Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - April 2001
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Skyscraper Souls
Sherman's March (1986)
Man Ray films
Passenger (1960)

Any Way You Slice It...
The Low Down
Panic (2000)

They Endure
Ratcatcher
Memento (2000)

 


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 their oppressors.

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 the attempt.

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 news.

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 when necessary.

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, or love.

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 purpose.

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