Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

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Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.

Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.

A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).

It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.

On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.

If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.

After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.

Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.

If we wanted to, we could leave the story right there but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.

Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.

And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.

In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.

Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.

But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.

The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.

Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.

The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.

Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.

4.5/5 Stars

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Review: Duck Soup (1933)

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Up until this point in time, The Marx Brother’s all-out assault on humanity had still mostly been geared at the likes of stuffy socialites, gangsters, college campuses, authority figures, etc. Albeit entertaining but fairly straightforward worlds where there was not that much to be navigated beyond what we already knew to be true. All that was necessary was to sit back and enjoy the boys at work and cue the rolling in the aisles.

Their audiences by now had been conditioned with a certain type of environment. The framework is still somehow familiar in Duck Soup as well — at least on first glance. There we have Margaret Dumont at the center of it all surrounded by a bunch of stuffy bespectacled chaps with beards. She is calling for the resignation of one of the leaders of the nation of Freedonia.

Her choice to fill the position is none other than that progressive visionary Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Why she thinks he is anywhere close to being qualified is slightly beside the point. We just want a chance to see Groucho and he receives the usual majestic fanfare rushing down the fireman’s pull to see what all the hubbub is about.

Meanwhile, Louis Calhern of the adjoining nation of Sylvania is simultaneously conspiring with a cunning mistress to ignite a revolution and take over the country from within while also attempting to woo the prominent Mrs. Teasdale.

Two spies are tracking Firefly right as they speak. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they might think. They’re his brothers. Scratch that. They’re Pinky and Chicolini sent to scrape together some dirt to discredit him with the people. Little does their ringleader know that Groucho, errr, Firefly has been doing a good enough job being disreputable all by himself.

Only when Margaret Dumont has returned back in the fold do you realize how much she improves Groucho’s jokes. Years later the man said himself that the key to the magic was the fact that she never understood any of his barbs — much less why they were funny. However, in this particular outing, Louis Calhern and the demonstrative lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy do much the same for the other two conniving troublemakers, Chico and Harpo. They’ve never truly had such a good foil as Groucho had in Dumont.

The picture segues into a scene where Groucho sticks his head out the window overlooking a peanut vendor and pretty soon Chico is being offered a spot in Groucho’s cabinet. Sounds about right. Likewise, Harpo gets in on the action and the most surprising discovery is that his body is covered with art in the film’s next truly surreal interlude.

Now with such crucial positions so close to Groucho, who coincidentally would have probably offered positions to a chimpanzee if given the chance, the two infiltrators are called upon to steal Freedonia’s war plans. Again, who cares?

Crucially, their little escapade sets up The Marx Brothers’ next iconic gag with three Groucho’s dressed in nightcaps and pajamas. The mirror scene is the most remembered bit and it’s fun but it’s only a segment of a whole drawn-out sequence that plays on the brothers’ mistaken identities. This in itself could be another commentary if you wanted to make it into one.

Personally, it struck me for the first time that though physically the sequence revolves around Groucho, much of it takes place in Harpo’s world without any dialogue. Furthermore, there are times when we don’t actually know who is Groucho or who is not until we are given cues whether Chico’s trademark accent or Harpo’s hat.

First, the mirror is shattered and then reality when one Groucho steps out and is replaced by another only to be joined by a third. Regardless of what you want to say about this realm of the absurd, it’s a great gag.

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Then there’s the final sequence which is the actual escalation of the war between the two belligerent countries but it’s done with the typical tongue-and-cheek manner you might expect from the brothers where war is equated to a minstrel show and Groucho breaks out into a slightly doctored spiritual, “All God’s Children Got Guns.” From thence forward let the surrealist nonsensical nature of war take over.

For me, Groucho sums it up in sending Chicolini off to battle, “While you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” This was no grand anti-war statement. If anything it was a cynical statement. Of course, that doesn’t take into account Groucho’s constantly changing military garb from Revolutionary War attire, Civil War uniforms, a coonskin cap, etc. It was comedy pure and simple.  

In my mind, it’s no small coincidence that one of the Brothers most reputed films was also directed by Leo McCarey who in some respects still remains criminally underrated. Certainly, he was more a Cary Grant director than a Marx Brothers one but there’s a sense that he could focus their comedy into something utterly electric.

The irony of it all is that The Marx Brothers really hadn’t changed all that much but the way people perceived them and by extension, how they perceived their comedy, had provided this new context that surrounds Duck Soup. So people could start placing all types of assumptions and beliefs onto the film in ways that were most alarming and subversive.

I think the brothers themselves may have even admitted that they unwittingly rather than consciously made this departure. But the implications were great and cultivated the soil for a film that’s legacy would only grow year after year. And it’s true that there really is no superfluous scene. There’s no real chaff as it were even if it is all utterly marvelous absurdity.

However, it made just enough sense for Mussolini to ban the film on grounds of pointed satire. One last time let’s turn to Groucho who would have been overjoyed by such a response but pointed out, “We were four Jews just trying to get a laugh.” That was all. But it was so much. Duck Soup is a pinnacle of comic nonsense.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Edward Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Los Olvidados (1950)

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The opening narration of Los Olvidados asserts that the great modern cities of the world including New York, Paris, and London all mask issues of poverty and delinquency amid their magnificent structures. This is a universal problem that plagues Mexico as well.

In Los Olvidados a test case is being proposed and the solution left open-ended because change is still necessary. There’s still need for some kind of resolution. Whether it’s completely true word for word is nearly beyond the point because it feels authentic. There’s little need to make up a world as dire and ugly as this one unless there’s at least a grain of reality in every frame.

Where boys break out of reform school, stone blind beggars in retaliation, and form gangs as a kind of social safety net to lash out at their environment. Beating up the poor and the helpless. They too are poor but this band of theirs allows them to be less helpless and prey on others instead. That’s their main tactic of survival in their life of impoverished vagrancy.

It proves to be a harrowing exhibition in social realism and though defamed in its day, its candid and at times brutal depiction of juvenile delinquency has gained it a spot as one of Mexico’s most prestigious pictures. There’s no doubt that it’s a violent picture seething with adolescent rage. The only question is how much is environmental and how much is a product of the individuals?

As much as this film is disquieting and repulses me to the core of my being, I cannot deny its place as an important commentary and cinematic landmark from Luis Bunuel. The Spaniard is a master who always makes my skin crawl and challenges my very convictions. Los Olvidados succeeds in doing the very same thing again by forcing us to acknowledge the loathsomeness in the world that we so often want to brush under the rug. It’s there. There’s no denying it. Man left to his own devices will send the world hurtling towards malicious chaos.

There’s an intent to every moment with action streamlined but never feeling rushed or forced in its everyday rhythms that provide a seamless illusion of real life. Luis Bunuel still finds space to imprint Los Olvidados with his own surrealist vision as a young boy, Pedro, is haunted by a grinning corpse to mirror the dead body now laying in a ditch where he served as an accomplice. However, his disquieting nightmares are compounded by a mother complex. He wants her love and yet seems to do everything to receive her ire.

In a world such as this where we see the brokenness and the sheer depths of poverty, it seems like it would be easy to empathize and yet this film makes it rather difficult. Because some of these boys are so boorish. So violent and dirty-minded. There’s no sense of decency even if they wanted it and their leader Jaibo is the worst of the lot.

But there are two boys that I do have some lingering sympathy for. Pedro is not unlike the others. Out on the street getting into trouble and the like. And yet there’s something in him that is trying to reform. He looks to find work and he wants the love and affection of his mother once more. The problem is she’s already given up on him. There is no love in her heart. And his pals are constantly impeding his road to reform. That’s as much as an indictment as the city that has no effective system to give these boys a better life or the boys themselves who live wayward existences.

The second sympathetic figure simply goes by “Eyes” and he’s been waiting patiently for his father to return. He hasn’t. Instead, he becomes the guide to the ornery street musician who makes a living in the town square when he’s not accosted by young gangsters. “Eyes” gets pulled into the drama too but there’s an innate integrity that’s lacking in most of his contemporaries. He generally treats the old man well and respects the pretty young ingenue Meche. That cannot save any of them from an awful existence.

The final image is grotesque. Not for the graphic nature of the imagery but the metaphoric juxtaposition. A body thrown into a trash ditch like a bag of flour. There’s no value to it and the people who do it while not the perpetrators are further implicated in this societal problem. They trade pleasantries with the mother as she searches for her son — a son she never seemed to love — until he’s in trouble. The issues run so deep it hurts to watch. The finger can be pointed in any direction.

The problems must fall on the parents, adults, and peers who do not find it within themselves to speak up or to continue loving or fighting for change. Complacency and hard hearts are just as bad a problem as juvenile delinquency. Put them together and you sow nothing but generations upon generations of human beings damned before they even have a chance at a decent life. It’s over 60 years on and we’re probably still searching for many of the answers to these very same issues. As much as I would like to admit that this film is outdated, to make such a statement would be heedlessly ignorant.

Because of course Los Olvidados in English is literally translated to “The Forgotten.” There’s part of your problem right there. As humans we so easily forget. We brush problems under the rug, pass the buck, and so on. Before you know it years have gone by and a new generation of youths are all but forgotten. The deadly cycle begins again and never ends until someone champions radical change. Until that day they will continue as the unnamed, unwanted, forgotten foes of society. Los Olividados.

4.5/5 Stars

Counselor at Law (1933)

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The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.

We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.

It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.

John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.

Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.

This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.

As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.

But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.

One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.

But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.

Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.

4.5/5 Stars

Imitation of Life (1959)

220px-Imitation_of_Life_1959_posterWhen I was watching the film I distinctly remember one instance I threw my head back in the air and just smiled to myself. How I love Douglas Sirk. He gives us something seemingly so superficial and decadent that plays so perfectly into those expectations and simultaneously steamrolls them with a not-so-veiled indictment unfurled on multiple fronts.

This was Douglas Sirk’s final film in his U.S. career. It’s another gorgeously rendered picture. A harsh social satire of the ambitions of an American Dreamer but also the inherent fissures that run through our society to its very roots. These issues have hardly changed with time or if they have changed, it’s simply the same problems given a facelift. The core wounds remain the same.

Imitation of Life is a story that starts in New York, of all places, at the beach. For the first time, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) crosses paths with the kindly, God-fearing Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who looked after Lora’s daughter when she got lost in the crowd of vacationers.

In less than a comfortable position herself, Lora nevertheless offers her home up to Annie and her fair-skinned daughter Sarah Jane who strikes up a fast friendship with Susie while showing early signs of vehemently despising her African-American identity.

Those are the core aspects of the story as the glamorous single mother follows her aspirations to star on Broadway first with commercials and then small parts that lead her to something more. She finds an agent (Robert Alda) and ultimately earns the respect of a noted playwright (Dan O’Herlihy) who soon writes all her roles. The demands on her time mean that a fledgling romance with a photographer  (John Gavin) falls to the wayside and she hardly sees Susie.

Meanwhile, Annie remains a faithful friend by her side who keeps her house in order and looks after the girls as they slowly begin to mature into womanhood. And as they grow into women their own personal crises come to fruition. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) continues to try and pass as white while denouncing her mother. It gets so bad that she leaves home and changes her name to perform at dive bars where her mother hopefully won’t follow.

Susie’s (Sandra Dee) problems are of a different nature. She feels so alienated from her mother, the lady so often absent in her life, that she decides to attend college far away in Colorado. When Steve Archer (Gavin) drifts back into Lora’s life things are complicated by Susie’s obvious crush on him.

On both fronts of mother-daughter relationships, the film showcases its many themes playing out in vivid fashion. In fact, Imitation of Life feels all too resonate given the state of affairs in Hollywood and our world right now.

There’s this ongoing temptation to cheapen who you are for the sake of success. In this case, it applies to the theater and the career of Lora Meredith (Turner) but it could be in, let’s say, Hollywood or the corporate sector or any other endeavors. The jobs change but the people do not. Where you are forced to feel awful for not lowering yourself to other people’s level of sleaze and impropriety.

It’s a film about the fame monster and the industry dominated by a patriarchy where you are coaxed into making certain concessions so that people will like you and give you what you want. Just to maintain a career and your ambitions, your familial relationship, in this case, with a daughter is led to the point of deterioration. To this day, money and opulence, nice things and social standing, do not make up for an actual relationship. There’s no contest.

Ironically, only after the good fortune strikes and you have years of success do you begin to realize amidst the rush that the pinnacle has been reached and still something is missing.  That’s Lora’s realization. But just as fervently this can be a film of idealism and dreams. Seeing things the way they are and making them more and more into what you want them to be. Being the change. That’s Annie’s part.

It is also a film about racism — a fixture of society — and a troubling one that is still opening up innumerable wounds in the fabric of our society and they are wounds that must be acknowledged. There is a painful scene that while a girl is being berated and slapped by her alleged boyfriend a playfully jazzy score dances in the background and it’s this disconcerting contradiction — the kind of contradictions that are often easy to pick up on if you’re willing to see them.

People loathe themselves for the color of their skin and the stigma society puts on their personal identity. Someone’s life is driven by shame instead of an unswerving pride in who they were created to be. And whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all part of the problem where being white is seen as being normal or the status quo or what have you.

One of the most striking moments in the film for me is when Annie is recounting the Christmas story to the girls and they ask a very honest question. “Was Jesus White?” or “Was Jesus Black?” Because it seems like a question that devises some way of relating to this historical figure. But it also forces you to see the astronomical error in such ideologies of a  “white savior” or a “white man’s burden.” It simply cannot work. Nor does it work the other way.

Of course, as Annie sees so clearly, neither of these distinctions matter or any type of distinction because this was not a figure concerned with race or wealth or gender or respectability or any of that, at least in the sense that it holds importance to us. For him, as she sees it, it seems to have no negative effect on the relationship you could have with him. It doesn’t seem to matter and yet simultaneously it does immensely. Because it reflects our unique human identity.

Annie reflects those same types of ideals all throughout the film. You might take aim at her for being subservient or have qualms with something she does but it’s hard to question her sincerity or goodness. She has a prodigal daughter but just like the parable her maternal arms are always open and her daughter is never too far away for her to love Sarah Jane unconditionally even unto death.

I must admit it rubbed me the wrong way because Annie felt like yet another iteration of the mammy stereotype. One of Sarah Jane’s colleague even notes, “You had a mammy,” led to believe that the woman was simply an old housekeeper. But that’s the key. Annie Johnson is actually her mother. Aside from adding a searing undercurrent to the scene, it confirms she is not just a sideshow attraction for some southern charm. She is a parent and a friend and a person. In fact, the best scenes in the entire film belong unequivocally to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.

The original story the film is based on came out of a very different time in American history during the 1930s. Here it is updated and aware of the changing mores and difficult roads still to traverse thanks to the likes of Thurgood Marshall and his landmark case Brown v. Board in 1954 and the increased rumblings of the Civil Right Movement with the Bus Boycott and other peaceful initiatives spearheaded by Dr. King.

In the film’s closing moments Mahalia Jackson brings down the Lord’s house with her mournful dirge for Annie. And it is a bitter, heartwrenching moment of agony but that is not the final word. Because Annie was a tremendous person with an extravagant capacity for love.

Like Dr. King once orated in vivid Biblical imagery, “[I have gone] up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That is the hope. Even in this embittered world of ours there is still something to be longed for.

4.5/5 Stars