Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

This post started out as a Sunday Screen Shot post, but, well, I got a bit carried away... Actually - this comes from Sunday's double bill at the Brattle - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and My Man Godfrey - between shows I scribbled down my thoughts on Mr. Deeds... when I got home, I set about making a post out of them, and - well, kept going...

So - Deeds strikes me as an odd film - it's right there in the middle of Capra's career, and it seems to wobble a bit. The tone is very uneven, the ideas sort of vague and half finished - the formula is a bit more obvious than in some of the other films. The opening sections are quite fine - but after Jean Arthur shows up, things start to go wrong. Deeds starts acting up, and the film goes a bit sour. Beating up the literati is a kind of turning point - Deeds stops looking like a yokel who happens to be smarter than the sophisticated New Yorkers and starts looking like a bully. The impression never entirely goes away, not until the end...

What’s worse is that in that middle part (and even through some of the end), the film starts to depend a bit too much on Deeds getting dumber when the plot requires it. That’s a problem with a lot of recent comedies - people get smarter or dumber depending on where they are in the plot. That afflicts this film - Deeds starts very smart - but starts to get weird - some of which is harmlessly weird, but a lot of it requires him to really behave - stupidly. (The Coen brothers, remaking this, got around it by letting Norville Barnes be an imbecile from the beginning.) This is, though, a danger Capra often runs up against - he’s responsible for some if it, I’m afraid. He (and Riskin and Swerling and their other writers) were always trying to play on this line - to make characters who are genuinely divided, complex, pulled by multiple forces - smart but naive; innocent but clever, or cynical but good-hearted, etc. - in stories that balance comedy, tragedy, melodrama, politics, farce, and so on - it’s a constant element in their work. And that division puts all their films in danger of doing what this one does - relying on a kind of inconsistency to work...

Mr. Deeds, I think, is less successful than most of their films - they usually pull off the balancing act. Mr. Smith also works the yokel in the big city angle for all it is worth - but it never requires Smith to be an idiot, or to become a different person from scene to scene. Ditto George Bailey - there, Stewart (and the script) always keep the division, the multiple forces pulling at him, always present, in every scene. Some of this, I think, is Jimmy Stewart - who always carries an air of barely suppressed psychosis in his films - he always plays multiple registers. But a lot of it is the script.

The fact is - Dr. Van Haller isn’t far off - Deeds does bounce all over the place. Granted - most of the time, Deeds has a sharp sense of where he is on the cycle - he rides the waves deliberately. That too depends on the actor - Cooper always seems cool and aware, in control of something - he can brood, but he always seems to know where he is. (Unlike Stewart, who can give the impression of barely holding it all back.) Unfortunately, this very quality - Cooper’s calm, his thoughtfulness, the impression of awareness he gives - confuses the meaning of the wilder scenes. When he starts taking swings at people - he comes off as too cool and deliberate to quite believe that he was losing his shit. It makes him a bully...

This is a minority position, I am sure, but I think Meet John Doe is actually a better film. It has more of the edge that Stewart’s films have - Cooper seems too grounded in Mr. Deeds. In John Doe, his character seems to work better - he comes off both as more of an innocent among the wolves, and as a bit of a wolf himself. I don’t ever believe that Mr. Deeds is in danger of cracking - but John Doe - yes, I can see that.

Still - I think Cooper is quite marvelous in Mr. Deeds - he has a way of conveying common sense - looking at things in a way that makes you see that he isn’t fooled. (Though when they need him to be fooled, they have him play dumb.) I think this works a bit better in John Doe, I admit - I think in Mr. Deeds, he’s supposed to be too much a yokel - in Doe, though he’s an innocent of sorts, he’s one who’s been around. His knowingness and his innocence both make more sense. Though as far as Cooper goes, he plays knowing innocence to perfection.

(I should say - though I think Meet John Doe is a more interesting, powerful film, Capra is more in control of Mr. Deeds. The politics in John Doe are a mess - Capra tries to do way too much. He's trying, at the same time, to champion something about America and its political life, while criticizing it - now, that's an important part of what makes Capra's films so powerful. He returns over and over to the ways what is good in true in American politics is co-opted by cynical politicians, newspapermen, businessmen [all professions he rather admires, though], who turn ideals into slogans to cover their own greed and quest for power. Anyone who tries to inject something innocent, pure, good - is soaked up into the system... Okay - and alongside this already dividedlook at American politics, I think Capra tries to take a look at how fascism works. I think this is quite explicit at times - the big John Doe rally in the rain strikes me as a fairly deliberate parody of Triumph of the Will - or at least, of Nazi iconography.... I suppose, if I wanted to write about John Doe, I should have written about John Doe, [UPDATED, with that link] though...)

So, to try to get to the end of this - what? I do think Mr. Deeds is a great film - just a bit squishy. There's so much right - funny lines and bits of business and people, a nice (complicated) love story, all those wonderful bit players Capra always featured - and - don't get me wrong, some real sting in the tail. The scene when the man breaks in on Deeds with a gun and a tale of woe is great stuff - Capra does desperation as well as anyone....

But it's not up with his best (before or after) - because - too much of the plot requires Deeds (and other people) to get smarter or dumber between scenes... Because Capra and his collaborators (Riskin etc.) were urban sophisticates playing up the small town yokel salt of the earth hokum. Capra can never quite lose his real abiding love for fast talking newspaper men and women - he’s never particularly convincing here. Jean Arthur too has to change for somewhat arbitrary plot reasons. (Unlike in Mr. Smith, where her evolution seems much more organic.) So - something of a lesser film from one of the giants of American cinema.... There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Requiem for those We Love

Memorial Day, like Veteran's Day, has changed focus over the years- it began as Decoration Day, a memorial for the Union dead after the Civil War, and only later was extended to the more general remembrance it has today. I am, I suppose, a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to holidays, and always like to go back to the source - though the broader remembrance is also a good thing.

In that spirit - both of going to the source and extending it - here is a link to Paul Hindemith's setting of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloom'd" - the poem written to commemorate Lincoln's death; the musical piece commissioned on the occasion of Roosevelt's death - both, of course, dating from the end of long wars.

Here is the opening - and the playlist, containing videos of the whole piece.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Simple Musical Post

AS we head into what I hope is a happy Memorial Day weekend for everyone, let's fire up the iPod and see what we can find...

1. Bob Dylan - You're Gonna Make me Lonesome When You Go - happy Birthday, Bob!
2. Naked CIty - Igneous Ejaculation [another data point against Jonah Weiner.]
3. Minutemen - This Road
4. The Strokes - Evening Sun
5. Decembrists - The Gymnast, High Above the Ground
6. Pere Ubu - Indiangiver
7. Muddy Waters - The Same Thing [I love Pete Cosey...]
8. John Lennon - Cold Turkey
9. Scott Walker - Such a Small Love
10. Fairport Convention - Staines Morris

And for video - let's try some live Naked City - John Zorn, Bill Frisell...

And their Batman theme:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Syberberg Screen Shots

Well - for this week's installment of Sunday Screen Shots - let's follow up on Lars von Trier's (self-induced) misfortunes, with some shots from one of the more extraordinary attempts to address the legacy of Hitler and the Nazis, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler: A Film From Germany.

I suspect von Trier has drawn an idea or two from Syberberg - the extreme stylization of his early films, especially, seems reminiscent of this film. And I suppose his willingness to dig into evil - and into his own possible sympathy for evil - is consonant with Syberberg's exploration of evil.

And I suspect, in his awkward and ill-advisedly flippant way, von Trier's larger point is that we can't simply expel Hitler and the Nazis from the human race. He didn't act alone, after all... how he got Germany to follow him, etc., remains a question, and how not to do it again remains a problem... I'm not sure declaring him off limits is the best answer to that problem. Mockery has great value.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Movie Follies

I think I will keep it simple today - straight up random... though first - a film link - a Woody Allen Blogathon, starting, I think, today.... there's another Woody Allen film coming out, that, like most of his films, seems to be getting good notices before it's actually released - who knows, maybe this one really isn't all that bad. Glenn Kenny liked it! I don't know; the previews filled me with dread. The descriptions seem to indicate that it is against nostalgia - the reviews, on the other hand, like most of Allen's recent reviews, seem driven mainly by nostalgia - a desperate hope that this time he will give us what he gave us back when we loved Woody Allen. Still - I might break my once every 7 years Woody Allen film attendance record...

But now - music:

1. Danielson - Olympic Portions
2. Tool - Forty six & 2
3. Sunny Day Real Estate - Shadows
4. Loren Connors - Airs No. 7
5. Neutral Milk Hotel - Untitled
6. Billy Bragg & Wilco - Eisler On the Go
7. Decembrists - of Angels and Angles
8. MIA - Born Free
9. Kali Bahlu - A Game Called Who Am I [are you a leprechaun?]
10. Melt Banana - Slide Down

Nothing there demands a video - so in honor of the possibility of getting rid of a whole bunch of the more obnoxious Christians this weekend - here's Blondie:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Film Festival Follies

I haven't been following the news from Cannes too closely this year - I was on vacation last week, up in the Northeast Kingdom and Upstate NY, with better things to use my spotty network reception for than reading about new Terence Malick films... But it's good to see that some auteurs can be counted on to deliver the goods. I mean of course, Lars von Trier - who made a fool of himself at a press conference (I like Emerson's post - he has video and some context) - though from a man who once cast himself as the "Schmuck of Ages", making a fool of himself seems pretty much standard operating procedure. Unfortunately, the Festival organizers proceeded to top him, making complete asses of themselves by banning him - my, my.

I'm not going to go into much depth on this, but - I'm not sure what of von Trier's remarks could be fairly called "unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity" (as the festival's statement put it.) He used inflammatory words and images - you're always on thin ice cracking wise about Nazis and the holocaust [unless you're making shitty, anti-historical movies about it - fucking Life is Beautiful won a prize!] - but the actual content of what he said doesn't seem all that offensive. Something about discovering that his ancestors were Germans instead of Jews, and referring to Germans as Nazis... something about understanding what Hitler must have felt like in the bunker (related, I imagine, to the fact Von Trier's Melancholia is about the end of the world) - hardly offensive, a bit banal even - we all know Hitler loved dogs and kids!... By that time, (going by the video you can find at Scanners) he seems to have realized he was digging himself in a hole - you get some generalities about the evils of the holocaust, his support for Jews (though not for Israel), an aside on Albert Speer, and finally - well - probably the dumbest punch line you can come up with - "OK, I'm a Nazi." But still - it's a punch line, and bad taste, I'm afraid, isn't quite what I'd call "unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity"....

It's not like he's alone in playing around with Nazi imagery - is there a punk rocker alive who didn't? There's just nothing there in what he said - provocation and posturing at most.... And on that note, I'll leave you with these nice American boys, doing a happy ditty about- something... about as seriously fascist as von Trier, to tell the truth...

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mother's Day Nihon no Eiga Style

If I were going to start posting something like a Sunday Screen Shot, this would be the place to start - Happy Mother's Day! and if there's a richer source of mother's on film than Japanese film, I'm not sure what it is... there is no limit, I think, to the number of pictures I could fine here.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Another Musical Friday

Back to the randomizer today... I am rather amazed that I have managed this very modest goal of putting up a music post every Friday - and even managed to work in a few variations... I may have to look for some other ways to trick myself into a couple posts a week - maybe a Sunday Screen Shot, or something like that...

But now? Music - what will iTunes offer us today?

1. Pere Ubu - Kathleen
2. NIck Cave & Bad Seeds - Darker With the Day
3. Fire Theft - Summertime
4. Xela - Afraid of Monsters
5. Mark Stewart - Rise Again
6. Six Organs of Admittance - Close to the Sky
7. PJ Harvey - Down By the Water
8. Tool - WIngs for Marie (Part 1)
9. Foals - Tron
10. Pavement - Conduit for Sale

Well - that came out well... and video? a very familiar collection of groups, I fear - don't I get Nick Cave or Pere Ubuon here every couple weeks? Well - here's another favorite who've probably had their day a few times - Pavement, live in 1999...

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama Bin Laden

I should probably note the end of Mr. Bin Laden. I can't say I have anything too profound to say about it. I will say that the best response to it I've seen is from low-tech cyclist at the Cogitamus blog. Not surprising that it's a Hammett quote (though straight from the movie - though the movie takes the speech almost straight from the novel.) I've long associated September 11th with the story of Flitcraft in the Maltese Falcon - the man who adjusted himself to beams falling, then adjusted himself to beams not falling - sometimes to explain how we can go back to our lives after something like that, sometimes to marvel about how some of us refuse to adjust to beams falling... But as for Bin Laden, and why getting him matters - this says it just about perfectly:

When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's-it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

That is just about how I feel about this. It has been too long to take an awful lot of satisfaction out of it - but given the enormity of his deeds, and the importance of being able to protect yourself, your citizens - it's very important that this be brought to a conclusion. I don't feel much like celebrating (it's not like this is the end of the war - VE or VJ days - those are days for parties in the streets), but I can't deny taking a powerful satisfaction in the end of a very bad man.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Happy May Day!

Happy May Day! And in the interests of ecumenicalism - I will offer a choice of celebrations this year.

Chinese heavy metal?

Liars, celebrating Walpurgis night?

Morris dancers?

Whatever your preference - enjoy the day. Sunny enough to pass for spring here in Boston...