Summer Movie #1 – Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948): At the time I’m writing this, I’m about a week away from heading to Berlin, and here it is as shot by a master in August of 1947 – still then very much a city in ruins. There are a lot of things in current culture that are labelled “post-apocalyptic”. This film shows the real thing, a ruined city filled with ruined people and no real hope at all. The people have been ruined by the poverty of living in the shattered remnants of a city, but they’ve also been poisoned by what came before. There is a brilliant sequence with a recording of one of Hitler’s speeches framed against what his movement left behind. The character story is also one of how evil remains in us, and maybe of how it has to be expunged. It is a hard movie to watch, but I think it will be equally hard to forget as I’m looking at the gleaming city that has been built out of the one Rossellini shot almost seventy years ago. A couple other things: It is amazing and heart-rending to realize that Rossellini had lost his own son not long before seeing this film. I saw pictures of him in the Criterion extras, and there is more than a bit of resemblance between that young boy and Edmund, the major character in the film. Second, Rossellini evidently shot this without any real script and you can see echoes of what Godard will be doing twenty years later. It is also fascinating to realize that he had to be working out the precise movements that make up so much of the film (especially the ending scenes) as he was shooting them – no elaborate story-boarding, just his mind and his eye. Amazing and shattering.
Summer Movie #2 – Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987): Here is a second film I watched because I’m going to the city where it was set – and it was a perfect choice. There are films where the city itself is one of the characters (I’ve argued here, for example, that the biggest weakness of the second “Ocean’s” film is that it wasn’t set in Las Vegas) and Berlin is a character here. I can’t wait to walk those streets, hopefully late at night, to see if I can capture a bit of this. If you need a solid narrative, you won’t find it here – this is a collection of moments in people’s lives, in a city, around a theme of witnessing life and living it. It is a movie about being in a story that doesn’t tell much of a story – which is fine. This is film as art, to be experienced and internalized, not parsed and consumed. It took me much of my life to understand how to do this, or to realize I wanted to, but it changed everything for me about not just film, but music, writing, everything. BTW – if you have seen 1998’s “City of Angels” this is much less easily accessible, very different, and much better.
Summer Movie #3 – Closely Watched Trains ( Jiří Menzel, 1966): This film isn’t associated with one of the cities I’m travelling to, but it is one of the more well-known films from the Czech New Wave. It is a comedy, of sorts, set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It is kind of a coming-of-age story, but not exactly. I’m using all these qualifiers because this movie doesn’t fit into neat categories, it is funny, but also bleak, it is sexual, but not “racy” – it is a bit more than any of those terms would suggest. I’ve been reading a fairly dense book dealing with modernism, surrealism, and the city of Prague and the author frequently comments on the bleak humor of the Czechs – created from having experienced every flavor of modernism in the 20th century and often in the worst possible ways (a nation born in world war, occupied by the Nazis in another world war, taken by the Soviets afterwards, and then being reborn into westernism and capitalism). This film is filled with those sensibilities. It celebrates while scoffing. I’m really glad I’ve seen it.
Summer Movie #4 – 21 Days (Basil Dean, 1940): This is a decent suspense melodrama, though really only notable due to the cast. It stars Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh and was shot in 1937, so early for both of them. Lawrence Olivier is the “black sheep” wild younger son, Leslie Banks is his upstanding barrister older brother, and Vivian Leigh is his lover Wanda. There is a murder, and a cover-up, and an innocent man. Everything hinges on whether Olivier will own up to the crime or let an innocent man be punished. It was fine, but not really noteworthy. The only connection to my pre-trip films is thin – it was produced by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda.
Summer Movie (special) – Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984): I’m not counting this one in the “Summer of 100 Criterion Films” because a) I’ve seen it many times and b) it isn’t in the Criterion collection. Despite all that I thought I’d watch it before the trip. Many of the exteriors were shot in Prague – in the Mala Strana, which we will be visiting – and Vienna. Also, Milos Forman is Czech, so there is that. I don’t have much to add – beautifully shot, great performances, wonderful staging and choreography (by Twyla Tharp) for the opera scenes. If you haven’t seen it, you should. I watched it via Netflix, and thus saw the “Director’s Cut”. It wasn’t a short film when I saw it in the theater (161 minutes) and this adds twenty more. Like many of these “restored” versions, you can often see why some of the scenes were cut. Still a few of them are worth seeing in that they add resonance to things that were already in the theatrical cut. Worth seeing, but be ready for the long haul.
Summer Movie #5 – Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958): This is a powerful film, cited as the best of Polish realist cinema, dealing with the end of World War II and the rise of the Communist regime. It walks a bit of a tight-rope between nationalist sentiments and what the government would allow even in the aftermath of the reforms of 1956. It is beautifully shot in a style reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” in many ways and features some interesting performances. The story really seems to focus on the ultimate futility of war, even when one fights for a good cause. A final sequence where people celebrating the new regime dance in an almost mindless fashion seems to be showing the worst of what was yet to come. Depressing but powerful and well worth seeing.
Summer Movie #6 – Gimme Shelter (Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970): I decided I needed a break from grim Eastern European films, so I went for a documentary that focuses on a concert that turns into a sort of riot and includes a fatal stabbing. Somehow I’d never seen this before – at least in its entirety. Footage from this has been used so often that I’d seen bits of it many times. This works for two reasons, camera operators who knew where to point their cameras and when and great editing. The content, well that pretty much confirms my opinions of the period as a whole. This movie and “Woodstock” sort of encapsulate our whole visual memory of this cultural era, so see it if you haven’t.
Summer Movie (Special Transatlantic List):
Atlanta to Amsterdam
#1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
#2 All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
#3 Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Paris to Atlanta
#1 Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
#2 Trumbo (John McNamara, 2015)
#3 The Man From UNCLE (Guy Ritchie, 2015)
Summer Movie #7 – Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974): This documentary about the Vietnam War has too many echoes with much more recent events. It is powerful and brilliant. This is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made and you can really see the influence it has had on later film-makers. Michael Moore might seem an obvious example, but I think Errol Morris is a better one. Unlike Moore and many other documentarians, Davis is rarely seen or heard in the film. Instead he allows interviews and news footage to carry the message. Adding to this is the breadth of figures interviewed – William Westmoreland, Walt Rostow, Clark Clifford, numerous veterans, Vietnamese from all sides of the struggle, etc… This is a brilliant film.
Summer Movie #8 – Judex (Georges Franju, 1963): Sometimes reading up on a movie before watching it really helps, and this is an example. The movie is a re-make of a 1916 French serial of the same name featuring a pulp avenger character named Judex. Knowing this explains a lot of things left unexplained in the film (the pre-WWI setting, the use of silent film narration cards, etc…). The movie is fun, but not really a send-up. It is almost like “Raiders of the lost Ark” in that it tries to capture an earlier sort of movie. It is almost surreal at times with visuals that seem influenced by German expressionism. The thing it really reminded me of was the 1960’s series “The Avengers” – a similarity heightened by the Diana Rigg-esque black cat-suit occasionally worn by the villainess. That character, played by Francine Bergé, is the most arresting thing about the film. Fun, but be prepared for something that is self-consciously heavily stylized and effected.
Summer Movie #9 – The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958): Alec Guinness, who stars as well, wrote the screenplay for this film. It is a comedy that ventures into some social commentary about art and society (especially about art and wealth). Guinness is fun as the anti-social conman painter and delivers a wonderful monologue to his uncomprehending lady friend about how to view a painting. Well worth the viewing, particularly if you care about art.
Summer Movie #10 – Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978): See “Cult Movie.” This film is a bit hard to describe – think of it as existing at an intersection between British punk, no wave cinema, and magical realism… sort of. There really is no story, but rather a framing device for a series of episodes (Queen Elizabeth I has John Dee summon the angel Ariel – from “The Tempest,” which Jarman adapted immediately after releasing this film – to allow her to see the future; a sort of collapsed nightmare version of Britain not too different from “A Clockwork Orange” in many ways). The film-making is studiously raw (or punk) and the performances likewise. Brian Eno scored the film, several punk figures appear in the film, most significantly Adam Ant, and also Richard O’Brien and Nell Campbell who are best known for “Rocky Horror”. If you can appreciate the film for what it is – an early effort by Jarman to examine the sorts of things he would for the rest of his career but in this case through a late 70s British punk aesthetic – this is worth watching. If that description makes no sense to you at all – or is already irritating you – best to avoid this one.