Early and Excellent Kubrick at PFA

As I discussed last week, I lost a lot of my love of Stanley Kubrick over the decades. But I didn’t lose my love for all of his pictures. And amongst my favorites are his first two Hollywood pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Saturday night, I revisited these favorites at the Pacific Film Archive, where they were screened as part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

Some historical background: Kubrick started his career with two super-low budget independent features–Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss. I saw Fear and Desire some years ago and hated it (Kubrick eventually disowned it), and have never seen Killer’s Kiss. The PFA screened them Thursday night, but I was unable to attend.

Although it wasn’t a commercial success, Killer’s Kiss impressed enough people to bring Kubrick into the Hollywood system, albeit on a low budget. United Artists financed and released his next two pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

The PFA screened them in reverse order, showing Paths of Glory first.

Paths of Glory

To my mind, this is Kubrick’s masterpiece (with Dr. Strangelove a close second). This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers they see as disposable pawns, shows Kubrick at his best. His visual flare brings a powerful contrast to the film’s two major settings: the ugly, dirty, and dangerous trenches of the front, and the opulent palace where the generals’ live in comfort and luxury.

The story is simple, but powerful. In 1916, with the war at a long stalemate, two French generals (Adolphe Menjou and George Macready) decide to take a German position that everyone knows can’t be taken. With little time to prepare and almost no support, the men leap out of their trenches and attack–only to be mowed down. The survivors understandably run back to their trenches. Unable to admit that their plan was impossible, the generals order that three men be arrested as examples, tried for cowardice, found guilty, and shot.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen Paths of Glory on a rented, Criterion Blu-ray about a year ago. I don’t remember when I last saw it theatrically, but I think it was in the 1980s.

Paths of Glory is one of the rare Kubrick films that allows us to care about the characters. This is especially true with the three condemned "examples," charged for failing an impossible task and knowing without a doubt that they will be executed. Each was chosen by their superior officer. One of them, played by Ralph Meeker, knows that his truly cowardly lieutenant (Wayne Morris) has reasons for wanting him dead.

Kubrick generally avoided heroes, but he got one in Paths of Glory–Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax–the lawyer-turned officer who leads the charge and becomes the men’s defense attorney. Douglas was the first big star to appear in a Kubrick film, and he probably demanded a rewrite to make his part larger and more noble. In a late scene, he angrily tells off a top-ranking general, calling him a "degenerate" and promising that "I’ll go to Hell before I ever apologize to you again." Kubrick generally avoided such moral preaching.

Kubrick’s visual sense comes to fully glory here. Tracking shots through the trenches help illustrate the claustrophobic, horrific nature of men’s predicament. Another tracking shot, leading up to the executions, help emphasize the ritual aspects of these legal and ceremonial murders. The court martial, or perhaps I should say the kangaroo court martial, is set in an opulent room whose floor suggest a chessboard.

World War I produced more great films than any other war. This is one of the best.

The Killing

It’s hardly surprising that a young filmmaker breaking into Hollywood in 1956 would start with a noir. After all, these gritty crime films were cheap to make and popular with audiences. But The Killing proved to be one of the best of the genre.

In this classic heist thriller, an experienced criminal (Sterling Hayden) orchestrates a complex racetrack robbery likely to net two million 1956 dollars. Of course, he needs collaborators. And each one of them has to do his job at the exact right time for everything to work.

Needless to say, human frailty is going to get in the way.

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Kubrick and screenplay collaborator Jim Thompson (working from a novel by Lionel White) found a unique structure to tell the story. It’s not in pure chronological order, but it’s not a flashback, either. Instead, the movie follows one member of the gang, then leaps back in time to follow someone else. The film’s eye-of-God narrator helps the audience keep all of this straight with simple statements like "Three hours earlier, Johnny left his apartment and headed for the motel." (Someone needs to write an essay on Kubrick’s use of spoken narration.)

Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a professional, but most of his collaborators are breaking the law for the first time, motivated by a desperate need for money. The most heartbreaking is Joe Sawyer’s racetrack bartender, who needs money to help the very sick wife he loves so much.

But Elisha Cook Jr.’s character is a different kind of marriage problem. He hopes that if he had more money, his dreadful, scornful, adulterous wife (Marie Windsor) might actually love him. We feel little sympathy for Cook’s character, and none at all for Windsor’s, but these two are clearly the most entertaining people in the story. When Clay meets that awful wife, he sees her for exactly what she is. "You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart."

As it should be, The Killing is filled with such snappy, pulp-heavy dialog–probably written by Thompson. In hiring a sharpshooter, Clay argues that the risks are limited. "You’d be killing a horse – that’s not first degree murder, in fact it’s not murder at all, in fact I don’t know what it is."  Hayden’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery makes that like explosive and funny.

Before Saturday night, I had last seen The Killing at the UC Theater, probably in1996 or 1997. I was glad to remake its acquaintance.

Digital projection done mostly right

Both movies were made by United Artists after 1951, which means that they’re now owned by MGM/UA. But MGM/UA no longer distributes its own films. Criterion has released both of these films for home use. Other UA titles have been released on video by Fox and Kino.

A company I’d never heard of, Park Circus, now distributes these two titles theatrically on DCP. Both films started with a Park Circus logo, and then the MGM lion. Every UA film, no matter who distributes it, now starts with the MGM lion–even though none of them are real MGM films. And that lion is in color, even before a black and white film.

Other than that, this were excellent transfers. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1. Both movies looked and sounded great, and still felt like works of their time.

Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary.

Even those who love silent film will often acknowledge that when it comes to character-driven, realistic, contemporary drama, talkies have a distinct advantage. But The Crowd makes one very special exception. Here we have reality–or something very close to it–without the aid of the human voice.

The Crowd is not a lost film, but it’s a difficult one to see. Warner Brothers, which owns this MGM title, has never released The Crowd on DVD or Blu-ray. If you want your own legal copy, you have to find an out-of-print, expensive laserdisc or VHS cassette. It’s currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant, but individual titles don’t stay up on that service for more than a few weeks. As far as I know, it’s not streaming anywhere else–at least not legally.

The Crowd follows the optimistic but ultimately disappointing life of John Sims, who comes to New York as a young man to make it big. The first time we see the adult John (James Murray in what I believe was his only starring role), he’s on a ferry to Manhattan, smiling and ready to conquer the world. He tells a fellow passenger (in an intertitle, of course) that he only wants an "opportunity." The look on the other man’s face is priceless.

A reverse shot shows us the Manhattan docks, which leads to a montage of New York City, including a couple of shots where the camera tilts up to reveal the high skyscrapers. Then the camera moves up one of those skyscrapers, and heads inside, where rows and rows of desks fill a vast room (yes, The Crowd influenced The Apartment). Finally, the camera finds John, now earning his living. But he’s just one toiler out of hundreds, eagerly waiting for the 5:00 bell that will let him leave the office.

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That image of the vast, dehumanizing room reoccurs much later in the film, in a surprising context. John has just become a father, and the vast maternity room stretches out with rows of beds. People are born to be lowly workers dreaming of an unattainable better life.

Director King Vidor (who also co-write the screenplay) condemns American society in The Crowd, but he also condemns John, a man whose imagination is greater than his real ambitions. He talks about his ship coming in, but he never seems to seriously guide it into a harbor. He works just hard enough to keep his job, refuses to socialize with his bosses, quits in a moment of anger, and rejects a job offer that feels like charity. And all this from a man with mouths to feed.

Murray gives an excellent performance here, but Eleanor Boardman gives a better one–one of silent cinema’s greatest acting jobs–as his long-suffering wife, Mary. We first meet her as a flirtatious but innocent young woman on a Coney Island date. On her wedding night (on a train to Niagara Falls), she is shy and scared. In a later breakfast scene, her frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment are palpable. She loves John, and you can see that even when she’s mad at him. And he gives her plenty of reasons to be mad at him.

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Boardman married Vidor two years before they made The Crowd. Three years later they divorced. I can’t help wondering if a real troubled marriage helped her understand her character.

The Crowd is a serious film, but it has moments of joy and laughter. The ending is ambiguous. It’s a happy ending, in that John and Mary are happy when we last see them. But the basic problems are still there. Vidor gives you no reason to believe that the happiness will last.

I first saw The Crowd at a Los Angeles museum screening in 1973. It was some 30 years before I could see it again, on Turner Classic Movies. A year or so later, I saw it at the PFA. Last night, almost a decade after that screening, I got to watch it on Warner Archive Instant. Outside of the current, temporary situation, it’s not an easy film to see.

But it’s one that should be seen. Warners should give it a thorough restoration (the streaming version shows serious nitrate degradation in some shots), and make it readily available to theaters on DCP and 35mm. And then they should make it available on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with commentary and extras . And if Warners won’t do it, they should license the film to Criterion, or the Film Foundation, or UCLA, or someone else who doesn’t have to worry about stockholders.

Six years after making The Crowd, Vidor made a sequel of sorts, Our Daily Bread. It’s an interesting picture, but far from a great one. If I was to put The Crowd on a double bill with anything, I would bill it with Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July. Yes, one’s a drama, and the other a comedy. Yet they have some interesting themes running through both.

But for now, just catch The Crowd while you can.

Note: Soon after posting this article, I received the following good news from a Warner spokesperson:

The film has not been released on DVD yet as they feel it needs a restoration, which it will at some point but for now, fans can watch the film on WAI.

Also, the article makes it sound as if the film is only on the short for a short period of time. It’s not. Films do come off and new ones will come up but it’s not as if they are only up for a few weeks before coming down. Also, there is a column on the site noting which films are coming off so fans have notification of this ahead of time at http://instant.warnerarchive.com/browse.html#CF_2461-3426.

Technology, Classic Films, and Mick LaSalle

In this week’s Ask Mick LaSalle column, the SF Chronicle reviewer answered a reader who asked if he could "you name any American movie from the last 20 years that might be for the ages?"

His answer was, for the most part, intelligent, but not entirely. And the problems started at the top, when Mick proclaimed that "Movies that depend on technology date poorly…"

If you take that statement literally, of course, all movies date poorly. Cinema, by its nature, depends on technology. There were no movies before the invention of movie cameras, which themselves depended on several other technologies.

And the technology changes all the time. John Ford had to adjust to talkies, three-strip Technicolor, color film, standard widescreen, VistaVision, Cinerama, Super Panavision 70, and plain old Panavision.

The technology used to shoot a movie dates it as much as the costumes. Ever hear someone complain about old movies because they’re in black and wite?

Okay, I do realize that when LaSalle wrote "technology," he really meant special visual effects. And there’s an element of truth to that. If a big-budget movie’s main attraction is the cutting-edge FX, it will date quickly.

But a movie that uses its cutting-edge FX creatively need not go out of date. Look at all the people who hate George Lucas because he replaced the original analogue effects in Star Wars with "improved" digital versions. The effects in 2001 and King Kong still work their magic. People still love George Melies’ work, and special effects don’t get older than that.

Setting aside the issue of technology, it’s impossible to say with any certainly which films will be regarded as classics. That’s why I don’t use the words classic or masterpiece to describe a film (or song, or book) until it is at least 20 years old. I also don’t rate a film A+ until it reaches that age.

Why 20 years? Because by then, you can have college-educated people who can look at the film and love it, even though they have no memory of the society that made it. (20 is also, of course, a nice round number.)

Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia

The best motion pictures span genres and overcome their limits. They open a window into the mind and soul of fully developed, complex, imperfect human beings. They push the artistic and technical limits of the medium. And they do it all while entertaining an audience.

Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Within the last two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia, two of them in the last three months. But all three concentrated on theatrical presentation–an important part of appreciating a roadshow epic like Lawrence. But Hollywood released many big roadshow blockbusters in the 1950s and 60s, and they all required a giant screen and great projection. What makes Lawrence of Arabia so special?

At its heart, this big, epic adventure studies the enigma of one very strange man. T. E. Lawrence, at least as betrayed here, is a military genius with a love/hate relationship to violence. An idealist, an exhibitionist, and a raving egomaniac, he believes that he and those who follow him can do anything. The fact that he usually succeeds only feeds his already too-high self-esteem. Yet he also knows that, deep down, he can never truly become what he wants to be–an Arab.

During World War I, the British saw Arabia as a sideshow, but also as a potential conquest. It was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had allied itself with Germany. By aiding an Arab revolt against the Ottoman, the Brits could keep the Turks occupied outside of Europe. But helping the revolt was tricky. Well-armed Arab freedom fighters wouldn’t easily become part of the British Empire.

And into this comes Lawrence. First sent to Arabia as an observer, he disobeys orders and pulls off a daring raid. Suddenly he’s a hero, both to the British and even more to the Arabs, whom he truly wants to liberate. But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he must know that his superiors have less idealistic intentions.

I don’t know much about the historical T. E. Lawrence, but I do know that he was gay. That sort of historical fact had be either ignored or danced around carefully in 1962, and the filmmakers rightly chose to dance. Peter O’Toole’s performance is slightly feminine (the Mad Magazine parody was called "Florence of Arabia"). It all makes you wonder about the extremely close friendships he makes with other men.

This film has something very close to an all-male cast. You never hear a woman’s voice, and the only shot of a female face is in a photograph. The few times you see women, they’re wearing vales. Women in the audience have the pleasure of watching O’Toole and Omar Sharif when they were young and gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, Freddie Young’s photography turns Lawrence of Arabia into a visual feast, intended to be served on a giant canvas. The desert never looked so hot, so foreboding, or so enormous. Or, for that matter, so beautiful. Important characters often appear as tiny dots in the distance, emphasizing the size and emptiness of the environment that they inhabit. You can easily understand why Lawrence falls in love with desert life.

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David Lean and his exceptionally talented collaborators took the ingredients of the roadshow epic–long length, lush music (including an overture and intermission music), and a large, wide frame that fills a giant screen–and turned it into a masterpiece. There were bigger epics, and longer ones, but there’s only one Lawrence of Arabia.

Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic

It’s Groundhog Day! I repeat: It’s Groundhog Day!

The movie Groundhog Day first played to paying audiences 20 years ago today. I saw it soon after the release, and fell instantly in love with it. But only now, 20 years later, am I willing to give it my highest rating: A+. I don’t give that rating to new films–or even those only 19 years old.

Nineteen years ago, when everyone was talking about the best films of 1993, the two imagetitles on everyone’s lips were Schindler’s List and The Piano. They were on every critic’s Top Ten list. Everyone assumed that one of those two, most probably (and correctly) Schindler, would take the Best Picture Oscar. Groundhog Day made few lists (only one that I saw), and wasn’t even nominated.

But two decades later, Schindler is more respected than loved, and The Piano is all but forgotten (which is unfair; it’s an excellent film). Yet Groundhog Day is more loved and respected than both of those serious works put together. No one predicted that in 1993.

I only give the A+ grade to classics, which by any reasonable definition are works of art that has stood the test of time. And we have no way of knowing what new pictures will do that. I picked 20 years as the minimum age for a classic because it represents a generation. A 20-year-old movie can be appreciated by college-educated adults who don’t remember the world in which the film was made. (I also picked 20 years because it’s a nice, round number.)

Not that this is a full-proof system. When they were 40 years old, the better Marx Brothers movies looked like timeless masterpieces. Now, at 80, they’ve lost some of their luster. Their impolite, anti-authoritarian, surreal style fit very well with the 1970s, but less so now.

So what, besides its age, gives Groundhog Day that A+?

Few other motion pictures are as spiritual and as humane, and certainly none that wrap themselves up in the entertaining package of a slick Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, it places its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory. Living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years), he goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out what life is all about: charity and loving kindness.

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And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure, inescapable entertainment. Even in its darkest, most hopeless moments, something comes up to make you laugh–usually Sonny and Cher’s "I’ve Got You, Babe."

The film would never have worked without Bill Murray. His deadpan delivery hits every note and every punch line as his character goes through one change after another. He’s loveable, even when he’s a jerk. We feel his despair as he realizes that he’s trapped and may never get out, and his deepest depression when he wins Andie MacDowell’s love, knowing full well that come the morning, she’ll only remember him as a jerk.

Groundhog Day manages to be both profound and profoundly funny. What else can you ask of a work of art?

The New Parkway screens Groundhog Day tonight at 10:00.

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