Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 32: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] The heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun does some terrible things, but because she knows some of the forces that shaped her, we understand them and can at least admire her resourcefulness.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “[Fassbinder] gave us what he saw as the rise and second fall of West Germany in the three postwar decades –considered in the context of the overwhelming American influence on his country. With the masterful epic The Marriage of Maria Braun, he made his clearest and most cynical statement of the theme, and at the same time gave us a movie dripping with period detail, with the costumes and decor he was famous for, with the elegant decadence his characters will sell their souls for in a late-1940s economy without chic retail goods.” -from his 1979 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Fassbinder’s world was one in which sex, ego and money drove his characters to cruelty, sadism and self-destruction. It is never difficult to discover what they want, or puzzling to see how they go about it. His occasional gentle characters, like the old woman in Ali — Fear Eats the Soul (1974), are eaten alive. The suggestion is that the war years and the postwar years wounded the German psyche so profoundly that the survivors wanted what they wanted, now, on their terms. Fassbinder himself was cruel and distant to those around him, particularly those who loved him, and in Maria Braun, he created an indelible monster who is perversely fascinating because she knows exactly what she is doing and explains it to her victims while it is being done.” -from his 2005 review for his Great Movies series

It’d be easy to be fooled by the opening of The Marriage of Maria Braun into thinking that you’re watching a standard war film. A black & white portrait of Adolf Hitler explodes along with the brick wall supporting it, followed by the rich colors of a darkly humorous physical comedy bit where a solider gets married in the midst of a city siege. The notary lies on their belly in the rubble, stamping the proper documents while bombs & bullets fly. Oddly, this is the last we see of the marriage or the explosions until the film’s final, puzzling minutes. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is obviously interested in the havoc wreaked by World War II, especially among the people left dazed & defeated in his home country in the years immediately following the war. However, the war itself and the marriage of the film’s title are conspicuously missing from long stretches of the story he tells in one of his most widely seen & widely acclaimed films. Instead, Fassbinder follows the emotional life of the soldier’s wife as the war immediately takes her husband away, leaving her lost & drifting through a country she no longer recognizes. The Marriage of Maria Braun is more of a character study than a war film, although both its physical & emotional settings are noticably devastated by the bombs dropped in the conflict.

The most astounding marvel of this Criterion-distributed work is actor Hanna Schygulla’s performance as the titular Maria Braun. Her marriage to a German soldier depicted with cold humor at the film’s opening lasts less than two days before his duty tears him away from her and he’s eventually reported to be dead. In her husband’s absence, Maria engages in two longterm romantic affairs, one with a black American solider & one with a wealthy white German businessman, both of whom wish to possess her. She enjoys their company, but maintains that her heart belongs to the near-stranger she married at the film’s start. As the husband’s absence transitions from missing soldier to imprisoned criminal, Maria remains entirely honest with him about her affairs, planning to earn a sizable living for them both in the mean time, a life that’s to start as soon as he’s released. That goal provides her post-war drift with a sense of purpose, but mostly she just handles her personal life with the emotional distance of a businesswoman making executive decisions, a demeanor many audiences interpret as deliberate cruelty. There’s something striking about Maria’s casual, matter-of-fact reactions to sexual affairs, murders, miscarriages, and changing clothes in the presence of men that makes the film & the performance feel remarkably modern. She answers a flirt’s question, “Should we have another drink?” with a flat “No, I want to sleep with you,” and makes blanket statements like, “It’s not a good time for feelings.” It isn’t until she’s briefly reinvigorated by her role as a wife in the film’s final minutes until you realize what the war & her husband’s absence have done to her, how much joy & brightness they’ve stolen from her youth.

Fassbinder plays Schygulla’s emotionless cynicism for both tragedy & humor. He sets the melodrama of her tragic status as a soldier’s wife torn between two men (twice!) against the rich color, saccharine orchestral score, and high fashion costume design of a Douglas Sirk film. The Marriage of Maria Braun is an outright gorgeous picture. The curls, furs, and jeweled broaches that adorn each of Maria’s looks feel like the ornaments of a retro magazine fashion spread. The intense blue lighting & glistening coats of excessive post-coitus sweat telegraph much of the aesthetic of Ken Russell’s smut-slathered masterpiece Crimes of Passion. The opening minutes (with their bombastic city siege & images of shellshocked soldiers fighting over smokable cigarette butts) may promise a war film, but what Fassbinder ultimately delivers is something much more aggressively feminine. In his time, Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were often critically dismissed as “women’s pictures.” It seems as if Fassbinder were attempting to resurrect their exact perspective, except with more blatant discussions of sex & desire. Both a tragic & a comedic character, Maria’s inner life commands audience attention & empathy as the distinct historical setting & Fassbinder’s intense visual eye only function to serve & highlight her chilly point of view. It’s just as glamorous & devastating as it is over the top & relatable, an impressively rewarding set of self-contradictions.

I’m not sure that The Marriage of Maria Braun’s ambiguous ending has anything of value to say about its titular protagonist. I’m also not sure if a change in temporal setting would entirety alter her inner life or if post-war Germany was essential to her story. What I can say for sure is that Schygulla’s performance as Maria is instantly recognizable as one of the all-time greats. That striking achievement alone is worth the effort the film asks from its audience in its setting & its ambiguity, especially considering that it’s couched within Fassbinder’s distinct visual eye.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 31: GoodFellas (1990)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where GoodFellas (1990) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Not all good movies are about Good People. I also like movies about Bad People who have a sense of humor. […] Henry Hill, the hero of GoodFellas, is not a good fella, but he has the ability to be honest with us about why he enjoyed being bad. He is not a hypocrite.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.” -from his 1990 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What Scorsese does above all else is share his enthusiasm for the material. The film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share. Scorsese’s camera caresses these guys, pays attention to the shines on their shoes and the cut of their clothes. And when they’re planning the famous Lufthansa robbery, he has them whispering together in a tight three-shot that has their heads leaning low and close with the thrill of their own audacity. You can see how much fun it is for them to steal.” -from his 2002 review for his Great Movies series

Whenever pressed for my Favorite Movie of All Time, my answer tends to flip flop between Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights & Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Neither answer is especially bold or indicative of my general tastes. They’re both massively popular titles with wide appeal. Still, they’re the two films I revisit most frequently and the two I think best exemplify everything cinema can be: terrifying, erotic, hilarious, gorgeous, musical, etc. Arriving years later than GoodFellas, Boogie Nights certainly pulled a lot of influence from Scorsese’s gangster magnum opus: absurdly complex tracking shots, sensual immersions in pop music indulgence, a narrative structure that posits the 1970s as a glorious time of hedonistic excess & the 1980s as dark times of cocaine-fueled downfall, etc. That more or less makes GoodFellas the birthplace of what I love most about modern cinema and, thus, leaves me no choice but to shamelessly gush without criticism whenever prompted to discuss it.

Scorsese reportedly wasn’t interested in making another organized crime picture after the early effort Mean Streets already covered what he wanted to say on the subject. Reading the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family on the set of The Color of Money completely turned him around on the idea. The book’s sweeping, decades-spanning look at how the Italian mafia operated on both a generational/cultural level and on a day-to-day operations basis inspired him to want to tell a mafia story that plays “like a two and a half hour trailer.” The result is a lyrical sense of pacing that both moves from the 50s to the 80s with the patience of a flood and freezes still for intimate moments of violence & tension when the situation calls for it. I could easily see that same “two and a half hour trailer” Scorsese quote being turned around on the film as an insult, but for me it’s pure pop cinema bliss. GoodFellas evolves the French New Wave influences that excited New Hollywood auteurs in the early 70s into an entirely new, powerful beast. It sets in motion a near-undetectable shift in cinematic language that feels Citizen Kane-esque in the way it wasn’t immediately appreciated, but informed everything that followed in its wake.

Although GoodFellas follows dozens of characters over the span of four decades, it’s solidly anchored by its narrator & POV character Henry Hill, modeled after a real life mobster by the same name. The story begins with adult Hill (played by a career-high Ray Liotta) opening the trunk of a car to stab & shoot a wriggling victim inside who had been annoying him & his two closest cohorts (played by Robert De Niro & Joe Pesci) with their pathetic cries for help. As this motley crew mercilessly ends their victim’s life, Liotta intones, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Scorsese does almost too good of a job of communicating exactly why someone would want to join the violent world of organized crime. The film follows Hill from his powerless youth as the son of Irish & Italian immigrants to his godlike power as an adult gangster with two mistresses and an endless network of untouchable killers who have his back. Scorsese also gets across the pitfalls of burning that fast & bright, as well the ugliness of a life in crime in general: the murders, the drug addiction, the paranoia of police scrutiny, the casual racism, etc. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy may attempt a more ambitious summation of mafia culture in its endless scope & runtime, but the way GoodFellas boils that same subject down to its most essential pleasures & tragedies in just over two hours is far more miraculous in both its efficiency & its moment to moment effect.

Scorsese declared that he wanted to model GoodFellas‘s overall style after the New Wave classic Jules and Jim, especially in its narration, quick cuts, freeze frames, and wide variety in setting. He was deliberately attempting to overwhelm his audience with the intoxicating allure & apocalyptic downfalls of a life in crime. This effect can be achieved with the odd power of the tracking shot from NYC streets to the front row table at the Copacabana nightclub. It can be built through a thirty minute exercise in Hitchcock-flavored tension as narcotics officers close in on Henry Hill’s drug-running empire, It can also burst out quickly in a pop music montage that reveals an extensive line of dead characters disposed of without ceremony. From the giallo purples & reds of the nightclub lighting to Liotta’s constant narration commanding the pace with meticulous control, GoodFellas feels like Scorsese’s attempt to throw everything he knows about cinema at the screen in every single shot. Much like its well-balanced soundtrack (featuring artists like The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, Cream, and The Rolling Stones), GoodFellas feels like a Greatest Hits collection of cinematic techniques, perfectly curated so the album only feels more charming on every revisit instead of making you long for the sources it borrowed from.

Besides its eclectic, immaculate approach to craft behind the camera, GoodFellas also boasts some of cinema’s all-time best dramatic performances. As the centerpiece, Liotta obviously commands a lot of attention, especially with his maniacal laugh & coldly brutish readings of lines like, “Everybody takes a beating sometimes,” and “Fuck you, pay me.” Although she isn’t afforded nearly as much time in the spotlight, Lorraine Bracco’s role as Henry’s wife, Karen Hill, is occasionally allowed to overpower his perspective with her own narration. She does a great job of getting across the allure of being married to a mobster (“I gotta tell the truth, it turned me on,”) as well as directly vocalizing Scorsese’s intent to leave the audience feeling dizzy or drunk. Mobsters with names like Frankie No-Nose & Jimmy Two-Times round out the rest of the cast, but only De Niro’s mentor-turned-bully & Pesci’s loose cannon hothead threaten to steal the show. Pesci, in particular, lends credence to Scorsese’s claim that in-character ad-libs guided rewrites of the script. Whether delivering lines like “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em in the ear,” or lightly ribbing his mother (played by Scorsese’s real life mother Catherine Scorsese) over her mediocre painting skills, Pesci feels like he fully embodies the character. In fact, the entire cast feels like they were born to play their respective roles, which might help explain why (most of) their careers have felt relatively lackluster since.

Although it certainly traffics in populist cinema waters, GoodFellas has a natural divisiveness to it, possibly in part because of its omnipresent narration & deliberately overwhelming pace. The film feels now as if its legacy as an all-time classic is solidified, but there were multiple walkouts during its test screenings & the only Oscar it won from its six (mostly technical) nominations was for Joe Pesci’s performance. I do not have the critical ability to step outside of myself and consider its flaws. My admiration for it only grows in every revisit and I love getting swept up in its crushing flood of pure cinema bliss. The only film I could maybe claim better delivers on its exact formula is Boogie Nights, but that’s a point I flip flop on as often as I revisit either work individually. GoodFellas might just be the best the medium has to offer.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you  might have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That’s especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. (The Silence of the Lambs was preceded by another Thomas Harris book about Hannibal Lecter, which was made into the film Manhunter.) The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill, and save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.” -from his 2001 review for his Great Movies series

There’s something about Jonathan Demme’s modern classic The Silence of the Lambs that lends itself well to those unsure about horror as a respectable film genre. I found the film endlessly rewatchable as a child (anytime I could sneak away with the family’s not-so-heavily guarded VHS, at least), despite it scaring me shitless. Academy voters in 1992 saw enough of a dramatic thriller in its bones to award it that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a distinction that’s become increasingly rare for genre films, especially horror. Folks who like to split hairs over categorization would likely not care to hear it described as a horror at all, despite that genre’s drastic overlap with thrillers and this particular film’s violent, disturbing serial killer plot. When Demme recently passed away, many critics’ obituaries made a point to emphasize how much of a humanist filmmaker he was, how much attention he paid to making every character in his films feel like a real human being worthy of the audience’s empathy. You can feel that empathy in a wide range of characters in The Silence of the Lambs, from the in-over-her-head FBI recruit protagonist to her deranged sophisticate cannibal collaborator to the vicious serial killer they hunt down together to his latest victim, a mostly average American teenager. It’d be tempting to attribute all of the film’s cultural respectability to that characters-first/genre-concerns-second ethos, but I think that’s only half the story. The same way that Demme elevated the concert film as a medium in Stop Making Sense, there are formalist qualities to the picture that somewhat successfully distract audiences from the fact that they’re watching a sleazy horror film in the first place.

Jodie Foster stars as a soon-to-be FBI agent who jumps rank just a tad to single-handedly identify, locate, and take down the most wanted serial killer in America. Her unlikely accomplice in this mission is an imprisoned cannibal ex-psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who hints that he knows the identity of the killer, an ex-patient, but will only drop clues for Foster’s character to discover him for herself. The clock is ticking to bring the investigation to a close, as the killer has recently kidnapped his latest victim, the daughter of a politician, and she only has a few days to live before he skins her body. This plot is just as well-known by by now as the names of the characters who populate it: Agent Sterling, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, etc. What’s lost in the remembrance of the murder mystery machinations, however, is just how much care goes into constructing each character, no matter how dangerous, as a recognizable human being. Hopkins plays Dr. Lecter as an ice cold intellectual creep who intentionally cultivates fear for ways he might act out, but still feels compelled to help Agent Sterling in her investigation out of some long-suppressed goodness in what’s left of his heart. Sterling herself commands much of the audience’s sympathies, of course, as she navigates the sexist skepticism of her colleagues in multiple branches of law enforcement who don’t take her seriously. Even the film’s horrific killer, Buffalo Bill, is explained to be a survivor of childhood abuse who’s confused by, but cannot control his own violent tendencies. Although it does so by including some dated psychobabble about trans women being “passive” by nature, the movie even distinguishes Bill’s obsession with wearing women’s skin and presenting female as something entirely separate from transgenderism, avoiding unnecessary transmisogynistic demonization. He’s a hurt, violent killer who the movie affords more sympathy than he probably deserves, considering the brutality of his crimes. It also affords Bill’s latest victim a moment or two of humanizing characterization on her own before she’s abducted, allowing her to be established as a real person and not just a nameless teen girl horror victim. It’s in Demme’s nature to give her that.

Demme’s avoidance of horror’s typical, inhuman sleaze isn’t entirely restricted to his sense of humanist characterization, though. You can feel it in the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or the costuming by Colleen Atwood, two industry mainstays who elevate the genre proceedings with a sense of class. What really classes up the joint, however, is the orchestral score by Howard Shore, who’s a lot more at home providing sweeping soundtracks for huge productions like The Lord of the Rings or The Aviator than he is conducting a horror film soundtrack. It shows in his choices here, too. Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs score can be effectively tense in moments when Jodie Foster’s protagonist is in immediate danger, but overall feels way too light & classy in its strings arrangements to match its subject. It’s as if Demme employed Shore specifically to make his film sound like an Oscar-worthy drama instead of a sleazy police procedural about a woman-skinning serial killer. One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.

All of the orchestral arrangements & cautiously humanist character work in the world can’t save this film from its horror genre tendencies, though. The morbid true crime fascination with the story of real life woman-skinner Ed Gein automatically drags the film down into a kind of lurid horror film sleaze. Buffalo Bill’s fictional lair where he recreates Grin’s crimes is a feat of of horror genre production design, complete with creepy exotic bugs (Death’s Head moths) & mannequins with blank expressions. In two separate scenes, one on an airplane and one outside Lector’s cell, Demme & Fujimoto (both vets of the Roger Corman film school) utilize a harshly contrasted blue & red lighting dynamic closely associated with the horror genre because of hallmarks like giallo & Creepshow. The film’s climax, in which he Buffalo Bill hunts Agent Sterling in the darkness of his own basement with the help of night vision goggles, is so iconic to the horror genre that it was aped in two releases just last year: Lights Out & Don’t Breathe. Demme even makes room for a cameo from legendary horror film producer Roger Corman (who gave the director his start on the women in prison exploitation pic Caged Heat) as the head of the FBI. Of course, the most obvious horror element of all is Anthony Hopkins’s over-the-top, but chilling performance as man-eater Hannibal Lector, whose visage in a straight jacket & muzzle is just as iconic in the horror villain pantheon as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s fedora & striped sweater. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs is a little too dramatic & not nearly cruel enough to be strictly considered an exploitative genre film, but I still smell horror’s sleazy stink all over its basic DNA. I also love the genre too much to have its only Best Picture Oscar taken away from it based on Demme’s empathy or Shore’s music alone.

It’s difficult to look back to The Silence of the Lambs for new insights this many years after its release, since it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. Even the film’s insular FBI politics, hyper-nerd experts, and onscreen text feel highly influential in the basic aesthetic of The X-Files, a show that had a huge influence on my pop media tastes as a young’n. I can look back to Demme’s film now for moments of Agent Sterling navigating shady sex politics that wouldn’t have meant much to me as a kid: suffering flirtations from superiors, attempting to remain stoic while prisoners harass her, boarding an elevator full of her towering meatheads of fellow recruits. That’s not really what surprised me on this revisit, though. Mostly, I was taken aback by how well the film masks it sleazy horror genre traits. It used to feel like such an anomaly to me that such a grotesque & terrifying film had won a major award usually reserved for heartfelt dramas about real life historical figures or the tragically disadvantaged. I fully understand how it got past the Oscars’ usual genre bias now. Not only does the film look and sound more like the films the Academy usually falls in love with, but Demme brings the same empathetically tragic, true to life drama to his characters that typifies Oscar winners. Whether they’re too young to be watching the film on a smuggled VHS or too old & stuffy to typically engage with its serial killer subject matter, the film has a way of easing audiences into a kind of horror film sleaze that’s usually reserved for exploitation genre hounds. It’s a horrific and often over-acted picture that shouldn’t feel nearly as prestigious or as classy as it does, but Demme somehow packaged The Silence of the Lambs as something enduringly endearing. More unlikely yet, I find it oddly comforting, like meeting up with an old friend in desperate need of intensive therapy.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: Goodfellas (1990)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 28: Casablanca (1942)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Casablanca (1942) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] Casablanca is about people who do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “If we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and a woman who are in love, and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is not only able to imagine winning the love of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

One of the more challenging aspects of looking back to these titans of cinematic prestige in projects like this is trying to put yourself in the mindset of the people watching them when they were first released. That was a very rewarding experience for me when I recently watched Citizen Kane for the first time, which felt like returning to the birth place of modern cinema. Orson Welles’s classic was not immediately appreciated as a game-changer, however. It took years of reappraisal and televised re-runs for that film to earn its rightful place among the all-time greats. The equally lauded Casablanca, often touted to be the greatest film of all time, had a much easier path to success. In the film’s own advertising it was reported to be, “As big and timely a picture as you’ve ever seen! You can tell by the cast it’s important! Gripping! Big!” With names like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, and Claude Raines among its ranks it’s difficult to dispute that claim. That’s especially true once you consider that Casablanca is about the ineffectiveness of remaining neutral in the face of Nazi fascism and that it was made just a few years after America had been pressured into joining the war in spite of its Isolationist philosophies. Unlike with Citizen Kane, however, time has only faded what initially must have felt special about Casablanca. It might entirely be a question of over-familiarity. The stars of the poster no longer shine as brightly as they did in the 1940s. The film’s iconic dialogue has been echoed, referenced, and parodied to dust. I’ve seen more films about Nazis & World War II than I’ve ever wanted to sit through in my entire life. What’s left, then, is a well-shot, well-acted drama that’s undeniably good, but difficult to contextualize as the best cinema has to offer.

Bogart stars as an American who prides himself in remaining Neutral in all things, especially politics. He’s warned early & often that “Isolationism is no longer a practical policy,” a truth that becomes increasingly apparent as the nightclub/gambling den he runs in North Africa begins to see a clash of new Nazi faces with his traditionally French clientele. Sometimes this clash is literalized by both sides fervently singing their national anthems over each other’s in proud defiance and drunken bravado. More often, it’s a backroom political game where enemies to the Nazis seek secretive travel to the still-neutral USA while the Nazis attempt to keep them still in Casablanca until it’s their time to be dealt with. Bogart’s leading man finds it impossible to stay out of this conflict once a familiar face from a past Parisian romance, played by Bergman, shows up at his nightclub seeking asylum & safe passage for herself & her political refugee husband. A song that represents their past romantic fling, “As Time Goes By,” repeats endlessly on the soundtrack, both diagetically​ and otherwise, as Bogart stresses over what to do with the only woman who’s ever broken his heart. In the meantime, the dialogue is peppered with repetition of the film’s own greatest hits of line deliveries: “Play it again, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine . . .” etc. The ending of Casablanca, set at an airport, is just as much part of the public consciousness​ as any one of those lines, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself if, like me, you’ve somehow avoided seeing the film until now. I will say, though, that it will not likely have the impact on those uninitiated now the same way it did in 1942, which is actually fairly indicative on how the movie plays in the 2010s as a whole.

I have a strange relationship with Casablanca’s formal aspects, especially its pacing. On the one hand, I appreciate its brevity in keeping its runtime at only 100min, where I feel like most Big! Important! movies from the studio era are about twice that length, complete with overture & intermission. The movie has an absurdly fast-talking, no-nonsense energy to it that makes for a very easy watch in a modern context, but I’m not sure it’s a pace that fits the material well. In a lot of ways Casablanca intentionally traps its characters in a transitive state, a sort of real life Limbo. From the French officer who prides himself on being free from Nazi control in his own North African safe haven to the nightclub owner who foolishly believes he can make it through the war without ever choosing sides, no character is leading a life that can last forever. They’re all effectively stuck in a rut, but the movie’s rapid pace does little to match or accentuate their stasis. In particular, the sweeping, drunken montage of Bergman & Bogart’s Parisian tryst has little time to make any impact for me outside the historical revelation that disco balls have existed since at least the 40s. The performances in the film are top notch and the cinematograpy & attention to lighting match them in pure elegance. Some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen on film in a long while are just the glimmering tears Casablanca captures as they well up in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. I just didn’t feel as much of a personal impact from the film as a complete product despite those images. Some of it might be my boredom with war narratives and my over-familiarity with the film’s greatest hits dialogue. A lot of it has something to do with its breakneck pace that never slows down to allow a moment to truly linger. Casablanca continues to shine as a well-made film, a quality assessment I can easily see in its basic sense of craft. What I’m failing to see as a modern audience is why it remains an important one, which is a huge distinction to make. Maybe my feeble 2010s mind, with its Twitter notifications and Instant Steaming options, was too slow to keep up with its virtues as a cinematic feat, but I was unable to feel the awe for it I might have expected from a film that’s been hyped as The Greatest of All Time for the past seven decades, as unfair as that expectation might be.

Roger Ebert concludes his Great Movies review of Casablanca by saying “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.” Maybe I’ll be able to catch up with all of the love that’s been heaped on the film over the decades once I also become overly-familiar with the film on its own terms instead of being overly-familiar with the references it’s inspired elsewhere in pop culture. All I can report for now is that I liked it, but I was far from in love, even though I feel like I already know every piece that makes up its basic structure.  It’ll be a while before I ask Sam to play it again, but I’m not opposed to the idea.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Third Man (1949)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 27: Galia (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Galia (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 156 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls his early days as a professional film critic. He writes, “The first film I reviewed for the Sun-Times was Galia, from France. I watched it from a center seat in the Old World Playhouse, bursting with the awareness that I was reviewing it, and then I went back to the office and wrote that it was one more last gasp of the French New Wave, rolling ashore. That made me sound more insightful than I was.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Georges Lautner’s Galia opens and closes with arty shots of the ocean, mother of us all, but in between it’s pretty clear that what is washing ashore is the French New Wave. Ever since the memorable Breathless (1960) and Jules and Jim, and the less memorable La Verite, we have been treated to a parade of young French girls running gaily toward the camera in slow motion, their hair waving in the wind in just such a way that we know immediately they are liberated, carefree, jolly and doomed. Poor Galia is another.” -from his 1966 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

When teenage girls gaze into the Eiffel Tower posters that adorn their bedroom walls, I imagine the ideal Parisian life they long for is the one depicted in Galia. The titular protagonist of this mildly sexed-up French drama is a small town 20-something who moved to Paris to make do as a carefree shop girl. She lives alone in a studio apartment, frequently indulges in casual sex, smokes like a chimney outside and inside her favorite cafés, sketches strangers in her notepad, and just generally enjoys a young adult’s freedom without any significant responsibilities. Over the course of the film Galia is shaken out of her carefree reverie into a more recognizable adult existence, but a large part of the movie’s charm is that initial fantasy of an artistic Parisian life. I suppose that was the intent of director Georges Lautner in the first place. Lautner often verbally criticized the hoity-toity inventiveness of his contemporaries in the French New Wave and instead poised himself as something of a populist, crafting critically ignored works that were popularly broadcast on French television. Galia‘s lighthearted whimsy plays right into that sense of entertainment-for-its-own-sake populism, even when it deviates from that Parisian fantasy into topics as hefty as adultery, betrayal, and suicide.

Galia has her first taste of responsibility-hindered adult life when she saves a woman from drowning in a river and offers her a place to stay. When she discovers that the woman attempted suicide over a dispute with her husband, she finds the reasoning ridiculous. To Galia, there are way too many hot, young bachelors in Paris to focus on just one, therefore “men aren’t worth killing yourself over.” To help break this woman out of her marital rut, Galia convinces her to continue to play dead, as if the suicide were successful. She then spies on the husband as a proxy to gauge his reaction to his recent loss, turning the crisis into a frivolous game of espionage whimsy. It’s not a very well thought-out​ plan. Galia inevitably falls head over heels for the cheating, suicide-inspiring husband despite the wife’s protests, even following him on a romantic weekend getaway in Venice. If you’re going to track her arc as a character throughout the film, I suppose the lesson she learns by accidentally falling in love with this obvious lout is that romance can inspire you to do drastic things, like jump off a bridge or contemplate a murder, no matter how many hot, available men are walking the streets of Paris. The love triangle between the carefree shop girl, the nearly-drowned woman, and her emotionally abusive husband can only drive towards an inevitably tragic end, which is a shame, because Galia works best when it functions like a lighthearted, whimsical comedy.

Because Georges Lautner seems to have an anti-intellectual air to his directorial style, Galia‘s worst moments are when it strays from presenting a comedic fantasy about a sex-positive shop girl into echoing more traditional French New Wave territory. Exchanges like, “Life is not much,” “Death is nothing at all,” and occasional “artsy” choices like scrolling the opening credits over negative footage of beach waves or indulging in an unconvincingly abstract nightmare sequence are embarrassingly flat in their half-hearted stabs at pretension, almost to the point of New Wave parody. Just about the only times this mild attempt at artfulness feels genuine or worthwhile is when Lautner aims to depict sexuality. Close-ups of drinking straws & cigarettes touching women’s tongues or young bodies twirling in wet bathing suits make for the rare artfully crafted image where Lautner doesn’t feel as if he’s asleep at the wheel. There’s also a brief detour to a weird, drunken orgy hosted by the cheating husband and a business associate that straddles both sides of the line, the engaged and the inept, as if it were plucked directly from a Doris Wishman picture. These questionably artistic deviations are few & far between, though. Mostly, Galia plays like a harmless, sexed-up melodrama and a teen girl’s fantasy of a liberated life in gay Paree.

In the long run, the most significant aspect of Galia might be that it was the subject of Roger Ebert’s first film review for the Chicago Sun-Times, the publication that defined the critic’s career as a writer. In that review, he lightly criticizes the film for being a poor, late-in-the-game example of The French New Wave. That point feels a little disingenuous, given how much the film feels largely uninterested in art film pretension, choosing to instead chase a mildly sexy, highly melodramatic form of crowd-pleasing populism. I will concede that its most artsy, New Wavy aspects were its biggest stumbling blocks, though. Galia is recommendable as a taste of whimsical Parisian fantasy and a cheap shot melodrama, but anyone looking for the attention to visual craft and philosophical dilemmas typically associated with modern French Cinema is certain to walk away disappointed, as it sounds like Roger did.

Roger’s Rating (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Casablanca (1942)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Batman (1989)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Batman (1989) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 155 of the first edition hardback, Ebert describes a notorious, boisterous publicist who worked for Warner Bros. named Frank Casey. In one anecdote about the larger-than-life character, he recounts, “It was of my opinion Casey had never seen a movie all the way through. Unlike other publicists, who mostly used screening rooms, Casey liked to take over a theater like the World Playhouse for the Chicago preview of a big movie like Batman and invite all his friends from the worlds of business and politics. Only at a Warner Bros. movie were you ever likely to see Mayor Daley, several alderman, and various Pritzkers.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Gotham City created in Batman is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame  something more memorable doesn’t happen there. Batman is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest. Batman discards the recent cultural history of the Batman character – the camp 1960s TV series, the in-joke comic books – and returns to the mood of the 1940s, the decade of film noir and fascism.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have been four major live action Batman franchises to hit theaters since the cartoonishly campy days of Adam West in the 1960s. All of them have Tim Burton’s greasy fingerprints all over their basic DNA. Burton’s 1989 Batman adaptation was such a highly stylized smash hit that Gotham has never looked the same onscreen since. His highly specific production style of gothy art deco gloom mixed with subtly campy sadism has shaped everything Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done visually with the Batman property in the decades since, and even launched an entire, highly-acclaimed animated TV series. Every Batman adaptation since Burton’s seems to like have inadvertently mirrored more than just that seminal work’s high-end Hot Topic gloom, however. They’ve also adopted his pattern of when to intensify personal vision instead of bending to corporate-minded marketability with each respective franchise.

Tim Burton’s Batman has a striking visual palette & overall tone to it that’s directly tied to the director’s personal wheelhouse as an auteur. Still, there’s something about the relatively vanilla romance at the film’s center, the shoehorned-in Prince soundtrack, and the blatantly brand-conscious imagery of the bat signal that reeks of movie-by-committee studio interference. Batman ’89 feels like Burton delivering exactly what studios want (with a strong personal spin, of course) so that he can prove himself worthy to fully take the reins in a second, wilder, more personalized feature. 1992’s Batman Returns is pure Tim Burton, an untethered, perverted goth kid rampage that broke free from studio exec influence, a much more striking & idiosyncratic work than its predecessor. Every live action Batman adaptation since has seemed to follow this pattern. Joel Schumacher’s jokey-but-tame Batman Forever isn’t nearly half as memorable as the oversexed camp fest of its far superior Batman and Robin follow-up. (It’s time we all admit that’s a great movie; don’t @ me.) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, while its predecessor is a much more muted drama about Batman’s salad days at ninja school. Even recently (and I’m expecting even more flack for this than the Schumacher praise), the Zach Snyder-helmed Batman films got a lot more lively & delightfully weird in Suicide Squad than they started off as in the punishingly dull Dawn of Justice. Burton has laid out a clear blueprint for any & all would-be Batman auteurs arriving in his wake: try to keep it somewhat calm & familiar in the first film, then swing for the fences with the follow-up.

I don’t mean to imply here that Batman ’89 is in any way a bland, forgettable film. It does feel homogenized around the edges to meet major studio blockbuster expectations, but the weird little heart at the center of the film is still unmistakably Burton. The stop motion retractable shields on the Batmobile are pure Burton aesthetic, a visual calling card also matched in the film’s matte paintings & miniatures. He also frames a lot of the film with an excess of Dutch angles, which is not only a natural aspect of adapting a comic book property for the screen, but also consistent with the childlike tone of his then-contemporary works like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Besides the visual calling cards that let us know as an audience that this is A Tim Burton Joint, you can also feel the director’s personality strongly reflected in the casting. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reclusive billionaire weirdo is a smart deviation from the square-jawed, American Hero caricature Adam West (expertly) brought to the screen before him, bringing a calmer version of his demonic Beetlejuice performance to the role. Where Burton really finds his footing in leaving a personal stamp on Batman as a product wouldn’t be with the titular hero at all, however. The director’s talents were much better suited for bringing to life the cartoon cruelty of the Caped Crusader’s sworn enemy, one of superhero comics’ most infamous villains.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the key to understanding Batman ’89 both as a Burton film and as a monolithic influence on the adaptations that would follow. Burton is obviously more interested in the villains of the Batverse than he is in Bruce Wayne himself, except maybe when the billionaire weirdo is exposed to be just another oddly kinky monster terrorizing the city he supposedly protects. A large part of what makes Batman Returns feel more like a pure Burton vision than its predecessor is that the director just fully gives himself into this impulse, wilfully allowing Batman to become a background character while total freaks like Danny DeVito’s Penguin & Michelle Pheiffer’s Catwoman run amok. Nicholson’s The Joker is a great preview of that future Utopia of gothy camp. He is as genuinely terrifying here as he is in his career-making role in The Shining, especially in scenes where he covers his clown-white face with flesh-toned make-up. He turns the character into a sadistic form of clowning, filling the squirting flower of his lapel with a corrosive acid & staging a sinisterly warped version of the Macy’s Day Parade with poison-filled balloons. To do Batman exactly right, you have to mix a little camp theatricality in to lighten the gloomy glowering of an otherwise depressive property. This is exactly why Heath Ledger’s own unhinged Joker performance exalted The Dark Knight and also why the utterly joyless Dawn of Justice put many theater-goers to sleep. Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the first sign that Burton understood the need for that balance. You can hear it in his half-goofy, half-chilling catchphrase “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” You can feel it in a sequence where he defaces fine art with bathroom-quality graffiti to a funky Prince track and somehow makes the tone fit the film, despite all odds. In a lot of ways Batman ’89 feels like a dry run for better things to come in Returns, but everything Nicholson does onscreen in the mean time is just as timelessly entertaining as the best of what was to follow.

Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of either of Tim Burton’s Batman productions. He praised the director’s work as “a triumph of design” & atmosphere, but ultimately dismisses it as a style over substance affair. Personally, I always value style over substance. I agree with Ebert on some level that the Bruce Wayne narrative arc never matches the eccentricity of Burton’s vision in Batman, likely due to the homogenizing effect of studio influence, but I can’t dismiss the value of that vision in & of itself. Burton’s mixed media visual accomplishments in Batman are stunning to this day, a distinct personal artistry that doesn’t require a strong narrative to justify its for-its-own-sake pleasures. Although he wouldn’t make his most fully personal Batman film until Returns, you can still feel his own idiosyncrasies creeping in through the influence of Nicholson’s goofy-scary Joker and an overall production design unmistakably of his own. I’ll always hold Returns in higher regard than Batman ’89, but I still greatly respect this landmark work for the ways it fights to be memorably bizarre despite studio influence, the way it envisions an entirely new & instantly definitive look for its hero’s playground, and the way it serves as a basic blueprint for all Batman cinema that followed.

Roger’s Rating: (2/4, 50%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Galia (1966)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances. The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman’s script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it’s a Western.” -from his 1969 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

I often use the “I’m just not into Westerns,” excuse to avoid having to actually engage with films in the genre, but what am I supposed to do when a Western clearly just isn’t into itself? Arriving in the strange middle ground between the big budget Western and the small, ramshackle productions of New Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at war with its own nature. It wants to both please the old guard by revisiting a John Wayne era of Hollywood filmmaking, yet side with the existential rebelliousness of its contemporaries like Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose it found the right balance for a lot of people in consolidating those two sides, but I found it to be something of a bland compromise between two spiritually opposing filmmaking styles. Maybe if more of Butch Cassidy‘s sardonic, self-hating spirit were allowed to disrupt its outlaws-on-the-run premise I would have been won over as a modern, Western-ignoring cynic. As is, I found it to be kind of a middling choir.

Paul Newman & Robert Redford, pretty much the dual definition of Hollywood Handsome, star as two train-robbing bandits who find themselves on the run from ever-encroaching lawmen after a job gone bad. Katherine Ross (who’s been popping up in quite a few of these late 60s pictures) tags along as a lover & conspirator and the trio wind up mounting one final stand in South America. That’s a fairly reductive plot synopsis, I’ll admit, but it covers pretty much the entire arc of the film as long as you’re willing to disregard stray sequences where Katherine Ross teaches the boys rudimentary Spanish so they can rob Bolivian banks or flirts innocently with one of them on a bicycle to Bury Bacharach’s “Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head,” (which was, bafflingly, written for the film). The real hook of Butch Cassidy, though, isn’t the strength of its story, but the then-refreshing casual banter of its two anti-hero protagonists. I’ll admit that aspect of the screenplay does help cut down on the film’s boring, idyllic tough guy Western aesthetic, but the exchanges are too few and far between to amount to much except brief reprieves from the otherwise oppressive stillness of the genre film they disrupt.

Ebert complained in his 1969 review that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s production was too bloated and its pacing was too slow & labored to match the rebellious nature of the spiritually similar (but far superior) Bonnie & Clyde. I can’t disagree with either point. Just as one character remarks to Newman & Redford’s titular bandits, “It’s over. Your time is over. You’re going to die bleeding. All you can do is choose where,” the same feels true of the genre their characters are serving & lightly subverting. The Western genre is in some ways antithetical to the New Hollywood era, since it was such a routine mainstay of the old Studio System formula, especially in this film’s lavishly produced form. You can feel Butch Cassidy attempting to change with the times in its mid-gunfight quipping and its shrugging tagline, “Not that it matters, but most of it is true.” It could have pushed those tendencies a whole lot further, though. One version of the screenplay had Butch & The Kid watching a movie adaptation of their lives in a South American cinema, heckling & nitpicking its perceived inaccuracies. The idea was reportedly cut for being “too over the top,” which is a shame, because it’s the exact kind of blasphemous energy this film needed to be worthwhile as a genre update. I assume I’d get some backlash from more dedicated fans of Westerns as a genre for that stance, but that’s okay. I don’t speak their language.

Roger’s Rating: (2.5/4, 63%)

Brandon’s Rating (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Batman (1989)

-Brandon Ledet