Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Directed by Andrew Dominik
The United States of America

Is there any one figure from the American West who inspires so much awe and mystery as the legendary Jesse James? Bank robbery, train robbery, stagecoach robbery, murder…all of these things have been accredited to Jesse James’ crime spree in the West after his involvement in the American Civil War. He left behind him a legacy that endures to this day as one of the most romantic figures in American mythology. Some call him a modern day Robin Hood…even though there was no evidence of Jesse or his gang ever giving to the poor. Some call him a bloodthirsty criminal and outlaw…although some argue that he acted as an ex-Confederate insurgent drowning in the consolidation of Lincoln’s new Union. But whatever he truly was does not matter. Jesse James will live on as one of the most enduring symbols of the Wild West for as long as tales of cowboys and cattle drives survive.

The historical Jesse James

Probably because of his larger-than-life status, few films have ever tried to truly explore the man behind the legend. Filmmakers have always been content to depict Jesse as a kind of mythic figure. Many seem to even forget that he was wanted for over a dozen murders. Good or bad, Jesse James was always a hero.

At least until director Andrew Dominik got a hold of him. In 2007 Dominik released what may not only be one of the best examinations of Jesse James ever committed to film, but also one of the best character studies as well. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s book by the same title, Dominik holds Jesse James down under a microscope and scrutinizes every fine detail about who he was. The film has a title as wild as its subject: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Notice how the title doesn’t focus on Jesse James, but instead on the man who would go on to become his killer, Robert Ford. That is because the film isn’t told from Jesse James’ perspective, but by Ford. We first meet him outside of Jesse’s camp out in the woods where they are preparing for one last train robbery before they break up. Ford, who grew up idolizing Jesse, begs his brother Frank James to be allowed to participate. Eventually (and after much protest) Ford is accepted into the gang and strikes up a delicate relationship with Jesse. Ford lives to please Jesse, and Jesse seems content to receive such devotion and admiration. But buried inside of Jesse is a cruel form of resentment that bubbles its way out and passive aggressively lashes out at Ford. In time, the two become locked in a love/hate state of symbiosis. They both need each other. Ford needs Jesse’s approval and Jesse…well, it’s hard to really figure out why he needs Ford. But the need is there and ever present. That is what makes Ford’s eventual betrayal so powerful.

We watch their relationship develop as they plummet towards that fateful day of betrayal where Ford, while living in Jesse’s house with his family, kills him in order to collect the bounty on his head. In a sense, Ford acts as the audience’s surrogate. At first, we, as the audience, are fascinated by Jesse. But then, as we watch him crumble into the paranoid wreck that defined his last years on earth, we feel pity…and then an insidious resentment. When Ford at long last pulls the trigger and ends Jesse’s life, we feel a sigh of relief.

Once the deed is done, the legend of Jesse James explodes. Jesse’s cadaver is placed on display and Ford and Charley start a theater show in Manhattan where they re-create the assassination. Charley slowly succumbs to tuberculosis and guilt and eventually kills himself. Soon, Ford goes from being a hero to a pariah. He receives death threats, is called a coward, and is driven to alcoholism. It seems strange that so many people would spring to the defense of one of the greatest criminals in the history of the West. But the legend has taken hold. People don’t harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the man. Instead, they harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the legend. In a poignant scene in a bar, Ford listens to a musician sing a song glorifying Jesse James, calling him a good, kind man, and then vilifying the cowardly snake who mercilessly shot him. He stands and announces that he is Robert Ford. He collapses, and the bar falls quiet in silent judgment. The legend stands.

In fact, the entire focus of the film is fixated on the nature of legends and the mythology that surrounds certain people. Dominik uses a narrator to frame the entire film as a kind of dramatic history lesson, giving weight to every action of the characters. The cinematography, done by long-term Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, makes use of brown and black color palettes enhanced through a bleach bypass, making the entire film seem older and the color of flaxen wheat. Deakins also used wide-angle lenses mounted onto the front several cameras to create a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. In doing so, Deakins made the entire film feel like a series of ancient photographs come to life. Time-lapse sequences break up the action, reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots,” and add a sense of uneasiness to the film. Occasionally the film will suddenly convert to black-and-white mid-shot, as if Dominik is teasing us and reminding us that we are watching a movie.

And last but not least, the film stars two of the greatest performances of the decade in the form of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Watching the film, I was struck by how similar both performances were in power and scope to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. They don’t so much play their characters as they immerse themselves in them. Pitt may have given the performance of his career as the narcissistic, paranoid James. The performance is a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance (both of which Pitt is not usually known for) as he always gives a sinister impression that he knows more about the plot and his fellow characters than even the director did. When he asks questions, it feels like he already knows the answer and is just going through the motions for appearance’s sake.

And then there is Affleck. I can’t understand why his brother, Ben Affleck, is so much more famous than him. Casey is the superior actor in every single sense of the word. In this film, he plays an emotional wreck, constantly doubting himself and hiding behind nervous ticks. One wonders if Affleck utilized the method acting techniques made famous by Brando and De Niro. His performance is also magnificently physical. A twitch of the hands, a spasm of facial muscles, and an uncontrolled blink carry more weight and power than even his best lines. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but would go on to lose to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. While Bardem’s win is not unjustified, it still feels inappropriate as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would go home at the end of the night empty-handed.

And this begs the question, why is this film so obscure if it is anywhere near as good as I have described it? Possibly because the film had the misfortune of being released the same year as two other Western themed movies by much more prominent directors (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men). Perhaps many were turned off by its two and a half hour running time. But there is a strange part of me that wonders if maybe people didn’t want to see it because they didn’t want to take part in the defamation of Jesse James’ legend. But who am I kidding? Poor distribution and inferior advertising probably killed this film in the box office. But recently I have noticed a strange trend among my fellow movie lovers: it is slowly gaining popularity and renown. As well it should be. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the great modern Westerns. It is a story of desire, selfishness, sin, and regret. It isn’t so much of a movie as it is a miracle.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Editor's Note: Next Three Reviews

Well, howdy folks!

It sure feels great to be back after my hiatus. Big thanks again to S.M. Rana and Jack L. for graciously writing guest reviews!

Also, I was amazed to see how many new followers I have!

Hello to all of you! Thank you SO much for subscribing! I hope you enjoy this site!

Anyway...as you may have noticed...IT'S ALMOST CHRISTMAS!!

Unfortunately...that means that I will be on a plane for most of Saturday...

So, my next update will be on Friday.

I am very excited to announce that my next three reviews will all share a common theme:


That's right, folks! The next three reviews will be of that great cinematic genre of the Western! Now, I realize that I have already listed SEVERAL Westerns on this site...but there are so many other great Westerns that deserve attention.

So, saddle up, folks!

It's gonna be a bumpy ride!

Nathanael Hood

Saturday, December 18, 2010

盜馬賊 (The Horse Thief)

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

On a frigid Tibetan mountaintop, a flock a vultures descend upon a freshly deceased corpse. With heads stooping below their wings, they snatch and chew the rotting flesh with razor beaks. Some extend their wings and bicker with their neighbors. Soon, all that will remain is a clean-picked skeleton. To outsiders, the vultures are filthy scavengers desecrating a grave. To the local Tibetans, they are part of a solemn ritual called a “sky burial.” The vultures are not seen as filthy creatures, but spiritual beings called Dakinis (sky dancer). By eating the flesh of the recently deceased, they spirit the newly departed soul up to heaven where it awaits reincarnation into their next lives. It is a gruesome spectacle, but one tinged by respect and holy reverence. For the sky burial represents more than just death, it signifies the first step towards rebirth.

So one might ask why such a scene is the first thing we watch in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief. The easy answer would be to say that it represents the nature of living in the Tibetan mountains: stark and strangely beautiful. It is a land where the brutal tasks of everyday life reflect themselves in the calloused faces and bodies of its inhabitants. It is a land where the sound of grazing cattle mixes with Buddhist chants and mantras. Truly, to live in the Tibetan mountains is to live in another world, far away, and yet so similar to our own. For while we can’t identify with the Tibetan lifestyle of raising cattle, squeezing stubborn crops out of the ground, and following strict Buddhist doctrine, we can relate to the heart of this world: family and community.

For the love of one’s family and community lie at the heart of this masterful film. It juxtaposes the sweeping vistas and Tibet with intimate details of family life. One family, in particular, is focused upon in The Horse Thief. That family is led by Norbu, a devout Buddhist, a devoted family man, and a horse thief. Late at night, he creeps into neighboring areas and steals their horses. The profit he gains from his crimes are used to provide food and shelter for his beautiful wife, Dolma, and their incessantly cheerful young son, Tashi. When he returns to his home and greets his family, one wonders if they are aware of his activities and how he keeps providing income in the midst of a famine. But if they wonder, they don’t care. They are too important to each other. Much more than their meager abode, they provide comfort and shelter from the ravages of the outside world.

But times are proving to be especially difficult this year. It is 1927, year of revolution in China when millions of peasants rebelled against their landlords. China is just on the cusp of occupying Tibet, which is undergoing an intense famine. Life has become so difficult for Norbu that he ends up stealing from the local Buddhist temple. As a result, his family is banished from their clan. Hardship leads to hardship. There is no food. Soon, Tashi dies. In the midst of their terrible grief, Dolma gives birth to another son. Determined that this son will survive, he tries to reform himself. However, he is accused of stealing horses again and is thrown out of the community for a second time.

It is a rough, devastating story. Simply told, yet elegantly expressed, the majority of the plot is told through the visuals with little to no dialogue. Primarily, the film seems concerned with three things: life within Norbu’s family, Buddhist ceremonies and rites, and the vast countryside. Zhuangzhuang alternates between these three subjects with the hypnotic grace of Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky. In fact, in many cases the narrative seems to take a backseat to the visuals which evoke a lifestyle in and of itself. Zhuangzhuang seems more concerned with painting a portrait of Tibetan life with Norbu’s family as a focal point that the audience can relate to.

That isn’t to say that the film is dull or sterile. The Horse Thief’s greatest accomplishment is its ability to affect its audience and create sympathy for Norbu and awe for his home. It is a genuine work of humanism.

But what the audience must also feel in viewing this film is an enormous sense of gratitude that it was even made. Zhuangzhuang had always been an iconoclastic troublemaker ever since he graduated from a state sponsored film school. He would continuously get into trouble for his films, more notoriously for his examination of the Cultural Revolution in his masterpiece The Blue Kite (1993). In an attempt to control (and possibly stifle) his rebellious spirit, authorities sent Zhuangzhuang to schools deep in the Chinese countryside where it was believed that he would be less outspoken. However, this attempt backfired magnificently, as the lack of government oversight in the outskirts of China allowed Zhuangzhuang to experiment with narrative form and content that would be frowned upon by the authorities. Even worse, he chose to focus his film on the people of Tibet, a topic notorious for drawing ire from Chinese censors. In many respects, it seems like Zhuangzhuang went out of his way to create a film that was as challenging and provocative towards the Chinese censors as possible.

Zhuangzhuang was rewarded for creating this staggering work of art by being challenged by the authorities and having the film banned. It is said that in all of China, less than ten prints of the film were circulated. But by some miraculous happenstance, the film made it out of China and into the West where, along with Zhuangzhuang’s other banned films, it was able to receive the acclaim and praise that it deserved. In just one telling example of the film’s impact, director Martin Scorsese named it the best film of the 1990s (as it wasn’t until over four years after its creation that it managed to be seen in the West). Truly, China’s loss was our gain.

So now, at the end of the film, we return to the shots of vultures descending on a corpse. It begins quite like it started, with a sky burial. What does this represent? A cyclical nature of life? Does this movie suggest that Norbu’s fate would be repeated over and over again by other families? Or perhaps it represents the endlessness of life in Tibet. Men might die, horses might be stolen, and Buddhist temples might be built and dissolve back into the earth, but the Tibetan mountains remain, harsh and eternal to all who seek them.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Guest Review: Peeping Tom

Directed by Michael Powell
Great Britain

Director Michael Powell and his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger (known as The Archers, they co-directed, co-produced and even co-wrote many films) are in my opinion some of the best British directors, with such amazing films as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to their names.

Powell was always more associated with the direction of the films, and Pressburger with the scripts, and while that is generally how they worked they did pretty much everything as a duo.

After many years of working together and having raised their names alongside other great British directors such as David Lean and Carol Reed, they parted ways to explore different projects, Emeric Pressburger continued writing scripts for many years and Michael Powell directed Peeping Tom, one of the most infamous films of its time. This film effectively ended his career as it was almost universally panned and labeled as pornographic, which is absurd.

Although Powell did direct about five other films, they were mainly failures due to the bad reputation caused by this film and his career was entirely finished by the early 1970's.

Over the years it has been forgotten and even ignored, but recently Peeping Tom has been restored and more and more people are recognizing it for the masterpiece of film making that it truly is.

So now 50 years after it was released, misunderstood and then forgotten, I watched this magnificent film and present my review.

Before watching this film I saw Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to familiarize myself with the directors style of film making and obviously because they are amazing films, but I would say that Peeping Tom had far more of an effect of me than the aforementioned films. Now this is probably because it deals with film making, in a very unique and sometimes disturbing way.

I aspire to become a director and I'm sure many of you reading this do as well, if you do then I would strongly recommend this film, it is unique in its subject matter and the way it represents film making.

Peeping Tom was released the same year as Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho, and as both films deal with deranged young men with a penchant for murdering young women, they have been compared to one another often, some have even gone so far as to call Peeping Tom, The British Psycho. I find the similarities to be rather superficial and the comparison slightly puzzling as Psycho boosted Hitchcock's career while Peeping Tom had the reverse affect for Powell.

In my opinion, Peeping Tom is an even better character study then Psycho. Peeping Tom tells the story of a young English man named Mark Lewis, the first scene is from his point of view, we see him murdering a prostitute, while filming the crime with his camera. This opening scene grabs the viewers attention and starts the film perfectly but it's not until the next scene that the character of Mark is truly developed and revealed, we see him watching his film of the murder later at home, in a room especially designed for this purpose.

So we are introduced to a murderer who is obsessed with his camera and never puts it down, he films the events that unfold throughout the film, the various murders, the police investigation, the conclusion to the case...When questioned he claims he's making a documentary. And he is, but it's a very disturbing one.

I won't go any deeper into the plot, it is very cleverly written and original, as well as providing a view into Cinema that was unseen before.

The two aspects of the film that really elevate this film into an excellent character study and a original view on cinema, are Carl Boehm performance and Powell'a distinct style of film making.

Carl Boehm with the camera, one of the best and most original killers in cinema.

Carl Boehm's expert performance really makes the character memorable and separates him from the countless other killers in film.

Many have complained about his strong German accent even though he plays an Englishman, but I personally wasn't bothered by it much at all. His performance is captivating in its creepiness, yet it is not an all out horrible performance as Mark Lewis is a complex character, I found myself pitying him several times throughout the film and that, I think, is due to Boehm's wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast was good, nothing spectacular though, they were all overshadowed by Boehm's performance, Moira Shearer was good but nowhere near as great as in The Red Shoes, Anna Massey was also good as the innocent young Helen.

The distinctive opening sequence is one you won't forget in a hurry.

Powell was obviously a talented director and one of Britain's best.
While this film doesn't have the swooping grandeur of Black Narcissus nor the fantastical imagery of The Red Shoes, it is still very well shot, the atmosphere was just perfect and the opening sequence seen through the killers' camera is extraordinary.

Another scene that really stood out for me, was the scene in which Helen views one of Marks' films for the first time and come to realize some dreadful truths, instead of showing the screen like most directors would in an effort to shock the audience, all we see is Helen's face and varying expressions as she watches.

The rest of the film often varies between "normal" footage and scenes obviously shot by Mark, these scenes are often subtly disturbing and bring the films title to mind instantly.

I think that the uncomfortable feelings that are sometimes provoked by this film and the reasons it was so hated upon its release, would be because it present cinema in an ugly almost dirty way, it makes the audience feel like voyeurs, like Peeping Tom's, and people reacted strongly to this.

But I do think that these aspects of Cinema and film making should not be ignored just because they are distasteful, I think Cinema and voyeurism are in some ways similar, as a member of an audience we are watching peoples’ lives and stories unfold before us while we watch passively. Of course they are portrayed by actors and are often fictional, but I think the subject deserves some thought. As does the invasive aspect of the camera, in this film for example victims are filmed in their last moments of life and even as they die, this footage is captured on film and can be kept forever by this sinister killer, this is the dark side of Cinema, Mark is constantly filming all that takes place, people naturally assume that it's an innocent project but they do not know where this footage will end up and what purpose it will serve, you never can be sure were footage of you will end up.

But the film isn't really a massive technical achievement; I think that could partly be blamed on the harsh censuring it was subjected to on its release. This causes the film to have a rather rough feel to it, as many scenes were shortened and some dialogues are even cut of abruptly.

The Character of Mark Lewis:
What really makes this film interesting, is the complex character of Mark Lewis, and any review of the film wouldn't be complete without elaborating on this point as without it the film wouldn't be half as good.

Mark comes across as a timid and eager-to-please young man, but also as an extremely lonely one, he is very socially awkward.

Much of his disturbances and strange behavior stems from his relationship with his father, this aspect of the film has been widely praised (by more recent viewers of course) and is most interesting from a psychological point of view.

I really liked this shot, I'm not exactly sure why though, maybe it's because of the way the projection on Marks back resembles a skull....

So the character of Mark Lewis really stands alone as far as killers in film go, in my opinion. He is easily one of the most complex and ultimately pitiable.
Yet he is not a entirely evil being as some villains in films are, he is the product of a disturbing childhood and extreme loneliness, but it is evident throughout the film that there is the capacity to do good still in him, this is evident mainly in the scenes with Helen, and most of it is thanks to Carl Boehm's wonderfully intense performance.

Peeping Tom is not a film anyone will enjoy, but I think it is compulsory viewing for anyone aspiring to be a director or to just to express themselves through film. As Martin Scorsese (who is a great admirer of this film and played a large part in restoring it's popularity) points out: "I have always felt that Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films"

I highly recommend it. It's a very interesting film that deals with fear, violence, insanity and voyeurism. Needless to say there are not many others like it!

(Many people seem to think of this film as a Horror film, I think of it more as a critique of Horror films, as Horror directors cause deaths (false ones of course) in attempts to frighten the audience, but here Mark causes deaths while at the same time frightening victims (you'll find out how when you see the film) and recording their fear. So even if Horror isn't a genre you enjoy (as is my case) then I would still recommend watching this.)

Editor's Note: My great thanks to Jack L. for writing this review. If you would like to read more of Jack's work, check out his amazing blog:


The entire film can be watched for free on youtube at the following link:


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Guest Review: Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players)

Directed by Satyajit Ray

The only movies I can remember which made me laugh more than this one-actually laugh, not smile or snigger-are Chaplin's Circus and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Of course this film is far more refined, like a different blend of tea.

The film takes place in Lukhnow, 1856, a year before the anti-colonial uprising. Kite strings entwine in the sky, cocks fight to the death, rams exchange blows, and the crowds yell and scream. Lukhnow; the city of nawabs, Shiraz-e-Hind, the Constantinople of the East, birth place of Naushad (renowned Bollywood composer) and Begum Akhtar (a vocalist). It is the city of Kathak and Thumri (a dance form and traditional music genre respectively), pulao, biryani, kababs--"the garden, granary and the queen of provinces". This film is as much about the city as it is about its characters.

The province of Avadh, in which the city lies, was at the time being "ruled"-the British sword is sheathed but ever ready-by Nawab Wajid Ali Khan. He is played by Amjad Ali Khan in his finest performance. One wonders if this man is really Gabbar, the death spewing snake of Sholay, whose dialogues are now proverbs. In the hands of director Satyajit Ray, Amjad is transformed into an effete, dance loving, poetry composing, bemused Wajid Ali Shah, born to be a puppet-king, if king at all. He maintains a harem of 400 concubines, loves kite flying, and dresses up as a Hindu god and dances with the girls in raas-leela. He has many "muta" (Persian for pleasure) wives which he keeps for three or thirty days. Despite this, he says his prayers five times a day, won't touch a drop of wine, composes poetry of exquisite delicacy, and is the patron-founder of the lauded Lukhnow school of kathak (a classical Indian dance ), of which we are treated to an exquisite performance in the course of the film. Watching the dance, the Nawab's eyes moisten and lumps form in his throat. He is a true aesthete, if ever there was one. Consequently, he also is unfit to rule, as the British General Outram (played by Richard Attenborough) astutely observes.

Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Sayeed Jaffrey) are two local hereditary landlords who live off their taxes. They pass their lives in blissful idleness, chewing pan and smoking their hookahs. Quite in love with life and themselves, they flit from diversion to diversion--having currently made chess the centre of their lives--and, as chilum follows chilum, the comrades straddle the board from morn to eve, much to the discomfiture of at least one of their wives.

Mirza's shrewd and lovely wife is inimitably portrayed by Shabana. It is incredible to see Shabana, future parliamentarian and activist for women's rights, smoking a hookah! Bringing range and nuanced perfection to her role, Shabana loses herself in the performance while retaining perfect control. Farida Jalal, as the second wife, cuckolds Mir Sahib, who is far too stupid and trusting or unwilling or uninterested to know what is going on right under his nose. The Mirza's uncontrollable fit of laughter as he rolls up in spasm after spasm after spasm, all while being amazed at his friend's naiveté, is an absolutely incredible feat of acting, never seen in the annals of cinema.

Frustrated at being neglected on account of the game, the Mirza's own wife contrives to hide the chess pieces. After hilariously desperate endeavours to find another set, even taking them to the house of a dying attorney, they finally settle on continuing their game using vegetables such as tomatoes and onions as chess pieces. Outwitted, Shabana angrily hurls the pieces at the friends. They decide to shift the game to the Mir's place, where we are treated to another comic interlude of cuckoldry.

Meanwhile, a bigger game is in progress. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general in Calcutta, sends General Outram (Attenborough) to Luckhnow with clear orders to take over the administration of the province. Veena, as the Queen Mother, Victor Banerjee, as the Prime Minister, and Tom Alter, as the urdu speaking aide de camp Captain Weston, all give indelibly memorable performances. Veena particularly, as the betrayed and wounded mother of Wajid Ali, is marvellous in her defiant yet fore-doomed cry for justice, to Queen Victoria and to heaven.

Finally, the chess friends retreat to a hovel in the countryside to pursue their game in peace. They quarrel over the game and, already in bad humour because of mosquitos and lack of a light for his smoke, one taunts the other about the doings of his unfaithful wife. Angered Mir Sahib fires his pistol.

As the gun explodes, we are treated to a panoramic sight of a rag-tag British force---cavalry, infantry, bullock carts, elephants, camels, muskets---on their way to take over Lukhnow. Deadly enough, come to think of it.

This gunshot reminds me of the plop of the stolen necklace in Pather Panchali as it sinks into the algae caked water of the village pond. It is an inspired moment and marks the conclusion of one era and the start of another. This ability to condense a lifetime into a single moment of sublime symbolism is one of the delights of this director.

"How can we, who couldn't manage our wives, face the British,” rues Mir Roshan Ali. They continue their game, waiting for the cover of darkness to sneak home.

The film is less about politics and history than about the confrontation of civilizations. Ray, with his oriental heart and western intellect, is well qualified to tackle this theme. It bears repetition that not one but each of the seven leading actors have given performances of amazing fluidity and power. Certainly no one who understands Hindi or Urdu should die without seeing this movie twice.

The peaks of this film are too many to single out. The Chess Players is a Himalayan achievement in the annals of Indian cinema, deserving more accolades than it has received.

Written by my dear friend S. M. Rana.
You can read more of his work at his blog Onlyne, at http://smrana.blogspot.com/

The film can be watched in its entirety on youtube.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Editor's Note: On Haitus

That's right, folks. We're going on a brief hiatus.


The fact is, my life is a little too hectic right now to keep up a blog. I'm applying for graduate school and have to write two papers and complete a college thesis.

I know this may seem like a bad time to go on hiatus. I mean, I just got a new follower!

(Hi Jack L! Glad you joined!)

But seriously...I need a brief break.

This site, this blog is MUCH too important to me than to allow its quality to dwindle just because I'm tired and can't keep up with the schedule. You, the readers, deserve better. The FILMS deserve better, too.

No, this is not the infamous indefinite hiatus that has doomed so many blogs and webcomics. Mark your calenders, because Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear will return on Saturday, December 18, 2010.

That's a promise.

Oh, I won't abandon the blog entirely. You may get a special treat every now and then when I have a moment to spare.

But until then, I hope you all keep reading and keep watching.


Editor-in-Chief, Nathanael Hood

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Directed by Terence Davies
United Kingdom

In a drab, almost desolate Liverpool flat, a melancholy voice creeps through doorways and empty rooms. The voice sings a sad song, wizened by long years of a difficult life. In this opening shot of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, we hear the soul of mid-century working class Britain laid bare. Davies bravely lets the camera hold on a empty room, thereby letting the off-screen song engulf us. In this moment, we learn one of the fundamental truths about the characters in this priceless gem of British cinema: the voices define the character. Roger Ebert once wisely quoted, “We laugh so that we may not cry.” In this film, the characters sing so that they don’t fade away.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
is a unique creature in the pantheon of British cinema. First, it is a hybrid of two shorter films, Distant Voices and Still Lives, which were filmed two years apart from each other. Second, it is an autobiography without a subject. Director Terence Davies based the films on his own upbringing in Liverpool during the 40s and 50s. We know that the events in the film were reflective of his experiences growing up. The characters are based off his family. But, there doesn’t seem to be a character representative of Davies. The effect is such that we are a ghost floating through this Liverpool family’s life.

Third, the film does not opt for a linear narrative. Instead, the film is more of a collection of brief vignettes. Seemingly disjointed, Davies seems to choose his scenes at random. A shot where the mother is cleaning an upstairs window cuts to her being savagely beaten by her husband. And yet, there is an overall sense of a persistent narrative structure. Davies seems to evoke the form of human memory itself. An incredible essay on the film by Ric Burke sums up the narrative form best:

Distant Voices, Still Lives plays out in the same fashion that memories are triggered by sights, sounds and smells; certain things, locations and noises that transport you back to a certain place and time in your life, which is then easily married into another memory of a differing time yet still sweep into one another with ease. In using this technique Davies' moving account dispels with some of the more traditional narrative devices, yet through the skill of threading images and music, the suture of themes, colours and characters, there remains a cohesion, a story and a beautiful rendition of life in working class Liverpool.

In addition to the narrative structure, the cinematography matches the action by utilizing a “Bleach-By-Pass printing process” which desaturates the color, eliminates primary palette tones, and fills the screen with browns and grays. Truly, by the end of the day, Distant Voices, Still Lives creates a perfect representation of one man’s memory.

Fourth, and finally, the film is uncharacteristically introverted and personal for British cinema. I discovered some interesting quotes by Francois Truffaut and Satyajit Ray that both seemed to stress that the British are “temperamentally incapable of holding movie cameras.” Now, there have been plenty of groundbreaking and influential British directors. But what they seem to be implying is that the British are incapable of achieving an introspective cinema that examines the core of the British experience. In that respect, Distant Voices, Still Lives is the exception that breaks the rule. The entire film is an aching mediation on British family life. It demonstrates such piercing and devastating insight that it seems to be channeling Ingmar Bergman.

As mentioned before, the film is divided into two different parts. Distant Voices follows the early life of Davies’ family. It is dominated by a cruel father played by Pete Postlethwaite. An unpredictable man, Davies juxtaposes sweet moments of him tearfully filling his children’s stockings on Christmas morning with him throwing his wife down the stairs after brutally beating her. He represents a kind of patriarchal archetype for the neighborhood. Indeed, we witness other men acting cruelly to their wives. In one scene, a woman reveals how she had been attacked by her husband. Unfortunately, she choose to reveal such information in a crowded bar. She is reprimanded by the men who happen to overhear, as if she broke an unwritten rule.

It is here that the songs become so important. After being scared into submission by their father, the women of the family have no other way to express themselves but to sing. Popular American and British songs are evoked by the cast. The songs express the emotions and feelings that the characters cannot. They also serve to comment on the action in the film. Nowhere is this more evident than a devastating scene of domestic violence played to the tune of Ella Fitzgerald’s Taking a Chance on Love. One of the taglines for the film’s movie posters was “In memory, everything happens to music.” Nowhere is this truer than for the film’s central family. Music is life. It is pain, sorrow, joy, escape, and salvation.

The events of Distant Voices all lead to the father’s death. In a sickly state, we watch as one by one his family rejects him for the years of abuse. It’s almost enough to help us forget what a monster he was. Almost. But soon the film transitions to Still Lives which follows the children after they have grown up. The world is a bit brighter and more inviting. The children are beginning to get married. But there is a sinister undercurrent beneath it all as we are led to suspect that the girls may be headed towards the exact same kind of relationships as their parents’. The film suggests a never-ending cycle of abuse, love, and abuse that transcends the generations.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
is a true treasure of British cinema. Yet, few have seen it outside of film festivals. Why is this? Filled with the melancholy of memory and a beauty and insight rarely seen in British cinema, one would assume that it would be more popular. Hopefully we can break the cycle of ignorance surrounding this film. It deserves to be seen and treasured. It deserves to escape the same fate of its unfortunate characters: that of neglect, suppression, and abuse. Only then can the healing truly begin.

Ric Burke Essay:

http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/16/distant.html http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews32/distant_voices_still_lives.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distant_Voices,_Still_Lives

Friday, November 19, 2010

Editor's Note: Still Sick...

Well gang....I'm still ill....

In the beginning...all I had was the flu. But now it has been complicated by a viral infection in my trachea.

So...no update tomorrow. Sorry.

I'll try to post a review early next week during one of my more lucid moments.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Trente-Deux Films Brefs Sur Glenn Gould (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould)

Directed by François Girard

Editor’s Note: Please forgive me if this article seems somewhat incoherent. It was written while under the influence of the flu and copious amounts of cold medicine.

Glenn Gould: My mother tells me that by five years old l had decided definitively to become a concert pianist. l think she had decided sometime earlier.

As of the time of writing this article, the average human life expectancy is 67 years. To put that into perspective, that equals 586,920 hours of life. As humans, we are unable to comprehend that amount of time until we have actually achieved it. So for many, 586,920 is simply a number. But for filmmakers, 586,920 can be one of the scariest figures imaginable. For in movies that depict the course of an individual’s lifetime, known as the “biopic,” the filmmaker must examine all 586,920 hours of living and select only two hours worth of material to show. How is that possible? Two hours is only 1/12 of a single day! How is any director supposed to properly depict a life in such a small amount of time?

Filmmakers have struggled with this challenge since the heyday of the cinema. The vast majority practice the technique of picking out and portraying what history has declared to be the most important parts of their lives. But do those particular moments truly define a man or a woman? Is a human merely the sum of their greatest accomplishments, or something more?

And then there is the challenge of perspective. The vast majority of biopics are fairly linear in approach. There may be the occasional flashback or flash-forward, but for the most part we start at the beginning and end at the end. This technique sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But, consider this: who truly views their life in such a way? Few, if any, can definitively say that they remember the moment that they first came into existence. And we will probably never know if we are conscious or coherent when our lives truly end. Our experience as humans, the way that we view and comprehend our lives, is anything but linear. It is the grand total of not just actions, but experiences, feelings, and emotions. So how is a filmmaker supposed to depict this? Is the cinema even capable of approaching any kind of truth about how somebody lived? Is the concept of the biopic meaningless even by its definition?

So imagine the task set before Canadian filmmaker François Girard when he decided to do a biopic on Glenn Gould. Gould, a Toronto-born concert pianist widely accepted as one of the greatest virtuosos that the instrument has ever seen, would prove to be a difficult person to explore within the limits of traditional filmmaking. Able to read music before he could read words, Gould was a child prodigy who quickly became one of the most famous pianists alive. And yet, on April 10, 1964, at the height of his popularity, Gould suddenly announced that he would never perform in public again. He would go on to devote his life to doing recordings, nearly living in studios, and only maintaining contact with friends and relatives via telephone. In a sense, Gould was the Howard Hughes of the music world: endlessly brilliant, yet subjected to a self-imposed isolation from the world.

Glenn Gould

How can so strange a life be properly committed to film? Girard realized that it couldn’t be, at least in a traditional sense. So he constructed one of the most unique and penetrating character studies to ever grace the cinema: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

As the title suggests, the film is literally made up of thirty-two short films, ranging from a few seconds to six minutes. They consist of interviews with people that Gould knew in real life (such as concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin) and reconstructions of various scenes from Gould’s life (starring the pitch-perfect performance of Colm Feore as Gould). Some are fairly straightforward: in one of the first short films we explore Gould’s childhood. In this segment, Gould narrates how music was an intrinsic part of his youth. Indeed, we watch as his mother played him classical music as he was still growing in her womb. Another segment shows him signing an autograph backstage of his last public concert. He coyly tells the man that he is lucky, adding, “I'm never going to sign one of these again.”

But the real magic of the film lie in the more unique and abstract segments. In one, he turns on a series of radios in his studio and seems to conduct the noise, as if hearing some inexplicable music that nobody else could. In “Gould Meets Gould” he literally argues with himself over the roles of the artist and their audiences. “Pills” shows all of the medications that Gould would consume late in his life, with him monotonously reciting a laundry list of side effects for each one. “Diary of One Day” confronts the audience with living x-rays of Gould’s hands, skull, and chest, as if proving that he has nothing to hide. And then, in “Gould Meets McLaren” we are treated to an animation of floating orbs pulsating to Gould’s music.

All thirty two segments serve to do more than give us a glimpse or summary Gould’s life. Instead, they serve to give the audience a snapshot of something much more illuminating and intimate: a chance to experience how Gould encountered and interacted with the world. It is impossible to truly know what Gould felt when he saw something or heard a piece of music. But Girard does his utmost to prove that it was wholly unique. Just as how the same piece of music can never be performed the same way twice, no human can ever live the same way, experience the same things, or feel the same feelings as anybody else. In Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Girard has created more than a biopic: he reconstructed a life itself.

Editor's Note: I just realized that this is the first Canadian film to be featured on my website. Exciting, eh?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Editor's Note: Out Sick

Bad news, everybody.

I'm sick.
Caught myself a nasty cold.

Oh, I'll post a review later next week...but right now....I have to try and NOT die.......

Nathanael Hood

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Portrait of Jennie

Directed by William Dieterle
The United States of America

As I sit in my room writing this review, the sun rises on one of the first frosts of the season. The grass is glazed with iced dust that crunches under your feet. The wind’s howling reaches through closed windows to chill early risers to the bone. It is the season of destitution, of naked trees, and breath that freezes in your lungs. Soon, snow will cover the land with a chilly blanket. I look out my window with my hand under my chin and sigh. I think, “This was just like how it started. This was just like the beginning of Portrait of Jennie.” I return my eyes to my monitor and struggle to force impotent hands to clack out words that in reality mean very little. There is so much I want to say about this film, and yet I possess so little ability to express it. It reminds me of John Lennon crooning away, “Half of what I say is meaningless…Still I say it just to reach you.” So I carry on, determined to finish this article and share with you just a modicum of the beauty that is William Dieterle’s unsung masterpiece Portrait of Jennie.

Now that I think of it, maybe it is appropriate that I am suffering from writer’s block. After all, our hero Eben Adams begins the film in a similar state. A struggling, impoverished painter living in the mid 1930s in New York City, Eben lives one penny at a time. He moves from art collector to art collector, trying in vain to sell one of his paintings. His paintings are decent, yet lack a certain je ne sais pas that prevent anyone from buying them. One old art dealer named Miss Spinney takes pity on him and buys one of his paintings, much to the chagrin of her partner. This puts enough money in Eben’s pocket for a decent meal. But it isn’t enough. Tomorrow, when the money is gone he will still be just another hack with an armful of worthless paintings.

And yet, one cold day in Central Park he stumbles across a young girl named Jennie Appleton. A perpetually cheerful young lady, Jennie provides a ray of light into Eben’s life as she describes her happy life. And yet, something about her is a bit off. After all, she is wearing clothes that nobody has worn for decades and she claims that her parents work at a theater that has been gone for years. But Eben doesn’t care. She is a delight to be with. They enjoy their walk when suddenly Jennie turns to him and says, “I wish that you would wait for me to grow up so that we could always be together.” And then…nothing. She disappears, leaving nothing but a scarf tucked into a newspaper from 1910.

Baffled, yet inspired by this event, he rushes to draw a sketch of Jennie from memory. He creates a piece unlike anything else he had ever created. Whatever creative spark he was missing has arrived like a tidal wave. The sketch captivates Miss Spinney and even gains the admiration of her assistant. Eben returns to the park looking for Jennie. He finds her but is shocked to find that she seems to have aged several years in a few days. When asked about her growth, she beams and says that she’s trying to grow very fast so that they can be together. And then she is gone, disappearing into the glare of the sun.

Inspired by his second encounter, Eben is swept into a whirlwind of inspiration. Soon, his work affords him new clothes, hearty meals, and a new sense of accomplishment. And yet, like the late autumn, early winter sky, he feels empty. To him, Jennie is more than a muse, she is life itself. He goes to the park trying in vain to find Jennie. Nobody seems to have seen her. In fact, nobody seems to have remembered seeing her at all.

He investigates the dated paper that contains Jennie’s scarf and discovers that twenty years ago, Jennie’s parents were a pair of famous trapeze artists. When he goes to investigate them, he is shocked to find that they have been dead for several years. He is even more shocked to discover that they did have a daughter named Jennie. When he inquires about her, he is told that she was sent to a convent by her aunt after her parents were killed in an onstage accident. Bewildered, he returns to the park only to rediscover a heartbroken Jennie crying her eyes out. When Eben asks why she is crying, she whimpers that her parents just died and that she has to go live in a convent. Eben is shocked, but manages to calm her down. Things are made even stranger by the fact that Jennie is no longer a young girl. She is now a young woman. Before she abruptly disappears, she reassures him that she is growing as fast as she can.

I pause now in my writing. I realize that I have spelled the first half of the movie out almost word for word. I should be writing a review, not a summary. And yet, I feel an intrinsic need to recreate every plot point so that you, the reader, will understand the heartbreaking power of Portrait of Jennie. What director William Dieterle managed to do was create a film that was simultaneously a powerful love story and a supernatural…thriller? No, thriller isn’t the right word. It’s more like a supernatural curiosity, like a more subdued episode of The Twilight Zone. There is something unnatural and unusual going on in Portrait of Jennie. And yet, the fantastical elements of the picture do not insist upon themselves. The story is about Eben and his quest to capture his muse who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. After all, only he can see her. He learns that the historical Jennie died years ago in a tragic boating accident. She couldn’t possibly really be there. And yet, such impossibilities are irrelevant. She is real to Eben, the man who needs her most in the world.

As Eben becomes a better and more successful painter, he realizes that he needs Jennie in order to create. During a long absence where she fails to appear for several months, he is unable to finish anything. When she returns again, she has grown into a fully realized woman. The waiting is over. At least, it was supposed to be. She disappears again, leaving Eben to realize that the anniversary of her death is swiftly approaching. He races to the cape where Jennie drowned and….

No. I’m going to stop there. I refuse to spoil it for you. Yes, there is a traditional Hollywood rescue scene where Eben desperately tries to save his beloved. But I’m not going to tell you what happens. All I will say is that while the set-up seems to be copy and pasted from a hundred other sappy love stories, the payoff is shockingly unique. All leads to a scene set in the present day where a group of schoolchildren attend a museum exhibit of Eben’s work. The centerpiece is completed portrait of Jennie. In a final sweep, the film briefly explodes into Technicolor glory, showing that in the end Eben was finally able to create a piece of art that transcended the natural world of the film to take on a life of its own.

While working on this article, I glanced at several other reviews of the film just to get an idea of what other people think of it. One review in particular caught my eye. It was an article written by Ed Gonzalez written for Slant Magazine, the link to which I have provided below. Gonzalez argues that Portrait of Jennie is a metaphor for the creative process. He states that the film details Eben as an artist coming to terms with his dependency on his muse. Gonzalez writes:

What is Jennie then but a metaphor for supreme creative (read: spiritual) enlightenment? A quick glance at Eben's portrait of Jennie shows that he has yet to finish drawing her left arm. The shot evokes a devastating foreshadowing that isn't lost on Eben. Indeed, he is very conscious of the fact that if he finishes the arm, Jennie will disappear soon after.

Gonzalez makes a fair point. After all, Eben wants to possess Jennie because she inspires him. And yet, he is terrified that once he has her, she will disappear.

And yet, I take issue with Gonzalez’s review. It is too cold, too sterile in its approach to this haunting film. It dissects it as if it were a medical patient. It doesn’t take any time to appreciate it for what it truly is: a love story. Yes, the film deals largely with one man’s artistic struggles. But at its core it is about a man who loves a woman. After all, Eben clearly wasn’t thinking about his work when he rowed out in the middle of a storm to rescue Jennie from drowning.

Portrait of Jennie is a haunting enigma of a film. A devastating love story and a fascinating otherworldly mystery, it is a difficult film to classify. Does it belong in the romance or fantasy section? Or, maybe, does it belong in its own?

You know, it’s funny. This hasn’t been a regular review. I've said almost nothing about its production or its technical capacity as a piece of filmmaking. I haven’t mentioned the pitch perfect performances of Joseph Cotten as Eben, Jennifer Jones as Jennie, and Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney. I haven’t mentioned how the film was a personal project for producer David O. Selznick who agonized over every step of its difficult production. I haven’t mentioned the beautiful cinematography by Joseph H. August who frequently shot the film through a canvas to make the picture appear to be a painting. I haven’t even said a word about its miserable reception upon its first release.

And yet, here I write. The sun has come up now. The frost has disappeared on its voyage to another icy morning. It will get colder soon. But for now, the sun is still bright. The sky is a reminder of the stark, desolate beauty that engulfs the world. Such is the beauty of an autumn morning. Such is the beauty of Portrait of Jennie, a consummate masterpiece, a consummate film.

Link to Ed Gonzalez’s Review (Contains Spoilers):


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Мать (Mother)

Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin

The 1920s was truly one of the greatest times in the history of cinema. Hollywood was solidifying its status as a wellspring of creative filmmaking. DeMille pioneered the modern historical epic. Flaherty gave birth to documentary filmmaking. Chaplin, Keaton, and Floyd delighted the world with comedic masterpieces that have yet to be topped. Warner Brothers gave birth to sound pictures, MGM to musicals, and Paramount to the movie star. France also challenged to status quo by examining the artistic merits and possibilities of the film medium. Innovators like Dreyer, Clair, and Renoir, and Buñuel dared to take the cinema to new heights by treating it as a genuine art form instead of just a source of entertainment. In Germany, economic hardships sparked the German Expressionism movement, a fever dream of artistic expression and innovation.

And yet, there is one other country that redefined cinema during the 1920s: The USSR. Established on December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would forever change the balance of world power and become a defining force of world culture. Declared by V. I. Lenin as the single most important medium for educating the masses in the ways of Communism, the cinema took on a new role. Whereas in America the cinema was entertainment and in Europe it was art, in the Soviet Union, the cinema became propaganda.

Throughout the 1920s, several of the greatest geniuses to ever touch the medium were employed by the Soviet government to transform the cinema into a teaching tool of indoctrination. To do so, new cinematic techniques and methods were invented. Dziga Vertov pioneered the theory of Kino-Pravda, or film truth, which postulated that the cinema can witness and depict greater truth than can be seen with the naked eye. Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was a bold attempt to literally redefine cinematic language and is still revered today as one of the greatest films ever made. Sergei Eisenstein released what could be the greatest one-two-three punch debut in the history of cinema with Strike (1924), The Battleship Potemkim (1925), and October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928). In these three films, Eisenstein quite literally changed the rules of cinematic construction by introducing the theory and practice of montage editing. Alexander Dovzhenko’s “Ukraine Trilogy” would become three of the most important films in early Soviet history, simultaneously gaining praise and scorn from Soviet authorities for sheer craftsmanship and political ambiguity.

And yet, there is one director from this era who almost always seems to be overlooked by film enthusiasts. While he may not be as famous as Vertov or as influential as Eisenstein, he still remains one of the most consummate cinematic craftsmen to ever come from the Soviet Union. His name was Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin. History may overlook him, but it can never overlook his work.

Just like his contemporary Eisenstein, Pudovkin helped pioneer the montage editing process. But Pudovkin differed from Eisenstein in the messages that he promoted through the use of montage. While both obviously used the montage to create scenes that praised the power of the proletariat and the strength of Communism, they highlighted different aspects of the revolutionary process. Eisenstein used the montage to glorify the image of the masses. In Battleship Potemkin the infamous Odessa Steps Massacre shows the Czarist guards as an unfeeling machine that mowed down crowds of innocent bystanders. In October: Ten Days that Shook the World, Eisenstein used hundreds of extras to create scenes where waves of humanity swept across their oppressors. To Eisenstein, there was strength, power, and significance, in numbers.

Pudovkin preferred to focus on the individual. The montage was used to highlight the individual efforts and struggles that made up the revolutionary forces that swept across Russia. In The End of St. Petersburg (1927), a single unemployed peasant becomes a revolutionary hero. His magnum opus, Storm Over Asia (1928) followed the plight of a plain Mongol herdsman who leads a revolution against English oppressors. These two films alone would be enough to solidify Pudovkin as one of the USSR’s premiere filmmakers. However, both of these films were predated by another masterpiece. The film in question was simply titled Mother (1926) and it eclipses both films in terms of emotional content and impact.

Allow me to explain. In both Storm Over Asia and The End of St. Petersburg the main heroes are exploited characters who eventually rise up against their oppressors. However, they do it by their own volition. They rebel because they believe it the right thing to do. In the case of Mother, the events are inspired by something much simpler and infinitely more powerful: love.

Based on a Maxim Gorky novel, the film follows the struggles of a simple family caught up in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution. The father is a rough brute who keeps his wife in constant terror. The son is an inspired revolutionary wholeheartedly devoted to his cause. The mother is an ever-suffering woman. Life is hard, her husband is abusive, and her only son seems hell-bent on throwing his life away. It isn’t long before her husband is killed in a worker’s strike, leaving her in charge of the family. When the son asks her to hide weapons for the revolution, she wearily agrees. But when the police come looking for them, she quickly betrays them, hoping that they will free her son.

Of course they don’t. In a farcical trial scene reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, the son is sent to prison. Things come to a head when the prisoners try to escape. But they are brutally massacred. Inspired by the horrors of Czarist oppression and spurred on by the death of her son, she picks up a political cudgel and joins in a worker’s protest. The ending is the stuff of cinematic legend. To ruin it would be a crime. Suffice to say, the film stays faithful to history.

What propels this film to the level of a masterpiece is Pudovkin’s impeccably economic execution and delivery. As Pudovkin’s first independently produced feature, he had access to little money. So Pudovkin had to compensate with devastating cinematic grammar. Along with his cinematographer Anatoli Golovnya, Pudovkin doesn’t waste a single shot or frame composition. Rob Edelman wrote a fantastic article explaining some of the attributes of Pudovkin and Golovnya’s cinematic language:

He and his cinematographer, Anatoli Golovnya, photographed the actors from every which angle: a military officer's self-importance would be conveyed by shooting him from below; the mother's early frustration would be emphasized by shooting her from above, and at the end, her triumph and liberation is highlighted by shooting from below. When Pudovkin places his camera in this position, the character's upper body and head seem further away, more inaccessible, reaching to the sky and towering over the viewer; when the actor is beneath the camera he becomes inferior, in that the viewer is literally looking down on him. Pudovkin does not shoot his performance straight on, as if he is recording a stage play. Mood and characterization are communicated in Mother not by the actor emoting before the camera; the performer is almost a passive participant in the filmmaking process.

That isn’t to say that the acting in Mother is hackneyed. Pudovkin used a blend of professionals (the mother and son were recruited from the Moscow Art Theater) and non-actors (smaller roles like the colonel supervising the son’s interrogation) to create a dynamic world that is both highly realistic and expressionistic. The performances were also highlighted by Pudovkin’s use of montage. Take the famous scene where the son receives good news while in prison. His reaction is punctuated with images of spring: a thawing river, children playing, and birds bathing.

Inevitably (and predictably) later in Pudovkin’s career he would fall out of favor with Soviet authorities. But before he provoked Soviet ire, Pudovkin left a powerful string of films to cement his legacy. Mother will forever be remembered as one of his greatest. A genius piece of economic filmmaking, Mother also separated itself from other Soviet films by making the audience feel sympathy and love for the characters. The struggles faced by the mother reflected countless other cases of pain and suffering that permeated Soviet revolutionary efforts. And yet, as a piece of propaganda, it works its magic. It is impossible to not feel inspired and enraged by the events that transpire. Some may ask why. The answer is that Pudovkin put a human face on the revolution: that of a loving mother.

The entire film can be watched for free on youtube. Below is part 1/11.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Editor's Note: One Year Old

Well, to all my faithful readers I have great news!

Today is the one year anniversary of "Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear"!

The past 52 weeks has produced 87 film reviews. For those who are interested, here are some interesting statistics:

Sorry, that's supposed to say "Continent."


I want to thank all of my great readers and all of those who have been so kind to leave comments over the past year.

In particular, I wish to thank:

AJB: For that great article on Seijun Suzuki!

Bruta1ity: For helping me learn about the wonders of Russian cinema! I got a special treat for you in a week!

Chris: For spreading the word about my blog and for keeping things classy!

Danielmontgomery: Thanks for adding me to your blogroll and for the great encouragement!

Dave: For keeping it real with the Western rap! I miss you, buddy! Comment more!!!

Elisabeth and Baba: Without you two, there wouldn't be a single African film on this blog! Love you!

Emptyflow: For your kind words of encouragement!

Felipe Lacerda: I hope that we cleared everything up! I'm very thankful to have you as a reader!

Fred: For proving that musicals never go out of style!

Ian Mongomery: For all of your kind words! As one blogger to another, keep up the great work, buddy!

Jonathan Cameron
: For the hits, the encouragement, and, of course, the love and prayers! Tell Janet I love her!

: You have NO IDEA how thankful I am for every word of feedback that you give. It truly is an honor to have you comment on my site!

Litdreamer: Hope you've enjoyed "I Live in Fear"!

: For constantly commenting and saving my life!

Paul J. Marasa: For setting me straight about Bresson! ;)

poetbdk: Hope my article on "The Trial of Joan of Arc" helped your book!

S.M. Rana: For being one of the best contributors and commentators on this blog. It wouldn't be the same without you!

Tom Morris: Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Altman!

Wilding: I know that you're out there, buddy! I'll see you around /tv/!

To all my other commentators and subscribers, thank you.

This has not been an easy year for me. There were several times when this blog was my last stake on sanity. Every subscription and comment was like a dream come true.

Special thanks to Mom, Dad, and Rachael. I'd be lost without you all.

God bless you all.

Here's to another year!

Keep those comments coming!

In celebration of my first year anniversary, I will be taking this week off. I'll be back on October 30th with a new review!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World)

Directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese

If the cinema is a world of dreams, then German Expressionism is a world of nightmares. After the horrors of World War One, Germany was consumed by rampant inflation and a horrendous economy. In order to compete with lavish Hollywood films, German filmmakers reinvented the language of the cinema so that they could make films cheaply while maintaining a sense of artistic integrity. Disillusioned by the War to End All Wars, horror seemed a natural fit for a country that had lost 13,000,000 young men. Films began to deal more increasingly with matters of madness and monstrosities. Sets became lucid mazes of sharp angles, painted shadows, and terrifying vistas. In a sense, the fractured and distorted sets and shots reflected the shattered mindset of the films’ characters and, in a sense, those of its audience. Early German Expressionist films, like The Student of Prague (1913) and Destiny (1921) dealt with Faustian exchanges and deals with Death himself. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) were progenitors of the modern monster film with lumbering somnambulists and creeping vampires that lurked in the shadows.

90 years after their production, most German Expressionist films are lovingly cherished by film makers and connoisseurs. Many have been painstakingly restored from their original prints so they can be preserved for the ages. And yet, there is always the occasional film that slips under the radar. One of these is a film of staggering power and artist merit entitled The Golem: How He Came into the World. The third in a series of films about a clay golem that comes to life and murders hapless victims, The Golem: How He Came into the World is the only one that still survives to this day. The film itself was a prequel to the first golem film, appropriately titled The Golem (1915) that took place in the (then) modern world. Set in the 16th century, The Golem: How He Came into the World deals with how the golem was first created. Truly, the origin story of this early film monster deserves to be appreciated not only as a towering example of the genre of German Expressionism, but also as a consummate work of art.

In 16th century Prague, the esteemed Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel reads in the stars that a great catastrophe threatens the Jews. The catastrophe comes in the form of an edict from Emperor Rudolf II that the Jews must leave the city of Prague due to accusations of practicing black magic and the scorning of Christian ceremonies. To protect his community, Rabbi Loew constructs a golem, a massive automaton made of clay. After a magical ceremony, the Rabbi brings the golem to life by giving it a magical pendant with the word aemaet inscribed on it (Depending on who you ask, aemaet can mean either “life,” “God,” or “truth”). He then brings the golem to the court of Emperor Rudolf II and tries to reason with him to repeal the decree of banishment. Laughing at his appeal, Rabbi Loew orders the golem to make the palace collapse onto the spectators and block the exit. Desperate, the Emperor swears that if Rabbi Loew recalls the golem, he will repeal the decree.

When they return home from the palace, all seems well. Then Rabbi Loew tries to deactivate the golem. Unbeknownst to him, the golem, having been alive too long, has no intentions of going quietly into that dark night. The golem rebels, sets the city on fire, and begins a murder spree. The golem is eventually stopped, and I will leave that incredible scene for my readers to discover themselves. Suffice to say, as the golem was borne of ignorant makers, it could only be defeated by ignorant innocents.

The Golem: How He Came into the World was a terrifying film of grim ironies. Accused of black magic, the Rabbi Loew decides to protect his people by summoning Astaroth, otherwise known as the Crowned Prince of Hell, to bring his automaton to life. The golem, originally designed to protect the Jewish community from destruction, ends up almost annihilating them himself. In a way, the film acts as a prophetic warning of the coming of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. In order to save themselves from destruction, the German people elected Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to lead them. Eventually, the man they elected to help rebuild and protect their country would plunge them into World War Two, leaving their cities in ruins and their population decimated.

The film, while revolutionary, is a tad uneven. Rabbi Loew has a daughter named Miriam who begins a tryst with a knight named Florian who originally delivered the decree of banishment to the Jewish community. The entire affair, while vital to the plot later in the film, comes off as out-of-place in such a nightmarish landscape. Rabbi Loew takes his automaton about town and even sends it shopping at the market in one scene. Perhaps this was intended to show how tame the golem was harmless when first constructed. But one feels that such scenes were only added to pad the film’s length and to give the golem more face time.

But such complaints are tolerable in the face of such innovation. The directors Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, were key figures in the German Expressionist movement. Boese, who actually appeared in the film as the golem, helped define how movie monsters would act, move, and respond. Along with the somnambulist Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Count Orlok from Nosfertu, the golem was a prototype movie monster that would go on to inspire the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolfman.

As a production, The Golem: How He Came into the World may seem overly excessive for its genre. Armed with multiple sets and a massive cast that included waves of extras all dressed up in expensive period costumes, The Golem: How He Came into the World must have been a herculean production for its time. But the effect was well worth it. The end result was a film that existed in a macrocosm of fear and suspicion, terror and uncertainty. While The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari clearly existed in a series of sets, The Golem: How He Came into the World leads the viewers to believe that they are truly witnessing another world, or perhaps, a shadow from the past. Or, could it be that the film was a reflection of the future? Only the stars know….

The entire film can be seen for free on youtube. Below is a link to the first part of the film.