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.
Movies that garner reputations as being camp classics for being simply so bad that they become enjoyable are a serious risk for first-time viewers. For every Rocky Horror Picture Show (which seems impossible to not enjoy), you have five Napoleon Dynamite‘s whose appeal is totally lost to me. 1967’s Valley of the Dolls was one of Hollywood’s biggest critical flops of all time. It was a Gigli-level disaster and nearly destroyed Patty Duke’s career. And it’s bad. It’s really bad. This movie’s got more melodrama than a 1950’s Douglas Sirk melodrama (Imitation of Life or any of its ilk for example). The acting is absurdly over-the-top, the story and relationships are cartoonish, and the characters are prone to astounding hysterics. But, weirdly, this movie has some strange campy appeal, and although she wasn’t an exceptionally talented actress, Sharon Tate was so beautiful I could watch her all day.
Centered around three rising starlets in Hollywood in the 1960s, Valley of the Dolls is a morality play examining the price of fame and the type of implosion that ultimately destroyed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is a small-town ingenue that moves to New York City and finds work as a secretary at a prestigious entertainment law firm though it isn’t long before she becomes the face of a national ad campaign for hair spray. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) is a supporting player in the Broadway show of an aging diva, and when the diva kicks Neely out of the play, Neely’s solo career as a singer and Hollywood actress take off. And Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is a talentless show-girl that marries a successful Sinatra-style singer but has to fend for herself when he’s diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. And over the course of the film, all three sink into prescription drug addiction.
There isn’t a single good performance in this. While each of the leads have their moments, the film was so poorly directed and so “stage-y” that the movie felt funny at times that it was meant to be dramatic. Sharon Tate is stunningly beautiful. I mean, she might be one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve ever seen alongside Catherine Deneuve. She has a very sensitive face and it seemed like her performance got better as the film went along, but her diction and enunciation remained forced the entire film. Patty Duke had both the best and worst moments of the whole film. She tapped into something extreme and fierce for the role but she was also never able to really dial it down when she needed to. And Barbara Parkins was more or less boring the entire film. It would have been very interesting to see this film with a director that knew how to coax good performances out of these actresses.
I have no idea what it is, but there were at times something oddly likeable about this film despite how terrible it consistently was. Like, there was an almost innocent sincerity to everything even though they didn’t know how to turn sincerity into realistic and effective drama. And, the film had some really great photography at times. It did a wonderful job capturing on-location exteriors, and while many of the interior shots looked like a poster-child for 1960s excess, there was a weird beauty to some of those shots as well. And, she starts the film out as the most flat character of the group (emotionally cause I’m sure as hell not talking about her bust), but by the time she meets her tragic end (spoilers I guess), I found Sharon Tate’s Jennifer to easily be the most intriguing person in the film. I would have really loved to see more from her and less campy explosions from Patty Duke’s Neely.
If you have no tolerance for campy films, don’t waste your time on Valley of the Dolls. You will hate it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was reviewing it for this blog (and I’m yet over the course of the last two years to start a movie that I didn’t finish. Wait, that’s not true. I was loving Downfall but for some reason couldn’t find the time to finish watching all four hours of it), I would have stopped watching this movie about halfway through. But for fans of camp, there is something in this movie hidden pretty deeply away. It’s certainly no Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie is simply not good despite the fact that I found bits and pieces here and there to cling to. It’s such a shame that Sharon Tate was murdered though because I feel like she could have been a decent talent in the right hands.
Final Score: C
I’ve gone through a phase over the life cycle of this blog’s existence (which is to say since February of 2011) where I’ve been really into art-house movies. Specifically, I’ve found myself enamored with the films that put a premium on utilizing the visual possibilities of the cinematic medium. Whether they’re going for a near sensory overload in natural beauty (Tree of Life), jamming the film chock-full of psycho-sexual Freudian symbolism (Persona), or turning the camera inward on the illusions of cinema itself (8 1/2), the best films that I’ve watched this last year and a half worked as much as visual poems as they did as stories (and if your name is Terrence Malick, nothing will ever match the sheer visual beauty of your films). So, when I watch a movie that I consider to be one of the most gorgeously shot films I’ve ever seen but I can’t generate the same kind of excitement I can for a Fellini or Malick feature, there’s possibly a problem here. The 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan is simply put, a gorgeous amalgamation of stunning color cinematography alongside brilliant implementation of classical music. Yet, the tragic love story at the heart of the film feels so slight and hurried that I can’t find it in my heart to give this film a full-hearted recommendation.
ElviraMadigan is the true story of two tragic lovers on the run in Sweden. The film begins with text explaining that this is the story of two young adults in love who commit suicide in the woods, and the film is the story of their flight and their ultimate decision to take their own lives (since the movie starts off telling you they’re going to die, it can’t really be a spoiler revealing it). Count Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) is a lieutenant in the Swedish army who goes AWOL and abandons his wife and two children to run away with Elvira Madigan (the hauntingly beautiful Pia Degermark), a tightrope walker from the circus. Hunted by the authorities and unable to stay in one place for very long, Elvira and Sixten’s romance is doomed from its inception. Sixten is unable to work at all (for fear of being recognized) and tragedy strikes every job that Elvira tries to hold. It isn’t very long before Elivra and Sixten realize that taking their own lives is the only way out of their miserable situation.
As I said, the film’s biggest selling point is its astounding cinematography (especially by the standards of the mid-1960s). Whether it’s the endless shots of the stunning Swedish (and also at times Danish I believe) countryside or the way that director Bo Widerberg is able to perfectly frame Pia Degermark’s angelic face, this film might not quite be at a “Malick”-ian level of beauty, but it comes pretty god damn close. Perhaps I have to give credit to the film’s clever implementation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and some Mozart, but this film is just a striking visual poem (even if the substance of the poem is less than substantive but more on that later). It’s easy to forget just how sad and devastated Sixten and Elvira’s lives have become over the course of the film. This movie can make scavenging through the underbrush of a forest for any roots or mushrooms you can eat look like a beautiful ode to life. The film might actually be to beautiful for its own good because the story itself is just so heartbreaking. One last note about the film’s cinematography. The movie’s color palette is astounding. Seriously, for a film from the 1960s, the colors in this film are almost absurdly vibrant and saturated. Okay, that wasn’t the last note. There were also serious elements of the French New Wave where Elvira Madigan was ahead of the pack (alongside its French peers) in the use of handheld shots.
However, the film itself doesn’t have the post-modernist magic (in terms of plot) that describes the works of Lynch, Fellini, or Bergman who marry their fanciful images and symbolism with engaging stories. Elvira Madigan is certainly a tragic love story, but to say that I didn’t find myself invested in the romance between Elvira and Sixten would be the understatement of the century. You never see any of the romance that led up to their decision to risk everything to be together (not even in flashback) so there’s little to no context to why these two are so madly in love with each other. Their romance simply is, and while that has its own beauty, the entire film hinges on their being so desperately in love with each other that they were willing to die for one another. I couldn’t buy it. I bought the romantic chemistry between Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren and so I was able to believe their characters were in love with each other, but I couldn’t buy the giant leap of faith their tragic fates required. It also didn’t help that the film almost moved at a dreamlike pace (and not especially in a good way) where these two lovers would be whisked away from one predicament or another without an especially large amount of closure being given to any one action they undertake (although they never undertake the intelligent action). I love a great romance done well, and unfortunately, I couldn’t invest myself emotionally in their love story.
Despite those complaints, the sheer beauty of Elvira Madigan makes it worth watching for all real cinema fans. As I understand it (and is obvious from the oft-copied imagery of the film), this is one of the more influential romances of all time. However, it’s simply been lost to the ages because of all of the films that took it as influence and then added an actual compelling story to the mix. I may not have cared about the fates of our heroes (though the film’s final moments were truly haunting), but I think I’m always going to look back on this film fondly simply because of how engrossing its imagery was. If you’re not the kind of cinema nerd that doesn’t geek out over cinematography and the visual arts aspect of cinema, you should avoid Elvira Madigan like the plague. You will find nothing of value here. However, I, for one, am glad that this beautiful film has survived the ages.
Final Score: B-
Long time readers of the blog may know that for the last couple of months I have opined the lack of a single movie that I’ve felt was worthy of the elusive score of an A+. Yes, I’ve given several books that score recently, but not since I reviewed Gary Oldman’s directorial debut and cinema verite masterpiece, Nil by Mouth, on August 5th has a movie received top marks. As a matter of fact, we are less than a month away from the one year anniversary of this blog’s existence with almost 170 movie reviews (out of my 441 posts), only 7 films have gotten that elusive score. Well, leave it to the Swedes to finally get me to number 8. During my first review for a Federico Fellini picture (the understated La Strada), I mentioned three names as being arguably the most influential in foreign cinema. Those men were Federico Fellini (Italy), Akira Kurosawa (Japan), and Ingmar Bergman (Sweden). Lo and behold, those three men are now responsible for three of the best movies I’ve watched for this blog (and none were films I had seen at any point earlier in my life). Fellini Satyricon has come to symbolize for me the A Clockwork Orange of historical epics, and Kurosawa’s Ran was an absurdly delightful (and visually stunning) amalgamation of King Lear and samurai. Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 classic Persona is much harder to categorize. Alongside David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is perhaps the most overtly intellectual and symbolic film I’ve watched to date, but at a perfect running time and a marvelous minimalist presentation, Persona had its claws in me from its disorienting beginning to its even more puzzling conclusion.
To describe the plot of Persona to newcomers (such as myself just an hour and a half ago) is to walk a less than metaphorical minefield. Anything short of a scholarly analysis of every scene would belie the inherent complexity of the tale beneath its seemingly simple shell. Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann plays actress Elisabet Vogler, an actress who has suddenly and inexplicably developed a case of complete mutism. She is assigned a beautiful young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take care of her. After a brief stay at a local hospital, Elisabet’s doctor decides that it would be for the best for Elisabet to get some fresh air by the ocean, and so Alma and Elisabet move into a secluded beach house completely apart from the rest of the world. As Alma shares every last intimate detail of her life with the wordless Elisabet, the women develop a deep (and dangerous) bond, and Alma slowly grows viciously jealous of any attention and affection the mute Alma could potentially show to others. Without wanting to ruin anything for fear of spoiling the pleasure of this truly classic film, the line between reality and fantasy (and even reality and the film you are watching) slowly begins to unfurl, the tightening bonds between these two women threatens to hurtle them both over the edge.
Bergman (alongside Fellini and possibly Goddard) is responsible for so much of the iconic imagery and shot composition of the last 50 years worth of artistically ambitious cinema. Whether it is extreme and intentionally uncomfortable close-ups of the actors’ faces (so that every twitch and pang is painfully visible) or the oft-parodied shot of one actress facing the camera directly while the other sits at a perpendicular angle or the combination of a spartan set direction with high contrasts of shadows and light such that half the shot is nearly invisible while the other half is washed out in sunlight, this film was obviously made on a pittance but it remains both a visual powerhouse and one of the most stylistically influential films from one of the most influential directors of all time. David Lynch famously recreated the shot of the two heroines’ faces merging in his neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Similarly, this one of the earliest films I can remember watching where a director clearly reminded the audience that they were watching a film. The movie begins through the lens of a projector and brief flashes of old silent films. Whenever possible, Bergman reflects cinematic artifice right back at the audience in order to strengthen the over-all themes of the fleeting nature of reality even going so far as to have the film completely come apart at the seams during a moment of high psychological stress.
There are only five characters in the film, but only Alma and Elisabet are ever on screen for more than a minute or so. Much like Giulietta Massina for Federico Fellini (who was his wife and long-time inspiration), Liv Ullmann was one of Bergman’s most recurring stars and despite speaking only a dozen words or so the entire film, it was immediately apparent why she was able to inspire one of the most creative minds in cinema history. With just her impressively emotive face (often framed in a jarring close-up), she is able to evoke so much pain and tragedy (as well as a tough resiliency) easier than most actresses could do with spoken words. There is a moment towards the end of the film where Alma delivers a lengthy monologue but the shot is framed squarely on Ullmann’s face, and even more than Alma’s scathing indictment of Elisabet’s life, it is the sheer hurt on Ullmann’s face that makes the scene. In no way do I wish to discredit Bibi Andersson’s performanec. She is forced to do virtually all of the speaking of the film. And her characterization of the role constantly reveals hidden complexities in her character through her inhibitionless retellings of past indiscretions and a youthful broken heart. She also channels all of the jealousy and dangerous attachment with the right amount of build-up and eventual explosive intensity.
Discussing the themes of the film is just as tricky as a concise summation of the plot for anything too detailed runs the possibility of ruining the surprise for first-time viewers (though the surprise may not even exist for some viewers and may only be my interpretation of the plot). At its core though, the film was very reminiscent of the David Lynch film Inland Empire (I want to take back the Fellini comparisons I made in that particular review and replace them all with Bergman references) in that is about the artificial nature of storytelling and the various roles we inhabit whether as a person or as someone in the entertainment business. At one point before Alma and Elisabet leave for the beach, Elisabet’s psychiatrist supposes that Elisabet’s mutism is the result of her being tired of being split between so many different personalities and that her silence is the only way for her to achieve the truth. While that may be true on some level, there are also increasing levels of guilt and shame for obliquely referenced problems in her past as well as her inability to deal with human tragedies (signified through allusions to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War). Similarly, sexual guilt plays a heavy role in both women’s lives and a prolonged discussion of an exhibitionist sexual experience from Alma’s past proved to be one of the turning points of the film.
This is art house cinema at its artsiest. Often films like that can be mentally exhausting (eventually one’s mind stops being able to cope with Inland Empire during its epic three hour run), but at less than 90 minutes, Persona manages to keep your brain (and heart) fully engaged for every frame. Even when the film is at its most inscrutable (mainly the moments when it completely demolishes the proverbial fourth wall), it is a cinematic delight and the work of one of the true geniuses of the medium. For anyone with even the most passing interest in foreign cinema and intellectually demanding movies, this is must-watch. I’m now ashamed that I’m nearly 23 years old and still hadn’t seen an Ignmar Bergman film until just now. Without a doubt, this one of the best films I’ve watched for this blog, and it has actually inspired me to go back to a more regular movie watching schedule rather than the seemingly endless television and books that have taken up most of my writing for the last month and a half. Because if there are movies this great out there and I still haven’t seen them, I need to get back to my cinematic roots.
Final Score: A+
French cinema from the 1960’s and 1970’s has a reputation for being erotic and boundary-pushing in terms of its sexuality. When the next film for this list was 1967’s Belle de Jour, a film about a Parisian housewife who won’t have sex with her husband but becomes a prostitute to satisfy her sexual desires, I was mentally preparing myself for my introduction to that type of cinema. Needless to say, this was not the film I thought it was going to be. Instead of a boundary-pushing look at modern sexuality, I got a terribly, terribly slow and fairly prudish film that was saved from utter mediocrity by some creative story-telling touches and the exceptional beauty of its star Catherine Deneuve.
As stated, the film follows the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve), who is unwilling to sleep in the same bed as her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), let alone have sexual relations with him. Yet, at the same time, she regularly indulges in sexual fantasies that always seem to involve her being debased and humiliated in some major and traumatic way. One day, she hears about a friend of hers who has become a prostitute, despite being fairly well off. When she finds out the location of a local bordello, she arrives and offers her services as a prostitute. Because she is so beautiful (and Catherine Deneuve may be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen) and so classy, she becomes an instant hit with the clientele of the bordello. Things become complicated however, when one of her customers falls in love with her and wants her to be his sole possession.
The story of the film sounds really interesting and like it could go to some really interesting places, and in the hand of a better director and writer (like say David Lynch or Charlie Kaufmann or someone else really capable of handling the blurring of reality and fantasy), it probably would have. Unfortunately, director Luis Bunuel doesn’t inject any life into this movie. It’s slow and tepid from start to finish, and even with its richly ironic ending, nothing in the film ever moved my mind or my heart. All it has going for it really is the clever way that the script constantly makes you question whether what is happening is real or one of Severine’s fantasies. Catherine Deneuve probably isn’t that great of an actress either, but like I said, she’s unbelievably beautiful, in the classic and elegant sense of the word.
Final Score: B-