The Ladies Man (1961): Herbert H. Heebert

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The French (and Europe in general) have unparalleled esteem for Jerry Lewis.  It no doubt allows them to put him in conversations with their own beloved Jacques Tati as the true heirs to the Chaplins and the Keatons of comedy.

It’s no major revelation most Americans, flagged from the general populous, might scoff at such pronouncements. Because Jerry Lewis was just the comic with that obnoxious voice doing bits with Dean Martin and screwing around. Admittedly, this is my own bias acting out. He’s undoubtedly wildly popular with many.

Still, his type of comedies and routines feel like a dime a dozen. His most renowned picture, after all, is The Nutty Professor, and then his string of comedies with Martin, while successful, were never critically reputed.

What our friends across the pond take into account is how Lewis made himself into a holistic artist capable of many things — not simply performing. We saw this goofball. Whereas they rightfully recognized a visionary director, a prolific writer of material, who simultaneously helped to expand the language of film. It hardly seems like we’re talking about the same person, and yet we are.

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What he manages to accomplish starts with taking comedy back to its purest roots, making it into a totally visual experience. There’s no better example than his stark departure with Frank Tashlin: The Bellboy. The Ladies Man builds off these ideas further, nevertheless, developing them with the same persona some adored since childhood and many, like me, will grow weary of after a couple of minutes.

However, this reaction easily clouds what Lewis is actually doing. He effectively turns the American Dream into a satirical, at times, surrealist fantasy playing upon his already solidified persona and allowing himself greater verisimilitude to explore ideas around the slapstick. At its core, The Ladies Man (with no apostrophe s) is an absurd tale of emasculation.

The inciting incident occurs in a small town where Herbert H. Heebert sees his best girl kissing a mostly unseen suitor following their junior college graduation. It’s a devastating blow. He takes this as a sign he must shrug off girls forever and try and find an occupation as far away from them as possible.

Of course, there’s then nowhere else for him to end up but a giant dollhouse full to the brim with attractive, young women of all shapes and sizes. It’s inevitable. Sure enough, Herbert is hired on by a housekeeper named Katie (Kathleen Freeman) who takes all his foibles in stride. Freeman is also one of the few characters who can stand up to the antics of her leading man. The indelible image occurs when he jumps into her arms out of fright. She’s there to be a foil emblematic of all things maternal and sunshiny.

Meanwhile, the introduction of the female tenants, unbeknownst to the slumbering Herbert, plays out as an intricate morning ritual complete with a jazzy accompaniment and of course, a whole host of alluring women.

This is our first taste of the film’s obvious choreography, and it is executed on a grand scale. The dizzying set made up of rooms upon rooms, multiple stories, and spiral staircases is a veritable jungle gym for Lewis to play with. This pertains both to the actor and the director, realizing elaborate crane shots as his hapless hero is put up against this colorful, campy backdrop.

The glut of the film, by one means or another, follows his daily duties. Of course, they’re only an excuse for a range of gags. They involve a butterfly collection,  passing out the mail, and being the in-house doorman. His most daunting task is taking care of “Baby.” One minute he’s sloshing milk through the living room in a bucket, the next minute dragging a huge slab of meat to feed the beast his breakfast.

Herbert has his own breakfast sloppily fed to him in a high chair by Katie. Yes, it’s strange. It is soon overshadowed by the film’s finest cameo by George Raft, who proves his authenticity to Herbert by showing off his dancing prowess — cheek-to-cheek.

The next extended aside is the picture’s most surreal moment when Herbert enters a “forbidden room” only to encounter a willowy woman suspended from the ceiling. He starts fleeing the slinking woman in black only for Harry James’ Orchestra and a dance floor to appear, facilitating their game of cat and mouse. Any meaning is oblique at best, but that makes it no less of a mesmerizing diversion. After all, things slip back into the status quo like nothing at all.

In the last act, the house gets invaded by a television crew and even more madness commences for Herbert as he is all but forgotten amid the tumult. Everyone is just happy he’s stayed around so long to keep up on their chores. It’s one girl named Fay (Pat Stanley) who actually has concerns for him as a fellow human being. This is rare.

In the dining room one morning, she decries her housemates’ manipulative behavior because they’re selfishly thinking about what they can say to keep him constantly doing their bidding. They have no concept of his thoughts or feelings, only his usefulness to them.

However, this indictment has telling implications. If this is a film about emasculation, what do we call the underappreciated place of traditional womanhood? How is this a critique of husbands and boyfriends who spend their evenings thinking of their significant others as nothing more than objects to cater to their whims?

It’s a toxic and quite damning scenario. While the ideal might be well-meaning it only stands up to scrutiny if both partners have symbiotic, multi-faceted roles meant to support one another. In other words, there needs to be some give-and-take, some form of interpersonal connection, and autonomy.

These observations alone make it necessary for me to eat my own words and my dismissal of Jerry Lewis. Because it’s initially difficult to acknowledge Lewis as an artisan and yet watching something like The Ladies Man, it’s impossible not to acknowledge its visual strengths. Yes, a lot of it’s not altogether funny, the gags are at times downright awful, and if you don’t relish Lewis’s own persona, you’re not going to be bucking for him to do his usual shtick.

But as a social commentary, there’s a surprisingly large pool of insights. Likewise, for its visual and physical feats, Ladies Man is a minor marvel even an extraordinary one, though it loses some weight thanks to all the mediocre elements.

Still, there are a handful of scenes with visual expressions and choreographies of a truly unique caliber. It’s as if in another life with a little touch-up, this might be the Marx Brothers mixed with Tati. Likewise, Tashlin’s own cartoon-like, visual wackiness has already been nodded to out of necessity.

Admittedly, my own greatest flaw is being an American. My impressions are already unflinching. When I look at Jerry Lewis I see a multi-talented performer who nevertheless, is more of a tiresome icon than a comic delight. To paraphrase a famous axiom, a comic is never appreciated in his own country. Thankfully, Jerry has the French (and everyone else). It’s the intellectual with the absurd: a match made in heaven.

3/5 Stars

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): Prime Luis Bunuel

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In school, I remember being enthralled by Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folie Bergerie” when it donned on me we were integrated into the piece, and the artist was messing with our preconceived notions by literally toying with our perceptions.

As an artist who came into his own a generation later with the likes of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel oftentimes manages the very same feat of artistic manipulation through his films. He’s the iconoclastic prince and lambaster of the bourgeoisie. He is a craftsman with an intuitive sense of how to toy with, not only his subject matter and his characters, but the audience sitting before him.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which we might posit as an exemplary monument to his life’s work, begins with a vaguely familiar premise. People are gathering on the pretense of a dinner party, not unlike Exterminating Angel. Except there is no invisible force holding them there. Quite the opposite. For inexplicable reasons, they keep on getting interrupted and thwarted in their attempts to sit down together for the most curious of reasons.

To their credit, the central sextet sells out to the whole charade. Fernando Rey is up to his smutty old tricks as a respected foreign ambassador with a lecherous side cultivated under the right circumstances. His frequent companions are the Thevenots, Francois and Simone (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig). Nor can one forget the Madame’s air-headed sister Florence who always seems to be perpetually tagging along.

First, they go to their dinner engagement at a friend’s home for round 1. Alice Senechal (Stephanie Audran) isn’t expecting them because she thought she invited them on a different date and her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) isn’t at home. It’s an honest enough mistake. Except the next time, it’s more of the same as their libidos get the best of the hosts. Their maid Ines takes it all bravely with a sweet, unassuming smile as if playing dumb to all the idiocy going on around her on any given day.

It is most definitely a film of first world problems gone awry. We have a bunch of dense and pompous people of exceptional superficiality before us. However, this very easily arrived at prognostication starts giving way to more and more surrealist tinges.

The film hits the skids as Bunuel takes us into a realm all his own. Whether it’s the mind of a mad genius or a perverse old man is up for debate among the literati. But of course, he would hardly give their discourse (or mine) a thought.

Things start getting ridiculous with meal after meal stacked one on top of the other to the point of dizzying regularity. Every scene crammed together features a new dining table or a new conversation over drinks with a dash of the absurd for garnish.

Not to mention nested dreams before the days of Inception because of course, everyone, even Bunuel, seems to have some fascination with the meta, going so far as inserting his own dreams into the story purely because he can.

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What becomes the guiding force is this quintessential fluid sense of absurdism accentuated through the execution of more complex shot sequences utilizing zooms and tracking shots. They maintain the continuity while helping to maintain this Bunuelian sense of dreamscapes. Because for him that’s much of what the world is, a stream of consciousness, and there’s no necessary distinction. And yet there are times within the film he acknowledges them so explicitly as if to send a self-aware wink to the audience.

Meanwhile, he has gleeful fun forcing his characters to walk down the road together toward nothingness. One moment they’re waking up from a crazy dream. The ladies settle down for tea only for none to be available and instead they’re treated to the ghastly stories from a sad-sack lieutenant’s abysmal childhood.

All bets are off when they’re interrupted by cavalrymen winding up their maneuvers and then passing around a joint in the parlor. Another time they’re arrested for some nameless crime and another gunned down by mobsters without pretense.

I’d hardly call these moments spoilers because Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is full of non-sequiturs. Anything is capable of happening at any moment. Sometimes all of dinner is a stage, and the guests merely players. Other times Vietnam seamlessly fits into the context of the scenario’s commentary (“If they bomb their own troops there must be a reason”).

In a sense, Providence is replaced by the rhythms of chance and the bizarre, laying the groundwork for the director’s implicit worldview. But of course, it stretches much further than that imprinted onto the themes and the very fabric of the characters.

The hypocrisy of the social elites is always being closely tied with religion. Bishops are to be made light of and Bunuel’s conception of their rituals can best be summarized by one telling image of a crucifix, cradled in the arms, getting dirt unceremoniously dumped on top of it. Or for that matter, the same priest gives absolution to the man who killed his parents only to think better of it.

But not for a moment would we mistake any of these abrupt outbursts for true drama; each individual instance is only a trifle, a way for Bunuel to follow his flights of fancy like he always does, trampling everything around him with wry exhilaration.

Whatever madcap visions you can imagine in their drawing-room, they basically wind up coming into being. Although Bunuel doesn’t have the same carnivalesque showmanship of Federico Fellini or the technical and spectacular panache of a Hitchcock, he nevertheless invariably keeps their company.

For better or for worse, his films and the visions they employ stay with you. What’s more, his conception of the world is quite transparent. Fellini was mirrored in the director in 8½. There are shades of the “Master of Suspense” in Scottie from Vertigo, and just about every man in a Bunuel picture bears his mark and, at the very least, his philosophy of total irreverence.

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What’s striking is how volatile and relevant he feels in the modern age. I for one always find it perplexing to come at his work because not only does his filmography undermine the tenets of classical narrative convention, he also does much to play his audience as well.

“The Folies Bergere” was mesmerizing as we began to understand we are part of the piece. A Bunuel film is similar because you are brought into it as well and yet one could argue he goes a step further by making his audience the butt of the joke.

All your personal hangups and hypocrisies — social, political, religious, romantic — whatever they may be, will be ousted and laid bare. His players are easy targets as representations of the trivial social elite. But then we were tricked into spending all this time with them that ultimately went nowhere. So let me ask you, what does that make us? Be forewarned Bunuel might just get to you too.

4/5 Stars

M*A*S*H (1970): Altman Not Alda

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“Suicide Is Painless” remains one of the most misanthropic themes on record and that’s without the completely nonsensical lyrics. With lyrics, it’s even more disillusioning.

Still, this stays very much in line with Robert Altman’s conception of the world. Nothing is ever straight and true. Convention must be eschewed with subverted expectations and darkly comic underpinnings. MASH is one of the finest vehicles he ever had for his methodology of the world.

In full disclosure, someone like me, raised on the sitcoms of old and classic television must admit the inherent difficulties in considering Robert Altman’s MASH, based loosely off Richard’s Hooker’s novel of the same name.

If you are unfamiliar with the historical background, it’s important to know MASH stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and they were posted on the front lines during the military police action that was the Korean War (1950-53).

For everyone else, MASH was a prominent black comedy and an arguably even more beloved television show. Its finale, of course, was the most-watched moment in TV history for many, many years.

All this is to say, to go back and retroactively analyze the original film, it’s all but impossible to totally untangle its reality from my deep affections for Alan Alda and the rest.

Because one point must be made early on. Though appearances might be initially deceiving, they could not be more disparate. My choice is to begin to focus on what Altman’s film does well.

One has to admit he brings his loose and sprawling sensibilities to war pictures with seamless ease. The frames are full of near-constant bouts of improv and an ensemble cast that’s loaded with tons of non-actors and fresh faces. The distinction to make is Altman gives them time in the spotlight, with Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Elliot Gould pretty much becoming the head honchos in a comedy overflowing with nobodies.

Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) is a free-and-easy surgeon with a case of “whistling dixie” and a taste for pretty nurses and awful gin. Duke is an equally game southern boy who falls into cahoots easily enough. They’ve got their eyes on the top prize christened “Lt. Dish” and the vexing but no less attractive head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).

The new chest cutter that Pierce pines for, Trapper John McIntire, is cut out of the same cloth. No wonder they all get along. Their main hobbies are sticking it to authority and they get away with every ounce of arrogance because they can back it up in the operating room. The taste that remains is all abrasive — Gould in particular — with he and Sutherland sticking it to just about everyone in their line of sight.

But that’s what this film feels like, purely anti-establishment; it’s never allowed the opportunity to be a true indictment of the utter lunacy of war. Likewise, for a film with purportedly progressive themes for the times, their treatment of the Asian characters, specifically while in Japan, is nothing short of troubling.

When they’re flown out to Japan on a special assignment, they walk all over everyone as the best surgeons around in a world would surrounded by a sea of shmucks. They gas a colonel and blackmail him handily while having no sense of sympathy for other fellow human beings. You begin to wonder about the patients they serve every day. What about them?

We have Gary Burghoff, the only holdover for the TV show. Otherwise, Henry Blake is a bland and vacuous commanding officer, hardly the lovable buffoon he would become as played by McClean Stevenson. The rest of the cast is a decent assemblage of 1970s movie talent, mostly on the road to bigger and better things.

Frank Burns (as played by Robert Duvall) is a hard-edged hypocrite far from the whiny, ferret-faced Larry Linville. The latter is far more enduring. Father Mulcahy is much the same. Unfortunately, the priest in this go-through feels like an easy runt of the jokes. His faith is something to thumb your nose at — little else.

There is not the same warmth nor the moral backbone that William Christopher would bring, only nervous timidity. Again, it’s so easy to enter this dangerous zone of comparison. Taking a page out of Luis Bunuel’s playbook, Altman is having a grand old time toying with the icons of religiosity in his film. Irreverence is his wellspring for comedy.

Because, up against the typical fare of a generation, MASH feels like a freestyle, scattered affair. Whereas the TV show was blessed by the calculated wit of its scripts balanced with pathos, this project thrives on its laxity and general indifference.

There’s a hodgepodge of overlapping dialogue simulating the cadence of real conversation with its constant asides and disruptions. It’s content to be all over the place, not conforming to any Hollywood standard of any kind.

Again, this becomes its life-force. Making a mockery of tradition in a way that no doubt does honor to the Marx Brother’s chaos and might have still been to their chagrin.

But again, MASH, for all who know anything about it, can hardly be considered an out and out war movie. And it’s not just a comedy either. Altman takes those expectations — all those things we assume this picture to be — and tosses them out.

Because MASH is full of darkness and absurdity that goes beyond war. It is an anti-war picture in general terms and yet how can we not at least laugh at the scenarios, the characters, and the insanity of it all?

Because this is a film and not the marginally sanitized airwaves of syndication television, there is the space to be raunchier, the O.R. is grislier, scenes are more sensual, but with it, all the playfulness of the later material is flushed away. It’s verging on the bitter, even vindictive.

Fortunately, there is space for a few shenanigans. The in-camp dentist, known as the “Don Juan of Detroit” back home, is having serious doubts about his virility. He thinks he’s losing his prowess and so he’s made the decision to end it for good. He’s gonna commit suicide. In solidarity, all his buddies get together to put one slam-bang finish to the end of his life. A winking “last supper” of sorts that everyone’s in on.

Catching “Hot Lips” in the shower is all in a day’s work to confirm a bet of whether or not she’s a natural blonde. She spends the majority of the film anal and little better than a blithering idiot. In fact, her commanding officer calls her one (granted in the context of a football game). But she is another character who feels like a constant punchline. Altman could care less.

Speaking of the football game, it’s no doubt the piece de resistance in this monolith of absurdity. The boys rally the troops to take on a smug General’s hulking football team.

The only countermove is to call in a ringer, the one, and only, Spearchucker Jones, to help neutralize their opponent’s stacked lineup. By this point, the movie all but jumps off the deep-end leaving reality behind for the sake of comedy.

There is very little war left and nothing to think about except the Marx Brother-like mayhem on the field (although it’s not quite to the caliber of Horse Feathers). Altman directs it like a circus act.  Yelling, screaming, whistles blowing, pom-poms bouncing, from the sidelines. Players falling all over the place from injury and fatigue. It’s utter chaos. And that’s the end of it.

The final poetic justice is a payoff on the film’s first joke. Hawkeye and Duke ride out of camp in the same stolen jeep they came in. As I watched them go, I couldn’t help thinking it was a far cry from a “Goodbye” message telegraphed for a lifelong friend departing by helicopter.

Despite all my sincere attempts, I will remain horribly subjective to the end. I know it already. I’m hopeless. How can I not choose preferences with such singular interpretations of the same material? In fact, it seems like a fine problem to have. It makes it marginally easier to appreciate each on their own merits.

4/5 Stars

 

Smile (1975): The Miss America Satire Lost Some of Its Sheen

Smile_(1975_film).jpg“Smile” is a timeless hit among a plethora of classic Nat King Cole tracks. The innate warmth and the soothing nature of his vocals shine through every note. It took me many years to realize the tune was actually a Charlie Chaplin composition from City Lights later reworked with lyrics.

However, this is not a review of The King or The Tramp. It is about a movie, but to consider it, one must acknowledge the song is so very sincere, it can be used in highly ironic ways.

Case in point is Smile the movie, which was obviously fashioned as a genteel satire of Miss America culture.

It is a depiction of a different America that we can never go back to. Sometimes those words might sound wistful though, in the case of Smile, it’s more of an assertion. Because this lightly-handled prodding of societal mores, full of its share of cutesy and sickening moments, is really a commentary on a very suspect culture.

Still, one must ask the question: how much does the industry get inadvertently glorified by such a comedic extravaganza throwing all these young girls, harried folks, and inquisitive onlookers into an environment complete with plenty of pizzazz and a full-fledged happy ending?

There’s a moderate danger of missing the point — even if it is twofold. We can laugh or “smile” but we must also consider how ludicrous this all is. Thankfully the movie is aided by some of its wonkier inventions in case we’re tempted to take it at face value.

Smile is, of course, easily overshadowed by Nashville (1975) with its more discernible social significance, a grander ensemble, and a lot more going for it on all fronts. That’s not to say Smile is a bad movie. In fact, it is probably an underrated one, generally forgotten with the myriad of other 70s entertainment options moviegoers will normally flock to.

The story itself has the ring of something terribly agreeable. It’s a lightweight day-to-day observation of the annual Young American Miss Pageant in beautiful Santa Rosa, California. All the would-be “Misses” are bussed in to take part in the competition and all the laurels that come with such a crown.

Their hearts are a tizzy with excitement. Former champion Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon) knows just the feeling. Her advice is, as always, to “smile” as she helps to prepare the girls for their exhibition (which is not a competition). Although everyone knows otherwise.

Meanwhile, a Hollywood choreographer (the esteemable Michael Kidd) is brought in to work on the routines, the janitor worries about the undue stress that will be put on the pipes, and local used car salesman Big Bob Freeloader (Bruce Dern) gets ready for his civic responsibility to judge the contest.

He’s the epitome of a square, wheeler-dealer, car salesman who in his own way sees himself as a pillar of society, even if he helps to propagate the dubious cultural practices of the times.

Meanwhile his son, “Little Bob” looks to snag a polaroid camera with his friends so they might capture the recently arrived pageant hopefuls in various states of undress. Though played for comedic effect, it really is a jarring, uncomfortable digression.

Because already implicit in the content are the strains of mid-century misogyny, essentially built into the fabric of society. It begins with the grown-ups as good, healthy All-American fun, until it easily seeps down to their children, teaching boys how they are to perceive girls.

Meanwhile, the local male fraternity initiation feels dangerously close to a white supremacist meeting, albeit with strange rituals (ie. kissing a dead chicken). On the ethnic front, the one non-Caucasian character, a Mexican-American, is looked on with immense derision by all the others and with the depiction, I wouldn’t blame them.

Her starry-eyed ambitions to be American are seen in a handful of characters, though she’s the only one hampered by a very pointed accent. Again, it’s these obvious red lights that are being poked fun at. There’s little question about it, but if these are the issues we are dealing with, there are still other de facto problems that probably slip through the cracks.

It has not aged well even as we still have rampant issues of sexual objectification and any number of prurient problems. It could be very well that I am not in touch with the current cultural moment. If so, I stand corrected. But the odd mixture of nostalgia with light satire does come off as a weird, messily concocted cauldron of tones.

The free-flowing contact with the wide range of characters also means we never ably connect with anyone in a resonate manner. Likewise, director Michael Ritchie’s story, like The Candidate before it, is taking aim at society but in this instance, it feels like there are too many marks. It cannot cover all the ground and therefore feels a bit scattered.

Unfortunately, it’s lost some of its comic zing with the passage of time. Still, one of the finest bits of humor comes in an outrageous sequence when a man looks to end his life with a pistol.

His wife the former American Miss tells him he should deal with his problems instead of taking the coward’s way out. He proceeds to point the gun at her and let it go. He winds up in jail and she’s only scratched, agreeing not to press charges, much to his chagrin.

In fact, Andy DiCarlo might be the most genuinely enjoyable character for the very reason he sees the utter insanity of this world, even if everyone else brushes him off as being a little strange.

They think he needs to loosen up some like all his peers, kissing the butts of dead chickens and cheering for girls, paraded up on a stage like glorified cattle. Now that’s entertainment! In this light, Smile does sound somewhat hilarious. Chalk it up to a misanthropic mood if you want. However, I’ll maintain people weren’t made to always be smiling. Sometimes a smile just won’t cut it.

3/5 Stars

NOTE: As a childhood Get Smart fan, I tried not to hold it against Smile for casting Barbara Feldon in her part. I tried my best to be objective, but, for me, she will always be 99.

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

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I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 Stars

Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Network (1976)

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“We’re not talking about eternal truth or absolute truth or ultimate truth! We’re talking about impermanent, transient, human truth! I don’t expect you people to be capable of truth! But, you’re at least capable of self-preservation! That’s good enough!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale.

Throwing around the term auteur and you’ve already set yourself up for a grievous debate with some diehard cinephile. There are those ardent disciples as well as those who vehemently oppose what they deem a simplistic notion.

Because the main tenet is that the auteur or “author” who exacts his vision on a movie is namely the director. However, if there was ever a subject to cast in the role of “screenwriter as auteur,” Paddy Chayefsky just might be the perfect candidate. He came of age in the medium of television, an adamant humanist and purveyor of social realism. His most prominent work of those early years being the heart-warming classic Marty, which first starred Rod Steiger and then did great things for Ernest Borgnine in the film adaptation.

Network is conveyed by a veteran Chayefsky who has weathered the industry for a long spell now and looking at it presently, we observe his wry bit of commentary. Because the beast of a medium made him but he seems to derive some glee from confronting it head-on. He’s taken the systems in place and very conveniently added his own spin.

Along with the Big Three, CBS, NBC, ABC, he has created his own outlier, a dark horse, and the littlest giant UBS. The landscape is one familiar to anyone who lived through the 70s. Nixon got the can. There have been two recent attempts on President Ford’s life. It’s the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, with the throes of inflation and depression. America is looking for an escape valve for their dissatisfaction.

I’d like to think that the world of The Mary Tyler Moore Show has some semblance of truth to it with its camaraderie and the humanity of its comedy, but then we see Network and are provided another harsh alternative that bears the uneasy feeling of its own truth.

In this same world of civil unrest, television networks with their programming regimens and new shows are bloated with all sorts of agendas. You have the continually clashing horns between warring executives and self-serving angles in their neverending quest for higher ratings and a bigger share of the viewing public.

Max Schumacher (William Holden) is a remnant of television’s bygone era where men like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite were symbolic purveyors of truth in all facets of America. Maybe the nation was naive but at least they believed in something. Times have changed. Sensationalism and stories to stir up some form of controversy are of particular interest especially with Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who aims to use such material to bolster the network’s abysmal ratings.

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Meanwhile, abrasive big whig Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) is tired of the news divisions lackluster performance and he’s ready to instigate some new changes within the business conglomerate. Schumacher feels slighted as his former allies seem to crumble around him.

Now’s about a good as time as any to introduce Howard Beale (Peter Finch). He’s one of Max’s best friends from the old days and due to plummeting ratings, he’s being given the ax. I never felt sorry for Howard Beale before because he’s so often lost in the shuffle of the movie. He’s used by not only the network but the film itself as a kind of diatribe. It seems like the man is all but forgotten.

Finch plays the role so pitifully at times and that becomes easily overshadowed by his attention-getting histrionics.  However, when he makes his initial announcement that he will take his life on air, in two weeks time, it’s very matter-of-fact. There’s little agenda to it. Here’s a man who’s lost his wife and now is losing his job after 11 years of service to the network. Soon he’ll have nothing. The utter disinterest in his plight is what’s most striking when you look down the line of producers and behind-the-scenes employees who sit in the dark in front of the monitors chatting rather than actually paying attention to their anchor. Apathy seems to reign.

Simultaneously, Christensen is exploding with hairbrained schemes of inspired lunacy that she seems all too serious about enacting, from a docudrama called The Mao Tse-Tung Hour to keeping Howard Beale on the airwaves. She’s the foremost proponent of angry shows to articulate the angst of the general public through counterculture and anti-establishment programming. That’s her agenda.

In this very way, Network is a film of bewildering disillusionment in the world full of crises and absent of reason and maybe even God. Howard is a voice to all those absurdities and when he calls B.S. he turns the heads of the entire country. It blows up but as any publicity is good publicity, Diana convinces her boss to keep the mad prophet on. She positions Howard Beale as a prescient even messianic figure calling out the hypocrisies of the age. Her boss openly objects, “We’re talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on television,” which Dunaway promptly nods her head in response to. Maybe she’s a bit crazy in her own right.

Then, when the fad keeps on going and he’s now got people yelling out their windows or sending their grievances straight to the White House, Christensen is complaining that he’s too irascible, not apocalyptic enough, recommending some writers be brought on to pen some juicy jeremiads for him to spout off. In spite of the ludicrous nature of it all, the results speak. Soon Howard Beale’s antics have landed him 4th in the Nielsen ratings surpassed by only The Six Million Dollar Man, All in The Family, and Phyllis.

Hackett is deliriously happy about the success and becomes power hungry. But as Beale’s sole friend still kicking, Schumacher can’t help but feel Howard’s being used, even as he himself gets involved with Diana (she harbored a girlish crush on him in college).

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The film’s trajectory seems all but predestined. The fad of Howard Beale begins to wane and ratings go down with him. Max Schumacher’s job and then his marriage go down the tubes as well, all because of Diana. For her part, Diana is so completely consumed by her work that everything, even her personal life, works in scripts. However, the rendition of The Blue Angel that she’s unwittingly been playing with Max doesn’t end as she initially thought.

As a satire of the medium we know as television, Network certainly has few equals. Chayefsky spends a good spell of time orating off his soapbox as he does in many of his pictures. The ideas are there. The words are coming from voices and we’re taking them in and they are spiced with rhetoric and wit. If anything one can marvel at his work even when it doesn’t take. It bears his mark.

The one thing about Network that is still harrowing today are the mere implications. Television was being considered an institution systematically destroying everything it touches through its manipulation and backstabbing industry practices. It only exasperates the situation by breeding a public that’s both vacuous and apathetic. There is no call for human decency anymore. There are no true glory days. People are depressed, lonely, bitter, and helpless. If that all came to pass, theoretically, because of a box sitting in a family’s living room, 21 inches in size, that could be turned off, and had bad reception more often than not, what is the internet doing to us?

Now we’re in constant interface with our devices, warring for our attention and promising us comfort and convenience. Meanwhile, our ghost machines suck us dry. We’re shells of human beings. There are some figures in Network that I dislike, played most convincingly by Duvall and Ned Beatty. They seem opportunistic, crass, and merciless. But most everyone else of note I feel somewhat sorry for. The Max Schumachers, the Diana Christensens, and of course the Howard Beales. What did we do to deserve this madness?

4/5 Stars

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

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Luis Bunuel made a name for himself ever since his early work on Un Chien Andalou (1929) as king of the surrealist filmmakers. That and bashing the bourgeoisie. Some might be surprised in finding that Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from the eponymous 1900 novel of Octave Mirbeau, is a fairly straightforward narrative for him.

From what I gather, that’s not to say its fully faithful to its source but more so it does not send the narrative hurtling into surrealistic visions like many of his other prominent works. What’s not missing is his typical acerbic wit that belittles the lifestyle of the upper class partially through the eyes of a Chambermaid named Celestine (Jeanne Moreau).

Before it’s begun we already know it’s charted out a diverging course from that which Jean Renoir’s Hollywood effort tread. That goes without question because not simply the directors but the systems that they were working under prove drastically different. Thus, there’s little reason to label this a remake. It’s an entirely different beast.

Furthermore, their leading ladies, the vivacious Paulette Goddard, and the aloof Jeanne Moreau could not be more different muses. The latter dame of France projects even a mild indifference to the hoops she’s put through.

Moreau actually received the part over Silvia Pinal who was intent on being in the picture (even learning French for the role). Bunuel was no doubt happy to have Pinal aboard as well but ultimately the French backing won out.

While he did not get his initially chosen leading lady, Bunuel nevertheless was blessed with one of his other most prolific collaborators the young French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere who would go on to work with the director on many of his most prestigious later works.

Celestine, as portrayed here, is not an altogether awful human being — she does show some amount of heart even — but that does not mean she fails to realize the degree of power she has over people.

Yes, she’s only a chambermaid. There’s an elder gentleman who resides in the manor. His adult daughter who oversees much of their affairs. And we have the upstairs-downstairs drama at hand most certainly with gossip being traded. Especially about the Madame’s husband (Michel Piccoli) whose raging libido means he is just about to pronounce his love for anything that moves.

However, in this particular picture, the Monsieur Monteil also has an ongoing feud with the retired army officer next door who is constantly ridiculing him and tossing refuse onto his property. In fact, there are numerous other exemplary moments of wry humor like when a pronounced animal lover annihilates a butterfly at point-blank range his first time using a shotgun. Or the fact that the same man who turns out to be Lord of the manor finds Celestine far too long a name and christens her Marie; that’s what all his past maids went by.

But as Bunuel pictures are accustomed to doing, this one slowly begins to roll out the carpet of perversity masked under refined sophistication. The master has Celestine read to him in the evenings and quite nonchalantly asks to touch her calf. He says she has nothing to fear and otherwise he might be the most charming individual in the home. He’s simply exercising a few whims, after all, he’s advanced in years. He should be given leeway… That’s how the rationalization goes anyway. However, the moment is as cringe-worthy as it is despicable especially in an age where such acts of sexual harassment are finally being brought to the fore and into the light.

Except in a Bunuel picture these proclivities were never really hidden. He tantalizes and nearly taunts you with them. Because this elderly “gentleman” is not the only one. The perpetually vexed husband keeps inquiring if Celestine has settled in because he wants to have a love affair with her. He promises that he’s not a brute though his past history seems to suggest otherwise.

Then, there’s brusque chauffeur Joseph who initially picked her up at the station. He relishes the opportunity of making the goose for dinner suffer because they taste better that way. And he also brandishes callous statements about killing jews after scanning the newspaper headlines. His anti-semitic sentiments are never in question.

The crass behavior doesn’t end there either. The father dies and on the very same day, a darling little girl that Celestine had taken care of is prematurely pulled from the picture as well. Both have dubious shrouds lingering over them. Amid it all, Celestine nearly leaves her post but comes back and the marriage proposals keep on coming from every man. She finally ends up with probably the nicest of the lot. It turns out hurling insults and garbage is almost docile.

Even the priest while not necessarily a wayward figure provides no type of spiritual guidance. He has no wisdom to impart. Instead entreating his parishioners to give to his church. There is no one righteous, not even one.

One of the few moments Bunuel does stray from normal classical filmmaking comes in the final frames. The first time you see it the immediate assumption is your eyes must be playing a trick on you.

But then we see a mass of protesters jump once, then again, and one final time so that they have all disappeared from the screen with each subsequent cut. One final lightning bolt for good measure and the books close on Bunuel’s rueful indictment of the bourgeoisie. It was very much his favorite pastime.

And yet any neat explanation of the film — even if it is more conventional as a narrative — is soon eviscerated by any number of complications. The contradiction in character, political undertones, and even a finale that indubitably has ties to Bunuel’s early career all spring to mind. His picture L`Age d’Or (1930) was decried with a similar protest. There’s no doubt that with each subsequent picture, the director pushed the cinematic boundaries with schemes of visionary ingenuity. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the skill in his craft.

4/5 Stars