#127 (tie) – Spring in a Small Town (1948), dir. Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

A house divided. A woman prepares medicine for her husband while trying to ignore the stares of her former lover in director Fei Mu’s tense domestic drama Spring in a Small Town.

We’ve been stuck here of late at FWAMY. So far we’ve yammered about 73 Sight & Sound list films, all of which come from just eight countries. So it is very nice to welcome a new nation to the fold: China. Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn, 1948) was filmed in the short window between the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in China in 1949. As such it captures a very unique — if very brief — chapter of China’s history, and offers insight into what the country thought of itself before Chairman Mao. But the epic turbulence of this period is kept well to the background in Spring in a Small Town, which is a domestic melodrama that contains a grand total of five characters. An ailing man lives in the ruins of his family’s mansion with his wife, sister and a servant. One day the man is visited by a friend — a friend who used to be romantically attached to the sick man’s wife. It is a simple set up, but evocatively constructed to be a slow burn of passion versus duty; romance versus friendship. And while set in a society that lasted all of a few years, the beautifully shot Spring in a Small Town reaches for something universal and timeless. (98 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – The Red Shoes (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

The Red Shoes (1948)

Why do you want to live? Powell & Pressburger pile on the visuals to create an extravaganza of music and dance in their final Sight & Sound film, The Red Shoes.

Ah, ’tis a sad day here in the land of Movie Yammers. Once upon a time (aka the beginning of 2014) S. and J. had a happy prospect ahead of them: six whole films by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Why, six films is almost an eternity of entertainment! And so we ventured forth through the dizzying days of Colonel Blimp to the Himalayan heights of Black Narcissus. But through it all we knew one day the Powell & Pressburger films (as well as our capacity for alliteration) would come to an end, and so they have with The Red Shoes (1948). And while we might no longer be dancing through Canterbury or Scotland — much less through the heavens themselves — The Red Shoes is a pretty grand way to end a run like no other on the Sight & Sound list. Loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the film recounts the story of three ambitious artists — a ballerina, a composer, and the director of a ballet troupe — as they struggle to balance love and art. Like the filmmakers’ Black Narcissus, plotting and character development are often a bit secondary in The Red Shoes, with the focus more on raw emotion and artistry than reason or sense. And through its kinetic ballet scenes and painterly blasts of Technicolor, The Red Shoes overwhelms with a torrent of visual splendor and daring quite unlike any other film. So, as David Bowie once insisted, “Let’s dance!” (135 min.) Continue reading

#102 (tie) – Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible

C.C.C.People Power. Tsar Ivan Groznyy absorbs the will of the people as they march to beg his return to the thrown in one of countless powerful images from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I.

Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great directors. A pioneer of montage editing, inventive camera placement, and rousing action set pieces, Eisenstein was also a deeply cerebral filmmaker and a Marxist deconstructionist of film technique who put together some of the best theoretical pieces on movies ever written. In many ways he represented the leading edge of experimental Russian cinema in the cultural renewal that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. But like many of his contemporaries, things didn’t go so well for the director after Stalin came to power, and his film output dwindled. Still, with World War II raging and the Soviet Union suffering the brunt of the casualties, Eisenstein was called on to create a series of films meant to inspire the Russian people against the Germans. The director set out to craft a trilogy about Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, using the 16th century monarch as a representation of the supreme power of the State and a symbol of unity for the Russian people. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Ivan Groznyy, 1944) was considered a triumph upon its release, and features some of the most stunning visuals found in any film, as it tackles the opening years of Ivan’s reign from his coronation to his first major victory over the scheming nobility. But Eisenstein’s success was short-lived. Though Part II was finished, it did not meet the approval of Stalin, who forbade the film from being released. Stalin also pulled the plug on the production of Part III, of which little footage has survived. Eisenstein passed away not long after. (99 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.

Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), dir. Vincente Minnelli

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Clang! Judy Garland sings up a storm in Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic musical romp about growing up white and privileged in Middle America at the turn of the 20th century.

The first major sound film — The Jazz Singer (1927) — was a musical. And this is hardly a surprise; early talkies took their cues from the theatrical stage, and singing and dancing have long been a staple of plays and vaudeville. But despite the vast array of musicals that would grace the silver screen over the next several decades, they don’t feature all that prominently on the Sight & Sound list, with perhaps just five making the cut. In our exploration of the list so far, the only musicals we have encountered are a parody of the form (Duck Soup) and a children’s film (The Wizard of Oz). But that changes now with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the first honest-to-goodness adult musical on the Sight & Sound list. Directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, a young woman pining for the boy next door ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. The film pretty much evenly divides itself between Esther’s grasp for romance and the tomboy antics of her youngest sister Tootie, striking a tone of nostalgia for a bygone age that is celebrated through the use of period songs and a number of original compositions that have themselves become popular standards. Meet Me in St. Louis also features some of the most eye-poppingly vivid Technicolor cinematography ever captured on film, highlighting the movie’s already fever pitch energy and melodrama. (113 min.) Continue reading

#102 (tie) – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid

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Samsara. Maya Deren and Maya Deren sit at a table waiting for Maya Deren to pull up a chair in Meshes of the Afternoon, a circular, surrealist dive into the outer edges of American wartime cinema.

A flower, a key, a knife, a phone with its receiver off the hook, and a mysterious figure in black. It is remarkable what one can achieve with a few stray images and a lot of imagination. This handful of components are remixed and repurposed in an inventive, circular narrative in the experimental Surrealist short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Made by the husband and wife team of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid on a minuscule budget, Meshes is frequently cited as the film that really kicked off American experimental cinema and as a major influence on later filmmakers, particularly David Lynch. Much like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s avant-garde image-fest Un Chien Andalou (1929), Meshes of the Afternoon taps into the imagery and feel of dreams, but its vision is less confronting and more meditative. It also has something closer to an actual narrative thread: A woman steps into a house and falls asleep in a chair, at which point multiple dream selves enter the same house and encounter different experiences with the five items listed above. The result is a cyclical narrative wherein the story repeats itself in different variations as dream clones of the woman begin to pile up in the house. Meshes of the Afternoon gives the viewer no quarter, drawing you in through its wild imagery and offering no explanation of the meaning of it all — if there even is one. (13 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading