Criterion Corner: Design for Living (#592)

Three young, smart, attractive people – Gilda, a commercial artist, the painter George and the playwright Thomas – meet on a train to Paris. Their initial conversations may not be entirely friendly, but the sparks that fly as they exchange zingers make it clear that the men are attracted to Gilda, and vice versa – and how could they not be? They’re witty, they’re attractive, and they’re in Paris. Soon they fall: both of the men for Gilda, and Gilda for, well, both of them. She can’t choose, and she won’t choose – so Gilda, George and Tom come up with a plan: they live together as Gilda is a friend, a muse and a critic to both men. They make a gentlemen’s agreement to make sure that this will work: no sex.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Criterion Corner: Memories of Murder (#1073)

I can’t remember which of the two films I watched first: Memories of Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-ho or David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The two films share a lot of similarities. Both are about serial murders that actually happened: the series of killings Bong’s film is about took place between 1986 and 1991, while Fincher’s film is focused on the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, who was active in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both are more interested in the investigation than in the killer, and in the individuals conducting the investigation (the protagonists of Bong’s film are the three police officers hunting for a rapist and murderer of women, while Fincher splits the difference between the San Francisco detectives, the journalist Paul Avery and the cartoonist Robert Graysmith). And, importantly, both films present the audience with very likely suspects to then withhold from us a confirmation that it is really this man, or that guy, who committed these murders. Much like the protagonists, we are left with a sense of frustration and unease.

This isn’t how crime thrillers are supposed to work. If we don’t know whodunnit at the end, what was the point?

And that, exactly, is the point.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. If you’ve yet to see the film, don’t read this post but go and watch Memories of Murder. Without wanting to put down my own posts: the film is much, much better.

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Criterion Corner: Rushmore (#65)

It took a while for me to warm to Wes Anderson and his films. It’s not that I didn’t see his talent for mise-en-scène; that has always been obvious. It’s that I found his characters and their quirks grating rather than charming. I did not enjoy spending time with the Tenenbaum family, I didn’t want to hang out with Steve Zissou and his crew. And when the films veered towards tragedy, I found them too affected to care, too smugly self-conscious and twee.

It was only with The Fantastic Mr Fox that I learnt to enjoy a Wes Anderson film, not for individual parts but as a work in its entirety – and oddly, it took the more sustained artifice of latter Anderson for me to connect to the underlying emotion as something real. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached Rushmore, Anderson’s second feature film, which I expected to be closer to the films that would follow it, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, in style and tone. And it is – though it has some interesting quirks of its own, among them an awareness of the limitations and annoyances of The Life Andersonian.

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Criterion Corner: Blow-Up (#865)

I admit: sometimes I find them intimidating. The classics, the cinema icons, the films that everyone says you should watch because they are just that good and the directors who made those films. What if I watch one of those films and I don’t like them – or, worse, they don’t do anything for me and barely evince any reaction whatsoever? (Somehow it’s easier to dislike an iconic film than to be indifferent to a supposed masterpiece of the art form.) Which may go some way towards explaining the big pile of Criterion films I’ve bought but haven’t watched yet. Of course I want to watch them, I will watch them – but not just yet. I’ll get around to them. Eventually. Perhaps there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to watch them so much as it wants to have watched them.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up was one of those films for a long time – but then my kindly co-baristas here at A Damn Fine Cup of Culture went and did a podcast episode about seeing our cities, the places we live (or have lived) in, on film, and Alan chose to talk about the London of Blow-Up. And at that point I couldn’t really not watch it, could I? (Mind you, it still took me more than seven months, but I think that this year has given me enough of an excuse for that sort of delay.)

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Criterion Corner: In a Lonely Place (#810)

Humphrey Bogart is a strange leading man: while charismatic, he is not exactly handsome, and as he got older, the contrast between his charisma and his lack of conventionally good looks got bigger. He wasn’t afraid to play characters that were unpleasant, though interestingly so, and he didn’t shy away from his characters’ dark sides, their cowardice, neediness, pettiness and egotism. Look at Fred C. Dobbs, his character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: he’s not a Disney villain, he is not an evil mastermind, he is a small, pitiful man, really, who meets a pitiful end. How many Hollywood leading men at the time were happy to play such roles?

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Criterion Corner: The Samurai Trilogy (#14-16)

I’ve said it before: there’s an effect not unlike Stockholm Syndrome that can come with long-form storytelling. If you follow the fates of a set of characters over a longer time, if you watch or read about a community over many chapters, seasons or volumes, it’s very well possible that you begin by bouncing off of, or even disliking, the story and its characters – but we are likely to hold on to the things we enjoy, minimise those we dislike, and over time we justify the time we’ve put into a story by investing in it emotionally. A film is usually over after two hours, and unless we revisit it at a later stage, it never really has this opportunity to win us around – but a series? A game lasting 50+ hours? A graphic novel that tells its story over ten volumes? At least for me it’s like this: either I stop early, or I keep going, because there are some interesting elements or characters I like, or perhaps I’ve heard from so many people that the story becomes really engrossing – and after I’ve put a certain amount of time into this story, I’ll find that I’m invested, because otherwise I’d have to tell myself that this time was pretty much wasted. Is it something of a psychological self-protection mechanism? Or do some stories simply need more time to have the intended effect? I suspect it’s a combination of the two – but, honestly, how am I to tell?

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Criterion Corner: Raging Bull (#1134)

There are films that are a joy to watch because they’re so well crafted. The director knows what they’re doing, the cinematography is stunning, the editing is masterful, the acting and writing, the score – everything is spot on.

Then there are films that are deeply unpleasant because of the world and characters they depict. You don’t want to spend time in this place, with these people, and once you’ve been there for two hours, you just want to go and have a shower and clear your brain from the memory of them.

And sometimes, there’s a film that fits both of these descriptions. For me, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of those films.

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Criterion Corner: They Live by Night (#880)

Being a self-confessed Criterion junkie, I have once or twice bought a Criterion release by mistake. I managed to order Persona twice (which, to be fair, makes perfect sense, considering the film). I once bought a DVD version of Le Samouraï from some Amazon reseller that turned out to be a Korean bootleg – and it didn’t even work. And I ordered They Live By Night (1948) after attending a lecture on Ida Lupino, where the lecturer showed a scene of the film that made it look intriguing and thrilling.

Turns out that film with Ida Lupino was They Drive by Night, of which there isn’t a Criterion release. As that great American philosopher said so memorably: D’oh. On the plus side, the Ida Lupino lecture was by Johannes Binotto, who joined us for our recent podcast on Lupino.

And while we’re talking about the pluses of me ordering the wrong film: They Live by Night is very good.

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Criterion Corner: For All Mankind (#54)

Earlier this year, we saw Summer of Soul, Questlove’s documentary/concert film hybrid about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. In its last third, the film juxtaposes the festival, an event by and for the African America community that at the time (and not just then) was sorely disadvantaged and underserved, and the first moon landing, where NASA put Whitey on the Moon. Why are millions spent on space exploration when the planet we live on is severely lacking in so many respects?

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Music and moonlight and love and… monsters?

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

Sometimes a director can be on a wavelength too different from your own, and such differences may be irreconcilable. Will Matt ever learn to love Olivier Assayas, or will Irma Vep (1996) be as good as it gets for him?

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