MoMA Mia: A River Runs Through Mexico

In which the popping, saturated hues of Technicolor start to give way to the shadows of film noir…

Wednesday, July 8, 7pm: “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir

Considering the greatest directors of all time often becomes an apples-and-oranges game of preference in nationalist tendencies – which do you like more, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet spiritualism or Akira Kurosawa’s tradition-infused modernism? Herzog’s Romantic expressionism or Ford’s rugged individualism?

If Jean Renoir has an argument to get ahead of the pack, it’s perhaps that few other filmmakers (off the top of my head, anyway) have been so explicitly concerned with portraying a humanity that transcends social and national boundaries. “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game” are both masterworks, slicing through and illuminating the tangled web of class and nationalist divisions that plunged Europe into two brutal, bloody wars. “The River,” which came at the tail end of a largely unsuccessful stint by the director in Hollywood (having fled the Nazis in 1941), deserves to be in the same conversation, a delicate, unhurried and observational piece with a self-consciously international flair. A movie by a French filmmaker, regarding the life of a British family in India, wherein the central action is prompted by the arrival of a forlorn American soldier? One hardly knows what language I should be writing in.

Shot on location (with a young Satyajit Ray serving as an assistant director, speaking of great filmmakers), “The River” is one of the most genuinely respectful fictionalized depictions of Anglo colonialism I’ve ever encountered. There is a real sense, from the director, the writer (Rumer Godden, also of the novel Black Narcissus), and the white family at the heart of the story, that India and its culture may be encountered and experienced without possessiveness. The latent paternalism can’t be ignored (particularly in an early passage describing the father’s factory), but Renoir manages to establish the family’s separation from the Indian society around them while generally avoiding the trap of Otherness – this is the only life that our teenage heroine and narrator, Harriet, knows, and if she’s aware of the racist history that brought her there, she can only address it obliquely, as just another thread in the rich tapestry of life, love and death around her.

That’s not an exaggeration either: showing roughly a year in which Harriet encounters Captain John, the American cousin of a neighbor, and competes for his affection with her two closest friends, “The River” is one of those films that manages to be about both everything and nothing at all. There will be a long-awaited birth, and a sudden death, and joy, and sadness, and meanwhile the river keeps on flowing. Though his most famous films are associated with the World Wars, I honestly don’t believe Renoir was ever much interested in the melodrama of war and violence – except insofar as it affected the romance and simple ambition of people just trying to go about their lives.

There’s so much more to talk about with this film. I haven’t even mentioned possibly the most interesting character – Melanie, the mixed-race daughter of Harriet’s neighbor who also seems to harbor feelings for her American cousin. The actress Radha Burnier’s performance is a triumph of unprofessional understatement, and the fantasy sequence in which she, playing a reincarnation of Krishna’s wife, performs a wedding dance is indelible cinema. Suffice to say this is also the most exuberant use of Technicolor I’ve seen in this series, and it’s entrancing (though I hope, for your sake, that you watch it without a fellow audience member loudly chomping on an apple right behind you, as I did).

Sunday, July 12, 3:45pm: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak

Like politics, the artistic spectrum is something of a circle, and you could make the argument that “The River,” somewhere towards the highest of the high art, is closer to “Cobra Woman,” the campiest of the camp art, than most would care to admit. Certainly, there’s that gorgeous Technicolor cinematography again – does it matter if those eye-popping reds and oranges come in the lights of Diwali or Maria Montez’s lips?

Unintentional delights abound in this cult classic, long forgotten by the mainstream: Montez’s atrocious acting, hilariously amplified by a double role as long-lost twin sisters; a homicidal chimpanzee; Sabu being Sabu; the most convoluted government ever devised by a cobra-obsessed tribal island; and, of course, the most phallic snake prop ever made (Harrison Ford, eat your heart out). Granted, that’s about all you’re going to get. The intended delights (I presume sumptuous production design, and, uh…that scene where Montez goes swimming?) don’t get you very far when saddled with an awful melodrama script and C-list on-screen talent (poor Lon Chaney, Jr. – how the mighty do fall).

Behind the screen is slightly a different story: cinematographer W. Howard Greene was no slouch (a seven-time Oscar nominee, in fact), and Robert Siodmak was about to quietly become one of the most important directors of American noir with a string of successes including “The Killers” (1946), “Cry of the City” (1948) and “Criss Cross” (1949). So “Cobra Woman” winds up being the kind of wonderful collision only the Hollywood studio system could provide, when overqualified filmmakers got stuck with an atrocious project and had no choice but to make the laughable, subversive best of it.

But speaking of noir…

Saturday, July 25, 7:30pm: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón

And so here we sidetrack for a bit into a realm I didn’t even knew existed. No matter how well-trained the cinephile, you’re going to have your blind spots, but luckily people like MoMA’s film curators are on hand to let you know that yes, Mexican noir is a thing that happened. I confess even broader ignorance when it comes to Mexican cinema pre-Cuarón/Iñárritu/Del Toro, so I’m not going to be able to do much to place these films, or their makers, in any kind of cultural or historical context. What I can say is that I’ve definitely never seen any American or European noir film whose protagonist dressed at any point like a Vegas stage magician tried to do a subtle take on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper outfits.

That extraordinarily shiny number of a jacket is one of the wonderfully non-standard pieces of setup for what proves, a little disappointingly, to be a far more standard noir resolution in “In the Palm of Your Hand.” Replacing the protagonist’s usual private eye/gumshoe profession with that of a con-man psychic is a stroke of daffy genre genius. No, of course it isn’t subtle that the charlatan chiromancer can’t foresee his own impending doom, but if you want subtlety, go back and find another screening of “The River.” This isn’t the place for color anymore – this is noir, and everything down to the neon lights is going to be black and white as a zebra.

So our leading man (Arturo de Córdova, properly suave and with a penchant for perplexed fascination) must choose between his loyal, blonde, frequently dressed-in-white wife and the mysterious, veiled, “mourning” widow (a charmingly arch Leticia Palma) who happens to have suddenly and conveniently inherited her much older husband’s fortune. Dispensing with the widow’s other lover, desperately eluding the cops and driving the long-suffering wife to tragedy are all a matter of course – though the fortune-telling element adds a playful angle to that engrained sense of fate and inevitable violence. Combine that with some unexpected comedy setpieces (including a terrific bit of business with a dead man in the trunk of a car and a flat tire), and “In the Palm of Your Hand” has a sustained, quirky sense of humor that keeps it bouncing along through the more predictable genre beats. I wouldn’t call it a must-see, but as an introduction to a generally ignored slice of world film history, it’s intriguing. If Galvaldón was laughing even as he delivered the standard formula, how else might have Hollywood’s post-war visions been interpreted south of the border?

For Your Consideration: July 4, 2014

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Never such innocence, / Never before or since

– from “MCMXIV,” by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Today, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation, a splash of resounding, indelible rhetoric in the midst of a bloody armed conflict. But earlier this week marked a more dubious milestone, the 100th anniversary of an event with earth-shattering implications: for it was on June 28, 1914 that Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, kicking off the diplomatic crisis that would quickly turn into the churning, destructive four-year grindstone that was World War I. It was a major anniversary that seemed to pass with relatively little notice: A.O. Scott wrote an exceptional piece for the New York Times on the war’s cultural legacy; and in a few short hours, France and Germany will metaphorically revisit their century-old conflict, this time on the fields of Maracanã rather than Verdun. But otherwise, it seems an occasion no one is too sure how to mark.

Not to put too flippant a spin on what should be a somber topic, but at The Best Films of Our Lives we always find a movie an appropriate method of recognition and deliberation. WWI films often get lost in the deluge of material related to WWII, but from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Gallipoli” there are any number of striking, powerful films that consider the frightful impact of the Great War. Today we provide an in-depth look at three such works.

– Ethan

“Grand Illusion” (1937)

Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo

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

Jean Renoir’s masterpiece of class tension and the futility of armed warfare stretches far beyond its supposed inspiration, a book (published in 1909) by British economist Norman Angell that argued war worked against the common economic interest of all European nations, and was therefore pointless. Renoir takes a far less mathematical approach: his “grand illusion” is not simply that war erects artificial economic barriers, but that it pits men with no quarrel whatsoever against each other in life or death struggle. Or…is the “illusion” the constructed, meticulous class hierarchy of European society, laid waste by the mass destruction and disillusionment of the war? Or is it the foolhardy notion that mankind even can, or will, ever stop fighting itself? Renoir’s humanist classic considers all these angles and more, wrapped in a gripping drama of French POWs and the stuffy, yet sympathetic German aristocrat (von Stroheim, in a performance for the ages) tasked with guarding them. The Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg in Alsace, where many of the exteriors of the POW camp were filmed, is one of the cinema’s greatest and most eerie settings: cast aside from the war and forced to consider their place in the world, these men hang almost literally hang on the razor’s edge.

– Ethan

“Random Harvest” (1942)

Cast: Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Susan Peters, Philip Dorn

Available to rent or purchase on iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Random Harvest” is not strictly a war movie, but it is grounded in the First World War and the trauma it inflicted upon the men it devoured. The film opens in the autumn of 1918 at Melbridge County Asylum in the English Midlands, “grimly proud of its new military wing, which was to house the shattered minds of the war that was to end war.” John Smith (Ronald Colman) is one of these men, though his affliction is but a loss of memory and a stutter. He wanders away from the asylum on the day the war ends—the guard leaves the gate open in the euphoria of the moment—and meets Paula (Greer Garson), a warm, compassionate actress who falls in love with him and takes him in. What unfolds is a story of love, patience, amnesia, and reconciliation. The characters and their odyssey are at the center, but the war and its damage never fade from view.

– Elaine

“Joyeux Nöel” (2005)

Cast: Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Benno Fürmann, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Dany Boon

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

Every child knows that on the first Christmas of the Great War, the warring sides laid down their arms, joined in celebration, and played a game of football. History tells us that there was not one Christmas truce, but many spontaneous ones scattered along the Western Front where soldiers indeed sang carols, shared food, and played their favorite game across the mud of No Man’s Land. “Joyeux Nöel” seeks to dramatize the communion of one particular group of German, Scottish, and French soldiers on the holiest of nights in 1914. With soft, snowy scenes that seem sketched by pastels, the trilingual French film is a romantic look at a romantic story, but succeeds in conveying the universal suffering and shared humanity of the soldiers who fought and died. 

One of its best moments is a funny debate between a French and a German soldier about a cat who belongs to the farm the trenches run through. The Frenchman call it Nestor, the German Felix, and the cat roams freely between the two sides, who can often hear each other breathing at night. It’s a reminder of just how close the enemies were in the trenches, physically and emotionally, and how the First World War was a fratricide, a bloodbath of millions of men on a continent that turned on itself. 

– Elaine