Friday, March 07, 2014

On Stanley Donen's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

I had underrated this before. Sure, the ballet at the barn-raising is arguably the greatest group dance in Hollywood history (the only other real contenders are probably from West Side Story), building a traditional minuet ever faster into a gymnastic competition, but it's immediately followed by a very well-choreographed (for Hollywood at the time) fight sequence. Director Stanley Donen fills the Cinemascope frame with professional dancers, long takes and long shots that display both the skill of the performers (how fast and in sync they are!) and the intricacy of Michael Kidd's choreography. I long for the days when dancing like this is again valued in Hollywood filmmaking, when the Rob Marshalls of the world are no longer allowed to pass off quick cuts of incompetent body parts as musical numbers. This middle section of the film concludes with a kind of slow-motion dance, as the six brothers sing about loneliness on the farm while listlessly doing their chores (the axe chops and wood saws of which provide rhythmic punctuation to the song, "Lonesome Polecat"). All that is pretty much perfect. It's the first and final third I'd never cared for in the past.

Howard Keel, I've decided, is an acquired taste. His chest-first, hands on his hips acting is the very definition of pompous, and his singing strikes modern ears as overly formal, a resonant bass-baritone that says "Listen To Me! I Am Singing!". I'd always found him to be absurd, especially as a kid when my mom would try and make me watch his movies. But look closer and you see that again and again, his musicals are built around the puncturing of that very pomposity, that he is meant to be a ridiculous figure, a parody of masculinity (see for example, George Sidney's film of Cole Porter's sublime Shakespeare inversion Kiss Me Kate). So it is here, as he plays the backwoodsman come to town to find a wife, which he does in a single afternoon (Jane Powell). Only on their arrival at his remote ranch does she begin to understand his regressive view of marriage, as he introduces her to his six brothers and announces that she is expected to do the cooking and cleaning and sewing and everything else for them all (not a wife, but a housekeeper).

Powell, though, quickly undermines him. First by kicking him out of her bedroom (though she later relents, for she is allowed to desire him: in fact, the men in the film are as much if not more objectified than the women), and then by civilizing his brothers. She makes them shave and wash and wear clean, brightly colored clothes (a different color for every brother, to help us keep them straight). She bans physical violence and teaches them to dance and court ladies. Which they do at the barn-raising (note how the townswomen are immediately attracted to them, so much taller and prettier than the gray and earth-tone clad townsmen).

It is here that Keel reasserts his backwards mentality, inciting the brothers to violence which leads to their dismissal from the community and separation from the women they are all by now deeply in love with. Then, in a demented perversion of Powell's civilizing influence (she's been exposing him to literature, specifically Plutarch's Lives), he inspires them to reenact the Rape of the Sabine Women (albeit without the rape of course) and kidnap the girls. For this, Keel is soundly admonished by Powell and rather than submit to her will, he exiles himself from the home. The girls in turn exile the boys to the barn for the winter and turn the home into a haven for feminine domesticity (they sing songs and dance in their underwear, as we all know girls do whenever they get together). As the winter months wear on, the girls' rage diminishes thanks to the demands of simple lust, and by the time spring arrives they're willing to marry the boys.

What to make of this? It's telling that Keel is twice removed, both from the town (a rugged individualist, he lives far away from civilization) and then from his wife and family (his stupid disregard for women's rights gets him banned from the domestic sphere). It is only after Powell gives birth to a daughter than Keel returns home, pointedly not at Powell's request, but on his own. His ideas are simply not acceptable, either in society or the home. And it's only the draw of fatherhood that "tames" him and brings him to submit to domestic order.

As for the kidnapping, there is a certain element of Stockholm Syndrome to the girls' deciding to forgive the boys, but I think the more interesting angle is that the women are driven by physical desire for the men, while the men (Keel the hyper-masculine especially) are driven by the material comfort provided by women, an inversion of the usual dynamic whereby women are valued for their attractiveness and men for the security they can provide. I'd still hesitate to call it a progressive film, because of the ultimately limited agency the women are allowed (though that may as much be a reflection of society than an endorsement of it), but this is a much more tangled, much richer film than I'd ever noticed before.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

This Week in Rankings

Over the past couple of weeks, leading up to that annual celebration of movies and movie culture that is Oscar night, I handed out a bunch of Endy Awards for the years 1934 and 2007-2013. I enjoy putting those things together, probably too much. I also wrote long reviews of a number of films: 2013's Cannes sensation Blue is the Warmest Color, Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon and Shanghai Blues (part of my on-going Running Out of Karma series), Hayao Miyazaki's The Castle of Cagliostro (a warm-up to our epic They Shot Pictures episode on Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli) and my favorite movie of 2013, Raya Martin and Mark Peranson's La última película (part of my on-going I swear coverage of the 2013 Vancouver Film Festival). On The George Sanders Show, we talked Oscars with Best Picture winners The Great Ziegfeld and Chicago.

Over at Letterboxd I have a few lists, new and updated: Running Out of Karma Movies, Tsui Hark Movies, Best Picture Oscar Winners, Alain Resnais Movies, Studio Ghibli MoviesMovies Discussed on The George Sanders Show, Movies Where People Fall Asleep On Screen and The Best Movies of Every Year.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my comments at letterboxd.

The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard) - 16, 1936
The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle) - 30, 1937
Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler) - 17, 1942
Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway) - 12, 1947
The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. DeMille) - 30, 1952

Tom Jones (Tony Richardson) - 11, 1963
The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki) - 17, 1979
Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark) - 8, 1984
Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata) - 11, 1988
Mystic Pizza (Donald Petrie) - 48, 1988

Kiki's Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki) - 6, 1989
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata) - 4, 1991
My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata) - 3, 1999
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) - 6, 2001
Chicago (Rob Marshall) - 44, 2002

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki) - 23, 2004
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki) - 15, 2008
The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi) - 36, 2010
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) - 4, 2012
Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada) - 7, 2012

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer) - 30, 2012
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) - 34, 2012
La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson) - 1, 2013
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki) - 10, 2013
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) - 20, 2013
Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark) - 21, 2013

All is Lost (JC Chandor) - 23, 2013
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche) - 27, 2013
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) - 30, 2013
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino) - 37, 2013
Pompeii (Paul WS Anderson) - 1, 2014
And the Oscar Goes To... (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman) - 2, 2014

Monday, March 03, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark's Shanghai Blues

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

In his essential book Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell examines a sequence in Peking Opera Blues where Tsui Hark deftly coordinates the movements of his actors as they try to remain hidden from an inquisitive father (three of them are in his daughter's bed and two of them shouldn't be, if I remember correctly). It's a short little scene, and Bordwell uses it as an example of the creativity of Hong Kong artists, how they're able to make an exciting and fun sequence out of almost nothing, budget-wise, and how Tsui's mastery of cutting and framing keeps the whole sequence light and airy. Shanghai Blues is essentially a feature length version of that scene.

Set in the chaotic interregnum between the end of World War II and the end of the Civil War that would bring the Communists to power, Kenny Bee plays a veteran trying to make a living as a songwriter while searching for a girl he met only briefly, in the dark and under a bridge, ten years earlier during an air raid. He becomes entangled with his downstairs neighbors, Sally Yeh, a recent arrival who promptly has her pocket picked, and Sylvia Chang, a showgirl (who we know is the girl from the bridge). An early scene of Yeh and Bee just missing seeing each other as they do their roof-top laundry is compounded in the film's central, and most extraordinary segment, when Chang, to get out of the rain, goes into Bee's apartment to change clothes, but mid-change, Yeh arrives (she now has a crush on Bee) and so Chang hides in a closet. At the same time, the same pickpocket from early in the film is trying to rob the apartment and hiding from everyone else. Finally, one of Bee's pals shows up, so Yeh goes into hiding as well. Bee attempting to hide the two girls from the friend and from each other while the thief tries to hide from everyone. All in the confines of a tiny, cunningly laid out apartment to which Tsui has spent the first half of the film slyly orienting us. It's as remarkable a tour de force of choreography as you'll find in any kung fu film.

This kind of romance, where the two heroes can't see each other, though they occupy the same space (same frame) dates back at least as far as Paul Fejos's 1928 Lonesome, and Tsui appears to be specifically riffing on it. The early shot of Bee and Chang's separation in the crowd in particular recalls that film. Johnnie To's Turn Left, Turn Right, what I'd consider one of his most underrated films (even among his romantic comedies: I think it has a lower profile because it lacks any of his signature stars, with Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung instead of Sammi Cheng or Andy Lau or Louis Koo), follows that tradition as well, even adopting Lonesome's conceit that the two destined lovers are unwitting neighbors. But I wonder if Shanghai Blues isn't the more proximate influence. In Lonesome, the heroes just miss each other through their parallel stories, but they rarely share the same filmic space. In Shanghai Blues, they're often in the same space, looking right at and not recognizing each other, while everyone else in the film seems to be actively attempting to avoid being seen by someone (a girl at the nightclub hides from a lecherous gangster, Yeh mistakenly joins a modeling audition and is appalled by people looking at her (when she later gets the job, she's mobbed by men everywhere she goes)). In the To film, no one is hiding, it is instead apparently chance and fate that prevents them from meeting, though through much of the film we see them together in the same frame. Tsui sets his avoidance dances in confined spaces (tiny apartments, dressing rooms), but To's is set out in the open: a fountain in a public park, a street corner, a sidewalk (a similar scene plays out early in Romancing in Thin Air, itself a kind of compendium of all of To's romantic comedies, where Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo wander outside the grounds of the hotel, oblivious to each others' presence).

The three films are somewhat different in their thematic ends as well. Lonesome as all about the city, growing out of the city symphony subgenre of films in the late 20s, a time of rapid urbanization throughout the Western world, as people flocked from the farms and the countryside to new, anonymous urban centers, cut off from the family and communal structures that had supported their lives for generations. Turn Left, Turn Right is about chance and fate, the interplay of which forms one of the thematic cores of To's work, expressed across genres in romantic comedies and gangster epics alike (exploring the development of this theme is one of the ultimate goals of Running Out of Karma). Shanghai Blues seems to me to be about in-betweenness, about a world that's lost all its moorings, and the fear that what's to come may be even worse. It's about trying to keep your head down and get by, while dreaming of being a star. There doesn't seem to be any metaphysical element to Tsui's work; To and Wai Ka-fai have a spiritual preoccupation I've yet to identify in any of Tsui's films. Peking Opera Blues ends with its heroes, having saved the day, riding off saying they'll meet again soon, though we know the contingencies of the wars make that extremely unlikely. Similarly, as two of the heroes here leave Shanghai for Hong Kong, while the others stay behind, we know they too will never meet again. Just another pair of couples lost in the churn of history.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

2007 Endy Awards

These are the 2007 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Endy Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I've seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .

Best Picture:

1. Flight of the Red Balloon
2. I'm Not There
3. My Winnipeg
4. There Will Be Blood
5. You, the Living

Best Director:

1. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flight of the Red Balloon
2. Todd Haynes, I'm Not There
3. Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg
4. Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
5. Roy Andersson, You, the Living

Best Actor:

1. Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
2. Alejandro Polanco, Chop Shop
3. Lau Ching-wan, Mad Detective
4. Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men
5. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Best Actress:

1. Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
2. Asia Argento, Boarding Gate
3. Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon
4. Tang Wei, Lust, Caution
5. Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding

Supporting Actor:

1. Kurt Russell, Grindhouse
2. Ben Whishaw, I'm Not There
3. Marcus Carl Franklin, I'm Not There
4. Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
5. Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men

Supporting Actress:

1. Marie-Josée Croze, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
2. Song Fang, Flight of the Red Balloon
3. Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
4. Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
5. Rachel Weisz, My Blueberry Nights

Original Screenplay:

1. Hou Hsiao-hsien & François Margolin, Flight of the Red Balloon
2. Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman, I'm Not There
3. Wai Ka-fai & Au Kin-yee, Mad Detective
4. Guy Maddin & George Toles, My Winnipeg
5. Roy Andersson, You, the Living

Adapted Screenplay:

1. Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
2. Gus van Sant, Paranoid Park
3. Eric Rohmer, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
4. Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
5. James Vanderbilt, Zodiac

Non-English Language Film:

1. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2. Mad Detective (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai)
3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)
4. The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen)
5. You, the Living (Roy Andersson)

Documentary Film:

1. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
2. Helvetica (Gary Hustwit)
3. The King of Kong (Seth Gordon)
4. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
5. The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (Adam Curtis)

Animated Film:

1. Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis)
2. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
3. The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman)

Unseen Film:

1. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette)
2. The Man from London (Bela Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky)
3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi)
4. Secret Sunshine (Lee Changdong)
5. We Own the Night (James Gray)

Film Editing:

1. I'm Not There
2. My Winnipeg
3. No Country for Old Men
4. There Will Be Blood
5. You, the Living


1. Flight of the Red Balloon
2. My Blueberry Nights
3. The Sun Also Rises
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Zodiac

Art Direction:

1. The Darjeeling Limited
2. I'm Not There
3. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
4. You, the Living
5. Zodiac

Costume Design:

1. I'm Not There
2. The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
3. There Will Be Blood
4. You, the Living
5. Zodiac


1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2. Grindhouse
3. Mad Detective
4. Pirates fo the Caribbean: At World's End
5. Sukiyaki Western Django

Original Score:

1. Atonement
2. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Ratatouille
5. There Will Be Blood

Adapted Score:

1. The Darjeeling Limited
2. The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
3. I'm Not There
4. Paranoid Park
5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


1. Grindhouse
2. I'm Not There
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Ratatouille
5. There Will Be Blood

Sound Editing:

1. The Bourne Ultimatum
2. No Country for Old Men
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
4. Ratatouille
5. There Will Be Blood

Visual Effects:

1. Grindhouse
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
3. Resident Evil: Extinction
4. Transformers
5. Zodiac