Monday, February 27, 2006

Film Soirée

I work at a private liberal arts-based college that is composed of three different “schools”: arts & sciences, business, and education, with several departments within each school. One of the problems with this compartmentalization—quite typical though it is in academia—is that one doesn’t always have the chance to get to know and interact with colleagues in other departments. So, a few years ago, I began doing a campus-wide faculty film soirée each semester. I pick a film, write a bit about it, and then turn it over to the college administration to publicize the event, send out invitations, and order the food and wine.

On Friday, we did The Battle Of Algiers. I made some brief introductory remarks and then we watched the projected DVD. Afterwards, the group (which also included spouses, friends, etc.) adjourned to eat, drink, and chat about the film. Almost no one had seen it before, and it was fun to circulate and listen to the various pockets of conversations about the movie.

Much remarked-upon was the “even-handedness” of the film. Of course, Pontecorvo’s sympathies are clearly with the Algerians and the FLN, but the French are not caricatured, and the commanding Colonel is richly-shaded. Something I noticed this time around: kids and cops. The early terrorist attacks are sometimes carried out by kids, and they shoot cops in the back. Pontecorvo doesn’t show us the faces of the cops, and thus wards off our empathy. The accompanying music in these scenes—by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo himself—is sphagetti-western-flavored, with echoey electric guitars. The scenes almost look like they could belong in an action-suspense thriller, thus distancing us from the deaths. Then, the French plant a bomb in the Casbah, and dozens die in the attack. This scene is deliberately staged not as thriller but as tragedy. Strings swell as wounded or dead children are carried out of the smoky rubble—it’s a moving scene, and makes a strong play for our empathy.

But to complicate our response later, a bomb goes off at a racetrack. The angry French crowd turns and seizes a young Arab kid selling cigarettes, and a French cop puts himself in danger by jumping in and saving the kid’s life. The film is constantly complicating the simple opposition of the French and Algerians with such grace notes. And for a movie that uses, Eisenstein-like, a "collective hero", remarkable attention is paid to individual characters.

My colleagues seemed to appreciate the film and enjoy discussing it, but they made it clear to me that next semester I should perhaps think about following up The Battle Of Algiers with its opposite: an (1) American, (2) comedy, (3) in color. Animal House came up in our conversation as a possibility.


Blogger girish said...

MZS on Firewall and The Pink Panther.

February 27, 2006 12:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Chuck on the recent research article about film critics.

February 27, 2006 12:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

An interview with Albert Maysles in the Voice.

February 27, 2006 12:19 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Animal House? Will the conversation be as rich?

February 27, 2006 12:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

No, but it was their choice/suggestion. A bit, though not entirely, facetious.
I think I have the reputation among many colleagues as being into "downbeat art movies". :-)

February 27, 2006 12:46 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Yeah, I was being a bit dry. ^_^ Sorry.

Light != shallow, I think; Tootsie has a deft touch but I think it covers some worthwhile themes.

About that Maysles piece: you know, Vertov was all about the kind of journalism that Maysles is talking about, or at least the possibility of it--the possibility to take cameras anywhere and to catch life unawares, capture some startled and un-prepared truth. News crews are not into it.

When D.A. Pennebaker spoke at the Documentary Institute at UF several years ago, he was working on a documentary about Al Sharpton's run for President. Someone asked him about his access with Sharpton and he said a couple of things I found interesting: first, that he got access to Clinton by telling him he could ask for anything to be removed, knowing that he never would because word would leak out and the the press would be terrible; and second, he had complete access to Clinton's and to Sharpton's private meetings because he just sat there filming and not questioning. Just doing that distinguished him from news crews, who got up in everyone's face just outside the door but expressed no interest whatsoever in going inside to document debates or political process.

And what happened to that Sharpton documentary? I haven't heard peep. It seems Pennebaker would still have a good story there--a failed run for presidency still has plenty of drama to it, and Sharpton is a compelling speaker.

February 27, 2006 12:59 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

An American comedy in color? How about Blazing Saddles? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Something by Blake Edwards? Got it . . . The President's Analyst by Theodore J. Flicker starring James Coburn and Godfrey Cambridge (1967).

February 27, 2006 8:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, those are interesting points about Pennebaker. I hadn't heard about the Sharpton documentary, but I know he continues to make films, mostly about music. That doc about Memphis music has been on my list to rent.

Re: the film series, since it's primarily intended as a social occasion for people to meet and hang out, I tend to choose films that will engage and "entertain". But I also secretly look for them to have some "cinephilic" interest (e.g. interesting formal or thematic qualities) that may spark some conversation. And I try to allude briefly to some of these aspects either in the talk before the film or at the get-together afterwards.
Some past films include: The Young Girls Of Rochefort, His Girl Friday, Rififi, House Of Games, Paths Of Glory, Day For Night, etc.
For next time, I'm toying with the idea of Nicolas Philibert's To Be And To Have.

February 27, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Peter!
I esp. love the Hawks, and have seen it too many times to count.

February 27, 2006 8:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Re: the Philibert film, I meant after we do the American comedy in color...

February 27, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

That sounds like a neat series, Girish. Interesting picks you're making.

February 27, 2006 8:17 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

"I think I have the reputation among many colleagues as being into 'downbeat art movies'."

Next time, perhaps a screening of Sullivan's Travels would spark a lively debate about social duty, political awareness and aesthetic values versus the general appeal and healing power of Mickey Mouse cartoons.

February 27, 2006 9:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice idea, Flickhead. And I doubt that many of my colleagues have seen it recently, if at all.

February 27, 2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

New issue of Offscreen.

February 27, 2006 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

That last paragraph upset me. Why the need for it to be American? What benefit can there be to showing a film like Animal House? Don't get me wrong -- I think it's a good film, but why bring people together to show a film that nearly everybody can quote from memory?

Here's an idea for an American comedy -- Putney Swope. That'll show them.

February 27, 2006 1:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

It upset me too, Filmbrain. Thus, my decision to end the post with it. :-)

I've frequently heard complaints about "reading movies" (a disparaging reference to foreign films and their subtitles), as if it were a tiresome chore.
Also, this smacks to me of anti-intellectualism. Would these same faculty, who teach English Lit and Art History, tolerate such philistinism from their students?
Fact is, many people (well-educated though they might be) still believe that the primary function of movies is to entertain. And these are people who generally take art and artforms seriously. Alas, film doesn't quite qualify for them on that score...What a shame.

February 27, 2006 2:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

MZS dunks Crash in some richly-deserved haterade.

February 27, 2006 2:06 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The reaction was predictible if this is not a filmbuff crowd. Given the hot issue of the Iraq War, the film obviously felt like a political masterclass. In any case, political films can hardly suit the role you wanted to give to this rare semester gathering: to meet and have fun.

I'm guessing:
(1) they didn't like subtitles
(2) a non-fictitious war is not fun
(3) they think B&W is outdated (probably not the best film for a B&W revival tho)

When academics, who are given an opportunity to watch a film that is not at the local theatre or a regular TV classic, want a safe movie you gotta wonder how often they go to the movies on their own...

You should treat them with artsy genre movies like color Ozu's or Satyajit Ray's or Kurosawa's, they would make subtitles more digestible.

There are many ways to surprise them by respecting the 3 criteria tho: Woody Allen, Two for the Road, She's Gotta Have It, Living in Oblivion...

February 27, 2006 2:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry: "the film obviously felt like a political masterclass." Yes it did!
Weird thing is, I was giving my opening spiel, for which I had done some research, and I looked up to find one of my colleagues, whom I've never met and who is a former US Congressman, in the audience. It freaked me out for a bit. But he didn't accost me later or anything, so that was fine.

"In any case, political films can hardly suit the role you wanted to give to this rare semester gathering: to meet and have fun." Exactly.

I've been meaning to do Ray, like Pather Panchali. Since I grew up in Bengal, I could say a bit about the society and culture.

February 27, 2006 2:37 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Now if you have congressmen in your attendance... that's a high-class public!

I think they even screened this film at the Pentagon in the wake of the Iraq invasion.
Doug Cummings wrote 2 great pieces on the film too.

You should definitely schedule Pather Panchali! and I'll take a seat in the audience to listen to your commentary :)
Everybody would love Pather Panchali.

February 27, 2006 3:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Harry.
I enjoyed reading your comments at Doug's site too, with the film still fresh in my head.

February 27, 2006 3:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Anthony Kaufman: "Can Netflix save indie film?"

February 27, 2006 4:41 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

I guess I am quite naive, in that I figure a good movie will always entrance an audience. Maybe Battle of Algiers has so many obvious parallels with the (absolutely terrible) way our own war is going that people may have had a bit of fatigue watching. (I also read about the Pentagon screening this film, which just boggles the mind, since they obviously did not learn one single damn thing from it.) I told you, didn't I, that this was the first film I ever saw with Mr. Campaspe? The fact that he thought it was an absolutely great date-night choice probably cemented his fate right there. :)

I like Flickhead's suggestion very much. Mine is Nothing Sacred. Early color, Wild Bill Wellman, Carole Lombard, and a very relevant plot about media exploitation.

February 27, 2006 8:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh that's right. I had forgotten about the first date story...

And Nothing Sacred is a scream. (Saw it for the first time recently.)
Carole Lombard is clearly the center of the film, but to me Fredric March was a revelation too. I've come late to March as a comic actor (with Design For Living and this film). I had pretty much only seen him in dramatic roles. He's got a wonderful poker face and an utter seriousness about him that makes the comedy poignant.

February 27, 2006 8:44 PM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Animal House? I hoped you were kidding. Speaking of Lombard, why not To Be Or Not To Be, or the glorious Twentieth Century? Anything by Lubitsch and Hawks is preferable to John Landis.

February 27, 2006 9:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Little Round-Headed Boy--Welcome to the lair of a Hawks and Lubitsch worshipper.
Yes, those are both sublime films. I've also been thinking of the Criterion version of Trouble In Paradise. In all these years, I'm yet to meet someone who dislikes that film.

February 27, 2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Oh, I think we have a winner! Trouble in Paradise, definitely.

I agree about March, he's a wonderful actor. Did you see the first "A Star is Born"? He was really great in that, too, the equal of Mason I think. And "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "I Married a Witch" and I even liked "Anthony Adverse." And of course "Inherit the Wind." Come to think of it, I am not sure I have seen a genuinely bad March performance. Even in "The Sign of the Cross," complete hokum where he's put in the most ghastly makeup, he's enjoyable.

February 27, 2006 11:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe, your range is encyclopedic.

I own the first two STAR IS BORN's, but I'm yet to see them. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES has got to be one of the best movies to ever come out of Hollywood. (I'll never forget all those deep focus shots in the bar, with Hoagy tinkling away.) I've seen the French movies of Rene Clair but none of his American ones, including I MARRIED A WITCH. I also liked March in Mamoulian's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Mamoulian seems like a director I should explore more. I loved his Lubitsch-like LOVE ME TONIGHT with Maurice Chevalier. Which reminds of me the nice, long essay that Guy Maddin wrote about Mamoulian in one of the issues of Cinema Scope.

February 28, 2006 6:59 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Not to belabor a point, but Sullivan's Travels was suggested because it seems to mirror the Battle of Algiers/Animal House debacle.

February 28, 2006 7:38 AM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Speaking of March and the posts on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, that reminds me another greatly undervalued comedic actor who's most often thought of as a dramatic actor — Joel McCrea. Not only is he superb in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, but he more than holds his own against Claudette Colbert in THE PALM BEACH STORY, the most underrated film of Sturges' classical period. In my estimation, anyway

February 28, 2006 9:01 AM  
Anonymous girish said...

I have an affection for a smaller and less-known Sturges film called The Great Moment, a comic-historical biopic in which Joel McCrea plays the first dentist to use anethesia, in the 1800s. And the secret weapon of those Sturges films, William Demarest, is great in it too.

February 28, 2006 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Joel McCrea at Bright Lights.

February 28, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

I also have great respect for McCrea, and had him on a short list of "must post" actors but I see the article Peter has posted may have made that quite redundant. Flickhead, "Sullivan's Travels" really does mirror the Algiers/Animal debacle, but what if Girish's guests take "Sullivan's Travels" as some sort of justification of being pissy about having to read subtitles? The horror! :)

Girish: I absolutely agree about "Best Years." It is just a superb film, one of the best ever to come out of Hollywood. "I Married a Witch" is lovely to look at and very funny, although "Bewitched" recycled so many of its joke that they don't hold up as well as they might.

February 28, 2006 1:52 PM  
Anonymous girish said...

Thanks, Peter!

In the last year, I've been catching up with early Hawks, like Barbary Coast (1935), with a young McCrea, meanie Edward G. Robinson and Campaspe favorite Miriam Hopkins.

February 28, 2006 1:59 PM  
Anonymous girish said...

Oh, and Mr. Campaspe being a Peckinpah fan, might enjoy McCrea and Randolph Scott in Ride The High Country, a solid little film.

February 28, 2006 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Girish, I admire the courage it takes to setup a screening like that. I'm part of a small discussion group -- me and four other grad students -- and each time it's my turn to pick a film, I get really anxious. I'm not sure what makes me more nervous -- that I'll pick something they won't like (and so waste their time) or that they'll reject a film that means a lot to me (which I tend to take as a personal affront).

Anyway, I think Sturges is the perfect choice for something like this.

February 28, 2006 2:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren, I think I used to be more nervous in the first couple of years I did this. The very first film I showed was Jacques Demy's The Young Girls Of Rochefort, one of my favorites. Some people hated it (I took it as a personal affront!) and I probably made a complete ass of myself defending it afterwards (not aided by the vin rouge, I'm sure).
But now I realize that there will always be some people who won't connect with any particular film, and that's fine.

February 28, 2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Though I still have to catch myself when I find that I'm trying to defend my choice afterwards...

February 28, 2006 6:05 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Chilling news about showing DVDs at school.

February 28, 2006 7:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yikes, Peter! That's crazy.

February 28, 2006 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I wonder how many copies of, say, After Life, or even Two or Three Things I Know About Her are sold to people who were first exposed to the film when it was shown in a quasi-legal or downright illegal setting? Perhaps not enough for New Yorker to recoup what seems to be a $400 performance rights charge per picture, but still.

The real lesson for groups like these: don't have such a user-friendly website. I used the internet wayback machine to take a look at their programming, and they even had a list of all the films shown in the series, by director's name. Too easy.

February 28, 2006 10:25 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

No, you guys are thinking way too high-flyin' egghead-edumacated stuff.

No, you want in this movie:
a. women with large breasts
b. slapstick
c. sex jokes
d. a director who's a genuis with color.

It is therefore immediately obvious that your first choice should be Frank Tashlin's magisterial and tragic epic "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"

February 28, 2006 11:06 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Girish, it was a clever choice nonetheless and I'm sure your audience will still think about the film in the following days. So you're courageous to take the risk and movies never killed anyone anyway.
People should be reminded that it's sometimes interesting to be subjected to a screening we didn't (or wouldn't) choose, just to think outisde the box of our circonscribed taste territory.

Aren't academics left-leaning usually? The Battle of Algiers didn't shock too much hopefully.

March 01, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"The real lesson for groups like these: don't have such a user-friendly website."
Brian, you're right.
I should be careful on this blog too!

Alex, I had the chance to catch Rock Hunter on cable a few years ago but passed because it was non-letterboxed. In addition to the features you mentioned, The Girl Can't Help It has smashing music performances too (Julie London, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, etc.). Either of those movies might make for a fun choice if they were on DVD...

Harry, To be fair, my colleagues at the showing (all left-leaning) admired and appreciated the film, but I could detect a certain undercurrent of mild disappointment because they had come to have a "fun" time. Oddly, I never thought that watching this film was a joyless duty, but instead....a rich and fun time.
(I'm a cinephile and they're not.)

March 01, 2006 8:26 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

If limited to DVD releases, we must unfortunately retreat to Tashlin's Son of Paleface, which also features:

a. gorgeous women
b. sex jokes
c. slapstick
d. musical numbers
e. made by a director who's a genius with color
f. a horse who's a far better actor than his rider

Don't push me man, or you'll be watching Jerry Lewis before you know it! (Actually, I love Jerry Lewis.)

March 01, 2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Alex, Can't say I really know Jerry Lewis, outside of the atypical King Of Comedy, and The Nutty Professor, which I saw as a kid...

March 01, 2006 1:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I noticed that Netflix carries several of the early 60s films he directed: The Errand Boy, The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, The Patsy, The Family Jewels, though I haven't seen any of 'em...

March 01, 2006 1:37 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

the Ladies' Man is pretty amazing. A must-see for its set deisgn alone. I haven't worked my way through the others yet.

March 01, 2006 3:25 PM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Jerry Lewis totally rocks! All the ones you list, Girish, are great in some way (though I still haven't seen The Family Jewels). The Ladies' Man and The Bellboy should go down well with a crowd.

March 01, 2006 7:33 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Your audience will just have too much resistance to Jerry Lewis to actually be able view his films with an open mind.

Unfortunately, his best, beyond The Nutty Professor, is the black and white The Bellboy

March 01, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I gotta say something selfish about this blog: I get so many great ideas for new and unfamiliar movies here. Thanks, Alex, Brian and Mubarak.
And you might be right, Alex. I'm a little nervous about Jerry Lewis. I might be starting with a handicap there.

March 01, 2006 7:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Although I'm excited to check out all these movies myself...

March 01, 2006 7:56 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Check out Eric Henderson's feature at slant.

March 01, 2006 9:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, perfect. Brian, you're a wayback machine all by yourself.

March 01, 2006 9:16 PM  

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