty sure I went back to see it at least one more time after the first. It made an enormous impression on me. A few years ago I wanted to see what I would think of it now and got the DVD from Netflix. I’m no longer 14 or 15, and I’m less impressionable and more critical. I know now what I probably sensed even then, that it is not entirely realistic—I mean, apart from the modifications made to the real story for the sake of drama, it is not a truly realistic picture of what the prisoners and the camp must really have been like. But I still think it’s excellent for its time, and excellent in a dramatic way despite its lack of realism.

The actors include some names that were big in Hollywood at the time or would become big—Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson. British names you’d recognize are Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance. And though Gordon Jackson’s name might not be as familiar, anyone who ever watched the old Upstairs Downstairs TV series will recognize the face and voice of Mr. Hudson. The Americans may have more charisma than pure acting ability—James Coburn’s attempt at an Australian accent doesn’t work—but the charisma is enough. The cinematography is excellent for its time, as you can see from the trailer. And that was something else that impressed me as a teenager, something about the scenery and the cities. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and still can’t, really, but it had something to do with a vision of Europe, something almost like nostalgia, although of course I had never seen it at the time. A few years later I did go there, and I still feel nostalgia for what I saw and experienced then.

This movie is also appropriate for this week, by the way, as it's the first week of my retirement from regularly scheduled paid employment. With only a few breaks of a year or less, I've been doing that since 1970. It feels great.