Home Movies #5

This month’s Home Movies column threads on a broad selection of films. From a comic Italian picture to an atypical musical, this latest batch have been among some of the more pleasant surprises of the past month – it’s been a busy period for me as I’ve just managed to settle into my new apartment while getting through various work-related deadlines. It’s nearing the end of July though – time is flying.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) Directed by Lars von Trier

Several years ago I was mesmerized by brutal range of emotions that Lars von Trier was able to extract out of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. Afterward, I was similarly leveled by Nicole Kidman’s performance in Dogville. And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist – the most impressive female performance of the past ten years. Often spoke of in the same breath, Bjork’s performance in Dancer in the Dark falls in line with the series of female victims in Trier’s films, though perhaps the sheer brutality of what is on-screen seems a bit more tame in comparison to some of his more recent films. Obviously, that’s taking into account Dancer in the Dark’s brutal murder sequence and a gruesome hanging - perhaps Trier has simply desensitized me to his brand of miserablism. Cinema of this nature (one so grounded in the misery of people) simply doesn’t resonate with me as profound. If it weren’t for Trier’s firm directorial presence, I fear I would not have been able to maintain my measure of interest in picture.

Rating: 6/10

Water for Elephants (2011) Directed by Francis Lawrence

On a scale of 1-10, my interest in watching Water for Elephants was… well, not particularly high on the spectrum. But I gave it a try, and surprisingly, the picture is effective. While utilizing a useless framing device to structure its narrative, it doesn’t have the same sort of intrusiveness that plagued a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And much like Button, what really elevates Water for Elephants is the stellar collaborators at Francis Lawrence’s disposal – the gorgeous sun-drenched cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto operates in wonderful contrast to Jacqueline West’s Depression-era costumes and David Crank’s art direction. Unfortunately, a substantial dichotomy between the picture’s aesthetics and writing persists. Still, the triad of Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, and Reese Witherspoon diligently sell the material – and I was buying.  

Rating: 6/10

Divorce Italian Style (1961) Directed by Pietro Germi

Pietro Germi’s ability to adopt a sociological lens without compromising his comedic tendencies in Seduced and Abandoned and especially Divorce Italian Style is nothing short of remarkable. Divorce Italian Style sees Germi analyze the communal nature of a Sicilian family, as Baron Ferdinando Cefalù (Marcello Mastroianni) yearns for his cousin while plotting an elaborate plan to coerce his wife into having an affair.  Brandishing a nervous tick, Mastroianni excels as the sort of neurotic husband who fantasizes about a future that is really too good to be true. The film’s richness lies in how Germi constructs the Sicilian neighborhood – much like what was seen in Seduced and Abandoned, virtually every character’s actions are decided by the norms and mores of their community. Complimented by Germi’s excellent framing and clear understanding of his spatial setting, Divorce Italian Style is excels best as a portrait of a man who is confined by a social structure  and his futile attempts to work within the system to get what he wants.

Rating: 9/10

The Navigator (1924) Directed by Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton

The wide range of characters that Buster Keaton took on through his career gives him a versatility that cannot be matched. Whereas I always favored Charlie Chaplin to Keaton’s work, I’m beginning to feel a change of heart. The loveable tramp found in City Light and The Gold Rush begins to look a little less complex when faced with the sissy schoolboy in Steamboat Bill Jr., the daydreaming projectionist of Sherlock Jr., or the egotistical one-percenter in The Navigator. What this allows is a level of flexibility in narrative and character that really does give Keaton an edge over his main silent-era rival.

The Navigator may just be Keaton’s best picture. It’s larger than the grounded Sherlock Jr., but somewhat less frantic than The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. It’s perhaps the most tightly constructed of all of his films – at a runtime of 60 minutes every scene has such a spontaneous comedic spirit that etches a smile onto your face. Along with being one of Keaton’s most impressive visionary works, it’s immediately identifiable on a personal level. It’s a love story first and foremost, where proving to both yourself and the person you love that you are more than what you may put on. It’s a matter of growing up and accepting a measure of responsibility that’s foreign to them. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from, as Keaton absent-mindedly goes underwater to fix a leak without the slightest clue of how to get it done. It’s all funny material, but there’s a poignancy attached to it that gives it added depth.

Rating: 10/10

The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

There’s certainly an appeal to the pool hall. It has a dingy quality that is equally repugnant and alluring. There’s a sort of masculine kinship to the arena; it’s as if there is a giant “No Girls Allowed” sign plastered at the entrance of every pool hall in The Hustler. It makes sense too, as the one time a woman does enter the space, she meets her demise. But while the pool hall itself plays an integral role in The Hustler, the game of pool itself is tossed to the side. Perhaps that’s why the film is so successful? There’s no preoccupation with explaining how the game is played – all you gather is why the game is played and its significance to every character. And honestly, that’s more than enough.

 The Hustler is bookended by two games of pool. The meanings behind both games are remarkably different and equally engaging. The first game between “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) is about the naivety of youth and the struggle between integrity and corruption. It’s a game, or rather, a series of games, that illustrates where “Fast” Eddie is in the world. His cocksure attitude and strut serves to undercut him in the long run, and subsequently, he loses everything. The talent is there, but as the notorious Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) notes, it’s not talent Fast Eddie lacks, it’s character. And from there, we see “Fast” Eddie hit rock bottom. He indulges himself in alcohol and finds a woman that can accommodate him in his exploits.

Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) mirrors “Fast” Eddie in a lot of ways – they’re both young drunkards who see things through a lens of youthful glee. In short, she’s a dreamer. But there’s a lingering sense that she wants to find her way – “Fast” Eddie certainly provides the moral support to help her along the way, and the two embrace each other not so much out of love, but mutual appreciation for liking the same things. She’s a tragic figure in the same way that “Fast” Eddie is – she’s incapable of accepting the reality of her situation until it’s too late.

The second game between “Fast” Eddie and Minnesota Fats is stripped away of the original’s youthfulness. It’s one where the sobering reality of the past drives “Fast” Eddie to confront Minnesota Fats in a game of character. Their game of pool is one of such intensity, yet marked by “Fast” Eddie coming to grips with his loss. The money doesn’t matter, the wins don’t matter either. It’s a matter of rectifying a wrong and realizing his placement in the world. Such acceptance is “Fast” Eddie’s redemption, and while there’s certainly a rousing quality to it, there’s a melancholy sense that lingers throughout the final sequence. “Fast” Eddie looks at the pool hall, dingy, smoke-filled, and bleak. He walks out and moves on. He has character. But the cost, the loss of naivety, echoes with such force that it’s hard not to be moved by such a crushing final sequence.

Rating: 9/10

Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan, 1961)

…or The Itch that Ought to be Scratched. Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass doesn’t really evoke a longing sense of unrequited love, but rather, a longing to simply get laid. The film possesses a very visceral sense of yearning sexuality, with Kazan tiptoeing a line between the chaste and lurid. But Kazan’s sentiments are clearly entrenching with letting the kids do what they want, with leads Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty tossing everything at the screen and making it work.

Splendor in the Grass presents its characters on socioeconomic terms. We gather that the Stamper family, with Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle) as the overbearing patriarch, is financially well off. Ace is prepared to hand over his business to his son, Bud (Beatty). But Bud continuously expresses his reservations about following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he wants to marry Wilma Dean Loomis (Natalie Wood) and go to agriculture school to learn how to farm. The Loomis family represents middle class mediocrity, a social status that Ace simply worked too hard to go back to now.

Bud and Wilma contend with their own budding sexuality. Or rather, they fight back every urge to engage sexually. The film’s sexuality begins at a simmer and almost immediately begins to boil. But Wilma’s mother expresses archaic, almost inhuman, ideas on sex that Wilma reluctantly embraces. Bud is the first one to break during their celibate relationship, therein causing the two to separate. Only then is Wilma willing to embrace Bud sexually, but it’s too late - their relationship is scarred.

Bud’s reluctance to embrace Wilma is the cause for her eventual mental breakdown, which coincides with the stock market crash of 1931 – the insanity is felt on a micro and macro level. Sure, it may come across as too melodramatic and self-important, but given what the actors bring to their roles, I felt it to be a convincing turn of events.

Splendor in the Grass was written by William Inge and is wonderfully structured. It’s a fine example of melodrama, played intelligently without ever becoming pompous.  Kazan’s direction isn’t spectacular, but I suppose a level of restraint is needed in simply letting the actors convey their emotions. The film is truly an actor’s exercise, as Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty trade kisses and words with an intense level of restrained sexuality. The two are capable of evoking powerful emotional responses from the slightest glance or loudest roar. It’s a bit unfortunate that Kazan and Inge felt the need to tack on a voiceover to the film’s ending – it simply spells out everything that we just saw in the preceding scene.  The actors didn’t have to say a word throughout it – they simply looked at each other and you gathered a sense of what was better left unsaid.

Rating: 8/10