Shuen-git rl 周旋捷; Swann Jie sl/, 2011:
N°2 好奇藝術::舊+新 Kunstkammer :: Old+New & Film Reviews
N°3 Digital Guqin Museum 數碼古琴互動藝術研究創作室
HandScroll Guqin; HuaKui cubes;
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1. “La Promesse” (1996) is the third feature film by the Dardenne brothers, and the first to establish their distinctive tone (unflinching but compassionate), territory (grubby working-class Belgium, particularly the down-at-the-heels industrial city of Seraing), and method (writing their own screenplays, filming in sequential order, minimizing the cameras and other apparatus on set as to work more directly with their actors). Like last year’s “The Kid with a Bike,” the moving and utterly absorbing “La Promesse” illuminates the moral struggles of an adolescent boy. In “La Promesse,” it’s the fifteen-year-old Igor (Olivier Gourmet), and the emotional engine of the plot is Igor’s dawning realization that his father’s treatment of the immigrants who work and live illegally in his tenement is unconscionable. The Criterion Collection’s DVD includes an excellent interview with the directors in which they describe their technique. They explain how they started off as documentarians, filming interviews with people in the projects, which they screened in parking garage or the stairwells every weekend. They drew on those interviews to develop the characters in their feature films, including those like Igor—“Kids on their own who have to find their own moral compass,” as one of the brothers says, “their own respect for other human beings.”
2. The 1927 silent movie “Wings,” the winner of the first best-picture Oscar, came out on DVD and Blu-ray this year, looking splendid. “Wings” was directed by the gifted and hard-driving William Wellman, who was himself a flyer with the Lafayette Escadrille in the First World War. Not surprisingly, what’s best about the film are the flying sequences—midair dogfights that dodge in and out of massive cumulus clouds, planes that arc and spiral earthward, the thrilled and terrified faces of the young actors Richard Arlen (as David) and Charles (Buddy) Rogers (as Jack) in the cockpits. As Wellman’s son, William Wellman, Jr., explains in an accompanying documentary, the scenes look like they were shot in midair because they were. The two actors learned to fly, pushing a button to shoot their own closeups, while a safety pilot crouched down in the rear cockpit. Poor Rogers threw up every time he landed. Wellman’s own recent memories of the war, along with the coöperation of the U.S. Army and the lavish spending of the studio—Wellman had two hundred and twenty aircrafts, along with zeppelins, observation balloons, and five acres of land in Texas to score with trenches and pockmark with explosions—make for battle scenes that feel immediate and realistic. Though the It Girl Clara Bow is peppy in the role of Jack’s love interest, it’s the bond between the two airmen that packs a tender punch.
3. After the success of “The Artist” last year, I’m counting on enough toleration of silent movies that I can cite one more: “Show People,” from 1928, released on DVD by the wonderfully busy Warner Brothers Archives. The DVD has no special features, but the quality of the transfer is good, and the movie is fizzy fun from start to finish. One of the first films that Hollywood produced about itself, “Show People” stars Marion Davies as Polly Pepper, a Southern girl who finds success as a pie-catcher in slapstick comedies but decides that she must remake herself as the classier Patricia Pepoire, star of big-budget costume dramas, deployer of a mincing expression that makes her resemble a muskrat. Like Davis herself, Pepper turns out to be much better as a goofy comedienne. The movie is full of cameos by people playing themselves—including its director, King Vidor, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.—and of sly self-referential bits, delightful glimpses of Hollywood Boulevard and environs in the late twenties, and amusing behind-the-scenes moments, like the actor dressed as Moses getting cranky in the commissary line.
4. “Les Enfants du Paradis”—the movie you either saw in college at the insistence of some foxy Francophile or pushy cineaste in your dorm or never saw. It’s O.K.: now’s your chance to see it in a print restored from a patchwork of sources so that it gleams.
Marcel Carne’s 1945 movie is about show people, too—in this case, the carnival artists, actors, courtesans, and mimes of nineteenth-century Paris. It’s both the greatest movie ever made about the life of the stage—universal, in other words—and quite specifically, almost ridiculously French. As the director, Terry Gilliam, says in an introduction to the new Criterion Collection DVD, every person in this poetic movie speaks beautifully about life and love. (“Never look back at the past, my love,” says a street thief to the woman he admires. “It leaps at your throat like a mad dog.”)
The extras that come with this DVD also include a 2009 making-of documentary that’s definitely worth watching, since the story of how “Les Enfants du Paradis” was filmed, in occupied France, is fascinating. Many of the eighteen hundred extras were Resistance agents who were using the movie set as cover; both the set designer Alexandre Trauner and the composer Joseph Kosma had to work in hiding because they were Jewish. With food, but not fabric or fashion, strictly rationed, the costumes were sumptuous and the crew was often starving. Arletty, the film’s star, was carrying on an affair with an officer in the German Luftwaffe, for which she would be censured as a collaborator after the war. (“My heart is French,” she said under interrogation, “but my ass is international.”)
5. One of the happiest developments for old-movie fans in the past decade or so has been the rediscovery and rerelease of pre-Code movies, hard little gems from the early thirties, before strict enforcement of the Hays Code. The DVD collections that have come out so far—like TCM’s great “Forbidden Hollywood” collections—have featured a lot of Warner Brothers movies, which is all to the good, as far as I’m concerned, since they’re my favorites, with rat-a-tat-tat direction by the likes of William Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy, and Michael Curtiz, a terrific ensemble of actors, and plenty of cheerful vulgarity and stylish gangsters.
Now, though, TCM has put out a new collection of pre-Code movies from Columbia Pictures, which showcases a different array of actors and a handful of movies that haven’t been circulating as much on the pre-Code circuit. Of the six in the package, my favorites were “Ten Cents a Dance” (1931), “Virtue,” and “Three Wise Girls,” (both from 1932). “Ten Cents a Dance,” with Barbara Stanwyck, is worthwhile for its glimpse into the world of taxi dancers—a job that Stanwyck herself once held. “Virtue” is a well-told story with Carole Lombard as a prostitute who marries a cab driver (Pat O’Brien) willing to overlook her past. (The opening sequence in a courtroom was later cut by the censors, apparently because they considered it disrespectful to the American judicial system. In this version, we see a blank screen for a couple of minutes, with audio.) “Three Wise Girls” is a lively, girls-in-the-big-city tale starring Jean Harlow, and, though she’s never been one of my personal favorites among the pre-Code actresses (for me, the big five are Stanwyck, Lombard, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Glenda Farrell) nobody wears satin with more sensual authority. Those close-fitting thirties gowns look like liquid mercury on her, and I love the scenes with she and her gal pal (Mae Clarke) modelling clothing at a high-end shop.