Category: 60’s


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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. Two main points. One, I watched this film in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It is now the wee hours of Thursday morning, and I’ve only just now had the chance to write this review. I’ve had to work many more hours this week than I had originally intended, and I stupidly kept putting off writing this review. So, I apologize if it is not my most well-written piece because this excellent film deserved a proper review. Second, we’re on a bit of a hot streak here on my blog. For this particular 50 film set, of which there are only 13 or so films left to watch, I’ve only given away 5 “A”s, counting the movie I’m about to review. And four of those five have been within my last ten reviews. So, it’s been a good time for me to write about the films I’m watching because otherwise this particular set has been mostly underwhelming to mediocre.)

There are two types of “sad” films. There are films that are sad because there is virtually no other way to approach their subject matter. These films involve genocide (Schindler’s List), terminal cancer (One True Thing), or the death of children. Other films are sad because they present truths about life and the human condition that we would rather ignore or look past. Synecdoche, New York is almost overwhelmingly depression for a variety of reasons, but perhaps, the most clear reason is the way it forces viewers to face their own mortality and the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives. A Single Man‘s portrayal of loneliness, isolation, and desperation are truly haunting, and I could tick off dozens of other films that I’ve reviewed that are overwhelmingly sad without being melodramatic about it. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen that falls into this latter category.

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It’s rather shocking that I find Rachel, Rachel as moving and soul-crushing as I do because I am clearly not the film’s target audience, and Paul Newman’s (The Color of Money) directorial debut does not seem like an easy candidate for a film that would age particularly well.  A movie that is very much the product of its late 1960s heritage as well as the obvious political sympathies of Paul Newman, Rachel, Rachel should, by all counts, come off as terribly naive and dated. It doesn’t; it doesn’t in the slightest. Never has the existential dread that comes from being stuck in a small town and controlled by the not necessarily malevolent but rarely benign machinations of others been so well-displayed. If you have ever felt lonely or like your life is rushing by with you as a mere observer, the powerful portrait that Rachel, Rachel paints may be overwhelming. It was for me.

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35 year old schoolteacher that lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother. A virgin with absolutely no excitement in life, Rachel’s quickly approaching middle age and knows she has nothing to show for it. The summer is approaching and when Rachel isn’t turning down invitations for social activity from her best friend, Calla (Estelle Parsons), or dinner invitations from her school principal, she’s dreading the end of the school year because she knows it means she will have nothing to do but pass the time at home with her widowed mother, making sandwiches and running errands and having no life of her own. It isn’t until Rachel meets a man from her childhood that she begins to make any decisions for herself, though her affair with the rakish Nick (James Olsen) proves to be anything but a fairytale romance.

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Easily, part of the reason why I thought I would find this film unappealing based on Netflix’s barely accurate plot description was that it is almost the archetype for countless, lesser films that followed. These are films that follow “wound tight woman learns to live when she meets a gregarious and young suitor with a true joie de vivre.” That’s more or less an entire subgenre of romantic dramas/comedies. What the other films fail to capture is the unerring vision of reality that Rachel, Rachel exudes in every scene (though it also indulges in the fantasies of the heroine but those are usually used for subversive reasons). Rachel, Rachel is a dark and unyielding look into the life of a woman whose path has been decided without her say from the start, and she may have reached the point where it’s too late to fix things. Any optimism in the film is tempered with healthy doses of unvarnished suffering, not just from Rachel but from nearly every person around her.

But, as insightful as the writing is, what truly makes Rachel, Rachel an under-appreciated and now obscure classic (but a classic nonetheless) is the frighteningly fierce and heartbreaking performance from Joanne Woodward. Without her, this film isn’t half as good as it is. With every line of her face and subtlety of expression or gesture, you feel the immense pain and sorrow that has totally consumed Rachel’s life. With the exception of Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard, I’m not sure if I can think of a film character who seems so totally miserable,  but in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with depression. And when Rachel lets her guard down, Woodward ensures that the audience knows how difficult this is for her (and the writing makes it clear that opening herself up to Nick is a mistake). It is a truly masterful performance and it’s a shame that it hasn’t become iconic of powerful female acting.

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As I said earlier, I watched this nearly four days ago now so I’ll draw this review to a close. I feel like if I write any more, I’ll just muddle what I’ve already said. My recommendation for Rachel, Rachel is as simple as this. If, in your life, you have ever experienced the intense pangs of loneliness or isolation or existential desperation, Rachel, Rachel has the potential to become a profoundly moving experience. Though I did not cry any during the film, the sadness I felt during this film wasn’t of the crying variety. It was of a powerfully drawn picture of a spectrum of the human condition that most cinema would rather avoid. If you like your films with window dressing that obscures the sadder realities of life, Rachel, Rachel will not be your cup of tea. But, if you can brave its stormy thematic waters, you will discover a haunting and spiritually piercing film.

Final Score: A

 

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Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

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Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

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Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

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And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
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This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

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This is going to be the 1000th post I’ve written for this blog. I’ll likely write a post this evening or tomorrow commemorating that milestone, but I wanted to ensure that the actual 1000th post was for something significant. Had I not checked the administrative page for this blog first, I wouldn’t have even realized it. And this post would have been a review of the absurdly god-awful 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables (but that review will get put up later). Thankfully, I kept that from happening and instead it can be what may possibly be my favorite song from my favorite band of all time. I’m going to be seeing Paul McCartney in a month at Bonnaroo (something that I am inexpressibly excited for), and although I’m fairly certain that I won’t be fortunate enough to hear this song, simply being in the presence of the man who wrote so many of the greatest songs of all time will certainly suffice.

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Political satire/topical humor is tricky to pull off. It’s a topic I’ve discussed on this blog in the past (my review of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is what springs to mind), but it bears repeating again here. Thankfully, 1963’s The Mouse on the Moon is a fairly intentionally light-hearted affair although that doesn’t make it especially funny. The Mouse on the Moon deals with the insanity surrounding the space race in the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the nuclear arms race), and while it managed to make me chuckle on several occasions, mostly the film left me bored and perusing Twitter and Facebook.

Perhaps, my inability to connect with the film is related to the fact that it’s a sequel to Peter Seller’s The Mouse That Roared which I’ve never seen, and since that film isn’t on my list on this blog, I didn’t really feel the urge to put the effort into watching it since, as I understood it, the film’s were mostly separate (which was thankfully true). I don’t think it impacted my review but my integrity as a critic means I should probably make that point clear. This film could have definitely used the talents of Peter Sellers because if any man is a one-person comic powerhouse, it’s him.

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The Mouse on the Moon centers around the tiny, fictional European nation of Grand Fenwick. They are, to quote the film, Europe’s smallest and least progressive nation, and though the film takes place in the present, Grand Fenwick does not even have indoor plumbing (though it has beatniks…). Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Ron Moody) comes up with a brilliant scheme to bring money to Fenwick’s coffers. He will ask the U.S. for funds to put a man on the moon but instead use it for Fenwick’s own needs. What Mountjoy doesn’t expect is when Fenwick finds itself at the very center of the space race as both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hope to use Fenwick to outmaneuver the other.

Conceptually, it’s actually kind of a funny idea. The idea that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were both so sure of Fenwick’s incompetency (and yeah, the nation was not actually capable of making a rocket [though the film comes up with a funny deus ex machina there]) that they gave the nation money just to increase their standing in the international community actually seems kind of possible back in Cold War hysteria. And when the British too try to uncover what’s happening and send the bumbling Maurice Spender (How to Murder Your Wife‘s Terry-Thomas) to investigate, the international incident that begins to spiral out of control had potential.

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Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to its potential and mostly the film is yawn-inducing. Terry-Thomas’s presence in the film was far too brief because he was clearly the best comic actor in the film. Bernard Cribbins got some laughs as the Prime Minister’s son who dreams of actually being an astronaut, but he has to make do with material that’s sadly hit or miss. It wasn’t that the film is bad (and you may get that impression from the score I’ll be giving it); it was just entirely forgettable. I watched the film yesterday and though the plot and stray observations have stuck, nothing substantive from the film remains.

Final Score: C+

 

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Long time readers know that I have a soft spot in my heart for musicals. I used to review Glee eery week (I’m ridiculously far behind on that show and need to catch up. Like, I’m probably around six or so episodes back if not more). Because my mother exposed me to the movie Grease at a young age (it’s honestly one of the first non-animated movies that I can remember really becoming attached to) and I just have a naturally theatrical disposition, I love musicals. I can’t help it. However, I’m also completely aware of most of the problems musicals face in terms of structure, story, character, etc., and this may seem shocking but I’m not really crazy about many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals of the 40s through 60s. Heresy, I know. By no means is 1962’s Billy Rose’s Jumbo a great movie (and honestly it barely qualifies to be a good one), but there’s just something about the spectacle of the film that I couldn’t help but find charming.

The Wonder Circus, led by Pop Wonder (Jimmy Durante) and Kitty (Teacher’s Pet‘s Doris Day), is on the verge of going under. Pop Wonder has a bit of a gambling problem, and the performers haven’t been paid in weeks and many are quitting the show. To make matters worse, the circus is hounded by a legion of creditors that Pop Wonder and Kitty have to appease just to stay afloat. And a rival circus family is after the star attraction of the Wonder Circus, the trained elephant Jumbo. Kitty’s level-head is the only thing holding the traveling company together. When the circus lays its stakes in a new town, one of their star performers quits the show and he’s replaced by the mysterious Sam Rollins (Stephen Boyd). Sam and Kitty quickly hit it off, but Sam is hiding something, and that secret might tear the Wonder Circus down with it.

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Every musical is only as good as the music in it (I think I’ve used that exact sentence in other reviews. Ruh roh rooby.), and in that regard, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was just okay. It had a handful of memorable tunes. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” springs immediately to mind as well as “This Can’t Be Love.” But most of the tunes were sort of forgettable, and one of the songs, “My Romance,” which is one of Rodgers and Harts’s most well-known tunes just seemed kind of chintzy to me. So, while the book of the film (i.e. the music & lyrics for non-theatre types in the room) wasn’t spectacular, the movie saved itself with choreography and splendor that can only be described as magical. When the film captures the childlike innocence and majesty of the circus, it is a delight, and one wishes that the music was as memorable and charming as all of the action unfolding on screen.

The performances were also the film’s strong suit. Doris Day had a surprisingly strong and impressive voice and although I don’t remember many of the songs she sang (and I watched the film earlier today), I certainly enjoyed listening to her dulcet tones and though I knew this from Teacher’s Pet, she had decent comedic timing. Although, she seemed kind of old to be playing Kitty. She was 38… so yeah. The real scene-stealers though were Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye (who played Pop Wonder’s dim-witted fortune-telling fiancee). Jimmy Durante had great comedic chops, and he became the lovable loser at the heart of the film that I cared about even though he was destroying the business he’d spent his whole life building. And Martha Raye was arguably the only character that had me laughing out loud during moments where she volunteered to be shot out of a cannon or pined for Pop Wonder’s affection.

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If you like old-style 1960s/1950s musicals like Gypsy or Babes in Arms, you’ll find something to enjoy in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. It is undeniably charming, and if you have any bit of your childhood self left in you, it’s very easy to be entranced by the circus aspects of the film. But, if you’re not a musical fan or you only watch the more mature, nuanced musicals of the last twenty years or so, you should probably avoid this film. You aren’t going to find much to attach yourself to here. But, as someone who can shed my intellectual pretenses and just get lost in good music, impressive dancing, and flashy set pieces, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was a delight no matter how much my brain tried to tell me it shouldn’t be.

Final Score: B-