Tuesday, April 25, 2017

1973 Winner, Day For Night

Day for Night

Director: Francois Truffaut

Distributed by:  Columbia Pictures/Warner Bros.

Released:  May 1973

Country:  France

Twain advised writers to “write what you know,” so it would follow that film directors should make films about what they know, and presumably, film making is what they know best.  Anyway, French director Francois Truffaut apparently thought so.  Day for Night is a fictional chronicling of the making of a movie, mostly focused on the things the director does.  The movie in the movie is called “Meet Pamela” and is directed by a man named Ferrand, played by Truffaut himself, and “Meet Pamela” stars a British actress named Julie Baker, who is played by British actress Jacqueline Bisset.

Truffaut as Ferrand directing Julie Baker, played by Jacqueline Bisset
There have been a lot of movies made about movie making, some good and some not so good.  King Kong (1933), Boogie Nights (1997), and The Artist (2011) all come to mind.  The thing to remember is movies aren’t real.  Well, duh, but people often forget this point. Actors who come off as heroic or likable in all their films may very well be major league jerks in real life.  Voices are dubbed, bodies are doubled, and make-up allows everyone to look more attractive than they really are.  Day for Night seems to peel the veneer away and show what goes on during the making of a film.

The term “day for night” is the light-filtering camera method used whereby a scene is shot in daylight but looks like nighttime on the film.  In another movie about making movies, Be Kind Rewind (2008), the film makers simply use the negative of the videotape to make it look like nighttime (and they also have to work around the fact that Mos Def, who is black, looks like a ghost in negative).  Ferrand’s technique is a bit more sophisticated than that, but the idea is the same. 
Day shot

But “day for night” is just symbolic of the way Ferrand has to fool his audience in a variety of ways, like when in Singin' in the Rain (1952) the director dubs in Debbie Reynolds’ voice to hide the star's squeaky one.  In Day for Night, a popular actress that is a big name is an aging drunk and cannot remember her lines.  The suave ladies’ man who is the romantic lead is gay.  And the film’s star, in the title role of Pamela, has just gotten done with her latest bout of treatment for severe depression.

Day for Night is a collection of an amusing enough set of subplots all going on at the same time but somehow not fully connected, like an episode of “The Love Boat.”  Truffaut as Ferrand is the Captain Stubing here, having to interject himself personally from time to time in order to get his movie-making “family” of actors and crew to do their jobs professionally.

Same shot to look like night
This was a fun movie to watch.  But like “day for night,” Day for Night is a fake, as all movies, narrative or documentary, are fake to some extent.  Truffaut isn’t presenting the audience with an insider’s view of what film making is like; he’s presenting us with what he wants us to see film making is like.  Truffaut’s French New Wave cinema rival and friend Jean-Luc Godard walked out of Day for Night, calling it "a lie."  Apparently, Godard didn’t understand that that is exactly what a film is supposed to be.

The title:  In French it was called, “La Nuit américaine,” the French term for the film technique in the English title, literally, “American night.”  The method was originated in American film, but we couldn’t call it “American night” any more than a Frenchman would order French fries.

It's all a trick
The Culture:  This is about film culture more than French culture, though we are exposed to some very 1970’s ethos, with drugs and free sex and psychoanalysis. 

Agenda danger:  In that movies do not contain full truth, this movie questions the film making process’s truths.  Is film an art form or just entertainment?  Truffaut, I think, would say both, and that’s what this film is about.

Best Picture that year:  The Sting

Rating:  I’ve not seen Truffaut’s more critically acclaimed works like The 400 Blows (1959) or Jules and Jim (1961), which I understand to be greater works of art.  But the entertainment side of film may be the more important one, and this film entertains for sure.  Another movie about film making, Fellini’s (1963’s Best Foreign Film), while more “other-worldly” and “arty” like Fellini films are, I found to be the more real film.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

1974 Winner, Amarcord


Director:  Federico Fellini

Distributed by:  Warner Bros./New World Pictures

Released:  December 1973

Country:  Italy

Going backward chronologically with our Best Foreign Films, now is when we get into the Italian and French dominance of the award.  No other country would win more than three times  from the inception of the award to 1974, while Italy won 11 and France 9 during that time period.  The director of Amarcord, the 1974 Best Foreign Film, is known as one of the great directors of all cinema, Federico Fellini, and this one is the last of his three films that won the award. 

I’ll start with this:  You don’t have to know anything about movies to know, after just a few minutes of watching this film, that Fellini is a master director.  The photography is wonderful, with scenes in school, church, the town square, and the coast, that are all marvelously shot.  You can see his influence over the art:  The scenery often reminded me of 1990’s winner Cinema Paradiso, 2013 winner The Great Beauty, and 1998’s Life is Beautiful.   Francis Ford Coppola must have also been influenced by Fellini, as one scene in the country brought a couple different The Godfather locations to my mind, though that great film was made two years earlier than Amarcord. (The fact that Nino Rota, frequent Fellini collaborator, did the score for both Amarcord and The Godfather probably had something to do with it as well.)

Titta (right) with his father and grandfather
I start with all that stuff about the scenery in part because there isn’t much of a linear plot here.  This is more like a snapshot of small town, pre-World War II north-central Italy.  Mussolini is in power and fascism has its clutches around Italy, but these small-town people have their lives to lead.  There is a vast cast of eccentric characters, but the focus is mostly on teenage boy Titta, presumably based on Fellini himself, and his family.  Titta’s dad is especially blustery and funny, looking remarkably like the guy who used to wake up early to make the Dunkin Donuts.  He always seems to be angry, either at Titta, or at his freeloading brother-in-law, or at his half-witted brother who won’t come down from a tree he’s climbed. 

There are scenes in the classroom that reminded me of stuff you may have seen in the Little Rascals, only a bit more PG-13.  At one point, while a bookish-looking kid is up at the chalkboard with the teacher struggling with a math problem, some mischievous boys construct and extend a long paper tube, one boy peeing into it from his classroom desk, sending a puddle next to the unsuspecting nerd.  The tube disposed of before she notices, the teacher looks down at the floor and then the student and yells, “What do you do?!” It's one of those immature pranks that you laugh at and wonder why you didn't think of it when you were young, and then think it's probably better that you didn't.

Looking for something?
Fellini, or rather young Titta and his friends, are obsessed with sex, and more specifically, with women’s butts and breasts.  Close-ups of women’s rears appear frequently in the film, with the boys and men gazing longingly.  There is one amusing scene when a female shop-worker encounters Titta and unleashes her breasts on him, nearly killing poor Titta and no doubt requiring Fellini to use a wide-angle lens. (A look at the movie poster will give you a clue at what I mean--that cartoon really isn't a caricature.)  In another scene, an aging but still attractive hairdresser whom all the town boys have the hots for finds herself sitting next to Titta in an otherwise empty movie theater.  As he moves his hand onto her slightly exposed thigh she snarkily asks, “Looking for something?”

Armacord as a whole can be taken as a critique of an Italy that allowed a fascist’s rise to power.  Some of the more serious scenes involve the struggle for these townspeople to deal with the choice they had with fascism—go with it or get run over by it.  It strikes me, though, that Fellini is presenting rural life much more lovingly and nostalgically than that.  Yes, the Catholic priests are tone deaf to the needs of the people; yes, the boys spend all their time thinking of girls; and yes, there are few weirdos who are part of the fabric of the place.  But it seems like this was a simpler time, and I think given how colorfully and brilliantly the movie is shot, it would be difficult to not like this small Italian town.

The Title:  A kind of made-up Italian word meaning, “I remember.”

Time to make the donuts!
The Culture:  This was a time between the great wars, in small town Italy, and Fellini presents us with the naivety of the time.  Everyone knows each other in this odd cast of characters:  the priests and teachers; the round-reared hairdresser; the odd nymphomaniac who hangs around; and the strange town character who talks to the camera from time to time. They all make up the time and place Fellini remembers.

Agenda danger:  Fellini, a non-practicing Catholic himself, seems to be critical of the Church, of Catholic education, and of the way the Church viewed sex.  But I found this presentation to be mostly an accounting of how it was then, and not a condemnation of the time he grew up in.  Titta’s father, a comic figure overall, stands up to the fascists admirably, as few must have in the time.

Best Picture that year:  The Godfather, Part II

Rating:  I must say I was a little confused by this once I finished it:  What was the story?  What did it mean?  But it was a film that was enjoyable to watch from start to finish, and it stuck with me a little after I was done, which I believe to be the mark of a great film. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

1975 Winner, Dersu Uzala

Dersu Uzala

Director:  Akira Kurosawa

Distributed by:  Mosfilm

Released:  July 1975

Country:  Soviet Union

Akira Kurosawa is Japan’s most famous director, and this film, Dersu Uzala, was produced by a Soviet film studio.  Filming was done on location in the Russian Far East wilderness, and many scenes depict the terrifyingly harsh winter weather of that area.  And yet . . . this movie is, essentially, a Western. 

The Western’s most common theme, found in just about every film of that genre, is that of the conflict between opposites: Civilization and Wilderness.  This film is the story of a tribesman of the Nanai people, an ethnic group almost Korean and almost Turk, living in the eastern-most recesses of Russia.  He is Dersu Uzala, played wonderfully by Maxim Munzuk.  He is Wilderness personified, a man who can look at tracks and know how close the animal is and can make a shelter of grass in an hour that can protect a man from a blizzard.  And he is living in an age when his way of life is going away fast.

Captain Arseviev and Dersu Uzala
Backing up a bit:  The film starts with a Russian expedition exploring and surveying the remote area.  Captain Arseniev and his men come upon the odd-looking Dersu, who agrees to help them in their job.  Dersu has lost his entire family to smallpox and is living a life of a loner, but he is likable and intelligent.  He and Arseviev quickly become friends and quickly the rest of the group come to respect him.

Arseviev and Dersu’s paths will cross on a few occasions over the years, with Dersu saving the Russian captain’s life on more than one occasion.  In one of the film’s more exciting sequences, the two men have strayed too far from the group when a great bluster of weather hits them.  Dersu senses the storm somewhat ahead of time, and knows they will not make it if he does not act quickly.  Though the situation seems hopeless, Dersu’s instincts and knowledge of the terrain are what allow them to cheat Death.

Now that's a knife!
But Dersu is a superstitious man, a big part of the package of this complex personality.  His interactions with a tiger, and the fact that he is aging and with poor eyesight, will lead him to decide to hang up his cleats and retire as a wayfaring loner.  Much like Crocodile Dundee did in 1986 when he moved from the Outback of Australia to New York City, Dersu Uzala, having thrived most of his life on his home court, the Wilderness, will now move to perhaps his most difficult challenge, taking on Civilization.

Kurosawa was greatly influenced by, and in turn, was a great influence to, the American Western film.  The Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) were remade into Westerns The Magnificant Seven (1960 and 2016) and A Fistful of Dollars (1967).  In his Japanese films, Kurosawa is a master of using climate as a key element of his movie-making—you will be hard pressed to find one of his films that does not have intense rain or wind scene, shaping the mood and often affecting the characters’ actions.  Dersu Uzala has those scenes, but more.  It is a movie about a man living in and being part of his Wilderness. Dersu is a short, stocky, Asiatic-looking old man living in eastern Russia, but he epitomizes the Cowboy as much as anyone in a John Ford movie.

The real Dersu Uzala
The Title:  Дерсу Узала, based on a 1923 non-fiction book about this very real man.  Believe it or not, there were two movies with this title, the other one made by the Soviets in 1961.

The Culture:  Kurosawa considered making this movie early in his career, before he became an internationally famous director with 1950’s Rashomon.  He tabled his idea because he knew that this was a film that had to be made on location.  Kurosawa captures the cruel climate of this part of Russia in a number of masterfully shot scenes.  But he also presents the Wilderness, represented by the tribal uncivilized people of this area, with much respect and dignity.  Dersu, a man of wisdom but great superstition, is presented with admiration and even awe.

Agenda danger:  An admiration of Man’s rugged individualism pervades the film, without some preachy side message about how Man is ruining his environment, which is what we would undoubtedly see if this movie were remade today.

Best Picture that year:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Rating:  A wonderful film.  This is not even in the top five Kurosawa movies (I would put it at about 9), but if you’ve enjoyed any of his films, one reason to watch is to see his work away from Japan.  I enjoyed the relationship between Dersu and Arseniev, and the last part of the movie, set in a calm town atmosphere, is as gripping as the two men’s grappling with nature.