Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Best Old Movies I Saw in 2011

I'm not sure if I'll do a post about new movies. I've barely seen any. My favorites so far this year were all documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Beats Rhymes and Life, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Tabloid), so I'll probably post at least about those. But hey, I've been watching a hell of a lot of old movies, so here's a nice little list of some of them.

1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976) I first heard about this film from the documentary Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Subsequently, Mario Batalli has frequently invoked it on his cooking show for its depictions of Italian feasts. It's been in my Netflix queue for a long time, but I kept moving it down because I was intimidated by the idea of watching a 6-hour movie. I finally decided to just treat it as a miniseries, and watch it in one-hour chunks.

1900 tells the story of two childhood friends growing up through the early 20th Century on an Italian farm. Robert DeNiro (along with a couple younger actors) plays Alfredo Berlinghieri, son of the patron--the owner of the huge farm and estate on which they live--and Gerard Depardieu plays Olma Dalco, a son of poor peasants working on the farm. Throughout their lives, they continue a complex friendship. They fight, compete and bond, and eventually come to embody the two sides of a great political argument, with Olma supporting Communism and Aflredo fighting to retain control of his land, as Communists and Fascists battle for control of the country. Both men deliver fine performances in a movie with no shortage of good acting. One standout is Donald Sutherland, who plays a psychopathic Fascist named Attilla. Sutherland's performance is so over-the-top that it reminds me of Nicholas Cage's most unhinged performances. His level of villainy is almost absurd, except that we know that such men existed in Fascist (and Communist) regimes. His partner is the equally sadistic Regina, played by Laura Betti. The film begins with the aftermath of Allied victory in WWII: Attilla and Regina being attached by a mob bearing pitchforks. It's a brilliant move--if this scene had been saved for the end, the audience would have seen justice and catharsis in that action, but placing it before we see their crimes, we see the brutality of this lynch mob clearly.

The real star of this film is Vittorio Storaro, the director of photography. 1900 is probably the most beautiful film I've ever seen. Storar and Bertolucci manage to turn every scene into a museum-worthy painting of sunlight and landscape. If it had no plot, characters or themes to speak of, 1900 would be a success based on its visual appeal alone. As it is, I'd call it a masterpiece.

His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1951) Robert Mitchum made two films noir set in Mexico in 1951 (I caught them back-to-back on TCM). The first, Where Danger Lives, is a textbook example of the film noir: a doctor gets involved with a beautiful woman, and the next thing you know he's on the run for murder, his whole life unraveling. Hollywood dreamed this recurring nightmare over and over again for about 15 years. What does it mean? Well, I'll leave that question for another day, because the one I really dug was His Kind of Woman. In this film, Mitchum is paid to fly to a private estate in Mexico for mysterious reasons. Once there, he finds himself waiting in a purgatory that looks like an exclusive country club, where an oddball cast of characters, including Jane Russell, Vincent Price and Jim Backus have an ongoing party. Now, I'm always up for some Vincent Price, and here he's playing an egotistical, hammy actor (a role that's probably not much of a stretch for him), and he just chews that fucker up! Seriously, this is maybe the funniest role I've ever seen him play. As the film goes into its third (or fourth?) act, things get very weird, and noir, comedy and action get all mixed up. Vincent Price's character arc in this last part reminded me a bit of Hemingway's The Short, Happy Life of Francis MacComber, and just as I was thinking that thought Price actually made a reference to that story!

Dance, Girl, Dance! (Dorothy Arzner, 1940) I first read about this movie in...let's all say it together...Danny Peary's Cult Movies. Dorothy Arzner was one of the few female directors working in Hollywood in her time, and her movies have a reputation of having remarkably feminist content for the era. TCM aired this as part of their Summer Under the Stars celebration of Lucille Ball, who plays a tough cookie, seen-it-all dancer who is frienemies with Maureen O'Hara. Lucy played a lot of these roles in the 40's (she's also great in the boarding house drama Stage Door) before she settled on her daffy housewife persona, and I think I like her better in this mode. Arzner's vision makes itself clear in the character's motivations. O'Hara has a romance going on, but she's much more concerned with her dancing career (and this is not shown as a vice for which she must be punished). Men are mocked for their indulgence in burlesque shows. And the two leads share a relationship that is odd but feels very real, as best friends who want to kill each other. It's an offbeat script, but in its own way it makes a lot of sense.

Drive-In (Rod Amateau, 1976) The only movie on my list that I saw in the theater, Quentin Tarantino showed this at the New Beverly as the first half of a double feature with Dazed and Confused. It makes a lot of sense: this movie was made in south Texas in 1976 (with a grant from the Texas Film Commission), the same time and place that Dazed and Confused takes place, and it follows a day-and-night at the local drive-in movie theater and the roller rink, so the two movies are a great comparison case. Drive-In gives you a crystal clear window into small-town teenage life in the 70's, and it's a lot of fun. The soundtrack is all country music, with the Statler Bros. "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" as the theme song. It's a funny, reactionary song that reminds us that, as much as we now revere 70's cinema, there were plenty of people who hated the shit at the time (and the once-again-relevant line about True Grit got a good laugh from the audience). I didn't stay for Dazed and Confused, because I'd just watched it in my backyard as part of a similar double feature with Van Nuys Boulevard. Not on DVD, but maybe it's coming? This was a freshly-struck print.

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter, 1941) OK, I first heard about this movie from reading Dennis Cozzallio's interview with Joe Dante. I guess this is one of Joe's favorites, and there's this clip on YouTube that has Slim Galliard doing a musical number which erupts into an amazing swing dance performance. I guess I had the misunderstanding that this scene was indicative of the whole movie, that it was maybe one of those all-black musicals like Stormy Weather. As it turns out, aside from that one scene, Slim Galliard is nowhere to be seen, nor is any other black face. But it's an interesting film in its own way.

Hellzapoppin' stars the comedy duo of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, based on one of their stage shows, and it's just jammed with gags, much more so than any Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields movie you've ever seen. Now, they're not particularly good gags, mostly just silly (stupid might be more accurate) shit, but the sheer frequency of them is kind of amazing. I wonder if the Zucker Bros. watched this movie before they made Airplane? Also, Martha Raye is very funny in her scenes here. I've never seen young Martha Raye, I mostly just know her from denture commercials. Well, Hellzapoppin' doesn't seem to be available on official DVD, but you can watch it on Amazon Instant for 99 cents, or order a DVD-R of it from Amazon for some small amount of money.

The Exiles (Kent McKenzie, 1961) I'm not 100% sure I saw this in 2011, but let's go with it. This film was put on my radar by Los Angeles Plays Itself, where it was touted as one of the great works of L.A. neo-realism (along with Charles Burnette's Killer of Sheep). There's a great you-are-there feel to this documentary-like footage of young, rockabilly-obsessed Native Americans living in Bunker Hill. Good soundtrack, too.

The Cockettes (Bill Weber, David Weissman, 2002) I'm including this documentary because it helps confirm my theory that punk rock evolved, to a great extent, out of gay culture. Not mainstream gay culture (if such a thing could be said to exist in the 60's and 70's), really, but...well, John Waters always talks about Divine going to drag shows in the 60's, when all the drag queens were dressing as either Jackie O. or The Supremes, and Divine would show up in gaudy thrift-store dresses and fake scar tissue carrying a chainsaw. So, uh, THAT part of gay culture, which would perhaps also include Warhol's Factory, the films of Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar Bros. and Jack Smith, Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theater (from which the New York Dolls stole a lot of their act), and The Cockettes. John Waters, as it happens, is a player in this story, so it fits quite well.

The story begins with a commune in San Francisco (for some reason, everyone in the film pronounces the word "commune" with emphasis on the second syllable), where a bunch of gay guys and a few women live, and where these hairy, bearded guys would take LSD, dress in thrift store drag and sing showtunes. And then there is the Palace Theater, where Stephen F. Arnold hosts his Nocturnal Dream Show, a midnight movie series where he would show old musicals and underground films (Anger, the Kuchars and Jack Smith all included) to audiences that weren't going to be sleeping anytime soon anyway. Eventually, the Cockettes begin performing their drag lipsynchs as a floor show before the movies, a sort of predecessor of the audience participation rituals that go with midnight showings of Rocky Horror and such. Maybe you don't agree with me, but it seems to me that seeing a bunch of bearded, tripping hippies in unconvincing drag lipsynching showtunes to an audience of acid heads fits perfectly into the early punk rock aesthetic of the Velvets, Mothers, Stooges and Dolls. And it's perfectly appropriate that when John Waters' gang of misfits began making movies (heavily influenced by the above-mentioned underground filmmakers, and by Warhol, but with an aggressive edge that I believe defines the punk aesthetic as much as Lou or Iggy ever did), they would find their first real audience at the Dream Show, and a spiritual alliance with the Cockettes.

Angel Angel Down We Go (aka, Cult of the Damned) (Robert Thom, 1969) This is on Netflix Instant under the latter title. I love me some wacky, psychedelic rock-n-roll cinema, and while this is not as awesome as Head or Beyond the Valley, it's got to be at least as good as Wild in the Streets. Hillariously weird hippy worldview, with a rockstar/cult leader helping overweight heiresses and closeted millionaires dig themselves, baby! And some awesome songs, too!


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