Chungking Express

We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

—-Chungking Express

I saw an interview with Martin Scorcese a while back where he described the Marvel movies as “Theme Park Movies.” He went on to say that if you enjoy them, good for you, but don’t let them crowd out “real” movies from the limited screen real estate.

I agree. I am superheroed out. Maybe, some day, I’ll watch another comic book movie… but right now I don’t think I could make it all the way through. Life is too short.

Luckily, I have The Criterion Channel. And a list.

Yesterday I made time to sit down and watch Chungking Express – a Hong Kong comedy/drama/romcom by director Wong Kar-wai. I’m not going to write a full review, mostly because a review pretty much always contains spoilers and in my latter years I try really hard to see films spoiler-free. I want to give anyone coming to my site the same consideration.

I knew nothing about Chungking Express (for some reason, I thought it was about a train) and was very, very pleasantly surprised. It has a unique structure – it is not a theme park movie – yet it is very enjoyable and not hard to watch.

It is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies (the structure has some resemblance to Pulp Fiction). He has an excellent YouTube video about the film – it’s divided into two parts. You are supposed to watch the first part before seeing the film, then come back and watch the rest (though even the second half is pretty spoiler-free).

A great movie – and Tarantino does know of what he speaks.

After seeing this movie I’ll never buy a can of pineapple without looking at the expiration date… and never listen to California Dreaming the same way.

Yul Brynner and William Shatner

My boy, that was a TV show. I used a stunt double. I always use a stunt double. Except in love scenes. I insist on doing those myself.

—-William Shatner

Maria Schell as Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life. She makes an appearance as Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov.

So, I finished The Brothers Karamazov along with my reading group. While working my way through the book, I did as much “research” as I could – as you know, today, “research” means searching YouTube.

And I discovered there was a movie made when I was one year old from the book The Brothers Karamazov. I didn’t want to watch the movie until I finished the book, but I did watch the trailer.

And now that I’ve finished the book I went searching through the streaming channels and found it on Turner Movie Classics.

The movie was surprisingly good. Of course there is no way to cram an eight hundred page novel into one movie, but it was still enjoyable. The philosophical content was pretty much gone – no mention of The Grand Inquisitor or of the torture of children. What was left behind was melodrama rather than great art – but good melodrama nonetheless.

A couple of points:

Grushenka was played by the actress Maria Schell who had starred in Gervaise, the adaptation of Zola’s L’assommoir which I wrote about last year. I was disappointed in her Grushenka (probably my favorite character in the book) – her beauty was put to good use, but she grinned and hammed her way through the part. I think she missed the depth and pathos of Grushenka.

One shock when you see the trailer is that Alyosha (Alexei) (the so-called “hero” of the book) is played by an impossibly young William Shatner. It’s crazy to see Captain Kirk in a monk’s habit and haircut. Alexei is the quiet, reserved, and religious brother – not exactly Kirk material. The shocking thing is how good a job he does with the part. It is nice to see Shatner in a part where he is not chewing the scenery.

The story is concentrated on Dimitri. It’s a shame that Ivan gets such little screen time. He is in many ways the more interesting brother. But there isn’t time for more and to a great extent the more Yul Brynner the better.

And finally, the ending is completely changed. Gone is the bittersweet and ambiguous ending of the novel and in its place, a Hollywood happy ending.

A disappointment, I guess, but it is Hollywood, not a vast Russian tale of subtle philosophical ideas after all.

I guess it’ll do.

Bad Day at Black Rock

You killed Komoko, Smith, and sooner or later you’re gonna go up for it. Not because you killed him, because I think in a town like this, you can get away with it. But because you didn’t have guts enough to do it alone. You put your trust in guys like this – and Hector here – not the most dependable of God’s creatures. And one of these days, they’re gonna catch on that you’re playin’ ’em for a sap. And then what are ya gonna do? Peel ’em off, one by one? And in the meantime, one of ’em’s gonna crack and when they do, you’re gonna go down – but hard. ‘Cause they got somethin’ on ya, Smith. Something to use when the goin’ gets tough. And it’s gettin’ tougher every minute.

—-Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955 Poster)

Does everybody nowdays do this “television hierarchy” thing? TVs used to be a major purchase – only a little less expensive than a car – and would last for years. I remember my grandfather had one of the first remote control televisions. It had a little handheld box with tuning forks in it. You would mash a button and it would hit a fork, sending out an ultrasonic sound, and the TV would hear it. Volume up and down, channel up and down, TV off, and mute. He used the mute the most – hated listening to commercials. He used to want a TV with a coin slot in the back so he could pay for shows instead of watching commercials. This wasn’t so long ago – I remember this shit. The modern galaxy of entertainment with streaming and all would blow his mind.

But back to what I was saying…. Televisions are now so inexpensive and the technology is leaping ahead, we are buying new TVs every year. And there is a hierarchy. The newest, biggest one goes into the living room, the next biggest and newest goes in the bedroom, and the third – the smallest and oldest (yet still only two years old and pretty damn big and good) goes in my office in front of my exercise bike.

So I was hooking up that TV and adding all the proper streaming services and wanted to test The Criterion Channel (my favorite) – so I shot through the menu fast and random and selected Bad Day at Black Rock – for no real reason, just as a test.

It turned out to be crackerjack and I ended up watching the whole thing.

Bad Day at Black Rock stars Spencer Tracy as a mysterious on-armed man getting off a train at a town so isolated and forlorn the train doesn’t even stop there unless it’s a special request. Black Rock seems to have only nine people or so left, and only one of them is a woman (though that woman is a young Anne Francis – which counts for a lot. I remember her from Forbidden Planet – so I guess she has experience in being the only woman in a forlorn spot). Spencer Tracy is on a mysterious mission and the townsfolk have a terrible, mysterious secret, and I won’t do any spoilers.

The film is billed as a Western and it is set in the West, right after WWII, but it is more of a Noir Thriller. Though it does have the Western theme of good guys and bad guys and the plot requires every one to choose their sides and work up the courage to stick.

Everybody is in this movie. I mentioned Spencer Tracy and Anne Francis… plus Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine. Tracy was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role but lost out to Ernest Borgnine, also in this film, for his role in Marty.

The first shots of the movie are of a train hurtling across a vast, empty desert. The original plan was for a shot of the train moving fast, directly at the camera. But it was too dangerous to fly a helicopter in front of an approaching train. The stunt pilot had the solution. He filmed the train as it backed away. Then they reversed and sped up the film – for the perfect opening shot.

Bad Day at Black Rock, opening shot

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

Short Story Of the Day, Nouvelle Vague by Bill Chance

They would take a purposeful minute of silence every now and then. “If there’s nothing to say, let’s have a minute of silence” was their motto.

—-Bill Chance, Nouvelle Vague

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#15). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Nouvelle Vague

 

Armando loved cars. And his girlfriend Cecile had a great one. Her father had a bit of cash stashed away and bought her a vintage light blue ’65 Mustang Convertible to drive around while she was at school. She used to say, “I live the top down life.”

The two of them also loved film… or more precisely, movies, because they mostly watched them on tape. The VHS format had recently defeated its deathly adversary, the Betamax, and a rental store for the hard-core movie aficionado had opened up near his apartment. The two of them were renting stacks of tapes and working their way through the French New Wave.

Though they lived in a tumbleweed-blown college town in the middle of the great plains they liked to pretend they were in Paris. A greasy spoon was a pale but workable substitute for a Parisian Cafe – one even had sidewalk tables for those few days where the weather wasn’t blowing ice or baking heat. They watched Godard and talked politics over meals and she cut her hair like Anna Karina.

Like all Nouvelle Vague couples they saved their important, passionate conversations for the times they were driving in the car. She named the Mustang Metal Hurlant. They would drive with the top down, sometimes slowly or sometimes sliding around the gravely corners. They would take turns driving and would imagine a camera on the hood shooting through the windshield as they talked about their dreams, argued, or the passenger would lean against the driver and they would cruise in silence.

They would take a purposeful minute of silence every now and then. “If there’s nothing to say, let’s have a minute of silence” was their motto. A minute of silence can be a long time. A real minute of silence takes forever. But they took pride in being able to pull it off.

It took some effort but they learned to dance The Madison. Never found a place in public they could show off.

There was nothing better than driving around with the top down in the twilight evening after a hot day. The convertible made its own breeze and the world was awash in magical colors once the sun set until it became too dark. They kept a little cooler of iced beer cans under the dash and would sneak sips when they knew the cops weren’t watching. Even the condensation on the curved aluminum was beautiful and delicious.

At the end of one of these perfect evenings the night crept down the sky until they had to think of something else to do.

“I know!” Armando said, “Look over there.”

It was the last drive in theater. The VHS tapes had killed the drive in – but there was one last one, hanging on, out there on the edge of town, at the end of time.

They didn’t even look to see what movie was playing, but paid their money and drove in. They were the only customers – the space vast and empty.

“At least we’ll be able to see close,” said Cecile. She drove down right to the front, with the towering white screen rising above them like a fortification. Cecile looked over the door, confused.

“Hey! Where are all the little speakers on poles?”

“Oh, those are long gone,” said Armando, “People kept stealing them. You just tune in on the radio for the sound.”

“This car doesn’t have a radio.”

They drove all the way back to the one spot, right beside the snack bar that still had a speaker. The single employee (who owned the theater and had taken their money earlier) popping corn and filling sodas could keep an eye on that one. They watched the movie on the tiny, distant screen, with nothing but space between.

Still it was nice. And sitting there in that specific instant in that vintage car with the top down watching the last drive in alone (except for the snack bar guy) in that peculiar slice of time they were happy, content and in the moment – blissful and unaware of the tumult and pandemonium that was bearing down on them… on everybody… like a tsunami of insanity – only a few short decades away.

Gervaise

“With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of the garrison.

Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud, leaving a scarlet mark.”

Emile Zola, L’Assommoir

 

Yesterday I finished Zola’s L’Assommoir and enjoyed it a lot. In doing some online research about the book I discovered it had been made into a 1956 French film called Gervaise that wasn’t supposed to be too bad. It was directed by René Clément and starred Maria Schell (sister of Maximilian). I was able to find a copy of the film and waited until I finished the book – then sat down to watch it.

L’Assommoir is a big, complicated, 500 page book and I knew they would have to slim it down to get the story into a movie. They did, but remained faithful to the spirit of the Zola novel. The movie concentrates on Gervaise – not surprisingly – and leaves out a lot of the tumult around her. I really liked the film – despite being over sixty years old (a year older than me) it holds up well. Gervaise’s decent into abject poverty, despair, and destruction is rushed as compared to the book – she is still alive at the end of the film and the book conveys the horrors of her descent better. There is a political subplot added to the movie that wasn’t in the book – and I didn’t think it added much. But otherwise, I thought the movie did a good job and illustrated the look of a lot of the story that I had trouble imagining (having never been to Paris of the Second Empire myself).

Like the book, the movie suffered from prudish editing – luckily the version I found seems mostly uncut (it was 116 minutes long). The biggest difference seems to be in the fight in the wash house between Gervaise and her arch-rival Virginie at the beginning of the story – the version I saw had a bloody scene of Gervaise tearing off Virginie’s earring and then beating her bare bottom with a wooden paddle. Tame by modern standards – those scenes were too much for the 1950’s.

The movie is one of the most expensive (in modern currency) foreign films ever made. The sets are extensive, detailed, and realistic.

And the best thing is that many of the memorable set pieces of the book are preserved. The wedding party and its visit to the Louvre, the horrifying fall her husband takes off a roof on the day she is to buy her shop, Gervaise’s Name-Day feast, Coupou’s alcoholic madness (though transferred from an asylum to Gervaise’s shop – probably more dramatic that way), and most of all the famous fight between Gervaise and Virginie in the wash house – all were giving loving care and exciting treatment.

Gervaise and Virginie going at it in the wash house. Gervaise’s man, Lantier, has just run off with Virginie’s prostitute sister, Adèle.

Virginie about to hit Gervaise with the wooden paddle.

Gervaise has reversed the fight and is about to give Virginie a vicious paddling.

This scene was apparently too much for the censors. Virginie is about to get hers.

The wedding party goes to the Louvre, here Gervaise and Goujet are standing in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life.

A ruined and despairing Gervaise at the end of the film.

Compare this scene to:

L’Absinthe (detail) by Edgar Degas

At least Degas’ woman still has her hat (Gervaise has pawned hers).

 

Reviews of Gervaise:

Adapting Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, René Clément’s Gervaise (1956)

Gervaise: True Grit

GERVAISE – ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE

 

Lawrence of Arabia

The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

—-Lawrence of Arabia

One thing that I like is Fathom Events. It’s a company that shows special screenings on modern theaters. I usually go to their opera events – they stream the New York Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters everywhere.

Upcoming Fathom Events come to me in my email and one caught my eye. They were going to show Lawrence of Arabia. I have seen the film on television now and then – but I’m not sure I had ever watched it start to finish in one setting. I’m quite sure I had never seen it in a theater – especially not in a large modern screen with comfortable seats and food delivered to your seat… and beer.

“I’ve always wanted to see Lawrence of Arabia in a theater,” I told Candy.

“I’ve never heard anyone say that,” was her reply.

So I bought a ticket. I was worried that it would sell out so I bought it a week ahead, and chose a good seat.

On the day I settled in, ordered some chicken wings and a beer. Two guys came in, they had the two seats to the left of me. Another couple was behind us a few rows and a group of four off to the side.

That was it. I can’t believe more people didn’t want to see such a classic film in such a setting. The guy right next to me said, “Um, I’m going to move, nothing personal, but we might as well have some room.” He moved down a few seats on the other side of his friend. I wasn’t offended, of course, but it wrecked havoc with the waiters and the food and the bills and such.

The movie was great, of course. The desert scenes were the real heart of the film, spread out in glorious color across the vast curved screen. The movie is so unique, too. There are no female parts in the movie at all. It doesn’t have the usual epic arc – it’s really a personal story told across an enormous canvas. Key parts of the film are mysterious – it’s hard to say exactly what happened – and that’s another part of the genius.

All in all, a nice afternoon.