Songs for Drella (1990, dir. Ed Lachman)

52-week film challenge, film 17

It’s a concert movie, but it’s not a concert movie. There’s no audience, no applause, no between-song banter. It’s two hugely influential musicians who were once in a band together reuniting to pay tribute to the man who helped them launch their careers: Andy Warhol. It’s a requiem and remembrance, entirely in song.

Cale, whose music I have enjoyed enormously, had a complicated relationship with Warhol, while Reed’s feelings

after Warhol’s unexpected death seemed to turn to a softer, more sympathetic side. Reed and Cale themselves, as the songwriting half of the Velvet Underground, also had a complicated relationship, but decided to work together on a song-cycle about Warhol for an album project, which became Songs for Drella. Both men were apparently caught off-guard by Warhol’s sudden death in 1987, and met up at the funeral and spoke to each other for the first time in years. From the suggestion of a mutual friend, they decided to write songs about their memories and perspectives on Warhol.

Some of the songs are based on their own memories and perspectives on Warhol, some are based on direct quotes or recollections from Warhol (either witnessed or drawn from his diary), and some are third-person narratives. As someone who grew up during Warhol’s biggest period of influence and art-world exposure, each and every song provides some fascinating insight.

The film, directed by Edward Lachman, is stark: a simple stage, some visuals on the screen above them, their instruments and microphones. There’s no audience, and it’s mostly harsh cuts between songs.

Lou sits for the whole thing, while Cale stands. Cale stares at Lou nearly continuously when he isn’t himself singing — sometimes quite sinisterly, always very intently — while Lou mostly looks at Cale near the end of songs to signal when to stop. There were public performance prior to the filming, but only a handful.

Following the filmed performance, Cale and Reed worked on the material further, and eventually recorded the album, which came out the following year. Most of the material is by Reed, but Cale’s contributions are, with one exception, my favourites: wistful and delicate, featuring clever piano and synth (complemented nicely by Reed’s guitar), sung in Cale’s trademark artfully-detached style.

Likewise, Reed’s songs are seriously enhanced by Cale’s stalwart keyboard and viola sophistication. Which is not to say Reed’s songs are weaker; they are performed in his own spoken/sung New York street poet style, full of emotion and observation, and he varies up the guitar work and structure of the numbers very nicely.

“Work” is by far my favourite Reed song from the project, and tells the tale of how Warhol pushed Reed to work hard to become a musical success. While Warhol himself fostered a public perception of kind of floating through the “scenes” and “happenings” he fostered, he was in fact a remarkably productive filmmaker, painter, and talent Svengali. We would likely not know of Reed and Cale (and may others) without him.

It’s fascinating watching both men express their complex feelings about “Drella” (the nickname a contraction of Cinderella and Dracula, which should kind of say it all) through their songwriting and style. That said, I’ll admit that I still think the best song about Warhol is Bowie’s whimsical tribute on Hunky Dory, simply named after the man himself.

If you have any interest in Warhol, or how he affected and helped shape these two deeply important but very different musical artists, you should absolutely watch this filmed performance. These two guys were the leaders of one of the most influential bands in the history of rock, came back together to pay tribute to their mentor, after which they vowed never to work together again.

However, they did anyway. In a great metaphor for their own complicated relationship, they did a one-off live show with songs from the Drella album, and then encored with their old VU bandmates Moe Tucker and Sterling Holloway on the song “Heroin.” This lead to a brief VU reunion, after which Cale and Reed vowed never to work together again (again). So far, this time, they’ve stuck to that vow.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – revisited

(2002, dir. Peter Jackson)
52-week film challenge, film 16


It’s difficult to believe that just over 20 years have passed since the release of this, the “middle bit” of Jackson’s epic LOTR trilogy of films. A local IMAX screen has been showing the trilogy recently, and I was intrigued by the “remastered for IMAX” tag they added, so I went along to visit this old friend of a movie.

(A brief side note on that particular screening: I should have stayed at home. It was not “remastered for IMAX,” it was just the Blu-ray theatrical version blown up (in proportion, thank heavens) to fit the wider IMAX screen. There were problems with resolution and frame-skipping in the action sequences as a result. Very disappointing.)

When these three films came out originally, I was pretty obsessed with them, since I was re-reading the tales for the first time since college — not to mention the impact the first film had had on fans and first-time viewers alike. It truly brought the story out of “cult” status, and captured the mainstream through a combination of clever screenwriting (to bring cinematic order to the sprawl of Tolkien’s world-building) and state-of-the-art effects work.

According to my first review (back in 2002 on this very blog), I watched The Two Towers at least 10 times while it was in cinemas, both as a student of filmmaking and a Tolkien fan. It was a wonderful feeling to see packed houses and appreciative audiences who would never in a million years have read the dense and nuanced source material.

It was great to see them enjoying a tale that, although laden with special effects, wasn’t a crap sci-fi misfire like Attack of the Clones or the forgettable fantasy Reign of Fire — the latter was about dragons, and nobody remembers it. No, The Two Towers was a “war” movie that focused on the foot soldiers, the power brokers, and the innocent victims who get swept along.

Ironically, the film is probably one of the best “epic battle” movies ever made, though I can think of a few others of that lofty ranking. Both as a book and as a movie, it benefits hugely from all the scene-setting and character-introducing work done in the first movie (The Fellowship of the Ring).

This means that there is little in the way of backstory — since if you were going to see this one, it means you saw the first one, and we get straight on into the action. We do start off with a brief (very brief) recap of the (film) climax of Fellowship, the fall of Gandalf the Grey (and a bit more of what happened in his battle with the Balrog).

Then there is a good-sized break in the action to update us on the progress of the other characters as we left them in the first film — Sam and Frodo trying to enter Mordor; Merry and Pippin held hostage by Orcs and Uruk Hai, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in hot pursuit. Jackson wisely shifts around between the three disparate groupings, signaling the depth and vastness of the different paths the Fellowship is taking towards the same goal.

It is with Sam and Frodo that we quickly meet up with the real star of the second film; the stunningly-realised Gollum (Andy Serkis). Although the character is obviously a CGI-generated effect, he convinces us totally of his physical presence. This is entirely due to Gollum having a physical presence during the filming for the animators to work off of. Played (and voiced by) Serkis, Gollum is (pardon the pun) fleshed out and made convincingly whole as a result.

Not only do the other actors have someone real to interact with, but they hear the voice we hear (one of the more remarkable vocal performances in many a year) — this was the secret to making Gollum so credible, and it really holds up. I would have loved to have seen the faces of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin when they finally got to see how all but Serkis’ facial expressions and movements were replaced with the Gollum character.

Praise should not be spared to the animators as well; though they had a remarkable (and undersung) actor’s performance as a strong starting point, they beautifully embellished it, expanding on Serkis’ unseen physicality and captured facial expressions in an eerie yet beautiful way. Serkis and the animation team should have been awarded a shared Oscar, for Gollum was the most fluid of collaborations between computer animation and human performance that had yet been seen on screen.

What Elijah Wood and Sean Astin saw (right), versus what we saw (left).

The film jumps around between these three sets of main characters, as well as introducing us to new plotlines and the characters that go with them — the Rohirrim, King Theoden and his daughter Eomer, Grima Wormtongue, the Ents, and so on. We learn a lot more about the “manufacture” of the Uruk Hai and the raising of Saruman’s army (which is representative of several nation-states, not just Orcs and Uruk Hai), but of course this is all glossed over compared to the book, because we only have three hours!

We can feel the film’s elements coming together, slowly at first but quickening in pace alongside returning “minor” (in the film) characters like Elrond, Arwen, and Saruman, and the buildup to war is effectively communicated. The film’s climax is the first test of Sauron’s forces, the battle for Helm’s Deep and its aftermath, which makes sense from a film perspective but falls well short of where the actual second book in the trilogy ended.

Mind you, Tolkien never intended the story to end up as three books — that was a merciful publisher’s choice — so the divisions in the books are just as “artificial” as those in the films. Jackson is guilty of rearranging the storylines a bit, glossing over or underplaying some important foreshadowing, and I think it is fair to say that while Jackson and his fellow screenwriters had a genuine gift for boiling down the long and complicated sections of the books without dumbing them down, they are also guilty of lingering on their own invented/contrived segues a bit more than strictly necessary.

Once you accept that most of this was crucial in making a set of films that would perform well at the box office with mainstream audiences rather than just Tolkien wonks, the justification for Jackson’s alterations are much more understandable. Let’s not forget that this was a huge risk by the studio — shooting all three films simultaneously in New Zealand and relying on a relatively-obscure NZ effects house, with a total investment of over $280 million before they saw the first dollar back (but the films earned at least 10x the budgets, so the potential alienation of the Tolkienites paid off).

Almost to a fault, Jackson predictably compressed long sequences (such as the four-day hunt for the Uruk Hai by Aragon and company), lingered on visually beautiful but less-vital plot points (like Edoras and of course Helm’s Deep), and shorthanded drawn-out or not-strictly-vital scenes and characters. The Ents in particular got precious little, but very effective, screen time — and featured some well-done CGI-enhanced puppet work of the time, though it must be said some effects have aged less well than the film overall.

There are a few moments — rare, but notable — that are not as well done as one would have hoped. There are waaay too many shots of Saruman running about and fretting on his balcony as he sees the Ents destroying his Uruk Hai “factory” (but too late to stop the war), but for a wizard he just looks helpless and impotent — very unlike his presence to this point.

The battle for Helm’s Deep takes up the entire third hour of the film, and is wonderfully gritty and dark. How so many filthy, terrorised, unwashed people can be so damn good-looking is one of the main mysteries of the film — but another is how Jackson manages to squeeze in bits of humour even in the most tense of moments, as the soldiers of Edoras face off against an overwhelming army of nightmare creatures. The battle scenes are a bit drawn out, with lots of shaky-cam cutaways of chaos between the more choreographed set pieces, but it is effective and involving.

Jackson cleverly sets up the resolution of the battle much earlier, shortly after the “reborn” Gandalph reappears to (some of) our heroes after seemingly falling to his death — Balrogs apparently make hot but suitable cushions for a long fall — in such a way that when he fulfills the promise he made in Edoras an hour-and-a-half (screen time) ago, it is thrilling and wraps up a plot point that had seemingly been left hanging with the Riders of Rohan scene. I will mention again here that the Balrog scenes near the beginning of this film only touch — lightly, and inaccurately — on the actual reason Gandalph survived and defeated it.

If you’re one of the people who never saw the film because you never read the books, fear not: plot-wise, you will be able to follow this easily, and the lore/minutia you don’t know will roll off your back with ease (and this is the true genius of Jackson’s filmmaking on this project). The overall themes are the power of love and friendship, the underlying presence of evil as the root of all hatred and war, and of course emphasizing kick-ass action sequences over the generally more scholarly and pastoral tone of the source material.

As I said in my original, contemporaneous review, this is the kind of movie they weren’t often making: tales with enough magic to take a long time to tell; grand spectacle very well balanced with thoughtful interludes (the “peaceful” lands versus the terrorized war-torn lands is a particularly sharp allegory that I like to think Tolkien would have appreciated being preserved); characters both major and minor with real depth, even when we first meet them.

Theoden nearly stole the film — actor Bernard Hill was fabulous in the part and we would have liked to have seen more of his character.

Nitpickers gonna nitpick, and it should be noted that I haven’t seen so much as a single frame of Amazon’s pre-LOTR Tolkien series thus far, but in both my original opinion at the time and upon revisiting The Two Towers now, Jackson did a great job straddling commercial/studio concerns and creating the visual language of the world Tolkien created. That he really introduced the wonder of Tolkien’s epic to the larger world should not be under-appreciated.

Addendum: There was a successful animated film by Ralph Bakshi in 1978 entitled The Lord of the Rings that covered (very roughly) the first half of the LOTR story to roughly the same point where Jackson’s Fellowship and Two Towers gets to. I saw Bakshi’s film on its release, and it was the thing that finally got me to sit down and read the intimidatingly-long books at last.

Bakshi never got to do a sequel to finish what he started on his version, but it was very influential (even to Jackson) — and the rotoscoping techniques Bakshi used in selected moments was very memorable and innovative. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Jackson’s version, so a hat tip where it is due.

I’m undecided about whether I should finally finish watching the extended versions of Jackson’s films (I have them, on Blu-ray even, but the extended Fellowship sated my appetite at the time), or dig up a copy of Bakshi’s epic and give that a second viewing ahead of its … gulp … inevitable 50th anniversary re-release in a few years’ time. I hope they’ll put it back in cinemas, and I hope they have a senior discount on it by then!

Ancient Caves (IMAX, 2020, dir. Jonathan Bird)

52-week film challenge, film 15

I’ve been staying out of actual cinemas for a long time due to the pandemic, but with the end of the global emergency (and with the option to mask up if the auditorium gets too crowded), I opted to take in an IMAX movie, as I generally love them and my local IMAX theatre is a museum right by my residence. My choice was Ancient Caves, a film about (mostly) underwater caves and what they can tell us about the most recent Ice Ages … and how man-made climate change may affect the natural cycle of the Earth’s cooling and warming.

As is generally the case with IMAX, the cinematography is stunning, and for once a film shot in 3D utilised that to good effect without getting cheesy about it, a la SCTV’S Doctor Tongue. There’s no brandishing a stalagmite repeatedly straight to the camera here, and indeed I doubt the divers and geologists in the film were even told it was going to be in 3D — but boy does it add depth and presence to spaces such as caves.

And what caves they are! The film starts off with some above-ground and underground (but not underwater) caves and introduces us to Dr. Gina Moseley, who really really loves caves and lowering herself into them on ropes. She serves as the narrator of the journeys into the caves, while Bryan Cranston serves as the narrator of the film overall.

It is of course a documentary, and the real purpose of the film is to use the caves and their stalagmites to study the previous Ice Ages — which happens about every 100,000 years. We’re not due for another one for a good long while (probably), but what happens during an Ice Age is interesting, and the way to get that information involves diving waaaay down into underwater caves to get core samples.

The film dwells a bit on the diving sequences, but the payoff is fantastic — eye-popping vaults of mineral and crystal stalagtites and stalagmites (and in the some of the less-deep caves, skulls and pottery), undisturbed and indeed untouched until this film in some cases for tens of thousands and up to a million years. I felt grateful to be able to witness these astounding scenarios in 3D without having to endure the diving and genuine risks taken to access these locations.

In short, Ancient Caves is educational but very interesting, particularly to anyone with the slightest interest in geology, cave exploring (above or below water), and the information scientists can extract from mineral deposits and such. The film does take a little time to discuss the impact of climate change currently, as it may have an affect on our future environment, and there was a brief but very interesting bit about the impact of human activity on the carbon dioxide count compared to the pre-mankind earth.

The film isn’t, however, focused on this point — it’s more a pure celebration of discovery, and the 3D and the diversity of locations really adds to the impact of the film. It’s playing on the IMAX circuit, so if it comes to your town and you could use a nice little escape from your day-to-day life — or just keep a pre-teen interested for an hour or so — this one might be second only to a dinosaur movie for edu-tainment value, and will definitely add value to your next trip to any local caverns.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)

52-week film challenge, week 6

If you only watch one silent movie from the 1920s in your life … well, you’re really cheating yourself out of some amazing filmmaking. But The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most riveting ones, lovingly restored and enhanced to 4K from a nitrite copy found in a Danish archive in 2005. It is — by far — the sharpest and clearest silent movie you’ll ever see, with a deep focus on faces, from its star, Maria Falconetti, and across the entire cast. You can count the pores on everyone’s faces in the close ups — that’s how amazing the restoration has been.

I’ve seen the film twice: once at a screening in Tampa accompanied by a live chorus and chamber orchestra many years ago, and just recently the slightly-abridged 4K version with the Gregory and Utley score from 2010. Both times, the film’s visuals grab you immediately and do not let you go — you scarcely want to blink for fear you will miss another pin-prick sharp facial close-up or tear falling from Falconetti’s face.

The film is based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc from 1431. Being a silent film, Falconetti spends most of her many close-ups portraying her suffering, her passion, her holiness, her hope, and her despair — her performance is often praised as one of the greatest ever. The evocative faces of her judges, prosecutors, pious church officials, and spectators are an astonishing gallery of human emotions, especially the uglier ones.

Eventually, Jeanne is convicted of heresy and nearly put to death before she finally agrees to recant at the last minute, whereupon she is sentenced to life in prison. Very shortly thereafter, she accepts the truth of her fate and takes back her recanting, finally understanding that her mission is to be a martyr and that her promised “release” from her suffering is her death.

Dreyer doesn’t shy away from filming the alarmingly violent and gruesome burning at the stake, with the villagers helplessly trying to revolt in anger at the betrayal of the church, and the murder of a saint. Following an hour of the trial, the change of pace of Jeanne in prison and then executed makes for a horrifying but fulfilling climax to the film.

The clarity of the restored print coupled with the skill of the filmmaking really makes you wonder if other silent-era classics that still have that softer, more cartoonish cast to them might also be able to get this level of restoration and enhancement, as the combination of interstitial titles, heroic music, and the riveting performances really make the silent era more relevant to modern audiences. In Dreyer’s relentless use of close-ups (combined with some surprisingly inventive shots during the final action sequences), his influence on many future filmmakers, particularly Fellini, is keenly felt.

In the most recent poll from Sight & Sound on the greatest movies thus far, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc ranked 21st (tied with Late Spring). It has always been somewhere on the top 100 list since the first version in 1962. Yes, you really ought to see it — preferably with a live chorus & orchestra, if possible. This is an essential film that should be seen by anyone who prizes film as its own unique art form.

Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)


52-film Challenge, week 5

I have seen many (though also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.

Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.

In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.

It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.

Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.

The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.

Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.

It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.

Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.

Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.

Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).

Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.

As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.

Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.

Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.

At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.

Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.

The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.

The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.

It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.

I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.

Safety Last! (1923, dirs. Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)


Anyone who’s paid any attention at all to the silent era of movies will have seen at least one of the most famous silent-movie stunts — Harold Lloyd, seemingly halfway up climbing the side of a building, hanging on for dear life as he grabs hold of a giant clock after putting a foot wrong. Suddenly, the clock face comes partially undone, leaving him hanging high over a busy street. This is of course from one of Lloyd’s full-length features, Safety Last!, and it is a gem — but only one of the amazing stunts in the film, which is also quite funny.

Lloyd is often thought of last when one tries to name the giants of silent-era comedy, behind Chaplin and Keaton, but for my money he’s actually the most versatile of the bunch. While Chaplin almost always played a tramp in his silents, and Keaton forever plays a stone-faced version of the unluckiest man alive, Lloyd is often the sunny embodiement of American Exceptionalism, resiliently cheerful and sure that everything is going to work out despite the craziest things happened to him, and indeed that blind faith carries him through.

In Safety Last!, Lloyd opens the film looking like he’s in potentially fatal trouble — in jail and perhaps saying his goodbyes to his loved ones, with a hangman’s noose in the foreground. The set changes slightly, and we see in fact that noose was on a mail peg designed to allow the train to deliver a bag of parcels without stopping, and Lloyd was just a small-town young man on his way to the big city to make his mark.

He was doing this to secure his relationship to his intended bride (played by real-life wife Mildred Davis), by ensuring he has a career that can support a household and eventual family. The earnestness just radiates off Lloyd’s can-do attitude and beaming, positive face, but in fact like any such fellow he has to start small — sharing a room with a friend, working hard, and not quite catching the American Dream somehow … this film was only a few years prior to the start of the Great Depression, but somehow foreshadowed that all was not well with the game of “work your way to success.”

In another tell-tale America-of-the-20s trait, he puffs up his level of success to impress his girl, which in turn means he ends up spending most of his meagre paycheque on gifts he sends to her … skipping meals, hiding from the landlady, and making other sacrifices. In one scene, he ponders the cost of another gift while also staring at an advert for a “businessman’s lunch” (which costs 50¢ … you should see this film just to marvel at the prices of things!), and as he pushes himself to sacrifice for his bride-to-be, his minds “disappears” each of the five plates that were included in that luncheon. You can feel Lloyd’s hunger pangs.

As you might expect, the girl gets the idea to come visit and surprise him, and on very short notice he has to come up with ways to convince her he is as successful as he has boasted, hiding his lowly “real life.” While to modern audiences this thin plot moves along fairly slowly, there are always impressive stunts and action sequences (just him getting to the office is a great section of pratfalls and dangerous gambles) to fill the time until the next plot point.

Lloyd pays off a colleague not to reveal that he’s not the manager and this isn’t his office.

Mostly, Lloyd’s character (who was known as the “glasses man” in his earlier work, but he finally identifies the character as being himself — Harold Lloyd — on a business card, suggesting some real-life incidents are incorporated into the tale) just combines his incredible physicality with on-screen great luck in avoiding being killed or decapitated as would happen to the rest of us if we tried these stunts. Yes, there were stuntmen used and some clever camera trickery for the finale, but Lloyd is visibly on-screen for a number of these feats and it adds richly to the action.

In a panic over being found out as not the success he portrayed to his girl, he overhears the owner of the store wishing for a big publicity stunt and, thinking of his friend “Limpy” (the incredible Bill Strother, both a supporting character and sometimes Lloyd’s double for steeplejack and stunt sequences) who loves climbing buildings, offers a sure-fire plan to draw a crowd: he’ll climb to the top of the very tall department store building!

In an earlier sequence that sets up the climax of the film, Lloyd recognises a policeman in town as being an old buddy from their youth, and goads Limpy into helping him play a knock-down gag on the copper. But he doesn’t see his friend go inside and be replaced with a different cop, so when the prank is successful the furious flatfoot swears revenge on Limpy (Lloyd having quickly escaped). This sets up the dilemma that sees Limpy unable to scale the building in Lloyd’s stead (he was going to just take Lloyd’s glasses, hat and coat to fool the bosses), and Lloyd having to be coached into doing the climbing himself as the cop continues to chase Limpy around the store.

The sub-plot that sets up the finale

Of course, Lloyd doesn’t think he can do it, but Limpy reassures him that he’ll ditch the mad cop and take his place if he just climbs up a couple of floors. Well, the cop doesn’t give up that easily, and Limpy swings by a window every floor to encourage Lloyd to climb just another floor or two … until finally Lloyd has barely survived climbing up the entire building, reaping the entire $1,000 reward* for himself into the bargain, thus securing his forthcoming marriage.

*Lloyd is shown to be netting $15 every two weeks — remember this is 1923 — so a grand is like three years of wages in a single day, and of course it is implied he’ll be promoted as well.

Before the big climb and during it, there are numerous funny moments and smaller-scale stunts to keep things moving along, but the film — as ingenious and humourous as it is — still feels like the kind of plot that would sustain a film only half its one hour 13 minute runtime, and just throws in a lot of sequences that feel like (clever) padding.

Lloyd’s Not-Of-London … his actual position at the store.

That said, it’s very worth seeing. The incredibly clever way they did the climatic climbing sequences really make it easy to believe he’s hanging by a thread incredibly high up, but it wasn’t quite like that (you’ll have to guess how they did it in the silent era without the modern safety constraints and optical techniques such things would have today, I’m not telling).

I will however say that there’s a short Criterion Channel documentary made much later that reveals the secrets of Safety Last called Safety Last: Location and Effects that will spill the beans if you can’t figure it out yourself.

Throw in some incredibly well-trained pigeons (yes, really), a truly hilarious one-line cameo by a little old lady, and Lloyd’s amazing physical comedy, and you end up splitting your time between chuckling and staring wide-eyed at how he’s going to get out of this new bit of trouble.

If you’ve only seen sequences or still images from the film, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing. Of course it was a big hit with audiences in its day, but in some ways it still embodies some uniquely American ideas about work-life balance, exploitative capitalism, and risk-reward philosophies that stand up today. Despite these subtle but weighty themes, it’s a feel-good film that everyone in the family will enjoy. Still!

The Testament of Orpheus (Le Testament d’Orphée)

1960, Dir. Jean Cocteau

52-week film challenge, film 13

Now this here is perhaps the ultimate example of what most “normal” people think of when they think of “art-house cinema snob” highbrow movies: a B&W (mostly) film made by some furriner where you have to read subtitles, starring some old dude who says things that sound weighty but are incomprehensible to “normal” people; long, slow-paced shots of people walking around things in odd ways; very little action; obvious erotic overtones without any of “the good stuff”; obscure back-references to other films or Greek tragedies nobody saw; self-directed and pretentious, and of course no attempt at a linear, relatable plot. 🙂

Cocteau’s final film (and almost his final anything: he would die just three years later) seems — at least to me — like an attempt to fuse the ideas of The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus into one final statement, weighted by the additional weight of mortality that increases as we grow older. It is 100 percent guilty of everything I mentioned in the paragraph above, but as I watched it for the first time Cocteau still managed to work his ingenious magic on me: couldn’t take my eyes off the thing because I literally could not guess what was going to happen next.

Even though the film does indeed strike a self-assessing tone, there is playful humour sprinked throughout — some of Cocteau’s answers to questions or dialogue from his characters to him are quite witty. As usual, the film puts layers on layers, and slathers on the symbolism. This time around, though, Cocteau himself is the star, though viewers of his 1950 film Orpheus may be surprised and certainly delighted to see several cast members not that classic in key roles in this one — though Cocteau did not credit any of the players for fear of misleading his audience.

This is also your chance to see cameos from Pablo Picasso and Charles Aznevore, and a small but important role for Yul Brynner, who helped finance the film, among other notable names of the time. This one is also in black and white, which by 1960 was all but gone from cinema screens, but like Orpheus is utterly gorgeous.

Cocteau plays … well, at some points he is clearly playing himself (billed as The Poet), and at some points (particularly early on), he is playing a character … a mysterious poet and scientist dressed as a 17th-century dandy who appears like a ghost to a colleague (Henri Crémieux, the first of many from Orpheus to be in this, albeit in a slightly different role) to release him from the error of his time-travel experiment by shooting him, whereupon he “snaps back” to the present day and becomes “himself,” i.e. the “real” Cocteau — though he does occasionally catch a glimpse of doppelgängers of himself still moving through this faux-dreamscape, like reflections in a mirror.

I found it particularly interesting that these scenes (and others later) are obviously filmed in a small portion of a bare, empty film studio … no sets or any form of artifice to set the scene, just basic walls and plain tables and chairs, and no attempt to “fool” the viewer as to where they are, or even to create a “void” space. This is a film, we’re in a small studio with minimal resources, and you can see all of that. As the film progresses, it relies more heavily on location filming, which is (as always with Cocteau) mostly ruins or symbolic sets placed in the ruins, symbols for the messiness of life but also for those moments where something meaningful is achieved.

As for what it all means, Cocteau later wrote about this in the most art-y way possible: “The Testament of Orpheus is simply a machine for creating meanings. The film offers the viewer hieroglyphics that he can interpret as he pleases so as to quench his inquisitive thirst for Cartesianism.” There, that clears it up!

Cocteau plays extensively with the “mythology” he created for Orpheus, and in effect some of this is a — kind of? — sequel to that film, in that Cégeste (his real-life adopted son, Edouard Dermit) , The Princess of Death (María Casares), and Huertebise (François Périer) have substantive roles to show what happened to them. Cégeste, sometimes reminding Cocteau that that’s only his character name, is his guide to the underworld; and true to the ending of Orpheus, The Princess and Huertebise have indeed been “sentenced” to become judges of the newly-dead, and now they are subjecting their creator, Cocteau, to an inquisition.

Cocteau mounts a “defense” by defending his need to create, to review his life, and to put his inner discoveries into visual language on screen or in writing for others to hopefully gain some enlightenment. After an inconclusive end to the “court” case, Cocteau wanders through mysterious ruins, occasionally running into men dressed as horses, until finally a Greek warrior of some sort kills him again. His friends rally to resurrect him yet again — the sort of immortality Cocteau hoped for — and he resumes his wanderings.

And in case you are wondering, as a sort of joke, Jean Marais (who played Orpheus in that film) briefly appears here — as another classic Greek figure, Oedipus (post eye-gouging). Eurydice (although played by a different actor, Alice Heyliger) is also seen briefly. Some others from Orpheus are likely in there too, but those are the ones I spotted.

A lengthy section of the film, with the motif repeated a few times, is that of Cocteau destroying a flower and then rebuilding it. In the decade between Orpheus and this final film, the French New Wave of cinema has bloomed, in no small part thanks to Cocteau’s influence — just as surrealist filmmaking became a thing after his first film (and the first film in this “trilogy”), The Blood of a Poet (1930).

Cocteau made a number of other films between that first one and this last one, but he clearly intended this one to be his last statement to the general public. I have to borrow a bit from Ken Phipps’ review of Testament for the AV Club, since he has summed up the film’s meaning about as well as it can be: “In the end, Cocteau takes comfort in the immortality of art, and therefore his own immortality, a sentiment that would seem far less moving and far more egotistical if it weren’t true.”

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, Yul Brynner.

Orpheus (Orphée), (1950, dir. Jean Cocteau)

52-week film challenge, film 12

As I watched Cocteau’s previous take on the idea of chaining the mythological tale of Orpheus to the struggle artists go through to create and realise their art, The Blood of a Poet, I kept getting flashbacks of some other film I had seen decades ago that featured some of the same inventive visual effect and angst-y performances, but I couldn’t quite place it. I’ve seen more than my fair share of arty and experimental films, so I imagined that it was simply some film that had been influenced by Cocteau, as many have been.

I turned out to be right — it was Orpheus, Cocteau’s own second attempt at some of the visual ideas and concepts he expressed in Blood of a Poet. I had seen the second part of this prolonged trilogy many years ago, and remembered more the story and contemporary setting than the effects and other bits he borrowed and polished up from his earlier film. My scholastic impression of Orpheus was that I liked the urgent, modern (at the time), beatnik tone of the first half, and was less impressed with the slower-paced second half.

Now that I’ve rewatched it after all these years, I’m even more impressed with it (though I still think the second half could have used better editing). Cocteau was a pioneer of shorthand storytelling, and of deliberately leaving a lot of elements unresolved — I’m still working out the full meaning of the character Cégeste (Édouard Dermit), though I think he may represent the image of a writer at his peak, and be sort of a representation of Orpheus’ (Jean Marais) image of himself.

Poor Cégeste spends nearly all of the movie either dead or as a zombie servant.

In the film, Orpheus is a famous poet, hanging out in a bar for poets, being kind of an ass until a Princess (a memorable performance by Maria Casares) and her boy toy Cégeste arrive. Orpheus is mesmerised by the Princess, while Cégeste starts a brawl, dropping some of his own poetry in the fracas. Cégeste starts to flee, but is run over by two mysterious motorcycle riders.

The Princess persuades the arriving police that she will take Cégeste to hospital, and drags a willing Orpheus along into her limo “as a witness.” Along the way, Orpheus discovers that Cégeste is actually dead, and the Princess is some otherworldly creature. His instincts make him fall in love with her as they ride to her ruined chateau, accompanied by the motorcylists who killed Cégeste. Abstract poetry begins to play on the radio (which is later revealed to be Cégeste’s own poetry, read by him: time is meaningless in the underworld).

Cégeste is resurrected by the Princess, and the riders exit the chateau through a mirror (a direct steal from The Blood of a Poet, and only one of several in this movie). Orpheus, who is isolated in another room, eventually wakes up the next morning far from home, with the Princess’ limo driver Heurtebise (François Périer) waiting for him to take him home. Orpheus offers Heurtebise room and board in his home and space in the garage to hide the limo, which everyone in the village would recognise and alert police.

Heurtebise (l) and Orpheus (r) receive a threat from the underworld.

Orpheus refuses to discuss his all-night disappearance or what happened to Cégeste with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), and really behaves in a self-centered, brutish manner — even as she tries to tell him she is pregnant. As Heurtebise starts to fall in love with Eurydice, all Orpheus wants to do is sit in the limo and transcribe some strange poetry mixed with meaningless other oration — that mysteriously only comes through on the limo’s car radio.

The Princess visits Orpheus while he is asleep, and influences his dreaming. She eventually has Eurydice killed in the same fashion as Cégeste, as she is in love with Orpheus. We learn that both the Princess and Heurtebise are themselves spirits, and servants of Death (who is not personified in the film).

The Princess in her Death uniform as she watches Orpheus sleep.

Orpheus is shocked out of his defensive state by the news, and Heurtebise reveals himself as an agent of Death, noting that the Princess accidentally left a pair of gloves behind. He offers to lead Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve the unjustly killed Eurydice. Orpheus confesses his secret to Heurtebise: he is in love with the Princess, but agrees to travel with Heurtebise to undo Eurydice’s murder.

Orpheus is able to enter the underworld through the mirror by donning the Princess’ gloves, and Heurtebise and Orpheus move through a ruined city until arriving at a barren room where other agents conduct an investigation of Eurydice’s murder, questioning the Princess, Cégeste, Orpheus, and Heurtebise before concluding that the Princess overstepped her authority.

They agree to return Orpheus and Eurydice to the land of the living, on one impossible condition: Orpheus may never look upon her again, or Eurydice will disappear from this world and return to being dead. Forced to agree, Heurtebise, Orpheus, and Eurydice return to the living world, but find the restriction very difficult to avoid. Ultimately, Orpheus errs, and Eurydice disappears.

At that moment, a gang from the poet’s cafe arrives, angry that Orpheus has refused to reveal what happened to Cégeste and his missing body. In a violent confrontation, Orpheus takes a pistol but is quickly disarmed and himself shot dead. This of course causes Orpheus to reappear in the underworld, where he finds the Princess and declares his undying love for her.

The Princess seems to know that this affair was her own doing, and regretfully decides to sacrifice herself to Death so that Orpheus might be returned to life and become “an immortal poet.” After another tribunal hearing, the decision is made to return Eurydice and Orpheus to life with no memory of previous events. With no recollection of his love for the Princess, Orpheus returns to his true nature and loves Eurydice again, excited for his forthcoming child.

The Princess and Heurtebise, having caused this mess, are sentenced to a fate worse than death: they must replace the tribunal members who judge the dead. The sadness in the Princess’ eyes at the end is a powerful image, and the audience is left wondering if the crowd at the poet’s cafe has also had their memories wiped of these events.

Taken as a whole, my initial impressions on first viewing were not wrong, but very incomplete: having known the story of Orpheus already — thank you, Edith Hamilton — I mostly ignored that part of the film (while enjoying the visuals, some of which return to the same locations as in The Blood of a Poet). Now, I see more of what Cocteau was going for — again comparing the difficulty of true artistic creation of going to hell and back and forcing one’s self to confront one’s angels and demons.

It’s true the second half is slower-paced, at times becoming a cosmic version of a police procedural — but the performances, the passionate flow of emotions, and the gorgeous filming — particularly of the ruins of the underworld — kept me more attentive to the mystical aspects of the story this time around.

Orpheus is not quite as good as Cocteau’s earlier Beauty and the Beast, but it is a classic and it is a stunning accomplishment that still feels fresh in many ways. The influence of the film in later works by others is now obvious, though somehow Cocteau’s films remain singular in style and vision.

There have been many variations on the Orpheus & Eurydice story, and I haven’t seen all of them, but I’m confident that this remains one of the most original and interesting versions. The conclusion of his “trilogy” around this tale — The Testament of Orpheus, in which the director himself is the star — is next on my list, and I encourage anyone with an interest in classic French cinema to investigate this incredible artistic achievement.

The Blood of a Poet (1930, dir. Jean Cocteau)


2023 52-week film challenge, film 11

Jean Cocteau, renaissance man and “poet” of film, theatre, writing (including poetry), designing and more was a truly remarkable human being, a leader in the surrealist and art movements, and one of the most influential men in the arts of the 20th century. Among his numerous other achievements, he really helped advance the idea of film as an art form and not just a storytelling form.

Probably best known among cinephiles for his 1946 film of Beauty and the Beast, until recently I was unaware that his two later Orpheus films were intended as the middle and end of a three-film trilogy, beginning with his first film, The Blood of a Poet.

It is a very experimental and surrealist film that broke a lot of ground in its day for special effects; some have aged less well than others, but a lot of this remains impressive and frankly more effective than zillion-dollar CGI jobs you know aren’t at all real. The work involved in pulling off some of this at the time must have been painstaking.

The “story,” such as it is, is that of a handsome and perennially shirtless male artist who is invited by one of his statues to fall into the mirror and pass through to the other side, where a series of strange tableaus unfold. I suspect it is meant as a metaphor for the creative inspiration process, both the downside where the ideas aren’t coming or don’t work, alongside the chasing of inspiration and realisation.

It’s gorgeous to look at, if hard to quite grasp. It’s certainly a surrealist film, and the only one I’ve seen that has an occasional narrator. Cocteau explores several techniques and ideas himself over the course of this 51-minute film, making it rather disjointed and occasionally confusing — but it’s hard to take your eyes off it.

Princess Iron Fan 鐵扇公主 (1941, dirs. Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming)


52-week film challenge 2023, week 10

This 1941 B&W fully-animated movie is considered the first Asian full-length animated film, and is certainly the first full-length Chinese animated film. While some western influence (particularly the early Looney Tunes of the 1930s and the early Disney movies like Snow White) can be seen, it is drawn from folk fables themselves inspired by a portion of a novel called Journey to the West, published in 1592.

The folk tales based on the book, we are told at the beginning of the movie, often focus on the supernatural creatures rather than the travelers and the moral of their journey — which is that life is full of trials and suffering. The filmmakers, however, wanted to emphasise the lesson of the story: that working together as a community, faith, and using everyone’s talents in harmony can overcome great obstacles, and make life better for all.

The tale is a fairly simple one: a monk trying to get to “the west” (meaning Central Asia and India) to obtain some Buddhist sacred texts (sutras), but is stopped by a mountain range full of fire. His three servants — a monkey prince, a pig-faced monk, and a stuttering but strong worker — each try to use their various magic powers to solve the problem. Specifically, they need to get a magic palm-leaf fan from an unhelpful princess in order to put out the fires, but their individual ruses and even brute force all fail.

Our three “heroes,” sort of.

The servants all regroup back at the town where the monk helps them brainstorm, suggesting that the three pool their abilities with the assistance of the townspeople to overcome the trickery of the princess and her husband. This they finally do, ultimately winning the day and clearly the mountains of the fire demon that tortures them, so that they and the monk can proceed on their journey of enlightenment.

Despite the handicap of no really good print of the film being available (it is desperately in need of a major restoration), the quality of the B&W animation shines through, with many impressive moments including extensive use of rotoscoping to make some scenes much more realistic, along with smoke effects and excellent character design. The various shape-shifting and disguising powers of the three servants are well done, and the quality of the existing film print picks up a bit in the last third.

The “evil” princess, who actually has a pretty small but pivotal part in the film.

This is primarily a film that would now mainly appeal to fans of early animation, film historians, and students of Chinese history, but it is a very impressive feat of filmmaking that is only marred by the lack of a pristine print. A special mention should go to the musical score, which starts off a bit overwrought in my opinion but soon settles down when needed to accompany the story. I enjoyed it enough that I would certainly revisit it if it were ever restored.

An example of the beautiful backgrounds in the film.