For some reason I can't consciously explain, this month's offerings
consist of one slice of laughter sandwiched between four films about
war, death and terror.
FOUR DAYS IN SEPTEMBER
(Bruno Barreto, 1997).
A group of Brazilian students go underground to fight the military
dictatorship in 1969. Their first major operation: kidnapping the American
ambassador (Alan Arkin) in order to exchange him for political prisoners.
The film works both as thriller and political statement. Barreto and
the screenwriter, Leopoldo Serran, present us with a portrait of brave
idealistic youths, who are also confused, scared, and unsure of themselves,
as anyone might be in that situation. Although the film completely identifies
with their struggle and convictions, it doesn't hesistate to show the
peculiar forms of blindness and cruelty that can take form in an underground
leftist movement. After an initial success - a bank robbery headed by
Maria (Fernanda Torres), the leader of the little gang - a couple of
more seasoned revolutionaries are invited to step in and coordinate
the kidnapping. Their discipline and methods seem at times to imitate
Barreto builds excellent suspense. The planning and the various stages
of the operation are all conveyed with an increasing tension. This is
the kind of film that really makes your heart race - the identification
established with the young characters grabbed my attention, making me
want to know what happens next, while at the same time I felt afraid
for what might happen.
Pedro Cardosa is particulary good as a young writer whose fervor can't
quite dampen his basic human feelings. Alan Arkin does fine - I imagine
his involvement brought the film some international attention it might
not otherwise have received - but the English dialogue he's saddled
with is one of the movie's weaker aspects. You can tell that the filmmakers
went out of their way to be even-handed - Arkin's character is no ogre,
but a gentle, decent man with liberal leanings. In a similar vein, the
movie's big misstep is an attempt to humanize a couple of the secret
police who are on the trail of the kidnappers. The idea was a good one
- but the difficulties one of the torturers is having with his girlfriend,
and with getting a good night's sleep, doesn't give us enough to justify
Despite this, the picture is both exciting and emotionally compelling.
It creates a vivid sense of danger, making the political feel personal,
and is a good antidote for the many empty action thrillers featuring
faceless terrorists as villains.
THE STORY OF G.I. JOE
(William Wellmann, 1945).
During most of the U.S. involvement in WWII, Hollywood's war movies
tended to be unrealistic action pictures - derring-do with a hefty mix
of gung-ho rhetoric. This independent film from United Artists, depicting
the experiences of war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) as
he follows an infantry company through the North African and Italian
campaigns, is a different sort of effort altogether - an attempt to
portray the experience of war at the level of the ordinary soldier.
After an uneven start, in which the film threatens to become just another
war picture, it settles into its own remarkable groove. Wellmann doesn't
focus on battles - what brief fight scenes there are have the alarming
and chaotic feel of snatches of newsreel. Instead we see the long drudgery
of the march, the miseries of encamping in the rain, the small pleasures
and conflicts of personal interaction between the soldiers. Death is
treated with complete honesty - no dramatics, just the ugly fact. With
careful accretion of detail, the movie creates a vivid sense of love
between the men in the field, unspoken yet tangible.
Robert Mitchum took full advantage of his chance to break out of B
movies, turning in a performance of flawless integrity as the company's
Captain. Never has a warrior been played with less bravado or more soulfulness.
Meredith's older man is touchingly genuine. Freddie Steele plays a tough
sergeant who has received a record of his young son's voice, but can't
find a phonograph to play it with. This motif, which would have been
merely maudlin in lesser hands, gradually progresses through stages
of comedy, poignant drama, and bitter tragedy. Although other aspects
of the men's talk and interactions are sometimes dated by their time
period, the tone of respect and the naturalistic style prevent the film
from ever losing its dignity.The script continually surprises with its
off-hand wit and sober view of life.
It seems to me that The Story of G.I. Joe takes just the right
attitude towards the war. While there is no questioning of the justice
of the cause, the death of young men is seen as a tragedy, rather than
sugarcoated with patriotic glory. That is to say that the film honors
the soldiers for the job they did, but doesn't flinch from showing war
in general as a sad, dirty business. This is a difficult and exemplary
position for a film to take. It doesn't glorify war; it tries to show
the way it really is. Yet neither does it seek to cheapen the sacrifice
of those who fought. Unavailable on video until recently, this is a
natural, moving, wholly admirable piece of work.
LAUREL AND HARDY'S LAUGHING 20's.
Having read in more than one source that the duo's silent films were
better than their talkies, I snatched up this used video with only a
cursory glance at the box. As it turns out, there is bad news and good
The bad news is that this is a compilation, in which no film is shown
in full, made in 1965, when there was apparently little appreciation
or tolerance of silent movies by the public. Therefore the intertitles
have been removed, and replaced with an awful narration that seems to
assume that the viewer is a complete moron who needs every comic set-up
to be explained. To make matters worse, stupid sound effects have been
added. After watching Putting Pants on Philip (1928), their first
real effort as a comedy team, with the sound on, and not even cracking
a smile, I began to feel the onset of depression.
I then turned the sound off. I didn't even bother to put music on,
I just watched the video without sound. Here's the good news - without
the interference of a narrator, I was convulsed with laughter in a matter
of seconds, and stayed that way through a good part of the show. The
silent Laurel & Hardy two-reelers are much faster and simpler than their
work in sound, and the physical comedy is ingenious. Arguably the best
is Wrong Again (1929), in which the pair proceed to put a racehorse
on top of a grand piano. It was directed by Leo McCarey, a comic genius
who was behind a great deal of their early success. The way the gags
build on top of one another, until the absurdity of the whole situation
becomes hilarious in itself, is a lesson in how this sort of thing should
be done. The Finishing Touch (1928), directed by McCarey and
Clyde Bruckman (a pal of Buster Keaton), has the two trying to build
a house in one day. It features the reliable Edgar Kennedy as foil,
and proves that, like it or not, helpless idiocy is funny. It's a view
of the world in which things fall apart inevitably and immediately,
and all human effort to keep them together is half-hearted show.
To the movie's credit, it doesn't chop the films up very much, but
lets the best routines work themselves out to the full. It also includes
the boys in From Soup to Nuts (1928), as imbecilic waiters, and
Liberty (1929), as escaped convicts trapped on a high rise construction
site. Pure anarchy is attained in the final sequence of You're Darn
Tootin' (1928) in which everyone kicks each other in the shin, and
then pulls their pants down.
The compilation also includes a few shorts by Charlie Chase and Max
Davidson that reveal a minor talent, in the case of the former, and
no talent, in the case of the latter. If you can find the actual two-reelers,
see them instead. If not, rent this, turn the sound off, and fast forward
GERMANY YEAR ZERO
(Roberto Rossellini, 1947).
True artist that he was, Rossellini sought to make a film about the
aftermath of war based on an understanding of the "enemy" as human beings.
In the wreckage of Berlin, a 13-year-old boy (Edmund Moeschke) tries
to find work in order to support his impoversihed father, brother and
sister, who are sharing a crowded tenement flat with another family.
In his daily struggles he gets involves in petty crime, and runs into
an old schoolteacher who is still clinging to Nazi beliefs. The desperate
and confused boy makes tragic decisions, based on limited information,
that no child should have to make.
Rossellini had more than his usual troubles with financing, so a great
deal of the film had to be shot in the studio, using backdrops. Despite
these limitations, it is one of his most powerful creations - the rawness
and immediacy of the method fitting just right with the story, and the
acting by the nonprofessionals actually better in many respects than
in Paisan or even Rome, Open City, the first two films
in his so-called "war trilogy." As was common in the neorealist films,
a child is the focus and symbol for adult madness and injustice. The
wisdom of the director's approach is in its spareness - Edmund (the
boy was chosen partly because of his resemblance to Rossellini's own
son who died young), is not portrayed as an extraordinary person. The
common, almost submerged quality of his struggle makes his story all
the more pointed.
In this film of sustained power, two sequences stand out. The first
involves the Nazi teacher playing a phonograph record of a Hitler speech,
while the camera pans across the rubble that was the final result. The
other is the final sequence, with the boy wandering through abandoned
buildings, shot almost in real time and with a child's perspective,
leading to the devastating climax. An excellent and seldom seen work
in the Rossellini canon.
J'ACCUSE (Abel Gance, 1919).
One of cinema's greatest iconoclasts, Abel Gance started production
on this antiwar epic before the armistice was even in sight. To understand
him, one must realize that he was both a romantic, in the original sense,
and a daring innovator in terms of method. Five years before Eisenstein's
first efforts, Gance was fashioning a pure language of montage. The
first forty minutes or so of J'Accuse are a triumph of expressionism.
As we watch the day-to-day events in a French village, visual cues foreshadow
impending war. When war is declared, the fever-paced editing creates
a feeling of dread. We know that the outcome will be terrible, but the
people celebrate in blissful ignorance. The director isn't afraid to
use the most overt symbolism in his cause. Whether it's dancing skeletons
or a shot of a hooting owl, Gance's juxtapositions achieve a unity of
metaphor and editing, image and idea, that is both sublime and chilling.
If this is melodrama, it's of the finest variety. At one point, a little
child runs to his playmates in the street, crying "It is war!" Another
one asks, "What is war?" to which the reply is "I don't know!" The prewar
sequence is climaxed by a series of closeups - different pairs of hands,
praying, entwining, clutching one another in celebration, foreboding,
Inspiration fails to maintain this intense standard through the film's
long midsection, bogged down in a story about a triangle of brutal husband
(Séverin-Mars), sensitive wife (Maryse Dauvray), and pacifist
poet lover ((Romauld Joubé). The scenes in the trenches have
a haunting versimilitude (they were shot in actual trenches at the front,
featuring real soldiers), involving a somewhat familiar theme of reconciliation
between the rivals, husband and lover. But when Gance brings his men
back to the home front on leave, the creaky plot overshadows the film's
The celebrated ending sequence, with dead soldiers rising from the
battlefied and marching back home to accuse the living, is still less
powerfully done than the film's first third, but the conception is certainly
impressive enough. Nothing quite that bold had ever been tried before.
French audiences, grieving from the catastrophe that had only just ended,
went into weeping hysterics. People had to be carried out of the theaters.
Needless to say, J'Accuse was a huge success, paving the financial
way for Gance's future quixotic masterpieces.
Chris Dashiell, 2001