Friday, October 19, 2007

My ten favorite films

We took some good friends of ours out to dinner to celebrate a birthday the other night. Over champagne one of our friends asked us to name our ten favorite films. Not the ten films we'd consider the best or the most significant, but the films that we find most pleasurable—the ones that we find ourselves watching happily for the fifth or tenth or thirtieth time, the ones that we never miss when they're shown on TV. I didn't come up with a very adequate answer at the restaurant (thanks, no doubt, to the champagne), but now I've managed to give the question a bit more thought.

The "pleasure" criterion means that greatness is neither sufficient nor even necessary for a film to make the cut. Among the filmmakers who didn't make my list are Almodóvar, Bergman, Buñuel, Chaplin (and Keaton and Lloyd), Cocteau, De Sica, Fellini, Godard, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, the Marx Brothers, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Renoir, Rossellini, Scorsese, Truffaut, Welles, or Wilder. The only claim I'm making for the movies that did make the list is that I've formed an intense and continuing personal connection with them.

Entire genres are missing, too: there are no silent films, horror films, or action films. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the list could easily have been Hitchcock movies, or films noir. So I decided that for some entries, one film would have to represent many others. Of course on another day I might decide that my favorite noir is The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. As a consequence this list should be thought of as a continual work in progress.

So here are some of my favorite films, in the order in which they occurred to me:

1. Vertigo. No surprise to anyone who knows me (or who has read the first installment of this blog), Vertigo not only occupies the top spot for itself; it stands in for many of Hitchcock's other films as well: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, Young & Innocent, Sabotage, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, The Birds, Dial M for Murder...
2. Singin' In The Rain. In my view the most purely enjoyable Hollywood musical save one, and which just beats out An American in Paris, the Astaire/Rogers films, On The Town, West Side Story, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Which is a bit of a surprise, because Singin' in the Rain's music (by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown) is far weaker than the scores for the other films, supplied by the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern, and Bernstein. But the story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green about Hollywood's rocky transition from silents to sound is just brilliant, and provides the perfect period context for Freed and Brown's songs.
3. The Wizard of Oz. The best Hollywood musical that isn't Singin' In The Rain, and one of the most frightening films ever made (at least, so claims my 6-year-old self). The flying monkeys still give me nightmares. (Incidentally, I'd seen the film perhaps ten times on black and white TV before I saw it in a theater and discovered that the Oz scenes were in Technicolor—and yet even in black and white it was so wonderful and terrifying to my youthful imagination I'm not sure I could have borne it in color.) Those veteran vaudevillians Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr deliver their schtick as though for the first time. And when 16-year-old Judy Garland steps forward to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" I hold my breath, even though I've heard it countless times before.
4. The Big Sleep. Bogart and Bacall in a film whose plot is nearly incoherent—but who cares? Their chemistry carries the film (as it does To Have and Have Not, also directed by Howard Hawks). This title has to represent many other films noir: The Maltese Falcon, Lady from Shanghai, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Sunset Blvd, The Big Heat, Gilda, Laura, The Big Clock, Gun Crazy, Detour, Narrow Margin, and on and on. If you're a fan, I highly recommend Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference edited by Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward and James Ursini, and Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, by Eddie Muller.
5. Casablanca. Perhaps it's an obvious choice, but the crackling, endlessly quotable script, Bogart in his archetypal role, a cast filled with European refugees played by actual European refugees, and Ingrid Bergman's luminous beauty make it impossible for me to leave it off my list.
6. La Jetée. I'm cheating a bit here because this isn't a feature-length film. But it's haunting and unforgettable, and should be experienced in a theater if at all possible. In this film composed of stills the moment when the man's sleeping lover opens her eyes is one of the most moving in cinema.
7. Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick's renowned chilliness as a director gives this movie a deadpan tone that makes it both hilarious and horrifying. Peter Sellars is so brilliant in multiple roles that the first time I saw it I thought he was three separate actors, and George C. Scott's gum-chewing, explosively exasperated General Buck Turgidson is Sellars' perfect foil.
8. It's a Wonderful Life. Not nearly as saccharine as you probably think it is, this is actually a very dark story about how George Bailey's dreams of escape from his constricted small-town existence are continually thwarted. Plus, if George hadn't existed Donna Reed would have become—a librarian! What could be more horrible? I have a fantasy that one day I'm going to re-edit this movie, cut God out of it entirely, and reveal it as the true noir masterpiece it is.
9. The Philadelphia Story. The Hollywood studio system functioning at its highest level, with a cast of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. This film stands in for many other great pre-WWII comedies (most of which, come to think of it, also star Cary Grant): His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night, My Favorite Wife, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday...
10. Kal Ho Naa Ho. An atypical Bollywood film set among young Desis in New York, KHNH makes this list on the appeal of its stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta), the cleverness of its script, and the way its musical numbers are integrated into the story. Once again a single film represents many others: Modern-day Bollywood classics such as Devdas, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Veer-Zaara, Paheli, Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kandukondain Kandukondain, the original Umrao Jaan, Khal Nayak--most of which, come to think of it, also star Shah Rukh Khan.

Honorable mentions to Some Like It Hot (Marilyn Monroe at her most comically luscious), Cocteau's La Belle et La Bête (the utterly magical images of the Beast's castle), and Ugetsu Monogatari, which were on earlier versions of this list but somehow didn't make the final 10.

While the movies on the list are pretty evenly distributed from the 1930s through the 1960s, there are none from the 1970s (sorry, Godfather), 1980s (sorry, Wings of Desire and Dekalog), or 1990s (sorry, Groundhog Day), and only one from the 2000s (sorry, Amélie). And with the exceptions of La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho, I had seen all of the films on the list by the time I was 25. Are movies getting worse, or am I getting less susceptible?

All comments, flames, and alternative lists welcome.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chourmo and Solea

"Had I, without realizing it, become permanently unhappy? Believing as I did that the small joys of everyday life were enough to make you happy, had I given up on my dreams, my real dreams?"

--Jean-Claude Izzo, Solea

Both Jean-Claude Izzo's weaknesses and strengths as a writer are magnified in the two final volumes of the Marseilles trilogy, Chourmo and Solea.

In Chourmo (Provençal slang for galley slave, the Marseillais equivalent of the American "homeboy"), Izzo's antihero ex-cop Fabio Montale discovers connections between organized crime and fundamentalist Muslim organizations operating in the housing projects of northern Marseilles. Montale, who resigned from the police force at the end of the first book in the series, Total Chaos, is unwillingly dragged back in the world of cops and criminals to investigate the murder of his cousin's son, the assassination of a social worker, and the disappearance of a college student with whom he had once contemplated an affair.

In Solea (the title is taken from the final track on Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album) Montale is the unwilling recipient of computer discs containing the results of an investigation by his journalist friend Babette into the Mafia. She has detailed the penetration of organized crime into the highest political and economic levels of France, and indeed the global economy. Soon hit men are on her trail and start pressuring Montale to tell them her whereabouts. Only instead of grabbing Montale and making him talk, they start murdering his acquaintances and friends one by one.

In fact, the violence levels in both books are implausibly high; most professional criminal gangs don't go around murdering random civilians, which can bring them unwanted attention. The vivid descriptions of bodies after heinous acts have been committed on them also seem pretty gratuitous. It's as though Izzo doesn't want to be accused of getting too literary, and so periodically has to rub our faces in some gore.

Or sex. Chourmo reaches a low point in this regard, with an inscrutable but irresistible Vietnamese Dragon Lady who ruthlessly beds every man she thinks she can use. But Solea doesn't stint in this regard, either. One of the greatest mysteries in the trilogy is why so many beautiful women in Marseilles seem to find a middle-aged, semi-alcoholic ex-cop to be so sexually mesmerizing.

But the genre aspects are the price you pay for what's really distinctive about this series, which is its depiction of the chaotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Marseilles in all their multiethnic glory. Izzo describes in loving detail the typical foods and wines of Provence that his characters consume with such delectation. And he also limns the clash and melding of cultures, styles, and traditions that makes contemporary Marseilles both so vibrant and so ridden with conflict and despair.

Izzo also captures a certain attitude in his characters that might best be described by Antonio Gramsci's formula "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Seeing the corruption, injustice and hopelessness of the world all too clearly, and yet living for whatever moments of human connection and pleasure they can find. Izzo portrays this attitude as ultimately the only honest one, and yet he also shows its limitations, as when Montale muses on why he'd never wanted to be a father:
"I'd never wanted a child. With any woman. I was afraid I wouldn't know how to be a father. It wasn't that I couldn't give love, it was just that I didn't think I could teach a child to trust in the world, in me, in the future."
What's distinctive about the books as crime novels is that the real perpetrators, who direct and profit from these vast criminal networks, remain out of sight and out of reach of the hero's retribution. Meanwhile, the effects of their decisions are visited with crushing weight on Montale, his friends and acquaintances, and all those who try to eke out some small degree of happiness from their daily lives. Corruption and criminality are pervasive among those who wield power, justice is unobtainable, and the truly guilty are can never be touched.

Solea ends on a deeply ambiguous and pessimistic note. My friend Robin Walz has suggested that Izzo may have known as he was writing the book that he had only a short time to live; he died of cancer only two years after Solea's publication. To me, the ending seemed inevitable, and of a piece with the portrait of Montale's world portrayed from the first pages of Total Chaos. But even though I knew where the trilogy was heading, such is Izzo's skill and the vividness of his characters that I was happy to go along for the ride.

Europa Editions and expert translator Howard Curtis should be commended for making these novels available to an English-speaking audience. If you're a fan of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, James Ellroy, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, you should find in Jean-Claude Izzo a kindred spirit.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Mozart Dances

Joan Acocella is a wonderful writer about dance (or pretty much about anything). Writing about dance for a non-specialized audience is very difficult; you have to manage to say intelligent things without employing the technical vocabulary that dancers and choreographers use to describe movement, since that vocabulary wouldn't be generally understood. There's a similar problem in writing about music, of course, but with a piece of music a writer can often refer to a score or a recording to refresh her memory; with dance, there's only the fleeting moment-by-moment configuration of bodies onstage.

I think Acocella does a particularly amazing job of capturing what it's like to see dances by Mark Morris. She's written an excellent full-length book on Morris whose only flaw is that it came out 15 years ago, and so is overdue for an update. Still if you're at all curious about Morris I recommend the book highly. Acocella published a substantial piece in the New Yorker recently about Mozart Dances; I'll give a link at the bottom of this post to the article, but in fact this is one of the rare occasions when I disagree with her perceptions about the piece.

When the Mark Morris Dance Group is in town, my partner and I always buy tickets to two different performances. We were especially glad that we'd done it for Mozart Dances, which struck us as being among his best recent works. It's in three parts: "Eleven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413 from 1783; "Double," danced to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, K. 448 from 1781; and "Twenty-seven," danced to the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 from 1791, the final year of Mozart's life. In Berkeley, the first and last pieces were performed superbly by pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jane Glover; the fiendishly difficult Sonata for Two Pianos was played by Ohlsson and Yoko Nazaki. All received well-deserved ovations at the final curtain. I've gotten used to hearing period instruments in this repertoire; I'd forgotten how lush modern instruments can sound. Morris insists on having live music to accompany his dancers, and it makes a huge difference.

Apart from a brief dance for the men of the company at the outset of "Eleven," it's a piece for the women. They're dressed in black (except for the soloist, Lauren Grant, Mark Pakledinaz's costumes are gauzily revealing without being particularly sexy), and if women dressed in black bring up associations of mourning, I think they're not inappropriate to this dance. Mozart's music offers both light and shade, but the movement in "Eleven" is consistently dark in tone, or so it seemed to us. Except for Lauren Grant's periodic solos, the movement is very austere (and often quite beautiful), reminding me in places of moments from Morris' version of Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. There is a disturbing recurring moment, though: women lie on the stage, then suddenly twist their torsos and necks and stiffen their arms and legs, stabbing outward. It's a gesture of horror, pain, and perhaps death, and it's the final image of the piece.

In the middle piece, "Double," it's the turn of the men. The soloist in this one was Joe Bowie, a long-time veteran of Morris' troupe; he's a beautiful dancer, and it was wonderful to see him featured. Again, the music had a brightly sunny quality in its outer movements, but the dancing reflected a more somber mood. Bowie's first entrance is backwards, hands raised upwards as though to ward off a blow or to block something too horrible to bear from view. The other dancers echo (or is it double?) his movements, but only Bowie seems to invest them with a foreboding quality. If there's a narrative here, it's that the other dancers imitate him, without really understanding what he's showing them. In the middle movement, something extraordinary happens. The women return briefly, dressed in long, flowing gowns; they look like the malevolent wilis from a particularly effective production of Giselle. And indeed, they surround dancer Noah Vinson while Bowie runs around their unbreakable circle looking in vain for a way in. It's a rich moment: are the women protecting Vinson from Bowie, or is Bowie trying to rescue him from them?

For the final piece, "Twenty-seven," the entire company is onstage, and now dressed in white. Many of the movements seen earlier return now in different contexts, but a new one appears: a kind of beseeching or supplicating gesture, where groups of dancers reach out to others emerging from the wings, but the expected joining of hands never happens--instead, those being supplicated hold up their hands in a rebuffing gesture, or echo the supplication gesture without making contact. In Acocella's article she writes that she sees in this "loving friendship"; to me it seemed more like something had gone wrong, that emotional connections had been damaged or broken. Morris himself compares the gesture to the end of Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutte, where two couples, wounded by infidelity, may or may not get back together. That Acocella didn't perceive this is due to the music for this section, which repeats a happy folk-like tune over and over; but in many places in Mozart Dances the music is suggesting one thing while the dance is telling us another. For a choreographer who is sometimes accused of slavishly illustrating musical structure, Morris has done something striking here: he uses the structure, but alters the emotional meaning.

In one other place I have to disagree with Acocella's article. She writes that because Morris's newer dancers are more technically accomplished than his older dancers, his current troupe should be more celebrated. While I'm not competent to make technical comparisons, the dancers from the first decade and a half or so of the Mark Morris Dance Group were all vivid personalities as well as superb dancers. After seeing them once or twice, we knew all their names. They could dance beautifully in unison while at the same time maintaining their distinct individuality. Now his dancers are more anonymous-seeming. There are exceptions--David Leventhal and Lauren Grant are instantly recognizable--but most of his newer dancers are young (many have come into his group right out of college) and they don't leave as strong an impression. Perhaps greater uniformity is what Morris is looking for now, but I miss Tina, Mireille, Ruth, and Guillermo. Morris' new dancers have program bios that list their BFAs in dance from Julliard; Guillermo's bio used to consist of one sentence: "Guillermo Resto dances with Mark Morris."

Joan Acocella's New Yorker article on Mark Morris's Mozart Dances can be found here.