Monday, August 4, 2008

Weekend at Berkeley

I saw four movies at PFA this weekend.

David Goodis Retrospecitve
The Unfaithful with Ann Sheridan; (1947)
Shoot the Piano Player directed by Fran├žois Truffaut; French with subtitles; (1960)

United Artists 90th Anniversary Retrospective
Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; live piano accompaniment (1919)

Celebration of Widescreen
Pierrot le Fou with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1965)

Broken Blossoms has the distinction of being the first United Artists film. Griffith founded UA with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. I was not aware of the film before reading the synopsis. I associate Griffith with epic films (the man who taught Cecil B. de Mille how to be Cecil B. de Mille) such as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Broken Blossoms is a film on a smaller scale. Viewed 89 years after its release, it is a more racist film too. The lead actor is in yellowface and is credited as The Yellow Man. In one memorable scene, Gish (aka White Blossom) asks him “Why are you so kind to me Chinky?”

Regardless, this film is about two kind but abused souls that come together for a brief, tragic interlude before their deaths. Gish is Lucy, a poor cockney girl who is abused by her brutish, prizefighing father. She is literally forced to smile by using her two index fingers to push up the edges of her mouth. Despite the parental abuse she endures, her indominatible spirit shines through – best exemplified by her love of flowers and a doll she eyes in a shop window.

Richard Barthelmess is The Yellow Man who we first meet in China. Apparently versed in the philosophy of Buddhism, we see The Yellow Man get a punch in the mouth for his troubles when he preaches peace to some American sailors. Undeterred, he ventures to the West to spread his message of peace.

Within a few years, he ends up in a poor London neighborhood. Disillusioned by the Great War and blatant racism, he now runs an antique store and keeps his pacifist ideals to himself. He also keeps his attraction to Lucy to himself as well. After an especially violent encounter with her father, Lucy staggers into The Yellow Man’s shop. She is nursed back to health by her beloved “Chinky.” This was very likely a controversial aspect of the plot considering the KKK was on the rise and miscegenation laws were still common.

When Lucy’s father finds out of her whereabouts, he vandalizes the antique shop and drags her daughter home. There he beats her to death. When The Yellow Man returns to his shop and finds the damage, he grabs his revolver and goes to Lucy’s house. What is a pacifist doing with a gun? Upon arriving at the house, he sees Lucy’s lifeless body and is enraged. He is so enraged that he confronts the drunken father and shoots him (arguably in self-defense). He carries Lucy’s body back to his shop to properly mourn her. Despondent over Lucy’s death and/or breaking his pacifist beliefs, The Yellow Man commits suicide.

In essence, Griffith is saying that peace is the loser when it goes up against human’s natural inclination towards violence. This is not particularly surprising coming after four, brutal years of the Great War. It’s hard to fathom how shocking the death toll during WWI was and it must have made a deep impression on countless people around the world. Griffith combines his pacifist message with a somber tone and some interesting film editing. He employed quick cut editing to show how Lucy and The Yellow Man were following parallel paths. This kind of editing technique is still commonly used today.

Broken Blossoms hasn't aged well but Griffith's skills as a filmmaker are clear.

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Pierrot le Fou allowed Godard to employ some interesting use of color, lighting and non-linear storytelling. Belmondo and Karina are lovers on the run. Its never clear why they are on the run. A few dead bodies show up but motive is not considered a necessary component of this script. Actually, plot is not a necessary component of the script. Rumors abound that the film was shot without a script. Karina is a shady character that (from my perspective) ensnares the bookish but bored Belmondo. She leaves him high and dry in the end. I won’t reveal the ending because the film is more about the journey.

I thought there were two and a half reasons for making this film. First, it allowed Godard to make film that plays with lighting. There are two scenes that stand out – one a party. As Belmondo walks from room to room, the lighting changes from green to red to blue, etc. The other scene involves Belmondo and Karina driving while the overhead lighting alternates – left, right, left, right, green, red, blue, yellow, etc. The second reason to make this film was to showcase Karina (Godard's wife – both her beauty and screen presence were considerable. The half reason was Belmondo who makes valiant effort to hold his own opposite Karina.

This is the second Godard film I've seen this year. I saw Contempt earlier this year and Breathless (1960) with Jean Seberg a few years ago. It is clear that Godard knew how to highlight feminine beauty. Breathless tells a similar story as Pierrot le Fou (Belmondo is in both films) - that is young lovers on the run from the law but as Godard grew as a director, he moved away from linear story telling.

Trivia - director Sam Fuller (Big Read One) makes a cameo in the film in an amusing sequence that says a lot about Goddard and presumably Fuller’s view of American movies of the era. Jack Palance's character in Contempt bears a resemblance to Fuller.

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Finally, The Unfaithful was a film that must have caused a stir when it was released. Touching on the hardships on the homefront during WWII, The Unfaithful probably hit a nerve with many audience members. The story is about a Chris Hunter (Sheridan), a socialite that shoots an attacker in her house. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Chris knew the intruder (in the biblical sense) despite her claims otherwise.

This film deviates slightly from the standard of the era – evil women get their comeuppance. Chris is acquitted of the crime and reconciles with her husband. This ending reminds me of Clash by Night, Barbara Stanwyck film. The film portrays Chris in a realistic way which is to say that she is decent woman that was lonely during the war and got involved with a bad guy. The motivation and extent of her cover up was a little hard to fathom but it was the 1940’s and women didn’t have the opportunities they do today. I didn't like the semi-feel good ending.

Eve Arden as Chris' bitchy, boozy, newly divorced in-law stole just about every scene she was in.

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