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!

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):