The Hustler

There is no movie quite like The Hustler for its seemingly bottomless supply of powerful actors portraying weak characters. Now, that isn’t quite properly put, but what is meant by character is at the heart of this film.
     From when Fast Eddie first enters the local pool hall we know that we are looking at a career defining moment for Paul Newman—he stands apart from the midday riff-raff and in his cocky assuredness we believe. But he is waiting for a man, and in doing so, he reveals his boyishness. So the question becomes, who is this man for whom he waits, and for what do we need him? At eight on the dime Minnesota Fats strides into the hall, and at once we are struck by Jackie Gleason’s command of the floor and by how he dwarfs Fast Eddie. He has presence; we say to ourselves Fast Eddie is just a kid, a cocky kid. But somehow Fast Eddie continues to demand our undivided attention, and so we make the best of the bind and give it to the two of them together. The menial nature of the game they play is forgotten for a moment as we see their contest take on the character of something heroic. Surrounded by onlookers, absorbed in the play, even dressed up for it, Fats and Fast Eddie participate in a ritual glossed by talent but relying on character, high-stakes pool. The spell is broken by the entrance of Bert, called onto the scene by Fats, and immediately assuming the dominant role, giving advice and proffering judgement. As Bert, George C. Scott claims the first position, and in doing so makes a distinction between character and talent, which will both bear out our believe that his possession of the one cannot mask his dearth of the other, and reveal the question the movie wishes to pose.
     It comes as a surprise to Fast Eddie when Bert claims that great talent can be paired with a loser and it comes as a surprise to us that Bert himself is betting on the wrong answer. We see Bert refuted in the end, and yet we are not given an answer to the question. What is character?
     I don’t know that this question is answered, but neither am I sure the question is meant to be answered. Strong leading roles permit the question to be merely raised without answer. Think of the recent superhero movies: since the action is clear-cut good versus evil (even if the studios like to indulge in shallow psychoanalysis and love drooling over the lesser of two evils) the character need not act or be interesting; all they must do is hurt the bad guys. If there is no clear right or wrong in such a movie it cannot help devolving into shallow cynicism, the film must emphatically answer any worthwhile questions it raises or fail. And since films are short and our emotions slow I doubt we often see questions at all but only the answering statements, right or wrong.
     There are perpetual questions in the art world, or rather, assumptions (the questions are in the philosophical world surrounding art): how is it possible for a bad man to be a great artist how is it possible for a great man to be a poor artist, how does art contain more than the artist intends and in what manner does it do so? Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are artists and consider themselves as such (it is evident in their disdain for Bert), but who is the better artist, and who has character?

Samurai Rebellion

This movie was going to be called ‘Rebellion’, but the producers thought it would be more enticing to American audiences if it included the word ‘Samurai’.  Knowing that, it is not as surprising to watch the movie and see no fighting until the last ten minutes. This is not a martial arts flick, but a family drama, and the situation into which the father (Mifune, who is most famous as the fool in Seven Samurai) is placed is one in which he is only concerned with holding the family together though dishonor and death might come. Again, as in Kobayaski’s other great film Hara Kiri, those who insist on holding to the hollow forms of the Samurai code must in the end see the form ring hollow as they confront a powerful warrior dedicated to those he loves.

There is a beautiful visual effect toward the beginning of the movie where a story within a story within the story is being told, and the story tellers and audience are sitting in such a way that the camera is able to move seamlessly back and forth between each storytelling in such a way that all are woven into the same emotional tapestry.

This is a great movie, and worth re-watching.

Siberiade

I don’t know another movie which does what Siberiade does so well, but then again, I don’t know another movie that even tries to portray the relationship between two families over a span of eighty years.

What did the rise of Soviet Russia mean to Russians? A big enough question, one that doesn’t have a tidy answer—is an answer even attempted? The little village of Elan which the story revolves around is full of Dostoievskian  characters who must face folks straight from ancient fables: a man endlessly cutting a straight road through the forest to reach a star births a man who becomes a war hero and a vicious soviet puppet; the character billed as ‘the eternal old man’ hovers around a young dandy with a fixation on discovering oil and giving earthy reason to the cutting of the forest road by his lunatic grandfather; an axe murderer and a chorus of old-believers lend context and surreal aspect to the final dramatic scenes.

Interest in the characters was furthered by having known their ancestors, and was not dissipated by the somewhat brief encounters with them that such a movie demanded.

Although this movie is over 4 hours long, I’ll give it another viewing.

 

After the Wedding

Eyes and hands dominate the screen in this beautiful story from Denmark. By foregoing a violent, manipulative musical score for simple thematic motifs, ‘After the Wedding’ asks us to immerse ourselves in the mannerisms of a small, familial cast. It is through the unique bodily motions and habits of speech of those we love that we understand their inclinations; in the eyes of those we love we can see their souls. Pain, joy, and calculated fawning all reveal their presence in the eyes of these characters whose troubles we are asked to observe… we are asked to observe them in the same manner we observe our friends: we are not driven to feel good around our friends by some mystical aura of uplifting music, but are attracted by the loved familiarity of their intimate actions. And among this cast, the agitated figure of Jacob, our protagonist, cannot be contained and belies some suffering deeper than financial woe. He seems the odd man out in a world of people content in the world.
“You’re an angry man. That’s good. It gives you lots of drive.’ says Jorgen to Jacob; indeed it does, that is what anger is meant to do, and anger drives the first part of ‘After the Wedding’. From our first glimpse of Jacob we see this anger, notable in his disdain for this rich man, Jorgen, whom he has never met but who wants to meet him. He is rich, this forty-something year old Jorgen Hannson, and a perplexing man. In every interaction we find him expansively asserting himself, building a façade upon his fear; as the camera follows him from each encounter with his family and associates his face falls to a determined, hounded expression and we are left wondering what is rotten in the state of Denmark aside from the dead fox in the road. Jorgen’s fear will chart for us the structure of the story, although hardly determine the story. To determine the lives of others, particularly recent acquaintances, requires something more powerful than fear: we discover what that is, but (here is the crux of the matter), not immediately, and first each character must vomit up the filth of their suppression. And it is this interlude which both provides the meat of the story and reveals the beauty of Helene, Jorgen’s wife.
People fail us every day, as we fail them. The shame of failure will drive us to hide our suffering from those we love, and the failure of others will make us unwilling to place our trust in them. This is one result of the bondage of sin and leads to further isolation and greater fear; we all see this and know this. We must desire to end this vicious cycle, but this is hard. Psychologically, we become attached to our vice, and the act of separation can be a violent, and often a lengthy process. In myself and in the experience of those around me I have often seen deep-seated changes of heart accompanied by anger or instability, as a long neglected fountain coughs up mud in unsteady streams before running clean.
‘After the Wedding’ gives us, in Helene, a woman capable of weathering the outbursts of those who mean the most to her. And she does this with love, a love which she must first embrace as the innermost foundation of her own character. That is the only place that love can have in our life, for that is where Christ is, and it is where Christ is that those who are burdened will find their rest.

And what do I think of this movie?

I’ve been torn between watching new movies with the hope of unearthing gems, and watching films I’ve seen before with the hope of writing a recommendation. I watch a dozen or so new movies a month; some I can’t finish, some are mesmerizingly ill-made, some boring, many good, a few might be great.  Here, in this list, will be movies which I will not unreservedly recommend, and some I have thrown straight in the trash. I’ll do no more than write a quick note for each, unless I hated it enough and found that it needs to be toppled from some gaudy and pretentious pillar. If you watch the movies on this list, let me know what you think of them. I myself will usually indicate whether I think the movie is worth a re-watch, is potentially great (I didn’t love Citizen Kane until the 3rd time I watched it), or if it is being heaved into a garbage truck next Wednesday.

Dunkirk

Excerpts from Nolan’s diary:

1

I awoke this morning feeling today will be extraordinary, ambitious, and groundbreaking. Not ordinary thoughts of ordinary men, but I am no longer an ordinary man. Last night I got my hands on a camera with untapped potential, and I am going to tap it. I’ve had ideas since when I was a kid of breaking the barriers of film, and this camera should be the very tool I need. It shall be the star of my movie, the best in a cast of one.

2

I’ve been having difficulties with this camera, I’m afraid it is not all it was toted to be. I had hoped so much to forgo particulars and capture ‘isms’ in their essential transcendence, but I can’t seem to focus on universals with this thing. It is always nearsighted, and so I think I will need to rouse up some people to stand between the camera and the essence of humanity; a few old planes and boats should do to represent the utmost of human endeavor. Sandhurst rang me up, and they have three Spitfires I can use. This is a most excellent bit of luck as I believe the Spitfire is just the craft to represent glorious individualism. (remember to use the Spitfire whenever I don’t know what else to film)

3

Upon reflection, I am glad I only have about ten planes in all: three Spitfires and a half-dozen German planes. This removes the temptation to film a battle while I’m filming my survivalist humanist pic. But war is the sort of thing I need to set my particulars in…damn technology and its inability to transcend.

4

I’ve thought of the perfect event, Dunkirk. It has all the elements I need: individual-humanism against God-nature-indifferentism, human-individualism against human-machine-destructionism, humanity against rationalism and defeatism and big government. I want to do something different here, put in some twist. I am thinking of making the Germans be the ones on the beach and the British be the bad guys with the Stukas.

5

I’ve decided to go with the complexity of three different timelines instead of a twist. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the movie couldn’t be affected by the swapping the Germans and the British and I didn’t want to bother with the German accents which I find not as convincing as the British sentimentalism.  If the audience is German or sympathetic to them, I am sure their accents will not get in the way of their imagining that the British are the Germans. (I sometimes think now about how humanity in its essence is able to be impacted by events and my films)

6

I’ve come a long way with the timelines. One is a day, one a week, and one an hour. This is very exciting and groundbreaking. I thought of also making it meaningful, but was afraid I might have to add a story line or human interest on a particular level to do that, and I must continue to stand firm against the flaws of the cinematic medium. Another possibility was to have the different threads meet up in an interesting way, but have opted for a couple overlaps in shots and a little backtracking. I am afraid that if I start putting characters together they might come to resemble government, or community, or something other than the quintessential individualism that has brought humanism to the fore.

7

Spitballed with Hans today. Sketched the idea for him and he was aboard in a moment. He told me he was inspired and would start working on something pronto. 45 minutes later he phoned me back and told me he had just sent over my soundtrack. I was of course delighted and surprised. Listening to it I realized it was just the sort minimalist modernism I needed, with a lot of that brilliant squeaky fast stuff which is SOOO suspenseful. I was flummoxed by the note he attached:

I’ve long wished for a visionary to bravely come forward and make this film. Raymond is a danger to our culture, my involvement with his creation and deification is truly the one regret of my professional career. Euthanasia is the new frontier, and I am glad that having worked together on the last frontier in Interstellar, we have together broached the next. DUA.

But the score was perfect, and so I merely thanked him for his ingenious help and chalked up the note to his eccentric humor.

8

Began filming today and found my lead. I had an excellent idea for the opening shot. It is going to be quite the most perfect shot of the movie. I had a few guys in British uniforms browsing a street and told some of them to die when shots were fired. They took it a bit far and all of them died but one and I figured that I may as well make him the focus of the week-timeline until he decided to fling the old arms up. It was a bit confusing really, since I hadn’t meant to be quite so focused on a single person in the beach scenes, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be one of a set of triplets, but now I think that my decision to run with him is justification enough for H calling me a visionary.

9

I added an old man in a boat today. I was only going to have a boat going across the channel for the day-timeline, but Kenneth Branagh said that he had difficulty bring the tear to his eye when the home pleasure fleet arrived and that listening to Hans’ wailing violins on loop was only making him irritated, not tearful. I thankfully remembered a punch article I read as a kid which listed the 40 stereotypical lines sure to invoke English stiff-upper-lip patriotism and not so formal gratitude. So I gave my boat a captain and a mate. There was some kid hanging around the wharf who insisted on being in the movie, and I was feeling benevolent so I let him onboard. It is a bit crowded on this boat and the kid can’t act, but I’ll figure something out.

10

I’m a bit worried about where my boat captain is going with this part of his. Give a mouse a cookie…

I brought Mr. Rylance on board to help Kenneth relate to the arrival of the fleet, and now I find he is threatening the whole endeavor; he is trying so hard to break through the script and be a virtuous hero. Thankfully he is erring on the mushy sentimental side, but even that is not quite as abstract as I could wish for.

11

Whenever I become too stressed from MR’s attempts to portray a character I switch over to Tom Hardy and his Spitfire: thank God for Sandhurst and Tom’s eyes. (Those eyes!) He is perfect in the role, and the role is perfect: no real interaction with anyone and the surreal voice of Michael Caine self-consciously proclaiming Oedipus prognostications. Humanity and Fate alone in the void—that is the fiber of my vision. I really didn’t write much for Tom to say, but I spent much ink on the stage directions ‘zigzag with a ME 109 for a long time and stagger gunfire effects too late on all the passes’. HVH is a master at interpretation here.

12

It has been a long time since my last entry, the work has been overwhelming. Of the 400,000 extras I had hired only a few thousand showed up. Of the extras that did show up some  thought they were not extras at all, the strangest being some dude who just started talking in the beached boat scene, and accused one of the other extras of being a spy. It was very strange and I thought we would have to continue to reshoot the scene, although we are going to use it after all now that we have been through the first full screening. Thankfully he hadn’t said anything which would date his accusations and we could use his paranoia to our advantage.

That screening was rough. No one there understood what I was doing. They wanted story, plot, character, involvement. No ‘ism’ was even mentioned. They insisted that I add development, climax and resolution. I haggled with them and pleaded with them to leave my brainchild essentially untouched, and eventually we compromised. I didn’t have to add any story arcs or structure, but instead was permitted to add vignettes, little burps of climax without resolution, which incidentally solved some residual problems, like the dockhand who couldn’t act, and permitted us to insert a very pretty Stuka dive we hadn’t found a place for.

I think this is a masterpiece.

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s bone seems to have been shot in only two locations, the Dolly’s cabin and an imposing old barn with an incongruously new door. Although Ree Dolly spends her time begging rides and knocking on one door after another, we can’t describe any home other than Ree’s as the camera only apologetically intrudes into the homes of those she visits, and seems anxious to move on. In this strange backwoods world of Missouri there is a code which is never explained to us, a code which ignores meth cooking while condemning the snitch, which permits one hand to distribute alms while the other throws sucker punches, which permits murder while demanding human respect. Ree knows this code inside and out, while we are left in the dark, and it is our awareness of this knowledge which lends to this film its strangely stationary mood.
Ree is not trying to overcome obstacles, but is trying to endure a trial which never for a moment deludes her. Her choice to save her family is not softened by ignorance, by the delusion of youthful optimism, and we grasp this only afterwards when the camera pauses with ruthless intensity upon the end of her resolution. It is the acceptance of her duty within her community and within its code, an acceptance which perhaps she never expressed before this crisis, which elevates Ree to sublime heights—there is nothing so wonderful as an ordinary girl buckling down under extraordinary circumstances and shining throughout her trial. The thought of leaving home, even for such good cause as supporting the family through her work is nothing other than a temptation, and indeed, Ree has no chance to run, but only the opportunity to endure. She must accept her cross or perish; there is no running. She endures, and so perhaps we shouldn’t speak of the camera following Ree at all, but instead of Ree standing still while the camera catches the world washing about her.
Now, how does Ree’s understanding of the code lead to the strangely stationary mood? I don’t much care for those who neglect the external aspects of a film to weave psychological explanations, propounding that entire movies are dream sequences or outward expressions of desires. That said, we see something forbidding and permanent when we see the structure of the barn with the automatic door and we know that this is the crucible Ree herself clearly saw and accepted when we first met her. She may have known where her quest would lead all along, but wisely choose not to go there alone and without warrant, instead enmeshing herself entirely within the community around her, building upon the support of her uncle Teardrop and those who love her, inevitably drawing nearer to the barn. That may be saying nothing more than that she approaches the barn by acceptance of her duty.
Someone once said ‘Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, while some have greatness thrust upon them’. Perhaps the last is the quiet way of Ree Dolly.