Monthly Archives: May 2009

movie log: The Wind (1928)

Seen April 23, 2009: The Wind, a silent movie from 1928 directed by Victor Sjöström, starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, Montague Love.

Gish plays Letty, a woman who is moving from her home in the green eastern US to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) in dry, windy, dusty Texas. On the train she meets a man Wirt Roddy (Love) who flirts with her and warns her that the wind will drive her crazy. She arrives to find cousin Beverly’s wife Cora (Cumming) most unwelcoming. Cora is perhaps a bit touched in the head, and at any rate is hostile towards and jealous of Letty. She insists that she won’t share her house or her husband, and Letty is forced into marriage with Lige (Lars Hanson), a decent man but a man that she doesn’t love.

The main character is, as the title suggests, the wind, which blows and shifts the dry sand around through the starkness of the territory and the hard-living people trying to survive it. Into this setting Roddy shows up again, his evil lust for Letty pushing him to her as she is being driven mad by the weather and her situation.

This is a wonderful movie. I’ve seen it before, but in this instance I saw it in the theater, as part of a silent movie program of monthly showings in Manchester NH and in Wilton NH. This one was at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, with (as with all in this series) live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis. The film was preceded by a short interview with Gish done some decades later (as it was the other time I saw it; probably drawn from the same source DVD). Gish talked about how the production used an array of aircraft engines and propellers to generate the wind when needed, and about how the weather was so hot that at one point she burned the skin off of a hand while opening a door. Unfortunately she also talked about the ending – this featurette should be seen after watching the movie, not before.

While some of this movie is quite over the top (especially the bits about the wind having an alter ego as a wild stallion), it is highly enjoyable, one of the best silent films I know of. To some degree you have to have some experience with and get a feeling for silent movies before you can appreciate and enjoy them, especially the longer dramatic ones. But I’ve often felt that this is one that can be enjoyed without any such background.

movie log: movie bag

Another bag o’ movies

Viewed April 8, 2009: Symbol of the Unconquered, a silent movie from 1920 directed by Oscar Micheaux. This is an odd duck of a silent film, as it (unlike most movies of its time) was directed by a black man and featured black people – it’s usually striking how one-toned most of these old silent films are, with non-whites often shown as caricatures or worse. Unfortunately some of the film (mainly a significant section towards the end) is missing and is replaced by title cards. The story concerns an African American woman who is light skinned and, posing as white, moves to an inherited plot of land somewhere in the wilderness. There’s a lot of nefarious action: land grabbing, race hatred, mother-hating, self-hating, and (in the missing section) fighting the Ku Klux Klan. With or without the missing piece, the whole thing is pretty awful, and it’s been augmented with a clangy, almost beatnik score, to boot.

Viewed April 8, 2009: N.Y., N.Y., a 1957 movie directed by Francis Thompson. TCM showed this as a companion piece to “Manhatta” which I wrote about here. In this short film, Thompson shows distorted images of NYC scenes. There’s a lot of kaleidoscopic, folded, and distorted imagery, most of which is pretty fascinating.

Next up that same night (April 8, 2009): Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton’s masterpiece from 1924 directed by Keaton, starring Keaton and an able cast. Buster plays a film projectionist who dreams of being a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He is studying a “how to be a detective” book when he himself is accused of a crime – a rival for the hand of the woman he is attempting to woo has stolen the woman’s father’s watch partly in order to make Buster’s character look bad. He (Keaton) spends some hilarious time pursuing suspects, and then while at work dozes off and imagines that the people in his case are characters in the film he’s showing, and that he himself walks into the movie to help them out. There are many great gags, wonderful pieces of cinematic trickery, and perhaps some commentary about Keaton’s involvement in his own films. I could see this many times – and in fact have.

Viewed April 18, 2009, and filling up this bag: Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film which I’ve already gushed about at length and so will just point there.

movie log: movie bag

It’s been a while, not to mention that I don’t need to say much about most of these (whether because I’ve seen them before or some other reason), so here’s a bag ‘o movies seen.

Viewed March 23, 2009: The Blackbird, a silent film from 1926 directed by Tod Browning, starring Lon Chaney and Renée Adorée. I’m a big fan of both Browning and Chaney; this one is a prime example of why. Chaney, the master of disguises, plays a man who himself is playing two people – a crippled bishop who is highly respected in his small city community, and his alter-ego “brother,” the bishop’s evil side who is a minor thug and liver of the high life in the underworld. Conflicts with West End Bertie (nicely played by Owen Moore) over territory and over Fifi Lorraine (Adorée) come to a head. Some of this film is over the top (what, Tod Browning?) including the portrayal of the bishop’s affliction (what, Tod Browning?), but the result is still great fun.

Watched March 26, 2009: Be Kind Rewind, a 2008 movie directed by Michel Gondry, starring Jack Black, Mos Def, and a bunch of other people who probably thought this was a good sounding story (kind of like I did when I decided to watch it). A couple of ne’er-do-wells minding a video rental store accidentally, through a freak occurence, erase every tape in the store. When forced to rent a film to a local hood, they decide to remake the movie with cheap equipment, a condensed story, and themselves as stars. Soon the community, most of which is not at all fooled, clamors for these imitations. The story is wrapped inside of a pretense at a tribute to a musician, perhaps to add some kind of serious air to it, but all it does is make it a bit schizoid. This movie is pretty much a waste of time, although perhaps it might improve with a crowd and some chemical additives, which might have been the intended viewing scenario.

Viewed March 31, 2009: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events from 2004, directed by Brad Silberling, starring Jim Carrey and a full cast of well-known actors who probably were easily convinced to appear in this film based on a popular book series. The story concerns a pair of children who find themselves orphaned and who have adventures trying to avoid the clutches of an evil relative to whom they have been entrusted. It was fun and well done; I watched this with my grandchildren. Though I had not read the books, their parents had – their opinion (if I recall it correctly) was disappointment that the source material had been jumbled up, i.e. multiple books mixed together and perhaps other liberties taken. I, ignorant of the books, thought it was enjoyable on its own. And the kids liked it.

Viewed April 4, 2009 for the umpteenth time: The Terminator from 2004, directed by James Cameron, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, and Linda Hamilton. A story of a future where intelligent machines have taken over the world from mankind, a human savior who has risen to defeat them, a robotic “terminator” who has been sent back in time to prevent that man from ever being born, and the man who follows to thwart that attempt and ensure the fulfillment of his own destiny. Thoroughly and ever enjoyable.

Also on that night, April 4, 2009, for the umpty-umpeenth time: Casablanca from 1942, directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains. The classic wartime romantic triangle about love and loyalty that is simply one of the best movies ever made.

More baggage to follow.

movie log: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Viewed March 21, 2009 and then again April 18, 2009: Synechdoche, New York written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring too many people in too many significant roles to list right here – notably among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest – but I’d better stop.

This movie stunned me, to the point where (kind of a silly measure, I suppose), I couldn’t even make an entry about it here until I saw it again, and then after that until I could figure out how to use words to describe it. I still haven’t arrived at that point, so I’ll just push on inadequately.

“Synecdoche” is a word that rhymes, more or less, with Schenectady, which is a city in New York where the movie opens. It (the word) is a grammatical term referring to the use of a word or phrase having a broad scope in place of one included in that scope, or vice versa; where, for example, “wheels” might refer to a car, or “Washington” to the government located in that city. And the movie is, in part, about substitution – not necessarily about that kind, but not excluding it either – and about reference and reflection and cause and effect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a referential name in itself), a theater professional who, at the outset, is involved in directing a version of “Death of a Salesman.” He’s cast a young man as the aging Willy Loman, and at one point tells the actor that this casting will add to the pathos since the audience will know that the young actor can imagine himself getting old – a concept that has to be imagined by and reflected in the minds of simultaneous participants (director, actor, audience, playwright) in order to have any meaning. This is kind of a throw-away line but it’s a hint of things to come.

Cotard begins working on a grand piece of theater. He is going to recreate elements of life – or more particularly, of his life, although here again one is a substitute for the other – by staging them inside a huge theater. One assumes that he initially intends there to be an audience, but this performance can not possibly be viewed – it can only be experienced by the participants, and indeed since this becomes part of his life, those experiences modify and affect him, which means they have to be reflected in the performance. The project becomes a model of real life – his and others. More and more, what happens inside the model affects what happens outside. The project becomes self-referential, self-modifying, and recursive, to the point where there’s no hard lines between the model and the reality.

The theater project is a large part of Cotard’s life and of this movie, but not all. As the years pass (something like 60 of them) his life changes; he meets a number of people, mainly women (one wonders how much they are parts of himself or he of them). He goes through various family and personal relationships most of which are, of course, reflected in and affected by his project. Time does not always move clearly or at a sensible rate; characters’ thoughts are affected by their surroundings, but those surroundings are perplexingly affected by their thoughts in turn. Things stand in for each other. (It may or may not be intentional that in one scene where Cotard is talking to his therapist, played by Hope Davis, that he uses the word “hope” more than once – perhaps in a minor way carrying this theme one level out beyond the movie.)

The movies that Charlie Kaufman has written – at least the ones that I’ve seen – always seem to be about interactions between the mind and reality. I admit I haven’t always liked them, but it’s also true that I’ve liked each successive one more. Either he’s getting better at it or it’s getting through to me. Here, where he’s directed his own work, I think he’s gotten it just about perfect. The depth and complexity are, shall I say it again? stunning. Bear in mind that I’ve left out a lot; I’ve only got so much disk space for this entry.

See it. See it and repeat.

Odometer Day

Today I’m 20,000 days old. Woo hoo!

I’m still on the original set of tires, but there are some rattles and some swaying while cornering, the upholstery is frayed, it’s hard to start on cold mornings, and I frequently get stuck in a rut. I do try to change the fluids frequently, using an assortment of grades (Three Olives, Captain Morgan’s, Don Julio…), but unfortunately the warranty has long expired.