Monthly Archives: June 2012

“I stick my neck out for nobody!” — Casablanca — Best Pictures of 1942 (#1)

Yes, Casablanca is, of course, my choice for the best picture of 1942. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There are few classic movies that are as universally loved and rightly so. What might come as a surprise is my neglecting The Magnificent Ambersons, often considered one of the greatest U.S. movies. Though I think Orson Welles probably made a great movie, its mutilation by RKO has left us with only a disjoined skeleton of a narrative that I’ve never been able to connect with. There is beautiful photography, great sequences, and some fantastic performances, all of which simply make me angry about the movie we lost. While I love parts of it, I can’t say I love The Magnificent Ambersons or consider what we have among the best films of 1942. I do, however, consider Casablanca in that class.

Casablanca is about as close to a perfect movie as they come. There was every opportunity for it to descend into Hollywood phoniness, but it somehow manages to maintain an emotional authenticity that was rare from the celluloid sausage factories of Hollywood in the 1940s.

The artistic success of Casablanca is all the more surprising when one reads up on the history of its production. It was, simply put, chaotic. The script wasn’t finished when they started production, and cast and crew filmed early scenes unsure how the picture would end. Would Elsa stay with Rick or fly off with Laszlo? Internal memos from Warner Bros. shows a lot of hand wringing over how to resolve the story without tarnishing Bogart’s and Bergman’s star statuses and monkeying with public expectations. Of course they finally figured it out and created what I would call a sublime ending.

Of course the success of Casablanca would not have been possible without Bogart’s great performance, bringing the emotionally wounded Rick to the screen. Nor would it have been possible without Ingrid Bergman’s performance either. Elsa is a woman crippled by her desire to be with the man she loves and her duty to a higher cause. The performances anchor the film and are some of the best of each of their respective careers.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman smolder in Casablanca

But the movie is much richer, more complex than the Rick-Elsa-Laszlo triangle. The anxious ex-pat community of Casablanca, desperately fleeing the advancing Nazis, is masterfully realized. We watch characters from around the world, from all economic and social classes, caught in limbo as they wait for those elusive exit visas to get to the United States. Writers Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch didn’t ignore the importance of these subplots to the main story. These characters and their backstories help humanize Rick. We see how the endless stream of sob stories forces him to build an emotional wall, but that wall is illusory. He is constantly measuring his ability to help with as little risk to himself as possible.

Not that he’s a coward. He simply understands the importance of picking his fights and planning them out so he is available to help another day. What a powerful message that must have been at the height of the war. No matter how dark or cynical the times, one man, no matter how selfish he may be, can change things for the better.

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When an Incomprehensible Title Meets a Dopey Script: The Intouchables

Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables

The Intouchables is a movie that’s so overly genial and perky that it’s easy to miss just how offensive it is – not to mention extraordinarily banal. This is another in a long line of movies in which we are introduced to a free-spirited minority who turns the world of an uptight, white household on its head. A wealthy quadriplegic hires Driss, a Senegalese immigrant, as his caregiver. Driss’ only qualification is that he doesn’t have any qualifications except for being, as our quadriplegic Philip says, merciless. Of course we don’t see much evidence of Driss being merciless or tough except we’re told he has a criminal record and we briefly see him living a bad neighborhood. He’s always good natured and non-threatening, never a man that feels dangerous in any way – except, naturally, that he’s black. Oh, and he’s willing to break rules to make Philip more comfortable or have more have fun. Never mind the lives that are being threatened as they speed down the road, away from the police – Philip wants to go fast!

This is another example of what Spike Lee has termed the Magical Negro character in U.S. fiction, now apparently not limited to U.S. movies. Driss’ irrepressible joie de vivre and exotic blackness are his “magical-ness” and they are enough to spark a new interest in life for Philip and his entire household, from his personal assistant to his housekeeper to his daughter, all of whom are stricken with problematic, but curable cases of uneasy whiteness.

While Omar Sy is wonderful as Driss (and is receiving just accolades and, thankfully, more work), his effort is wasted. We spend a couple hours watching Driss and Philip bond, share, laugh, and cry, but we don’t learn much of anything about what day to day life might be like for a quadriplegic. (Though I have heard from some handicapped friends that, unfortunately, the movie gets the horrid indifference of trained caregivers absolutely right.) And we end up knowing less than nothing about what life is like for Paris’ immigrants, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the issues they face.

Yeah…. this actually happens.

And I think this lack of substance is why the movie has been so successful, especially in France, a country that has had tenuous relationships with their African and Arab immigrant communities. It’s a feel good story that doesn’t challenge its audiences or stir up nasty memories of race riots that rocked Paris several years back. It’s saccharine and empty-headed with nothing relevant to say about race relations, class, friendship, or disability. No wonder it’s grossed over $200 million.

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Aniki Bóbó — Best Pictures of 1942 (#2)

The children of Aniki Bobo

Aniki Bóbó is one of those movies unknown to most of the world because its director didn’t have the foresight to produce it in the U.S., France, Japan, or other country with a prolific film output. It was, instead, made in Portugal, a country not generally associated with great filmmaking, so it has languished in obscurity for decades. It seems only movie dorks and cultural snobs have given it any love. I supposed it’s lucky (?) that I fall into one or both of those categories, because it has given me the opportunity to know about, see, and fall in love with Aniki Bóbó, a classic film about childhood, innocence (or its loss), and the effects of guilt. Despite its technical roughness and non-professional child actors, it’s as close to a perfect movie as they come and just barely is edged out of the top spot of 1942.

Director Manuel de Oliveira doesn’t so much tell a story as create (or recreate) the hierarchical, high-stakes world of children in the Portuguese city of Porto. Carlito is a small but scrappy young boy hopelessly in love with Terezina, but, as is usually the case, the class bully Edouardo stands between them. If this sounds like the basic premise behind most Popeye cartoons, it is. But Oliveira skillfully maneuvers us past this initial conflict quickly, keenly aware that no relationship or power structure remains static in the fluid world of children for long. Relationships, conflicts, and alliances are remarkably elastic. At one point Carlito and Edouardo are trading blows, but by the evening they are playing cops and robbers together.

Eduardo and Carlitos square off

A major thread of the movie’s narrative involves Carlito’s guilt after pinching a doll from the local general store as a gift for Terezina. Carlito’s plight isn’t at the level of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, but it’s enough to cause the normally confident boy to second guess his impulsive action. Even this action doesn’t fuel the major drama of the film. Instead it comes when a tragic accident occurs and everyone believes Carlitos is responsible. From the way Carlitos deals with the unjustified accusations to how he resolves his theft of the doll, we witness the early development of what will become a good, decent man.

And, of course, Portugal and much of Europe was in need of more decent men in 1942. Portugal was well in the grip of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist Estado Novo. Sure, Portuguese fascism might not have been as brutal as the fascism that conquered Germany and Italy, it still relied on intimidation and repression to keep the citizenry in line. We see the same dynamic play out in Aniki Bóbó as the children enforce their social code by ostracizing Carlitos after the accident. There’s no sense of doing justice, just ensuring that everyone maintains order without question. I am always fascinated by humanistic art like this created under fascist (or any totalitarian rule) and never tire of finding ways to find connections between the repressive government and artistic attempts to surreptitiously comment on them. This is one of the best and charming movies of this kind.

Horácio Silva as Carlitos

Another reason this movie shines for me is the way Oliveira masterfully negotiates the movie’s characters, almost all children. It’s tough to make good movie about children. I think there are two keys. One is the casting, which Oliveira completes nearly flawlessly here. He plucked the most charismatic and photogenic children from the Portuguese port city. Nearly all are perfect, but the real gem is Horácio Silva who plays Carlitos. He isn’t a professional actor, but the camera loves his face and his natural charisma helps him muscle past some of the rough patches of his performance.

The other key to making a great movie about children is a director having respect for his subjects and Oliveira treats the often petty squabbles with the same gravity as the children themselves do. He never looks down his nose at them or handles their conflicts or dramas with any hint of condescension or irony, much like Truffaut would later do in his brilliant 1976 film L’argent de poche.

Preemptive defense of upcoming controversy: Anyone who has been paying attention realizes there is only one spot left and two classic U.S. films that most would at least include on a list of the best of 1942, if not top it. I will admit without tipping my hand that one of these movies I actively loathe. I’m ready to take the slings and arrows of outraged film fans; I’ve done it before. So I’ll reveal the top choice and I’ll get all kinds of comments like, “How could you leave off…, you idiot!” I’m aware that I do not like a movie most of you claim to adore. Without giving too much away, I will defend my antipathy by saying I have seen it several times and each time I watch it I try to reset my past dislike and find the genius everyone claims to see. But each time I get more and more depressed as I lose interest in the narrative and its characters. So before I’m jumped on for being negligent, know I’ve watched and evaluated the movie you love and honestly find it to be grossly overrated.

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“I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner and whom she’s going to kill!” –To Be Or Not to Be – Best Pictures of 1942 (#3)

Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the first couple of Warsaw theater pose with their supporting players.

When making a comedy about a serious, emotionally traumatic event, filmmakers usually have to gauge whether or not the public is ready for its cinematic treatment. Several U.S. filmmakers forayed into the Iraq War while it was at its height and the public responded with resounding indifference. It has to be immeasurably more difficult to time the public’s receptiveness to a comedy about such as event. Comedy is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but writers and directors usually want to avoid theaters not just devoid of laughter, but chalk full of indignation. “Too soon?” they might ask while shrugging.

With To Be Or Not to Be, director Ernst Lubitsch not only didn’t bother with considerations of the public’s delicate sensibilities, but openly flaunted them and, in the process, made one of the greatest comedies of all time about, of all things, the Nazi occupation of Poland. Most filmmakers shied away from making a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1942, when the Nazis were still kicking up their boots in Warsaw. It would have be akin to making a madcap comedy about September 11 while rescue workers were still digging through the rubble in Manhattan. (OK, maybe it’s not exactly an equivalent example; people had several years to get accustomed to the horrors of Nazi occupation while the world was shocked by September 11 in a matter of hours. Still I think the spirit is the same.)

Lubitsch, from a script by Edwin Justus Mayer, finds the perfect tone, a careful balance between madcap comedy and a serious meditation on the nature of freedom and the responsibilities it entails. In the film, Joseph and Maria Tura are a pair of famous Polish actors who get caught up in the initial invasion in 1939 and later become embroiled with Nazi spies, the Polish underground, and Gestapo stooges, despite their own overwhelming vanity and egocentricity.

 

The Turas play the parts of their lives.

Carole Lombard shines (as always) as Maria Tura in her final role before a tragic plane crash took her life. Lombard’s Maria is flighty, flirty, and, at first glance, completely useless anywhere other than, maybe, a stage (though we never really see Maria at work and can’t judge her ability). She begins an innocent (?) flirtation with a handsome young flier (Robert Stack), arranging to meet him in her dressing room while her hammy actor husband Joseph is on stage reciting Hamlet’s To Be Or Not to Be soliloquy, when she knows they will have plenty of time and Joseph won’t be able to disturb them. It is during one of these meetings thatGermanyinvades and the life that Joseph and Maria once had, where critics and ticket sales were the only serious considerations, is turned on its head and they get involved in a Nazi plot to capture and kill all the key members of the Polish underground. They, along with the colorful characters they work with in the theater, vow to stop the Nazi plan and save the Underground.

To Be Or Not to Be is slick, thoughtful, and, above all, immensely funny. Even Jack Benny turns in a good performance. He may have been a great radio and television talent, but his film career was decidedly lackluster, though you wouldn’t know it judging from this film.

But Lubitsch’s film is more than a vehicle for Jack Benny or a mindless comedy. It suggests that even those who appear the most frivolous in society are capable of rising to the fight against foreign occupation and tyranny. Some of the most ill-informed and apolitical will be roused to action when they see their cities and homes occupied, their friends and neighbors arrested, freedom squashed, and national identity subsumed by violence. And this, the movie argues, is why fascism will fail. It needs violence, intimidation, and repression to succeed and these tools can provoke even the silliest, like the Turas, to work against it.

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“I thought perhaps we’d live together this year, but no.” — There Was a Father — Best Pictures of 1942 (#4)

Every time I put together one of these lists a movie by Yasujiro Ozu seems to slide in, usually somewhere high on the list, if not on the top. I always liked Ozu, but I never necessarily thought of him as one of my favorite filmmakers. However, the process of writing these lists has forced me to rediscover the quiet, but impactful stories Ozu filmed about everyday people struggling to live their lives in a world ill-suited for sentiment, nostalgia, or consideration for others. His movies chronicle everyday life without movie phoniness or gimmicky plot twists. For Ozu, the drama of day to day life was every bit as gripping as a Hitchcock thriller, Wellman war movie, or Muni biopic.

There Was a Father is only one of two movies Ozu managed to make during the tumultuous war years (the other being The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, an extraordinary picture that made my 1941 list). The Japanese military called Ozu up for service twice during the war and he spent the early years of the war in occupied China and the end of the war in Singapore. In the brief two years between those two periods of service, Ozu was in Japan and, despite the rigid demands of Japanese censorship and propaganda boards, he made Toda Family and There Was a Father.

Ostensibly the story of a stony-faced widowed father who sacrifices his relationship with his only son so he can get the education he needs, most viewers won’t be hard pressed to see this as a thinly veiled piece of propaganda arguing for shared sacrifice to ensure the continued safety and security of the nation, a particularly pressing subject as bombs began to rain down on Japanese cities. We don’t know if Ozu intended the story to be read along rigid propagandistic lines or if he inserted the nationalistic language to pacify Japanese authorities. While those authorities may have been pleased with the finished product, the movie can’t be written off as another parable for wartime sacrifice. Ozu carefully interrogates the effects of these sacrifices, sacrifices millions of people were making all over Japan. They may have been demanded, expected, and even to an extent appreciated, but that doesn’t mean Ozu had to celebrate them. He chose, instead, to probe the enormous toll those sacrifices were taking on the youth of Japan and how the emotional scars would linger for many years whether Japan emerged victorious or not.

The story is heartbreaking. In an effort to compensate for a past tragedy, schoolteacher, Shuhei Horikawa, leaves his job and devotes his life to sending his son Ryohei to the best schools, no matter what the cost. He does not flinch at sending his son to far away cities or moving even farther for better paying jobs. The movie covers the span of many years, rejoining Shuhei and Ryohei at their infrequent visits that always carry the faint hope that they can soon be together. But there is always a better school somewhere else. And those better schools cost more money, so  Shuhei needs to go to bigger cities to get a better job. Even as an adult, Shuhei rebuffs his eager son’s plans to quit his job and move closer to his father because, he argues, the nation needs us all to fulfill our roles without regard to personal feeling. (This is, undoubtedly, one scene Japanese censors adored.) Ryohei says he understands, but is still crushed.

The genius of There Was a Father is the way Ozu manages to acknowledge two opposing forces that operate in wartime societies without condemning or advocating either side. The movie can be read, as many have, as a propagandistic plea for personal sacrifice. At the same time, Ozu recognizes the inherent unfairness of these national demands and the deep psychological scars they will leave. Less accomplished filmmakers would have ignored those problems, instead contenting themselves with a feel good flag-waving film. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, they would have ignored the realities and made an impassioned diatribe against the perceived need of any emotional sacrifice. Ozu brilliantly balances between both and, in the end, manages to make a movie that touches on real human situations that transcends the lessons of wartime Japan.

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