Saturday, March 17, 2007

Some Irishness

My 1/4 Irish side wishes everyone a Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

Or as Liam says, Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

(I certainly hope that's "Happy St. Patrick's Day" in Gaelic and not some Irish obscenity.)

A little offering from Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner, Seamus Heaney . . .

Lightenings viii

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
HERE is Heaney's Bio, Nobel Prize Speech, more poems, etc.

Three more poems, along with audio of Heaney reading them.

5 + 5 Movie Meme

This meme arrives via Crystal. The idea is to choose your 5 Favorite Films and 5 Guilty Pleasures.

As I wrote on Crystal's blog, I'm not really comfortable with the idea of "Guilty Pleasures," as I think the concept promotes a false dichotomy between low art and high art. As one who loves musicals, screwball comedies, Astaire-Rogers films, etc., I don't think they're lesser films than favorites by Bergman, Godard, Kurosawa, etc. If I like a film, I like a film, and I don't feel guilty about it. Singin' in the Rain is a great film, period. I don't think it's better or worse than Rashomon, just different.

But having given my little cinema sermon, I'll play along. I offer 5 Favorites and 5 films that some people might feel guilty about enjoying.

Five Favorites:

Ran [Chaos] (1985) - I have a lot of favorite films, but this is the one I would probably want to take with me to a desert island. Akira Kurosawa does King Lear. It's an epic film that has everything: a great story by Shakespeare; adapted brilliantly to a medieval Samurai setting; stunning cinematography; lots of action, including some of the greatest battle sequences ever filmed; political intrigue; romance; family drama; a bit of comedy; and that elusive quality that all great art has, a kind of deep humanity that pierces both the heart and mind. It captures the horror and the beauty of life, the grandness of our existence, as well as the fact that we are but grains of sand. It deserves to be seen on a big screen, as Kurosawa's visuals are even more stunning than usual.

To Have and Have Not (1944) - My Bogart choice. Yeah, Casablanca is a better film, and if you ask me tomorrow, I'd probably include it instead. (The day after that, I might go with The Maltese Falcon, which seems more and more like a perfect film each time I see it.) So why pick a film that was a blatant attempt to repeat the success of Casablanca, that was based on one of Hemingway's most mediocre works, and that didn't have Ingrid Bergman? Easy: Lauren Bacall. She was 19 going on 35, and Bogart fell for her hard. And it's written all over the film. The two of them completely and utterly out-smolder the almost virginal relationship between Bogey and Bergman in Casablanca. Was there ever a more seductive, radiant and sexy woman than Bacall in To Have and Have Not? Bogey didn't think so. It's marvelous watching the two of them circle around each other in the film, just as they were doing in real life. Their banter ranks among some of the best in film history.

You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.
In addition to the Bogart and Bacall sizzle, To Have and Have Not also offers a screenplay by William Faulkner (and Jules Furman), excellent direction by the great Howard Hawks, an exotic setting, and wonderful performances by Walter Brennan (winner of 3 Academy Awards in his career) and singer-songwriter Hoagy Charmichael. I always come away from this one very satisfied.

Holiday (1938) - While Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story are the more famous Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn films, and I love them both, I've always had a soft spot for this one. Underneath the wonderful comedy, the stylish elegance, and the sheer exuberance of Grant and Hepburn, Holiday has a real poignancy and a touch of sadness about life. How do we want to live our lives? What's really important? What is real love? The screenplay by Philip Barry, who also wrote Philadelphia Story, is simply one of the best ever written, covering so much ground so smartly and gracefully.

Stephanie Zacharek has a great review of Holiday at

La dolce vita (1960) - Hard to choose between this and Fellini's . Both have Marcello Mastroiani. I saw La dolce vita more recently, so I lean in its direction. From the opening shot of a helicopter carrying a statue of Christ across Rome to the final powerful sequence on the beach, Fellini spins a delightfully twisted moral tale. There are so many classic and brilliant scenes, such as Marcello and Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain. And Fellini's visual sensibility may be the greatest in cinema history. But Marcello gives the film its resonance, with a great portrayal of a journalist slowly losing his soul.

Swing Time (1936) - Astaire & Rogers. I can never decide between this and Top Hat as my favorite Fred & Ginger movie. Besides offering some of the greatest dancing ever seen on film, Swing Time also features great music by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including "The Way You Look Tonight;" a witty screenplay; and Fred Astaire's underrated and excellent comic timing. Directed by George Stevens, who could deliver terrific comedies like Woman of the Year and Talk of the Town, as well as classic dramas such as Shane and Giant.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen tries to think of what makes this seemingly meaningless life worth living, and he finally settles on the Marx Brothers. Not a bad choice. That's how I feel about Fred Astaire. Swing Time helps keep me sane and deal with the existential black hole that always threatens to engulf me. That's why I would never call it a guilty pleasure!!! It's far too important.

Five Guilty Pleasures

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(1975) - The film I've seen more than any other - I lost count at 37 times. And most of those were in the days before home video! When The Holy Grail came out in the 1970s, my friends and I had never seen anything like it. I mean, even the opening credits were hilarious. I saw the movie six times on its first release, and, after that, my friends and I waited eagerly for it to show up as a midnight movie every few months. After all these years, I still think it's brilliant. And having studied the Arturian Cycle a bit in college, I came to realize how incredibly intelligent these Oxford boys really were. If I didn't take Ran with me to a desert island, I might take this.

Et Dieu... créa la femme [And God. . . Created Woman] (1956) - Okay, this is as close as I get to a real "guilty" pleasure. I told myself that director Roger Vadim played a role in the development of the Nouvelle Vague, which is true. I told myself the film had a huge impact when it came out, helping to bring international films to an American audience, which is also true. I told myself it was important to watch the film in terms of overall cinema history, which isn't really a lie. So, there.

But, yes, I admit that Brigitte Bardot did have something to do with my watching this. Or everything to do with it.

By the way, it's actually a good film, and Bardot gives a great performance.

French Kiss (1995) - One of my favorite comedies. Kevin Kline is hilarious as a French thief. Meg Ryan does her Meg Ryan thing, though maybe better than ever. Jean Reno's a cop. Timothy Hutton is Meg's fiancee, who goes to Paris and falls in love with a French "god-dessssss." Meg is terrified of flying and hates the French, but she wants Hutton back, so she puts herself through hell. Don't know why it didn't do better when it came out. The writing is wonderful and very well-crafted, with a lot of attention to details. The soundtrack is great, with Charles Trenet's beautiful song "Verlaine," and many other French tunes, as well as one cut by Paolo Conte.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban (2004) - Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also did the recent Children of Men, as well as Y Tu Mama Tambien. I've probably seen this five or six times now, and I appreciate Cuarón's craftsmanship more and more with each viewing. He doesn't like CGI, which I don't either, so his special effects feel different than those in other big Hollywood movies. Filmed up in Scotland, it has a wonderfully brooding atmosphere. The story is one of the best of the Potter series, and includes several surprises. The cast is a Who's Who of British actors, including Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Julie Christie, David Thewlis, Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane. And, of course, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry.

Quick Change (1990) - The funniest movie ever made about New York City. This underrated comedy classic was co-directed by Bill Murray, who also gives one of his best performances. He plays Grimm, a City Planner who's grown to hate the Big Apple and plans a bank heist so he can get out of the city and start over. The robbery goes fine - it's getting to JFK airport that turns out to be the real challenge. The great cast includes Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards, Tony Shaloub, Stanley Tucci and Phil Hartman. I'm not sure how this would play for those who haven't lived in New York, but if you're ever struggled to get to JFK on time to catch your flight (Liam!), you'll probably find this dead on.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday Morning Musings

We woke up this morning to a world draped in white. Since I have to work this weekend, and I realized I have no meetings, classes, or Reference Desk times scheduled today, I decided to enjoy what may be the last grey, moody, winter morning of the season. I'm staying home. The only time this year I've been able to relax in our warm little cottage and enjoy the world so beautifully stilled and transformed by the snow.

A nice pot of coffee, a log in the fireplace, some meditative music, the Christmas tree . . . (Yes, I know, it's March 16th, and we still have the Christmas tree up. We've broken our own record for laziness. But, really, the lights and ornaments are so lovely, why waste such beauty? And is it so bad to celebrate the Incarnation of G-d more than a few weeks each year? But, since tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, we've decided we probably should finally take down the tree.)

The music. I started out the morning with Georg Philipp Telemann's Sinfonia Spirituosa from the 1720s or 30s, performed by the Musica Antiqua Köln on authentic instruments of the time period. Telemann, the most prolific composer of all-time, was German, a contemporary of J.S. Bach. According to Grove Music, he "was widely regarded as Germany’s leading composer during the first half of the 18th century. He remained at the forefront of musical innovation throughout his career, and was an important link between the late Baroque and early Classical styles. He also contributed significantly to Germany’s concert life and the fields of music publishing, music education and theory."

But on such a tranquil morning, Telemann's lovely music wasn't quite moody enough for me. So I went with the most haunting and beautiful winter music of all-time, Eleni Karaindrou's soundtrack to the Theo Angelopoulos film, Ulysses' Gaze. Karaindrou composes along the lines of Philip Glass, but with more warmth, a reflection, perhaps, of her Greek heritage. She utilizes violins, some piano (more so in her later works), heartbreaking clarinets and the most mournful and melancholy tones ever produced on an accordion. It's stunning, primal music that connects you to a deeper time. I get images of being a peasant in 1100, staring out at a silent, snowy field somewhere in the Balkans. A mysterious religious procession with hundreds of votive candles might be passing quietly through the village.

But I'm not in the Balkans, only on Long Island. Still, staring out my window, I can feel for a moment something ancient and immense in the woods around our little cottage. The sad but dignified brown trees reaching up to the grey, empty sky. The pure white snow against the dark road. The log crackling in the fireplace. (Hey, it's a Duraflame Crackling Log.) We live near a cemetery and sometimes a long, slow procession of cars will make its way mournfully down the hill, most likely coming from the Greek Orthodox Church not far down the road. This morning it feels like they could arrive at any moment.

It's nice to be blogging on a day like this, so quiet and relaxing. But I think I need to go outside now and just stand there with the snow. Look at the world. Listen carefully. Feel my breath. Feel my heartbeat. Be thankful to whoever is listening. As fucked up as the world can seem sometimes, I know that our lives can be small pockets of something deeply and incredibly beautiful. At least for a moment. At least for one amazing moment. Just to be alive.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Recent Screenings

Le Cercle Rouge (1970) - Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian-Maria Volonte, and Bourvil.

I've been revising my list of 100 Favorite Films, and I was somewhat shocked the other day when I realized that I now had more films by Jean-Pierre Melville (4) than I did by Bergman, Fellini or Godard (3 each). How did this happen, I wondered?

Known in this country for his cool, stylish, and visually stunning noir films, Melville has never been taken as seriously as a director as some of his French compatriots. Last summer, however, his 1969 masterpiece about the French Resistance, L'Armée des ombres [Army of Shadows], was finally released theatrically in the United States - 37 years after its French premiere. I was lucky enough to catch it at Film Forum in New York, and it was a revelation. Like a lot of other people, I suddenly found myself re-evaluating Melville's overall career. We all knew he was a technically brilliant director, with some of the best set pieces ever filmed, but now we had to factor in an emotional weight that had been overlooked or under-appreciated before. Part of this was due to the fact that his films about World War II are different from his gangster movies, and they were almost completely unknown in this country. A couple of years ago, I happened to come across a video of Leon Morin, Priest (1961), with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a priest in a small village during World War II. It was an excellent and interesting work, but it seemed like an odd duck when compared to his gangster flicks. After Army of Shadows, it made perfect sense. There is a richness of tone in his war films that seem to flesh out the rest of his work. And now, upon re-watching some of his noir films, I'm suddenly aware of an emotional layer in them that had once been elusive to me. You are so taken by his technique and the wonderful atmosphere of his world, that you can miss some of the subtleties.

Le Cercle Rouge was the film Melville made after Army of Shadows, and many fans and critics consider it one of his best, along with Le Samouraï (1967). Alain Delon plays Corey, a cool, elegant thief who's just been released from prison. One of the guards has tipped him off about a jewel heist possibility. After visiting a gangster boss who may have had something to do with Corey going to prison, he runs into an escaped convict named Vogel, and the two begin to work out the details of the robbery. Meanwhile, Commissaire Mattei is slowly but systematically tracking down Vogel. Played wonderfully by Bourvil, who had been known as a comic actor before this film, the Commisaire is a dedicated policeman but a lonely figure who comes home late at night to an apartment full of cats.

Corey and Vogel need a marksman for the jewel heist, which leads them to an alcoholic ex-policeman named Jansen, who gets involved in the heist plan more to escape his delerium tremens demons than for any money. Yves Montand does a marvellous job as Jansen, who has turned into a drunk after the harsh nature of his life as a policeman. His performance, and that of Bourvil, gives the film its emotional core.

As usual in a Melville film, there isn't so much a line between the law and the criminals as there is a zone of honor in which men from both sides exist in relationship to one another. In his hunt for Vogel, the Commisaire puts pressure on a nightclub owner, which leads to a personal disaster with serious moral implications.

The tension builds up to the long heist sequence, a masterpiece of suspense. It's a Melville show piece, beautifully choreographed and done almost entirelly without sound. In fact, Le Cercle Rouge, like several of Melville's films, doesn't rely on a lot of dialogue (a keyword phrase for the film on IMDB is "Very Little Dialogue"). Melville's camera does a lot of the talking, moving gracefully, following these professionals on both sides of the law as they go about their work. In the end, the robbery is really secondary to the exploration of these men, the codes they live by, and their intersecting lives.

The Criterion DVD, besides offering a beautiful new print of the film, also includes a second DVD of interesting interviews with Melville and people who worked with him, as well as some documentaries on the movie itself.

Though Le Cercle Rouge is not one of the Melville films on my list of 100 Favorite Films, it's a great movie and may be the best place to start if you're interested in his work. DEFINITELY RECOMMENDED.

In addition to the films listed above, I also highly recommend Bob le flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1962).

The Croupier
(1998) - Directed by Mike Hodges, starring Clive Owen.

Jack Manfred (Owen) is a struggling writer who takes a job as a croupier at a London casino after a tip from his father, a gambler who lives in South Africa. Jack never gambles, but he does know his way around a casino, partly because of his father, and also because he's worked as a croupier before. His girlfriend is a store detective, and she's not happy with his decision, telling him she wanted to be with a writer, not a croupier. Their relationship, already somewhat stifling, begins to disintegrate.

Jack is a cool customer, observing all around him very carefully. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, likens him to Alain Delon's assassin-for-hire in Melville's Le Samourai, but though Owen plays Jack quite restrained, he exudes more physicality and sexual tension under the surface than Delon's character. It's an excellent acting job by Owen.

As the story unfolds, Jack begins to narrate the events as though they were chapters of a book. In other films, this technique might have felt like a gimmick, but Owen's delivery and Mike Hodges' direction make it work. Jack gets involved with a fellow croupier and becomes intrigued by an older woman who is a regular at the casino. Slowly but surely, he gets drawn into a complex scheme to rob the casino.

Then, of course, thing go wrong. Jack's emotional entanglements get messy, people involved in the robbery make mistakes, plans go awry. Jack's store-detective girlfriend plays the role of The Law, adding another dynamic to their shaky relationship. There are several surprises, and though the ending might resolve itself a little too cleanly, it has a sly sense of humor. Paul Mayersberg, who actually worked as a crew member on Melville's great Le Doulos and also wrote Nicolas Roeg's science-fiction classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth delivers an excellent screenplay. It's a moody noir that spends a lot of time developing its characters - as well as being a dark twist on the writing/publishing process. RECOMMENDED.

The Conversation (1974) - Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest.

In between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974), Francis Ford Coppola directed this little gem of a motion picture that garnered him one of his two Oscar nominations for Best Picture the following year. (It lost out to Godfather II). Released four months before Richard Nixon's resignation, The Conversation perfectly captures the paranoia and isolation at the heart of the Watergate scandal. Gene Hackman delivers what may be his best performance ever as Harry Caul, "the best wiretapper on the West Coast," who is hired to conduct surveillance on a young couple talking at lunchtime in a crowded downtown plaza in San Francisco. Harry becomes obsessed with their conversation, piecing it together from his various surveillance sources. He's convinced that they are in danger from the mysterious "Director" who's hired him (a cameo appearance by Robert Duvall). After Harry encounters the suspicious assistant to the Director - a creepy and menacing Harrison Ford - he finds himself becoming personally involved in the situation, against his own better advice.

The suspense builds slowly at first, then starts to spin out of control, like the situation itself, culminating in a terrifying sequence in a hotel room (La Reina said it reminded her of The Shining), followed by a shocking discovery, and a devastating final scene in which Harry becomes the one under surveillance.

The real mystery of the film, however, is Harry himself. While he spends all of his time listening in on other peoples' lives, his own life is a void. He has a relationship with a young woman - played by Terri Garr - but can't connect with her emotionally because he refuses to divulge anything about himself. He's an Everyman for the modern-day, alienated individual. Roger Ebert calls him "one of the most affecting and tragic characters in the movies" and likens him to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. At one point, he goes to confession, frightened that his work may have gotten people killed, and Coppola does a wonderful job of showing how Harry's G-d is like the Ultimate Wiretapper. At the end of the film, after a frantic search for a bugging device, Harry is literally left with nothing, his apartment stripped as bare as his own interior landscape. He contemplates the last object left to him, a statuette of the Virgin Mary. It's a powerful moment as his paranoia and isolation lead him to destroy the one last sacred symbol in his life.

The Conversation is a quiet film, with Coppola making extraordinary use of sound (the film also received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound), and with the cinematography and the pacing, it almost feels like a European movie, albeit, one with a creepy, paranoid edge. The slower rhythm allows the surveillance mystery to unfold alongside the mystery of Harry Caul's character.

Coppola has had his ups and downs over the last few decades, but I was reminded of what a great director he was in the 1970s, making The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now. I'm not sure any American director has done better since then. RECOMMENDED