MoMA Mia: Scorsese Selects (Some Pretty Great Movies)

So far this summer I’ve waded through the ups and downs of Kodak’s game-changing Technicolor technology, and briefly dived into the melodramatic depths of Mexican noir. Closing out MoMA’s sterling summer lineup is a series (supposedly) curated personally by Martin Scorsese, to show off many of the films that have had an influence on his own remarkable career. Whether Scorsese really hand-picked every film in this series, or the MoMA staff simply sifted through the numerous interviews where Scorsese has talked about his cinephilic upbringing (has any other filmmaker been more openly obsessed with discussing and preserving his personal favorites?), we may never know. Regardless, it’s been a great chance to catch some cult classics and revisit other gems for the first time on the big screen. As it turns out, whatever you think of his own films, Martin Scorsese has some pretty good taste. Who knew?

Sunday, August 16, 2:30pm: “A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)” (1946), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Compared to some of Powell and Pressburger’s epic collaborations (“The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Tales of Hoffmann”), “A Matter of Life and Death” (originally billed in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven,” after the film’s signature set-piece) is outwardly a downright modest affair: it clocks in at a perfectly average hour and forty five minutes, and for the majority of that running time centers around three or four characters. But really it’s one of the grandest works of original cinematic fantasy ever put on screen. The seamless integration of spectacular special effects and pseudo-scientific allegory into, at heart, an endearing romantic drama, must make Christopher Nolan sick with envy. I can hardly imagine, in 1946, convincing a producer to put so much cash and craft wizardry into a film without any established property or story as a foundation – but Powell and Pressburger did it, and all the better for us.

The setup is one that would’ve still been a raw subject for Britain in the days immediately following the war – David Niven plays a squadron leader who bails out of his burning bomber while returning from a bombing raid in early May of 1945 (mere days before victory in Europe). He has no parachute, and fully expects to die – but somehow, miraculously, he doesn’t, and washes up on English soil in a gorgeous sequence where Niven nails the quiet surrealism in a scene that otherwise shows a perfectly normal day at the beach. As it turns out, Niven was fated to die over the Channel, but the powers-that-be in “the Other World” (Powell and Pressburger leave their afterlife ambiguous regarding any division of heaven or hell) simply missed him in a batch of thick fog.

The depiction of the afterlife as just as stuffy and bureaucratic as our own is ingenious, and allows for delightful debates of the merits of human life and romance as Niven files a legal appeal to the higher authorities to be granted a reprieve from death (having, in his “borrowed” time, fallen in love with an American nurse). The visual and thematic contrasts (the “Other World” is filmed, counter-intuitively, in washed-out monochrome, while Earth gets the vibrant Technicolor treatment) are so simple, and yet you know no copycat could capture the same magic again; few filmmakers other than Powell and Pressburger could handle such grand material with such a light touch. A must-see and perfect entry into the Archers canon if the lengthy running time of “The Red Shoes” is (mistakenly) holding you back.

Saturday, August 22, 2:30pm: “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear/ 5pm: “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943), Jacques Tournear

Val Lewton, RKO’s B-movie horror wunderkind, has pretty much completed the swing from forgotten studio stooge to cult-worshipped producer-auteur; thanks, in part, to the efforts of filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino who re-discovered and pushed Lewton’s films back into the cultural consciousness. It seemed only appropriate to finally catch up with Lewton’s two most famous works (both collaborations with the exceptional noir director Tournear) as a sort of double feature – spending the whole afternoon enveloped, as one might’ve at a summer matinee back in the 1940s, in Lewton’s shadows.

First, “Cat People.” You guys. Even several days later, I’m not sure I’m ready to properly describe how good this movie is. Working off his own 1930 short story (published with the less-ridiculous but also less-endearing title “The Bagheeta”), Lewton, along with Tournear and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, takes an absurd little premise – Irena, a young Serbian woman living in America, fears she is descended from a race of witches who turned into panthers when aroused – and manufacture more tension and fear than a hundred jump-scares put together.

Part of it is the lighting, which deserves to be listed up there with the best of American noir. The film’s look probably emerged partly from simple business concerns – RKO was still reeling from the financial hits of Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and could only afford a handful of sets – but the shadows don’t just hide the low budget. They are perfect for this insidious tale of a lurking, engrained evil; Lewton and Tournear were savvy enough to know that the monster we can’t see is far more frightening than the one we can. There are two nightmarish sequences in particular – one in a swimming pool, one on an empty city street, both involving Alice, Irena’s romantic competition, being threatened by Irena’s “cat form” – that are master classes in suggested suspense. The film is made all the more discomforting by the lack of a clear-cut protagonist: Irena is both the film’s primary threat and its only sympathetic character, surrounded by a blandly naive husband and a predatory psychiatrist. French actress Simone Simon was probably cast for her unmistakably kitten-like presence, but she’s also very believable as a woman conflicted about her own desires and capabilities.

“I Walked with a Zombie” can’t live up to the same schlocky-title/genius-film ratio as “Cat People,” but really that says more about the latter. As B-movie horror ideas go, a voodoo take on Jane Eyre is also pretty fantastic. Lewton was clearly obsessed with the idea of inherited evil (the episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This about Lewton is all-around fascinating, but particularly revealing in discussing Lewton’s lifelong interest in atavism), and the ancestral burden of slavery in the Caribbean is certainly a doozy – made all the more powerful here because Tournear, Lewton and writers Curt Siodmak (noir director Robert’s brother) and Ardel Wray keep that aspect of the white Holland family’s interaction with the black inhabitants of their island largely relegated to subtext (and one super-eerie figurehead of Saint Sebastian). “I Walked with a Zombie” is a very Victorian tale of passion-as-possession, and the supernatural, voodoo elements of the story reinforce that sense of human behavior controlled by seething, swirling forces beyond our control. There are fewer standout sequences than in “Cat People,” but a visit by the in-over-her-head Canadian nurse Betsy to a voodoo gathering is just as moody and uneasy as anything in the earlier film.

Did I mention both these films are barely more than an hour long? What else do you need to hear?

Tuesday, August 25, 7:30pm: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis

Before there was Bonnie and Clyde, there was Bart and Laurie (on the silver screen, anyway). Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 film is generally credited for busting down Hollywood’s self-imposed barrier against explicit sex and violence, but after finally watching Joseph H. Lewis’ cult noir hit, it’s clear that “Bonnie and Clyde” owes “Gun Crazy” a major debt for unscrewing some of the hinges.

A pair of sideshow sharpshooters with no discernible skills or interests besides guns, Bart and Laurie are clearly destined for a life of crime, especially after Laurie makes her appetite for, um, luxury, known. “I want a lot of things – big things,” Laurie declares, in what will certainly not be the last of the film’s censor-dodging innuendo. Poor Bart, completely smitten (and with no other option besides the institutional repression of the army), will get her those big things, though his love of shooting comes with a crippling fear of actual killing – something that increasingly becomes a problem as their jobs get bigger and more dangerous. Everything that “Bonnie and Clyde” made explicit, “Gun Crazy” teases: the sexual, fetishistic link between the two lovers and violence, male shooting prowess as compensation for impotency, the inevitable and necessary doom of social misfits and deviants.

And, also like its sister film, “Gun Crazy” is a technical marvel: instead of Penn’s famed “dance of death,” there’s the extended one-take bank heist sequence, in which the camera never leaves the back of Bart and Laurie’s car as they drive through town, distract and knock out a security guard, and make their get-away. It’s riveting and immediate stuff, especially since we’re so used to car scenes from that period of filmmaking (including other shots in this same movie) being rear-projected. The claustrophobic, contained effect is consistent throughout the whole film: Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan often film the two leads in stark close-up, sweating and twitching as the authorities slowly gain on them.

If there’s a relative knock against “Gun Crazy,” it’s that its two leads are nowhere near the performers that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are. John Dall and Peggy Cummins are serviceable no-names, but clearly never reached the A-list for a reason (Dall was much more engaging two years earlier as one of the prep-school murderers of Hitchcock’s “Rope”). But the script – co-written by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, working under the assumed name of Millard Kaufman – works with that, giving Bart and Laurie a broader appeal as symbols of social disturbance, rather than uniquely motivated individuals. It’s a fascinating hint of the transition from the post-war trauma of film noir to the discontent of the New Wave.

For Your Consideration: Jan. 2, 2015

Happy New Year, dear readers! Elaine and I were discussing the topic for this week’s FYC and decided that the most appropriate thing would be to ring in 2015 with some cinematic resolutions: films that we, ashamedly, have never actually seen, and resolve to consume by the end of the year. In order to keep this a little more interesting than a simple list of titles, we decided we would each compose each other’s resolution for them: so this week, for your consideration and ours, I’ve got two films for Elaine, and Elaine’s got two films for me. So I guess that makes four films for you to get to in 2015!

– Ethan

For Elaine:

“Duck Soup” (1933)

Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy

Available to purchase on Vudu, to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Do you hate joy, Elaine? That’s the only explanation I can come up with for not seeing the Marx brothers’ best film, a string of classic comedic set-pieces that vaguely flails at political satire (Hail Freedonia!) but is really just an excuse for some of Groucho’s best one-liners. Rufus T. Firefly can’t see the stove, but you can see some of the brothers’ sterling choreographed physical comedy: the mirror scene is a rightful classic, but there’s a bit with Chico and Harpo exchanging hats with an exasperated street vendor (great straight man Edgar Kennedy) that’s almost on the same level. Watch whenever you’re in need of a pick-me-up.

– Ethan

“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943)

Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook, Ursula Jeans, James McKechnie, David Hutcheson, Frith Banbury, Muriel Aked, John Laurie

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Anthony Lane once wrote that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s satirical epic was possibly the most English movie ever made, “not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English.” Remarkable not just for its outstanding performances, eye-popping Technicolor and cinematographic flourishes, but for daring to take a long-view historical perspective in the middle of a horrific World War, “Colonel Blimp” is very much about an empire in transition – or perhaps even decline. Blimp himself, originally a blustery, caricature cartoon character, is given surprising depth and sympathy thanks to Powell, Pressburger and Livesey; together they create a film wistful and nostalgic for times past, a more naive and “honorable” era that has been swallowed by the violence of the 20th century. England, however, forever soldiers on.

– Ethan

For Ethan:

“East of Eden” (1955)

Cast: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Burl Ives, Albert Dekker, Richard Davalos

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant, iTunes or Vudu, on disc from Netflix

I’ve always felt that James Dean wasn’t so much a great actor as one whose roles perfectly suited him. And to understand the character Dean specialized in during his tragically short career, you have to watch his first movie, “East of Eden.” It was the film that made his name—and the only one he ever saw in its entirety. He excels as Cal Trask, the unloved second son of a successful Californian farmer, somewhere between a man and a boy, lovable yet cruel. Director Elia Kazan, known for his moody, chiaroscuro pictures “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” brings the verdant farmlands of central California to life with pizzazz, splashing Salinas with color. Like Steinbeck, Kazan understood the irony of the setting: that such a fertile landscape could give life to such troubled people.

– Elaine

“Ninotchka” (1939)

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Bela Lugosi, Ina Claire, Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman, Alexander Granach

Available to rent or purchase on Vudu or Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

“Garbo Laughs!” was the famous marketing slogan for “Ninotchka.” The tagline was a little unfair to the Swedish screen icon, whose severe cheekbones and haughty expression radiated superiority. But Garbo’s first comedy is one of the funniest there is, lampooning Stalin’s Soviet Union with irresistible zest and wit. “The last mass trials were a great success,” says Ninotchka, a Soviet envoy to Paris. “There are going to be fewer, but better, Russians.” Garbo plays the straight man, a Communist whose dedication is seemingly unshakable, while the supporting cast swirls around her with impeccable comedic timing. The script, written by a team that included Billy Wilder, is fast-paced and light-hearted, but also politically savvy. “Garbo laughs. And the world will laugh with her,” boasted MGM. They were right.

– Elaine

For Your Consideration: Sep. 19, 2014

There are many reasons why we chose our theme this week. First and foremost, it’s because Scotland has never been in the news as much as it has been recently, and if you couldn’t be in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, or Glasgow this week to witness the historic independence referendum, these three movies can whisk you away to the lochs, braes, and byres of Scotland. Then there’s the fact that most people associate Scotland with “Braveheart,” and that is offensive on too many levels to articulate here. And finally, because from the tip of Ben Nevis to the waters of Loch Lomond to the ancient walls of the St Andrews Cathedral, Scotland is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and what better way to see that than through the lens of a camera? So, without further ado, here are three movies set in the land of kilts, bagpipes, St. Andrew, and haggis.

– Elaine

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Cast: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey, Finlay Currie, Murdo Morrison, Margot Fitzsimons, C.W.R. Knight, Pamela Brown

Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Young, ambitious Englishwoman Joan Webster (Hiller) seems a confident, even domineering soul when we first meet her – the title’s declaration, after all, is hers, shouted out the window of a departing train to her father as she sets out from Manchester to the Hebrides, the rugged isles off of Scotland’s western coast. Joan is engaged to marry a wealthy nobleman, but poor weather delays the final leg of her journey, stranding her on the Isle of Mull, along with a handsome naval officer (Livesey) trying to make his way out to the same isolated island for his shore leave. The setup is predictable from today’s rom-com vantage point, but Hiller and Livesey’s chemistry is palpable, and director/writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have a natural, unforced way with dialogue and direction, generally avoiding set-pieces (save a thrilling, if awkwardly rear-projected, attempt to cross stormy seas in a dinghy) and letting the unique charms of the setting and characters carry the film.

– Ethan

“The Illusionist” (2010)

Cast: (voices of) Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin

Available for purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Jacques Tati might be a cinematic treasure of France, but his (sort-of) final film turned out to be an unexpected love letter to the Firth of Forth. The legendary comedian (who passed in 1982), most known for the Monsieur Hulot persona that appeared in his gentle, pseudo-silent comedies like “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1953) and “Playtime” (1967), wrote a screenplay about an aging French illusionist who encounters and ends up taking care of a young woman, which remained unproduced for decades – until animator Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”) took up the script, relocating the action to take place, for the vast majority of the film, in and around Edinburgh. The quiet, heart-wrenching surrogate father/daughter narrative (Tati reputedly wrote the screenplay as a sort of mea culpa to either, depending on who you believe, his daughter Sophie or his estranged, illegitimate daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne) is complemented by Chomet’s devastatingly beautiful animation: warm, crisp, evocative, a memory of life and love gone by.

– Ethan

“The Decoy Bride” (2011)

Cast: Kelly Macdonald, David Tennant, Alice Eve, Hamish Clark, Federico Castelluccio, James Fleet, Dylan Moran, Sally Phillips

Available streaming on Netflix, for purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes

“The Hegg is the furthermost drop of the outermost spray of the curling wave of the Outer Hebrides,” writes Katie (Kelly Macdonald), a young woman from the westernmost islands of Scotland, where 27,000 people live scattered over islands of craggy rock and windswept long grass. When an American celebrity and her groom (David Tennant) escape to the Hebrides for a wedding away from the relentless paparazzi, Katie’s life suddenly gets a lot more interesting. “The Decoy Bride” is a silly movie based on an absurd premise, but the lead actors, Macdonald and Tennant, rise above the mediocre material to deliver a sweet, wacky romance. The true star of the movie, however, is again the rough beauty of the Hebrides—the grey rain that leaves behind a bright green, the moody cliffs overlooking the water, and the white spray of the sea upon the crags.

– Elaine