Friday, September 23, 2011

A Trip to Chinatown

Well friends, it has decidedly been quite some time since I've written to you. Apologies all around. There has been a tremendous amount of grad school reading on my end, and one loses sight of the important things when faced with so many chapters of Stanley Cavell text. (Pretentious film scholar reference, if you didn't notice!)

As for my quest for the Cinema Literacy Exam, Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) was my second viewing. I, embarrassingly enough had never seen this film. Let's skip the traditional, Nicholson, Dunaway gave career-defining performances, and Huston was the epitome of pure evil and get straight to the film jargon.


In the brief (15 minutes at most) documentary that accompanied the film on the DVD, the screenwriter, Robert Towne, said that he wrote the script with Nicholson in mind, and that over the course of production, Nicholson was encouraged to change his lines to make them sound more natural in his persona that has lasted four decades. I thought this was an interesting approach, and it made the dialogue seem so natural and believable.


This is one of the great films that is studied over and over again in film courses across the country, despite the fact that I do not recall it ever being mentioned in any of mine during my undergraduate years. This is pulpy neo-noir at it's finest. Every moment is singed with sexual chemistry between the two main characters. Dunaway gives off such heat in this film that she nearly rivals Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder). And I said almost there, film kids, there obviously is no equal to Stanwyck in the femme fatale department.


What's great about this film is it's pace. Polanski drags this plot out over 130 long minutes. The action is, apart from a few key chase scenes and gun fights, rather slow. The story is about the L.A. water works, of all things. This may sound incredibly dull, but it is because of this that this film is so memorable. Normally, you would scoff at the idea of a film being made about a man investigating the corruption of a city's water system, but this film's intensity is at such a high that it could make even the most mundane moments of these character's lives seem fascinating. That is a combination of performance, writing, and direction. No one element can really be given sole credit for this film becoming the iconic work of art that it is.


One of the most interesting elements of the film, in my opinion, is the casting of John Huston as the villain. Here is a Hollywood titan that is responsible for directing such a large number of classic films, such as The African Queen (1951), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Key Largo (1948), and he is truly the devil incarnate in this film. This disturbing performance, that seems so kind and jovial on the surface, yet so internally evil, is one of the defining elements of the film. Just take a look at that picture there. Doesn't this look like the face of the kind grandpa or neighbor that smokes cigars regularly? Huston takes that image and knocks you on your ass with it.

Chinatown is a film that should be studied in depth by every film student that is pursuing a career in film scholarship, as it is the definitive example of neo-noir and features some of the finest performances in the medium. Period. Whether or not you are a fan of Roman Polanski, let the film speak for itself and expose yourself to one of the finest films of the 20th century.

Coming up next......

Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

All photos were courtesy of Google Images.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The 39 Steps


Ranked #4 on the 1999 British Film Institute's list of "100 Best British Films of the 20th Century" (Glancy, 80), Alfred Hitchcock's classic espionage thriller, The 39 Steps was released in 1935.

Considered by many to be the best of Hitchcock's early works, The 39 Steps showcases the auteur's profound knowledge of sound as it utilizes a technique known as sound matching as a transitionary plot device. This advanced use of audio is one of the reasons why the film is held in such high regard.

To flow from the scene of a murder (as shown here)

to the train in which the protagonists are traveling (see below)


Hitchcock used the briefest of cuts and transformed the sound of the woman's scream into the loud whistle of the train as it exits the tunnel. With this technique, the viewer is instantly transported from one location to the next in one jarring transition, barely leaving time to come to terms with what has happened in the scene prior. To my knowledge, this is the first instance that this technique was used so effectively.

In watching this film, one is able to witness a great director developing the skills that would pave the way for his even more masterful films such as Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946), Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954). Upon the release of this film, Hitchcock was not yet known for his incredibly long takes, and for the most part, the takes in The 39 Steps are not exceptionally long. What we have here is a charming film that combines a touch of romance with the suspense that Hitchcock has always been synonymous with.


I am, of course, most familiar with Hitchcock's films of the 40's, 50's, and 60's, so this was the earliest of his films that I have viewed. I greatly look forward to seeing the films made prior to this one. The 39 Steps is a great film, one that showcased a talented young director and featured riveting performances from all involved.

That's #1 on the list of Film Literacy Exam films crossed off. 99 to go...

Work Cited:
Glancy, Mark. The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide. I.B. Tauris: London, 2002.

All images are courtesy of Google Images.

A Declaration of What's To Come...

I know it has been far too long since my last post on here, but many exciting things have happened since the last time I wrote. I graduated from Bowling Green, and was accepted in the Film Studies Master's Program at the University of Miami. Florida life is certainly very different from that of Ohio. For one thing, there are tiny lizards roaming the sidewalks everywhere.

One of the first things I found out from the School of Communication is that at the end of my two years here, I will have to take what's called a Film Literacy Exam. Basically, they have devised a list of 100 films that have changed the world of film and are necessary viewing for anyone that wants to be taken seriously academically in this field. I'll include the list at the end of this post.

This new quest for academic enlightenment features many films that I have already seen before, and quite a few that I, embarrassingly enough, had not. So, over the course of the next two years, I will be writing about these films in preparation for the Film Literacy Exam. That being said, I will still critic current films that I have seen, particularly because the theatres here get a much wider variety of films that the theatres back home.

Let the epic journey begin...

And now for the complete list of films:

The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, 1935)
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)
8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)
Aguierre, Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959)
Asparagus (Pitt, 1979)
Awaara (Kapoor, 1951)
The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1965)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
Betty Boop and Popeye Shorts (Fleischer, 1930s)
Bicycle Thief (de Sica, 1948)
The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946)
The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915)
The Blot (Weber, 1921)
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967)
Breaking the Waves (von Trier, 1996)
Breathless (Godard, 1960)
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1919)
Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel and Dali, 1929)
Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch and Morin, 1961)
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
City of God (Meirelles and Lund, 2002)
Cleo from Five to Seven (Varda, 1961)
The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1992)
Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
Don't Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1963)
Earth (Mehta, 1998)
El Norte (Nava, 1983)
The General (Keaton, 1926)
The Graduate (Nichols, 1967)
Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)
Harlan County, USA (Kopple, 1976)
High School (Wiseman, 1968)
Hiroshima, mon Amour (Resnais, 1959)
The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, 1951)
Hyenas (Mambety, 1992)
Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)
Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
In the Mood for Love (Wai, 2000)
It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934)
The Jazz Singer (Crosland, 1927)
L'Avventura (Antonioni, 1960)
La Jetée (Marker, 1963)
Land without Bread (Buñuel, 1932)
Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
Late Spring (Ozu, 1949)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)
Los Olvidados (Buñuel, 1950)
Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929)
Memories of Underdevelopment (Gutiérrez, 1968)
Menace II Society (Hughes Brothers, 1993)
Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren, 1944)
Metropolis (Lang, 1927)
Mon Oncle (Tati, 1957)
Morocco (von Sternberg, 1930)
Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922)
On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954)
Open City (Rossellini, 1945)
Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)
Persona (Bergman, 1966)
The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940)
Primary (Drew, 1960)
Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou, 1991)
Red (Kieslowski, 1994)
Red Dust (Fleming, 1932)
The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986)
Salesman (Maysles, 1969)
Salt of the Earth (Biberman, 1954)
Scarface (Hawks, 1932)
The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
Sherman's March (McElwee, 1986)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Hand, 1937)
The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls, 1971)
Soy Cuba (Kalatozov, 1964)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
Tale of Winter (Rohmer, 1992)
A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988)
Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935)
Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932)
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
What's Opera, Doc? (Jones, 1957)
Window Water Baby Moving (Brakhage, 1962)
Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Almodóvar, 1988)
The World of Apu (Ray, 1959)
Xala (Sembene, 1975)

And that's that, folks! Just as a note, I do believe that the majority of these films are included on the Netflix Instant Watch!