The 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather is worth seeing not because of its conventional and wafer-thin backstage storyline, but because it offers the opportunity to see great musical numbers with the film’s two leads, Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, as well as other legendary African American artists like Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, and Fats Waller. Gifted African American performers were under-utilized and generally poorly served in Hollywood during the studio era, frequently relegated to stereotyped supporting roles or “specialty” numbers that could be excised from prints shipped to racially segregated areas of the United States. And while Stormy Weather is a product of its times and not without its fraught details – including a performance by a pair of comedians in minstrel-style blackface makeup – it also offers an indispensable peek at some extraordinary talents.
Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts
In adapting Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same name, Luis Buñuel’s 1968 classic, Belle de Jour, turned a deeply sexist tale of prostitution in the Parisian upper crust into a nuanced portrait of a woman at odds with her surroundings and herself. The story of Séverine – the quiet, young wife of a handsome doctor who fights her ennui and tests the edges of her sexuality by working part-time at a brothel – is a risky one; one that could benefit from sensitive characterization and detailed imagery or die at the hands of softcore exploitation.
Though Kessel considers it the “most human” of his novels, he fails to deliver the lived-in introspection required for this sort of material. His Séverine is a caricature straight out of Freud’s margin notes, unable to process complex thoughts clearly and whose sexuality exists solely because of a childhood molestation brusquely referenced at the start of the book. Her every action is painfully simple-minded – her constant near-fainting at the mere thought of prostitution, her inadequacy during her early days at the brothel and the catastrophe she causes after starting an affair with a dangerous client – and she is almost always punished for them. One can see Kessel wrote from a place that might’ve seemed to him genuinely human, but his obvious lack of understanding in regards to female sexuality cuts his apparent wisdom down into misguided misogyny.
PETER: I’d like to start by thanking Yangqiao Lu not only for the opportunity to show you all one of my absolute favorite movies, but also for letting me get on the stage of a theatre that I have been visiting since I was a college freshman in 1985.
I chose these two films because I think they go together well – I’ll tell you why and how in a moment. I think I’ll start by giving you some historical background on the film People on Sunday, then some stylistic things to look for and some matters of content, and then I’ll say a little about Jay Leyda and his short film A Bronx Morning.
People on Sunday was the first project by a group of young people living in Berlin in 1929, five of whom went on to become major players in Hollywood. Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer were the directors. Robert Siodmak was the primary director. He went on to make a great many films, of which the best known may be The Killers. Ulmer made a whole lot of B-films, none of which I have seen. The script was written – well – nobody is quite sure exactly what the division of labor was, because as with many films from long ago that have become legendary, everybody who worked on it has a different account of who did what. Billy Wilder said there was a 7-page script, someone else said there was a 30-page script, the actors seem to have said there was no script whatsoever, and that they were making things up in cafés as they went, which is probably the most likely thing. Billy Wilder was, with Siodmak, one of the screenwriters. When he was interviewed in the early 2000s about his role in making the film, Fred Zinnemann – who went on to make, among other things, High Noon – said he mostly just carried the camera around. Eugen Schüfftan was the cameraman; he really was quite a genius of a cameraman. He worked with Fritz Lang, as one of the cameramen on Metropolis. In the course of working on that film, he invented a technique, a filming trick that came to bear his name, the Schüfftan effect, which has to do with filming live action through glass partly painted with background, so the scenery didn’t have to be all built.
Stanley Kubrick had never directed a comedy when he adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita for the screen, but its farcical mechanics gave expression to a budding worldview. Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, presents himself as the consummate litterateur—a dandy whose attraction to underage girls is a matter of nonconformist élan. But, for all his preening, the character was born of a baboon: Nabokov was inspired by an ape in captivity that sketched the bars of its own cage.
Phantom Thread is a movie about obsession. Call it love, admiration, compulsion or simply attention to detail, it is the central ingredient in Paul Thomas Anderson’s answer to the vintage Hollywood romance. Following the peculiar relationship between eccentric couturier Reynolds Woodcock and foreign waitress-turned-muse-turned-partner Alma, the postwar London-set film fits right in with the other classic love affairs of the time, save for its distinctly modern look at what is essentially a well-dressed, well-spoken battle of the kinks.
Have you ever had a complete breakdown in public; blurring the line between public and private spheres? In Her, Theodore faces this exact experience when his operating system lover, Samantha, breaks his heart. Samantha is not just in love with Theodore, but also 641 other users.
The scene is incredibly quiet, except for the sound of footsteps in background – almost sounding like a calm herd of cattle walking by. As the commuters go about their day, the echoes of footsteps serve as a reminder of the sheer amount of other bodies in this public space. Jonze implements shallow focus in order to highlight the audience’s focus on to Theodore. Although he is trying to keep his cool, the passersby around him seem to not care about this man at all. The coldness that Theodore receives from the living, breathing humans around him is juxtaposed with the warmth and intimacy he received from Samantha. As Samantha tells Theodore of her other lovers, he now experiences a new sort of pain: it is not cold ignorance, rather heartbreak.
Codirected by filmmakers Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the 1930 silent masterpiece People on Sunday is a rare fusion of documentary and narrative genres. The film’s forerunners include the cinematic paeans to cities such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and, of course, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. All of these films share a trailblazing curiosity for the idiosyncratic potentialities of cinema: the rapidly growing medium was as much a subject of these films as their actual content and imagery. By exploring what only film can do—with its indexical relationship to what it records and its ability to hop around in space and time, fluidly and otherwise, through montage—these films broke new ground in the world of cinema. But what makes People on Sunday stand out is the way in which Siodmak, Ulmer, and scriptwriter Billy Wilder, fuse this experimentation, the rigor of Soviet montage techniques, and grand portraits of sprawling metropolises on the one hand; with a fairly straightforward, joke-studded narrative about twentysomethings in Weimar Berlin who embark on a sunny double date to one of the lakes on the outskirts of the city on the other. This simple yet ingenious combination of the experimental documentary approach and a linear narrative mode sets the film apart from its predecessors. The combination has implications beyond discussions of filmic genre and stylistics, however. By merging these two forms, People on Sunday also bridges the particular story of the young friends with a more universal sensibility, represented by cityscape montages that appear throughout the film, a bridge that bears significance for a city and a country that were trying to find its identity in the wake of one world war as the seeds of another grew almost invisibly. The film spans the divide between the particular and the universal through free-associative montages that act as interludes in the friends’ trip to the lake, carrying the film away from the specificity of the double date and opening it up to the entire city in the throes of figuring out its interbellum identity. Blending together these elements, People on Sunday models a kind of collectivity rooted in wonderment and leisure, rather than one based on a perceived common threat or struggle.
Adolescence is a time of transition. Childhood slowly recoils in a cocoon and adulthood looms, almost threatening the child away. In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, it is a transition so severe that it’s hard to know just what is about to emerge out of the cocoon and just what of the child will remain. The Fits is not only an allegorical poem about coming-of-age, but also a tale of becoming-a-woman. In the film, as in life, every girl goes through their own version of “the fits” to take their first step into adulthood (or more accurately, womanhood) seemingly unscathed, but forever changed.
Dmitri Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie – a found footage compilation assembled entirely from recent Russian dash cam recordings – is frequently concerned with the display of carnivalesque spectacle. Wild car crashes and road rage incidents intermingle in an often-surreal dance with windshield-views of police chases, animals darting into traffic, and strange weather conditions. An emphasis on spectacle privileges the hyper visible and the image captured on video with unbelievable timing and clarity. Despite this, I couldn’t help but find myself more so drawn to moments throughout the film that instead complicated such notions of vision. Rather than simply presenting carnage and calamity front-and-center (like an outlandish mash-up of America’s Funniest Home Videos, Ridiculousness, and Faces of Death), Kalashnikov’s documentary collage is often comprised of images that are quite difficult to discern or contextualize – the once legible suddenly rendered obscured or distorted by thick darkness, blinding light, precipitation, dirt, shattered glass, digital glitch, and the very limits of the dash cam itself.
It boggles the mind to think that nearly one hundred years have passed since the expatriate community in Paris set the literary, cultural and social world on fire in the early years of the twentieth century. Artists from every country on the planet stormed the city and made landmark changes and inventions in every area of culture and study: writing, painting, sculpting, fashion, and other media. In the years leading up to, during, and following World War I, a city changed the world.