Archive for January, 2012
“I bite deeply into my lips; we know well that to gain a small, extraneous pain serves as a stimulant to mobilize our last reserves of energy. The Kapos also know it: some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses.”
—Primo Levi, If This Is a Man
When it comes to movie posters, it’s hard to beat the Poles. They see posters as more than a publicity tool; to them it’s the chance to create an auxiliary piece of art. Regularly cranking out the kind of conceptual work associated here almost exclusively with Saul Bass (who is dead, I might add), they’re not afraid to lead off with a humorous uppercut, even if it’s tonally incongruous with the movie being advertised.
(And let me interject just one quick aside here: that crutch just slays me.)
Some of the most effective ones splurge on symbolism with the abbreviative powers of a good political cartoonist. In fact some of the posters resemble nothing more than coded comments about a certain style of government.
It’s also interesting which qualities of a movie its posters will choose to emphasize. Where the American poster for The Great Escape pushes its stars and an action scene that doesn’t really exist in the movie,
the Polish poster picks up on that oddly serene interlude just after the mass escape, when the movie’s energy, after being cooped up in the Stalag for two full hours, suddenly breaks free, radiating outward across the countryside as the escapees employ everything from a rowboat to a stolen Luftwaffe plane in their dash for freedom.
Mostly I like these posters because they have something bigger on their minds than making me hie my ass to the nearest movie theater. More gaudy than truly colorful, most Western posters are nothing more than visual P.A. systems with an ever-diminishing sense of playfulness. But the Poles, sometimes needing only a very few lines and a little color, can express a movie’s essence—and often something more.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s Operación Ogro covers an episode I’d never heard of: the assassination of Franco’s right-hand man and hand-picked successor, Luis Carrero Blanco, two years before Francisco himself kicked the bucket. It was a big deal because Carrero had already taken over Spain’s security forces and network of informants while the fellow who replaced him as Prime Minister, far from adopting Franco’s bloody-minded policies, began implementing liberal reforms. Ah, yes…Hope…Change…I remember the feeling well.
The movie is slow-building—beyond certain passages in Burn!, none of Pontecorvo’s stuff that I’ve seen has anything like the headlong dash of The Battle of Algiers—but the last half hour, when all the disparate activities required by the scheme start falling into place, has enough Hitchcockian touches to fill a whole movie. The assassination was carried out by four members of ETA who spent months tunneling under the street Carrero drove down after morning Mass every day; they then filled the hole with explosives, enough of them that on the magic day Carrero’s car was blown five stories into the air, and over the roof of an adjacent building. (A typical Fascist, he somehow managed to not die right away, doubtlessly scaring the hell out of everyone in the meantime.) Gian Maria Volonté plays the group’s leader, who renounces violence after Franco’s death (the story is told in flashback); Eusebio Poncela is the more fanatical member whose dedicaton to Basque nationalism causes him to lose his ties to his loved ones. The movie seems to conclude that non-violence is the way to go whenever possible, but when it’s not…then it’s Game On, but even then we should expect to pay a heavy price. Which, of course, is entirely consistent with Algiers. Morricone contributed what, for him, is a relatively normal score; at least it doesn’t sound like any live lions were shot out of cannons for this one.
When the explosion occurs in the film, it looks something like the way it appears in this poster. Below it is a shot of special effects man Emilio Ruiz and the miniature street he built for the sequence.
The Self-Styled Siren was just doing what she does best, which is lighting a fire under other people’s asses, when she posted a list of her favorite old movies that she saw for the first time in 2011. Here’s a list of mine, with the usual caveat that I’m probably blanking on some of the ones I loved most. (I’ve already written about a couple of these, while there are others, such as Alice in the Cities, I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. But as the guards in Cool Hand Luke so lovingly put it, my mind ain’t right.)
1. Hell’s Hinges – William S. Hart’s 1916 version of Taxi Driver. The final apocalypse is one of those great eye-opening surprises in silent cinema.
2. Four Steps in the Clouds (originally 4 passi fra le nuvole) – Alessandro Blasetti’s graceful story about a traveling salesman who winds up helping a (single) pregnant girl rejoin her very conservative, very judgmental family. One lovely moment after another, though the ending—when the hero realizes his life has been one big missed chance—is a punch in the gut.
3. Ken Annakin’s Across the Bridge – When mysterious international financier Rod Steiger is caught embezzling millions of dollars and flees to a sun-baked, booze-marinated border town in hopes of disappearing into the interior, he only finds chaos: stolen identities, a dead body come back to life, a gallery of characters representing almost every level and degree of moral sketchiness, and a dog, a lowly mutt, who becomes a central player in his drama. It was filmed in Spain using Gypsies for Mexicans, but it works; Steiger told Annakin the only movie of his that he liked more was The Pawnbroker. “Dolores”—the mongrel that Annakin found in a pound—became a celebrity when the movie came out. (Welles HAD to have seen this before making Touch of Evil a year or two later.)
4. Adua and Her Friends – Simone Signoret and three fellow hookers, ready for a better life, put their life savings and all of their hopes into a countryside restaurant. Insert frowny emoticon here—things don’t go as planned. A vivid demonstration of how much flypaper there is on our social roles.
5. Blast of Silence – Great no-budget post-noir story about a jaded hit-man, shot in the streets and skuzzy hotel rooms of NYC. Allen Baron both directs and stars (his first choice, Peter Falk, was busy getting famous in Murder, Inc.). Baron makes brilliant use of his locations, especially the reed-choked Jersey marshes where the climactic gunfight goes down in a driving rainstorm.
6. Chronicle of a Summer (Paris 1960) – Jean Rouch’s great documentary of French attitudes about sex, race and politics. Some of the interview subjects and their exchanges are mesmerizing.
7. Nothing But a Man – Honest, down-to-earth study of race prejudice in America—it’s brimming with layered characters and subtle insights. Much of its gaze is trained on how the targets of bigotry can internalize hate until they begin undermining themselves—an insidious and still under-discussed syndrome. Julius Harris and Gloria Foster, as the hero’s father and the father’s girlfriend, are astonishing. Here they are with the film’s star, Ivan Dixon of Hogan’s Heroes fame. (Not seen: the late Abbey Lincoln, who’s dynamite in the movie in her own quiet way.)
8. Two shorts: “Meet Marlon Brando” (Maysles) & “Hôtel des Invalides” (Franju)
9. Deep End (Skolimowski) – Jerzy Skolimowski’s gorgeous, funny, shocking tale of teen obsession.
10. Alice in the Cities – The whole “uptight adult gets chilled out by precocious kid” idea done as well as is humanly possible. That Wim Wenders managed this while making one of the great road movies AND one of the great buddy movies—well, it’s all clearly unfair.
Catch Us If You Can, The Dave Clark Five’s strange answer to A Hard Day’s Night, may look like a rip-off of Richard Lester’s style, and it even resembles later ‘60s shambles such as The Party (the big climax takes place at an impressively large costume party), but it has a cloudy, downbeat spirit. Clark himself has a dour, intractable presence, but it’s hard to know how to read him because the movie is about young people who’ve soured on the entertainment industry. A pretty young model for Britain’s meat industry (the campaign’s slogan, plastered in giant letters on what looks like every wall in London, reads MEAT FOR GO!!) and Clark, playing her boyfriend who’s also a stuntman on her crew, having tired of the grind, run away for a distant island paradise. The ad execs decide to exploit the situation by claiming that Clark has kidnapped the girl, then follow them just out of arm’s length so they can grab the couple with a maximum of exposure. Most of the movie consists of absurdist but not very fun montages (set to DCF tunes which have not gained in interest with the years) of the young couple scuba-diving in an outdoor pool, taking up with a band of longhairs who (naturally) come under fire from the army, and driving around in a gorgeous white Jaguar.
What’s weird is that this was the movie which convinced Lee Marvin that John Boorman was the man to direct Point Blank. It was Boorman’s first movie, and it’s definitely coming from the woolly part of his brain that produced Excalibur, Zardoz and The Emerald Forest, but it comes together more than it should at the end, which is beautifully shot and closes on a surprising note of defeat. That’s not the way A Hard Day’s Night ended, if I remember rightly, but it may well have been what caught Marvin’s eye.
I was running late this morning so I grabbed a cab to work, and the driver was a Moroccan guy who looked like Peter Sellers disguised as Osama bin Laden. And—me being the lucky soul that I am—he turned out to be a proselytizer for Islam! So I can now say from experience that having someone quote the Koran at you, and turn every subject back to Allah and how small our existences are*, isn’t a whit more fun than having a Bible trip laid on you at eight in the morning. In fact, it may be worse. But because it so rarely happens, and because I’m such a fine human being—so free from prejudice and all the rest of that baloney—I couldn’t find it in me to tell him where to get off. I was also afraid he’d put me out of the cab.
It was damned tempting, though…
* When he said to me “We come in this door and we go out that one”, I felt like the Cowardly Lion: “Ain’t it the truth. Ain’t it the truth!”