Movies in November, 2014

  1. The Phantom of the Opera in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre on November 1: Jenn and I went to see this presentation with live accompaniment by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. During the introduction, guest conductor Donald Hunsberger mentioned that the Kodak Hall theater was originally designed to project movies, and that the cheapest seats were 20¢ (which, according to this US Inflation Calculator is $2.72 in 2014 dollars—a far cry from the $25 cheap seats at tonight's performance, and even farther from the more expensive ones we bought). Also, rather than projecting the film from film, it was a digital projection with a lot of issues (the numerous digital compression artifacts were probably due to a cheap DVD, but the lack of image contrast was as much the fault of the projection as it was the orchestral lighting.) The only thing that was exemplary was the music, although, admittedly, I've been spoiled by the overarching perfectionism demonstrated at  Eastman School of Music student performances. Anyway, the film was still quite good and disturbing.
  2. The Skeleton Twins at the Cinema on November 4: Ever since I saw the trailer at the Little, I had a lukewarm interest in seeing this. Jenn and I finally got to go and it was generally quite good. There's a lot of humor and camaraderie interspersed with incredibly dark imagery. Brother and sister Maggie and Milo, estranged for ten years, are reunited as both their lives are not going as well as they had hoped. Plagued with depression and thoughts of suicide, the two do their best to reconnect. For those who have seen it, I argue that the ending is false since it's so inconceivable, but Jenn felt it was true—and depending on who you believe, it really changes the film.
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy at the Cinema on November 8: Jenn and I caught the matinee and, well, it's a good, entertaining film. I'm having a hard time with recent audience reaction sending it into many "top-100 films of all time" as it's not really "better" than, say, Taxi Driver. Sure it's competently made, rather amusing, and no more unbelievable than any other comic-book film, but it's not that good. The basic plot is that a modern-day human becomes a space pirate and teams up with an unlikely group to stop a Big Bad.
  4. Rebecca at the Dryden on November 8: Jenn and I went to see this film by Alfred Hitchcock in his American debut. I was suitably impressed—it's a tense, cruel story of a woman who marries an older widower only to live in the shadow of his former wife.
  5. St. Vincent at the Little on November 9: Knowing only that Bill Murray plays the lead, I headed to this with Jenn to finish up our trifecta of local movie houses for the weekend. The story is warm and engaging and Murray does a fine job as an aged curmudgeon shut-in who's coerced to take care of a young boy next door. I was a bit annoyed at the unrealistic cinematic construct that the boy was consistently perfect, spouting pithy wisdom beyond his years and never acting like a child. Although I was impressed that the script called for Vincent to only be a more-or-less average guy to earn his premortem canonization.
  6. Sorcerer at the Dryden on November 22: I was curious about this film solely for the dramatic poster shot, and thankfully not distracted by the digital projection (except the very first scene—of all things). The film is based on the book The Wages of Fear which is the source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) from 1953. Anyway, it's about a group of expatriates from various countries who, desperate for a way out of their inhospitable work conditions, take on the task of transporting unstable explosives through rough terrain. While the dehumanizing nature of capitalism is used only as a setup, the actual journey is incredibly tense. And indeed the dramatic poster shot is the pinnacle of tension and certainly worth seeing.

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L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) and Gone With the Pope at the Dryden

Although I didn't bother with a pass this year, I did head out to two films I wanted to see at The 360|365 Film Festival (formerly the Rochester High Falls International Film Festival): L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) and Gone With the Pope, screening in sequence at the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.)

The former is a quasi-documentary about the respected French director Henri-George Clouzot and how he failed to complete L'enfer in 1964.  It's also sort-of a completion of that film.  The gist is that it was to be a film about jealousy and obsession. Serge Reggiani plays an older man married to the much younger Romy Schneider. They buy a small hotel together, yet whenever the train rumbles across the trellis bridge high above, Reggiani's character grows insane with jealousy. The physical world distorts and all he sees is his the parts of his wife's actions that suggest infidelity. It may be all in his head; it may be true; it may be both.

Clouzot began some experimentation with visual effects for the distortions. When the studio saw his work, the gave him literally a blank check, so he continued experimenting — creating some astonishing effects in the process. He was late to start actual shooting, and despite his insomnia, was unable to keep the three film crews shooting efficiently. He pushed them and his actors beyond their limits. Some walked off — Reggiani eventually did. Even worse: there was a physical deadline because the lake adjacent to the location was to feed a soon-to-be operational hydroelectric dam and essentially disappear.

So he became obsessed. He tried pushing things further. He shot scenes that were already complete. He essentially drove the production full-speed into the impending deadline. But once he had his heart attack on set, that was pretty much the end. Although he survived, he never finished the picture.

The documentary explains all this, and is fully worthwhile to see even if only for the sampling of brilliant effects shots (or, if you prefer, images of the adorable Romy Schneider and her gorgeous co-star Dany Carrel mostly wearing bikinis). Clouzot's goal was to create a film like none other — an entirely new kind of film-making. And I think he succeed perfectly. He made a film about obsession, and it was never to be completed. And by presenting it in titillating bits and pieces through the documentary filter, the obsessive feeling is perfectly achieved. I desperately want to see the finished product, but I know that any real version of the film would absolutely fail to be perfect enough — the very definition of obsession. If Clouzot wasn't consciously aware of it, his artist's heart certainly was: I believe some part of him certainly knew that not completing the film was the only way to properly obey the art.

After a brief intermission, I was back to see Duke Mitchell's Gone With the Pope. In some ways it was similar to L'enfer De Henri-George Clouzot (Clouzot's Inferno) in that it was a labor of love, created only when the conditions were right. It's different in that it's a raunchy exploitation film from the 1970's and shot on a very limited budget. Apparently Mitchell was a lounge performer in Las Vegas, and used his connections with casino operators to get permission to shoot his film on weekends. Using amateur actors, a fresh-out-of-film-school talented cinematographer, and the passionate performance of Mitchell himself, he set out to make a film about mob hits and, apparently, a loving criticism of the Catholic church — nearly a prayer to God in fact.

So once he got the film shot, he edited a rough cut but eventually stopped working on it. His son Jeffrey Mitchell (who also wrote and performed several songs for the film) became caretaker when his father died in 1981. Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing liked Duke Mitchell's earlier film Massacre Mafia Style and tracked down Jeffrey Mitchell. Mitchell mentioned to Murawski that he had a bunch of material from his father's incomplete film and offered it to see what Murawski could do with it.

So Murawski, being an established editor in Hollywood (editing Spider-Man, for instance) decided to tinker with editing Mitchell's unfinished film in his spare time. The result is Gone With the Pope. I think it got finished perfectly in exactly the right way. Mitchell started it as a labor of love in the 1970's — finding the best people he could to do the task. You could say that he never found a suitable editor — at least one who would work for cheap and do a good job — until years after his own death when Murawski picked it up and did exactly that.

Murawski and executive-producer Chris Innis were on hand to answer questions and provide a lot of the background story I told about the film. One last bit of trivia: Murawski surmised that Mitchell would do exactly one take for every shot, sometimes writing the dialog in marker on a legal pad for his actors to read. As such, almost every shot was included in the resulting film.

In all it's a wonderful cinematic experience, so long as you can stomach the frequent bad acting, several scenes of over-the-top exploitation of women, and quite a lot of astoundingly politically incorrect language directed at blacks.

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