Blog Directory CineVerse

Rediscover the genius of Guinness

Sunday, April 20, 2014

World Cinema Wednesday returns to CineVerse at April 23 with a classic from the United Kingdom: “The Ladykillers” (1955; 91 minutes), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, chosen by Rose Krc; Plus: stick around for a trailer reel preview of the May/June CineVerse schedule.

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Going goo-goo ga-ga over Baby Face

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The naughty nature of the pre-code Hollywood period was on full display last evening during "Baby Face," a surprisingly provocative and entertaining early talkies-era flick. After stripping this little Tinsel Town teaser down to its essentials, here's what we concluded:

WHAT WOULD CENSORS HAVE FOUND OBJECTIONABLE AND RACY ABOUT BABY FACE—CAN YOU CITE ANY PARTICULAR SHOTS, SCENES, DIALOGUE OR IDEAS?
·       The fact that Lily is a sexual predator who sleeps her way to the top—literally, moving up from floor to floor in her sexual conquests of men to reach a higher status and wealth. The sheer number of sexual dalliances she has with so many men in this picture would have offended those with delicate dispositions.
·       There is no comeuppance in this pre-release version: Lily is not punished for her behavior, despite the fact that it’s led to possibly three men’s deaths.
·       A man gropes Lily’s breasts, feels up her thigh and she is pawed over.
·       Her body is objectified: We see a slow panning shot of her legs and shots accentuating her alluring female form.
·       Lily has a friendly relationship on equal social status terms with her maid, Chico; censors after 1933 frowned on depicting African Americans in non-stereotyped roles that typically didn’t include being a porter, butler, maid, cook or servant of some kind.
·       Lily’s father plays the role of a pimp, essentially prostituting out his daughter to bar patrons; it’s also possible that they have had an incestuous relationship since she was 14.
·       The cobbler’s scene where he reads from Nietzsche would have rattled cages. He says to Lily: “A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, "All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation." That's what I'm telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!” This would have been controversial not only because it endorsed what would have been considered lurid, promiscuous behavior but because it was a soliloquy that empowered the role of women over men.
·       The use of the sultry jazz tune “St. Louis Blues” to underscore Lily’s carnality makes it a titillating musical cue meant to arouse as well as humor audiences.

DOES THIS FILM STAND ON ITS OWN AS ENTERTAINING, ARTISTIC OR IMPORTANT WITHOUT IT BEING AN HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE AS A MOVIE THAT HELPED USHER IN THE ERA OF CINEMA CENSORSHIP, OR IS ITS TRUE VALUE AS A DATED BUT STILL SURPRISING MUSEUM PIECE?
·       In any era, the film doesn’t work without the acting talent of Barbara Stanwyck, who has a magnetism and alluring charm about her as well as an irrepressible female strength and conviction.
·       While the screenplay may not be Oscar-worthy, the scenes and dialogue are fairly well written, and the open-ended conclusion of this pre-release version (which was changed and sanitized for the worse in the release version) seems to fit.
·       The Nietzsche speech in this version, cleaned up and changed in the release version, give Lily a philosophical motivation that makes things clearer to viewers.

OTHER FAMOUS EXAMPLES OF CONTROVERSIAL SCENES FROM PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD FILMS:
·       King Kong pawing the clothes off Fay Wray in the 1933 original
·       Jane swimming naked underwater in “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934)
·       The shootings and onscreen violence in the original “Scarface” (1932)
·       The line “Now I know what it’s like to be God” and the drowning of the young girl by the monster in the original “Frankenstein” (1931)
·       The grapefruit-in-the-face-of-his-girlfriend scene in “The Public Enemy” (1931)
·       Temple Drake being stripped of her clothes by a violent gang in “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933)
·       Actress Miriam Hopkins being objectified, raped and brutalized by Frederic March’s monster in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931)
·       Norma Shearer getting back at her husband’s infidelity in “The Divorcee” (1929)
·       Bela Lugosi kidnapping a prostitute, tying her up on an inverted cross, puncturing her with needles and eventually killing her in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932)
·       Other examples, taken from Thomas Doherty’s book on pre-code Hollywood, include: “Sexual liaisons unsanctified by the laws of God or man in Unashamed (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and She Done Him Wrong (1933); marriage ridiculed and redefined in Madame Satan (1930), The Common Law (1931), and Old Morals for New (1932); ethnic lines crossed and racial barriers ignored in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Emperor Jones (1933), and Massacre (1934); economic injustice exposed and political corruption assumed in Wild Boys of the Road (1933), This Day and Age (1933), and Gabriel Over the White House (1933); vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded in Red Headed Woman (1932), Call Her Savage (1932), and Baby Face (1933).”

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Pre-code carnality

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On April 16, CineVerse will return to its new monthly series, Pushing Boundaries--Films That Challenged the Censors and Created Controversial but Important Works of Cinematic Art. Part 2 will focus on pre-code Hollywood, a time when filmmakers could showcase sex and violence in spades. We'll spotlight a great example of this with “Baby Face” (1933; 71 minutes), directed by Alfred E. Green; Plus: We'll have time to explore “Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship,” a pre-code Hollywood documentary (68 minutes).

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Lost in your own mind, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Barton Fink...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

If you're searching for a head scratcher of a movie, few are as perplexing and ambiguous as the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink." Yet, collectively, our CineVerse group was able to piece together the broken shards of one writer's sanity and come up with a few theories and insights that better explain this deep, dark, enriching picture.

HOW IS THIS FILM DIFFERENT PERHAPS FROM WHAT YOU EXPECTED?
·       It’s not easy to categorize: it contains elements from many genres, including comedy, horror, film noir, drama, buddy picture, and mystery.
·       It’s quite ambiguous and unresolved, particularly the ending, which is not clear cut. It’s possible that much of what we see in the second half of the picture is imagined, surreal and/or represented in Fink’s mind.
·       The film is very postmodern, in that it “renders the past with an impressionist technique, not a precise accuracy,” according to author Keith Booker. This is evidenced by how evocative the film is of movies from the 1930s and 1940s in its look, style and satirical elements.
·       There is no typical romance, lovemaking scene, epiphany, character or plot resolution, or clear-cut moral or message to be enjoyed here; this is a complex movie with sophisticated themes and an unreliable protagonist leading the way—unreliable in the sense that we cannot be sure that what we think he’s seeing and experiencing is real.
·       It’s quite self-referential in that it’s a story written by two brothers who, while suffering writer’s block while writing the story to their film Miller’s Crossing, create a story about a playwright suffering writer’s block while writing a screenplay for a wrestling picture.
·       The movie features caricatures and allusions to real-life figures like playwright Clifford Odets (Fink), William Faulkner (Mayhew) and Louis B. Mayer (the studio head).

WHAT THEMES ARE EXPLORED IN BARTON FINK?
·       High art vs. low art: Bart fashions himself as a highbrow intellectual writer who has to compromise and diminish his ideals to write for mass entertainment (a wrestling movie).
·       The rise of fascism: Roger Ebert posited that the film is emblematic of the rise of Nazism. “They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the ‘common man’ but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer’s mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster.” Consider how Charlie says “Heil Hitler,” and how the two gumshoes have German names.
·       Slavery: there are songs and lyrics used in the film (“Old Black Joe”) that suggest that writers like Fink and Mayhew are enslaved by the film studios.
·       Sharp contrasts: consider the difference between the polished palaces of Hollywood and Fink’s hotel room, the low art of the wrestling movie vs. the high art of Fink’s stage plays, Broadway vs. Hollywood, the obvious differences between Fink and Charlie, the tempestuous waves of the water compared to the blazing hot fires of the hotel, how Charlie says he wants to create a theater for the common man yet doesn’t listen to the common man next door to him (Charlie), etc.
·       The torturous life of the mind.
·       Isolation and alienation.

THE HOTEL HAS BEEN ANALYZED AS SYMBOLIC OF SEVERAL DIFFERENT THINGS. WHAT THEORIES CAN YOU SUGGEST?
·       It could represent Fink’s deteriorating state of mind, as exemplified by the peeling wallpaper, strange noises, odd happenings (e.g., murder, mosquitoes), and massive fire.
·       It could stand for Charlie’s state of mind and physical and mental condition: the yellowish/greenish colors and oozing wallpaper glue could represent Charlie’s postulating earache, and the peeling wallpaper his descent into madness/serial killing.
·       It could be a symbol of hell: consider how the elevator and the clerk “rise from the depths,” the repeat of the number 6, the inferno at the end (and how, possibly, Fink made a deal with the devil earlier in the form of the studio boss).

HERE IS MY THEORY ON HOW TO UNDERSTAND “BARTON FINK”
·       It’s possible that much of the movie is purely imagined in Fink’s mind. Consider the evidence: would he actually see the first words of his screenplay printed in the Bible? Would the hotel only be occupied by two visitors? And would the hotel spontaneously combust into flames when Charlie walks down the hall? These images are implausible, which should cause you to question the authenticity of what you’re viewing and, therefore, deduce that many of the events Barton experiences are imagined.
·       Perhaps this is the story of a successful Broadway playwright who has “signed a deal with the devil” (studio boss Lipnick) to be a contract screenwriter in Hollywood and sold his soul (meaning his creative integrity and artistic freedom) in exchange for the chance to be wealthy, famous and respected.
·       Perhaps in reality Fink actually did meet Lipnick, Mayhew, Audrey and even a “common man” shlub like Charlie, and assume that Fink truly is staying in a dumpy hotel.
·       But imagine that writer’s block, creative frustration and loneliness/isolation have mentally unhinged Fink. He begins to envision fantastic scenarios involving the aforementioned people he has met in Hollywood, and these characters take on different roles in his imagination.
·       Thus, what if Audrey represents a source of inspiration and/or an angel on his shoulder, while Charlie is an opposite, self-destructive force—a devil on his shoulder who kills his source of inspiration. Lipnick serves as the Satan from whom Fink cannot escape his own personal hell and indentured servitude as a contract writer. And the two detectives collectively symbolize Fink’s conscience, which has caught up with Fink after he has allowed Charlie to kill his muse (Audrey) and after Fink has stolen/borrowed her ideas (Audrey’s severed head in the box), just as Fink has stolen/borrowed from The Bible.
·       In this reading of the film, “wrestling” is a euphemism for sex and intimacy, something Fink has no experience with and the reason why he is suffering from a creative block when assigned to this project. His intimacy with Audrey (assuming it happened in reality) unblocks him, allowing him to write the screenplay, even though that script is not what Lipnick (or the public) wants.
·       Just as Fink doesn’t want the wrestling plot to be crude and common (possibly contrary and hypocritical to his wish to write about “the common man”), he also doesn’t want his intimacy to be purely physical, crude and mundane.
·       Ultimately, my interpretation is that this film illustrates the challenge of being a writer, artist or creative person—that these people are often taken advantage of, overlooked, underappreciated, and treated like a commodity, especially in Hollywood. Among the challenges of being creative is finding a muse or source of inspiration (fresh, original, good ideas), fighting writer’s block, and coping with loneliness, isolation and alienation. Faced with these challenges, some artists crumble and/or go a little crazy while others find a way to deliver what can be their best work in crunch time. Yet, ironically, though they may be proud of their finished product, it can actually be derivative of their earlier works or those of another artist (expressing the idea that it’s incredibly hard and painful to have an original thought) and, even worse, it may not be marketable to and appreciated by the masses.

HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THE ENDING OF THE MOVIE?
·       The strange image of the girl on the beach perfectly mirroring the one in the picture frame could be a statement that life imitates art, as opposed to art imitating life, for Barton Fink.
·       The bathing beauty image is a piece of “mass produced low art, probably hanging in every room at the Hotel Earle. Barton’s increasing obsession runs at a parallel with his attempts to lower his own art for the Wallace Beery audience. The ocean is a white noise---representing the sound of writer’s block,” suggested writer Stuart W. Bedford.
·       Perhaps Fink has been driven insane by the realization that he cannot achieve his own dreams and ideals and that he has betrayed his talent for low-brow art.

OTHER FILMS OR WORKS OF ART THIS MOVIE REMINDS YOU OF?
·       North by Northwest and other Hitchcock movies
·       Films by Roman Polanski, including Repulsion, The Tenant  and Cul-de-Sac
·       The Shining
·       Day of the Locust
·       Sullivan’s Travels
·       The Godfather (and the horse head in the bed scene)

OTHER MOVIES BY THE COEN BROTHERS
·       Blood Simple
·       Raising Arizona
·       Miller’s Crossing
·       Fargo
·       The Big Lebowski
·       O Brother Where Art Thou
·       No Country for Old Men

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Think Fink

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Few minds in film are as imaginative and visionary as the Coen brothers. Witness their warped brilliance on April 9 at CineVerse by attending “Barton Fink” (1991; 116 minutes), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, chosen by Joe Valente.

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Sexual politics in CinemaScope

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" reveals interesting truths about the gender dynamics and sexual politics of the 1950s (as well as the 1850s, when the story is set), putting a charming, pseudo-chivalrous sheen on rugged chauvinism. But even if the sexism rubs you the wrong way, you can't beat the acrobatic dancing and slick choreography on display in this oft-overlooked musical. Here's what CineVerse concluded about this picture:

HOW IS THIS FILM DIFFERENT FROM OTHER HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS?
·       It’s songs and story are not based on a previously staged Broadway musical;
o   Its tale is adapted from the ancient Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women, which was made into a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. The legend tells of the growing city of Rome, which experienced a lack of childbearing females; the Romans invited the neighboring Sabine citizens to a feast and kidnapped their women while the men were distracted, leading to a war. The Sabine women grew to love and bear children for their captors.
o   Unlike other film musicals that cribbed Broadway standards, its songs were originals scored purposely for this film, written by lyricist Johnny Mercer and composer Saul Chaplin and Gene de Paul. 
o   Also, its songs seem to serve the story as opposed to being incidental “break out into song” numbers whose lyrics have little or nothing to do with the plot (think of some of the songs in “Singin’ in the Rain” or “An American in Paris”).
·       It was shot in the new, extreme widescreen format of CinemaScope, giving it a 2.55:1 aspect ratio instead of the standard 1.78:1 widescreen standard of the day. The result is an extremely vast frame capable of showcasing up to 7 different pairs of brides and brothers and their action and dancing sequences.
·       The choreography was particularly kinetic, acrobatic and inspired, especially the bard raising scene where men are jumping, tumbling and performing death-defying stunts while elevated high in the air—as many as 10 dancers at one time. Also, consider how intricate and impressive these dance numbers are despite the fact that they are underscoring boring activities like raising a barn or sawing wood.
·       The film, disappointingly, was not given much of a budget.
o   Hence, it was not shot outdoors or on location in the woods. Instead, it was filmed on soundstages. In spite of the fact that the story occurs throughout all four seasons of the year, the filmmakers couldn’t afford to shoot that long to capture all four seasons.
o   Also, instead of being shot in the gold standard of rich Technicolor, a cheaper single-strip Anscocolor process was employed, which helps explain why the colors aren’t as deep, rich and vibrant today as they could be.

THIS MOVIE ARGUABLY CONTAINS A HEFTY AMOUNT OF SEXIST, PRURIENT AND CONTROVERSIAL CONTENT AND SUBTEXTS, POSSIBLY MORESO FOR 2014 AUDIENCES THAN 1950S AUDIENCES. CAN YOU CITE EXAMPLES?
·       In an effort to be sexually satisfied like their newly married brother, the other 6 brothers kidnap the women, muffle their screams, and prepare to possibly kill off the families who come to retrieve their daughters.
·       All of the daughters claim responsibility for the new baby, which suggests that they’ve been sexually promiscuous with their captors.
·       The brothers listen in as their sibling tries to convince Milly into having sex.
·       Later, the bed breaks, making the brothers think that it’s hot, rough sex that has caused it.
·       It’s suggested that the brothers are sexually pent up; to relieve the tension, they saw wood, which is a euphemism for masturbation.
·       It’s symbolic that their screams in the buggy set off the snow avalanche, which is suggestive of a sexual eruption of sorts in which the brothers are aroused by their suffering/struggling as captives.
·       There’s also a line in one song that sings: “A man can’t sleep…when he sleeps with sheep,” which is innocent enough on the surface, but carries a subtext of bestiality and animal sodomy.
·       It’s ludicrous by today’s standards and mores that it’s perfectly acceptable and understandable audiences to think that kidnapped women, forced to marry, have sex and bear children, would find their captors charming and fall in love with them, although the Stockholm syndrome is a real phenomenon.

DOES “SEVEN BRIDES” REMIND YOU OF ANY OTHER FILMS OR WORKS OF LITERATURE?
·       Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
·       Beauty and the Beast

OTHER FILMS DIRECTED BY STANLEY DONEN
·       Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Gene Kelly)
·       On the Town

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Fast-stepping siblings

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's been a while since CineVerse has featured a musical. To correct that oversight, book your plans to join our film discussion group on April 2 for a 60th anniversary celebration of  "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954; 102 minutes), directed by Stanley Donen, chosen by Len Gornik.

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On "Seconds" thought...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" appears to be quite the prescient picture for the mid-1960s, forecasting our youth-obsessed culture, the dangers of corporatization and blind trust in technology. Here's a summary of what was discussed during our group meeting about this movie:

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, UNIQUE AND DIFFERENT ABOUT SECONDS?
·       It’s overwhelmingly dark and pessimistic, even for the Cold War era, with a conclusion that is especially downbeat. There is no tacked on happy ending here.
·       The visuals are creative, memorable and unsettling. particularly the distorted shots achieved by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, who uses fish eye lenses, distorted and wide angles, giant close-ups of blank, soulless faces, POV shots, tracking shots following heads and feet, jump cuts and other techniques to achieve a disturbing visual tapestry.
·       This is a film that attempts to expose the myths and lies behind the pursuit of the American dream and the search for physical perfectionism—at a time when advertising and popular culture emphasized physical beauty, materialism and sex appeal.

THIS FILM WAS A BOX OFFICE FAILURE IN 1966. WHY DO YOU BELIEVE AUDIENCES REJECTED IT?
·       It casts Rock Hudson against type—viewers were used to seeing him in romantic comedies
·       The film mixes several different genres into one: science fiction, horror, psychological thriller, noir, cautionary tale, and fantasy. Perhaps this ambitious mixing was ahead of its time and too off-putting to viewers in the mid-1960s.
·       The distorted, haunting imagery, bleak message and dark tone may have been too overwhelming and depressing for contemporary moviegoers.
·       The filmmakers chose to shoot in black and white vs. color, at a time when black and white was decidedly less popular.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PRIMARY THEMES UNDERSCORED IN “SECONDS”?
·       Distortion—as exemplified through the skewed visuals and warped shots.
·       Disillusionment—what we think will make us happy and fulfilled may be a lie. Is true happiness and self-fulfillment possible? Or do we always crave more?
·       Be careful what you wish for—if you think your life is bad, it could always be worse.
·       Resurrection and rebirth—ironically, in this resurrection, the body is perfected but the soul remains dead.
·       Distrust of technology—technology should be in our control, but this film argues the opposite.
·       The fallacy of the American dream.
·       Frankenheimer had said, in interviews, about this film: “When we talk about life, my philosophy is that you have to live your life the way it is. You can change it, but you can’t change who you are or what you’ve done before. And you have to live with that. I think that point was very well brought out in Seconds—that’s what the film is all about.”
·       In a Criterion Collection essay, writer David Sterritt wrote the following: “(Frankenhimer) told an interviewer that he wanted to adapt David Ely’s eponymous 1963 novel because ‘all of today’s literature and films about escapism are just rubbish, [since] you cannot and should not ever try to escape from what you are.’ Seconds was his outcry ‘against ‘the Dream,’ the belief that all you need to do in life is to be financially successful. He saw the film as ‘a matter-of-fact yet horrifying portrait of big business that will do anything for anybody, provided you are willing to pay for it. It expressed his contempt for ‘all this nonsense in society that we must be forever young, this accent on youth in advertising and thinking.’

OTHER WORKS OF FILM, TV AND LITERATURE THAT REMIND YOU OF “SECONDS”
·       Frankenstein
·       Invasion of the Body Snatchers
·       Faust
·       The Picture of Dorian Gray
·       The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
·       The Twilight Zone
·       Hollow Triumph
·       Eyes Without a Face
·       The Stepford Wives
·       The Face of Another
·       Shock Corridor
·       Carnival of Souls
·       Don’t Look Now
·       Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR JOHN FRANKENHEIMER
·       The Birdman of Alcatraz
·       The Manchurian Candidate
·       Seven Days in May

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Seconds to none

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Prepare for a sojourn into sci-fi and suspense in the sixties. On March 26, CineVerse will slate "Seconds” (1966; 106 minutes), directed by John Frankenheimer, chosen by Brian Hansen.

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