L’Age D’Ore

L'age D'ore

A dog is kicked, four bishops turn to skeletons a blind man is pushed to the ground, an elderly woman is slapped,  another bishop is thrown out a window, a child is killed, and a woman erotically sucks on the toe of a statue; also I think Jesus was involved in an orgy. These are just some of the outrageous things that happen in the surrealist masterpiece “L’Age D’Ore”, a film made in 1930 but hasn’t aged a day in its boldness, ability to shock, and its utter contempt for bourgeois life style, it’s also one of the funniest movies ever made.

“L’Age D’Ore” which is translated as “The Golden Age” was conceived by Luis Bunuel who was one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have lived and his friend at the time Salvador Dali, you may have heard of him too. The two made a film before this one, “Un Chien Andelou” which is possibly the most famous short film ever made, it was 16 minutes of surrealist majesty that was made to alienate its audience with a lack of story or structure, just images, some of them comic, some of them grotesque, but all meant to stir a reaction whether good or bad, it was the kind of film that could cause a revolution, and pretty much did. “Un Chien Andelou” caused such a great scandal where it was said at the first screening, Bunuel had stones in his pockets ready to throw at the audience in case any trouble started.

However unlike “Un Chien Andelou” which you could argue had no inner meaning behind it other than to shock, and or delight, “L’Age D’Ore” aimed more at a narrative structure, yet it never really takes itself too seriously. The film has a sense of humour to it all, yet it doesn’t play coy with the institutions and societies it sets out to mock.

I say the film has a narrative structure but it plays it loose, it’s not afraid to abandon its story for something completely different, point in fact, the film actually playfully begins as a sort of nature documentary describing a certain type of scorpion, it then delves into a prologue involving a soldier trekking through the mountains where he sees a group of bishops sitting on one of the peaks. Later on we see a group of very important looking people coming from the sea to found the land of Ancient Rome only to find the same bishops on the mountain peaks but have now turned to skeletons. We now get the main story of a man (Gaston Modot) and a woman (Lya Lys) who are caught making love in the mud while the ceremony for the new city is commencing. The man is then taken from the woman and in a fit of rage he kicks a small puppy presumably to its death, it’s fits of rage like this that turn the woman on.

The rest of the film is the man trying to find his way back to the woman, but he is continually thwarted in his attempts by the rules of the values of society who find things like sex immoral and indecent. The man constantly fights against these social mores mostly by angrily getting upset to the point that he’s willing to knock down a blind man even after he stole the cab he was getting into, or slapping an old woman in the face after she spills some wine on his hand. All the while, the woman seems to be waiting impatiently for the man to arrive and feed her sexual appetites, which he eventually does as they embrace in a garden by a mansion while an outdoor concert is playing. This involves probably the film’s most famous scene where the woman partakes in a certain foot fetish with an ancient statue.

The film ends in a telling of an orgy entitled “120 days of depraved acts” which is an allusion of the Marquis de Sade’s book “120 days of Sodom”, where we see a Jesus like man leaving a castle where the orgy took place along with three other men. The final image is the scalps of five women, presumably the ones who took part in the orgy being hung on a cross while jovial music plays at the end credits.

When I was young, one of the most vivid memories I have is being at a Christian bible camp and having our pastor/leader showing us a list of films that were deemed sacrilege to the church. I imagine the church must have had a cut off-year because otherwise I’d assume “L’Age D’Ore” which was made in 1930 would’ve been on that list.

The thing that I love “L’Age D’Ore” is its delight on its attacks on what is accepted in society and what isn’t, it’s like a breaking down of all barriers that separate us within a class system. The film to me seems to be about finding your passion and being able to knock down any restraints that stand in your way, in this case it’s the simple story of two people who just want a real good roll in the hay.

The surreal moments add to the absolute absurdity of the world Bunuel and Dali created, such as the woman finding a cow in her bed and her having to shew it away, also a wagon with what looks like some drunken poor people being pulled about in a high society dinner party. There is one telling scene that hints at a deeper attack on bourgeois society that Bunuel intended involving the killing of a young child. The scene is played for laughs as the child is shown as a rotten brat who steals from the game warden, the warden then without hesitation decides to shoot the young boy in the back, he falls down dead. Upstairs where a dinner party is taking place, a few of the members go to the window and see the child dead, they seem to take a moment to register the horrid event, then turn back to the party as if nothing has happened. A scene like this would become common in Bunuel’s work as he would attack much of high society in his masterpiece films “The Exterminating Angel”, and “The Discreet Charm of the bourgeoisie”.

Luis Bunuel was a filmmaker of dreams, he would sacrifice story for image time and time again, yet his films were irresistible to the eye, he would surely influence the modern surrealism of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, but his absurd cinema would also find a place in the bad taste films of John Waters, and the absurd comedy of Monty Python.

But Bunuel was very much a political filmmaker, his mockery of sacred institutions such as the Catholic church would not go unpunished, and he spent a better part of his life in sort of filmmaking purgatory as somewhat of a journeyman until he gained late international success in the 1960s with a string of masterpieces, right up until his retirement in 1977. “L’Age D’Ore” itself was banned from France in 1934 and not seen again for the public until 1979, mostly because of the blasphemous final scene depicting the Christ like individual who partook in an orgy.

After this film Bunuel and Dali had a falling out, Dali seemed to be the one who wanted the film to be a scandal by using anti-catholic imagery, while Bunuel wanted it to be a critique on bourgeois lifestyle, you can basically look at the film in both ways, but Bunuel obviously had higher ambitions in mind, and he would continue to explore these themes in his later films.

However you look at it, “L’Age D’Ore” hasn’t lost any of its lustre, it’s a potent reminder on how an attack on all things sacred also means a certain freedom from it. Nothing is sacred when it comes to art, everything can be ridiculed, tarnished, and drug through the mud, there’s a dirty sort of humanity for Bunuel’s endeavor, there’s an anger in his films, but it’s because he felt no one was ever above anyone else, it was an act of defiance from him to bring everyone down to the same level.

 

My Top Ten List for the BBC 100 greatest films of the 21st Century That Nobody Asked For

Inside-Llewyn-Davis1Today the BBC released a top 100 list of the greatest films of the 21st century so far which you can see here. They asked over 177 critics from all over the world to submit their top ten list and you can see everyone’s individual list which I find quite interesting here. But they had the gall, the absolute gall mind you, not to ask me for my list. How dare they, do they even know who I am? Obviously not since they didn’t ask me, but still, I have an opinion, I am on the internet, I like movies, nay love movies, so I will take keyboard at hand and list my top ten films of the 21st century, according to me. But please take a look at the all the individual lists, but since nobody asked, here is my list down below.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
  2. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2011)
  3. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
  4. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch)
  5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
  6. A Prairie Home Companion (2006, Robert Altman)
  7. Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)
  8. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
  9. Under the Skin (Jonathon Glazer, 2014)
  10. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

 

The Maltese Falcon

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I first saw “The Maltese Falcon” years back probably in junior high when it was my custom to seek out classic movies at my local video store. I found it in a green case with a picture of Humphrey Bogart holding the black bird that has become such an iconic figure in film history. I was curious about it, I had heard of these Humphrey Bogart detective films and I was very excited to finally see one. I’ve pretty much lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film since then, needless to say, I know it inside out, I can probably recite dialogue from it almost verbatim, yet it never loses its mystery, or its sense of effecient, and effective storytelling. It’s a film that even if you haven’t seen it, you still know it, it’s synonymous with the beginning of film noir, and both the careers of Humphrey Bogart as a star, and John Huston as a director.

It should be noted that “The Maltese Falcon” started out as a crime novel by the master of the hard boiled  genre Dashiell Hammett. Hammett was known for his string of detective books which also included “The Thin Man”, as well as “Red Harvest” which introduced his nameless Continental Op detective, a character he used in a string of short stories. “The Maltese Falcon” has probably become Hammett’s best known book no doubt because of the film’s notoriety. The legend goes that John Huston, who was a prominant screenwriter at the time, but who had ambitions to be director, took the advice from the great filmmaker Howard Hawks to make “The Maltese Falcon” the subject of his first film and simply film the book as closely as possible. Filmed versions of the book had actually been done twice before Huston’s film, both with middling success, yet I believe Huston was able to grasp the tone of the book better than before, he was able to find the edge the other films neglected to include, he was also a young filmmaker who wanted to be economical when making the movie in order to come under budget, but he was not afraid to try some new bold techniques.

Humphrey Bogart plays detective Sam Spade who along with his partner Miles Archer, is hired by a woman, Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to follow a man named  Thursby. Archer decides to be the one to follow Thursby, but he soon ends up dead, shot at close range by an unknown assailant. Spade who shows no signs of remorse to his partner’s death decides to try and solve the murder anyway. This leads him to a few more shady characters, first there is Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a well dressed, but weakling of a man who is the first to confront Spade about the Maltese falcon,  an infamous bird statue that is worth a fortune. Pretty soon, another party known as “The Fat Man”, is also interested in the same bird, this man is later revealed as Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), a thief who has been tracking the falcon for years. There is also Gutman’s loyal young henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who constantly tracks Spade, and is usually humilated by him everytime Spade outsmarts him. The Falcon itself is mostly a McGuffin which is a word usually credited to Hitchcock as something that didn’t really matter but drove the plot, yet the Falcon does symbolize the idea of unattainable riches that men strive for, and the lust and greed that overtake them. The idea of greed and lust shows up quite often in Huston’s films, most prominantely in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, as well as “The Man who Would be King”, those seeds are planted here in his first film.

“The Maltese Falcon” is quite a miracle in economic filmmaking, watching it again, I was struck at how much of it takes place in interior settings. This could’ve been detrimental to the cinematic quality of the film, but Huston stages the scenes in very inventive ways. Along with his cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who Huston worked closely with, the look of the film became its biggest asset. Edeson created very low key lighting, working with more expressive shadows and light mostly closely associated at the time with German Expressionism, and the classic universal horror films like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. But this choice of lighting gives “The Maltese Falcon” its bleak atmosphere, and cynical outlook that would be staples in film noir throughout the forties.

Huston also used unique camera angles, sometimes low to the ground which could emphasize the growing paranoia in the room, or simply give a character a certain ounce of malice. This worked beautifully on Greenstreet’s main villain Gutman who was commonly seen at a low angle giving him a larger than life presence. Greenstreet, who was a veteran stage actor, had never been in a film before, but this made him one of the most recognizable character actors of all time, he brings a sense of jovial villainy to Gutman that makes the character contageous to watch each time he’s on camera.

Let’s talk about the other stars here. As Wilmer, the young henchman who’s inexperienced in the presence of Bogart’s seasoned detective, Elisha Cook Jr. brings his usual ounce of neurotic nervousness to this role that served him well throughout the years as a film noir staple. Sometimes Cook played the cuckolded lover like in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”, or the little tough hood who sacrifices himself for the woman he loves in Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep”, Wilmer is somehow probably the most sympathetic character in “The Maltese Falcon” for the simple fact that he’s the eternal heel who’s not smart enough to know it.

In the role of Joel Cairo, Peter Lorre gives one of his best performances, and it was said that it was his favorite performance. Lorre’s Cairo is at once sinister but also comical, seen as a dandy who is in over his head in the tough guy department when he’s up against mostly everyone else in the film, Lorre is perfectly cast.

A Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Mary Astor is fasinating as a woman who seems to be playing both sides, but you’re not quite sure which side she’ll ultimately end up on. She probably has the most complicated role, which requires her to be a woman in distress, a woman in control, but also a woman in love. Astor brings frailty, and cunning into the mix which I think makes her one of the most interesting femme fatales in film history.

But I wanted to leave Bogart’s Sam Spade till the end because this is really his picture, as it sinks or swims with Sam Spade. Probably for the first time in his career, Bogart is aloud to show off the kind of charisma he was born to play. Spade is a tough guy, but also a bit unlikeable. Setting him apart from Bogart’s other detective character Phillip Marlow in”The Big Sleep”, Spade isn’t afraid to play it loose with his morals, or to lie, steal, and cheat to get what he wants. Spade does have his own moral code, and like Marlowe he doesn’t fall into the corrupt world that film noir characters live in, but he’s just a bit more dastardly, and dirty. Bogart seems to be taking glee with this type of anti-hero finding the humour, but also the biting cynicism that goes with being a man in this type of work, dealing with criminals and thugs, and people who can’t always be trusted; he gets the job done, but not without a few sacrifices.

“The Maltese Falcon” is commonly cited as the first of the film noir genre, although it could be argued there were others that came before it such as Fritz Lang’s “M” which starred Lorre as a child killer, or even Jean Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” which dealt with the trope of a femme fatale trying to get her lover to kill her husband. But “The Maltese Falcon” is the one that really started the American film noir movement, the war had begun, the world seemed bleak, and movies were ready to dive into existential questions of  man’s fate, and the cheapness of life. “The Maltese Falcon” set the tone, and others followed, and movies would find there dark side, and things were about to get complicated. Perhaps it’s not much of a coincidence that “The Maltese Falcon” was released the same year as that other masterpiece by a first time director “Citizen Kane”, a film that really played with narrative, and structure unlike anything before it. Along with “Kane”, “The Maltese Falcon” was showing a growing maturity in film language, it had a point of view that clicked with the growing uncertainty that World War II brought, and in Bogart, it created a hero who didn’t always do the right thing, but did what had to be done.

Movies I saw in July

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Here are some movies that were either new in theatres or just new to me I saw in the month of July.

The BFG (2016): Steven Spielberg’s latest is a wonderful little fairy tale with no real big stakes, but what it is is a character driven children’s story that seemed to have slipped by the majority of the movie going public. This is a quiet, gentle, and patient film about a young girl who is kidnapped by a friendly giant, is then taken to giant country and learns he is a catcher of dreams. There is a little squabble with the bigger and meaner giants, but the real magic comes from the character of the BFG in a terrific motion capture performance by Mark Rylance and young Sophie played by newcomer Ruby Barnhill. Written by “E.T.” scribe Melissa Matheson, who recently passed away, the film retains the wittiness of Roald Dahl’s original book, I wish this film had the audience it deserved. 3.5 out of 4 stars

The Shallows (2016): I suppose if there was a sleeper hit of the summer, it would be this bare essential shark thriller. This is a great film that knows exactly what it is and knows how to accomplish it. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the man responsible for some of the best of the Liam Neeson action films like “Non-Stop”, and “Run all Night”, this stars Blake Lively as a young surfer attacked by a great white shark and is stranded in the ocean so very close to shore. The kind of movie that does what it does and does it effectively; plus  Lively is a compelling screen presence. This is the kind of movie that launches its star into bigger and better things. 3 stars out of 4

L’Avventurra (1960): One of the essential European films of the 1960s which along with “La Dolce Vita” and “Breathless” proved that Eurpean cinema owned the 60s. I had not seen “L’Avventurra” bofore which is about a mystery that is never solved; a young woman disappears off an island while her fiancee and friend search for her, all the while they start up an affair. The film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, deals with modern alienation in a world bereft of real emotion, which is the best I can sum up this fascinating, but also puzzling art house masterpiece. I’ve always felt Antonioni is a bit distant, but I’m hooked to his films as he creates a certain mood that is captivating, plus no one does sexy like 1960s Italy. 3.5 stars out of 4

Chi-Raq (2015): One of the must see films of last year I never got to see when it was first released. A wonderful satire on the state of gun violence in America told with maddening creativity by the controversy maestro Spike Lee. Lee, never taking the subtle approach to America’s sick obsession with guns creates a modern take of the ancient play “Lysistrata” where the women of rival gang members withhold sex until the men decide to come to a truce. This at times fierce, touching, and angry portrait focuses on so many social problems a lot of American films are afraid to confront head on. Spike Lee is still preaching the same advice he’s been giving for years, yet we still haven’t gotten the point. Lee plays it loose changing gears from sadness, to humour, to melodrama but never losing the importance of the story. Lead by a strong ensemble but the stand out is really Teyonah Parris as the titular heroine. 4 stars out of 4

Ghostbusters (2016): A reboot or whatever you call it these days about a band of misfits who study the paranormal and come together to form a business into busting ghosts, only this time they’re women. Directed by Paul Fieg and starring four of the funniest women working today, this film has some highly entertaining riffs from all four leads who work beautifully together, which sometimes makes up for this film’s lack of compelling story, and very sloppy editing. The film does not add up to many memorable moments, and the  looks flat and lifeless. However Fieg provides a great playground for Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and especially Kate McKinnon to play and have fun, I just wish they had something more to push against like a story worthy of their talent. 2.5 stars out of 4

Star Trek Beyond (2016): The third film about the rebooted crew of the Starship Enterprise is the lightest of the new films, and goes by breazy without giving much thought to it, which is, I guess my biggest problem with this film. The best “Star Trek” films or episodes were the ones that challenged audiences with big ideas using allegorical storytelling or metaphors for something else. This film relies solely on the charisma of the actors and the characters they play. It’s supposed to remind us of why we love “Star Trek” in the first place, and even though there is a genuine affection for these characters, it doesn’t strive for more than some mindless fun, which is fine, but with a title that has the word beyond in it, you’d think it would strive for something more than what we’ve seen before. 2.5 stars out of 4

On Purge Bebe (1931): A short film directed by Jean Renoir, famous for being the grandmaster of French cinema’s first sound film. Purely for experimental purposes, Renoir finished this off quick, yet it is a highly enjoyable little farce about a bickering couple and their constipated son. Trouble ensues when the man invites a financeer for a meeting only to be constantly interrupted by his wife who will not stop talking about their son’s constipation. Running a little less than an hour, “On Purge Bebe” is nowhere near a masterpiece but interesting for those interested in Renoir, and it’s just great to see a film on which the major concern is on a child’s bowel movement. 3 stars out of 4

Le Chienne (1931): Jean Renoir’s first proper sound film about a lowly clerk who falls for a prostitute who along with her pimp schemes to get his money. The film plays like a tragic comedy, although it was remade by Fritz Lang in 1948 as a classic film noir entitled “Scarlett Street”, it’s interesting to note the tone of both films where Lang focused on the psychological repercussions of the story, Renoir focuses more on the human frailty of both the clerk and the prostitute. It’s a lovely film which suffers a bit by its early sound, but it’s anchored by a terrific performance by Michel Simon who was one of the great French chameleon actors. 3.5 stars out of 4