Sunday, August 20, 2006

It Came From Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space(1953)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Harry Essex (screenplay), Ray Bradbury (story)
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Russell Johnson
IMDB Entry

Jack Arnold should be near the top of the list of directors of science fiction movies.  His films were always surprisingly good, taking pretty stupid concepts and giving them a depth that would seem impossible for anyone else.  Some of his titles are classics:  The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Revenge of the Creature,and The Mouse that Roared (well, it's only marginally SF, but it is a pretty good film)..

Science fiction was different in the 50s.  The critical cliché is that the films are reactions to the fears of the Cold War and the atomic bomb, but that's a bit narrow.  Fifties science fiction was also firmly in the pre-WWII tradition of written SF where scientists tried new experiments and paid the price (it goes back as far as Frankenstein). Unlike today, where SF is just an excuse for mindless action, there was a real intellectual subcurrent in the films.  They made an attempt to be "scientific" (even if the science was silly) and worked to make statements about the scientific process and tried to be more than just straight "thrill ride" adventure.  Tarantula, for instance, was as much about the scientist involved (Leo G. Carroll, a character actor I hold in great fondness for the TV shows Topper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his attempt in trying to end hunger as it was about a giant rampaging spider.  Carroll becomes a tragic character, a man who wanted to save the world, but who made a tragic mistake.

It Came from Outer Space was one of Arnold's first films, and doesn't have the flash or monsters of his more famous ones.  In it John Putnam (played by B-Movie veteran Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend see a meteor land near their desert town.  But when they go to look, there is no sign of it.  And the people in the town start acting . . . differently.  As though they have been replaced by aliens . . . .

What made the story stand above other films of this nature is its ending.  It is completely unexpected, and the movie has a surprise message, especially surprising for a movie of its time.  Yes, there are aliens involved, but these aliens are unlike most movie aliens, which even today usually fall into one of two categories:  evil conquerors or godlike beings here to help us.  The aliens in It Came from Outer Space are quite different, and that makes the movie into a classic.

Ray Bradbury got a story credit, and seems to have written some of the dialog, and life in the small desert town is nicely portrayed.

The movie (like Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon) was originally released in 3-D.  I was lucky enough to see it that way.  No, I'm not old enough to remember the original run.  But about 30 years ago, a local theater had a 3-D movie night with both Arnold films.  It was a lot of fun.  The big 3-D effect was the crashing of the meteor (in another sign of the film's determination to avoid the obvious, this wasn't saved for the climax, but rather one of the first scenes of the film).  But the effect that was most memorable was much smaller.  Putnam is watching the sky with a telescope.  He swings the telescope around to view another part of the sky.  And everyone in the audience ducked to avoid getting hit by it.  Another thing I like about the film:  Arnold did the unexpected.

It's a shame that 50s SF seems to be so overlooked.  Granted, the special effects could not compare to today's, but the stories of the best of them were way ahead of most current SF, which has devolved into CGI "thrill rides" instead of stories.

So if you get the chance, try to seek out the film.  And if you can see it in 3-D -- drop everything.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brute Force

Brute Force(1947)
Directed by
Jules Dassin
Written by Richard Brooks (screenplay), Robert Patterson (story)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levine, Jeff Corey
IMDB Entry

One of the noir-est of film noir, Brute Force is the ultimate prison film, the precursor of the famous Stanford prison experiment.  It's is a dark and brutal look a prison life, where the walls form a warehouse of cruelty and neglect.

The biggest surprise in the film is the performance by Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey, head prison guard.  We all know the later Cronyn -- the crusty but cuddly old geezer, often appearing with his wife, Jessica Tandy.  It does not prepare you for seeing him as Munsey, a sadistic, manipulative, and cruel little man, who uses his power over the prisoners to oppress them totally.  It is an astonishing performance.  Munsey is the one who runs the prison, and treats his charges like a cat treats a trapped mouse.  He is one of the most sadistic characters in films of that time, and the sadism is psychological more than physical.  It was a clever idea to cast a small man like Cronyn in the part, and see him terrorizing those who are physically much bigger.

Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays Joe Collins, one of the prisoners, who leads a jailbreak attempt.  He is a basically decent man, who eventually is broken down by prison life into becoming as cruel as Munsey himself.  The jailbreak is a disaster, of course, and the film is not for people who want happy endings. 

For its time, its violence was shocking, though this is less to in these post-Pulp Fiction days.  But what makes the film work is the role reversal, where the prisoners were essentially good people while the guards -- especially Munsey -- are scum. Plus the fascination of Cronyn's performance, as Oscar-worth as his wife's in Driving Miss Daisy.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Medium Cool

Directed by
Haskell Wexler
Written by Haskell Wexler
Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Harold Blankenship.
IMDB Entry

Haskell Wexler is one of films' top cinematographers, working on films like In the Heat of the Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among others.  One of his few forays into directing was Medium Cool, a scathing look of American society in the late 60s.

Robert Forster in Medium CoolRobert Forster (who years later was Gumshoe in Once a Hero) plays John Cassellis, a television cameraman working out of Chicago in the days leading up to and including the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  Cassellis is the camera, as the opening sequence shows, where he films a car crash without even thinking of giving help.

Cassellis's attitude changes when he befriends a woman and her young son, who moved to the city from Appalachia.  He becomes more socially conscious and, when the son is lost, he wanders the streets during the rioting around the convention, searching for him.

When I first saw the film, I was amazed at the way Wexler intercut scenes that made it really look like Forster was walking among the Chicago protesters.  It turns out that was no Hollywood effect:  Wexler anticipated trouble at the convention, and shot scenes right in the middle of it.

Wexler is a political director and the movie is both an indictment of the politics of the era and an attack on the media.  The final shot is especially chilling, as we discover just how thoughtless people can be while searching to get the footage, and indicts all of use for watching. 

The title, of course, comes from Marshall McLuhan.  I don't happen to have McLuhan here right now, but Wexler is clearly showing the problems with the coolness of the medium.  For Wexler, the medium is too cool, losing its humanity in the search for sensationalism.

Wexler's politics are clear, and that may be why he didn't direct a lot (though whenever he did, it also was a political film).  But in this one instance, he captured a snapshot of American society, and put his finger on a situation that is just as dangerous today as it was when it was made.


Directed by Jacques Tati
Written by Jacques Tati, Jacquest Legrange, Art Buchwald (additional dialog)
Starring Jacques Tati
IMDB Entry

The greatest comedy of all time is Jacque Tati's Playtime.

I'm sure you'll disagree.  You've probably never seen it.  If you have, you probably weren't impressed.  And there's a reason for that.

But, of the thousands of films I've seen, it's the comedy that reaches a level of greatness that no one other than Chaplin and Keaston have approached.  (All right, I lied:  No one could name any comedy as the single greatest.  Certainly CityLights, The General, Duck Soup, Annie Hall, Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Airplaine! are legitimate claimants to the title.  If you can't take a little hyperbole, get out of the kitchen.)

But Playtime deserves to rank up there.  Unfortunately, there's a catch:

You can only see it in a theater.  A home theater might be OK, but probably not. 

Watching any film on a big screen is different from watching it at home. Size does matter.  Films were shot to be projected on a big screen.  There are details that are missed on anything smaller. 

For instance, there's a scene from Road to Morocco where Bob Hope is pretending to be a statue and there's a fly on his nose.  You can't see the fly on a TV screen all that well, so it loses impact.  And I'm sure you've seen The Wizard of Oz plenty of times on TV.  Did you ever notice the scarecrow has a gun?  It's obvious on a big screen, but not on a TV.  Same for the "Hanged Munchkin" urban legend; if you see it on a big screen, it's quite clear that it's just a bird moving around.

Tati -- one of the handful of great comedians -- deliberately shot Playtime for the big screen.  He shot it, as a matter of fact, in 70 mm, twice the normal size film.  He needed it to fit in all the jokes.

Tati was a throwback -- a comedian with a silent sensibility, but who made only sound films (sort of -- while they had sound, the dialog often wasn't even necessary).  He was one of the best ever at creating a visual gag.  They ranged from small to big, and he was a champ at taking one gag and making it into several.  If you listed all the laugh-out-loud French comedies (a fairly small list, I admit), Tati would be involved in every single one (except for The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, that is). 

He wasn't a prolific director.  He's best known for his M.Hulot's Holiday, and won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Mon Oncle.  At the time of his death, he was known in the US for just three other films:  Jour de Fete (his first), Traffic (his last), and Playtime.  (He evidently did a few more that stayed in France).  In all his films except Jour de Fete, he played the same character, M. Hulot, a vague man who seemed to cause chaos around him (Actually, other than M. Hulot's Holiday, the character was not identified by name, but it was the same guy).  Hulot walked around bemused by life, wearing a raincoat and umbrella and, by in innocent antics, shook up the lives of those around him in a positive way. 

Playtime is the story of . . . well, there is no story.  It's just a series of gags, shown in three major sections.  The early part takes place in some sort of trade show in Paris.  We know this because we see the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of a door, and nothing else.  The glass-and-steel architecture could be in any modern city -- which was one of Tati's points:  that the world is becoming the same. 

Monsieur HulotThe gags are memorable.  People race from train platform to platform in response to the garbled instructions on the PA system.  A presenter, in a huff, slams the door at the trade show -- only it's a silent door, so they're not sound.  Tati's umbrella gets into all sorts of predicaments.

There's also a short sequence in an apartment.  Two families are watching TV.  But we're looking at them from the outside and we can see the reactions to the broadcast as reactions to each other.

And then comes the final sequence.  It's set at the opening of a brand new modern nightclub/restaurant.  Everything goes wrong, but in a away that eventually makes everything go right.  It's filled with running gags. 

Warning:  I'm listing the elements all at once, but in the film, they happen 5-10 minutes apart.

For instance:

  1. The front door breaks.  Its made of safety glass and shatters into cubes.  People pick it up.  A patron asks if it's glass, so the maitre d' tells them, no it's . . . ice.  It eventually gets put into an ice bucket.  Someone with a headache picks up the ice and finds it surprisingly warm.  Meanwhile, the doorman, with no door to open and close to get a tip, picks up the door handle and holds it out, pretending to open it.  When a diner walks past him, he steps in front of him again to make sure he gets his tip..
  2. Someone orders the fish.  It's put on a tray and cooked right at the table.  As the evening wears on, waiters stop by, put some spices on it, and wander off.  New diners sit down.  Finally the fish is ready -- but the people who ordered it have moved to another table.  The waiter picks up the tray and searches.  For about 20 minutes, you get glimpses of the waiter, the giant fish on a tray, vainly searching for the people who ordered it.
  3. A waiter tears part of his clothing.  He can't go out like that, so he goes into the back.  As the evening wears on, other waiters tear things, or loose buttons, and show up to borrow it from the first waiter.

The gags are all visual, so any description does not do them justice.  But after the fourth or fifth time of spotting the guy with the fish, you laugh harder and harder.

The finale shows the people turning the disaster into something of a party.  It's clever and warm and acts as a counterpoint to the soulless buildings in the beginning. 

Now maybe you might want to see the film based on this description.  Don't do it.

You see, a small screen doesn't even begin to do justice to what's going on.  In some shots you can spot two or three of the running gags going on simultaneously.  You'll see the fish AND the ice AND the waiter AND some other running gag.  They're all there, waiting for you to discover them, and on a regular movie screen, you'll be laughing.  But on TV, it's all lost.  When you're running several gags at once, you just can't see any of them on all but the biggest TV screen.

Even worse is pan and scan.  The film was widescreen, and the original VCR tape was cut to the standard TV aspect ratio.  This means that many of the gags get cut off (they were on the edges of the screen).  Even worse, the second section (with the two families "watching" each other), is completely meaningless:  if you can only see one group, you can't see what's going on.

Letterbo xing will help, but that will also make the picture smaller on the screen, so you're stuck with the first issue.

Perhaps a widescreen TV would be good if you sat close to the screen, but nothing can compete with seeing the film in a theater.

If you ever have the chance, do so.  It will be well worth your time.