Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.
 

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

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All that Heaven Allows

The trailer promises “torture and ecstasy.” Maybe we get some.

I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy All that Heaven Allows (1955) starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson as a November – June romance, but the movie does swerve into the melodrama lane as the ad suggests.

The movie opens with wealthy widow Cary (Wyman) getting urged to attend a party by her friend Sara (played by Bewitched’s Agnes Morehead). Cary’s got to fend off loneliness after all. Sara later urges Cary to get a television set as that’s a good companion. At a country club party, Cary and the audience are bored by the snobbish guests who idolize convention.

Then young and handsome Ron enters Cary’s life and soon they’re in love. A gardener by trade, Ron prefers a simple, outdoorsy life. His friends admire his down-to-earth value system. As time goes by, Ron proposes and Cary wants her friends and college age kids to know about her relationship.

A beautiful middle-aged woman and a young man?! This pair sends shockwaves through the town. Cary’s friends are vicious towards Ron. Her children through adolescent tantrums. What are you thinking? Do you know how this looks?

Cary has to choose between her secure past and a romantic future.

The film took on a fresh situation. Questions like does Ron want children? aren’t addressed as the main theme is the effects of snobbery and convention. Sometimes the dialog was laid on thick and wanted to tell the director “I know what you’re driving at so you don’t need to be so obvious.” All in all, I was pulled into the story and happy to stick with it.

Auntie Mame

I can’t think of a more vibrant, exuberant character than Auntie Mame played by Rosalind Russell.

“Live! Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When young Patrick’s father dies, he’s sent to live with his vivacious Auntie Mame. Before you know it, he’s stirring the perfect martini and at a progressive school where clothing is optional. His trustee Mr. Babcock is appalled and Patrick is shipped off to a boarding school but gets to spend every holiday with his only living relative Auntie Mame, a free-spirit and free-thinker.

Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isn’t even registered there, he never has been. So I’ve been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.

Mame Dennis: Mr. Page is a progressive educator…

Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.

Mame Dennis: I assure you that the children under Mr. Page’s care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening pursuits.

Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.

Patrick Dennis: We were just playing Fish Families.

Dwight Babcock: Fish Families!

Patrick Dennis: It’s part of “constructive play”.

Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.

Mame Dennis: Show me now, darling, show me.

Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.

Mame Dennis: [pause] What could be more wholesome or natural?

When the market crashes, Mame loses her fortune and takes on a variety of jobs which she botches with aplomb. All looks bleak till Game meets an oil tycoon from Texas who soon marries her after she defies his family’s efforts to ridicule her.

Sally Cato: [before a fox-hunt] Well? Shall we to the hounds?
Mame Dennis: [muttering] Yeah, I’d love to meet your family.

The film delights from start to finish. Same does face her share of slings and arrows and always faces them with courage, charm and wit. I haven’t seen this film in years and found it one of the most delightful films I’ve seen in years. I’d say this is a perfect film. I must find more of Rosalind Russell’s films, though I fear few films can match or exceed this comedic masterpiece.

My Man Godfrey

The 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey is witty, but I’m not so sure about this romance.

William Powell stars as Godfrey, a down-on-his-luck fellow who’s fallen financially and is living on a city ash heap, which reminded me of the ash land in The Great Gatsby. One night socialite Irene, played by Carole Lombard, rescues Godfrey from the ash heap. To help Irene win her bizarre scavenger hunt, Godfrey agrees to allow her to use him as a “forgotten man,” the last item on her team’s list. Her exclusive club has its members who’re dripping in diamonds running about the city collecting goats, bird cages, flower carts, Japanese goldfish and a “forgotten men.” These crash elites treat people as objects and Godfrey plays along out of curiosity to see how horrible these people can be.

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Though ditzy, Irene isn’t half bad. She soon decides to hire Godfrey as the family butler. She doesn’t realize how she’s still objectifying him but there’s something wise about Godfrey. He realizes what’s going on and how clueless Irene is, but he’s willing to play along because he doesn’t romanticize poverty to the degree that he thinks sleeping in the ash heap is more honorable than sleeping in a clean, heated bedroom.

From day one the family’s clever maid sets Godfrey straight. The family is bananas. The mother is a souse, ruled by her caprice. The oldest daughter is a mean snob who plots to get Godrey arrested. A human bank, the father is ineffective, long suffering, tuned out like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Finally, the mother’s protege is a human eating machine who’s willing to be a toy for the mother in exchange for a free ride.

Irene becomes smitten with Godfrey and won’t take no for an answer no matter how much Godfrey tries to set boundaries. Though all the other butlers were quickly fired or quit in a huff, Godfrey hangs in there. Yet a house party, Godfrey’s true identity is revealed when one of his former Harvard classmates recognizes him. His nemesis Irene’s sister Caroline is intrigued and starts to follow Godfrey around town.

I can’t say My Man Godfrey will become a favorite. While I appreciated the insights and depiction of people who fell in status during the Depression, the two sisters were immature and catty. That’s no surprise because the mother also was an overgrown child.

Screwball comedies are supposed to be silly and over the top. In this regard, the film is a success. I am glad I saw it, but the end didn’t win me over. Perhaps if Irene changed more, perhaps I’d think better.

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Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

L’Enfance Nue

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In the same vein as Truffaut’s 400 Blows, L’Enfance Neu presents the story of a troubled boy growing up in 1960s France. In fact, François Truffaut produced this first film directed by Maurice Pialat.

While the actors in both films resemble each other, their personalities and stories are distinct. L’Enfance Neu is about François, an 11 year old, in the foster care system. His mother has abandoned him temporarily when he was 4. She doesn’t write and the boy knows little of her and nothing of his father. At the start he lives with a family, who has had enough of him. He steals, wets his bed, hangs out with the “bad boys” who mistreat cats and probably any other pet or person they impetuously think would be fun to test.

Yet François has his good side. He buys his foster mom a gift with the money his foster father gave him for his own use. He is a normal brother to the foster parents’ “real” daughter, who tells the social worker she likes François and would miss him if he left. The mother has a laundry list of François’ every fault and misdeed and the social worker realizes its pointless to leave the boy in this setting.

So François is shipped off to a new town where he’s placed with an elderly couple, who’ve been foster parents to dozens of kids including the teen Raoul, who lives there now.  The couple is loving and pragmatic. They get exasperated when François gets in trouble with his hooligan friends, but they respond as most parents do and they forget his past deeds and see the good in this troubled boy.

The story doesn’t end by tying a bright satin bow on the end, but neither does it just stop without some resolution. It’s realistic and fair to all sides. It doesn’t provide easy answers. François’ certainly affected by his parents’ abandoning him, but he’s also no worse than the kids who have parents. None of them say, “We shouldn’t through the cat down the stairwell” or “We shouldn’t steal ice cream” at the movie theater. In that scene there were several older boys who knew better. In fact, one of the older boys was a lot more self-destructive than François.

I appreciated the realism and the fair shake all the characters got. You could sympathize with both the foster parents, François and the others in the film. While the foster system is far from perfect, these social workers were conscientious.

Pialat worked with non-actors and the natural performances were as good as any professional’s. This was Maurice Pialat‘s first film, which I highly recommend. I’d definitely seek out others.