Following a vacation to Los Angeles for my birthday, I’m back in front of my computer writing about movies. And it’ll be a busy next few weeks, as I’m working on tweaking the site a bit with new Oscar predictions, a new addition of the Thursday Ten, and a new in-depth film analysis for the Essential Series.
Until then, here’s an update to my Home Movies column. It’s a particularly jam-packed write-up, as I’m deviating from my self-imposed rule of only including home viewings. And with this, I mean I caught a few revival films over the past few weeks, as part of the Music Box’s Billy Wilder series and the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Studio Ghibli tribute. While the summer months have been a wasteland for mainstream theaters (more so than usual, really), it’s the local independent theaters that have really made a hell of a save.
I’ve been sporadically going through Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography over the past few months as a result of my admiration for The Skin I Live In and a much needed second screening of Volver. Since then, I’ve seen a mix of his earlier and later works, including Bad Education, Law of Desire, and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (covered in Home Movies #2). Each film exemplifies his impressive knack for design and bombastic narrative tendencies.
With Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! Almodóvar puts the audience in yet another uncomfortable position as he creates a situation where we begin to sympathize with a kidnapper. The picture doesn’t make any particularly novel statements on the concept of Stockholm syndrome, but Almodóvar’s stylistically brash tendencies present the material with a pulpy and comedic aura. Almodóvar’s thesis lacks dimension beyond the possibility that women actually might embrace subversion if the source comes from a place of love. But Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! tends to cushion any potential debate with Almodóvar’s comedic instincts. It works more as an absurdist comic piece than anything else, but I have to speculate on some missed potential here.
I’ve never been much of a fan of John Hughes. With the dated nature of his writing and direction, I’ve never found him capable of illustrating a genuine sense of what it means to be a youth. Instead, all of his writing tends to come from a place where heteronormative white males dominate the narrative landscape. And most problematic of all, most of his observations on socioeconomic disparities are confined within white culture.
A lot of those complaints can be applied to Some Kind of Wonderful, a film that Hughes wrote. But what makes this picture work is the sincere romance found between its lead characters. The confusion and disorientation associated with a crush registers as true. And unlike films like The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the picture maintains a methodical trajectory. The emotional crescendos crash appropriately – right as the characters begin to converge. Some Kind of Wonderful may lack a strong directorial voice, but Hughes really comes off the page, illustrating that maybe my first impressions of him were off the mark.
The heavy handedness of addition personified on film makes it difficult for me to ever wholly embrace a given picture. From Leaving Las Vegas to Requiem for a Dream, these pictures certainly drag the audience through the dirt. They’re heavy experiences that don’t exactly put you in the best of spirits. The Lost Weekend predates the aforementioned pictures by a half century and accomplishes a greater sense of audaciousness in its portrayal of addiction. Starring Ray Milland as a man whose failed ambitions caused him to turn to the bottle, The Lost Weekend is an example of virtuoso filmmaking. Its opening sequence, which sees Milland attempting to get his brother and girlfriend out of the apartment in a vain attempt to acknowledge the concealed bottle suspended outside his windowsill, is constructed with such directorial finesse and an unrivaled writing dexterity.
But jeez, is this film a tough one to sit through. Accomplished as it is on a formal and narrative level, its central character evokes such great pity. The Lost Weekend illustrates the capacity that film can have as a medium to illustrate the miseries of humankind. Utilizing Milland as a vessel, the subsequent unhappiness that comes with adulthood and the loss of youthful vigor and promise is realized through this singular character. That in itself is a minor miracle, along with the fact that it was release over sixty years ago through a studio system that simply did not acknowledge such complexities.
While Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is his most prolific work, I’d take Only Yesterday over it by a fair margin. The picture has its share of grating flaws, including a narrative framework that can grow tiresome toward the end of its runtime. But the emotional resonance it conjures through its youthful nostalgia provides the material with a timelessness quality. The framework, which involves a young woman taking a train to the countryside, reflects on her youth. The initial hour delves into the various stories that we can all relate to – the first vacation with the family, a first crush, seeking peer and parental acceptance, and all the random memories that, for one reason or another, just stick with you.
While all the memories that the main character reflects on are wholly her own, they still possesses a universal quality. They possess a flexibility that could be adjusted to your own. Only Yesterday may not have the social relevance that Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies has, or the supernatural majesty of Hayao Miyazaki’s picture. No, it falls more in line with Yoshifumi Kondô’s Whisper of the Heart. Both pictures probe the lives of young women in a realistic way. Simultaneously, the both possess surreal moments in their narrative to elaborate a particular feel for youth. Rich with imagination yet unshakably grounded, Only Yesterday sits with the finest of Studio Ghibli’s output.
I tend to use the word “delightful” sparingly when describing a film. But Billy Wilder’s debut feature, The Major and the Minor, could not be described in any other way. What could have been a film that dawdled on gimmickry becomes something so much more. Both innocent and risqué, The Major and the Minor supplies an endless well of charm. I tend to have reservations for screwball comedies in general, but Wilder’s picture melts any concerns away. Why? That’s a bit hard to pinpoint. It could be Ginger Rogers’ performance, which went against my expectations going in. Having only seen Rogers perform with Fred Astaire, she managed to really resonate on her own. Or it could be Ray Milland’s gleefully obtuse character, whose kindness seems to spawn out of a chivalrous place foreign in contemporary cinema.
My experience watching (and revisiting) The Major and the Minor is similar to my experience with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Both pictures glow in their humanistic qualities. Innocent in their constructions, they touch upon universal themes of love and finding a place in the world without even making a conscious effort of trying. They tell simple stories of universal heft. I’ve always considered Wilder to be a very accomplished director, but the degree in which I’ve appreciated his work has grown tremendously over the past week with my exposure to The Lost Weekend and The Major and the Minor. Both pictures dwell on the systematic disappointment and happiness with life – the range that Wilder displays in the craft of films that were made three years apart immediately draws attentions to his immaculate skill.