Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Renoir's Boudu: A Classic Satire of Bourgeois Folly

Boudu Saved From Drowning
Criterion Collection// 1932 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Review by Steve Evans

The pitch:

A sharp class satire by that master of cinema, Jean Renoir, son of an Impressionist painter.

The Criterion Collection delivers a sterling presentation of Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning), a timeless French film and small marvel of social satire, captured seven decades ago in luminous black-and-white by the filmmaking son of an Impressionist painter.

This early 1930s film by master director Jean Renoir presents the folly of Parisian bourgeois as farce—a theme that would dominate his later work and reach its apex with the 1939 production of Rules of the Game, widely acknowledged today both as Renoir's masterpiece and one of the greatest films of all time.

Actor-director Paul Mazursky, a Renoir devotee, would remake Boudu Saved From Drowning in 1986, crafting a similarly broad satire of materialistic obsession and class differences, updated for the Reagan era. Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a fine retelling, and would make a satisfying double feature with Renoir's film, presented here in a beautiful transfer by the cineastes at Criterion.

A bit of plot:

Boudu, a tramp, haunts the parks of 1930s Paris, yearning only to be left alone. When his dog wanders off and abandons him, Boudu (Michel Simon, L'Atalante) despairs of living and decides to kill himself. Wandering into the city, the tramp crosses a bridge near the Louvre and leaps into the Seine. Wealthy bookseller Lestingois (Charles Granval, Golgotha) witnesses this suicide attempt and dives into the river to save the waterlogged bum. He does this as much from an altruistic spirit as a desire to inject some excitement into his life. When he's not cheating on his shrill wife, Lestingois fancies himself an idealistic liberal, devoted to the abstract ideal of Natural Man. Boudu, "the perfect tramp," represents the culmination of Lestingois' liberal-intellectual obsessions.

With the help of several bored onlookers, the bookseller carries Boudu back to his store and well-appointed home on the second floor. Lestingois' high-maintenance wife worries that Boudu will stain the carpets, or worse. The housekeeper, who is also the bookseller's torrid mistress, bemoans the thought of cleaning up after a tramp. Lestingois tells the women to hush, vowing to help Boudu get back on his feet and on a path toward respectability. But the irrepressible vagrant, who never wanted to be saved from the river, repays his benefactors with chaos. Boudu rocks the household to its foundation with boorish behavior and manners befitting a beast. He spits and stomps and smashes dishes in gleeful obliviousness. Boudu is not so much an anarchist (which would require careful calculation) as a force of nature unencumbered by social restraints. He is, quite plainly, a pain in the ass.

Aesthetics, Thematics & Context:

Satire may be the most difficult of literary forms to translate into film. Whether cloaked in bitterness and pessimism or ham-fisted proselytizing, there's always a risk that the satiric film will send an audience reeling for the exits—especially if they are the targets of the mockery. Even seasoned film buffs may be hard pressed to name more than a dozen successful cinematic satirists; most people draw a blank after dropping the names of Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson (O Lucky Man!), or more recently, David Fincher (Fight Club). Satire works best when it antagonizes, when it holds up a fool's mirror before an audience. This shock of recognition can only be a good thing, as complacency is the moss that gathers on a stagnant soul.

Renoir and star Michel Simon acknowledge in an interview on this disc, conducted more than 30 years after Boudu's initial release in 1932, that police were called to restore order at several first-run theaters. Turns out French audiences were outraged by Boudu's antisocial behavior, which remains fairly obnoxious today. Renoir recalls that his picture was even pulled from some theaters after three days due to the angry reception. Society ladies, especially, complained they were offended (or were they threatened, maybe even aroused?) by Boudu's rakish charm. They could not forgive his penchant for polishing his shoes with a woman's silken undergarments and bed sheets, or his rather nasty habit of spitting in rare books of an intellectual or poetic bent, especially volumes of Voltaire.

Yes, it seems Renoir plucked all the right nerves.

Criterion provides a sparkling transfer of this 77-year-old film, with a remarkably clean mono track and a marvelous set of extras. Perhaps the best supplemental feature on the disc (there is some competition here) is a virtual tour of 1930s Paris, incorporating maps, film clips, and uncommonly intelligent narration. The 1967 interview with Renoir and his star offers superb perspective on the film. Their comments make it clear that working on Boudu was a career highlight and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Only the absence of a commentary track prevents this superb disc from flying into that rarefied realm of perfection. A 12-minute interview with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, recorded in 2005, merely whets the appetite for a feature-length commentary.

Why is this important? Because history can become confused and obfuscated, depending on who’s telling the story. The lingering influence of Boudu, from staged play (by René Fauchois) into film, demands clarity and candor.

Renoir infused his films with symbolism and metaphor, while drawing inspiration from his father, Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, in terms of composition and setting. Today, the son's influence on cinema arguably exceeds the significance of the father's work as a painter. A decorated veteran of World War I, Jean Renoir's experiences in battle never dulled the essential humanity at the core of his art—even when he was at his scathingly critical best in films like Grand Illusion. So a commentary track by a Renoir expert would have added to our appreciation of Boudu. Still, Criterion delivers a superb selection of added-value content, as is their custom. Their DVD product costs a little more, but you can see, hear and feel where that extra money went.

As a freewheeling film fan, I would not restrain Monsieur Boudu, who is undoubtedly raising hell somewhere even as I conclude my thoughts on an entertaining and timeless film by Jean Renoir, one of the great provocateurs of world cinema.

So let us dispense with further verbosity and get down to it: Boudu Saved From Drowning belongs in any serious collection.

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monterey Pop at 41 - from the Criterion Collection

The pitch: acid rock and high times during the Summer of Love.

The original rock-concert film and still one of the best, Monterey Pop covers highlights of the legendary 1967 California music festival, featuring some of the era's greatest musicians performing at their prime. This is a single-disc edition of the Monterey Pop three-disc boxed set that Criterion unleashed in 2002 to sterling reviews. But this new release is no double-dip, stripped-down title. Far from it. The DVD includes the complete theatrical feature and a wealth of fascinating supplements. It's highly recommended as a less-expensive alternative to the boxed set, which contains extensive outtakes that director D.A. Pennebaker couldn't use.

Though it seems much farther away in time, 41 years ago on a soft day in June some 200,000 people arrived in Monterey, California, to experience the first and only Monterey International Pop Festival. Organized as a charity event, the festival brought together an eclectic mix of the hottest rock 'n' roll and R&B talent, of whom only a small portion would make the final cut of this film.

Festival producers Lou Adler (a music legend who worked with everyone from Sam Cooke to Led Zeppelin) and John Phillips (leader of the Mamas and Papas) were prescient enough to realize that the historical significance of this event demanded a recorded document. They hired documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (fresh off his success with the Dylan chronicle Don't Look Back), and secured production money from ABC Television. Yes, Monterrey Pop almost became a made-for-TV movie (more on that in a moment).

Pennebaker and his crew got busy, filming the crowd's arrival, the setup, all the smoky chit-chat, and the backstage banter among musicians. More importantly, they captured the most electrifying live performances recorded up to that time on film. The concert plays as a veritable who's-who of 1967 musical talent. Three performances by the Mamas and Papas made the final cut (more than any other group), probably because Phillips was a producer. But by the end of the year the Mamas and Papas were history, imploding on adultery and hard feelings among the members. Though the harmonies were superb, their slick, pop confabulations are hardly the best part of this wildly intoxicating film.

mong the enduring concert highlights: catch The Who's Pete Townsend smashing his guitar beyond recognition, and Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his with a can of lighter fluid. Hear Janis Joplin stun the crowd with her anguished, soul-shuddering vocal on "Ball and Chain," which blows away "Mama" Cass Elliott (who's parked herself in the audience at this point). Smile at the shimmering, relaxed joy of Simon and Garfunkel, who're feelin' groovy. Sway to Otis Redding's soulful vocals as he laments a lover who's worn out her welcome. And trip out to the mind-bending acid rock of "High Flyin' Bird" and "Section 43," which together will put to rest any doubt anyone could ever have about drug use and drug references in rock 'n' roll. And before we close out the show, the faithful stoke their pipes once more and luxuriate in 18 hypnotic minutes of pure transcendence as Ravi Shankar proves forevermore that he is the absolute master of the sitar, that magical, exotic stringed instrument from India. His serpentine playing leaves the audience in a squirming state of ecstasy.

While the live performances are the main draw, Pennebaker's hand-held cameras also capture the hippie culture in full flower as gentle people wander the park blowing soap bubbles (though they're mostly inhaling — on pipes and rolled paper.)

Set List:

• "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" (Scott McKenzie)
• "Creque Alley" (Mamas and Papas)
• "California Dreamin'" (Mamas and Papas)
• "Rollin and Tumblin" (Canned Heat)
• "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" (Simon and Garfunkel)
• "Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)" (Hugh Masekela)
• "High Flyin' Bird" and "Today" (Jefferson Airplane)
• "Ball and Chain" (Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company)
• "Paint it Black" (The Animals)
• "My Generation" (The Who)
• "Section 43" (Country Joe and the Fish)
• "Shake" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (Otis Redding)
• "Wild Thing" (Jimi Hendrix)
• "Got a Feelin'" (Mamas and Papas)
• "Raga Bhimpalasi" (Ravi Shankar)

Check out the quality of this DVD

Toss that old VHS tape; the Criterion DVD of Monterrey Pop is the one to buy, whether it's this single disc, or the three-disc boxed set released in 2002 with outtakes and extensive additional footage of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. Completists will need—and probably already own—the pricey boxed set. Those who have that earlier Criterion release should not buy this edition, as it appears identical to Disc One in the boxed set (keep reading anyway). Those who have been sitting on the fence now have an option, since this single disc offers the original cut of the film and a solid set of extras for less than half the price of the boxed set. The audio is reference quality, absolutely exquisite; video is a mere notch below excellence. Only some occasional pixilation keeps the disc from flying into that rarefied strata of perfection.

I have seen and enjoyed Monterey Pop many times, but until reviewing this disc I realized not only had I never truly experienced the flow of images, I'd never really heard the music, either. My God, what a sound! Tricked out in a choice of Dolby 2.0 stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS, or the original mono, the restored soundtrack on this disc is a sonic miracle. When Jimi Hendrix launches into "Wild Thing" by the Trogs, viewers might be amused by the blatant sexual come-on of the song (sock it to me, indeed). Previous releases of this film only hinted at what the guitarist was really up to, because the original soundtrack (at least on videotape) was muddy and nearly incoherent. With this Criterion release, I discovered that Hendrix had a sly sense of humor: during the bridge of this simple, three-chord song about an urgent need to get laid, he casually plays a bar of "Strangers in the Night"—Sinatra fans take note—then slips right back into the "Wild Thing" riff. Now, that's inspired.

Pennebaker in the 2002 interview included on this disc says he wanted to legitimize rock 'n' roll as an art form. Joining him for the interview is producer Lou Adler, who recalls that the picture was originally to be broadcast on ABC television, where he claims it probably would have aired once and vanished. So Adler and his team made a strategic decision after the festival: They showed ABC executives some rough-cut footage of Hendrix wailing on his Fender guitar, humping a stack of Marshall amplifiers and setting fire to his axe while worshipping the ungodly feedback screeching from the instrument at the climax of his set. The horrified ABC executives said, "No, thanks; not on this network." According to Adler, they gave him the film outright with the admonishment, "Pay us back if you can." And so, as it turned out, Jimi Hendrix was indirectly responsible for making Monterey Pop a legend. Had it not been for the guitarist's flamboyant performance, Pennebaker's film might have been an ABC Sunday Night Movie of the Week, with one broadcast on an evening when the target audience would almost certainly have been doing something other than watching television.

Pennebaker deploys the cinéma vérité style, or what he calls “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking, according to his website. He uses handheld cameras and available light, neither directing nor interviewing his subjects. The result is a candid, naturalistic document that minimizes the inevitable influence of a documentary crew on its subject.

He also supervised Criterion's high-definition transfer for this DVD. The new 5.1 mix by brilliant recording engineer Eddie Kramer is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS, and represents a mammoth improvement over earlier consumer releases of this seminal film.

Disc supplements are abundant and interesting. The lengthy interview with Adler and Pennebaker provides the most contextual and historical information. A digital scrapbook of photographs and a facsimile of the original festival program are quite beautiful and informative. I especially enjoyed the audio commentary by photographer Elaine Mays that accompanies a slideshow of images she captured during the festival. Mays recalls the heady experience of being at an event that helped shape her generation, while supplying generous information about her techniques, equipment, and her choice of film stocks and lenses. This is nothing less than a short course in concert photography and photojournalism. A discussion of Kramer's audio remixing techniques for this release illustrates the incredible amount of work that the Criterion people invest in their product.

Monterey Pop appeals on several levels—as a documentary and concert film, but also as a political statement. The film captures tremendous talents when they were still young and some of them may have even been innocent.
Pennebaker's superb documentary also provides an eerie, saddening glimpse of many famous musicians who would be dead within a decade. Knowing this while watching the film, I was vaguely reminded of the closing shot in American Graffiti, that indelible image in the clouds as the future is revealed while we revel in the sweetness of the present:

• Six months after Monterey, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin. He was 26.

• Rolling Stones founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, seen strolling among the Monterey crowd, would drown two years later in his swimming pool at age 27 after being kicked out of the Stones for drug-addled incompetence.

• "Mama" Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas suffered a fatal heart attack in 1974 while touring in London. She was 32.

• Canned Heat guitarist Al Wilson was 27 when he committed suicide in 1970 (lead singer Bob "The Bear" Hite was 38 when he died of a heart attack in 1981).

• A barbiturate overdose claimed Jimi Hendrix at 27. He died in London in September 1970.

• A month later Janis Joplin was dead at 27. Her body was found in Hollywood's Landmark Motor Hotel. An overdose of heroin combined with alcohol poisoning was the cause.

• Keith Moon, mercurial drummer for The Who, overdosed in 1978 on prescription drugs intended to wean him off alcohol. He was 32.

Years later, during the interview on this disc, Pennebaker, now 81, would say his objective was to record "people in motion" in all their kinetic glory. Their music, fame, and fortune could not make it last. Sorrow and tragedy would come to many of these musicians and, no doubt, to many of the people who came to witness them at Monterey.

Tolerance isn't the same as endurance, of course, and in the end some children of the sixties unraveled, either from their own excesses or from a mass-culture resistance to whatever threat they were perceived to represent. And truth be told, some musicians made fortunes and lived to tell the tale (Pete Townsend does very well these days). Some people got stuck in time and moved to places like Guatemala (I've been there and I've seen them, tooting their wooden whistles and flutes and talking to themselves in an acid-casualty haze, mindlessly indulging in a paradise forever elusive in the country they abandoned). Others simply moved on in the figurative sense, like generations before them and since. They got married, got mortgaged, had kids, got divorced. They toiled and struggled and paid their bills as best they could and tried to figure themselves out. They registered to vote. Or didn't. Some lived happily ever after. Or not. Life is like that.

But in this 79-minute film, D.A. Pennebaker documented a three-day music festival that gave voice, meaning, and direction to a generation that just wanted to live peacefully, enjoy sex, smoke a little grass, and crank up the music for as long as possible. And at this fleeting, fantastical moment in the lives of many, that was enough.

Curiously, I cannot recall a single mention of Vietnam in this film. Perhaps that's because reaction to the word and the war it represented would change a year later. So would the Love Generation, though not necessarily for the better.

While not as technically audacious as Woodstock, with its multi-channel sound, split-screen effects, and pinpoint editing (some of it assembled by a young Martin Scorsese), Monterrey Pop remains a hugely influential documentary. Experiencing this picture is like cracking into a time capsule filled with a riot of color and mesmerizing music, with the scent of patchouli and the pungent smell of pot wafting up from the box.


Criterion delivers a magnificent DVD of a film restored from less than optimal source materials—especially the soundtrack. Truly, the Criterion alchemists weave straw into sonic gold. Essential viewing.

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thoughts on Lindsay Anderson's "O Lucky Man!"

Time to re-examine an overlooked classic: O Lucky Man!

A surreal, wildly allegorical satire of politics, business -- aw, hell, of humanity itself -- this 1973 film by British director Lindsay Anderson towers among the greatest motion pictures.

I first saw this picture 15 years ago in a film-appreciation course in graduate school at the University of Virginia. It blew my mind. Immediately, I went out and bought what was, at the time, the only available version of this 3-hour film: a scratchy print spread across two VHS cassette tapes. I've watched O Lucky Man! at least once a year ever since and never grow tired of viewing the picture. I discover something new and amazing with every viewing; it is a rich cinematic entertainment – provocative, terrifying, wickedly funny, scathingly satirical and ultimately…yes…refreshingly optimistic, albeit in a guarded way.

Warner Bros. finally and without fanfare released this brilliant masterwork on DVD in late 2007. So quiet was the release on DVD that even I did not hear about it until stumbling across the news quite by accident months later. I placed an order through Amazon and waited with great anticipation until the two-disc special edition finally arrived. Hallelujah.

O Lucky Man! chronicles the episodic adventures of one Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), a young coffee salesman whose thirst for success drives his every move. Given an opportunity to prove himself in the coffee company's north territory of England, Travis sets out with a compass and an apple (!) given by his manager. In rapid succession, he is seduced by his landlady, taken to a strip club by the mayor, presented a gift of a golden suit, captured and tortured at a military base, subjected to bizarre human experiments at a private medical clinic (reminiscent of Island of Lost Souls), taken under the wing of a rock band, featuring keyboardist Alan Price (of Animals fame) and seduced yet again by the band's muse, Patricia (a stunningly beautiful and far-out Helen Mirren). Incredibly, all of this flows seamlessly and with a wry, detached British humor that might be the missing link between pictures produced in the late 1940s by Ealing Studios (see Kind Hearts and Coronets) and Monty Python. Patricia's dad Sir James is a corrupt British industrialist looking to exploit third-world countries in Africa for financial gain. Travis becomes his executive assistant and ultimate fall-guy when Scotland Yard closes in on Sir James' evil schemes, including genocide.

From would-be capitalist to prison convict, Travis emerges with a newfound belief system: altruism. He quotes Thomas Payne! He preaches brotherly love to London's poor – the bums, the meth abusers, those who guzzle paint thinner for a cheap high. And they scorn him just as readily as the British aristocracy had used him as scapegoat for their international crimes. Travis stands apart from all social classes, much like Voltaire’s Candide, who found he had to remain detached from society to maintain his idealism.

All the while, like a Greek Chorus, Alan Price and his incredible band sing original compositions that comment upon and provide wry counterpoint to the story unfolding before us:

"Smile while you're makin’ it. Laugh while you’re takin’ it. Even though you're fakin’ it. Nobody’s gonna know."

In the hugely satisfying twist ending, the movie actually turns into itself, spiraling around like a snail shell to evolve into the motion picture we have just witnessed. Mesmerizing.

Even this rudimentary plot outline cannot do justice to a film that unspools like dream logic, punctuated by the stuff of nightmares.

Director Lindsay Anderson shared a world-view not unlike that of Stanley Kubrick, which is to say both artists had an abiding mistrust of social systems and politics, especially. Kubrick directed Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), arguably the greatest satire ever committed to film. Anderson's O Lucky Man! has to rank second. For perspective, I would place David Fincher's Fight Club (1999) in 3rd place.Lindsay Anderson toiled under the radar for much of his career, although he directed at least three modern classics, starting with the stark realism of This Sporting Life (1963), continuing with the nightmarish If… (1968) and following with his greatest film, O Lucky Man! McDowell appeared as Mick Travis in If..., O Lucky Man and Anderson’s less effective Britannia Hospital (1982), although the character appears to be the same in name only.

It can be difficult to determine if Anderson was a misanthropist, or perhaps a great humanist throwing up a warning cry against subservience to politics and blind, social obeisance of any kind.
I believe he argues in favor of turning our backs on society, on a world he sees as being hopelessly entrenched in corruption – whether it is the world of the rich or the destitute. He offers no solution, nor is that his obligation. If anything, Anderson’s film retreats into idealized fantasy by the end, although he may be equally suggesting that escape in any form is preferable to living in a world dominated by powerful, larcenous men with nothing but money and murder on their minds.

For those who question the morality of our society, or merely seek better to understand the place we occupy as individuals within that society, O Lucky Man! is essential viewing. It is no mere mockery of later 20th century capitalism; indeed, in its themes and exploration of the human condition, O lucky Man is timeless. Approach it with an open mind and it might just change your life.

I mean this most sincerely; no hyperbole intended. O Lucky Man! is the cinematic equivalent of expanded consciousness. It remains, 35 years later, a tremendously fulfilling work of art cleverly disguised as film entertainment.

If you have a friend on whom you think
you can rely - You are a lucky man!
If you've found the reason to live on and
not to die - You are a lucky man!
You know, the preachers and the poets and the scholars don't know it,
Temples and statues and steeples won't show it,
If you've got the secret just try not to blow it - Stay a lucky man!

If you've found the meaning of the truth
in this old world - You are a lucky man!
If knowledge hangs around your neck like
pearls instead of chains - You are a lucky man!
Takers and fakers and talkers won't tell you.
Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you.
When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell-
You'll be a lucky man!

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Youth Run Wild: A Double Feature of Exploitation Nonsense

“Over twenty thousand girls every year live this bitter story!” —Tag line from Unwed Mother

Good morning, beloved readers.

Check out this deuce of exploitation flicks about the social scourge of skipping school, getting nekkid, and making babies out of wedlock. Problem is, there's an utter lack of nekkidness in both films. Doesn't matter: The unintentional laughs are abundant. These two pictures deliver more hilarity by accident than many contemporary comedies produce on purpose.

Unwed Mother and Too Soon to Love are as much fun as a bad-movie addict should be allowed to have for $15. So pop a brew, grab a bag of popcorn, and settle down for 159 minutes of light acting, heavy moralizing, and cheapjack production values, all in service of an outrageous hypocrisy: These pictures condemn the very thing they promise to sell their teenage target audience. And that’s sex, baby. Wanton, unprotected, and especially unmarried sex. Let the good times roll. Hubba, hubba.

The plot clots

Cute Betty (Norma Moore) becomes an Unwed Mother after hanging out too often with Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., who was also a Teenage Caveman). Vaughn plays Don Bigelow (!), a sleazy gigolo (sorry, couldn't help it). Betty falls hard for this slick-haired Lothario. She's wooed, stewed, tattooed, and screwed—knocked up and abandoned—in rapid succession. Hiss! Don is a cad. Following an uncomfortable visit to a drunken abortionist, Betty decides to carry her baby and give up the child for adoption. She later has a change of heart that leads to heavy melodrama indeed.

Too Soon To Love is the second half of this insanely funny double feature. Cathy (Jennifer West) loves Jim (Richard Evans), who sells wieners and popcorn at the drive-in concession stand. They arrange a rendezvous during his work break. While watching a movie in the back seat of a friend's car and waiting for Jim to come around, Cathy fends off a sexual attack from Buddy (Hey! It's 23-year-old Jack Nicholson!). Jim leaps to the rescue, and the boys start to rumble. Bad-boy Buddy serves Jim a serious ass-kicking, which precipitates a lot of plot. Cathy feels sorry for Jim getting whupped and generally wants to demonstrate her love in more, um, earthy ways. Jim eagerly avails himself of these nocturnal delights, leading to impregnation, stress, and potential embarrassment for the young lovers. Cathy seeks a terminal solution from a vile abortionist, but runs away and attempts suicide. A distraught Jim resorts to stealing money so Cathy can see a "real" doctor. What's to become of these two juvenile lovebirds?

Production: How it all went down

Unwed Mother was directed by Walter Doniger, who turned 91 earlier this year. He also directed 173 episodes of television's Peyton Place, one of the first prime-time soap operas, so his penchant for ham-fisted melodrama apparently came naturally. Whenever Vaughn came onscreen, I was reminded of his tuff-talking television commercials, shilling for some ambulance-chasing law firm. He sounds so indignant and constipated in those commercials, just like his Teenage Caveman character, and in this silly film as oily Don, who has his way with Miss Betty. She practically swoons at his obvious pick-up lines. Girl, you shoulda known better.

And Lord, this does get better. The supporting feature on the disc, Too Soon to Love, marked the directorial debut of Richard Rush, who toiled in obscurity for decades before finally realizing the one masterpiece he had in him—The Stunt Man (1980). It's a safe bet that Rush is now retired, since it's been a dozen years since he last stepped behind a camera, directing the execrable The Color of Night. That film is remembered today (if at all) for giving the world an unwanted glimpse of Bruce Willis' detumescent pud. This could also be a metaphor for the director's career: He started out small, rose briefly, and then fell not with a bang but with a flaccid flop.

Too Soon to Love is worth a look if only to see a young Jack Nicholson and his wolf grin, chewing scenery. His now-legendary thespian skill is not on display in this B picture from 1960. Nicholson languished in trash like this, including several Roger Corman films, for a decade before catching fire with an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Easy Rider. (I wonder if Jack occasionally dusts off his copies of Too Soon to Love or The Crybaby Killer and gives 'em a nostalgic spin in his home theater up on Mulholland Drive?)

Video and audio are surprisingly crisp for a budget title. Production company VCI even delivers anamorphically enhanced transfers of both films. That's not to say this is a reference-quality presentation. Minimal technical competence went into capturing the original image and sound, so we can't expect too much to pop out the other end on a DVD release. It's a bit like polishing mud, but VCI is to be commended for the effort. These pictures probably look as good as they did on their initial release nearly half a century ago.

As per their custom, the good folks at VCI have also dug up a few choice extras to trick out these subpar pictures. Goodies include original theatrical trailers; a slide show of photos, posters, and other print advertising; cast and crew biographies; and a lively audio commentary during Unwed Mother by assistant director Robert Justman.

Why would you watch these pictures?

The best exploitation films possess a weird, schizophrenic quality that reeks of hypocrisy. Unwed Mother and Too Soon to Love are no exception. These movies pander to prurient curiosity and base instincts in order to fill theaters with ticket buyers, then justify their existence with harsh moralizing against the very social problem being exploited. That way, if the producers were ever challenged in court, they could point to the social significance of the "message." Famous schlock director Edward D. Wood, Jr., was a master of this bait-and-switch tactic. He wrote (but did not direct) The Violent Years, which is a heart-stoppingly funny tale of girl gangs and coed pajama parties with heavy petting. If you enjoy the features on this disc, The Violent Years would be a logical next step. Also, anything starring Arch Hall, Jr. But be forewarned: Unwed Mother and Too Soon to Love might just be gateway drugs on the road to a terminal bad-cinema addiction.

These pictures caused my bad-movie gang to convulse with laughter and spill their beer. In some alternate universe, this probably merits a near-perfect rating for a pair of seriously imperfect trash flicks.

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Jules and Jim (Criterion Collection)

By Steve Evans

Another review of a classic motion picture by your devoted writer, Cinematic Cteve. I will watch this today and be stunned all over again. No serious film collection is complete without this picture:

"Jules and Jim" (1962); directed by Francois Truffaut.

The Pitch: "We played with life and lost."


A masterpiece of the French New Wave, this sensuous, enigmatic film spans 30 years of friendship and love in a doomed ménage à trois. Cinematic Cteve says, "c'est merveilleux...."

Best friends Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner, Fahrenheit 451), and Henri Serre, (La Révolution Française) enjoy the carefree life of affluent intellectuals, indulging in the pleasures of pre–World War I Paris. Austrian biologist Jules embraces the city as he would a lover, if he could find the right girl. He takes occasional comfort in the company of "professionals," although Jules tells Jim he grows weary of meaningless liaisons, the empty exchange of francs. Women glide into bed with the introspective Jim, a writer who remains too detached, too doggedly independent to form any lasting relationship.

A love triangle develops when they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, La Notte), a passionate, impulsive, and intensely desirable woman whose lust for life burns like a supernova. The attraction between them is immediate. Although the men have shared women before, Jules implores Jim to stand aside; "Not this one," he tells his friend.

Catherine and Jules begin a joyous romance and marry in the days before the long shadow of World War I casts Europe into darkness. Jules is called to duty by the Austrian Army; Jim enlists with the French. Although they fight on opposing sides, their friendship endures. Jules writes impassioned letters to Catherine, but the distance between them soon involves more than geography.

Reunited years later in Paris, the friends take up residence in a mountain chateau nestled in the French countryside, where Catherine has grown dissatisfied with the passive Jules. Realizing this, his pain manifests itself in quiet glances, small gestures, and thinly veiled pleas for advice from the worldly Jim. Now callous and contemptuous, Catherine seduces Jim into an uneasy affair. Jules remains so devoted to both that he cannot bear to leave.

The years and the war have altered the carefree dynamic that once existed between the men and especially their muse. Catherine's spontaneity erodes into melancholy. Dark impulses bleed through her once-inscrutable demeanor. Jules wonders whether he could ever hold on to her heart. Jim wonders if any man could.


Gloriously alive and still potent after almost 50 years, François Truffaut's third film is a love letter to the cinema and an astonishingly mature work of art (he was 29 when principal photography began in 1961). In its multilayered exploration of life, love, and doomed romance, this is truly a film where the significance of the journey exceeds the importance of the destination, which is inevitable.

An omniscient narrator speaks neutrally about what has passed. His voice echoes how Jules and Jim and Catherine feel, as his words supply the occasional hint of what is to come. Timeless themes of friendship, love, and the joy of living are burned into the early frames of this film, just as sexual obsession, disillusionment, and despair dominate the final act. It's as though Truffaut did not so much conceive a masterwork as he channeled artistic genius from the sum total of European experience in the first half of the 20th century. There are scenes so achingly beautiful, their essential truths so profound, that viewers might wonder: Was the French auteur a mere alchemist, weaving gold from history lessons and experience, or was he some modern Prometheus—breathing life into the film, evoking universal feelings and ideas in such a bold and electrifying manner that film lovers four decades later still gasp at the scope and depth of human experience captured in these flickering images?

Yes, this is high praise. Truffaut and his collaborators deserve every accolade.

Admiration for technique and craftsmanship deepens on subsequent viewings. This may be one of the most carefully constructed films in all cinema, as Truffaut alters the editing rhythms to reflect his characters' evolving situations and, with brilliant results, to evoke even their inner desires. Look again at one of the iconographic images of world cinema: When Jules and Jim marvel quietly at Catherine's beauty, Truffaut famously freeze-frames on her smiling face at three distinct points—like a fashion photographer—as though the men desperately want to preserve this fleeting moment in time. At first kinetic—all zooms and flash cuts and spiraling dolly shots—the flashy camera work gradually evaporates, like Catherine's state of mind, as her marriage to Jules disintegrates.

The performances are staggering, especially the work of Moreau, whose effervescence turns to gloom as Europe darkens and goes to war. As Jules, Werner demonstrates the psychological devastation of a man who loves with all his heart and soul, realizing too late that nothing he can offer will ever be enough for a woman who repays love with cruelty. Serre plays blasé with brilliance as Jim, who sees Catherine as a rambunctious, sexually liberated lover, yet he cannot bring himself to hold her at bay for the sake of his friendship with Jim. Because Catherine cannot choose between these men—indeed, she cannot embrace a single, dominant personality of her own—she dooms them both.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who was in his seventies when he wrote the book, this story—and especially Catherine's character—must have touched Truffaut at some fundamental level. He was not alone. Note the trace elements of this film that director Cameron Crowe lifted for Vanilla Sky.

Technical Details of the DVD

Criterion bestows reverential treatment on a modern classic, this little miracle of the cinema that enriches our appreciation of life with each viewing. Surpassing its own considerable reputation for quality, Criterion offers a restored high-definition transfer, supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard, that shimmers in satin shades of black and white. Video and audio are impeccable. The bonus material spread across two discs seems nothing less than comprehensive: Two audio commentaries, the best featuring Moreau herself. Video interviews and retrospectives, including a 1977 Q&A with Truffaut made five years before a brain tumor would take his life. Rare images of the original shooting script with Truffaut's hand-written annotations. A 42-page booklet of essays and stills from the film. And these are merely the highlights of a beautiful package: from the provocative choice of cover art, to the telling music that plays over the menu selections. For the discriminating collector, what could be more delightful than acquiring the DVD of a beloved film, meticulously packaged by people who truly understand its beauty and significance? Criterion remains the absolute reference standard for DVD excellence. Bravo.


Impassioned and exhilarating, Jules and Jim sears itself into the memory like an endless summer kiss that begins, eyes closed, in the fleeting moment before the thunder of an approaching storm.

Own? Yes. Now.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Evans, dba Cinema Uprising.

Aural noir: A Velvet Underground DVD review.

Velvet Redux: Live MCMXCIII
Rhino // 1993 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
A DVD review by Cinematic Cteve


"Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happenin' at all.
Every time she puts on a radio,
There was nothin' goin' down at all, not at all.
Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all.
She started dancin' to that fine, fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll."—Lou Reed

What's on the Disc

The four surviving members of the original Velvet Underground reunited in 1993 for a brief European tour, initially as an opening act for U2 and later as headliners for a three-night stand in Paris. This DVD is a document of the Velvet's live shows filmed June 15-17, 1993 at L'Olympia Theater in Paris. It was previously released on CD as Velvet Redux Live: MCMXCIII. Unfortunately, the internal tensions that had destroyed the band in 1970 apparently resurfaced during the European gigs. A planned U.S. tour was scrapped when the Velvets broke up again. They have not performed together publicly in the 13 years since these recordings.

The DVD concert features the original lineup consisting of rhythm guitarist Lou Reed, John Cale on viola and electric bass, Moe Tucker on percussion, and lead guitarist Sterling Morrison, who died of cancer in 1995—a year before the Velvets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For fans, this disc is worth owning just to see the original quartet alive and performing together for what would be the last time.

Why the Velvet Underground got back together for a few weeks in 1993 remains vague, though it’s easy to suspect a lot of money was involved. The irony of this is the Velvets in their heyday hardly enjoyed more than critical success. They were the darlings of the New York underground and the hipster rock press, but, to put it charitably, record sales were modest. In interviews through the years, Reed has recalled how he worked in his parents' business part-time during the band's salad years, while Morrison was known to bicycle between recording studios and college campuses to finish his degree. Morrison eventually quit the band to teach college at Texas A&M. So by 1993, cashing in on some Velvet Underground equity probably seemed like a solid idea.

On this concert DVD, Cale handles vocals on the tracks that German chanteuse Nico sang for the group nearly 40 years ago on their most famous album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. This was the record with the notorious banana cover created by artist Andy Warhol, who initially managed the band before he was fired by Reed. The pop-art design featured a bright yellow banana with a cardboard pull-tab near the top and an invitation to "peel slowly and see." Those who chose to mutilate their album covers would find a pink banana phallus underneath. Yes, this is what passed for cleverness in 1967, when acid ingestion was more common than acid indigestion.

Musically, that seminal disc, released in March of '67, would deliver an iconoclastic kick in the teeth during the Summer of Love later that year. Lou Reed penned unapologetic songs of despair, New York street life, sadomasochism ("Venus in Furs"), and odes to narcotic addiction ("Heroin"), among other unnerving preoccupations. Incredibly, thought it's one of the most nihilistic statements ever recorded by a rock band, the Velvet's debut album remains a haunting and compulsive listening experience. It is one of the few records that, once started, is impossible to stop. Despite the bleak thematic concerns, the melodies and musical ideas flow seamlessly to create a cohesive statement about urban life in the second half of the 20th century. Reed, who penned the band's best songs, never judges his characters or their unconventional business. Musically, the Velvets would never top their debut album, which today ranks 13 on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. No coincidence, then, that a third of the tracks on this concert DVD are drawn from that first Velvet Underground record.

The relentless nihilism of the band's early years abated marginally as Reed began to flirt with the idea of a solo career. A classic Velvet track like "Rock 'N' Roll" (the first eight lines of which are quoted above) showed Reed was capable of expressing, well, not quite joy, but at least a heartfelt belief in rock music as salvation. Still, not long after he quit the Velvet Underground in 1970 and forged on with a solo career, Reed started yammering about transvestite groupies ("Walk on the Wild Side") and cutting loose with virtually unlistenable experimental noise (the gawdawful album Metal Machine Music). So the most recognizable face of the Velvets never completely abandoned his fascination with the dark side.

As a live act reuniting in 1993, the band delivers faithful if uninspired renditions of 15 classic Velvet songs. In fairness, documentary footage of the band in its late-'60s glory is difficult to come by, so it's hard to say if what we're seeing from 1993 is the band's standard stage demeanor. A 1966 documentary about the group directed by Warhol is commercially unavailable at this time. On this disc, at least, the Velvets often come off like journeymen—competent musicians who get the job done without evidencing a lot of excitement for the work. Videography is similarly competent and occasionally rises to the challenge of capturing the band under extremely dark lighting conditions, punctuated by ethereal blue spotlights. The Velvet Underground produced dark, often brooding music, and their stage show reflects this. Audio comes through in linear PCM stereo, clean but unspectacular to these ears. There's no evidence of Dolby filtering to spruce up the sound, and the famed laboratory's logo is conspicuously absent from the disc and packaging.

There are no extras. The disc menu permits direct song access and that's it. In sum, the DVD is a decent souvenir of a hugely influential group, but a group past its prime whose swansong performance is, sadly, not even in the same zip code as reference-quality video and audio.

With that caveat, hard-core Velvet fans should lower their expectations and give this disc a spin. What's really missing here is the late, mysterious Nico, who died in 1988 while bicycling in Spain. The Velvet Underground's spooky muse was 50.

As my work here is done, I'm gonna lay that first album in the CD tray, don a set of headphones, and let Nico purr her silky seductions in my ear. There's no denying:

She's just a little tease / She's a femme fatale....

Set List:
• Venus in Furs
• White Light/White Heat
• Beginning to See the Light
• Some Kinda Love
• Femme Fatale
• Hey Mr. Rain
• I'm Sticking With You
• I Heard Her Call My Name
• I'll Be Your Mirror
• Rock N'Roll
• Sweet Jane
• I'm Waiting for the Man
• Heroin
• Pale Blue Eyes
• Coyote

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

A Re-Evaluation of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Sydney Pollack

Cerebral, brooding and darkly comic, Stanley Kubrick’s swansong, like his greatest films, requires multiple viewings before a full appreciation begins to sink in. And that is unfortunate, since this ambitious art film - even with two major stars – had a hard time competing for a repeat audience during the 1999 summer blockbuster season when it was originally released. Worse, few movies could live up to the expectations for Eyes Wide Shut. Fueled by more than a year of rumors about the plot, nearly all of them untrue, audiences were looking for the ultimate erotic film. This isn’t it. To say Cruise and Kidman do nothing more than nibble earlobes isn’t giving anything away. Rather, I’m doing film fans a favor by letting them know if they’ve come for a hot time, they’ll be disappointed. And that’s not their fault. It’s easy to get the wrong ideas about this picture.

Despite a teasing ad campaign from Warner Bros., this is not a movie about kinky sex featuring Hollywood’s most famous then-married couple. Or even yawn-inducing sex. In fact, in this picture they don’t have sex at all. Hardly does anyone else, except for the infamous orgy sequence. More on that in a moment.

Eyes Wide Shut is a tale of sexual obsession, with deep psychological undertones, told with the logic of a nightmare. Warner Bros. didn’t know how to market the film, so they botched the job. Kubrick didn’t help matters by dropping dead in March 1999 – mere days after delivering his final, approved cut of the film to the studio.I have seen this picture 15 times in the 9 years since it was released. On first viewing I was overwhelmingly disappointed. Kubrick, an unequivocal cinematic genius and one of my heroes, was dead and this was his last film and I thought it was a failure. But like so many other Kubrick films, time has a way of altering critical opinion.It was only by happenstance that I stumbled upon two keys that help unlock the mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut:-- I re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses about the same time I recently re-watched the picture. And it suddenly dawned on me – the structure of Eyes Wide Shut is remarkably similar to the episodic nature of Ulysses, which is divided into 18 episodes as protagonist Stephen Dedalus wanders the streets of Dublin during a single, eventful day. Kubrick tightens his film to one-third of the novel’s situations, with six episodes as Tom Cruise wanders the streets of Manhattan, and further into the Hamptons for a fateful encounter with powerful and dangerous individuals whose thirst for deviance nearly destroys him -- and his marriage.

-- Eyes Wide Shut is a meditation on the politics of marriage and the interplay of psychology, trust and fidelity that either defines the success of a union or leads to its dissolution.And now for a bit of plot:

Cruise and Kidman are wealthy Manhattanites (although the film was shot entirely in England) with a darling seven-year-old daughter and a well-appointed apartment. As Dr. William Harford, Cruise is a man at ease in high society, overly confident with himself and his place in the world. Kidman is Alice Harford, an art curator and seemingly devoted wife whose sexual fantasies threaten the couple’s complacent, insular life.

Their intimacy is established from the beginning, and not in an erotic way. The movie opens with a shot of Kidman slinking out of her black dress. Later, while her husband dresses for a Christmas party, they chat casually while she sits on the toilet, then wipes. It may be a cinematic first.

They attend a party hosted by the fabulously wealthy but decadent Victor Ziegler (Pollack), whose lifestyle provides a stunning peek inside the world of the super-rich.

The Harfords are an attractive, desirable couple. And they are not immune to temptation.
Alice dances and flirts at the party with an oily Hungarian aristocrat, while Dr. Harford soon finds two willing companions clinging to each arm. The Harfords barely rise above these attempted seductions. The doctor is about to wander off with his two bimbettes when his host sends for him. It’s urgent, a servant implores.

Upstairs, a beautiful model slumps in an upholstered chair in Ziegler’s bedroom.

"I think she OD’d," Ziegler says, seemingly more concerned about the impact this could have on him.

The doctor intervenes, calmly and without judgment. "You know," Harford tells the young woman as her eyelids flutter. "You really need to get into rehab."
He rejoins Alice and they leave the party, but all the attention and a head full of champagne have put hinky ideas in her mind by the time they get home.

Back at their apartment, Dr. Harford and Alice relax with a joint. But something’s turning in her mind. They argue about jealousy, fantasies and sexual politics. In a stunning sequence that illustrates the sudden chasm that can divide even the most committed couples, Alice confesses while stoned that she once saw a young naval officer who she would willingly have thrown away her marriage and family for a single night of sex.

The revelation shocks her husband, who is actually quite repressed and naive, unable to grasp the possibility that his wife could be unfaithful, even though it’s never made explicit that she actually would. But the possibility is enough to send the doctor reeling into the New York night, where he begins an odyssey of temptation and sexual obsession, flavored with syrupy decadence. Harford’s ego is so fragile that a chance comment from his stoned wife sends him out of the house on a dark quest for...indeed. For what? This is where the film begins to take on the tone and structure of Joyce’s greatest novel as the plot spirals into a stream-of consciousness string of increasingly bizarre situations.

Each stop along his journey draws Harford, fascinated, to a deeper level of sexual deviance. Each new encounter is more perverse than the preceding event. This isn’t as titillating as it sounds. I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), with less humor, more nudity and approximately the same weirdness quotient.

Following a chance encounter with an old college chum, now stroking the ivories at a smoky, midtown Manhattan jazz club, Harford learns of strange parties where his friend is forced to play blindfolded. But the piano player admits the blindfold once slipped and he saw garishly costumed men and mostly naked women doing, well, unspeakable things. The jazz player gives Harford the password to the party and slips away. (I note with amusement that the password is "Fidelio," the Latin for "Fidelity." It is also the title of Beethoven’s only opera).

For a troubled soul like Harford, this mysterious party provokes curiosity of a very high order. He persuades the owner of an uptown costume shop to reopen after midnight so Harford can rent a black cape and demonic mask. After an interminably long, silent ride, a taxi drops him at the gate of a mansion where a costumed Black Mass orgy is in full swing. This is the sequence where digital shadows and computer-generated "observers" were added to some scenes to obscure the copulation so the picture could qualify for an R rating, as opposed to the box-office poison of NC-17. (This illustrates the ridiculous problems with the rating system, since it deprives adults of the chance to experience what Kubrick intended, while actually making an adult-themed film more – not less – accessible to children.)

Harford certainly stares with eyes wide open as his conception of his comfortable world splinters like the glass shards in a kaleidoscope.

To reveal more would be unfair.

Kubrick’s stock-in-trade is metaphor and allegory. Here, he has created the cinematic equivalent of a fever dream. And that’s appropriate, since the source material is a 1926 novella Traumnovelle, or Dream Novel, by Arthur Schnitzler, a friend and student of Freud.

Stunningly photographed in the ultra-formal compositions that Kubrick favored, this is an often fascinating but flawed look at the complexities of marriage, sex and love, informed by a highly flexible notion of morality. Eyes Wide Shut may not be the final masterpiece I had hoped for from the late director, although in its dispassionate, darkly humorous view of humanity it is without question a Kubrick film. His imprimatur saturates every frame. And even mediocre Kubrick is more challenging than a dozen contemporary pictures, vying for audience attention at the octoplex.
I note with a final irony that feminists expressed some outrage at the seemingly gratuitous nudity and occasional objectification of women that permeates the picture. To that I say, "nonsense." It’s important when analyzing this film to remember that Alice merely gives voice to a sexual fantasy. Her husband goes out into the night and attempts to bring his fantasies to life. The difference is, of course, profound. And so, in the former, we see once again that pondering temptation is not a sin. Succumbing to temptation is. Dr. Harford salivates like Pavlov’s dog every time nubile female flesh is thrust before him. Depictions of the nudity merely underscore the overarching theme Kubrick was laying out for his audience.It is this: when it comes to fantasizing, talking about and engaging in sex, men can be such flaccid hypocrites.

Rated R for considerable nudity, sex and language.

Cinema Uprising © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve. All rights reserved.