Jean Renoir and La Bête humaine

“You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, more than a few years ago.

So yesterday, I finished La Bête humaine by Emile Zola.

I have written before about my love for the streaming wonderfulness of The Criterion Channel. So tonight I sat down and watched the 1938 film by Jean Renoir, his version of Zola’s La Bête humaine.

It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.

What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.

Simone Simon, in a publicity still from Cat People

Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.

It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.

A Couple of Movies

“- Colonel Kane: Maybe we’re just fish out of water.

– Col. Richard Fell: What was that?

– Colonel Kane: I just think about sickness, cancer in children, earthquakes, war, painful death. Death, just death. If these things are just part of our natural environment why do we think of them as evil? Why do they horrify us so? Unless we were meant for someplace else.”

—-The Ninth Configuration

Dallas Arboretum

I had a very busy and stressful week at work and it kept going until late Friday. It left me enervated and exhausted. There are things that I need to do and things that I want to do but I wasn’t up for anything. To unwind and decompress I decided to sit my lazy ass down in the living room and watch a random movie or two from the Criterion Channel.

For no particular reason I picked a film from 1980 (though it felt very sixties-ish) the directorial debut by the author of the Exorcist, William Peter Blatty – The Ninth Configuration, starring Stacy Keach and a pile of character actors from the time.

My reading group is plowing through The Brothers Karamazov (and I am really enjoying it). As I’m sure you know, one of the themes of TBK is the question of the existence of God and, if he doesn’t exist, what is the basis for morality, if there is one. Very heavy stuff. It turns out that is the theme of The Ninth Configuration also – musings on God and Morality and Sin and Redemption. It’s the same themes, but instead of 19th century Czarist Russia the story is set in a castle in the Pacific Northwest that has been converted into an asylum for soldiers left insane by their experiences in the Vietnam War. Plus one patient – an astronaut that went raving crazy with fear on the verge of his flight to the moon.

It is a movie of its time – it doesn’t age all that well – but it is an interesting work of genius. It starts out silly and clunky – I was on the verge of giving up – but around the halfway point it veers off into new territory. There are revelations and surprises and a really crackerjack bar fight.

When it was over I made the mistake of clicking around the Criterion Channel menus and ended up watching a second film – the 1922 silent version of Nosferatu. I have, of course, seen the imagery from the movie – but had never sat through the film itself. It was fun to see the original vampire film. Count Orlof (Dracula, really, the names were changed due to the fact they never obtained rights to Bram Stoker’s story) is what a vampire would really be like – terrifying, yet strangely sad and pitiful. Vampires have become cool and sexy – that doesn’t make much sense to me. The undead should be shabby and wretched, like in Nosferatu, even if they are terrible and incredibly dangerous.

So it too, if dated, was fun to watch.

Dracula A.D. 1972

“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

I enjoyed watching The Devil’s Backbone last night I decided to cruise onto The Criterion Channel again and find something else. It had been a difficult day (aren’t they all?) so I wanted something entertaining (maybe campy) and nostalgic – plus something I didn’t have to think too hard about.

High school is such an influential time – so many things things from those tender years are locked in your very soul.

During that brief precious time one thing that I did was go three times a week to movies shown at the US Embassy. These were free, shown on 16mm, and flown from country to country as a service for embassy and military overseas. Sort of a taste of home away from home. They weren’t first run movies – most were up to a year old… sort of what might be shown in a dollar theater today (or last year). After the embassy was destroyed in the earthquake these were shown in the Marine guard quarters or sometimes at our house. I learned to run the 16mm reels – which was more difficult than you would think.

At any rate, this thrice-weekly showings were a big part of my life – I never missed a film. I would see a film or two in a “civilian” theater too – so for a lot of my formative years I was seeing at least four random movies in a week. The source of a lifetime addiction.

Though an occasional “classic” would slip through, most of these movies were pretty bad and a lot of them weren’t exactly appropriate for children. No harm done.

One group of schlocky flicks to come through the embassy was pretty much the entire catalog of classic 1970s Hammer Horror. The most memorable films – the ones burned into my paltry gray matter – were the Dracula films starring Christopher Lee.

It was a film series, many of them led into each other, roughly. There was:

Dracula
The Brides of Dracula
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave
Taste the Blood of Dracula
Scars of Dracula
and
Dracula A.D. 1972

I pretty much remember all of them except the first two (they were a bit before my time). It’s amazing how many plot points, bits of eerie music, spouts of blood, and spectacular cleavage that I still remember to this day. Those are the things that an adolescent male mind is particularly sensitive to.

So, tonight, I spotted Dracula A.D. 1972 on the list of Criterion Collection films and sat down to watch it.

First of all, it isn’t a very good movie – arguably the weakest Dracula film – and it has not aged very well. Dracula is killed in 1872 and then resurrected in swinging London, 1972, to prey on a group of decadent hippies including Van Helsing’s great-granddaughter. It has a third-rate Austin Powers vibe that doesn’t fit very well with the whole evil blood-sucking thing.

I can’t really recommend it on quality… but on nostalgia mindless entertainment… it fits the bill.

The Devil’s Backbone

“What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
Guillermo del Toro. The Devil’s Backbone

Will I ever see another movie in a real theater? I’m sure I will, but right now it’s unimaginable.

I decided to pay for the streaming service, The Criterion Channel. Tonight I watched a movie that I had seen in the theater a few years ago – Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo). I had made a point to go down to Mockingbird to catch it at the Angelika after seeing its crackerjack trailer before another movie a week earlier.

It’s worth a second look.

The first scene is a bomb falling from a warplane in a rainstorm. It turns out the bomb falls in the courtyard of a Spanish orphanage, but it doesn’t explode. It remains stuck in the ground, sticking up at a steep angle- death, danger, and doom made into steel. The orphanage claims the bomb has been defused, but the orphans claim that it is still ticking.

The orphanage is collecting the sons of the Republican fighters in the final catastrophic days of the Spanish Civil War. The bomb is by no means the most frightening thing in the orphanage – there is the war, boatloads of secrets, and a ghost boy with dire warnings.

Yes, it is a ghost story… but in a world gone to hell, a ghost can almost be a breath of… if not fresh – at least welcome air.

Guillermo del Toro has gone on to great Hollywood fame (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Hellboy, The Shape of Water) but he has said this is his favorite among his own films. A sibling film to Pan’s Labyrinth (also set during the Spanish Civil War).

There are ghosts, and pain, and hell comes to earth… but there is also poetry, friends, and music and sometimes that’s enough to go on.

Podcast on The Devil’s Backbone

The Criterion Collection

I don’t know about any of you, but over the past year I have become less and less happy with the selection that Netflix has streaming online. More and more, I have been going over to Hulu+ which I began paying for a while back. I bought Hulu+ for the television shows. I have been so busy it has been almost impossible for me to sit down and watch an entire film, so I have been diving into the shallow pedestrian seas of TeeVee – both current and classic. Hulu has always been a good place for that. Hulu, however, doesn’t have the best interface in the world and I have been having trouble finding what I wanted.

So a month or so ago I sat down and did some work figuring out the site structure and how to find what I want. While doing this I discovered a staggering fact.

Hulu+, starting in February of 2011 started streaming the entire Criterion Collection of movies online. The entire collection.

More

More

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So what? – you must be asking. What the hell is that? Criterion Collection? Who cares?

Criterion is a company that is dedicated to putting the best films of international cinema onto digital media (DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming) and doing an amazingly bang-up job of it. Their catalog is up to somewhere around eight hundred films now, with more every day.

If you know me, having access to something like this, from my roku box on the television, to my laptop computers (Hulu+, unlike Netflix, will even work on Linux), to our Kindle Fire…. well, that’s like dumping a big ol’ pile of Heroin in my lap.

Where to start? Well, first off, I found the Criterion Selections after stumbling across a film, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been looking for for a while – In the Realm of the Senses. This Japanese film, banned in Japan, has a notorious reputation of being nothing more than high class pornography, with a horrendous, vile, and violent conclusion.

After actually watching the thing, I can report honestly, that the reputation is well earned. So, on to the next film.

What next? I have seen a lot of these over the decades and want to watch them again – but there are a lot that I have never seen… and a few I’ve never even heard of.

I can watch these great classic movies while I’m riding my exercise bicycle. Wait, let me get my list of New Year’s Resolutions out….

Here’s a list from Paste Magazine of ten recommended films, this looks good:

  • The Kid (1921)
  • George Washington (2000)
  • The Seven Samurai (1954)
  • La Jetée (1962) (source material for 12 Monkees)
  • Jules and Jim (1962)
  • The Blob (1958)
  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • M (1931)
  • The Vanishing (1988)

I’ve seen all but two of these… but it is a worthy list.

Here’s a recommendation for:

  • Knife in the Water (1962)
  • Lord of the Flies (1963)
  • Ratcatcher (1999)

This guy is blogging his way through the whole thing. So is this guy… and this guy too, and this guy.

So many films, so little time.

Any suggestions, please leave a comment.