The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

“The Thief of Bagdad” is pure spectacle, lacking the psychological heft of “Metropolis”, the emotional beauty of “Sunrise”, the economic and timeless genius of Buster Keaton stunts, but it rivals all of them and more as a film full of real movie moments. The production design is grand and daunting, the creativity and scope is unmatched. It is not a “film” but a “movie” with inspiration and sights worthy of a prince.

The_Thief_of_Bagdad_(1924)_-_film_posterCritics who today bristle at true movie spectacles like “Avatar” or “Gravity” for want of a more substantive story are less likely to do the same when faced with a silent film. The technical precision and thoughtful filmmaking required to communicate ideas and tell any story seems to be enough.

And yet “The Thief of Bagdad” is pure spectacle, lacking the psychological heft of “Metropolis”, the emotional beauty of “Sunrise”, the economic and timeless genius of Buster Keaton stunts, but it rivals all of them and more as a film full of real movie moments. The production design is grand and daunting, the creativity and scope is unmatched. It is not a “film” but a “movie” with inspiration and sights worthy of a prince.

Such was the nature of the swashbuckler film, a genre of capes and swords and heroes and sandals in a far off Eastern World and period in history. None were better than “The Thief of Bagdad”, and no one was a bigger star than Douglas Fairbanks Sr. His visage here is rugged, shirtless, masculine, cocky and virile. Fairbanks opens the film sleeping in the sun in the busy Baghdad bazaar, awaiting unsuspecting citizens to stop to take a drink so he can swipe their purses. Despite his crimes, Fairbanks immediately carries the movie star swagger that would define onscreen masculinity for decades. He’s the film’s hero because we know him to be. And his charms as a thief and criminal, one tempted to drug the princess, one who is sacrilegious and rejects God, are shocking and remarkable for a pre-code film.

But there’s no sense what he’s doing is wrong. It’s fun and exciting action of a man on the run. One of the film’s great early stunts sees him throw a man’s turban onto a high-up ledge, place it beneath the man’s heavy frame, tie the end to a donkey, and get the motion of the donkey to lift him up.

Fairbanks did all his own stunts, and despite having his hands in every aspect of the film, he stayed out of the way to allow Raoul Walsh to direct and capture the moment in one perfect wide shot. And Fairbanks makes it look easy, performing with a wink and a smirk much unlike the stone-faced Keaton when doing the same.

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Truly though “The Thief of Bagdad’s” charms are in the effects and spectacle and not the stunts alone. The film was the first to cost over $1 million. Though that’s just $13 million in today’s dollars, hardly enough for even a mid-size indie, Fairbanks orchestrated upwards of six acres on which to build his Baghdad, staging magnificent palaces and armies of extras to populate this miniature city. And the money is certainly on the screen. We see tigers and chimps climbing out of trap doors, massive and ornate palace gates opening in sections, hazy, glimmering filters to create underwater sequences, hidden caves and valleys of fire, many with vast depth in the shots to highlight the film’s grandiose proportions.

Admittedly these effects have not aged well, or perhaps are not as timeless as some of the more tangible effects in other silent classics. Fairbanks does battle with a monster that’s in actuality a superimposed reptile with additional spikes. He rides a “Winged Horse” that doesn’t fly but gallops “in the sky”. And yet to see Fairbanks and the princess take off on a flying carpet at the end of the film is as whimsical as advertised.

The story is drawn from the tales of Arabian Nights legend, and was remade most notably in 1940, another fantasy classic. Modern audiences however might know it best as Disney’s “Aladdin”. A thief living on the streets makes to steal treasure from the palace, but encounters the princess and falls in love. She is to be wed to one of several princely suitors (“He’s fat and gross as if fed on lard!”), so the thief disguises himself as a prince to win her affection. When he is outed as a fraud, he goes on a quest to find a magic chest that will make him a prince, all while the evil Mongol prince plots to capture Baghdad.

It’s a charming tale of romance, adventure and all that makes a great swashbuckler, even if it does greatly sag during the more modest scenes of romance. But “The Thief of Bagdad” is ultimately a spiritual journey. The film is bookended with the priest’s prophecy, “Happiness Must Be Earned.” The effort on splendor on display here is more than enough to earn any modern audience’s happiness.

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The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman updated Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe for his comedy noir classic “The Long Goodbye”.

TheLongGoodbyePosterReleased a year before “Chinatown”, Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” is the other dense masterpiece of mystery and contemporary noir with a plot so layered it may demand a second viewing to keep it all straight.

But Altman is a director of character and dialogue. For as complicated as the story gets, we never lose track of the people and the moods at its core. If “The Long Goodbye” has earned comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”, it’s because Thomas Pynchon’s prose matches Altman’s attention to detail in the richness of his characters that color every moment. Altman’s signature conversational style and his theatrical cast of characters feel right at home with the thorny, pulpy stuff of a Raymond Chandler novel, as the menagerie of free-loving nudists, Jewish mobsters, Hemingway-grade drunkards, sinister psychiatrists and play-acting toll booth attendants wonderfully wrap us in Chandler’s twisted yarn.

In order to appropriately convey a place and a time Altman knew so well, he had to update the iconic character Philip Marlowe into the 1970s, transforming him from a hard-nosed detective played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart into a smart-talking loser whose body language and dress sense couldn’t be more out of place in this more modern world.

Altman enlisted Leigh Brackett to write the screenplay, who previously had a hand with another Raymond Chandler novel, 1946’s “The Big Sleep”. And Elliott Gould steps into Marlowe’s shoes and suit, a brilliantly pathetic and smarmy performance that finds Marlowe pitifully attempting to pass off a different brand of cat food to his cat.

For a while, “The Long Goodbye” is a lark. Topless women are making brownies next door to Marlowe’s apartment. When cops come and ask him about his friend who has disappeared, Marlowe is an utter smart-ass. When he gets pulled in for questioning, he sees the grocery clerk who insulted him at the store because he has a girlfriend and doesn’t need a cat. The two exchange quick words, and it’s another sign of how fully developed these characters are, however momentary they appear on screen. And when the detectives question Marlowe, he’s managed to put on a healthy coating of black face just to further play the fool.

In that moment, things get serious on a dime. In a few overlapping words and a jumble of point of view shots, Marlowe’s friend Terry, whom he just drove to Mexico to avoid suspicion, is dead. The stakes and suspicions have been raised. Someone is dead, the cops think it’s a suicide, but characters that we’ve met only in passing or not at all have enough depth to make us believe not all is right.

Altman is well known as a wonderful storyteller, but “The Long Goodbye” is good evidence of Altman as the brilliant visual stylist. When the reveal of Terry’s death is made clear, we get it from behind one-way glass, a coldly effective way to up the dramatic tension. When he’s calling Terry’s neighbor to follow his suspicions, the camera tracks in on Marlowe ever so slowly. The pace is measured and laid back, befitting of a comedy, but the urgency and curiosity is there. And when Marlowe first questions Terry’s neighbor Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), Altman elegantly illustrates in one unbroken shot and no dialogue what another director would make all too obvious. Marlowe turns Eileen’s face toward the camera, revealing the bruised, drunken abuse of her husband Roger (Sterling Hayden), all without an additional close-up or point to call attention to it.

So much of “The Long Goodbye” is filled with these modest thrills and twists. Moments of great conflict, like when a mobster smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face, or when Eileen spies Roger walking out into the ocean, are remarkably memorable. But all of them are executed minimally in the way that Altman does best. The latter doesn’t even utilize John Williams’s recurring “Long Goodbye” score motif. It’s not slow cinema waiting for a surprise or action cinema building tension. Altman has allowed his characters to stew in a pot, bubbling with humor, emotion, peculiarities and finally excitement, and what their actions mean in the grander scheme of a “plot” is almost beside the point.

That’s not to say “The Long Goodbye” doesn’t have an incredible story and a perfectly summed up finale. But its charms are in how it breaks apart the rigid confines of the mystery genre and makes a movie that’s equal parts funny and fascinating. It’s like the cat food Marlowe’s trying to pass off to his cat: what’s inside feels different and strange for those who haven’t tried noir or Altman, but the label surrounding it still makes a wonderful package.

2001: A Space Odyssey – An Unusual Epic

Watching that opening, rarely is something so grandiose, so unironically epic, and something that has been lampooned and parodied to death still capable of conjuring up feelings of magnificence. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the few movies remaining with this unspeakable power in cinema.  People may argue about their favorite Stanley Kubrick films, but there are few that so fully demonstrate his mastery in just a few moments.

“2001” left so many audiences in 1968 floored. It was a movie unlike anything anyone had ever seen and perhaps still is. Upon watching the film for the third time, “2001” in many ways is decidedly not what one would associate with a modern epic, or even an Old Hollywood epic. Its images have scope and size, but how much of the film earns its resonance in the way even Kubrick copycats have conditioned us to expect today?

The opening goes against the grain completely. Kubrick shows us empty, still images that let us know this is Earth, but not an Earth we know. Apes appear and interact at the Dawn of Man, and the traces of humanity we see are the first hints of fear, boredom, curiosity and most terrifyingly of all, aggression.

When the music cues again, it doesn’t invoke melodrama but that of discovery, violence, genius and evolution. If Kubrick knew anything it was that these themes needed to be portrayed on as large of a canvas as possible if they were to mean anything. Continue reading “2001: A Space Odyssey – An Unusual Epic”

Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western with a dark twist

Joan Crawford leads Nicholas Ray’s film that’s surprisingly relevant on gender politics.

In a time when women are as vocal as ever about the hypocrisy of being shamed for their sexuality by both men and other women and when women become the villains and not the victims of abuse or even rape in relationships, a movie like “Johnny Guitar” in a genre historically associated with men, the Western, is surprisingly and strangely relevant.

Nicholas Ray’s film is a classic Old Hollywood Western, but at times it may as well be “The Scarlet Letter.” Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon owner in a small town that for some reason wants nothing to do with her. The railroad is on its way and Vienna has scooped up the rights to the train depot, so the value of her land is about to skyrocket. But on a particularly quiet and stormy night when a mysterious man named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived to serve Vienna, a posse of men and the town marshall show up to harass Vienna and demand she leave town in 24 hours. The posse’s leader Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) suspects Vienna’s involvement with a local gang led by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), and she viciously wants all of them hung, believing them to be responsible for the death of her brother in a recent stagecoach robbery.

The story turns out to be intricately layered. Love triangles abound, no character is remotely trusting of the others, and some like Emma harbor deep seeded hatred of Vienna and the local gang. Emma is in fact so vindictive and spiteful of Vienna that she gets sadistic pleasure out of burning down Vienna’s saloon and calling for her hanging. She’s a coldly brilliant villain in the hands of McCambridge, and her performance is so good that she makes puddles into these hardened male gunslingers.

But Emma’s spite of Vienna runs so deep that she’s been labeled a tramp for no good reason, assumed to be involved with these bad men and harboring worse intentions. Emma also secretly loves the Dancin’ Kid, despite his own unreturned fancy for Vienna, and this only amplifies the sexual tension. In an early scene, Vienna speaks of this dilemma in a way that might still seem relatable to all women of today. “A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.”

That kind of nuanced feminist plea feels mighty rare in a genre like this, and it carries all the way through to the showdown at the end between Vienna and Emma. Having two women face off in the spots where John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have stood so many times before may just be unprecedented.  Continue reading “Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western with a dark twist”

The Wild Bunch: An unapologetically polarizing masterpiece

Sam Peckinpah’s pivotal and controversial late ’60s film helped define New Hollywood with gratuitous violence.

As “The Wild Bunch” opens, Pike Bishop and his gang ride past a group of children and look down from their horses with a scowl. The children are watching as a swarm of fire-red ants overwhelm two struggling scorpions. They giggle and laugh before piling brush on top and engulfing both ants and scorpions in flames.

It’s the wicked consuming the wicked as the next generation wipes the slate clean with an even more casual act of desensitized violence.

Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” is a Western with no redemption or morality. It ravishes the romantic vision of the Wild West and the sanitized Old Hollywood template through a gratuitously violent, emotionally drained portrait of real outlaws.

Peckinpah is going for something in which the uncomfortable act of violence in the West is not a cathartic, exciting spectator sport but a brutal look at where the world is moving. In the film’s infamous final showdown, Pike and company are the scorpions, the ants are the army of Mexican soldiers under a corrupt general, and those kids looking and laughing are the ones who have no trouble dealing Pike the killing blow.

“The Wild Bunch” was premiered to uproarious controversy and rapturous acclaim at Cannes in 1969. It was arguably the most violent film ever made and a definitive pillar in the New Hollywood movement slowly rising in Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino and Peckinpah himself.

If nothing else, “The Wild Bunch” is a polarizing masterpiece. Some will see it as an exercise in style over substance, trading in excessive bloodshed and elaborate set pieces rather than flesh out its characters, and others will find it slow and empty as a result of its existential execution. Its plot of old souls and wounded warriors just looking for a way out is forlorn, but not nostalgic and sentimental in the ambiguously elegant ways of something like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Continue reading “The Wild Bunch: An unapologetically polarizing masterpiece”

Ben-Hur: Not a movie, but an event

“Ben-Hur” has not aged well, but watching it still feels like an event. It works because it shamelessly, un-cynically embraces its bigness.

Well scratch “Ben-Hur” from the list of super long movies I’ll eventually get around to seeing. I finally watched all 222 minutes of it. That just leaves “Intolerance,” “My Fair Lady” and “Giant” as 3-hour plus AFI 100 titles that will be buried in my Netflix queue for another few months or years.

But the reason you really have to watch “Ben-Hur” is because even today, watching it feels like an event. I rented it from the library on Blu-Ray because I decided, “This was the weekend I’m finally going to do it!” I was going to sit and listen to the six and a half minute Overture of unabashedly gigantic swells in Miklos Rosa’s score and just be wowed by something. I don’t think I felt that way when I popped “Persona” in the DVD player last week.

Here is a movie that shamelessly, un-cynically embraces its spirituality and its bigness. It lacks the nuance and adventure contained within something like “Lawrence of Arabia,” but in its straight-forward approach it attains that feeling of epic grandeur at every moment.

Director William Wyler ultimately agreed to do the project because he wanted to “Out DeMille Cecil B. DeMille.” “The Ten Commandments,” which also starred Charlton Heston, was a big success a few years earlier, but “Ben-Hur” was significant because it was the movie that would ultimately save MGM from bankruptcy (or at least until quite recently). The movie was the fastest money-maker of all time and was second only to “Gone With the Wind” at the box office. Continue reading “Ben-Hur: Not a movie, but an event”

Rear Window: Hitchcock's most emotional film

Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” is one of his most deeply emotional movies. Read more about “Rear Window” in this analysis of the film.

“Rear Window” has been mercilessly scrutinized, fitting for a movie about people obsessed with minute details. We fully understand how the movie is put together, how Alfred Hitchcock creates suspense minimally and how he ties all those tingling suspicions into a story of voyeurism, privacy, neighbors and curiosity.

But those who have seen the film will know how emotionally wrenching it is. Tangential to the main mystery, Hitchcock colors an entire community of lonely people struggling with marriages, romances or careers. These livelihoods serve not to add clues to the murder mystery but to emphasize the one core idea running through “Rear Window,” a fear that could be shared by anyone, not just Hitchcock: “What if you are witness to something terrible and can do nothing to prevent it?”

Poor L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is witness to a lot of such trauma, even within his own life. But as is true outside of the window, he’s pretty powerless to do anything about it. His romance with the wealthy and glamorous Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is troubled. The two of them are incompatible people, yet she’s clearly in love. He knows she’s perfect but can’t foresee a way to make it work, and she can’t do a thing to change his mind. Continue reading “Rear Window: Hitchcock's most emotional film”

Rapid Response: Persona

Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” is like a lucid dream: beyond description, but impossible to forget.

Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” is like a lucid dream; the images are so vivid long after you’ve left it, but it feels impossible to describe even as it’s happening. It’s a shocking, intense masterpiece that I am not yet fully equipped to write about.

Bergman’s films always connect on a gut, spiritual level. His early masterpieces “Wild Strawberries” and “The Seventh Seal” are both deeply religious and symbolic works of art, and his later masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” is a more down to Earth art house feature, one that is tender and disturbing at once.

“Persona” is rooted deeply in both approaches, and yet its starkly avant-garde styling and free-form, utterly pretentious story and editing makes it an extremely perplexing watch. Somehow though, Bergman is a talented enough director to overcome the idea that his film is pretentious at all. “Persona” is raw and deeply emotional, an extremely gut wrenching story that embodies the naked existence of man and of art. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Persona”

'Argo' absolutely deserved to win Best Picture

“Argo” may not try anything completely new or daring, but it’s an ambitious achievement and a new classic. “Argo” is the most deserving of all the Best Picture nominees.

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Image courtesy of CNN

As it became increasingly certain that “Argo” would walk away with a Best Picture Oscar Sunday night, the articles claiming why “Argo” was not worthy of the movie industry’s top prize were a dime a dozen. Heaven forbid that in this Internet age we have something other than a contrarian opinion, or that we commit the even worse sin of agreeing with the Oscars.

Because a funny thing happens when something or someone becomes the assumed front-runner: people get begrudgingly accepting of whatever it will be. Everyone knew “Argo” and Anne Hathaway and Daniel Day-Lewis would win, but was anyone really happy about it until they finally did and gave the touching (or in Day-Lewis’s case hilarious) speech they were always meant to?

The Academy’s stamp of approval suggests to most that something is good and for the most part deserving, but the real gem is something else entirely.  Yet somehow I doubt that every critic who writes about the Oscars for a living would be infinitely happier if “Holy Motors” was the indisputable winner, because a win for a movie like that wouldn’t say as much about this year in movies as “Argo” will.

No, my movie of the year didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture, but I’m prepared to say that no movie deserved to win the Oscar this year more than “Argo.” Continue reading “'Argo' absolutely deserved to win Best Picture”

TRON (1982)

It’s amazing how far computers have come. It has now been 30 years since the original “Tron” came out in 1982, and the film looks so different from the computer generated animation we have today that you have to wonder how anyone could call this movie a precursor or inspiration for the entire style of filmmaking.

Rather, what I see in “Tron” is a cult film that set the spark for what the movies could be. It recognized that computers could do what hand drawn animators had been doing for years, but it could use live action actors and do things differently, if not better, than a pencil and paper ever could. What makes “Tron” durable today is that although no film looked like it in 1982, still no film looks anything like it in 2012. Its rudimentary technology is all its own, and as other films took filmmaking in different directions than the ones it established and passed it by altogether, “Tron” remained distinctive and unique, forever a gem in its own pocket of history.

Director Steven Lisberger was inspired to try and make a computer-generated movie when he saw the motion within the classic video game Pong. He was the first to truly imagine that this technology could be used in film, even though his pitch was little more than a 30 second clip demonstrating what computers were capable of creating. All the major studios rejected him, but Disney opened their doors as they sought to take more daring projects. The only problem there was that the hand drawn animators employed at Disney felt that this movie, if successful, might put them all out of a job, forcing Lisberger to receive outside help from computer companies to finish the film.

“Tron” was not the first film to use CGI, but it was the first to do so extensively, extensively here meaning just 15 minutes of footage. The remainder of the film is essentially animated, but it models its cyber-punk look off something called “backlit animation” that was popular in the ’70s. This process required photographing actors in black and white in front of black backdrops such that animation could be projected in the background. So what you get are 3-D people standing in front of plainly 2-D drawings, all of it amplified with neon color to make the image pop. So occasionally, it looks as though the characters are walking on thin air with the space itself on an entirely different plane. Through the technology known as rotoscoping, animators can digitally add or remove color from the frame. But because these computers could only handle so much data and digital processing at a given time, a lot of the detail in the background would be lost, and rather than have it look poor, the animators would simply black out that segment of the frame. “When in doubt, black it out,” they would say during production. To make the process even less complicated, anything that required these visual effects were done with a completely stationary camera, one that was quite literally nailed to the floor. But you wouldn’t notice because there is constantly so much activity and color on screen.

Even the CGI sequences were less examples of how to do digital animating today but how to apply conventional animation techniques to computers. Computers could not render motion with digital imagery, so “Tron’s” famous light cycle sequence was completed by inputting coordinates of where an object was supposed to move next into each individual frame and spliced together on film. That this looks so seamless and exciting on screen is a testament to just how tireless the effort was on this film. Continue reading “TRON (1982)”