Elevator to the Gallows (France, 1964, Louis Malle)
I want to apologize to Louis Malle. This is a case of me being totally ignorant but not letting that stand in the way of me having an opinion. I've been po-poing the guy all these years simply because he made Pretty Baby, which received way too much hype at the time and, of course, featured Brooke Shields, who quickly went on to receive way, way too much hype period. I knew people thought Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre were darn good, but I missed them. Which only left Malle's marriage to Candice Bergen. That wouldn't have bugged me so much if Murphy Brown hadn't have bugged me so much. But it did, so it did. Anyway, the man made movies for 40 years and I believe I had not seen even one of them until today.
In a way my apology should be to Hitchcock because ETTG is really tapping into his sensibility. Far be it for me to pontificate about Hitch, still, I will venture to say that even his most Noir-ish pieces never had the grit and sweat of the Noir motherload. This probably boils down a difference of femme fatale. In Noir proper, she certainly comes off as a cool customer but she is really a cat in heat. The sexual threat is overt and intense. Hitchcock, as is well known, is having none of this. Hence, his famous ice queens. Another way to approach this, just as well known, Hitchcock fetishistically substitutes erotic foreplay and consummation with suspense and murder respectively. Some may find this smart, intellectual even. It's not my bag, as you know, but as mimicked by Malle, it's quite stylish. Must be the French thing mixing in, I dunno, but I quite enjoyed ETTG.
Or was it just that Miles was playing behind every other scene? The music was a big factor for me, that's for sure. It's not that Miles conceived of a score as such. He certainly did not write one. The quintet improvises around this or that motif Miles has selected, more or less sexy or ominous, more or less spacey or frenetic. The bottom line is Miles' cosmically unique sound. It gives the film a remarkable atmosphere and the dark minimalism is the perfect compliment for the sparse dialogue and illicit conduct.
The film also differs from traditional narratives that stay focused on a central protagonist. This is either a strength or a weakness depending on how you feel. Oddly enough, I was reminded of No Country For Old Men, for that film also invests in characters and then sort of strays away from them for awhile and then strays back to them. But whereas NCFOM does this presumably to explore thematic concerns (presumably), ETTG is following the plot as need be. With respect to this, the film looses a bit of its momentum as it enters into its final act, where the police procedural aspect takes over. By the way, High and Low suffers from this as well, in fact even more so, which is just another way to acknowledge Hitchcock's mastery of the crime story.
ETTG is well lit and well shot. It's a good looking movie. Malle keeps all the environments clean, without clutter of any kind, to allow the camera to present only the details that speak to the situation. It's a bit clipped and artificial but it doesn't feel staged and the result is a economical visual flavour that makes the moral bankruptcy of everyone depicted feel authentic. I wouldn't be surprised if Tories back in the day found ETTG decadent for this, analagous to me harping on about the adolescent posturing of Tarrantino. Hurmph. After all these years, ETTG looks - like I said - quite stylish to me.
It is quite an eye-opening directorial debut, that's for sure. Malle here leaps right into the fray of the French New Wave without missing a beat. It looks to have a bit of Marie Antoinette about it, though, as the film has a Bressonian desire--a natural impulse, given Malle apprenticed at the man's knee--to reinvent the thriller genre by subverting our expectations and manipulating audience inclinations, while also offering a tip of the hat the New Wave directors who were doing their best to distance themselves from old school masters like Bresson by playing around with the techniques and formulas of the genre films of American cinema, particularly those perfected by Hitch, the ex-Brit. Malle has a lot of material to work with, of course, as the French crime pics and the American noir/thriller films of the 40s and 50s were plentiful and often irresistable.
Yes, Jeanne Moreau is gorgeous and riveting, and of course the score by Miles is a remarkable one, tapping into the jazzy zeitgeist of the time, and there is lots of fun to be had identifying these influences in the film and Malle does a solid job of establishing himself as a master of same. But however stylish and fun it may be, one cannot but wonder if the film has anything of significance to say? Not so sure.
Paris Blues (USA, 1961, Martin Ritt)
Roman Holiday for beatnik hipsters.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this film is just how far it could go in 1961. Compared to the Rock and Doris standard set just a couple of years prior, PB is a pretty progressive affair. Not just with respect to the race issue but also in terms of gender roles and cultural bohemianism in general. That it was politically inadequate even in its own day would be demonstrated by subsequent developments in the decade. But seen from the perspective of today, PB must be regarded as the cutting critical edge of the liberal mainstream at the time.
Except for the music. Duke Ellington is always wonderful and never ever corny. But in 1961, his musical world-view was far from being contemporary. I am not addressing the intrinsic worth of his score, nor am I now considering its instrumental efficacy as a soundtrack in support of the drama. I am rather pointing to his musicological values given the setting and the age of the characters. Simply put, the scene at the time was deeply late be-bop or "hard bop" with emergent avant-garde or "free" elements. While Duke's score is hardly confined to a big-band "swing" sensibility - Duke was never square, even during that period - the music for PB is not appropriate for the period and the story.
Ditto for a number of musical signifiers. The appearence of Louis Armstrong in the film, playing a version of himself is almost reactionary, particularly when he enters the basement night club followed by a complete "second line" or New Orleans procession of muscians. Indeed, making Paul Newman's character a trombone player and not a trumpeter - while not far-fetched and perhaps choosen simply to avoid a contest with Louis - harkens back to the big band era, when that instrument was much more in demand. While the bone did not suffer the near absolute demise that the clarinet endured with the end of the swing period, it was a rare combo that included a bone, forget about a band led by a bone player. I will cut the film some slack about all of this insofar as it is set in Paris, which was way behind New York when it came to jazz developments (duh!) and certainly some of the ex-patriot Americans there would have been old-timers. This granted, Newman and Poitier are just too young for this excuse.
As for the score's support of the drama, it does not support the drama so much as participate in it. The exact opposite of the mandate laid down by Lars Von Trier, the music in this film is almost a character in itself. Sometimes, this is very cool and sometimes not so much. It can be obtrusive and overwhelming. But on balance, I think it just as often goes beyond mere mood-establishment to the level of a sort of force-field intended to create the mis en scene even more than the location cinematography or the actor's performances. Naturally, this feels especially true when there is little or no dialogue happening.
As for the social stuff, consider the race issue first. Given that Poitier was THE point man for Hollywood when it came to "the negro problem," his character's ex-patriotism is radical. Still, his alienation is rather subdued. He is bitter but not enough to be theatening. Related to this, his personal sense of self-worth as an artist is not really advanced, particularly as compared to Newman's character, and this enables the script to make the black man's anger that much less pronounced. It also makes him available to be personally domesticated by a woman, which is realistic but the woman in question is an even safer "negro" for the audience, committed as she is to civil rights but certainly not by any means necessary. As Matt mentioned, the most progressive aspect is the friendship between the two muscians, which really is shown to be on equal footing. Still, it's a little bit lame that in order to do this, Poitier is presenting as polite and proper (THE point man) whereas Newman is presented as more rough and rude. More telling, Poiter entirely refrains from jazz-speak whereas Newman slips in the "nigger" jargon. Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the aspiration of Newman to "graduate" from improvizing jazz to composing European art music. No doubt, such aspirations existed and were sometime pursued, not only by white players, maybe even more by black players. Yet, this desire to go "legit," to make "serious" music was a deeply divisive matter in the real world of jazz, to put it mildly, and PB treats it as if it were entirely unproblematic socially, as if it was just a personal goal, simply a sign of artistic passion.
Turning to gender roles, here I think the film is quite hip indeed. Both women are no-nonsense, take-charge types with considerable worldliness. Woodward steals the show. She manages to be at once what I have just said and almost childlike in her honesty, open-ness and charm. All other dimensions aside, the film is about people who fall in love and of the four of them, Woodward falls most convincingly and movingly. I certainly fell for her, that's for sure. In the background of the proto-feminism of the film, however, lurks the sexist cliche about the entrapment and ultimate eradication of male genius by female enchantment. Even worse, there is the arch-conservativism about carnal relations prior to marriage. The couple that fucks right away does not stay together whereas the couple that only flirts around at first become betrothed. That this Ned Flanderism is poured upon the races to advance the cause of the "coloured" people, only makes it that much the more off-putting.
Having been so critically analytical, I should mention that I enjoyed PB immensely. It's a hell of a cool movie. The handling of the Django Reinhardt-like character's drug problem was not too heavy-handed and when the filming moves away from set staging to take in actual Paris, it's wonderful to be there. City of love with promiscuity everywhere and all that.
Across the Universe (USA, 2007, Julie Taymor)
Tim Burton's feminine alter-ego gives birth to Willy Wonka's love child and it is this - yes - Forrest Gump; even dumber insofar as the "Soundtrack of the 60s" is supposed to take center stage now that Tom Hanks talking to JFK is a stale technical achievement. Hey, I'm for Zelig anyway. But seriously folks, there are so many reasons to hate this movie. I will list only the most obvious.
The music is nothing less than the Profanation of the Host. As if The Beatles were not commodified enough already. Yet through it all, the hype in the first place and the non-stop repackaging of the product, their music is sublime. Fuck off with your horrid renditions. Fuck off and die.
History is complicated. It takes intellectual courage and moral honestly to get into it. This film is the most dreadful skinny dipping in the pool of the past, such a crass commercial appropriation of complex struggle that... beneath criticism really. Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump. Enough.
Write a real story. Write some actual dialogue. What a bunch of cardboard cookie-cutter crap. And some dreadful acting too. The dramatic content of ATU is close to nill. It's all just an excuse to splash around in the paintbox.
On this score, I can see why Bevin likes the film. It is pretty nifty. It's an art director's budgetary and conceptual fun feast. I have to admit that some of the numbers are cool to observe. And there are a few nice jokes. Also a few entertaining cameos. And the use of theatrical props is impressive. So, OK, I'll give this up.
But the whole enterprise is inexcusable. How dare you abduct culture and politics as well as abuse the needs of story-telling just to stretch out a canvas to spill visual techniques upon! It's just so cheap. And the visuals are so much phoney acid. No complexity, no challenge, pure flash, very close to advertising. Never mind, how much ATU offends me ideologically and aesthetically, in the end, even if you like it a lot, it is not truly a "film". It is on celluloid, to be sure, but this sort of eye-candy spectacular show is not a "movie." It is a bunch of Cirque de Soleil on the screen instead of the stage.
And the fact that I watched ATU after watching The 400 Blows and Sweet Sixteen is not to blame. Didn't help, mind you.
As I suggested to you when we spoke of this film (and I see you have properly appropriated my denigration of the film as Forrest Gump The Musical), I hate, hate, hate this film. Sure, the tunes are fun to listen to, and some of the arrangements show real imagination, but to what effect? And, more importantly, what has Hollywood done with Julie Taymor? I adored Titus, respected and tolerated Frida but it looks like what I thought was an aberration was actually an indication of a trend, sharply downward, in Taymor's talents. She seems to have shot her wad on the Shakespeare, which is not necessarily a bad thing (we are better off with a good Shakespeare film and a terrible Beatles film), but it is nonetheless lamentable given how much promise she showed her debut. Across the Universe has little of the cinematic playfulness of Titus or visual jazziness of Frida, choosing cheesy and nostalgic mis-en-scene over meaningful engagement with the musical material. As for the cast, only Sturgess comes off well, acquitting himself nicely in the singing department, and--unlike his castmates--not embarrassing himself in the acting department.
A terrible disappointment.