Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

By Eric Jessen June 27, 2010

When Paul Muni in full Emile Zola beard screams about truth in William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola I couldn't help but chuckle. Or was it that I gagged but the sewage that spewed from my mouth was thought too lurid to survive any retelling?
Hollywood has always told its own version of history, but why does it always have to be at the expense of facts? In the case of The Life of Emile Zola the lack of truth is not particularly egregious but it is particularly ironic – and perhaps an opportunity for a teaching moment.
Emile Zola was a man about truth. The Life of Emile Zola agrees. He was tried and found guilty of defamation for accusing in a newspaper article members of the French army of convicting Alfred Dreyfus of treason knowing he was innocent, and trying to cover up their mistake by acquitting Major Esterhazy of treason knowing he was guilty. Zola fled to England. Dreyfus was let out of prison after the French government collapsed. And Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning soon after. Thankfully fact and the film are still on the same page.
Here's where fact meets Hollywood. Emile Zola was famous in France long before writing Nana as the film portrays. (Although a small foot note, every detail counts where fact is concerned.) Alfred Dreyfus' wife never met with Emile Zola and begged him to help her husband, showing him evidence her husband was innocent. And in the category of Hollywood by omission, there was no mention whatsoever in the film of Emile Zola accusing in his article members of the military of antisemitism against Dreyfus.
I say, Why? Do these fabrications not make the movie less substantive? Do they not make the story more dull? Why must Hollywood always take liberties with the truth? Why must it mold history to fit its cliches? I say, stop the over-fictionalizing and fantasizing! I say, stop making every trip to the movies an unlearning of history! J'Accuse! J'Accuse!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seven Chances (1925)

By Eric Jessen June 24, 2010

In this wonderful Buster Keaton comedy the set-up is perfect. Jimmy Shannon (Keaton) is down on his luck – some trouble with his girlfriend and desperately in need of money. He has just found out he's set to inherit seven million dollars from his grandfather as long as he gets married by 7:00 PM on his 27th birthday. Well it just so happens that his 27th birthday … is today!
Of course his girlfriend – a sentimentalist – doesn't so much care for the idea of getting married just so he can inherit seven million dollars. Now Shannon's really up against it. A series of embarrassing proposals, including one to a mannequin, prove futile. So his friend gives him a hand by placing an ad in the newspaper looking for all women interested in a husband and seven million dollars. No need to go into detail – one thing leads to another, a little misunderstanding – but before he knows it Shannon is being chased by thousands of disgruntled brides in gowns that look more like togas stolen from the set Cecil B. DeMille's Ben-Hur (made the same year). It's a classic sequence in Keaton films. (And it's another chance for him to show off his athleticism.)
Seven Chances is hilarious, great fun. It was a fresh take on marriage in 1925 and hasn't dated a bit. In the end Shannon gets hitched just as time expires. And to his girlfriend – the sentimentalist. (So love sort of prevails.) How could she resist – Shannon, I mean.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Autumn Sonata (1978)

By Eric Jessen June 23, 2010

One of Ingmar Bergman's last films tells the story of a mother (Ingrid Bergman) and her daughter (Liv Ullmann). When Mom is an intelligent, worldly concert pianist and daughter is a dull housewife and an emotional wreck, of course it's all Mom's fault – “You didn't love me,” “You were never there for me,” “I cried myself to sleep” etc. When mother comes to visit daughter it's all smiles at first, then one night (and for nearly the rest of the film) daughter lets mother have it. It's all sorrow and tears to the end. This is one of those films where the character you're led to hate the most – the mother – is the only one you like because she is the only one not whining about her life – or whines the least. When it's not painfully tiresome in its ideas about parent child relationships it's just boring.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Sound of Crumpling Trash

Eric Jessen 6/5/2010

(Email advice to my brother John on the contents of his external hard drive)

If you still have The Sound of Music delete it immediately and never watch it in your entire life. It was one of the worst, most revolting pieces of trash I've ever sat through. I've never hated mom (a hopeless sucker for sappy musicals) and dad (a hopeless sucker for anything popular from the 1960's) more when they tried to convince me it's a classic.

After surviving three hours of Julie Andrews and her seven dwarfs spewing candy coated excrement while skipping in unison, I immediately deleted it from my desktop then put it back on my desktop just to be able to delete it again.
A computer generated crumple of trash has never sounded sweeter.

Friday, June 4, 2010


By Eric Jessen 6/4/2010

(Photograph By Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

I guess I was ready. I guess I was as ready as I'd ever be. I'd have run if I could. If I'd have gotten the chance I'd have run. What else is there? There's always something else. So of course I would've run. I was as ready as I'd ever be, and still I would've run. It's not so bad, but I guess I understand. I understand what they were afraid of. There should've been fear. I should've been scared. There should've been fear, and anger and hate, but there wasn't. I shouldn't have been ready but I was. When there's no fear or anger or hate, that's when you're ready. When you're ready to die, you're as good as dead. When there's no fear or anger or hate you're as good as dead.
Then it was a long time. I've been dead ever since I knew I was going to die. I guess that was a long time. But that can't be true. You never really believe you're ever going to die. No one really does. You never really believe you're going to die until you're dead.

The Men I Kill

By Eric Jessen 8/4/2010

(Photograph By Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

I wish I hated them, every one of them. I wish I wanted them dead. Right before I blew their brains out I wish I wanted to kill them. Maybe then I could live with myself. But I just didn't mind them, they didn't bother me, they didn't mean anything to me. Shouldn't they mean something? But I just didn't care. I should care. About them, I should care. I should hate them. There should be anger. It must have been there sometime or I wouldn't have gotten this far. I needed them, and there was still no anger or hate. Where would I be without the men I kill?
You never know when it's your time. No one ever tells you. No one tells you when you're about to die. You should know, it's only fair. It's only fair to know when you're about to die. So you can prepare, so you can be ready. It's the biggest moment of your life and you're never ready. You should get a chance to prepare. Someone should tell you so you can prepare, so you can be ready.
No one ever told them. The men I kill, they're never ready. But if they were ready? Where would I be if they were ready?

They Were Apocalypsed

By Eric Jessen 6/4/2010

Florida Keys and the Philippines: They Were Expendable (1945) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

Emotions run high during war time, and so too does sentimentality. So it's no surprise that apart from admitting John Ford's They Were Expendable offered “nothing much new, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea” and was “otherwise uninteresting,” James Agee called it “beautiful” several times, “Ford's finest movie” and Robert Montgomery's performance as the dependable Lieutenant Brickley, “unimprovable” and “the one perfection to turn up in movies during the year.”
“Evidently [Ford and Montgomery] learned a tremendous amount through the war” was Agee's only explanation for They Were Expendable being such a revelation and for the rush of feeling he got watching as he described, “nothing but men getting on or off PT boats and other men watching them.” But then again it was 1945. So Agee's reaction was understandable if inherently contradictory. And Ford's movie was understandable too for war time. Although he was always one to mythologize the soldier.
It was another one in the bag for John Wayne playing Lieutenant “Rusty” Ryan. Donna Reed played the nurse who falls in love with “Rusty” and very charmingly. And as for Robert Montgomery, he fit well too. (He just looks like a swell guy.)
MGM supplied the money for some very impressive battle scenes shot in Florida, and the Navy supplied the PT boats. One could really mistake it for the South Pacific and that was crucial to stirring up Agee's emotions. Ford really knew how it should look having spent time overseas. (And Robert Montgomery had served as well as none other than a PT boat commander.)
It all went over really nice and easy in 1945 but in fact making They Were Expendable was in the early stages touch and go. Ford thought it was really hot and sticky in the Florida Keys. And too buggy.
But what Ford and his crew experienced in Florida on the set of They Were Expendable is nothing compared to what Francis Ford Coppola and company experienced in the Philippines making Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now certainly didn't go over nice and easy. It was a hell according to Coppola and it nearly destroyed his career. It was a complete disaster from the very beginning. Horrible weather destroyed sets. Marlon Brando arrived on set fat and unprepared. Production was delayed months and the budget soared. Word got out early that Apocalypse Now wouldn't be Coppola's next masterpiece. Upon its release the reaction was mixed. Although it did share the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes film festival with The Tin Drum.
Today it remains a puzzling, if still very interesting, mess. One wonders if the jungle was ever meant for the screen. At least the debacle that was the production of Apocalypse Now made for a good warning.
Maybe for that reason Coppola's film is the essential Vietnam War movie. Brando's enormous belly and incoherent rambling dialogue and those numerous horror stories of production give the film a nightmarish aura that does the jungle justice.
There's no doubt Coppola could have made an adequate war movie off the coast of Florida – nice and easy. But it would have never been fitting of the Vietnam war. The war that was destined to be a disaster deserved a disaster of a movie.