The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye

You’ll never learn. You’re a born loser.

Based on the titles alone, I was torn between this and my other remaining film as to which would be the final one in my quest. Ultimately, after doing a little digging into each, I decided to make this the penultimate one, pretty much solely on the preconception that I would enjoy it less than the other. The Long Goodbye, in what I’ve found about it, is made out to be one of the quintessential films of the 1970s, epitomizing the decade as it existed in the timeless locale of Los Angeles. Based on my other experiences with films of 1970s Los Angeles, and the fact that my experiences with Robert Altman have generally been rather tepid, I didn’t think I’d have much to look forward to with this one. The film itself ended up being pretty much what I expected, but it still had a good deal of character to it, so it wasn’t all for naught.

Elliott Gould takes over the already somewhat famous cinematic role of Philip Marlowe, here updated to put him square into the setting of 1970s L.A. Marlowe ends up giving a ride to Tijuana for a friend of his, Terry Lennox, only to find out when he arrives back at his house that Terry is under suspicion of killing his wife, and is then found to have apparently killed himself in Mexico. Marlowe doesn’t buy the story, however, and the film recounts his personal investigation into what really happened, coupled with a secondary case of a missing writer husband that Marlowe is hired to take on. It’s pretty much apparent right from the beginning that this is a typical Robert Altman film; the first ten minutes or so consist of Gould’s Marlowe trying to find a way to feed his cat, in probably the most lackadaisical manner the character could’ve possibly done it in. Sure enough, the rest of the film was just like the opening scene; the cinematography evoked a feeling of passivity, along with a constantly mobile camera that, reportedly, Altman requested to make the viewer feel like a voyeur to Marlowe’s life, and the script came off as entirely ad-libbed, which wouldn’t have surprised me if a majority of the scenes actually were (apparently, the stuff with Gould and Sterling Hayden was). What was especially interesting was that even though the anthology setup of so many of Altman’s films was indeed partially alive in this one, what with all the subplots and B-stories, in this case, everything actually ended up tied together in the end, if only superfluously, as the film treated its ending that was supposed to tie all the subplots together with as much attention as it did the rest of the film, which is to say it barely glanced at it at all.

If I have any problem with Altman’s films, it’s that their mood seems to be one of extreme ambivalence. Everything from the pacing to the dialogue to the cinematography just screams a sense of dreariness, a languid curiosity at best, instead of an engaging storyline and entertaining production value. Sure, they’re well made, and I can’t fault Altman for the kind of films he makes or how good he is at making them, but if I were to pick any single director as the one that, given just about any one of his films, I would say could put me to sleep the easiest and the soundest, it’d be Robert Altman. The Long Goodbye is an excellent example of this, and even though I could see some worth in what it was doing, it was the briefest thanks I could give that the film clocked in at under two hours. I will say, though, that Elliott Gould was highly enjoyable in the lead role, but that’s about all I could say toward this one and why you should see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren tranen der Petra von Kant)

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

No one can take away the things you learn in life.

I’ve gotta say, I was not expecting this out of such a demure director as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I’ll lay out a few anecdotes and tidbits about The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and you can see if they make you as interested in the film as I was, which is to say I barely was at all: it is adapted by Fassbinder from his own stage play, it takes place largely in a single room, and consists mostly of people talking with each other, one of which is amusingly mute throughout the entire film. Interested yet? Yeah, neither was I. But, once again, it seems I should always give the benefit of the doubt to a film adapted from a stage play, even R.W. Fassbinder’s, because this was actually very watchable, and almost certainly the Fassbinder film that made his presence on the list ultimately worth it.

Petra von Kant is a fashion designer who largely works out of her home (or it is implied that she does, since the whole film essentially takes place within her bedroom), helped by her companion Marlene, who doesn’t talk through the whole film and is usually in the background doing menial chores like typing or painting sketches of von Kant’s work. Over the course of several days, von Kant meets with several people, including a young model named Karin, with whom Petra develops a fascination with that eventually evolves into a love affair. Nevertheless, Petra’s past relationships with people, men and women, threaten to once again tear her life apart, especially with the people she believes she values the most. I was almost immediately on my guard when the opening credits rolled, which were set against by far the single most boring opening credits shot I have ever had to sit through. I will also admit, the film took a while to get going, and the idea that the entire film is just the characters talking with each other is not an altogether incorrect one. But, for some very strange reason, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by what was going on; all the interplay between the characters, as well as Petra’s characteristic desire to warp everyone around her into doing whatever she wished of them, that made the film somehow captivating to me. Really, I was surprised at how much attention I was giving the film, since at surface level, that’s all the film was was people talking with each other, added by the actors’ delivery seemingly coming right out of how a stage actor would deliver the lines instead of a film actor. Maybe that was another aspect that helped this be as interesting as it was.

I’ve mentioned numerous times before how I tend to watch films at the surface level, unless the film has nothing at that level and I am thus forced to delve deeper to find something of worth. This was an interesting example of such a film; at surface level, there would seem to be nothing here, but delve a little deeper and suddenly you’re invested so much more than you would’ve thought in such a film. It all comes down to the production; Fassbinder’s choice of where to put the camera and why, the little touches of the actors’ performances, the production design of the bedroom itself, everything that so many other films take for granted that here instead adds another layer to the experience. I will say, though, that I don’t see everyone who tries this film out to have the same experience as I did; there will be quite a few moviegoers who will see nothing here but people talking, and be bored by it all. To that, I can only say, rather frankly, that I feel bad for those people, and that I hope that, given another day and another mindset, they give this another try. There’s a magic here that is inexplicable, impossible to put down into words, and I’d definitely advocate for such a film to be seen at some point in every true cinephile’s life.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Tin Drum (Die blechtrommel)

The Tin Drum

There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar.

I’d been warned about The Tin Drum before I finally sat down to watch it, in particular how its main character Oskar was the biggest little prick of a child that side of Le Gamin au Velo. It was that plus the length that made me hesitant to start this; I didn’t know if I would be able to handle such a repugnant character for two and a half hours. I started it nonetheless, and the film seemed to give me a gift; the kid didn’t show up until a good 10-15 minutes into it, giving me a respite while I got used to the filmmaking style and production on display. That, I think, is what made The Tin Drum ultimately work for me, and even when the kid did become the center of attention, I was still able to find a lot to appreciate and enjoy about the film.

Oskar Matzerath, who narrates his own story even before he is born, is a young boy with many odd peculiarities about him. He was born with an adult mentality, has a screech that can shatter glass, and when he is three, he deliberately throws himself down a flight of stairs in order to stop his body’s growing process, successfully I might add. From then on, we follow him as he grows older without actually growing up, and always with the tin drum he was given on his third birthday. I’ve made mention before how the production value of a film can be quite thorough without coming across as excessive, and The Tin Drum is another great example of this. With seemingly minimal effort, director Volker Schlondorff re-creates a pre-WWII Germany, one that evolves over time, and what was best was it wasn’t overtly noticeable; it blended into the background, as truly great production value should. Besides the production itself, the plot was the main focus, and it exceeded my expectations for it, coming across as a weirdly black comedy; the kind that doesn’t go for overt laughs, but just a wry sense of otherworldliness, and The Tin Drum definitely succeeds in this. As for Oskar himself, I was surprised to find I didn’t hate him nearly as much as I thought I would; his venom-laced narration aside. Sure, he’s a bit of a brat, and the film opts to focus his characterization entirely on that which is negative about him, giving us none of the positive, but I didn’t take personal offense to him like I did the kid in Le Gamin au Velo, so that’s another win for this one. Also, the music was very interesting; it seemed to be a combination of a typical orchestral musical score and some sort of exotic instrument, maybe a didgeridoo, that added another layer of strangeness to the film.

There’s apparently a whole ‘nother layer of subtext beneath the film, like how Oskar’s eponymous tin drum is a metaphor for his rebellion against the German middle class, symbolized by his decision to not grow up, and blah-de-blah. As I’ve said before, unless there’s nothing else to notice about the film, I generally do not watch it for the subtext; I watch it at face value, and at face value, this was weirdly enjoyable, even with the repugnant main character at the center of the film. This ended up winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, along with Apocalypse Now, and frankly, I’m a little surprised they went with this one as well; it seemed much too straightforward a film for Cannes to gift the top prize. Still, it wasn’t nearly as distasteful as I was expecting, and there were moments sprinkled throughout that really made me like the film as a whole, so I’ll chalk that up as a modest win.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der freiheit)

Fox and His Friends

He’s not the sort of guy who money makes rich.

I think I’ve finally put down what it is about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films that generally rubs me the wrong way. There is an aloof quality to everything that happens, almost a haughtiness, as if the picture is trying its hardest to be refined art and wants to rub it in your face when it succeeds. The previous two films of his I’ve seen have been the exceptions, or at least partially so, but it is on full display here. Fox and His Friends is one of the two Fassbinder films that deals with homosexuality to make it onto the list (the other will be one of the last films I end up doing), but a quick look under the hood and one can see that there’s more to this than just gay people being gay with each other; this is a mean picture, and a focused meanness at that.

Fassbinder himself stars as Franz, better known as Fox, after the carnival sideshow he stars in; Fox, the Talking Head. At the beginning of the film, his overseer at the carnival gets arrested, leaving him without a job, and no hope of any money to buy the weekly lottery ticket he buys every week, of which this week he is sure he will win. Amazingly enough, after stealing the money needed to buy the ticket, he does end up winning, and thus his life in the higher bracket begins; meeting up with high class entrepreneur Eugen, beginning a relationship with him, and generally being in over his head, as the funds from his lottery win grow smaller and smaller. There’s basically nothing to this film other than the plot, so I found it a little more irksome that the film didn’t seem to give much of a care to the plot. Fassbinder, at least in this film, appears to be the sort of director that is content with people having regular discussions about nothing in particular, even if the result doesn’t really come across as particularly engaging to a film audience. Most of the dialogue in this film is superfluous, and serves only to fill in the silence that would otherwise be there if it were gone. Thus, the plot developments come off as perfunctory; there is no reason to be engaged with the film and with Fox as a character because the film is so disengaged with itself. That said, the one real compliment I can give Fassbinder on the technicals is his sense of the frame, and the sense of the characters within the frame; he always seems to put the camera in exactly the right place, with exactly the right motions, to keep the focus on exactly what he needs to in any given scene. It’s a rare talent for a director to intrinsically have, but Fassbinder mostly gets it right.

All told, there wasn’t very much to this one, which was a disappointment given the other two Fassbinder films I’ve seen. In hindsight, I probably should’ve expected this, as Maria Braun was generally mainstream Fassbinder, and Ali was Fassbinder’s ode to Douglas Sirk and his melodramas, so this is really my first encounter with Fassbinder as an influence to and of himself. To that end, I wasn’t all that impressed, but then again, the film is not really meant to be impressive; it’s a moral tale, almost a fable, following one man as he lets quickly wrought riches drown him in a river he has no business swimming in. In that, the film works, but only barely. Without having seen Fassbinder’s earliest work on the list, if I were to whittle down the director’s representation in the Book, this would in all likelihood be the one I would start off with.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Shaolin Master Killer (Shao Lin san shi liu fang)

Shaolin Master Killer

A man must do or die.

It seems, according to damn near every review out there for this one, that I’ve saved the best for last when it comes to martial arts films. Shaolin Master Killer, better known in English as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is very much like its brethren; a showcase for fight scenes and martial arts skills, and little else. Where Shaolin succeeds where others fail, however, is in the hook; Gordon Liu’s character must make his way through 35 chambers of Shaolin martial arts training before he can be called a master. So why 36 instead of 35? That, I will leave up to you to discover, as this is certainly worth watching, especially if you never have.

Liu is Liu Yu-de, a young student who ends up being drafted by his teacher into a small-scale rebellion covertly taking place in his town. Unfortunately, soon after he does this, the rebellion is cracked down on hard, and the government kills all of his friends and his teacher, and basically leaves Yu-de for dead. He gets away, however, and makes his way to the local Shaolin temple, famous for their martial arts, in order to become their newest disciple, so he can learn the skills necessary to return and wage a one-man war on the corrupt establishment. One may wonder why someone who enlists in a Shaolin order is so bent on vengeance, and how that must conflict with the peaceful ways of the temple; don’t worry, it is addressed in the film. But, plot aside, you’re not here for the story; you’re here for the fights. In that respect, I guess the film is successful, but only because everything is choreographed down to a T, so much so that it shows glaringly. Sure, the perfectly choreographed fights are impressive, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that they are perfectly choreographed, and thus somewhat unrealistic. Plus, the sound effects used for every single blow in the film seemed to all be from a stock portfolio of generic “POW”, “BAM”, “WHACK” sound effects, which got a little annoying. The showcase is, of course, the many chambers within the Shaolin temple through which Yu-de, now going by the amusing name of San Ta, learns and refines his martial arts skills. We don’t go through every single chamber, but it is definitely the centerpiece, taking up most of the running time, and thankfully it’s pretty enjoyable. Each chamber we do see is unique and offers something new and different for Yu-de as a character and a fighter, and it’s this that makes it as engaging as it is. I will say though, the film does try its best with the overdubbing, but the quality of the recorded voices was a little too good compared to the actual scenes they were used in, so it was still pretty noticeable, so, once again, heads up for that.

I was more than a bit taken back by the ending, which was so abrupt it actually made me wonder if a scene or two had been chopped off or otherwise removed entirely to adhere to some requirement toward the running time. This aside, though, I can see why many proclaim this to be the best kung fu film of all time. I don’t know if I would agree, though; this would probably rank on par with Wu Du in my general preference list, but it wouldn’t surpass it. It suffers from most, if not all, of the same deficiencies that Wu Du does, but doesn’t have as many of the strengths. Still, I did enjoy this quite a bit, so in that regard, the film accomplishes its goal.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Devils

The Devils

Sin can be caught as easily as the plague.

I don’t know much about Ken Russell as a filmmaker, or as a person for that matter, but from what I hear, he has a storied place in British filmmaking history, if not filmmaking in general. This, The Devils, is by far his most popular and controversial work, which I’m sure was definitely the intention behind it. Now, I’ve gone through controversial films before; films like Salo and Flaming Creatures, where the label “controversial” isn’t as much of the truth as the label “riot-inducing”, especially in the case of the latter. That said, I was underwhelmed by the controversial aspects of The Devils, but weirdly enough, I found plenty of other material that grasped my attention.

Oliver Reed is Father Urbain Grandier, the head priest and de-facto leader of a fortified French town called Loudun; a town which outside forces within the country of France wish to de-fortify in order to achieve their own ends. Naturally, Grandier is against this, and after he becomes the object of the affections of the hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne (played with fervent ambition by Vanessa Redgrave), who desires him in a way that no nun should ever desire a man, the blowback caused by his inadvertent rejection of the sister threatens to topple his seat of power and all the good that he has done for the town. So, about the film itself; I’ll start at the beginning. The film opens with a cardboard-and-pastel stage set, seemingly right out of Melies, which then erupts into an elaborate and bombastically hedonistic dance number, as if Fellini’s Satyricon had somehow been made into a musical for the theater. Right after the title is displayed, the film smash cuts to the skull of a full skeleton being spun on a Catherine wheel, complete with maggots wriggling in the empty eye sockets. It’s these two shots or segments that perfectly illustrate what The Devils is about to give you, and if you feel uneasy at all thanks to either of these images or the juxtaposition of them together, boy are you in for a rough film to watch. For one, the name of the game here seems to be sensory overload; holy wow, was the production value in this one massive. The screen is filled with slightly unnatural versions of regular colors, in particular shades of white and black, creating an extremely sterile feel, which might be viewed as ironic given the subject matter. Not only that, but each frame of the film seems to have at least one example of clashing colors, and often an inordinate amount of examples, what with all the set dressings and props that the production value gives us that are extremely utilized throughout the film. I hesitate to use the word decadent to describe it, because thanks to the plot of the film it ends up being as far from decadent as you can muster, but it is definitely an experience for the eyes; that’s for sure.

I didn’t really go into the really controversial aspects of this one, which caused it to be recut and released in varying forms in different countries upon release (to this day, a complete version of the original cut has yet to be released at all). I think I skipped over them because they seemed rather inconsequential to me, especially after I’ve seen films like Salo and Satyricon, which trump this one in just about every way. Really, that this is in English and was made in the 1970s is, I’d bet, where most of the hindsight controversy comes from, as English-language films weren’t really known at the time for being this… incredulous. That’s probably why it made the list more than anything else, and I’m actually surprised it took this long to get there. Still, besides the overly sexualized and horrifying graphic content, I actually liked this one, mainly because it was a feast for the eyes more than anything else. Granted, there are more than a few razor blades in the apples that make up this feast, and it’s for that reason alone that I’d hesitate in recommending this. Really, if you’ve made it through films like Salo and Satyricon, this will be an easy go-through; otherwise, prepare to be, at the least, mildly taken aback by the content of this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van oranje)

Soldier of Orange

Friends don’t exist in times of war.

Soldier of Orange had come up on TCM’s schedule a while back, and I’d been meaning to get to it. For some reason, though, I never did, until now, and frankly, now that I’ve seen it, I wonder why it took me so long. Well, I’m not wondering all that much; the length of the film was pretty daunting, but as I got into the film a ways, the length of it didn’t seem to bother me any. Really, I’m glad it went on as long as it did; it was quite enjoyable, and for a war epic, a genre that has been quite extensive on the list, that was an all too rare thing to be had in this last leg of my journey.

Rutger Hauer delivers an unexpectedly empathetic performance as Erik, one of a group of students at a fraternity in the Netherlands during WWII. After a short hazing process makes him some new friends, the small group overhears a radio broadcast announcing England’s declaration of war against Germany, and after Germany invades the Netherlands, culminating in a swift capitulation from the Hague, the group finds themselves entering the war on various fronts, and the film tracks their progress through the events therein. First off, I should say that, if it weren’t for the foreknowledge, as well as Rutger Hauer’s starring role, I would not have made the connection that this was a Paul Verhoeven film at all. This comes across very much like what a Hollywood small-scale war epic would seem to be, and what was most impressive was how much I could see future such films in this one, making it quite progressive for the late 70s. As mentioned, this isn’t a full-scale war piece like Saving Private Ryan would end up being, and it’s not absolutely dripping with drama a la Schindler’s List. What this is is comfortable with following individuals through what they end up doing to aid either side of the war effort that they’re on. Only rarely do we get actual war action, and even then it comes in the form of glancing action, such as a contingent of Germans at a party shooting at a group of Dutch resistance leaders as they attempt to flee to the ocean. This is much more concerned with the individual efforts of men, rather than the big picture of what is accomplished by groups of men, however large or small. Oh, and the theme was quite memorable as well, and didn’t get overplayed to the point of exhaustion.

Even with the length, I was very surprised at how watchable this was, especially for a Verhoeven film. I got wrapped up into the film pretty early on, and from there the time seemed to fly by, and when it was all over and done with, it was quite satisfying indeed; not too long, but long enough to where you feel you’ve had your fill. Apparently, this was the most expensive Dutch film ever made at the time, and went on to be one of the most successful, even coming in only behind Verhoeven’s own Turkish Delight in a poll of the best Dutch films of the 20th century. I can see why; also, how this made a name for Verhoeven in Hollywood as well, seeing as if it weren’t for the foreign language, it might’ve as well been a Hollywood film of the era. Quite a surprising find, and a more than enjoyable one.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10