Tuesday, November 29, 2005

100 Films: The Sweet Smell of Success

I just checked the statistics and it seems that as many as 10 people read this web log on a daily basis. So it is a little surprising that press agent leeches are hanging around trying to get me to name drop for them (example: 'speaking of Italian neo-realism, nothing is better than watching a good movie and having a slice of white pizza from The Pizza Company, by far the best deliverers in the South Hills' and so on). It is true: I tried to ruin a health club here, but that was a freebee and anyway the last time I checked my vitriolic posting hasn't effected those rotten swindlers at Frederick Athletic Club. But suppose I had 60 million faithful readers instead of 6? And suppose I was a newspaper gossip columnist in the 1950's? Well, those health club folks would be sorry then. At least that is what I've been lead to believe by watching The Sweet Smell of Success [1], a noir movie released in 1957. Incidentally, this was the same year that On the Road was published, and only 20 years after marijuana was made illegal. The film is about egotistical gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, his slow moving kid sister, Susan, her would be fiance and aspiring jazz musician, Steve Dallas [2], and press agent/sycophant Sidney Falco [3]. J. J. won't publish Sidney's press agent tidbits in his column until Sidney breaks up Susan and Steve. This is a noir movie, so it doesn't end well. It is significant that the title mentions the sweet smell of success, but says nothing of its taste.

All that said, the movie actually works, which is interesting because:
a) It doesn't give us any characters to root for
b) It is shows contempt for both its characters, and by implication it's audience. People like J. J. exist because people like us read US Weekly. Or at least flip through it in grocery store lines when no one is looking.

It probably works because it is satisfying to see bastards fail, and because the writers pack it with relatively memorable pulp dialog. Still, like jazz wannabe Steve Dallas, the writers perhaps try a bit too hard to be cool.

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[1] See Lucas's Review and IMDB.

[2] He doesn't make much of a jazz player: in a shocking twist ending, rumors that he smokes pot turn out to be false.

[3] To my knowledge there is no relation to Falco the hit German pop star.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

100 Films: Ladri di biciclette

The scenario of The Bicycle Thief [1] is that age old question of whether it is ethical for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. The difference is in the film our man is stealing a bicycle to keep his job to earn money to buy bread, and preferably bread with mozzarella on it. This is Ethics 101 territory and if I ever have to teach such a class I'll consider screening this movie. However, if this was only a simple moral tale, a well meaning message for folks in post-war Italy, it wouldn't likely be available on DVD or present on our 100 films itinerary, nor would would it probably play to a packed house in New York's upper west side where I saw it several weeks ago. Ideas don't make movies great, movies make ideas great. Sometimes. This time, on top of the standard tropes of Italian neo-realism, the story is driven by the grace and humanity of the performances. The characters are so real, so interesting, and so sympathetic that this movie could have been released yesterday and we wouldn't have to attempt to suspend our disbelieve or give anyone the benefit of the doubt. But even the great performances don't explain the appeal of The Bicycle Thief. The film radiates with life and, even in a world where men must steal bicycles, life is a miracle.

[1] IMDB: Ladri di biciclette

Thursday, November 10, 2005

You can't take it with you

So I'm psuedomoving tomorrow and I've been having to make a lot of decisions. For instance, which DVDs should I bring with me? I have tons. I went out and bought a 25 DVD case (up to two disks per dvd). The trick is to pick ones that are rare and essential. There will be an Annie Hall where I'm going, but will there be a The Sorrow and the Pity? And so on. I also had to take into consideration movies I'll be watching for 100 films.

Here is my list (unordered):
1. Notorious (Criterion)
2. The Thin Man (Criterion)
3. Seven Samurai (Criterion)
4. Smiles of a Summer Night (Criterion)
5. The Seventh Seal (Criterion)
6. Wild Strawberries (Criterion)
7. Vertigo
8. Yojimbo (Criterion)
9. Persona
10. The Purple Rose of Cairo
11. The Rules of the Game (Criterion)
12. 8 1/2 (Criterion)
13. Bon Voyage
14. Jules and Jim (Criterion)
15. Gosford Park
16. Charade (Criterion)
17. I am trying to break your heart
18. Hannah and her Sisters
19. Crimes and Misdemeanors
20. The Russian Ark
21. The Sorrow and the Pity
22. La Strada (Criterion)
23. The Lady Vanishes (Criterion)
24. Manhattan
25. My Night at Maud's

Well? What would you bring?

Excerpts from the Correspondence of Matt Reed 2001-2002

Annie: "The greatest joke of all is that we are here and fools... The joke part is that we forget."

O lost and waste of life, o ruthless and barren world, that such is the state of human creatures as we drag ourselves through our desperate business among the thin towns and desolate plains! O worthless existence for which every man and woman is a stranger, where even our dearest friends are unknown to us, lost in the retched world in which nothing is held dear. When beer is not cherished, what is there left for us to cling?

I haven't had a job literally since the last millennium. I have only six dollars and some change. And although being alone for me usually doesn't translate into loneliness, I often feel like I have no where to turn. Aside from the fact that I am poor, I feel no need for independence, but I do need newness. To tell you the truth, I am about 2 months away from giving up, selling everything I own, and moving to Argentina.

"Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." Well, another week has slipped by. For that matter, six months have slipped away. It has almost been six months since I started working, and I feel like I've accomplished nothing, and perhaps lost ground.

Dante placed Ulysses in the eighth circle of hell because his quest for knowledge had no limits. I would say that about half my problems are caused by thinking too much.

The difference between fact and Truth. (I just remembered that splendid sentence: "Hello," I lied). Yes, and I understand exactly what you mean what you mean when you say "what abstraction is better than facts." I have felt the same thing. But the problem is the number of facts that exist. When you say this is a fact and therefore a truth, you are being untruthful because you are pointing about one fact among an infinite number of facts and saying it alone is relevant.

Nothing is changed with me. Probably everything I wrote to you last, or said to you last, as the case may be, is still true.

It is difficult to write a sentence these days without sounding trite. "Count it a blessing that you're such a failure your second change might never have come." Hmm.

An easy victory is never a great victory.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Opposition, Party of 2

It seems to me that the main problem with political parties is that they are run by politicians, which gives me an idea for a new party tentatively named the Opposition Party [1][2]. The rules would be something like:

A. No member could run for office: No candidates, no majority or minority power, no chance of being corrupted by being in charge.
B. The party would be vocal contrarians of whoever has political power.
C. The party would endorse politicians from other parties, but it would only endorse incumbents in the most extreme situations.

It wouldn't work of course, but that's okay. It's not as if the current parties are working, either.

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[1] OPP for short?
[2] I am thinking specifically of the US, but perhaps it would work in other democracies as well.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

100 Films: Umberto D.

If you ever find youself in Paris, try to drop by the Musee d'Orsay. It is a great art museum, and it has a number of things going for it over the more famous Louvre:
1) The d'Orsay is smaller, so there is not so much walking involved.
2) At the d'Orsay you don't have to pretend you are interested in Italian Renaissance paintings. [1]
3) Unlike certain Lourvrian Venuses, the sculptures tend to have all their arms in tact.

The Musee d'Orsay contains art and art objects from the late 19th and early 20th century, and there are a good many masterpieces to be seen. But it is easy to forget that many, if not most, of the masterpieces were controversial at best in their own time [2]. It is easy to label a painting as impressionist or post-impressionist or what have you, and happily roller-state on to something else, forgetting that these artworks were at one time shocking and revolutionary (you won't see many scandalized bourgeois fleeing the Musee d'Orsay these days). One wonders what is a worse fate for a Monet painting: being rejected by the Parisian establishment, or a century later having its print decorate the wall of a Dentist's wanting room?

The point of all this talk of French painting [3] is to note that in viewing art it is important to understand the artwork both in its relation to youself, but also in its relation to all viewers who have ever observed it and especially to its original audience.

And Umberto D. [4] is a work of art, a masterpiece actually, a masterpiece about a poor elderly man and his dog. As most reviews will tell you, it is a masterpiece of Italian neorealism: the actors were not professionals, the filming was done on location, the subject was impoverished post-war Italy. But at the time of its original release, it was not an old foreign art film to be filed away as "Neo-Realist" in an unread cinema textbook, and like the great artworks of late 19th century France, the film was controversial. Unlike those paintings, however, no one can accuse Umberto D. of being "pretty". [5] The theme is poverty. Many of the characters are cruel and indifferent. There isn't a particularly happy ending. And unlike pastel paintings of lilies and sunsets, it is easy to see how this film could be controversial: Italian society does not come off very well.

But so much for the 20th century Italians. One could see this film without knowing anything about Italy or neo-Realism or post war economics or the Louvre, and still be caught up in it and still think it a work of art. Unlike many characters from films, Umberto is a real person. While it is not wrong to use stereotypical characters in film, it is certainly limited. In the end Umberto Domenico Ferrari loses almost everything, but he is more heroic than most action movie protagonists: he is a hero because he is a person, not a category. The movie is not about the plight of the poor or the elderly or the pitiable "other" or the ethical treatment of pets. The movie is about Umberto D.

Today, when the our most popular documentaries are self-righteous polemics like Fahrenheit 911 or escapist animal narratives like March of the Penguins and "reality" programming has degenerated the craft of television to a state of increasingly ridiculous and tasteless one-upmanship, the lesson of De Sica's Umberto D. is sorely needed: reality is a good thing in film only to the extent that its subject is humanity. If an artwork, no matter how real, ceases to be humane, it ceases to be worthwhile.

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[1] Admit it: once you've seen one, you've seen them all.

[2] Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass, which was rejected by the Paris Salon, is a starting example, but the history of impressionism is punctuated by a good bit of rejection.

[3] In interest of full disclosure: I really don't know what I'm talking about. Please don't hold the fact that I'm full of crap against me.

[4] See IMDB info or Lucas's Article.

[5] It runs the risk of being sentimental, of course, but that is to be expected when the story is about an elderly man and his dog.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Portrait of a Voter as a Young Man

I voted yesterday in my local elections even though I am moving soon and it won't effect me. Even so I was one of less than 30% of registered voters in the city to actually show up. The bad news is: most of my picks lost. The outsider Republican won in an upset, so I am guessing a lot of people just assumed his popular opponent was going to win and decided it wasn't worth it to vote. Perhaps there was something good on TV? The good news is I actually got to vote for James Joyce (who lost, which is odd--you'd think he'd do well on name req alone. I blame the education system in this country) and the local Green candidate (who also lost, but that isn't surprising out here in suburb country).

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

October Progress

Books Read:
The Open Door Frederica Mathewes-Green
Mary The Birthgiver of God St. John Maximovitch

Movies Seen for the First Time:
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Proof
The Interpreter
Underworld
Batman Begins
Nonotchka
Kingdom of Heaven
Melinda and Melinda
Happily Ever After
Dot the i

Concerts attended:
David Mead (Vienna, VA)

Museums attended:
Museum of Fine Art (Boston, MA)

Bottles of Single Malt Scotch:
Glenkinchie (Lowland)
Glen Moray (Speyside)

Misc For the Month

Days spent employed: 5
Job Interviews: 2 1/2
Job Offers Accepted: 1
US States: MD, VA, PA, NH, VT, MA
Major Cities: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, DC, Boston
Ideas for Pulp Mystery Novel: 1 (Par for Corpse: Murder on the 9th Green)

Commentary

The books were good but short and I haven't been reading enough lately (been too busy not doing what I need to do). The David Mead show was great, and I might write more about it. Same with the MFA. I liked most of the movies I saw. 'Dot the i' was billed as 'This year's Memento.' It wasn't. So it goes. The Glen Moray was a good find. It is fairly similar to Glenlivet, but I got it for about 25$. I don't know why anyone would buy something blended like Dewars when you can get a good single malt for only five dollars more.