Archive | May, 2014

Avant-Garde

24 May

We’re reaching back over 20 years with this one, to the time we went to a local university to see a series of four films on the theme of Faust by Stan Brakhage, the famous (and now late) avant-garde filmmaker. At the time, the films were still to some degree works in progress. The evening was memorable because not only were the films shown, but Brakhage himself was there to speak. Brakhage’s films are not the usual narrative ones you see at the movies or on the idiot box.  (Your can check out his 1963 film “Mothlight” here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaGh0D2NXCA.)

Brakhage films are often difficult to watch, and yet they live in our minds long after we’ve forgotten many conventional films. We went with a friend, who at various points in the evening suggested that we leave. We insisted on staying. After three of the films were shown, Brakhage spoke. He opined that unlike the Faust of Marlowe or Goethe, who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge and worldly pleasures, the modern day Faust would be a young man, selling his soul in order to have all the major events and accomplishments of his life behind him, over and done with.

Not your run-of-the-mill filmmaker

Not your run-of-the-mill filmmaker

During a question and answer session, one audience member gushed that the films were “vintage Brakhage”. The filmmaker seemed uncomfortable with this adulation. A woman in the audience stated that the three films screened thus far had really bummed her out, as she experienced them as excessively bleak. Brakhage took this criticism in stride, responding that he knew the films seen together in their entirety could seem a bit heavy. He then offered the last film, stating that if the last in the series did not place Faust in Heaven, it at least placed him back on Earth. The last segment then commenced, and indeed it did.

Postscript: We almost forgot – during the Q and A, one audience member noted that the Devil really wasn’t a character in Brakhage’s Faust. Brakhage acknowledged that was true, observing, “A friend who will agree with you is all the Devil you need.”

White Heat

12 May

We were channel flipping with the idiot box remote a couple nights ago, and we came across a movie that compelled us to watch it. The film was “White Heat” (1949) starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. We hadn’t intended to watch a movie, but this one just pulled us in.

We’ve read that Cagney always considered himself a song and dance man, though audiences liked him best in gangster roles. No surprise there – he makes an awfully convincing gangster as Cody Jarrett, a mother-obsessed, crazy-as-a-bedbug sociopath.

The film’s scenes alternate between the exploits of the Jarrett gang and the police as they attempt to shut down the gang for good. This is not a film with a message; it makes no statements about mental illness or the criminal justice system; the film is content to give us a good yarn and leave it at that.  Interestingly, the film wants to be sure we understand the technology that the police use to track Jarrett, making much of the fact that a reconfigured radio placed in a vehicle can be used as a primitive homing device.

Raoul Walsh is a competent director who has a story to tell and delivers the goods in a workmanlike fashion. He is assisted in that goal by his cast. In addition to Cagney, Edmond O’Brien and Margaret Wycherly deliver strong performances.

James Cagney in White Heat

Sure, he’s a bad guy, but he loves his mum.