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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

WHY ARE FILMS SO CRUMMY THESE DAYS: A SEQUEL

Ten days ago, the buggy prof published a lengthy article that asked why films are so lousy these days, and suggested a few briefly sketched-in reasons, along with some links . . . the best one a long analysis by the novelist and talented editor of Premiere Magazine, John Richardson. Oddly, another talented novelist and a screen-writer, Roger Simon, ran an article at his web site two days ago that listed what are in his view the best 25 films of all time . . . an impossible task, hard enough to do with the best 50 or so. The buggy prof joined in the follow-up comments, which didn't so much set out his own preferences, rather continued the earlier buggy commentary on films, past and present, and the sharply declining quality of those of the last 20 years or so.

What ensues here are those follow-up comments, along with the counsel to look over Simon's original list and the preferences of 30 or so visitors to his site.




WHY ARE FILMS SO CRUMMY THESE DAYS: A SEQUEL



Funny, but 10 days ago on my own website --- http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org --- I posted a lengthy article on why films are so crummy these days, and the reasons why. It dealt mainly with the US cinema, but not entirely: the Italians, French, Germans, and Japanese film industries doing even worse than Hollywood since the end of the 1970s, and the British cinema not what it once was from the 1930s through the 1960s, despite still putting out an occasional good film. It also linked to some informative commentary by others --- a classic one above all by the senior editor of Premiere magazine and a novelist to boot --- on what has happened to the American cinema since 1980 or so: Dumb and Dumber by John Richardson. It appeared in the mid-1990s and is far and away, it seems, the most perceptive roasting of the film industry ever published.

Foreign Films

As for the foreign film industries, watching most European cinema the last 25 years or so is about as much fun as hacking and hewing your way through the dense underbrush of a post-modernist article: the only way to make it to the end, assuming you want to get there, is with copious quantities of aspirin, ad-van, and whiskey. From start to finish, it's largely intellectually pretentious pishposh with scarcely a redeeming feature: little or no sense of dramatic pacing, scripts written by what appear to be washed-out literary theorists, klutzy direction, and wooden acting . . . the British the exceptions on these scores. Japan, alas, is only slightly better.
Almost all this foreign cinematic output the last 25 years or so brings to mind what Roman Polanski --- when he was on the jury at Cannes a few years ago --- was reported to have done for several days practically without respite: slink down in his chair and start muttering, louder and louder, Boring! Boring! Boring! (His great films --- even in his French exile --- are the exact opposite.)

 

What About The Impressive Burst of Australian Films

Surprisingly, no one in this exchange here, not even Roger Simon, referred at all to the Australian movies of the 1980s, one of the cinematic wonders of film history . . . coming out of nowhere, starting with the great Breaker Morant (about the Boer war) and producing several glittering films for about 14 or 15 years, the last one, it seems, in 1993 or so: Strictly Ballroom. No surprise. Almost all the directors and several of the actors --- Bryan Brown, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and so on --- were lured to Hollywood. The same thing happened to the German cinema, which went through a brief flurry, lasting about a decade too, of revived cinematic vigor in the 1970s . . . only for the better directors and cameramen to come to this country soon afterwards.

 

French Films

Several people have referred to Jean Vigo's films, especially l'Atalante. I've no quarrel, but find it strange nobody mentioned Abel Gance's monumental Napoleon --- one of the great landmarks of films anywhere; released in 1931, then lost, and decades later revived and distributed anew in this country in 1981 . . . including a three-dimensional version on 3 screens, complete with a huge orchestra, when it ran in Radio City Hall that year.

Then, too, nobody mentioned the only great film the French have produced since the go-go days of the New Wave of Truffaut, Godard, and Malle: Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon --- Clean Slate would be a good translation here. It also appeared in 1981, and is a remarkable adaptation of the Hollywood film-noir tradition and especially the pulp novel of Jim Thompson, a great mystery writer of the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett era --- some of whose films, fortunately, were also mentioned by others here. The Thompson novel, Pop. 1280 --- published decades earlier --- is set in the segregated South of the pre-WWI era.

Tavernier transposed the setting to a French colony in Africa in the late 1930s and then, to film it, assembled a hilariously offbeat cast. It was a masterful choice. Thanks to its jarring humor, the film is all the more dislocating because, at bottom, it remains a serial murder story with grisly overtones. As the plot unfolds, the local French cop in a small colonial enclave --- who's treated by his wife and his acquaintances as a laughing-stock cuckold --- goes slowly bonkers, unwilling to put up any longer as he's done all his life with the petty racist blockheads, incorrigible and corrupt to the core, that surround him and starts bumping them all off one by one. The loonier he gets, the faster the scummy Europeans are cut down.

For a brief review, see this link. Despite what the reviewer says, the film doesn't actually take a moral position. Full of deliberate ambiguity --- like the novel itself --- it comes across as wacko nihilism. Note that Philippe Noiret --- the greatest French male actor of the last century, save for Jean Gabin whom he resembles in talent and even stocky masculinity --- plays the main character, the increasingly demented French cop. You really can't get a clear fix on him. He's sympathetic, and those he's murdering are detestable people, yet it's still murder --- a crime of serial homicide, nothing else. The book's the same way.

 

Another Great European Actor

(iv.) As noted in the earlier buggy article on what's happened to films, there's another astonishingly good European actor from the Continent --- besides Noiret --- who seems, alas, to have disappeared: Klaus Marie Brandauer. Even in a clunker like Out of Africa --- a waste of Merly Streep's talent and Robert Redford's --- Brandauer's cameo appearances as Streep's usually absent, philandering husband could suddenly transform the pokey, ho-hum tosh into magical cinema.

If you've never seen him in a fine boxing film, badly underrated --- Streets of Gold, with Adrian Pasnar and Wesley Snipes that appeared in 1986 --- you missed an extraordinary acting performance: playing a former Russian boxer in the Soviet era who was driven into exile in New York city by the anti-Semitism he encountered there, he becomes the coach of Pasnar and Snipes, two up-and-coming amateur boxers, and trains them in Russian boxing techniques so that they can, when they are chosen for the US team to take on the visiting Russians, can outdo them and let Brandauer have his revenge against the Jew-discriminating Russian coach. The film is one of the best ever on boxing, but it's much more: a dramatically engaging evocation of the local Russian Jewish emigrant community in New York, and of an Italian-American and an African-American who live on the margins, detest one another initially, and then --- thanks to Brandauer's influence --- become friends and have a future. See this review :



 

The great Italian cinema of the 1945-1980 period.

A couple of references to Italian films of this era were cited by previous commentators here, but they were --- if I recall correctly --- to the realist cinema of the first decade or so of that post WWII era. What about Fellini's remarkable films? Full of good-humored and perceptive comments on the circus-like nature of Italian life, even during the more sinister Mussolini period, they are spectacularly filmed and acted, and some of the contrived stage-sets remain emblazoned on your mind decades later. 8 and a Half --- the early 1960s --- stands out as probably best film ever on the artistic challenges that a talented director has to deal with, even as his personal life boils over and commercial pressures hem in too. Francois Godard's Meprise of the same period is almost as good, but lacks Fellini's humor --- a French film that already augured the decline of Godard's cinematic talents as, in a fairly typical French and German way, he saw himself as a world-savior, the scourge of modern capitalism and modern alienating life.

The last observation needs to be clarified.

I'll come clean. If a good criterion for deciding whether a film is memorable is that you'd like to see it again and again over your lifetime, I've no great interest in seeing any of the realist films of the 1950s save for Rossellini's General Della Rovere . . . set largely in a Nazi prison camp for Italian partisan captives, into whose midst the local SS head places a petty Italian thief, a con man, as a spy who is to report to the SS on the partisan movement. In prison, the Italian con artist undergoes a gradual transformation and takes on the mentality of the person he pretends to be: the head of the Partisans in the region, General Della Rovere . . . to the point he goes willingly at the end to his death, in order to bolster the other prisoners' morale. The SS officer who hired him looks on in astonishment as the thief is executed by the Germans; he can't believe that there's any such redeeming character in a common con man. The con-man, by the way, is played by Vittoria de Sica, himself one of the luminaries of the realist period.

In stark contrast to the other films of Rossellini --- maybe Open City an exception --- and the Bicycle Thief and so on, never mind the hand-me-down alienating nonsense of Atoniono, are Fellini's astonishingly inventive films, leaving you full of admiration for his unpredictable imagination and sense of humor about human folly . . . and especially the carnival-like quality of much of Italian life.

(Ever see a Frenchman poke fun at French life? The French educated classes, it's true, have a sense of humor, but it almost always has a sarcastic cutting-edge, and it never questions the inherent quality of French life . . . whether lived by them or just imagined by them. As for German humor, the less said, the better. The British, by the way, are much more like the Italians: some of their comedies rank among the greatest ever, and their directors, screen-writers, producers, and actors don't succumb to the hoked-up intellectual pretentions that have ruined the cinema in France, Germany, and increasingly, alas, in Italy too. Back in the mid-1970s, when the buggy prof ran a UC exchange program at Bordeaux University, I heard a excellent radio interview with one of France's greatest directors, Costas Gravas. Even then, he lamented the horrible quality of script-writing in France. Believe me, it's gotten worse, and in part owing to a declining French university system, full of alienated and bored students having to specialize way too early, and never getting any personal help with their writing or education in general.)

 

What About Mysteries and Thrillers, Neglected Generally by the Listers?

Yes, why only two or three references . . . all back in the 1930s and 1940, it seems, save for one mention of Rear Window by Hitchcock of the mid-1950s. Most critics opt for Vertigo as Hitchcock's best. A good film sure: but not as clever or with as a remarkable fixed-room set from start to finish as Rear Window. And his Psycho stands out as maybe the greatest horror film of all time too.

What about more recent ones? Such as . . .

The Untouchables by Brian de Palma, which you can see a dozen times in 15 years and never cease to be riveted by the intellligence, pacing, dramatic action, and acting . . . by Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert de Niro, and a startlingly well-chosen group of character actors around them?

Or Sea of Love with Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin --- a film not only with a uniquely written script, but a larger theme: the acing loneliness of tough-minded New Yorkers, searching for both personal and erotic connections, and never actually achieving them.

Or the with Harrison Ford? Or Witness? Or L.A. Confidential? Or Memento? Or Insomnia? . . . well, there's a long list from the 1960s on, and no need to elaborate on them here. See instead this composite list voted on by film enthusiast at the best 50 mysteries (apparently, very broadly defined). Or for films-noirs, see a similar list.




 

And Comedies? Why the Neglect?

To glance quickly over the lists, including Roger Simon's, comedies don't rate much respect save for a couple of the screwball ones of the 1930s, and Woody Allen's Zelig. Never mind. But a query prompts itself here: Are we to believe that most of you would really rather see l'Atalante six or seven times again in your lifetime rather than Some Like It Hot? Or My Cousin Vinny? Or Fellini's The Ship Sails On? Or Dr. Strangelove?

Come on, are we being honest here?

(For a similar fans' list of comedies, see this.)