Six Damn Fine Degrees #75: Religious movies are (not) dead

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I remember that as a kid I found the Biblical dramas of the 1950s fascinating. I didn’t watch all that many of them, but I remember movies that drew me in with gladiatorial combat but kept me engaged with Technicolor melodrama and righteous men and women sacrificing their lives for some greater good – which in those films always meant God in the end, and more specifically, a bearded, male, white God with just the right blend of being stern and being kind, someone inbetween Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. I was raised Catholic in a place where Catholicism wasn’t particularly strong or particularly strict, so while we did go to church once or twice a year and while I did receive First Communion when I was 8 or 9, I didn’t get much of a sense of the metaphysical from Sunday School. My religious education at the time derived from old movies – oh, and from Jesus Christ Superstar and from Oh, God! Book II. My sense of the eternal was hippies singing and dancing to showtunes in the desert, George Burns’ ironic smile, and Richard Burton and Jean Simmons looking heavenwards while celestial choirs sing and the credits roll, moments before they are eaten alive by lions.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #16: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

If there is one film, just one, that should be seen on the big screen in unadulterated 70 mm, it has to be Lawrence of Arabia.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Bernard Herrmann (1911)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You don’t have to be into movies all that much to have been scared by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). He started composing when still a teenager and also worked as an orchestrator and conductor later on. One of his first notable contributions was for Orson Welles’ original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Hermann’s music must have had a hand in the fact that so many listeners thought that the Martians were really coming.

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Dazzled by the mob: The Godfather Part II

In cinematic terms, I sometimes wish I’d already been around during the 1970s. It’s the big films of that decade that I most regret seeing at the cinema. Thank god for good repertory cinemas, though: thanks to my favourite rep cinema, I’ve been able to see the likes of Apocalypse Now on the big screen – and the theatrical experience definitely makes a difference in terms of how potent these classics are.

Last week, as part of a series on migrants (which includes such different fare as Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9), I was finally able to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II on the big screen. The film is gorgeous to look at, with Gordon Willis’ Rembrandtesque cinematography an absolute triumph, and it’s a joy to see Pacino and De Niro in peak form, their acting specific and nuanced and entirely unlike the personas we’ve seen them embrace all too often since. The way I watch the film has changed in other ways as well, though, and these have nothing to do with the big-screen format. That difference is due to me having watched the entirety of The Sopranos in he meantime.

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Into darkness: Midnight Family (2019)

Midnight Family starts with a bang, though visually you wouldn’t know it, as it’s presented as a simple white text on a black background. It’s the simple, unadorned but utterly horrific statement that Mexico City has 45 official ambulances to serve a city of 9 million people. Think about it: that is one ambulance per 200’000 individuals. This figure frames everything that follows, it provides an explanation and context, and it tells the audience from the beginning what we’re in for: a visit to a world that has gone deeply, badly wrong.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Jules et Jim (1962)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Jules et Jim (1962) wasn’t my first film by François Truffaut, but it might as well have been: while I saw The Last Metro (1980) earlier, it didn’t fully register that this was a film directed by Truffaut, one of the founders of the French nouvelle vague, and I only remembered The Wild Child (1970) very, well, vaguely. In fact, I was more aware of Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #18: The Aviator

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3For the first episode of 2019, Julie, Mege and Matt revisit Martin Scorsese’s much-awarded but rarely-discussed The Aviator. Is it one of Scorsese’s best or a bit of a mess? Does Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn enter parody territory, and is it any less awesome for this? Will Mege pounce in defense of Leonardo DiCaprio? Find out the answers to all these questions and more, as the gang of pop culture baristas serves up some smaller helpings on AMC’s The Terror (a heady blend of Master and Commander and The Thing) and the interactive Black Mirror episode, “Bandersnatch”.

Also, we’re premiering our new theme tune “Mystery Street Jazz” at the end of the episode, so make sure to give it a listen. Thanks to composer Håkan Eriksson for his damn fine tune!

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The Sound of Silence

silence4Silence is almost not a Scorsese movie. His camera watches from the middle distance; it doesn’t cut away, but keeps watching, standing still, but far from unmoved. There are no extra-long scenes, no musical cues, no freeze frames, no siren call for a life of crime. Every movement has its reason. This is a mostly quiet film. Nature sounds can be heard – the waves, the wind, footsteps, fire burning. There is some voiceover narration, and there are dialogues, all of them necessary, but silence is the point. The louder the movie gets, the more disquieting things are going on. Silence is not entertaining in any superficial way, but it’s definitely intriguing. Continue reading

Oh, how the ghost of you clings…

Is there another medium as nostalgically in love with itself as film? You don’t really see many paintings about the painters of yesteryear, or novels about novelists from the 19th century. Hollywood, on the other hand, loves looking at itself back when it was younger, had fewer wrinkles, and Michael Bay wasn’t even a twinkle in ILM’s eye.

In the run-up to the last Oscars, there were two major examples of cinema yearning for its heydays: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Artist, a French film whose point of reference is nevertheless the American movie scene of the early 20th century. Both received a fair share of accolades and both put a lot of emphasis on charming their audiences. Both movies are accomplished in many ways, but I’m somewhat torn on them: while I loved Hugo more, I have to say I appreciate The Artist more as a film.

Scorsese’s obviously one of the greats of cinema, and deservedly so. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, but also The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or the concert film Shine a Light – the man has a strong style, but he doesn’t remake the same film over and over again. Hugo is strange for him in some ways, as Scorsese’s never shied away from gritty, violent themes; trying his hand at a family movie is decidedly new for him. Having said that, there are definite stylistic links between some of his more recent period pieces, especially Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and Hugo, in that a lot of emphasis is put on creating a world. And what a world it is – the Paris of the film is not real in any way, but the train station in which most of Hugo takes place is a beautifully imagined, intricate world.

At the same time, Scorsese’s latest feels like it’s at least two different films, one for children who enjoy Little Rascals-style capers and broad characterisation, and one for people who love the cinema. Narratively these two are bridged by the sadness at the heart of the film, embodied by the titular character who has lost his father, but the result is a work that doesn’t always feel coherent. After seeing the film I walked out of the cinema feeling a warm glow for the love letter to the movies that I’d just seen, but I also sat in the dark feeling impatient for the slapstick, the scenes of Hugo running away from a panto-style villain and the “gosh, it’s an adventure, isn’t it?” enthusiasm of Chloë Grace Moretz’s character to end and for the film to get back to Méliès. The scenes that are primarily about the magic of movies are beautiful and poignant – much of the rest of the film first and foremost made me think that it’s been decades since I was twelve years old. Perhaps I’m not the ideal audience – but I honestly wonder whether a twelve-year old would be all that likely to respond to the scenes focused almost entirely on Méliès and on film history. How many twelve-year old film buffs are there?

While I share Hugo‘s love for cinema, I’m by and large indifferent to silent movies, to the extent where I don’t even remember if I’ve ever seen an entire one. (Yes, I do feel a bit guilty about never having seen Metropolis. Happy now?) I’m not sure The Artist‘s makers are nostalgic to the era where films were silent, either, or that they wanted to start a new wave of dialogue-free films. (Our cinema showed a Swiss short beforehand, also silent and fashioned as a pastiche of the original films of the ’20s. It was unbearable, smug and shallow, having nothing going for it other than wanting to emulate the style.) Take away the self-conscious, meta-cinematic elements and The Artist doesn’t work; but it’s this (dare we say postmodern?) playfulness that is as central to the film as the considerable charms of its two leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. The film’s a meringue, as I would put it: sweet, delicious and so light the slightest puff of air could blow it away. It doesn’t have much substance in any conventional sense – but charm, style and wit can have a substance all of their own.

What The Artist finally does better than Hugo is this: it’s perfectly formed, it comes together into a whole. It is a complete film rather than two half-films patched together, with considerable skill that nevertheless cannot hide the join. And for all of Scorsese’s talent, The Artist works better because it has made a decision what sort of film it wants to be, and then it’s about the best such film it can be. As far as meringues go, it’s just about one of the best I’ve had.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

It’s a detail, a cinematic in-joke invisible to all but film afficionados, but it adds to the ominous atmosphere on Shutter Island: the two head wardens of the mental hospital are played by Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch – Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from Silence of the Lambs and Arthur Leigh Allen, the main suspect from David Fincher’s Zodiac. With these two in charge of security at Ashecliff Hospital, you wonder: are the inmates in charge of the asylum, or are the patients even more insane? Even the benevolent doctor, played by Ben Kingsley at his most unctuous, serves to make us more paranoid rather than comforted.

The main attraction in this Scorsesean Gothic horror, though, is Shutter Island itself: the location immediately joins an exclusive list together with Bates Motel, the Overlook Hotel and the abbey in The Name of the Rose, as one of those places that feed the imagination. Anything might be hiding in that old lighthouse, and the carpets of Dr. Cawley’s residence exude a sense of foreboding. The place breathes a diseased past: you get an almost tactile sense that things have happened here, things that shouldn’t be.

Things that, in fact, didn’t happen. The true horror house, as so often, is the human mind, protecting itself as it knows best: by inventing alternative histories that become more real, more believab le, and certainly more necessary than what has really happened.

Scorsese and Lehane’s psychological horror yarn isn’t original, and those who have seen or read similar stories will not be overly surprised by the main twist ten minutes before the end. But it’s been a while since the twist, its lead-up and denouement havve been told with such sensuality. The film is rarely subtle, but damn, if you don’t feel the clammy fog of Shutter Island stick to your skin as you leave the theatre.

Having said that, though, I have one quibble with the film. For the most part it plays fair with what is and what isn’t real. It doesn’t fool the audience in cheap ways and is usually pretty clear with respect to what’s in the protagonist’s mind. Hallucinations aren’t played for a cheap “Huhwha?” effect. There is one big exception to this, though, a scene which logically must be a hallucination, yet it plays more realistically than most other scenes in the film. On one level it helps that it features the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who invests the scene with a fevered intensity and conviction; on the other hand, it’s exactly the fact that she’s so believable in her part, her presence to solid, and the moment not a brief flash of unreality, that it takes on a solidity it shouldn’t have – logically, it must be a hallucination, yet it doesn’t have the markers of unreality that the film has established previously. And that’s why the scene keeps niggling at me. It stands out, yet I can’t help feeling that it doesn’t play fair. It’s a cheat – an eminently well-executed cheat, but a cheat nevertheless. And yet, and yet… Perhaps I need to see the film again to figure it out. Just when I thought I was out, Shutter Island pulls me back in. (Thank you, Sil.)