Thursday, April 28, 2022

A Glimpse at Some of Our Grand Illusions

With everyone’s mind on the war in Ukraine right now, it seemed an appropriate time to look at one of the great anti-war classics, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. This 1937 release is better known in America by its English-language title, Grand Illusion. Renoir, the son of the famous French Impressionist painter, himself fought for France during the first World War. (His “everyman” lead actor, Jean Gabin, in fact wears Renoir’s own military uniform on-screen.) Grand Illusion has been declared a masterpiece by such noted American cinéastes as Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles. We’re lucky today that a nitrate-negative movie that once seemed to exist only in smudged prints has—thanks to a complex set of circumstances involving a Russian film archive—been rescued, lovingly restored, and re-released.

 This story of a German POW camp and its French inmates is not simply saying, as so many films do, that war is hell. Grand Illusion also explores the role of social class in  determining a response to armed conflict. The prison camp is run by the always formidable Erich von Stroheim, playing Major von Rauffenstein, a German aristocrat with splendid manners and a taste for the finer things. Melancholy about the war wounds that keep him from playing a more active role in the fighting, he invites downed French air corps officers to join him for lunch. That’s how he comes to know a fellow aristocrat, Pierre Fresnay’s Captain de Boëldieu, and the two turn out to have much in common, despite their different national origins. Aside from mutual acquaintances and fond memories of dinners at Maxim’s, both feel an obligation to a life of chivalry and patriotism, expressed through daring deeds. As Boëldieu will later put it—just before he makes a climactic gesture--"For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out.”

 Though these two aristocrats have a natural rapport, the common French soldiers in the camp feel no affection for wartime chivalry and derring-do. Their first and only goal is to escape, and they work at it throughout the film, digging secret tunnels and otherwise trying to elude their captors, wherever they happen to be held. Though they sometimes engage in jolly horseplay, like a drag show where they’re outfitted as Parisian can-can girls, the lure of freedom is something they can’t forget. It is only when they find themselves in a grim and seemingly impregnable fortress that Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal and the nouveau-rich Jewish buddy (Marcel Dalio) with whom he tentatively bonds find a way to escape their surroundings. I won’t go into the role Captain de Boëldieu plays in their desperate scheme, but it leads directly into the most powerful section of the film. Eventually this gives way to a sweet idyll in the German countryside, complete with a kindly German war widow and a cow, before the film comes to a satisfying close.

 In 1937, with the forces leading to World War II ramping up, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels demanded that prints of Grand Illusion be impounded and destroyed. In 1940 the French government also banned the film, afraid that its even-handed look at German fighting forces would tamp down anti-German fervor during wartime. Today, it’s hard to view any armed conflict as heroic; the “grand illusion” that war is patriotic, and that it brings out the noble side of human nature, seems belied at every turn.  Which is all the more reason why Renoir’s masterwork should not be easily forgotten.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

There Simply Will Be Blood: The Coens’ “Blood Simple”

Last night I partied hearty with two of filmdom’s most talented bros: Joel and Ethan Coen. Fran McDormand was there too, along with a gaggle of Coen pals, on the main street of the quaint semi-rural village where they make their home. My goal was to conduct an interview about filmmaking, but my questions were swept away as we ate, drank, and caroused, culminating in a exuberant hora.

 Then I woke up.  (Well, it was fun while it lasted.)

 The cause of this dream, I am sure, was my late-night viewing of the Coens’ very first feature, Blood Simple. This twisty neo-noir from 1984 marked a number of other firsts for the brothers. It was shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, then a recent film-school graduate but now an acclaimed director of such films as Get Shorty. The score was the Coens’ first of many collaborations with the talented Carter Burwell. It was the first film editor credit for Roderick Jaynes, the Dickensian film editor who is the pseudonym for the busy Coens when they’re in editing mode. It was the first-ever professional screen credit for McDormand, who has been married to Joel Coen since the year the film was made.

 The Coens are known for bloody tales laced with black humor. And they love to explore out-of-the-way geographical locales where violence is always on the brink of erupting. That’s what brought them to suburban Texas for a story about a crass bar owner (Dan Hedaya) his restless wife (McDormand), a no-better-than-he-should-be employee (John Getz), and a private detective who’s up to no good (played by the always memorable M. Emmet Walsh). As is often true in the Coen universe, none of them is exactly made of heroic material. But their various forms of greed and lust intertwine in ways that are sometimes gruesome, sometimes darkly funny, as when a corpse doesn’t seem to want to stay dead.

 The video release of Blood Simple I watched had an extra treat for film buffs: a featurette in which Sonnenfeld and the two Coens look back at this early work and explain in detail what they could and should have done differently. Blood Simple was made on the slimmest of budgets, after the brothers created an enticing trailer as a way to drum up funding, and some of their economizing proves amusing to discuss. In an early dialogue scene, Getz and McDormand are seen seated in a moving car as the rain pours down. As we learn, the “rain” is actually a crew member on the roof, manning a water-squirting contraption, and the car in question is three highly different vehicles, each of which has certain qualities (like seats close together) that the scene requires. Much later, there’s a violent clash between McDormand and her screen husband on a suburban lawn. In the featurette, Joel and Ethan  explicitly point out which parts of the cobbled-together scene were shot on the Texas location, and which parts were pickup shots staged in various east coast locales.

 That’s the nature of filmmaking on a low budget, but the brothers are also frank about the ways in which their newness to the filming process ended up working against the aesthetic results. They complain now about their early fondness for lurid lighting effects (like “congo blue” filters) and about their apparent inability to keep some of the actors in focus. They point out with chagrin that the light source on their characters’ faces keeps changing directions, and admit to other lazy choices. They can afford to be honest, because they’re now among the most honored filmmakers of their generation.  




Friday, April 22, 2022

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: No One Loves a Critic!

I’m overjoyed to see The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel back on the tube. Though the first segment of the show’s final season was frequently gibberish, with too many plot strands being introduced far too quickly, the weeks since then have returned to what’s best about Mrs. Maisel: that lovably wacky family unit full of well-heeled misfits and hangers-on who cling together, no matter what. The episode I watched this past week is the best yet: full of family dinners, outrageous hats, and a bar mitzvah to die for. Actually, dying is somewhat of a theme of this episode, in which the pugnacious Susie’s roommate suddenly passes on, leaving her to deliver an obscene but heartfelt eulogy in front of the few folks who’ve bothered to show up to pay tribute. And also in front of those others—from the well-attended funeral next door –who get roped into listening to her memories of a man they didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t have liked.

 But my heart really went out in this episode to the redoubtable Abe Weissman (played with panache, as always, by Tony Shalhoub), the paterfamilias of this group. Once a respected, if quirky, mathematician with a secure position at Columbia University, he has made a dramatic gesture by casting aside his dignified titles and taking a low-rent job as the drama critic at The Village Voice. Now, enamored of his new role as a spokesperson for the arts, he has bought himself a twirl-worthy black cape so as to make a suitable splash when attending opening nights.

 But disaster awaits. His first theatre gig involves critiquing a new Broadway musical, an updated version of a show that was the annual highlight of the family’s summers at an oh-so-Jewish resort in the Catskills. The entire group snaps up the free tickets that have been lavished upon them, certain that one of their own has now made good on the Great White Way. Uh oh! We don’t see the show itself, but it’s clear from the forced cheerfulness of everyone in the lobby afterwards that this will not be a palpable hit. Abe tries to weasel out of writing a review that will break the playwright’s heart, but professional integrity requires that he call a spade a spade.

 Cut to the following day’s bar mitzvah. Happily, no fun is made of the ancient ceremony itself. But the bar mitzvah boy (with the rabbi’s encouragement) departs from his planned speech to talk pointedly about the essential importance of loyalty. And other congregants loudly chime in, making it clear that Abe’s public diss of a congregant’s labor of love is a profound insult—a disgrace!—to his entire community. Pity the poor critic! He’s paid to be honest, but he’s also expected to be kind. Yet, generally, never the twain shall meet.

 I responded so strongly to this episode because, like every published writer who’s been a commentator or a critic, I often find myself in the awkward position of being asked for feedback on the work of a friend. We writers know what it’s like: a pal or (even worse) a family member hands you the magnum opus on which they’re been laboring for years, saying, “Give me your honest opinion. If you don’t, I won’t respect you ever again.” Translation: a bit of constructive nit-picking is OK, but you’d better make it clear that this is a work of genius.