FilmJuice have my review of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1930s romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise.
Set in 1930s Paris, the film tells of a pair of confidence tricksters who fall in love and decide to fleece the heiress to a large perfume fortune. However, as the male crook worms his way into the heiress’s affections as head of her household, he soon comes to realise that he actually prefers the identity he has assumed to the identity he was born with. Trapped between his growing love for the heiress and his standing relationship with a female crook, the confidence trickster is forced to contend with issues of class and ask himself what it is that he really wants from a relationship.
I must admit, I approached this film with some degree of trepidation as my experience of Lubitsch has always been tainted by Nora Ephron’s slushily sentimental You’ve Got Mail, a remake of Lubitsch’s immeasurably more elegant The Shop Around the Corner. Well… that and the wider problem that:
Most romantic comedies are rubbish. The reason for this is that the people who make romantic comedies want as broad an audience as possible and assume that the only way to reach this broad audience is to keep the subject matter simple-minded in order to make it accessible. This terror of alienating audiences has resulted in a cinematic culture in which romantic comedies tend to either be about actual teenagers (e.g. Juno and 10 Things I Hate About You) or about emotionally stunted adults who behave like teenagers (e.g. High Fidelity and Amelie). The reason why genre classics such as Annie Hall, His Girl Friday and The Apartment have endured while the likes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and What Women Want have faded from view is because these classic romantic comedies speak of grown-up relationships in a way that ensures their continued relevance to generations of grown-up film lovers. Indeed, if the measure of a romantic comedy’s greatness is its level of emotional sophistication then few romantic comedies come anywhere close to rivaling the magnificence of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise.
Aside from being beautifully acted, wonderfully made and occasionally very funny indeed, the film also contains some real insight into the ambiguities and challenges of managing an adult relationship. Are you with the right person? Are you with the right person for the wrong reason? What kind of person would you be if you were to spend your life with a different person than the one you have? These are not the types of questions that appear in most romantic comedies as most romantic comedies are focused upon the adolescent adrenaline rush of first love. However, as anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will tell you, those early months are really very different to the emotional and intellectual landscape of genuinely long-term relationships. Trouble in Paradise is a real joy to watch as it speaks directly to the nature of adult relationships in a way that adults can understand.
FilmJuice have my review of Masters of Cinema’s re-release of Fritz Lang’s fantasy epic Die Nibelungen.
Originally released in two halves as Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilde’s Rache, the film spend five hours exploring the tension between the passions that drive society onwards and the rules developed to govern that society’s violent impulses and channel them into more productive pursuits such as the construction of a modern state governed by enlightened individuals. The film begins with a great hero making his way to what he assumes to be a shining city on a hill… a beacon of medieval civilisation in an ocean of blackness and savagery. Upon arriving at the legendary city of Burgundy, the hero falls in love with the king’s sister but in order to gain the permission to marry Kriemhild, Siegfried must trick the hero Brunhild into marrying cowardly king Gunther. Brunhild eventually discovers the ploy and demands that Gunther redeem herself by killing Siegfried. Weak and afraid, Gunther convinces his chief knight to murder Sigfried prompting his sister Kriemhild to present him with an ultimatum: Either Gunther betrays his chief knight and does justice to Kriemhild or he remains loyal to his knight and ignores the injustice that keeps him on the throne.
Die Nibelungen is essentially the story of an immoral oyster pearl. Though Gunther is the king of a great country his desire for the hero Brunhild prompts him into doing something immoral. Trapped in a lie, Gunther then adds to his woes by first murdering his friend and then turning his back on his beautiful sister who promptly runs off and marries the lord of the Huns in an effort to force her brother to do her justice. The more Gunther denies wrong-doing, the greater the injustice grows and the greater the injustice grows, the more transparently immoral the world becomes:
It is easy to see why both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebels claimed Die Nibelungen as one of their favourite films. Aside from the Germanic origins of the Nibelungen stories, Lang also draws heavily upon the idea that a group of blond-haired heroes might emerge from the common muck of humanity and, through sheer force of character, build a shining civilisation on a hill. Marinated in the same myths of national exceptionalism that informed the iconography of the Third Reich, Lang’s film presents the king of the Dwarves as a treacherous Jew and the emotional energies unleashed by Kriemhild at the end of the film as a tide of dark-skinned savages from the East. This is not just a film that is of its time, this is a film that perfectly captures a time when a society’s capacity to regulate its own behaviour can no longer cope with the violent forces at work in the culture at large. By refusing to constrain his feelings of lust for Brunhild, Gunther is forced to trick her into marriage, by refusing to discuss or atone for his dishonest seduction of Brunhild, Gunther is forced to murder his friend, by refusing to acknowledge that he had his friend murdered, Gunther is forced to go to war with his sister and by attempting to justify his actions through an appeal to loyalty, Gunther undermines the entire moral infrastructure of his society… there are no rules, there are no principles, there are no cities on the hill… there is only violence, lust, madness and death.
Lang’s Burgundian society reflects a German political culture that was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with intense feelings of anger and desire. Pickled in war resentment and drunk on a growing sense of historical self-importance, German culture burst its banks and drowned Europe in blood while German political elites either worked the crowd or went with the flow. Die Nibelungen‘s political elites use words like ‘honour’ and ‘loyalty’ but these words become increasingly meaningless as the film progresses. Just as American political elites use words like ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’ to justify violence and repression, King Gunther uses the word ‘loyalty’ to justify the betrayal and murder of his brother-in-law. By distorting shared values in an effort to justify their own selfish desires, the royals of Die Nibelungen paint themselves into a political corner: fully aware that their war will lead to nothing but destruction, they can neither compromise nor make peace as the words required to broker a cease-fire have been rendered completely meaningless.
FilmJuice have my review of Samuel Fuller’s classic film Park Row.
Set in 19th Century New York where dozens of newspapers are competing for dominance, Park Row tells the story of Phineas Mitchell… a reporter whose nose for a story and willingness to rattle cages results in him being sacked from one paper only to be given the editorship of another. The scene in which this professional transition takes place is telling as Mitchell is appointed as editor not because of his politics or his experience but because of the manifest greatness of his journalistic talent. What makes this film so interesting is that while most films about journalism invoke the concept of journalistic greatness, many choose to define that concept in strictly moral terms: Did this journalist speak the truth? Did they change the world? Park Row, on the other hand, defines journalistic greatness in terms that are entirely amoral:
Unlike many odes to journalistic greatness, Fuller eschews both sentiment and morality in order to celebrate Mitchell’s ability to strike a chord and continue to play a tune regardless of how many people get crushed on the dance floor. Drawing freely from the press room cynicism of Citizen Kane’s opening act and pre-empting the vision of 19th Century New York as a bubbling cauldron of tribal violence in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Fuller praises a form of journalistic greatness that the newspaper business is now only too eager to forget. Mitchell’s greatness is not that of Bernstein and Woodward in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men or that of Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, this is the greatness of Orson Welles’s Kane, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. A form of greatness measured not in moral victories but in blood and gold… the type of greatness that builds industries and nations at the expense of individuals… the type of greatness that built America.
Made entirely with Fuller’s own money, Park Row is not just a love letter to journalism, it is a love letter to a sharp-edged and chaotic form of life that has now been excluded from the middle-class existential vocabulary. Mitchell is neither a sharp-elbowed careerist or a shabby paladin, he is a brutal and energetic man who prowls through life with all the malignant pugnacity of a tiger with tooth-ache. This is a man who demands ‘Truth’ and ‘Liberty’ in much the same way as he might turn on you in order to demand ‘Did you just spill my pint?’. When Mitchell feels professionally marginalised, he starts his own newspaper. When Mitchell needs a story, he throws someone in jail in order to mount a campaign to secure their liberation. When Mitchell feels hard-done by, he takes to the streets and begins rioting. It is hardly surprising that many people have pointed out that Phineas Mitchell bears a striking resemblance to the cigar-chewing Fuller himself.
FilmJuice have my review of the recent Masters of Cinema release of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s uncanny masterpiece Pigsty.
Comprising two narrative strands, the film explores the way in which cultural elites undermine dissenting opinions by subsuming traditional vocabularies of dissent. In one strand, a young man wanders wordlessly around a volcanic landscape until he comes across a dead body which he promptly consumes. This act of consumption classifies the young man as an outcast and this outcast status allows him to acquire a following that eventually forces the local authorities to intervene. When the young man is finally given the opportunity to express himself in words, all he has to say for himself is:
I killed my father, I have eaten human flesh, and I quiver with joy.
The film’s second strand is set in the 1960s where another young man finds himself crushed between the capitalistic radicalism of his father and the logorrheic gibberrish of his leftist fiancee. Denied the means with which to express himself as an individual, the boy retreats into a comatose state before finding some form of fulfillment in the act of fucking a pig.
Pigsty is an attempt to address the relationship between the generations and how difficult it can be for the young to express themselves when they are not the ones in control of society. Particularly striking is the way that Pasolini presents post-War German prosperity as little more than a repackaged version of the pre-War economic boom engineered by the Nazi government of the 1930s. With all of culture safely commoditised and filed away, what are today’s rebels to do but seek sanctuary in the most heinous acts imaginable? Windy, difficult and decidedly ‘of its time’ Pigsty remains a ceaseless beautiful and thought-provoking film by one of the great provocateurs and stylists of the European art house tradition.
The idea that cultural elites pull the ladder up behind them to ensure that nobody can rebel against them in the same way that they rebelled against previous generations will be familiar to those of you who have read Thomas Frank’s wonderful essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent”.
FilmJuice have my review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film Le Silence de la Mer.
Given that Melville is best known for such noir crime thrillers as Bob Le Flambeur (1955) and Le Samurai (1967), it is surprising to discover that his first film is neither a thriller nor an homage to the noir classics of Hollywood’s golden age. In fact, Le Silence de la Mer is an adaptation of a novel written by a member of the French resistance. Densely atmospheric and pointedly stripped of all extraneous dialogue, the film tells the story of the relationship between a pair of French people and the Nazi officer they are ordered to provide with lodgings. Every evening, the Nazi officer comes home and trots out a few pleasantries that the French people pointedly ignore. As the months go by, the officer’s love of France and desire to talk bubbles over into a series of impassioned speeches about his hope for the future of Franco-German relations. Aside from being beautifully composed and wonderfully still, Le Silence de la Mer is also wonderfully ‘of its time’ thematically speaking:
Aside from its technical brilliance, Le Silence de la Mer also offers a fascinating snapshot of a French intellectual class that was still trying to come to terms with the implications of widespread collaboration. Indeed, between the officer’s status as a ‘Good German’ and his lengthy speeches on the greatness of French culture, it is easy to read this film as an ode to the majesty of France (the film is based on a novel written by a member of the resistance) but look beyond the foreground and you find a morally ambiguous world full of silently complicity French people, bars closed to Jews and a Nazi delivering what was effectively the Petainist line that France would become greater through collaboration. While Le Silence de la Mer may lack the slow-burning outrage of Melville’s more famous indictment of French collaboration L’Armee des Ombres (1969) this is still a heroically ambiguous film from a time when France was desperate to escape all suggestion of moral ambiguity.
As someone who owns the Mieville DVD box set, I was somewhat taken aback by how different this film feels to many of his better-known works. Indeed, contained in this still and ambiguous early film are the blueprints for an entirely different cinematic career… what if Melville had not become a maker of thrillers but a more traditionally art house experimentalist? This is a film that captures the attractions of just such a possibility.
FilmJuice have my review of Monte Hellman’s powerfully existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop.
Two Lane Blacktop is a film about a pair of twenty-somethings who support themselves by moving from town to town and participating in drag races. This pair are so complete adrift in the world that they possess neither home nor name, all they have is their car and the open road. In fact, the pair are so emotionally detached that it barely registers when an attractive young woman decides to join them on their aimless journey. One day, the pair run into a middle-aged fantasist and challenge him to a long distance race. Sensing some element of menace from the youngsters, the fantasist agrees but is puzzled to discover that the young people have no interest in actually winning the race:
At one point the middle-aged man is driving along and spots the youngsters having breakfast in a diner. Annoyed that they seem to be taking his challenge so lightly, the old man pulls over and confronts them, angrily asking “Are we still racing?” but no answer is forthcoming. Increasingly ill at ease with this strange relationship, the older man convinces the young girl to travel with him and he takes off while the other two are racing a local. With steel in their eyes, the pair take off after the older man but rather than confront him about cheating or stealing their girl, their annoyance seems to come from the fact that he moved the relationship from one of mutual cooperation to one of competition. As the older man drives off alone, he begins to weave lies about how he won the car from the younger men using his customised muscle car.
The middle-aged man spends the entire film telling lies because he cannot cope with the hollowness of the existence he experiences on the road. Too old and too set in his ways to come to terms with life’s lack of meaning, he spins lies to make sense of his life and that of the youngsters while the youngsters just keep on moving from town to town without ever asking for or receiving any answers.
Released by Masters of Cinema with a bevy of essays and documentaries designed to bolster its status as an overlooked classic of 1960s counterculture, Two-Lane Blacktop captures the beauty and alienation of a life lived outside of traditional culture in a way that Easy Rider never quite managed.
FilmJuice have my review of Peter Watkins’ cruelly overlooked mock documentary Punishment Park.
Punishment Park is set in what was the near future back in 1971. In this near future, America has descended into chaos and the American government has responded to this chaos by setting up a series of tribunals who give political prisoners the choice between a long jail term and taking part in a training exercise involving members of the police and the armed forces. These training exercises involve the prisoners being chased across a desert. If they make it to a particular point by a particular time without being captured then they are free to go. Needless to say, nobody ever manages to escape:
On one level, Punishment Park functions as a near-future work of dystopian science fiction. If looked at in these terms, the exaggeration of the establishment’s reaction to political dissent is only a matter of degree and the exaggeration serves to highlight real problems in American political culture. Similarly, the dissidents’ futile march through a desert towards an American flag stands as a poignant metaphorical commentary on Humanity’s quest for freedom and how the value of freedom can be all too easily undermined by the very people entrusted with securing our attempts to achieve it. On another level, Punishment Park is a furious attack not only upon the politically intransigent elites that run America but also upon the biased nature of so-called reporting and the intellectually incoherent and simple-minded nature of responses to those elites.
Released in typically wonderful style by Masters of Cinema, this is a great opportunity to discover a lost classic of American cinema.